My lead actress was missing. More accurately, I misplaced her. It was freezing rain at 3 a.m. in the toughest part of Boston, and standing on the side of the road with an entire film crew twiddling their thumbs, I began to wonder, "Where was Hitchcock when I really needed him?" Advice from the masters of film on cinematography, pacing and tone is all well and good, until you misplace your leading lady with 3 hours left to shoot before daylight.
So midway through directing my first feature film, I was granted a few moments to consider these and other pieces of missing wisdom not taught at film school and noticeably absent from DVD director commentary tracks.
It all started simply enough. A year or so earlier, the idea for a dark, edgy thriller set on an airport shuttle van planted itself in my brain during a brief shuttle ride at LAX. Little did I know that lone moment of boredom/inspiration/paranoia would take me from Los Angeles to Boston, NY, London, Berlin, and now to Austin, Texas, where Shuttle makes its world premiere this weekend at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
I had always admired the simplicity and realistic terror of Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm, which starred a relatively unknown 21 year-old starlet named Nicole Kidman. It was a tight, contained, frightening story set against an endless ocean. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. So the idea of a contemporary, gritty tale of two young women, who are literally a nine-iron away from home, set in the confines of a shuttle van and against a fast receding sleeping city struck a chord.
Script in hand, the plan was set. Since the story took place over the course of one night, we would shoot in balmy Los Angeles in the fall, to optimize nighttime hours available and stay in a warm, productive climate. And so off I went to apply all the filmmaking wisdom I had learned and the masters had imparted.
Not so fast. There was the small matter of money. Ah, but my producers and I had already raised the money. No, no, no. You see, in the film business, it's not enough to raise money once, you have to do it over and over again. More true for independent films where gains in speed to greenlight and creative control are lost in terms of reliable money in the bank. But the Coen Brothers did it on their first film, long before No Country For Old Men was a gleam in their eye, so who was I to argue?
The money trail led to a tax deal to shoot in Boston, and enough production delays that filming would take place in November and December. At which point I was spending far less time ruminating about storyboards and visual texture than trying to figure out how actors would stay warm enough to deliver their lines, and how to shoot around pesky white snow fall. Sources of knowledge had been disappointingly silent on the subject. Continuity is a bitch.
There are three rules you are never supposed to break when making a film, particularly a tightly budgeted one: no pets, no children, and no inclement weather. The fourth would probably be no moving vehicles. So naturally on the first night of filming, we had all four (the dog eventually got cut do to "performance" reasons). To hell with conventional wisdom, our entire film was on a moving vehicle, the kid was cute, and we needed to establish rain because it was the one guarantee over the coming month. But somehow the stars aligned, and when we broke for lunch on our first night, low and behold, we were actually on schedule. Now, I'd like to say that continued through the rest of the schedule, but as Morgan Freeman put it in The Shawshank Redemption, "prison is no fairy-tale world." Neither is filmmaking.
The good news is that the police car we sent to track down my misplaced actress returned with starlet in tow. The moment of reflection was gone, and would not return until after wrap. So we fired up the shuttle, rolled camera and took the long circuitous journey from Boston to Austin. Actually, that has a nice ring to it, Boston-Austin. Could be a good sign. After all, it is an election year.