How a dinner party, three cameras, 14 microphones and a bit of luck forged the spine of the steampunk documentary Vintage Tomorrows.

Vintage Tomorrows is a documentary about steampunk, a cultural movement that started as a sub-genre of science fiction typified by a fascination with steam-powered machinery and alternative histories. Steampunk is a complex topic, and the documentary uses a dinner party, attended by a dozen steampunk writers, costumers, makers and bloggers, as a framing device and throughline for the film’s many themes.

I shot the dinner party not knowing I’d spend the next four years making a film about the subculture. Without hyperbole, I never would have made this film had so many things not gone right on the day we shot this one scene.

Five years ago, I got a call from my friend Brian David Johnson. Brian is a writer and a futurist. He is also a recovering filmmaker. We met in New York when we were both in our teens, and have been close friends and collaborators ever since. Back in the ’90s, we co-directed a documentary called Haunters. (“Haunters” are people who create haunted houses, the kind of massive spectacles that pop up around Halloween.) We traveled the country filming these small town P.T. Barnums, fell in love with them and their creations, and made a valentine to Halloween and folks who unabashedly follow their freak flag.

Brian explained that he was writing a nonfiction book about steampunk with a cultural historian named James Carrott. They had just started their research, and were assembling a group of steampunks for a dinner party in Seattle that would occur in five days. He explained he had a small research budget, and wanted to “capture” the conversation that unfurled during the dinner, so they could use it to help shape the book. Brian added, “I don’t know what we’ll do with it, but we have to film it. Come on! A table full of Steampunks—what part of that is not going to be awesome?”

Brian’s enthusiasm is always contagious, so I agreed to the shoot. But I had one more question:

“Brian, what is steampunk?”

Brian rattled off some bewildering explanation that made little sense to me, then quickly hung up. I had booked a job, but not without lingering uncertainty. I was going to drive to Seattle, and shoot something I didn’t really understand. As a freelancer, this didn’t feel completely unfamiliar.

The budget was meager. I only had five days to pull it together, so I went into “guerilla filmmaker” mode. I’m based in Portland, Oregon and the dinner was happening at a restaurant in Seattle called the Dahlia lounge. I hired a local PA to go scout and take some photos, and quickly realized this would not be straightforward. The location photos revealed a small, railroad-shaped private banquet space that would create challenges for camera placement. The room was quite dark and would require thoughtful lighting. And the artwork in the room was garish. We’d have to work around the art and possibly bring some staging elements of our own.

As I was beginning to wrap my head around how to spend my small budget, a number of lucky breaks occurred with crew. My good friends Mike Palmieri and Donal Mosher were available, and they agreed to work for peanuts as the job sounded interesting to them. Mike and Donal are accomplished doc filmmakers (their film October Country is the best doc of the last 10 years, IMHO). They can run cameras and problem-solve, so they were an amazing core team. Mike and I looked at the location photos and designed a shooting approach that would afford us good angles on all of the participants. Mike suggested using china lanterns above the table for a continuous, soft light source. Simple, beautiful, cheap light. (“Cheap” being the operative word.) Mike and Donal would both operate cameras.

McDonald slates a scene

Director Byrd McDonald slates the dinner party scene in Vintage Tomorrows

The same day I hired Mike and Donal, I discovered that two other members of my core Portland production family, DP Shawn Sundby and production designer David Storm, were already up in Seattle working on a feature. The dinner landed on their day off, so they both agreed to help out for far less than their day rates. Shawn would operate the third camera, and would prove invaluable in helping rig the china lanterns above the table.

David Storm helped give the scene much need production value. I had an art budget of roughly $50, so a lot of what he did involved rearranging and removing aspects of the rooms decor. He removed a number of paintings from the walls. He purchased a few vintage candle holders and bought flowers for the table. David knew much more about steampunk than any of us, and suggested asking the artists if they would bring some samples of their creations. Little did I know, James Carrott had already asked the guests to bring objects, and we used those to fill out the perimeter of the room.

We shot Vintage Tomorrows over a two year period, from 2011-2013, which saw camera technology going through disruptive change. Like most people, I was shooting most of my work on Canon DSLRs. Mike, Shawn and I unfortunately knew these cameras would not be right for a long conversation. So, we pulled our aging, trusty Panasonic HVX200s out of storage for their last production tour of duty. The rest of the film was shot with Canon DSLRs and the Canon C300. We definitely had a challenge in color correction getting the dinner party to look like anything else in our film. But the Panasonics had good sound inputs, lovely zooms and, importantly, they were free.

