On Producing: “The Bus” a youngARTS collaborative film

I recently produced a short film called “The Bus” for the 2011 Borscht Film Festival. What follows is a blog post about my experience.

Film producing as an art is equal parts left brain and right brain. In the most basic of terms, the film producer is responsible for taking the movie from concept to completion by handling any and everything that follows after someone (often a producer) says “let’s make a movie!” The first step is a story. In this case, it was a monologue written by the playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney (a fellow youngARTS alumni and Miami native) about the public transportation system in Miami. It was an epic account of one woman’s cross-county bus trip, a morning commute as designed by M.C. Escher, and the hope, terror and frustration that follows.

The second step is gathering the cast and crew. Lucas Leyva (youngARTS ’05) signed on to direct. With his strong theater background and deep familiarity with Tarrell’s work, he was an obvious choice. I knew Lucas could bring out the performances required and could find a clever way to stage the material that help illuminate the deeper subtext, rather than the superficial context.

Daniel Rosenberg (youngARTS ’11) stepped up to shoot the project and brought with him both a theatrical sensibility and an effortless enthusiasm. His deft camera work made him an easy choice, but his genuine willingness to collaborate made him the ideal choice. Filmmaking is nothing if not collaborative and the nature of this piece required an even playing field, there were no egos allowed on set. We found our composer in Tim Callobre (youngARTS 11), whose sharp musical mind and quick turnaround astonished me even more than his impeccable ear for cinematic scoring.

Unfortunately, we knew immediately that Tarrell’s gorgeous piece was more epic than we could produce and we set about adapting the monologue to the screen, choosing excerpts that would still convey the essentials without the 20 minute running time. This was a difficult and thankless task, so much of the power of the piece came from the scale and scope of Tarrell’s writing, but it was sadly necessary.

In doing so, we made two crucial choices in how best to present the material. The first was that we decided to have multiple actors perform the monologue, thereby highlighting the universal aspects of the story. We wanted different ages, genders and obvious backgrounds. The bus system is used by all of Miami and the story, while specific to a character on a personal mission, applies to anyone who’s ever contemplated traveling on the city wide transit system. The second was to stage the performances in a location that avoided the obvious spaces: we pointedly did not want the film taking place at a bus stop, or worse, on the bus itself. Not only is it complicated and expensive to arrange, it’s also nearly impossible to get quality production sound or focused performances on an active bus line. Have you ever tried delivering a 5 minute monologue, distraction free and uninterrupted in a crowded place, let alone one that stops at every light, makes wide turns and is constantly filling and emptying it’s passengers? I have, and it’s brutal.

We wanted a large space, one that allowed for movement and action while adding character and subtle commentary befitting the subject. Lighting was a concern, as was sound. This was going to be hard to find but necessary.

Casting is always a challenge, but even more so when the material dictates such strong performances. Tarrell’s cadence is specific and melodic, it requires a finely tuned ear and fluid delivery. We made the job more difficult when we decided to open up our film and cast four separate actor to read sections of the piece, rather than have one single performer. We ultimately chose Rudi Goblen, a talented actor who had worked with Lucas before and who was familiar with Tarrell’s writing, Rhett Thompson, a poet, comedienne and performer who thoroughly impressed us with her diligent character research and unforced delivery, and Andrew Rosenberg, a supremely gifted actor familiar to both Lucas and I, whom we had known for years, who added a commanding and authoritative presence.

As producer, I oversaw all of these steps and arranged meetings, made creative decisions and contributed opinions throughout the pre production process. Working with the cast and crew, I planned our shoot days and broke down the shooting schedule, all while seeking our perfect location. This turned out to be the most difficult part of the process.

On a larger film, a location manager is someone the producer hires to seek out, contact and secure locations for filming. On a smaller film like this one, the task fell largely on me, although Lucas and Daniel gamely stepped up to help find a space. After nearly two weeks of chasing leads, hunting down spaces and making phone calls, I stumbled on an abandoned warehouse space just west of midtown. I jumped a fence, snuck into the property and snapped a few photos. I sent them to our cinematographer, who responded immediately with an excited text, sent during third period english class: “Yes! This is Perfect!” Like a detective, I searched through records and phone numbers, located the owner and approached him with our offer. Thankfully, he was into it.

Leading up to the day of the shoot, i rented equipment, gathered our tools and confirmed everyone’s start time. I secured an assistant director, Jonathan David Kane as an all around production hand, dolly grip and camera assistant. He brought with him years of experience and zen like attitude, the perfect presence for any film set.

On the day of the shoot, I stepped back from the actual production and fell into a supportive role, coordinating with the cast, making sure everyone could park on location, maintaining craft service and providing lunch for all involved. I had everyone sign release forms and carried copies of the location agreements and insurance certificates. All business, nothing truly exciting, although essential. Despite a passing rain storm, the day went of without a hitch.

During post production, I returned to an active creative role as Lucas and I edited the first cut of the film, choosing clips based on a combination of performance and camera movement. To our dismay, our first cut was nearly 10 minutes, which was almost double our expected running time. We got ruthless and paired down the film to a brisk and effective four minutes. This is a surprisingly necessary process that too often, filmmakers find distasteful and refuse to properly do. Editing is not for the weak of heart.

We turned our edit over to Daniel, who made another pass, added a few clips and then color corrected the entire the film. We chose to add a 2.35 matte to the film, enhancing the look by adding the cinematic letterboxing on the top and bottom of the frame. I then sent the final cut to Tim, who quickly scored and delivered the background music. We added titles, made one final pass and hit export.

And with that, the film was completed.

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