Saturday, July 25, 2015

Day Nine: Shooting That Dreaded Scene!

[The Destination Film Shoot]

16 April, 2015

There was one scene in the film that I had absolutely dreaded shooting.

It's a critical one that comes towards the end of the film and I dreaded it because... well, I had no clue how to shoot it. It was unlike anything else I had directed before and even though I had already done some sort of a shot breakdown and a storyboard for the scene, they were too generic / vague to actually help with the shoot, and I was very aware of that.

I had been postponing its shoot as much as I could, saying that the actress, who is the only one in this scene, needs to be really warmed up before we shoot it. That was a valid reason, but the bigger reason was that I had to be better prepared.

It had now come to a point where it couldn't be postponed any further, so we decided to shoot it this night. Gulp.

There were a couple of things that actually worked in favour of the shoot of this particular scene. Firstly, it was to be shot within the actress's room in the hotel itself and hence didn't require any sort of shooting licence. Yay! Secondly, it was to be shot indoors so there was no issue of dealing with the rather hot and dry weather outside. Double Yay!

But we still needed a solid shot breakdown and storyboard. So, soon after breakfast, I sent the cast, the editor and the cameraman to shoot what I called the "inside car - montage scenes", which basically means just capturing the two protagonists going in the car around the city. That didn't require me to be present, so I spent the time to lock the shot breakdown and the storyboard instead.

I walked down to a cafe in the hotel, ordered myself a cup of latte, plugged in my earphones to listen to the "inspiration track" that I had chosen for this particular scene and I started to think. After a while, maybe a couple of hours, I had in front of me, what seemed like a pretty solid shot breakdown. I think I owe much to that piece of music, the inspiration track, for what finally came out of my head. I had listened to it as I wrote this scene during the scripting stage - to be precise, on a flight back from Cambodia to Singapore last October, so working again with that music seemed to help this time too. In fact, I almost feel like I choreographed the entire scene to that music.

Anyway, soon the cast was back after the "inside car - montage" shoot and we quickly got into a rehearsal session. I got the team up to date on the shot breakdown and spent some time with the actress working on the scene. There was a small dance sequence also involved and I choreographed that for her... she is a dancer herself, and quickly picked up the pieces, while I enjoyed whatever little dancing I did after what seemed like ages!

We felt ready to shoot and all we had to do was wait for nightfall. It was a night scene, so obviously we couldn't have the sun streaming through the curtains of the room.

Finally, post dinner, it was time to shoot! Phew!

We ran through the shot breakdowns and the storyboarding one more time, I played my "inspiration music" file a number of times so everyone got into the required mood, we did a few mock shots (I got to act out a bit as well for reference, which I always enjoy!), and then.... well, then we shot!
Rehearsing the dance sequence one last time before shoot

Editor cum DOP listening attentively to director's instructions! 

There were a couple of shots that required only the cameraman and the actress to be in the room because he was using the steadycam for shoot and the rest of us couldn't afford to be caught in the background. During these times, I plonked myself on the aisle outside her room and prayed that the scene would turn out the way it is supposed to.
Setting in the hotel aisle and praying for the shoot to go well!

It was a long and tiring shoot that wound up at 3 am or so. By then the team, especially our dear cameraman, was all bleary eyed. But we kept at it until we felt satisfied with the footage we had canned.

When we finally did wind up, it was with wide smiles all around! It was a tough shoot, I still was not 100% certain whether the scene would have the impact that it should (I was hoping any mistakes could be fixed during editing), but at least the dreaded scene was now fully completed! We heaved a sigh of relief and in spite of the ridiculously late time of night, we goofed around taking a few pictures.

A very happy actress, post shoot!

We still have have two more major scenes to be shot, both to be shot outdoors and hence requiring a shooting licence. However, by now we know for certain that we will no longer be getting a licence. Tomorrow, a Friday, the weekend starts in this part of the world, so no more hope of the licence coming through in time. Oh well.

But that's a problem for tomorrow.

As for tonight, I was a very happy person. The Dreaded Scene is no longer dreaded.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Day Eight: It Was A Very Happy Vishu!

It was Vishu, the Kerala New Year.

I woke up early to prepare for our 7am shoot on the dhow boat. As soon as I opened my eyes, I was greeted with a message on my phone - "Come see the Vishukani!". The actor, the cameraman and the editor had gone the previous night to buy all that's needed to put together a simple Vishukani. 

Given that we were in Abu Dhabi, where there are more Malayalis than anyone else, the Vishu spirit hung in the air. In fact, when we had gone to pick up food from the supermarket a couple of days ago, I even found "adapradaman" for sale! 

Through yesterday, the team, especially the actor was all excited about Vishu and had been wanting to prepare a kani. I, on the other hand, was too lazy and could only think of sleep, whenever the time allowed. So I said, "Sure, go ahead", and then completely forgot everything about it. 

But now, here's a message telling me that the Vishukani is all  set! So, as soon as I got ready, I was on my way to the actor's room to take a look at the Vishukani. 

I rang the bell but nobody opened the door for a while. Just when I was about to come to the conclusion that the dude had fallen back asleep after looking at the kani, the actor opened the door. I realized that he was late to open because he was making sure there was "kani kaanum neram... " being played off the laptop, when I entered and saw the kani! How lovely! 

So here I was. Thousands of miles away in Abu Dhabi. In the middle of a shoot for a feature film. Looking at a simple, yet beautifully arranged Vishukani. With that lovely song ringing in my ears.  

Everything felt just about perfect. It felt like nothing could possibly go wrong.