It was clear that the biggest challenge would be audio. How in the world would we get clean audio for 12 people? My first, not-so-great idea was to place table microphones around the table. Having worked with these before, I was concerned that the magic of the evening and the idea of us being “invisible” to the participants would soon vanish with a table full of microphones in plain sight. We needed to make sure this elegant dinner party didn’t turn into a panel discussion. The conversation needed to be organic.

At this point, I had almost no budget left and considered running sound myself (another less-than-great idea.) But the more I talked with Brian and James about the high caliber of the guests attending, the more excited I became that this conversation was going to be special. I went with my instincts and dipped into my own coffers to find additional budget to make sure we had a talented sound team and the right equipment.

I hired the amazing Michael “Gonzo” Gandsey (Point Break, Good Will Hunting). We had worked on projects before, and on top of being a brilliant recordist, Gonzo is just a wonderful calming force to have around. Gonzo and I decided that using individual wireless mics recorded to separate channels would be the best approach. On the day, we’d still have a big challenge making sure that each and every one of those 14 lavs produced clean sound, without clothing rustle, jewelry noise, bumps or RF noise. Considering some of the steampunk costumes we had heard about—clothing rustle and jewelry noise were very real concerns!

Gonzo hired an excellent assistant engineer, Eric Reeves, to help oversee mic placement and general problem solving. Gonzo’s approach to sound is to get the job done effectively and then “become invisible.” That was the goal for my entire team—we wanted to have the best laid plans and have redundancies in place, so that we could really disappear and let the dinner party proceed as if we weren’t there. I wanted to make sure the Brian, James and their guests were interacting with each other, not with a film crew. If all went as planned, my crew would simply “disappear.”

On game day, with the room set and beautifully lit and my crew in place and ready to rumble, Brian and James entered. Brian took in all of the equipment, crew, lighting and art direction with one glance around the room, and he just smiled like a little kid.

I conferred briefly with Brian and James, and we decided how to structure the shoot. My team would only get involved if there was a technical issue with one of the microphones. We wanted the guests to stay focused on each other and not the cameras. The dinner would be a three-course meal, Brian and James would focus each course around a central question. For the first course, the question would be “What is steampunk?” I remember thinking that the night would be a success if a) we got clean audio, b) we didn’t run out of media for the cameras, and c) if someone could, pretty please, define steampunk so that I could artfully use the word in a sentence.

Guests assemble for dinner

Guests assemble for the steampunk dinner sequence

There’s a calm before the storm in film production that is unnerving. The moment that you realize that, no matter the amount of forethought, what is about to happen is to a large degree outside of your control. Luck plays a big role. Horrible luck is when a camera operator forgets to hit record. Garden-variety bad luck is when a road construction crew begins jackhammering moments after you yell, “Action!” But perhaps the most insidious kind of bad luck is when you do everything right, when everything is accounted for, but the “thing” that you are shooting, the “what” of it all, ends up lifeless… when the “what” becomes “so what.”

By 7 p.m., all of the guests had arrived, most of them looking like they had walked out of the 1890s, and Brian and James started the evening with a toast, and the first questions.

“How did you find steampunk?”

“Why is it happening now?”

“What does steampunk say about our relationship with technology?”

As each guest at the table began to answer these questions, frequently disagreeing and debating the answers, I became intoxicated by the conversation. It was like the very best episode of NPR I’d ever heard, or maybe more like the most amazing TED Talk I’d ever watched. Over the next two hours, it was like firecrackers going off in my brain. Steampunk wasn’t just dress up for history geeks. Steampunk is design, storytelling, politics, music, film, and to some, steampunk is today’s counter-culture. Most surprising of all, steampunk is a reaction to the plastic consumer world we inhabit in the 21st century. I was utterly captivated.

Later that night, after all of the steampunks had gone home, and the crew had clocked out, I sat in a bar across the street from the Dahlia Lounge with Brian. He was pleased with the night and a little intoxicated, which probably helped him endure me, because I couldn’t stop talking about how amazing the guests had been—how articulate, how intelligent.

I looked him in the eye, and said, “I see an entire film based on what we just heard. The ideas and philosophies are fascinating, but a book can’t completely bring the visual aesthetic to life!  There should be a documentary, too! They’ll be companion projects. We can help each other throughout the process. ”

Brian just smiled.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Brian said, as he raised his glass for a toast. And that’s how Vintage Tomorrows the documentary proper started… in a bar at 2 a.m. in Seattle. MM

Vintage Tomorrows opened on VOD and digitally (including iTunes and Amazon) July 19, 2016, courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.