Inspiration is a funny thing. Its visits are so rare, so precious and exhilarating that, when it does come to call, you make it a priority to feed and coddle it, maybe offer it a hot bath and a comfy bed — invite it to stay for a while. For who knows, if well tended and cultivated, that germ of an idea could become the seed of a project that will grow and evolve into something great — career altering — that could consume and reward your life for umpteen years to come. And even if you don’t have umpteen years to wait, or you live in a cramped New York apartment and don’t have enough space for a couch, let alone a long term guest, you endeavor to entice Inspiration inside.
I am just such an impulsive and impatient person, holed up in a cramped New York abode, so when Inspiration comes to call, I tend to skip the formality and take it right to my bedroom to have my way with it. It’s now or never baby, and who knows what new inspiration hottie could come a-calling tomorrow.
There was a clinching moment in deciding to create the web series, After Ever After. Leah Franqui had written several episodes imagining beloved fairy tale couples navigating married life in the modern world, through the lens of couples therapy. It screamed In Treatment meets Real Housewives and, to me, it screamed relevant and hilarious. She showed them to me, these not-so-subtle subversive commentaries on Disney’s damaging romantic paradigms, and I immediately wanted to produce them.
But what did I, a stage actress, know about video production? Nothing.
These episodes were, by necessity, bound for the trash, for a Pixar-like no-man’s land of unmade work. But in a last ditch effort I took the scripts to Joe Pickard, a director, cinematographer, photographer and all around filmtastic guy. I needed to know if he found the writing accessible and if, in fact, Leah and I were on to something; that we weren’t simply living in a bubble of our own strange sense-of-humor’s devising. Joe’s unabashed enthusiasm and affirmation gave me the green light I needed to jump-start the project. And jump-start it I did. It was my first time producing anything, and it was very like getting pushed into the deep end of the pool by a cruel but well-intentioned parent and told, “Swim!”
To say things went quickly from there would be an understatement. I had no working knowledge of how to produce anything and no tribe to call on to help me do so. What I did have was a sense of purpose and that saucy minx called Inspiration lingering on my doorstep. So Leah, Joe and I sat down on December 7th, 2014 to talk about a possible shoot, make script edits, and float ideas around about style and audience. That is also the session at which they pressured me to play the therapist, an idea I was very reluctant to agree to (Why can’t I ever be a pretty princess? That’s for another article…).
I went home, high on brainstorming and wine, and reached out to potential actors. We had five episodes written and ready, and I knew just the right actors for each role. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was wishful thinking, but without an OK from my collaborators, I wrote in my inquest emails that the shoot would take place in January. It made sense in my mind – Joe was leaving for a month-long vacation at the end of January, and I didn’t have the wherewithal, foresight or restraint to keep momentum going on a vague promise of a project through to March. Much to my delight, my dream team of actors said yes (good writing will do that), but their participation came with date restrictions. All of a sudden I was looking at an early January shoot, so as not to conflict with pilot season and already booked work. So there I was, staring down the barrel of a month’s prep time, a month that would be eaten up by two weeks of irreversible Christmas plans abroad. I met with my team again on the 12th for a quick writing/editing session, began the application process for a SAG New Media contract, and then hopped a plane to London.
From a converted cider mill in the wilds of western England, I attempted daily to access my shoddy internet, in an effort to corral the troops. I needed information and measurements from my actors, I needed my director to hire a crew, and I desperately needed to find a location for the shoot. I would stare at the little yellow “sending” tab at the top of my Gmail screen, willing it to shift to the “your message has been sent” status. Silver lining — I was holed up with a graphic artist who also happened to be my sister-in-law, so while I was stressing out about being cut off from the outside world, I was able to at least go home with a fancy logo in tow.
I returned to New York just in time to greet the new year with a quick “hi-bye” to midnight, and then I was back to work. My roommate came to the rescue with the offer of her parents’ temporarily vacant Upper West Side apartment for the shoot. I said yes — a resounding yes. I didn’t care that that meant the shoot would be in ten-days time. I didn’t care that my roommate knew nothing about film sets. I cared that we had a location.
Leah and I shopped for costume pieces, which she then went home to alter (she’s nifty that way), and I set down to complete pre-production paperwork. And yes, I was fully aware of the fact that we were now about a week away from shooting and were still shy a gaffer, a sound mixer, a boom operator and a HMU artist. Joe and I hustled, shelled out some money, and at the 11th hour we snagged ourselves the rest of our crew. I then reminded myself that I also had to act, and tried to quiet my producer brain in order to cram in my lines.