The beautiful Vishukani, courtesy the actor!

And nothing did too. Or at least, nothing major did too. 

We first went to a couple of places to pack food that the actors would pretend to eat on the "restaurant" on the dhow. Given that it was Vishu, most of the Kerala places were making only the sadya or traditional feast, so we had to go around a bit before we actually found a place that would sell the kind of food we wanted for the shoot. Then we hurried to the location. We were given only a couple of hours, so we had to be quick. 

The shoot proceeded smoothly. In hindsight, one interesting thing about all our shoots have been that we would start the shoot without the perfect frames nor the perfect acting. I mean, they won't be bad, but they won't be perfect, top notch either. Towards the end of it all, when we have about 15 minutes to spare, the DOP and cameraman will have some inspiration for a different frame, and sometimes I will have an inspiration for some new instruction on the performance. Ultimately, what was shot in the last 15 minutes would be the best of the lot. In fact, now that the edit is done, I can say that in most cases we have pretty much gone with the last rushed take! Food for thought, it is. 

Anyway, the shoot was wrapped up right on time, this time too after that one last rushed take with a completely different frame, and then we thought of next steps. The editor said he will go and see whether the licence has come in or if it would come in any time soon, and also he would go to the Gold Souk to see whether we can get permission to shoot there without the licence. It was one of the spots in my list of locations for which the licence had been requested for. 

As the editor, in his capacity as the producer cum production manager, went to try his luck with such seemingly impossible tasks, the cameraman went to the production studio to back up the footages (this was a daily routine), the cast chilled in their rooms and I went down to the cafe to work on the storyboarding for our "night scene". This scene, planned to be shot the next day, is unlike anything I had directed before. I am not sure how to explain it... maybe I will leave it by saying that when you watch the film, you will get it. But point being, it was a complex scene and while I had done some amount of detailed screenplay writing, I hadn't been able to lock the shot breakdowns nor the storyboard. So I took some time to do just that and at the end of it, felt like I had totally cracked it! 

After a few hours, the editor came back and announced three things: 
No, we don't have the licence yet. 
No, we don't know when it will come. 
No, we can't shoot at the Gold Souk without the licence. 

Umm, ok then. 

But it was Vishu, and we Malayalis don't get upset over such simple matters. So to celebrate, I treated the team to a full blown Vishu Sadya in one of the restaurants. 

The rest of the day continued to be a relaxed day. By the time we had finished lunch, it was already evening and we didn't have any more evening scenes to be shot. So we decided to put off everything till tomorrow. We will start with some remaining car scenes and wrap those up in the morning, and then shoot the "night scene"... well, at night. 

Including the Gold Souk, we had three scenes remaining that would absolutely need the licence before we can shoot. Tomorrow, being Thursday, would be the last day that the licence could possibly come in after which it is the weekend. And we are to fly out on Saturday. So it either comes in tomorrow, or.....well, let's just hope there is no "or". 

Even if we can live without the Gold Souk scene, we absolutely needed to figure out a plan for the remaining two. 

As of today, we had no plan. We only had prayers. And a lot of hope. It was the new year, after all! 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Day Seven: One Unexpected Location and One Brainwave!

The Destination Film Shoot]

14 April, 2015

It was great to wake up to a day when we knew exactly what we had to do.

As soon as breakfast was done, we set off to shoot the "car scenes"!

But first we needed to know where to shoot these scenes. Shooting in the middle of the city could mean a lot of traffic lights and frequent stopping of the car, which doesn't look great on screen. We wanted moving frames at the windows. On the other hand, shooting on the expressway also didn't make sense because there was nothing much to be seen out of the windows in that case. So where do we shoot?

The licencor suggested that we go somewhere close to the Ferrari World, which turned out to be quite far away but the drive was worth it. The location was good - the surroundings were nice and there was little to no traffic for most parts, so driving while the scenes are in progress wasn't much of an issue.

However, the logistics of shooting inside a moving car, wasn't something we were completely prepared for. We didn't have any of the necessary grips. So the camera had to be kept on the dashboard and the licencor was instructed to drive slowly throughout, so that the camera doesn't get displaced during a take.  Also, given that I had no way of monitoring the takes as they were in progress, all I could do was give the cast the instructions on what all to be shot, how they needed to perform and then hope for the best until a few takes are done, then stop the car, get the camera and play through the takes quickly to review them. It wasn't easy.

Anyway, the shoot was smooth but it took a really long time to get it completed. As we made our way back, it was close to 3pm. We had not had lunch, and should have been tired by now, but for some reason, maybe because of the successful shoot of the car scenes, all of us unanimously agreed that we should probably try and can one more scene if possible. Yay! Go team!

But can which scene, and where?

We looked at the licencor expectantly for some solution. After all, he would or should know of places to shoot without a licence!

And he did too! He said, "I know an excellent place!".

And believe it or not, it was a truly excellent, mind blowing place! It was a gorgeous little park, with a canopy of trees that shed beautiful white flowers that scattered on the grassy carpet below, and with a little lagoon as the backdrop. It looked nothing like what you would expect that part of the world to look like, and I fell in love with it!

And the best part? We were the only people there, probably because it was a weekday afternoon. The licencor said he would be completely responsible if we "get caught" because after all, the licence is in work in progress and he has documented evidence for that. I gulped but then decided to take his word for it.

So we shot. And it was a really smooth shoot! The actors were in good form (maybe we should go without lunch after all) and we ended on a high.
Happy after the shoot at the park! 

