Theater Around The Bay: Another Pint, Please

Christian Simonsen interviews local producer Michael Laird about turning a second Pint Sized Play script into a film.

One of the most enthusiastic audience members of Theater Pub’s Pint Sized Plays Festival IV was Michael Laird. Luckily for me, he also happened to be an aspiring independent filmmaker who works through the Scary Cow film collective. Michael chose my Pint Sized script, “Multitasking”, as his first short film project as an independent producer. Not one to remain idle, Michael immediately set his sights on another script from the same festival: the clever and poignant “Mark +/-” by Daniel Ng (also recently remounted by original director Adam Sussman at the 2014 Titan Award Directors’ Showcase).

So, who is this Michael Laird guy?

ML: A regular guy from Nor Cal who always had creative thoughts but no outlet. Went to UC Santa Barbara to study physics, but ended up with a history degree – which I still read for fun (history, I mean.)

What made you want to become a filmmaker?

ML: I got tired of thinking great comedy lines and skits but doing nothing about them, or watching movies and thinking they could be more creative. Several years ago I heard about Scary Cow, where people make their own films; last year I finally decided it was time to do something, rather than just wishing that I did.

How does the Scary Cow film collective process work?

ML: Every four months they have a member’s meeting, where people who want to make a movie pitch their idea, to draw others into their group. Usually a movie takes twelve people, including a couple actors, but also someone who owns light equipment, knows how to run a camera, wiling to hold a boom microphone, and the most important – who will bring food?

The producer is the one who owns the film, pitches, recruits volunteers, juggle schedules, and rides the volunteers until there is a finished project. If the length is within 10 minutes, the film is then shown at the Castro Theater, where Scary Cow screens their results every four months.

What have you learned most from working as a crew member on other filmmakers’ productions?

ML: My first lesson – going up to Marin County one Friday evening, spent four hours, all for 20 seconds of finished product showing a scared women walking through an alley where several homeless stand around a fire. The lesson: making films takes a lot of time and patience.

The second lesson – you volunteer, give, help, be a friend, and then people are more willing to help you on your film.

Producers in both film and live theater are stuck with a lot of the unglamorous dirty work needed to bring a production to completion. What qualities do you think are most needed in that role?

ML: Organization and people skills. The producer is the one ultimately responsible for all the details – if a key actor doesn’t show up when everyone else is at the set, it isn’t the cameraman’s responsibility. Which means a lot of leadership skills, to bring out everyone’s best (since no one is getting paid).

You need to bring many different people with diverse talents together for a common goal. How would you describe your “management style”?

ML: I have to be a good listener and accept a lot of direction from those who have more skills. I don’t know as much about key lighting or camera angles as those who bought their own equipment and worked it for years. It would be different if I studied film in college and worked on a dozen films.

Most short films are based on original screenplays. What inspired you choose playwrights’ scripts from the local live theater community?

ML: In live theater you get an idea how the finished product looks and sounds-though film is different, since you get close ups and softer voices.

What drew you to Daniel Ng’s script, “Mark +/-“?

ML: I saw it live and almost fell off the chair laughing. But that wasn’t all – I immediately “boxed” the view, meaning I could see how to film it. Two actors around a table, one scene, no complicated locations or scenery. An easy shoot, compared to some that takes five days and renting three apartments for an extended story.

The script presented unique technical challenges, since the main character interacts with both past and future versions of himself. How did you overcome them?

ML: There were two possibilities. I first imagined “green screening” the main actor. You film him in front of a green screen, and then in editing you use a computer to paste his image over a café scene. That way you paste his image three times.

But on the day of the shoot, the cinematographer and director though it best to shoot him three times, with same unchanging background, then paste the images together in editing. That was easier for lighting and cinematographer, since not filming over an imagined background, but proved immensely more difficult for the actor – he had to repeat his words, hand movements, and timing exactly for all three shots of him sitting around the table.

So overall, was producing your second film easier or harder?

ML: The only harder part of a second film is I got over confident. My first film went so easy, I forgot that most films actually take longer to shoot and have more fires that need to be put out. We almost didn’t get the second film shooting finished, because it took longer than I expected.

