Looking for a script to produce, I remembered a play Sarah Mirk wrote about a chess club that meets in Burger King. I asked her about the possibility to adapt it and she sent the original play. A small cast, one location, it was perfect for a low-budget film. And Sarah's writing is sharp. We signed a literary property acquisition agreement, and I got together a few friends to do a table read. Jesse Blanchard, a filmmaker, Mykle Hansen, a novelist, and Corey McEuin, a film student, all gave suggestions for adapting the play to the screen. It fit the format of a half-hour TV show and Jesse suggested doing a multi-cam shoot. Given that three of the characters are middleschoolers, he saw the need to reduce the number of camera set-ups and to capture all of the actors' performances as they happen. Shooting on location in a fast food restaurant would require a small crew, so I planned to operate one of the cameras while directing the actors.
Alex Broekhoff coded HTML and CSS for the website from Photoshop images I made; and then I contacted the actors to do brief character sketches so we'd have content for the site as I began promoting it on social media. Danny Felts and Brad Fortier made short sketches for Dave and Worf. The three young actors, Sean, Andrew and Ethan, met for the first time at Tecos Fresh Mexican Food on SE Powell and made "The Trifecta" in two hours. Their short sketch and "Fantasy Is My Breakfast" and "The Undead King" are on my vimeo page. It turned out that Danny had other commitments during the rehearsal dates, so I auditioned more actors to play Dave. One of the actors to show up, Josh Belville, is a big guy, like 6'5" and 250lbs. Brad Fortier had intended to play Worf, but when he couldn't get out of work on the shooting dates I cast Josh in the role of Worf. Dug Martell arrived to the audition by motorcycle wearing a leather jacket, very fitting, what's more he read very well. And Dug's from Michigan, so his accent is perfect for the role.
The full cast got together at Portland Community Media on three Sundays in January 2013 to rehearse the adapted screenplay. The young actors were able to differentiate their characters from each other; and of all the actors I auditioned to play Dave, Dug Martell was the man. He and Josh Belville brought a professionalism to the project that the younger actors matched admirably. And thanks to Tecos Fresh Mexican Food, we had an excellent location and completed principal photography on two consecutive weekends in February: the 2nd–3rd and 9th–10th. Everything we did to prepare -- table reading and script analysis, storyboards, rehearsals, and the shot list -- all proved invaluable.
Using two cameras to capture the action worked for our technical rehearsal with Ben Bach ("She's A Total Dork" is the sketch we made together), so I was eager to use the technique. When Ben contacted me Tuesday before the shoot to say he had to take a job and couldn't operate the camera for our production, I called Madsion Beaudet and he joined us on the first day of production. Madison has a 7D and I've got the 60D, so I assumed the video from our Canon cameras would match; but after reviewing our footage on Saturday night, it was obvious the cameras didn't match. I thought it may be the difference between the lenses and when I talked with Madison on Sunday morning, he said he had a neutral density filter on the camera. But it wasn't just the coloring that didn't match, the cinematography was different enough that it was like two different voices trading lines of one speech.
Luckily, I'd covered enough with my camera that I could assemble footage from the first day into complete scenes, and Madison stayed on as a production assistant and script supervisor. He was a big help on Saturday when late afternoon sun came pouring in the window; Madison held up my coat to block the light from the surface of the table and the actors' faces. (It was uncanny how the shifts in light coincided with the mood of different scenes.) And being on set with Abraham King was great. Abe and I were the age of the young characters in the movie when we met, and I enjoyed sharing the excitement of making a movie with an old friend. Abe slated all the scenes.
Andrew, the young actor playing Henry, had been sick during our final rehearsal and on our first day of photography he developed a perforated ear drum and heavy infection in his ear, giving him vertigo. His parents brought him to the doctor and I got the call from Andrew's dad on Sunday morning, detailing what had happened. He said he was hopeful Andrew might be able to join us and that he'd call back. While waiting for the call, I snapped photos outside with Dug and Sean for the movie poster. While I was outside the restaurant taking photos, Kyle recorded room tone inside; but after ten minutes I couldn't keep the guys waiting any longer and, quickly surveying the storyboards for scenes I could shoot without Andrew, we dove into our second day of principal photography.
Kyle Aaron Briggs attached a lapel mic to the table where the actors perform most of the film, and he ran that into the recording device along with a line for sound captured using a shotgun mic held on a pole above the actors. He's done well with location sound given that we're filming in a working restaurant and occasionally the cook will start chopping, the restaurant door will open and close, and the video games -- if anyone's playing them -- can make noise. I liked making the movie in an actual fast food restaurant, so the imperfections are acceptable at worst and most of the time they contribute realism.
To cover the missed scenes with Andrew's character we had ninety shots to get in the camera on the following Saturday. When the dining room filled up for an hour or so during lunch, I found it to be stressful. Some of my directions became too curt, and that's definitely something I need to work on. But we got it done. We finished on our last Sunday, by taking photos for the movie poster.
My wish list for the next short are more rehearsals, longer takes, and a moving camera. I thought three rehearsals of two hours each would be asking a lot, but the older actors said that ten rehearsals wasn't much -- they come from a theater background. With more rehearsals we could do longer takes. During the edit, I found the flow of the narrative could handle longer takes but that I was patching missed lines or other problems with the editing. A moving camera could also reduce the need for edits because more of the scene can be covered -- a moving camera also requires more rehearsal. And with enough rehearsal, it could even be the movement of the actors that fills a long take with different perspectives.
For the opening scene I experimented with an improvised dolly. I stood on a skateboard and Dug pulled me along as I filmed Elliott walking to the restaurant. Even though he doesn't have many lines, Elliott is the emotional center of the story; and by starting the film with him we relate to him as the main character, even if just by proximity. The opening scene of Elliott walking to the restaurant, and many other details, are thanks to a group of friends who offered suggestions for the screenplay: Brett Warnock, Steve Doughton, Mary Prendergast, Jason Maurer, Patrick D. Green, and Jason Wright.
Chess For Success donated chess sets for use on the production. The release of the first part will coincide with the 2013 Chess For Success State Championship on March 15–16 in Portland. Oregon has a great resource in Chess For Success. They sponsor chess clubs in elementary and middle schools and pay a coach, usually a teacher in the school, to run a club that is open to all children at the school. Chess For Success provides sets and training for the teacher (they don't have to be chess experts to coach the club). To participate the school must be Title 1, meaning at least 35% of the children qualify for free and reduced lunches. Teachers in Oregon who'd like to start a chess club can contact Chess For Success.