As soon as the shoot was wrapped up, we rushed to get some food. It was already 6 pm and we had stayed hungry since 9am or so. But totally worth it, I say.

Over the early dinner, the editor and I discussed what next. Today was a good day with good progress, but we still had many scenes left. And even the licencor was no longer looking hopeful about the licence coming in time, and he had other work, so he couldn't accompany us to every location where we could possibly get caught either.

Then I had a brainwave.

One of the locations on my list was a fish market. In Abu Dhabi, you can buy fresh fish and get it grilled right there at the fish market. I wanted to capture that as a lunch scene in the film. But shooting at the market needed the licence, which didn't seem to be coming through any time soon.

So here was my brainwave - I asked the editor whether instead of the fish market, if we could just go to one of the fishing boats or maybe even the bigger dhow boats moored in that area. I just wanted to shoot the scene in something other than a regular restaurant, and one of these could just work.

He said it is worth a shot.

So after that early dinner, we dropped the rest of the team back in the hotel and he and I went to the area around the fish market. We parked the car and looked around and chose one of the many dhow boats moored there, based on what we thought the backdrop could look like from out of its windows. The editor asked me to stay behind in the car as he went to make the first contact with the person in charge. I watched him as he walked up to the boat, talked to a guy there, walked around the boat as if to do a recee, all the while praying that this works.

He soon got back with a huge smile and said, "This is going to work. You come and take a look."

So I followed him and sure enough, the dhow turned out to be just perfect. Why, it even had a nice little restaurant setting inside it! The staff agreed that we could shoot there for a very nominal fee, but with two conditions. 1) We have to start shoot at 7am and end at 9am, 2) We have to bring our own food for the shoot, as they don't make anything there until evening.

Of course, all conditions were acceptable to us!

I got back to the hotel super excited! Each day I update our production schedule and today's looked pretty good. It looked something like this:

Scene 6 (Car): DONE 
Scene 10 (Car): DONE 
Scene 12: DONE 

And I also knew that tomorrow morning I would be able to say Scene 5 Fish Market: DONE.

So looking forward to that!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Day Six: Taking a Break, Albeit Unintentionally!

[The Destination Film Shoot]

13 April, 2015

I went down for breakfast with a lot of thoughts swimming in my head.

1) On one hand, I wanted to give the cast and crew a break. Yesterday was supposed to be a rest day but then that also turned out to be an intense day of shoot. The last thing I wanted was a fatigued team (or a fatigued self, for that matter).

2) On the other hand, 4 out of the 10 days of shoot had already passed and we were hardly close to the half way mark in terms of content canned. So we can't possibly be sitting around twiddling our thumbs.

3) We still didn't have the licence. So it wasn't like we could shoot much either.

4) So the real question was how could we make this day both relaxing and productive?

That's when the editor arrived for breakfast with the good news. Apparently our licencor would be getting his driving licence today so we can shoot the scenes in the car (remember, the licencor was supposed to act as the chauffeur).

Me: Oh great! So let's meet at the lobby right after breakfast and leave for the shoot!
Editor: No, no... not so fast. He will be getting the licence today. He doesn't have it yet. But they have asked him to go collect it, so it should be ready by afternoon.

Oh, OK. I had missed that subtle use of future tense in there.

Alright then. At least the good news was that we knew what we would do in the afternoon. So now the only question was what we should do in the morning.

We had a few filler shots which could be shot within the hotel aisle and the lift lobby. So we gave the actress a break and proceeded to can these filler shots, which involved only the actor. Given that we didn't have anything much else to do other than wait for the licencor and his driving licence, the shoot which under normal circumstances shouldn't have taken more than 30 minutes, took about two hours.

And then we started to wait for the licencor and his driving licence...

And continued to wait...

And wait...

And then, in the middle of all that waiting, was informed that the licencor is now on his way to collect his licence, which seemed to be not in Abu Dhabi city as earlier assumed, but in Al Ain. It would have been awesome had Al Ain not been a mere 175 kms away. By the time he would get back it would be evening and we would lose light.

So we stopped waiting.

Instead I took a stroll to the nearest mall with the cast, and there I bought a few gifts for my little one. As it would be with moms who make films, I was already ridden with guilt for having left her with her dad and our helper for so long.

Anyway, post the visit to the mall, I was faced with a free evening. So I paid a visit to one of my dear friends from school who was living in Abu Dhabi. I had a lovely evening at her place - meeting her family, enjoying the awesome chicken curry she cooked for me, and playing with her two little wonderful kids!

I don't exactly have a picture from today, but thought would be a good idea to share a picture of my wonderful team - cameraman, actor, editor/DOP, me, actress! 

By bed time, this was how I fared on the thoughts that were swimming in my head during breakfast.

1) Everyone got plenty of rest, which is good.

2) 5 out of 10 days had passed and we were still not close to half way mark when it comes to the content canned., which is not so good.

3) We still didn't have the licence for the shoot on public locations but the licencor at least had his driving licence now, which is good.

Because it meant that, for a change, I had a good idea what we would be doing the next day, which is more than what I could have said for the past few days.

That in itself, is great progress. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Day Five: That Absolutely Futile Process Called Planning!

[The Destination Film Shoot]

12 April, 2015

It was a Sunday and I thought I had it all figured out.

I had decided that the only agenda for today would be to go to the Heritage Village and do a rehearsal.

Why, you may ask. For the following reasons:

1) The licence had still not come, so it's not like we could actually shoot even if wanted to. But rehearsals without cameras should be OK.