The morning of day one of shooting came bright and early, with the first doorbell chime sounding at an unwelcome 5:45AM. Joe shifted into gear and got to work loading in equipment, Leah unpacked and steamed costumes, my roommate put on her location’s manager hat and started signing people in, and I laid out breakfast and stole away for a fifteen minute coffee run to a nearby Starbucks. Little did I know that, while I waited an interminable amount of time for my coffee carrier to fill, my absence would leave the entire shoot hanging in the balance.
There was a lot of gear in the apartment when I returned. To say that I knew what to expect equipment-wise would be a flat-out lie. I pictured a small set, a lot of compromises, and a decent, but obviously low-budget quality outcome. Joe had warned Leah and myself that he doesn’t work that way, that whatever he touches he must be proud of — something Leah and I absolutely agreed with, but on a content level, not on a tech level (an area in which we are both woefully ignorant). To be honest, our lighting designer brought way more equipment than we needed, but he also saved the day by bringing lights Joe had not asked for, lights that were vital to a setup with a large window in the background.
But none of this mattered at 6:00AM when the superintendent came to scream at my roommate, to scold her for the large amount of heavy materials getting hauled up in the passenger elevator of this high end co-op at such an unreasonably early hour on a Saturday morning. She was livid and embarrassed and worried about repercussions from her parents and from the building, and I was immediately put on damage control duty. This was our Achilles heel, this was the part of the shoot that got overlooked due to speed and necessity. Joe had told me, “Make sure your roommate talks to her parents or super about the building’s rules and clears our entry with them!” He was insistent on that point. And talk to her I did. But something got lost in translation. Because I didn’t know just how large the load-in would be, because she didn’t know what a film set was like, because her parents own their co-op apartment, my roommate was fairly certain everything would be fine without clearance. And so we loaded in, and set up for the shoot, and everything was not fine.
Leah suggested we pull the plug on the whole thing, and my roommate almost took her up on that offer. Instead, I volunteered a compromised solution — we would shoot three episodes that day, since we had already loaded everything in, and then we would cancel the rest of the shoot and load out that same evening, with the super able to “supervise” the whole exit maneuver. My roommate agreed, Joe quietly alerted the crew, Leah and I made phone calls to the affected cast, and then I was instructed to “stop producing and get into character already,” and we were off and rolling by 8:30AM.
That hiccup was big, burdensome, ominous and potentially ruinous but, somehow, the rest of day went swimmingly. My roommate’s parents made contact from vacation and said they weren’t worried one bit, the crew was a dream-team of fun and effectiveness, and we stayed completely on schedule the whole day. In fact, many cast members said they’d never been on a smoother set in their entire careers. We finished the day, exhausted but euphoric, with every one of our team willing and eager to come back in the future to finish what we’d started. We loaded out, left the apartment without a trace of our presence, and set to work figuring out a new strategy. What we lost in money (we still had to pay crew for the day that we cancelled), we earned in loyal followers and in a real, tangible sense of self-worth and pride. However, our strategy from then on, by necessity, had to change and grow. This whim of a short-term project became a long-term investment, and soon we released our first three episodes, launched a Kickstarter campaign, earned the funds to continue, and then shot the remaining episodes we’d had to so unceremoniously cancel before. Now we have been accepted into several film and new media festivals and are getting praised for our quality, creativity and for the technical aspects of the series. The efforts hidden behind those accolades may given me several ulcers, but hey, beauty must suffer.
When I set out to write this piece, I anticipated penning a cautionary tale, one in which I used personal anecdotes to ward people away from haphazard, last-minute filmmaking. In essence: don’t do what we did, kids, cause we had problems! But several paragraphs later and I am changing my tune — I say jump in and get ‘er done. Pick an end date that scares you and meet that deadline head on, no matter what. Because without the “making” you can’t be a filmmaker, and there is no greater joy than seeing a project completed. By doing, you make room in your brain for new ideas to come along and take the place of those that have been seen through to completion. It really doesn’t matter how much time you devote to thinking and planning, or how many disaster kits you prepare, you will invariably come up against that unknown quantity. But when you barrel ahead, roll with the punches, take risks and refuse to compromise on the things that matter most, Inspiration will continue to come a-calling, time and time again. It now knows it will get immediate, royal treatment and not be belittled, shoved into a closet or put on babysitting duty. And any guest, like a fish, will begin to smell if it stays unattended to for too long. So get to work, cook up a cinematic feast, and accept that you’ll make a mess along the way.