What do you look for when you are hunting for a potential new “Michael Laird Production”?

ML: I still love the funny skit, Saturday Night Live style. I love funny dialogue rather than beautiful costumes or scenery. And something that isn’t a rehash of a dozen TV shows you already seen.

Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

ML: Editing my last film is taking longer than my first film. I am working on that, and also helping others on their films – which will come in handy when looking for volunteers for my Next Great Comedy.

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Theater Around The Bay: From Theater Pub to the Castro Theater

Another Theater Pub success story, Christian Simonsen describes the journey of his short script “Multi-Tasking” as it went from stage to screen.

In July of this year, my short comedy play “Multitasking” was produced as part of Theatre Pub’s Pint Sized Plays IV at the Café Royale. My play (indeed, the whole festival under producer Neil Higgins’ guidance) was a huge success… although oddly enough, the compliment I heard most often from audience members was: “your play was my father’s favorite!” which is an interesting niche audience to explore.

Pint Sized Plays is a site-specific festival; all of the stories have to take place in a pub. My script was a farce about two strangers, Eric and Kathy, waiting for a blind date and job interviewer, respectively. Just as they start a mild flirtation, a yuppie woman, Tess, bursts in on them, and hilarity ensues.

A coworker from my day job, Michael Laird, had come to see my play. He said he liked it a lot… but then, I thought, that’s what coworkers are supposed to say. Near the end of September, Michael reminded me that he was a part of the local film collective called Scary Cow. He had already paid his dues working on the crews of several films in different capacities, and he now felt ready to make his own. “Would you be interested in letting me produce ‘Multitasking’ as my first film?” I thought about it for a while— who am I trying to kid, I immediately said Yes!

Pre-production begins.

Michael’s plan was to knock the film out real quick: find the easiest location, use the same actors, shoot it in one afternoon “sometime this weekend or the next” while the actors still had their characters (and lines) in their heads, download it to a yet-to-be –determined editor, give the editor three or four days, bing-bang-boom, we have a film we can enter into the Scary Cow Film Festival at the Castro Theater. The deadline to submit was October 19th.

I was hesitant. I told Michael it seemed unlikely we could pull it off that quickly. He shrugged. “Why not try?” If everything doesn’t all come together, he added, we can just regroup, and try again later. “If we miss the Festival, it can still be on YouTube!” He had a point, and I realized, not for the first time, that “hesitant” is too often my natural state. I asked Michael if he planned on directing it, but he said no, he wanted to focus on producing. In other words, he wanted to take on all the unglamorous dirty work, including picking up the tab… really, how could I say no?

I then suggested myself as the director. “Do you have any film directing experience?” my new producer asked. “Sure, I studied filmmaking in college!” I did not bother to mention that back when I made student films, Jimmy Carter was still President, and I had no clue how to access the camera on my cell phone.

So I got the gig (that’s what we used to say back in the ancient ‘70s). But then I thought about what an impressive job the stage director Jonathan Carpenter did with my script in the Pint Sized Plays production. (I was even more impressed when I later found out that Jonathan and his cast only had one rehearsal together before Opening Night!) Did I really want to submit the actors to a brand new director with such a rushed schedule? And where in tarnation would I find the [REC] button on these modern computer chip camera gizmos?

Michael agreed that it would be awesome if we could get Jonathan to direct. So I set about contacting him and the three actors: Andrew Chung (Eric), Lara Gold (Kathy) and Jessica Chisum (Tess). Everyone was excited to do it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one in the Bay Area interested in them; their dance cards were all filling up fast. So we had to find one full day in the next two weeks where the key participants, producer Michael, director Jonathan and the three actors, were all free. (I did not count myself in that lofty group because they already had my script, so really, if I got run over by a bus at that point, the show would still go on).

Via Facebook / email / texting / carrier pigeon, we found the one window where we were all free: Sunday October 13th.

Perfect. Now, where would we shoot? The script’s original setting was a pub, per the Pint Sized Plays script submission rules. But for the film, I rewrote the location as a coffeehouse (it’s the only change in the script I made). Using a real coffeehouse on such short notice was problematic. You never know if business owners are going to get cold feet at the last minute, and renege on their promise to allow you to shoot on their property. Michael, ever the cheerful optimist, said that the living room in his new apartment was fairly large… if he got the right tables and chairs, it could probably pass as a small corner of a coffeehouse.