2) We had a scene where the two characters walk along a row of shops and converse throughout. The only place in Abu Dhabi which had a suitable row of shops (I was looking for small stalls that sell trinkets) was the Heritage Village. Given that there is a lot of movement in the scene and a lot of dialogues, the cast would need to familiarize themselves with the location before shoot, and hence the rehearsal.

3) We had a tough shoot in the desert two days ago and we didn't get much of a rest after that. So today, I wanted the cast and crew to take a breather.

4) The weather forecast had predicted about 38 degrees for the day. Not exactly conducive for a shoot, but a quick rehearsal should be OK.

5) On the other hand, weather forecast for tomorrow is only 32 degrees. So it would be great to rehearse today and shoot tomorrow and we were optimistic that the licence would be ready by then. In fact I was so optimistic, I believed that  the licence would be available within today, so we can shoot at 8am tomorrow as soon as the shops open, in order to avoid as much heat and crowd as possible.

In other words, I had it all planned. Everything from  rehearsal to the temperature had been accounted for. Nothing could go wrong.  

At about 11 am, we set off for Heritage Village. As the cast, the cameraman and I started walking around the place figuring out blocking and potential framing, the editor said he will go and let the authorities know about the rehearsal, so that we don't get into any trouble. He came back in about 15 minutes.

Editor: We need to shoot today.
Me: What?
Editor: We need to shoot today here.
Me: What... why?
Editor: They have some festival here from tomorrow and no shoot will be allowed for another 10 days.
Me: Oh wow... but what about the licence?
Editor: They said we can shoot today and hand over the licence later.
Me: What time do we shoot?
Editor: Well, as soon as we can get back with your equipment.
Me: That would be about 2pm.
Editor: Yup.
Me: 40 degrees.
Editor: Excuse me?
Me: Sigh... nothing. Let's go.

So we rushed back to the hotel. The cast got ready, we grabbed the equipment and rushed back again to the location (I believe we forgot lunch in the process).

We set up and had a shoot that turned out to be quite tough for a variety of reasons. There were plenty of tourists around who would either cut across the frame or look into the camera or stare at the actors or in short, do things that we would rather they didn't. We also had issues with repeat takes because the people in the background would keep changing in every take, in very conspicuous ways. On top of that we had long single shots taken on a steady cam, which meant the cast had to remember really lengthy lines at a stretch and the cameraman had to meander his way through the crowd, the trees and poles supporting the thatched roofs of the shops occasionally bumping here and there. And to add to the woe, we also had to manage some of the shopkeepers who thought we were in their way (which was fair enough on their part, but still!).

The highlight was that when we were just about to melt in the heat, one of the staff brought us bottles of water. God bless him!

A shot from the Heritage Village, courtesy our cameraman

We shot and reshot and reshot and reshot until everyone was exhausted but still we were running the risk of not being able to complete the shoot in time. The shops were to close at 5pm, before the evening prayers but by 4:45pm we still had one entire sequence left. So we rushed to do that and I was extremely unhappy by how that scene turned out in the one camera that was set up to capture it. I was watching the take, cramped up in a tiny shop where the camera was set up, and completely freaking out because I knew what we shot wasn't going to sufficient for a convincing edit. In spite of what I felt, I had call it a wrap for the day, with maybe 30 seconds to spare, before the shop shut down.

I came out feeling rather dejected because after all that effort, we didn't have this particular sequence which was essentially supposed to connect two parts of the scene. I had no idea how we could possibly edit the scene without that sequence.

That's when the editor gave me the happiest news - he had used our spare camera to shoot the sequence as a over-the-shoulder take from beyond the shop. Because I was inside the shop during the take, I wasn't aware of this! I was HUGELY relieved! I watched the footage and realized that yes, we do have our scene! To celebrate the successful shoot and also to have the forgotten lunch, we went and treated ourselves to a good meal and my favourite masala tea from the House of Tea.

So yes! Every bit of planning flew out of the window, but once again, we managed to can a scene!

We were supposed to rehearse today. We didn't do any rehearsal.
We were supposed to shoot tomorrow. We shot today.
We were supposed to shoot in 32 degrees. We shot in 38 degrees.
We were supposed to have a master two-shot from inside the shop. We had an unplanned OTS shot.
We were supposed to have the licence before we shoot. We shot without it anyway.

In short, I planned. Then the universe made some other plan.

At the end of the day, the latter worked just fine.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Day Four: First the End, Now the Beginning!

[The Destination Film Shoot] 

11 April, 2015

Given that we had reached back at the hotel only early in the morning post the desert shoot, today, the day started rather late. All of us just about managed to wake up in time to grab the last bits of breakfast at the hotel.

And then we discussed the plan for the day. 

The licence still hadn't come so we couldn't shoot in any public locations yet. The licencor still didn't have his driving licence so we couldn't shoot any of the driving scenes either. 

So then, what could we shoot? 

One of the required locations was a posh cafe in a posh hotel and we had originally planned it at an outdoor cafe at a leading 5 star hotel in Abu Dhabi. Even though it was a private property, they had asked for the licence before we could shoot. Which obviously wasn't available. 

So the editor suggested that given that we ourselves are staying at Novotel, which in itself is rather posh with many posh eating outlets, why not ask for permission for shoot in one of those places? Sure, it would be a last minute request, everything would depend on the kindness of the manager on duty and they might still say a licence is required, but at least we could push our luck as guests of the hotel. 

