It was day one for the production of In My Sleep and I couldn’t find the set. I took a wrong turn in Griffith Park in Los Angeles and was nervously navigating the labyrinth of small roads that web the park. This was the first day of my first feature film as a first-time director-writer-producer. A lot of firsts. And now my first time getting lost to the set. Great.
A large truck swooshed by me and I figured it was heading toward our location. Within minutes, I found our crew working furiously to prepare for the day—laying track for a dolly shot and setting up lights that I didn’t realize we would need since we were shooting outdoors. I had a lot to learn. I picked a simple walk-and-talk scene between two of the lead characters to start the day, which would be followed by the most complex scene of the movie.
As I stepped around the set, preparing for the scene, I heard squeaking brakes and looked up. A massive trailer lumbered down the street toward us, transporting the cop cars needed for the scene. At that moment, I realized that In My Sleep was becoming real. For years, I toiled on the script while I raised financing for the film. At some point, leaning against a pillow on my bed, I wrote, “Police cars hug the perimeter of the crime scene.” Now those cars were arriving, preparing for their big hug.
As imagination was blossoming into reality, it became clear to me that the work I did, that no one could see, mattered. I had been making short films off and on since I was a kid, but it took a long time since I graduated from film school at New York University to be at the helm of my own feature film. It was finally happening and it was beautiful.
Soon, we filmed our first shot. During rehearsal, I had worked closely with the actors to build their characters though improvisational exercises and rehearsing scenes that were only hinted at throughout the script. Now, that work was paying off in performances. The day soon became a whirl of activity—managing 50 extras on the set, coordinating vehicles, creating the crime scene. We had a lot to film in a short period of time and we were shooting on film. Despite the challenges, I felt like a fish in water. I was where I belonged.
Days later, I glanced at my watch. It was 4:00 a.m. We had three hours left until we were going to be kicked out of the house where we were filming.
It was the end of our first week of shooting. We had filmed many scenes in a short period of time and the footage was electrifying. But we were behind because that morning, my costume designer quit. I wasn’t heartbroken. After spending the last several weeks searching for costumes myself, I knew it was time for a change. I just didn’t think it would happen that abruptly: Without warning, after our line producer let her know she needed to shape up, she decided to ship out, taking her steamer machine with her. I called that “wrinkle day” since we had no way of taking the wrinkles out of the costumes and, well, it was certainly a wrinkle in our plans. Still, I was hopeful. It took me five years to raise the financing for this movie and I wasn’t about to let it derail. My producing team promised to have a new costume designer by morning and I concentrated on the work at hand.
We had back-to-back 16-hour filming days since the start of our shoot, so we were all very tired. This being my first feature film, I thought that was normal. We worked so long, everyone was given a second meal. I kind of liked the second meal because it meant I didn’t have to cook at home. I later realized I should have been thinking of it by its other name: Penalty meal. Perhaps shooting 11 to 15 pages a day in multiple locations was too ambitious? The long days were often made easier through the many laughs we shared on the set.
We were running out of time and still had to shoot several very emotional scenes quickly with Philip Winchester, who played the lead character, and Beth Grant, who portrayed his mother. Beth had long ago fallen asleep on the couch downstairs as she waited for us to call her to the set. Philip didn’t have that option since he was in every single scene.
Fighting exhaustion, we continued filming until we had an hour left at the location and the emotional scenes left to film. We woke up Beth, she wiped sleep from her eyes and slipped into character. She screamed, Philip cried and we completed their scenes. I told Beth and Philip how superb they were to work with, they downed some coffee and made the drive home. The next morning, we had a new costume designer and soon we started to accomplish days in 12 hours. Second meal was replaced with more sleep.
On the final day of shooting, I walked through the many sets we had constructed in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, reminiscing about our journey. When I had envisioned the experience of shooting my first feature film, it was always an idealized scenario where I valiantly led our cast and crew to film compelling scenes with ease and then sent everyone home in time for dinner. I didn’t picture myself apologizing to Lacey Chabert that the previous scene took longer to film than we thought and now we had to get her big scene in one take. And did she bring a dress from home to wear in that scene?
While imagination becoming reality wasn’t quite what I thought it would be, it actually produced something unexpected. All these challenges equipped me all the more for my next project. And, there was something wonderful about making a movie with a limited budget and growing knowledge as a moviemaker. It brought something good out of people. People became generous with their time and resources, and their passion helped make our movie possible.
When I watch In My Sleep and the audience jumps at a tense moment or laughs during a comical scene, I see the fruit of that passion. While many of my “firsts” are now behind me as a moviemaker, I hope to always appreciate the privilege of seeing work that was refined in obscurity finally come to life on the screen.
Allen Wolf is the writer, director and producer of In My Sleep, which opens April 23 at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in Los Angeles an on April 30th at Quad Cinema in New York City. For theaters, showtimes and behind-the-scenes videos, visit www.InMySleep.com.