On a cold April night in Brooklyn, New York, one block over from where they shoot The Good Wife, director David Spaltro stands on the sidewalk in front of a monitor doing final preparations for his next scene. His assistant director, Grant DeSimone, is talking to the tenant from the upstairs apartment of the building they are shooting in front of, asking politely if he’ll stop practicing the drums while they film. The actors, Molly Ryman and Aaron Mathias, have no trailers, so they are huddled together in the back of a van with the heat running waiting to be called to the set.
This is life on location for Things I Don’t Understand, Spaltro’s second full-length film. And while life on the set of an independent movie may not always be easy or glamourous, you can tell that all of these people are serious about their work, but also genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
“For people to be here, they want to be here,” Spaltro said.
This is all part of Spaltro’s overall philosophy – find talented people who are passionate about the project and allow them to shine. He views the cast and crew as a family and tries to keep a warm, upbeat atmosphere on the production. He wants it to feel like home.
“I try to get a lot of people who are inherently good people and talented at what they do and you try to keep a relaxed vibe [on set],” the director said. “It’s work, but it’s the thing that we love. Everybody loves what they do and they care about the project and they care about each other. When you have that kind of support, people are able to do their best work. And then it’s not work. It’s hard sometimes and it’s long and it can be cold and all that other stuff, but if you have a good vibe, you can get through it then.”
Friday, April 15, 2011 is day 10 of a 20 day shoot. It’s also day six of a six day work week. It is their first day of shooting all exterior shots and, as luck would have it, it’s an unseasonably cold April night. Yesterday’s filming didn’t wrap until around 7:30 this morning and the call time today was 5:30 pm. They will be on set today until around five in the morning. Still, spirits are high and people are joking around and singing to each other between takes.
Which is not to say they aren’t tired. Grant DeSimone, the first assistant director, is going on about four hours of sleep. As a producer for the film, before coming to the set he had a meeting at Dunkin Donuts with the production team to make preparations for next week. Molly Ryman, the lead actor in the film, didn’t have to be here until 7 pm, but after being on set until 7 am the previous day, she admits that with only 12 hours off that her “day was totally pathetic.” While the actors’ call times are varied depending on when they are needed on set, Spaltro and the crew have been here since 5:30 setting up equipment and making sure all of the prep work is done.
For Spaltro, this prep work is essential to making sure things run smoothly, especially since things can be unpredictable on an independent movie set.
“The thing with a film like this is a you do a lot of prep, you talk to the DP about stuff, you come up with ideas, you do a shot list,” Spaltro said. “Then sometimes the location drops out or you get a new location or something happens where you’re working with the actors and they move and you’re like, ‘Alright.’ The more prepared you are, the easier it is to adjust. But then sometimes you literally throw everything out the window. That’s why something like this is very important because when they get here, things can change and they need to see how it’s going to play out amongst the actors, so they can then take measurements.”
When the cameras are actually rolling, Spaltro watches the monitor and focuses mostly on the actors’ performances. He leaves the rest to his talented crew.
“If you treat people with respect for the craft and for what they do, that’s when they’ll bleed for you,” Spaltro said. “My job is to communicate to them when they have questions.”
“We check the frame before we start shooting,” he added. “We do blocking rehearsals. Lighting isn’t my forte, so I’m going to let the lighting professionals handle that. I try to go for performance, get what I can out of takes, because I end up editing a lot of the stuff that I know what I have and what I need, so I’m able to cull from that and put it together.”
He typically shoots a scene three or four times (“one to warmup, one to do it and one for safety”). Once he sees what he’s looking for in the performances, he moves on to the next shot. There’s not a lot of time for second guessing on a 20 day shoot.
The problem with shooting outside though is that it’s impossible to lock down the set. Cars can drive through the background ruining a shot, workers outside can make noise and sometimes the upstairs tenant in the building you are shooting at can decide to do some late night drumming. Spaltro tries to take these distractions in stride.
“You know it’s going to happen,” he said. “If it’s a really good take and it gets blown, it’s certainly frustrating. But you’ve got to just focus on getting it, especially when it’s cold out.”
When these complications do crop up, it’s up to DeSimone to handle them.
“If we had a bigger production team, they would have gotten notices,” DeSimone admits. “When you don’t have a lot of money, you can’t really lock things down in the way that you can if you have the money and people are prepared for it. But in a lot of ways, it’s more expensive than it’s worth.”
Luckily though, most people are quite accommodating. The drumming tenant, and the motorcycle club that was assembled around the corner earlier in the day, were all willing to help out by keeping the noise down.
“You’d be surprised at how willing people are to bend to a film production that’s on their block,” DeSimone said.
Tonight, there is another complication too. Spaltro is having trouble getting the emotional reaction he needs from Ryman. Her character Violet, who is already struggling with feelings of uncertainty and depression over what happens when we die thanks to her college thesis, which has her interviewing a Hospice patient about death, is now facing eviction from her apartment. The scene Spaltro is shooting is the moment when Violet begins to completely unravel under the weight of it all.
“Everything that she’s been holding in is kind of falling apart,” Spaltro said. “Her facade is starting to fall apart. Her way of living is starting to fall apart.”
In order to get Ryman where he needs her to be emotionally, Spaltro has her scream “fuck” at the beginning of each take. (This audio will not actually be used in the film, it’s just a method the director is using to get his actor in the right frame of mind.) The problem is that Ryman doesn’t want to scream. It feels foreign to her to shout like that. In fact, this entire role is a bit outside of her comfort zone.
Playing Violet is a chance for Ryman, who is generally put in the “girl next door” category, to show she can handle playing a darker character. This role, which is her first lead in a feature film, is also her return to acting after taking two years off to study wellness and holistic health at the Swedish Institute. And Ryman, who is normally a blonde, has dyed her hair for the role to help complete the transformation. Once she found the right voice and persona for Violet, she was actually hesitant to show Spaltro the character.
“I was scared to show David Violet,” Ryman said. “I fell in love with her and I knew he loved his version of her. And I was so scared that they weren’t going to match. So I hid her from him until the first day.”
Luckily, the two had similar visions for the character. And even though Ryman isn’t a big fan of shouting, eventually Spaltro gets the shot he needs and Ryman can return to the warm van to relax until she is needed for her next scene.
Once in the van, “everything is put on hold and everyone just relaxes,” Ryman said. “Our days are so long and everybody works so hard that this [downtime] is so crucial. The serious stuff will come later on set. We’ve done the work to get to this point.”
Still, the vibe in the van can vary from day to day or from scene to scene.
According to Ryman’s costar Aaron Mathias: “Sometimes you might talk about the scene. Sometimes you are just BSing. Sometimes you are off in your own little world. It totally depends on what you’re shooting. Like today we were goofing around. One of the PA’s is a good friend of mine and he was in there and we were just joking around. Sometimes it is very serious, sometimes it is all fun and games.”
That’s the warm, familial atmosphere Spaltro has created on this set. It’s serious when it needs to be and everyone is willing to put in the long hours to get the job done, but it’s also relaxed and everyone treats one another with kindness and respect. Ryman, who worked with Spaltro on his first film … Around, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This has really raised my standards,” Ryman said. “I want to love a project as much as I love this. It will be hard to work on things that don’t matter. I could do this for the rest of my life – exactly this.”
Photos and article by Joel Murphy. (Promotional photo of Molly Ryman used above courtesy of David Spaltro.) For more information on Things I Don’t Understand, check out the official website. The film will have a private premiere in New York City later this month.