Me: But that's the very first scene of the film. 
Editor: Yup.  
Me: It's a very critical scene. The performance has to be top notch. 
Editor: Yup. 
Me: So..... you are telling me that on the very first day of shoot, we shoot the climax and the very next day we shoot the next most important scene which is the intro scene? 
Editor: Yup. 
Me: So there is really no concept of building up the performance as we go along? 
Editor: Yup. 

When he "Yup"ed the fourth time, I said "Ok fine, go and push our luck."

As he walked away to do just that, I walked around the hotel noting down potential places where we could shoot, in anticipation of a positive response from the management. 

Soon he came back, saying we were indeed in luck! They have granted the permission but with the following criteria: 
a) We need to submit the licence once it comes. 
b) By tomorrow, we need to submit several other documents like details of cast and crew etc., letter from the licencing agency etc. 
c) The shoot has to be from 2 - 4 pm today. 
d) The venue will not be a cafe but their steak house. 

Oh well. 

It was already about 1pm, so things happened in a flash. The cast got into their costumes, we picked up our equipment and rushed to our newly found location. There I, once again, quickly revised the storyboard to fit the seating layout, we ran around turning the steak place into a cafe - which basically meant taking away the cutlery and wine glasses and replacing with sugar sachet holders and replacing the massive steak and wine menu with a simpler cafe menu. We also roped in a couple of the staff to do supporting roles - taking orders, bringing drinks, even memorizing lines etc.

After all that was done, we probably had about 60 minutes for the actual shoot. Theoretically, it should have been a smooth shoot given that both cameras were working today, but then it ended up being pretty rough. Half way through the shoot we realized that we had handpicked the table that was closest to the window so the sun streamed in various angles as the scene progressed. The scene started off with the actors in complete shade and now the actress was glowing in the sunlight that lit her up through the window, and the table was reflecting some sunlight on to the actor's face. 

Oh dear lord. 

So we moved the tables around a bit and shot again. 

Anyway, long story short, we wrapped up around 4:30, half an hour late but the manager and staff were very kind about it and didn't throw us out before we were done. They were to open the place in another hour, so we quickly cleared everything, turned the cafe look back to the steakhouse look and got out of there.
Shooting at Novotel

We had canned yet another scene, licence-less! 

We were so thrilled with the progress, we wondered what else we could do for the rest of the day! I suggested we do a little bit of a montage sequence somewhere. We could just have the cast and cameraman walk around some place, with just a handheld camera and that way it wouldn't need a licence as we are not disrupting any traffic or crowd flow. 

Without thinking twice, the editor took us to the magnificent Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi. 

The editor and I waited in the car, while the cast and the cameraman walked about to shoot just bits and pieces here and there. In the film, the two characters were meant to be walking around as tourists and given it's a montage, there were no dialogues to be shot. So they walked around just as tourists would and the cameraman captured a few shots of them doing so. They were back in about 15 minutes and by that time the sun was about to set, so we wrapped up the shoot for the day. 

Back in the hotel, I started to view the footage from yesterday's sunset scene. Given that we had shot the entire sequence in a huge rush, I wasn't too sure whether we had sufficiently good quality footage to cut a convincing edit. Many parts of the scene had just a single take, and that's a huge risk. In case we didn't have good enough footage, the plan was to go to a nearer desert and shoot just that bit again, but I really hoped that we wouldn't have to do that! We simply didn't have the luxury of time for reshoots! 

So I viewed all the footage multiple times and mentally pictured an edit and wrote it down. I indicated when to cut each clip so as to avoid mistakes, keep continuity, trim dialogues etc. Finally, I figured out that with a specific flow of edit, we might just have the entire scene somewhat in the way it is meant to be. In other words, we have our climax. 

Thus, yet another day came to an end and now we had both the beginning and most of the end of the film. 

Only the middle remained.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Day Three: A Desert, A Sun And Much That Depended On It!

[The Destination Film Shoot]

10 April, 2015

We set off early in the morning. Or rather, we tried to. By the time we got ready, loaded the equipment, picked up drinks and food to last the entire day (we were going to the middle of nowhere, so we had to be well prepared), filled petrol and finally got on our way to the desert to shoot the climax (and other scenes), we were already running about 45 minutes later than our initial plan.

There were 6 of us in 2 cars - the editor, his cousin who would be our production assistant and still photographer for the day, the actor, the actress, the cameraman and the director that is me. I sat in the same car as the editor (also the driver) and the cast, so that I could get them to rehearse for the next few hours. But then, the actress readily fell asleep, so the rest of us just chatted away for most of the 300 kms that we covered.

It was a long, rather pleasant drive. We made a couple of stops on the way at fuel stations and also spent some time driving around to buy some mutton biriyani for the Baluchis who are managing the camel farm where we were planning to shoot at, as a token of gratitude for their help. We ended up losing our way and found no mutton biriyani, so instead we got them some chicken biriyani (there is a real difference).

Close to noon, we had long left the city behind and also the towns and the arid landscapes that followed and started to see the dunes ahead. My cast kept muttering "wow" through the journey because every turn provided yet another picturesque view. I myself had uttered a million "wow"s during my previous visit here for location recee, so this time I smugly sat back and took in the views once again.

We made a couple more stops to capture the scenic views on camera and soon were at our destination, the camel farm in the midst of that massive desert. The sun was blazing down. The temperature was close to 40 degree celsius and it was extremely dry.

We were warmly welcomed by the Baluchis who were very amused hearing us talk about the heat. According to them, this was pretty pleasant weather and the real heat is weeks away. OK then.

As soon as the pleasantries were over, the team started the preparations. We had a few scenes to shoot in that location and we had no time to lose.

