Fifteen years after Boxing Helena, I am back on a set. I have raised a daughter, had three spinal reconstructions and gotten sober.
Throughout all of this, writing was never far away. In fact, during a few dark times, it and my daughter were what stopped me from looping a rope around my neck, kicking the chair out and hovering as some pathetic shadow.
Stories transport me. Writing saves me. I once told a friend that, for me, writing is like throwing up. First is the nervous, undecided nausea, then a great retching from inside—sometimes violent, lonely and filled with things I never thought I’d see again… But always—always—a final sense of relief. Writing Surveillance was no exception.
We were shooting in Regina, Saskatchewan. Pronounced, “Rah-Gyna,” like the female genitalia, it is referred to as “the town that rhymes with fun!” Regina is conveniently located near the city of Big Beaver and not a day went by on set without several newly-worded reminders of this happy coincidence being spoken by actors and crew. The grip truck is an especially good place to hear dirty jokes. I fucking love the grip truck; my mind is like a grip truck.
For our exterior road shots, I scouted many a lonely two-lane highway and ultimately found the perfect one. Although a long drive from the apartment location, it was worth every fucking minute. In one direction: A distant, dilapidated barn and then… nothingness.
This is what we needed: That emptiness where both good and bad can happen, where something might emerge from a crest in the road and be on top of you before you can stop it.
We spent two weeks on that stretch of asphalt running dialogue, crashing cars, pouring blood, blowing up a head… the usual good times. We froze our asses off in the 80-mile-per-hour winds where, at any given moment, all available crew could be seen clutching bounce boards and silks so that they didn’t take off like crude, expensive kites. Sandbags are laughed at by the Saskatchewan winds. You can hear it. They giggle when you check the film gate as well, but you get used to it.
About five days into these road shots, actor Mac Miller was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Not only was this bad news for Mac, it was a particularly unfortunate thing for the shoot, as he was scheduled to be in every shot for the next eight days.
That night I did the dishes and began to rewrite in my head. I redesigned shots and scrambled to find a way to tell the story I was there to tell without sacrificing Mac’s character or the characters surrounding him. It was one of those really big monkey wrenches that doesn’t seem like a gift when it shows up and fucks your day, but slowly reveals itself to be one. It made me work harder to save the scenes and, ultimately, I was able to create sequences I was far more proud of than the scripted originals.
It was the knowledge that the cast and crew were so solid and committed that allowed me to move right past the panic of the situation and directly into the solution. I am forever indebted to them for this.
The director of photography, Peter Wunstorf, would say almost daily, “There’s no problem if there’s no solution.” He’s right. Peter took the shot changes in stride, the crew supported the schedule mania and the actors rolled with new dialogue and blocking and made magic with some improvisation. When Mac returned to the set just days later, he delivered a performance that to this day is one of my favorites.
It reminds me of that joke about the optimist cheerfully digging through horseshit, confident that with so much of it, “There must be a pony!”
The set is my favorite place to be. Given the opportunity to do anything, I would be on a set—shooting, hands dirty, at camera, beside actors, making something where earlier that day there was nothing. It is home. Since infancy this has been the case. The house was where I went when shooting ended. Magic happens when many people do one thing together. Moviemaking is proof of that magic.
Surveillance is finished. It is now tangible evidence of what was done. It is absolutely what we set out to create: A look at something fucked up and human. In moments, it’s a dark romantic comedy; in its entirety, it’s an observation.
In the same way that I observed my father working, my daughter has now observed me. Each day, performing her own “surveillance” of her mother. Standing. Walking. Sober. Working. Living what each of us deserves to live—each day busied by things we love. Out of the corner of my eye I would sometimes catch my daughter smiling, and feel alight. It was a long time coming. MM
Magnet Releasing will release Surveillance in theaters on June 26, 2009 and on DVD August 18, 2009.