It all looked good on paper. And during shooting. And even during the first month or so of editing. But during the first feedback screenings for Take Me, my feature film directorial debut, we ran into some problems.
I felt like an idiot because what had never occurred to me or any member of my production team all seemed so obvious now. But what would we do about it?
The mysterious “They” often say that “a movie is made in the editing room.” That’s a bit of a stretch. Sidney Lumet wrote in his invaluable Making Movies that a film is also made in pre-production, during shooting and even during post in sound mixing, scoring, color correction, etc.
But a lot gets done in the editing room. We shot for 18 days, mixed the sound for a week and color corrected for another week. But my editor Brian Scofield and I cut for four, stinking, lousy months!
So, what wasn’t working? Lots of things in the first act. The first 10 minutes, really. You know, the part where we set up the far-out premise, introduce our main characters and set-up the central “inciting incident.”
First, the character I play, Ray Moody, is a down-on-his-luck entrepreneur who specializes in “simulated abductions.” If you want to be kidnapped for fun or therapeutic reasons, Ray is your guy. But he isn’t doing well. He’s a bit of a loser. He wears a horrible toupee and the first frame of the movie shows him sitting alone waiting for a job interview in said rug. The problem: Our audience was made up of other independent filmmakers, mostly in The Duplass brothers camp. And they knew that we had a low budget. And that Pat Healy, the actor, does not have hair like that. (No one on Earth does.)
A second problem came when, after Ray’s disastrous meeting with a bank manager, he goes to a party at a woman’s house, she gives him a disgusted look, he plays with some kids in the backyard, accepts some money from a friend with a promise to pay him back and has a strained conversation with the women about the children whom we find out he has not seen in quite some time.
Every single person in the feedback audience thought she was Ray’s ex-wife, and that he was a deadbeat dad. If you are reading this and haven’t seen the movie, you’re probably concluding the same things. The truth is, the woman is my sister (played by Alycia Delmore). Now we have a really unlikeable guy and “I can’t even concentrate that wig is so bad.”
The wig is not revealed to be a wig until much later in the movie. So after a lot of talking it out we came to a good “two birds with one stone” solution: On Ray’s drive to the party, we recorded Alycia leaving a voiceover for him. “Hey Ray, it’s your sister. Where are you? The party started over an hour ago and I told the kids you were coming. And could you please not wear the wig? It’s weird and I don’t want to explain it to people. It’s fucking creepy. OK, bye.”
We showed it again. Now no one was confused about what was happening at the party, we let the audience in on the fact that we knew the wig was bad and we got two new laughs, which was great—it’s a comedy and you want as many laughs as possible up front. The wig line and the accompanying look of disgust from what was now clearly my sister, offended by the wig she asked me not to wear. And no one thought Ray was a scumbag. They liked him, weird as he was. Bonus win!
Now to the next pressing problem: Everyone, myself included, felt it was taking far too long to get to the movie’s “inciting incident.” Where Anna St. Blair, played by Taylor Schilling, is “abducted” by Ray and they begin their combative “game” together. One of the biggest issues was that I shot the scene where Anna calls Ray to request his services with very little coverage. Anna still remains an enigma at this point and we can’t show her face. So it’s a seven minute scene watching me talk on a phone. B-o-o-o-o-ring!
I pride myself a lot on not shooting a ton of “coverage,” footage I knew I wouldn’t use later. I had a very clear idea how the scene would be shot and cut, so why bother? Now I was confronted with why. I could cut a lot of the dialogue but had very little I could cut away to.
Brian had just finished editing Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply and Warren had a very good piece of advice about shooting such scenes. Whenever he shot a scene of someone talking on the phone, he always did one shot on the character’s back. Then, not only could he cut in and out and eliminate dialogue—he could ADR any dialogue he wanted the character to say with the camera on their back without seeing their lips moving.
I wish I had talked to Brian, or Warren, while I was shooting. Now what was I going to do? I had only shot this interminably long scene from a few angles. I hadn’t edited the script properly. There were long stretches of superfluous dialogue I didn’t need. I had always admired Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, which had a premise similar to mine. But he had introduced the main character, told us everything about him and gotten him into the film’s central predicament in four rapid fire minutes! I was approaching 15 and we couldn’t get going.
I can’t say I completely solved the problem for myself. Through the miracle of digital technology, we can zoom in and out of static frames and create whole new array of compositions from a single shot without any loss in visual quality. (It’s a bit of a cheat but I can’t stay a purist forever.) The scene works pretty seamlessly now. I notice some awkward bumps about it, but I’ve never heard anyone complain about that scene. Even if I don’t get to my big moment in quite the zip-bang way Mr. Scorsese does, it does the trick.
All of which is to say: Fear not. You may think you have a disaster on your hands and you have been a complete ignorant moron and didn’t think of your audience and now no one will be able to follow the movie. Or they’ll fall asleep before you get to the good stuff. But there are great creative solutions. It may take a little time. But eventually one or two humdingers will bubble to the surface.
And the movie will be better for it. Better even than the “brilliant” way you conceived it in the first place. And for all you “artists” out there who think “test screenings” are a nightmare, let them be your friends. They provide the cure for what ails you (after injecting you with the poison to kill the infection) and make you realize that the movie is ultimately for the audience. It doesn’t mean you are trading in your artistic expression for their satisfaction. But if it isn’t clear to anyone what you are trying to get across, you’re not helping yourself or anyone that might get anything out of it.
That’s my two cents about the battle for the first 10 minutes of Take Me. If you want to hear about the remaining 75, buy me a few beers some time. MM
Take Me opens in theaters May 5, 2017, courtesy of The Orchard. Featured image photograph by Elizabeth Kitchens.