I looked around the location, refined the story board, gave instructions to the crew on the camera placements and framing and to the cast on their blocking.
Trying to figure out how best the frame the location

And then I felt like I was gonna die.

I felt nauseous and extremely faint and had to hold on to a pole for support. I didn't realize what was going on, and I tried to push through it. I was still trying to converse and process thoughts, but I knew I wasn't making great progress. Then someone in the team, I don't remember who, noticed that I looked like a mess and quickly passed me a yogurt drink that we had picked up on our way. I drank that and recovered pretty much instantly from the first and last incident of dehydration I had ever been through.

Then we started the shoot and immediately met with our first major technical issue. It was, after all, only a matter of time.

We were planning a multi-cam shoot - i.e. shoot with two cameras at the same time from different angles. This is pretty helpful because you can get one camera each to focus on the two actors, which enables the shoot as well as the edit, to be completed in half the time. So yeah, that's what was planned. But one of the two cameras got extremely heated up as soon as the shoot began and rendered itself pretty useless.

Which meant that we were left with one working camera for the day. Which in turn, meant double the time for shooting each scene. But there was a more serious problem - there was no longer a back up camera, with the nearest available one probably a few hundred kilometers away. So all we could do was pray for the working camera to continues working for the rest of the day.

So we wished for the best and we shot. There were again a multitude of issues - e.g. too much backlight in the frames, the actress not being able to look straight at the intense light without blinking her eyes, the sand that kept blowing, the reflector that kept flying, and what not.

But soon it was done. We wrapped up that scene at about 3pm and took a lunch break in a shack on the farm.

After the break, we shot a few montage sequences within the farm.
The Baluchi with his camels

We then explored the area for a suitable location to shoot the climax. By the time we figured the perfect spot and set the equipment up, the sun had pretty much started to set.

I think it would be hard to describe what I was been going through at that point in time.

I mean, here I am. Filming my biggest project ever. In a foreign location. In a desert which is 300kms away from the city. Shooting the climax scene - which is arguably the most important scene. With a maximum of 30 minutes before losing light. With just one chance to get it right.

I no longer know exactly what I said or did but I remember pushing the actors, I remember not letting the crew have even one light moment that was out of scope of the work right then, I remember taking some extreme priority calls on how many takes we should have for some of the dialogues, I remember improvising on the script, asking the actors to skip a few dialogues as I mentally worked alternative ways to incorporate them into the film later, I remember looking at the sun a million times as it was fast dipping beyond the horizon and threatening to disappear behind a dune, I remember holding tight on to my script, biting my lips and praying feverishly.
The sun setting behind the dune

The last frame was shot and the sun dipped beyond the dune, with maybe 30 seconds to spare.

"GET INTO THE CAR!!! LET'S SHOOT THE SUNSET!!!", I immediately screamed. The idea was to take a shot of the sunset itself, without the actors in the frame. The sun had dipped beyond the dune but not beyond the horizon yet, and if we were quick, we might just be able to find a spot that has an unblocked view of the sunset.

We rushed, and we found a spot just in time. And we shot the sunset!

And then it struck me that we still had to shoot a poster in this location! Well, it seemed like there was one poor sun and a 100 things we had to accomplish before he decides to rest for the day.

Anyway, the sun itself had already disappeared but there was still enough light to shoot a few photographs. So that's exactly what we did. First we shot a few for the poster and when that was done, we shot a few fun team photos!

And then we lost the light completely, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. We had completed all that we had to in the day.

Then came the night. We still had one night scene around a campfire, to be shot in the camel farm! Yup, we wanted to make the most of that location!

Interestingly enough, by now, there was a big group of Malayalees (husbands, wives, kids) gathered in the camel farm. Yup, that's right, in that very same camel farm - in the middle of nowhere, late in the evening and they were waiting to see what a "film shoot" would look like. Oh well.

It was an interesting experience. There were kids running around, threatening to knock over our tripod with the camera, and coming pretty close to that potential disaster on more occasions than one. As I was prepping the actors and instructing the crew, there were parallel conversations among our audience on how a film is shot.. things like "You see how they have set up the fire, that is how 'feel' comes". It was rather fascinating commentary.

By the time we actually started to shoot, it was about 9pm, because we had difficulties in getting the right lighting as we only had the campfire to aid us. By then our audience had left - I guess they tired out from waiting and some of the youngest members (i.e 6 month old babies) seemed to think being in that dark place in the middle of night wasn't a great idea.

After they left, peace and quiet returned. As the crew figured out the lighting and the frames, I plugged on to my music and stared up at the sky, at the stars. And I felt that everything is gonna end just fine.
Taking some time off between takes 

And it did too. Compared to everything else that had happened during the day, the campfire scene went pretty smoothly and we wrapped up close to midnight.

Soon we packed up, bade goodbye to the hospitable Baluchis and started on our long journey back to the city. But not before a few more shoots on the road! I wanted to capture what it feels to move away from the dark expanse of the uninhabited desert and enter the lighted world of civilization, and so we did a few shoots from the car on the way back.

About an hour into the drive, both the drivers tired out and we stopped for supper. Post lunch, we hadn't eaten anything save for dates and camel milk. I wasn't hungry, so I stayed on in the car together with  the actress who had once again, readily fallen asleep. The rest had their fill and we started off again. This time, I was in the same car as the editor and the actress while the actor and cameraman was in the cousin's car. It was late at night and there was a danger that the drivers would start to feel sleepy. To keep the editor up, I started reminiscing about our old projects like Mausams, thereby successfully ensuring that he remained alert. He did remain alert and we reached our hotel by 4am. However, his cousin who drove the other car decided to stop and take a nap. So they pulled up somewhere and all three took a nap until 6:30am before they started back to the city.