He had a good point. Michael’s view was always that this film would be more like a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch, as opposed to a full blown film with realistic locations, etc. Although it would still be “cinematic” (using camera angles and editing to help convey the story), the main focus would be on the script and the acting, with just enough “production values” to sell the idea of the setting. In other words, we were okay with a living room that sorta kinda looking like a coffeehouse.

So, we had a time, and a location! With those variables locked down, and my script in his hand, our big shot producer Michael could go to the next Scary Cow meeting and pitch our project, and collect a crew. As soon as he recruited Alisha McMutcheon as our Director of Photography and Camera Operator, Michael set up a meeting so Jonathan and I could meet her once before the shoot.

Before the meeting, I asked Jonathan if it would be okay if I story boarded potential shots for the film. Story boards are drawings of the different camera compositions that will be shot; they basically look like a comic book version of the film. My compositions would be suggestions only. But if Jonathan liked them, it would free up his time to coach the actors. He agreed, so I created three sets of shots, four shots each. The first set was the Must Haves: the shots we definitely needed for the film to make any kind of narrative sense. The second set was the Nice to Haves: these shots would add enough variety to keep the film from looking too “stagey”. The third set was the Luxuries: in the unlikely event we were ahead of schedule, we could shoot those to make the film, as Stanley Kubrick would say, all fancy schmancy (okay, only I would say that).

One page of my storyboard artwork. Hey, I never said I was a Renaissance Man.

One page of my storyboard artwork. Hey, I never said I was a Renaissance Man.

We had a great meeting! Alisha obviously knows her stuff, and came across as a real team player. Everyone liked my story boards. I promised to avoid the stereotype of the neurotic scriptwriter by staying in the shadows and letting Jonathon run the shoot. And Michael promised to feed us breakfast and lunch! (Now that’s a producer!)

Michael started bringing more people on board that he had worked with on other films. Before we knew it, we had a film crew.

Then the bad news came from actor Jessica Chisum. In order to secure a major part in a stage production of Macbeth, she had to drop out of our shoot (this is not the first time William Shakespeare has stolen good actors from me. That guy’s a Prima donna!).

We had to find a new actor quick. It was decided that Jonathan alone should recast the part. Since he had the most experience with local actors, he would know which ones would most likely have the best chemistry with Andrew and Lara. Not to mention which candidates could learn their lines the fastest (my script was very dialogue heavy).

There is an invisible point with any theater or film production, where the momentum of everyone involved has taken it past the “what if?” stage, and it becomes its own animal; a living, breathing entity that seems to tangibly exist. At that point, any problem that comes up (such as losing an actor) seems to be one that was made to be solved. This project had reached that stage. That didn’t mean that this film was guaranteed to be made (living creatures can still die at any time). What it meant was that our director could confidently entice top notch actors on short notice with a “real project”.

In just a few days, Jonathan was able to snag Helen LaRoche. I knew the name rang a bell, so I googled her. Sure enough, back in 2012 I saw Helen give a moving performance in Stuart Bousel’s emotionally complex play “Artemis and Apollo or Twins”. I had made a mental note at the time that I wanted to someday work with her. Score!

Three days before the shoot, I meet Jonathan for coffee so we can discuss any issues about the script before his one and only rehearsal with the actors. I would not be at that rehearsal. With such a tight schedule, the actors cannot be subjected to a two-headed dragon; they need just one leader guiding them. The shoot was now Jonathan’s baby.

On the morning before the shoot, Jonathan had his two hour rehearsal with all three actors. He phoned me afterwards. He was very happy.

Production begins.

At 9:00am on the morning of the shoot, Jonathan, Alisha, myself, and the rest of the crew arrived: Tom Morrow the Gaffer, Ben Gallion the Production Assistant and Stuart Goldstein the Still Photographer (we lost our sound guy, so Alisha did triple duty). We did most of the set up before the actors arrive at 9:45am. Michael was the only person who had met everyone before today.

