The first semester of the graduate film program culminates in a project known as “3-2-1,” due to the parameters of the assignment: 3 page scripts with 2 characters and taking place in 1 location. It’s the first project in which we collaborate in our disciplines. Directors direct, Cinematographers shoot, Editors edit, and Sound Designers do the sound (usually including recording sound on the shoot, which in the industry is actually a completely different job). The scripts must also come from a pool of scripts submitted by screenwriting and producing students.
Finding the Script
Directors, screenwriters, and producers all took the same Fundamentals of Screenwriting class this semester, and the first 5 weeks or so were focused on generating scripts for the 3-2-1 project. For Directors, it was tough because we knew that our scripts were not eligible for the production pool. At the beginning of October, all the Directors were sent all the eligible scripts in a late-night email blast, which caused many of us to stay up late reading so that we could get the jump on the script we wanted before it was taken by someone else. Once we found a script, we then had to contact the screenwriter and get their permission to produce the script. They had the option of flat-out rejecting us, so even if no one was competing for the script there was a chance the screenwriter would not be on board with your vision. Luckily for me, Katie, the writer of the script I chose, felt that I understood what she was doing, and was open to whatever interpretation I brought. The script I chose was Ideomotor Phenomenon, about two 18-year-old girls who liked to play supernatural games. Emily took it too far and begins suffering from hallucinations and schizophrenic symptoms. In the film, she confronts Claire, who she feels has lied about the reality of the demonic activity she’s been experiencing, which has resulted in Emily being committed and left to deal with the demons alone.
Next, we had the option of working with the writer to further develop and finalize the script. For most of this period, I didn’t feel like any changes needed to be made, but there was one aspect of the script that was a bit daunting: it was set in a mental institution. Especially as we had no budget and no producer, I didn’t know if we could find a suitable location. So when it came time to sign up for shoot dates, I went for the latest weekend, which was the weekend immediately following Thanksgiving. This created its own problems (due to the age of the characters, I was casting mostly from Chapman undergrads, who were likely to be traveling for Thanksgiving) but I was hoping it would give me the time to find a location. Ultimately, I decided it wasn’t worth the time and energy I would need to put into it, and worked with Katie to change the story so it is set in Emily’s bedroom after she is released from the mental institution. It seemed like a pretty minor change, but it had some secondary effects that necessitated some more revisions.
Another issue that came up during preproduction, and cause me a lot of stress, was that the script had been adapted from a much longer story. So there was a lot of complex backstory about Emily and Claire’s relationship and what exactly they had been up to that led up to what happens in the 3-2-1 script. It was all really interesting, and I thought it would be good information for the actors and production team to know, but in classes where we discussed the project, someone inevitably would bring up the backstory and it would muddy the interpretation of the film we were actually making. I also found it muddying my own interpretation, which was causing me to lose sight of what I was trying to do with the film. It also didn’t help that all my classmates and professors had their own suggestions which were often completely incompatible with each other. Eventually, I decided to simplify the characters’ motivations so that the conflict would be understandable to the audience, but it backfired a bit because it turns out that my original interpretation, which no one seemed to get during in-class critiques, actually made perfect sense to people when they saw how we shot the film, and they found the simplified version to be less interesting.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I was having a final production meeting with my team, when I got a text from the actor I had cast as Claire, saying that she had been diagnosed with mono and was on her way to the hospital to be tested for pneumonia. Luckily, it turned out she didn’t have pneumonia, but she did have bronchitis. My immediate reaction was that we had to replace her, but she said the doctors had cleared her to work on the shoot day. She had rearranged her Thanksgiving travel schedule in order to be back in Orange for the shoot, so I felt bad about replacing her (not to mention having to find someone so soon before the shoot). But given the intensity of the scene and the close quarters we would be in, I didn’t think it would be healthy for her or for the crew to ask her to work. She was very understanding, and I hope to get to work with her in the future. Thankfully, our replacement actor, Christine, was able to jump right in and do a great job.
Shooting and Post
The shoot itself went relatively smoothly. All of the lighting setups took more time than I would’ve liked, and I had to drop a couple of shots and consolidate some others in order to make the day. It also caused us to have to rush through some of the takes, which resulted in many of the shots being framed less precisely than I wanted, which was actually important to the visual storytelling.
Due to the lateness of our shoot day, we only had 2 weeks to complete postproduction. Normally, I wouldn’t consider that too big of a deal for a 3-minute film, but our postproduction team was relatively inexperienced and we had to handoff between editing and sound. The editor and I had a lot of problems working together, and we wasted a lot of time trying to get a cut I was happy with. I won’t go into all the details here, but I think she had an overinflated idea of her authority to manipulate the footage and make editorial decisions. We never got to a place where I was happy, but we did manage to get something that was passable as we ran out of time. Still, it left the sound designer with only a couple of days to complete his work, on a movie that was heavily reliant on sound design.
As we went through the process of making these 3-2-1 films, it became apparent to everyone in my class that the school did not expect us to take them seriously as films. Of course, we felt that we had to, because they were films and we were putting our names on them and presenting them for everyone to see. So it’s disheartening to have a final product that I feel doesn’t live up to the work that my team and I are capable of. Even as a learning experience, I think there is limited value for those of us who have already worked on much bigger projects. But for me, it was valuable to get back in the director’s chair on a narrative film, which I haven’t done since 2003, on a small project like this.