As I hit the bed, feeling incredibly exhausted, I counted my blessings for the day.

The one working camera, that worked through the day.
The dehydration that struck, but left without causing much damage.
The heat, the dryness, the sand that blew but did not fatigue the cast or crew.
The sun that didn't set too fast.
The sunlight that didn't disappear too soon.

So I said a small thank you to the universe and then dozed off.  

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Day Two: We Prayed and We Sort of Started Shoot!

[The Destination Film Shoot]

9 April, 2015

I woke up to a lovely morning in Abu Dhabi.

I started my day with meditation and some yoga. I was following the 30 day yoga challenge by Adrienne (available on Youtube) during this time. It is a series of low intensity yoga lessons, each less than 30 minutes in duration, which is perfect during travels and high stress times such as your first shoot in a foreign country.

Post yoga and freshening up, I joined the team for the elaborate breakfast in the hotel. The cast, the cameraman from India and I were staying at the hotel, while the editor stayed on in his house in Abu Dhabi. But he planned to join us for breakfast every morning.

As soon as he came over I asked, ""Licence vanno?" (Do we have the licence?)
He promptly replied, "Licence vannittilla." (Nope)

Little did I know then that this would be our regular exchange for the rest of my stay in Abu Dhabi. But more on that later.

Over a relaxed breakfast, we discussed the day's plan. First we would have a puja (prayer) done. Then we will shoot a couple of small scenes in a few private properties that we have permission for. Most of the scenes to be shot on private properties were more like sequences in montages and I thought it would be a great way for the cast and crew to get warmed up.

One of the "private properties" also happened to be a car. We have a few short sequences in a car as the protagonists in the film tour around the city. And the same licencor whose laptop was destroyed by tea was supposed to do the one and only cameo in the film, as the car's driver.

So I decided to make the most of the day's schedule.

Me: Why don't we also shoot the car scenes with the licencor?
Editor: That can't happen until later.
Me: Why?
Editor: Because he doesn't have the licence...
Me: Yes, I know... but this is inside a car...
Editor: No, no... not the licence for the shoot. He also doesn't have his driving licence.
Me: Uhm.. why?
Editor: Because of some traffic rule violation. It was impounded. But don't worry, he will be getting it back in two days and then we can shoot.

So that was that. But we decided that we could still shoot with him today for a certain scene that was to be outside the car and hence, didn't really require a driving licence.

The editor left to figure out how to get the puja done, while the cast and I rehearsed a few scenes. After a couple of hours, the editor came back with some food and said that soon after lunch, we will be going to the production house (the one he is working for and which is supporting us) for the puja and then straight on to shoot.

So after lunch, the cast changed into their costumes, we picked up all the equipment and soon were on our way to the studio in the car which was the key prop for the film as well. Over the next 10 days, we, i.e. the two cast members, editor, cameraman and myself would find ourselves sitting in that car for hundreds of hours, travelling for thousands of kilometres, and building up a nice bonding all along.

The arrangements at the studio for the puja was pretty nice. They had set up a table with the puja materials, pictures of various deities representing various religions and some film equipment such as camera and tripod. They had also invited a veteran dance master to perform the ceremony for us and he did thorough job of it. It was awesome! I was thrilled with my first ever pre-shoot puja with the entire team!

Post the puja, we set off to our first location - a dates shop to shoot a short montage sequence. We drove there and realized that the place is overflowing with tourists and totally not conducive for any kind of shoot.

So we drove away.

So much for that.

Then we went to the Kerala Social Centre, which really is a little piece of God's Own Country within the city of Abu Dhabi. I had discovered this place in my previous visit for location recee, when I was taken there to have chukku kaapi, or spiced coffee, at its little coffee shop. It's hard to describe just how much "mallu" this place was in its look and feel, so am gonna let the description be. Let's just say I fell in love with everything from the lazily draped cloth around the courtyard at the center as a screen against the sun to the chukku kappi that I wanted to shoot a scene there in which the actors would consume that same chukku kaapi!

So we went to Kerala Social Center and shot. Our first shoot for the film!

The scene featured both the actors as well as the licencor who was playing the driver and I have to say that it was a pretty smooth shoot. There were no technical glitches, all three actors sailed through it, and my cameraman was happy to take all sorts of interesting shots in and around the area on his own, which was really cool. We could wrap up in just half an hour or so, which is just as well, because we were soon losing light.

And yeah, then we lost light. So we packed up for the day and decided on the next day's schedule - which was to shoot at a camel farm, yet another private property that I had come across during my location recee and where we had permit to shoot. This place was in the middle of the desert, surrounded by dunes and about 300 kilometers away.

Me: What plans for tomorrow?
Editor: We definitely won't be getting the licence tomorrow. It's the weekend.
Me: Then?
Editor: Let's go to the camel farm and shoot?
Me: You mean the desert?
Editor: Yes.
Me: But we planned to shoot the climax in the desert!
Editor: Yes, so we can shoot the climax tomorrow.
Me: So the very first shoot of the film will be the climax scene?!
Editor: Yes.

I always try to shoot the climax scene at the very end. That's when the actors are at their peak - the high of having come so far take their performance to a different level. And now I have to shoot it at the very beginning, when they hardly have even warmed up!

Me: Yeah, let's do it.

It didn't make sense to waste a whole day without shooting anything. We didn't really have a choice.