 I believe Michael told his roommates he was "having a few friends over."

I believe Michael told his roommates he was “having a few friends over.”

In the world of live theater, cast and crew work together for a long enough period of time to become a family. Granted, that “family” more often resembles the House of Atreus than the Little House on the Prairie… but whether they are stabbing each other or laughing together, they still know each other. In film production, you are usually thrown together with a group of mostly strangers, with a very narrow period of time to complete the production. Lucky for all of us, Michael chose everyone well. We worked together beautifully.

Director Jonothan Carpenter checks the monitor to frame a shot.

Director Jonothan Carpenter checks the monitor to frame a shot.

I was given the task of maintaining the script log, meaning I took down any notes Jonathan had on all of the shots recorded. What I noticed doing this task was the unique challenges film actors have. I know the common sentiment is that live theater separates the men/women from the boys/girls; while I would generally agree with that, film acting has its own challenges. Films are almost always shot out of order; so every time there is a new camera shot, the actors must realign themselves to a totally new place on their character arch. For instance, the final camera angle covered the characters Eric and Kathy at the first two pages of the script, and then at the very last two pages. After the beginning was shot and the director yelled “cut”, actors Andrew and Lara had to make a drastic change from being cuter than a box of kittens to looking like refugees from a Kafka story. You could see the immediate transition of time in their body language alone.

Our cast!  Andrew Chung, Helen LaRoche, Lara Gold

Our cast! Andrew Chung, Helen LaRoche, Lara Gold

Thanks to everyone’s’ professionalism, we got all twelve shots we wanted, plus one extra, an epilogue we all thought up during our lunch break.

Post-production begins.

Evan Rogers was recruited by Michael to edit our film. Editing is an art form all its own. In fact, it is the creative aspect of filmmaking that most separates cinema from live theater. An editor can make or break a film, so I was a little concerned that the whole post production of “Multitasking” would be in the hands of someone in another city that I never met (to this day I haven’t met him). But Michael vouched for him, and I read an email where Evan said he loved my script (I can be a tad vain).

And besides, Evan had almost four whole days to edit our six minute film before the October 19th deadline. No problem. Until there was a computer glitch, that caused the downloading of the files to take an entire three days. Which meant Evan had one day to edit. With Stuart Goldstein designing the Titles and credits, somehow Evan finished the entire edit in time to burn the DVD and summit it to Scary Cow on October 19th, before the 5:00pm deadline!

“Multitasking” was part of the Scary Cow Film Festival in November. It was a dream come true to hear a full crowd at the Castro Theater laughing at a comedy film I helped create.

So, here is the staged version (starting at the 12:25 mark).

And here is the filmed version.

Thanks to the creative input of all the artists involved, both versions manage to be totally faithful to my script (not a line of dialogue was ever changed).

Yet at the same time, they are distinctly different from each other.

Although I would like to think they are both, you know, funny.

Where are they now?

I feel very lucky that my script was produced in two different mediums, both times with such loving care. Here’s what all of the talented cast and crew members are up to now:

Andrew Chung is currently performing in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” at the Impact Theatre through December 15th. Lara Gold is developing her own company, Exposure Theater, which will specialize in documentary and autobiographical theater. Helen LaRoche is work shopping Miranda Jones’ new musical, “The Precipice”. Jessica Chisum has joined the cast of Boxcar Theatre’s immersive drama “The Speakeasy” which opens January 10th.

Michael Laird, Alisha McCutcheon, Ben Gallion, Stuart Goldstein and Tom Morrow are donning multiple hats on upcoming Scary Cow films. Evan Rogers is now a VFX artist at Guerrilla Wanderer Films.

Jonathan Carpenter is returning to his hometown of Boston to develop several new projects with old thespian colleagues, but he did promise he would someday return to us.

Both Neil Higgins and yours truly have been commissioned to write new plays, “Echidna” and “Scylla” respectively, for The San Francisco Olympians Festival V: Monster Ball in 2014.

And of course all of us are available for future projects!

It takes a village to make a six minute comedy.

It takes a village to make a six minute comedy.



All photos by Stuart Goldstein.