So we planned that we will be off by 7am the next day. So after a quick dinner, we got back to the hotel and I hit the bed, and mentally prepared to shoot the first proper scene - the climax.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Day One : Off to Abu Dhabi, Without a Licence! [The "Destination Film" Shoot]

8 April, 2015 

Today is 6th July, 2015 and I am going to write about 8th April, 2015. 

This is unusual for this blog - the fact that I am writing about something that took place two months ago. Usually, I jot down things as they happen. Usually, it is about the beautiful day that is today.

But then some things simple have to be documented, irrespective of the delay. And the "some thing" in this case is the shoot of what I call my "Destination Film". In other words, my feature film that was shot in Abu Dhabi in April this year.

As I write this, my editor friend (who is also the director of photography for this film) is in my house, here in Singapore, editing the film. He is based in Abu Dhabi but is spending a week here to lock the edit. He arrived a couple of days ago and immediately both of us jumped into a full blown reminiscence of the shooting experience. And there were so many stories of ups and downs, so many stories of events that were no less than miracles, so much to be grateful for. At the end of our conversation, I felt that as years pass by, I shouldn't be forgetting any little bit of this experience. Every beautiful bit simply had to be documented. 

So here I am. 

But first, a bit of background on this film and how it came into being. 

One day, my good friend and my lead actor from several of my previous works, mentioned that given his strength in performing comedy, he doubts that he will ever be taken as a "serious actor". I was like, "Sorry, but that is absolute rubbish". And I thought of a "serious" storyline for the serious actor in him. 

One of my wishes was to shoot a film outside of Singapore. You know, just for the fun of it. So I placed this story first in Rajasthan in India (for no good reason) and then later shifted it to Abu Dhabi, for a very good reason - my editor had just started working at a production house in Abu Dhabi and they were happy to support the production of this film (bless them!) 

Thus, I had my script. I had my lead actor. I had my crew. 

Initially I planned to act in the film. It was a conversation based film with just two protagonists throughout and I really wanted to act in it myself, for... well, the serious actor in me. But then I realized that would be the stupidest thing I could possibly do, given that I also have to direct the film in a brand new location, with some team members I haven't worked with before, and on a bigger scale than what I have ever done before. 

So then I found my actress, another good friend who was also part of some of my previous works. 

My actors and I spent the first quarter of the year in intense rehearsals and in March, right after I quit P&G, I set off for a week of location recee in Abu Dhabi. After which, I locked the script - matching scenes to the various locations and my editor got help from a location licencor to work on the permits for shoot in the various public locations I had picked. 

Thus my actors were ready. My crew in Abu Dhabi were ready. I was ready.

On April 8th, we - the actors and I - were ready to take off for Abu Dhabi. 

The morning we were to fly, my editor, who is also now the DOP cum producer cum production manager cum what not, called me and gave me an interesting piece of news.

The location permit for the shoot isn't available yet, even though we had submitted all the documents in time. 

Me: "How come?" 

Editor: "Because tea fell on the licencor's laptop." 

I was immediately taken back to that day when I was told that a dog took my Mausams master DVD. But it was not a time to reminisce, so I asked him whether he would like to elaborate. 

He did. Apparently the government body that grants these permits had written to the licencor on some clarifications several days ago, but the licencor missed that email because it was the same day tea fell on his laptop, causing it to die. And in the confusion and heart pain that followed, some things were missed, this email being one of them. 

So I said the only thing anyone can say under these circumstances. "Wow". 

We had two options - postpone the shoot completely until the licence comes in or start shooting on the private properties that were part of our locations list as we wait for the licence, and once it does come in, complete the shoot on the public locations.

Obviously, I chose option two. 

So my cast and I took off for Abu Dhabi, as planned, on April 8th, 2015. 
The Actor, The Director, The Actress - on the way to Abu Dhabi. 

We had a fun journey on Srilankan Airways, a fun transit in Colombo and some good rehearsal on the flight. Yup, I am a taskmaster who made them rehearse even on the flight. 

Once we reached Abu Dhabi, we were picked up by my editor's cousin brother, who was supposed to be assistant director for the film but who couldn't be because of a recent accident that took off some of his toe, which in turn messed up his office work schedule and which in turn, meant that he couldn't take any of the previously planned off-days to join us for shoots. But today, he came to pick us up as he was free. 

He took us to a restaurant because all of us were hungry even though it was past midnight and in spite of the two meals we had on Srilankan Airways, and there we met the rest of the gang - the editor, the cameraman - a young, super dedicated chap who was specially flown in from India and the editor's boss from the production house, all of whom had just returned from another shoot in Dubai. 

As dinners such as these go, we talked a lot about the project and what's in store, such as praying for the licence to come as soon as possible and for the days to be less hot than what they are expected to be and generally had a rather merry time. 

Then came the surprise. 

We were taken to check into our hotel. Which happened to be the very grand Novotel instead of a much smaller, more economical option that we were expecting. 

I rolled my eyes at the editor and asked him what on earth he was thinking, being this extravagant and he told me that the rooms are courtesy of a friend of his. This friend who works in the tourism industry had just enough points to get us three rooms in this hotel for our duration of stay, and he wanted my editor to use those. In the friend's own words to the editor, "It is the only way I can help you make your film." He spent his very last point on us. I still haven't gotten over that. 

So we checked in. And all I remember was crashing on the bed and dozing off, wishing for a few blessings to be sent this friend's way (the one from the tourism industry) and praying that we would be able to complete this currently licence-less shoot.