SHORT - "On the Boulevard" production diary

CharlesPapert

Director of Photography
I've posted here before about the Messhall Film Festival (see thread in this section "Short: The Tenth"). This is an annual filmmaking challenge hosted at Messhall Kitchen, a restaurant/pub in my neighborhood of Los Feliz (section of Los Angeles), and created by Jon and Andrew, two guys who work there. They pair up fellow restaurant staffers with regulars into teams to make 8 short films, all shot overnight at the restaurant, and then a few months later we have a series of screenings for the public. While it sounds a bit scrappy, the results have often been really good and several of the films (including my first year film, "Bar None") have gone on to the regular festival circuit. I think it's an interesting process to document, so I’m starting a production diary here, as much for myself down the road as for anyone else to read. I'm very glad I documented as much during the making of Key & Peele as I did on this site because ten plus years later, I would never have remembered as much detail on how we shot certain things.

This year I was asked back to write and direct but I initially declined the writing position, because I knew the net for writers was being thrown open wider and I wanted to make sure everyone had an opportunity. The script that I was offered was a film noir, which I really liked, had already been thinking about doing something period—but this script had a sprawling physical scope, extending outside of the restaurant into two nearby restaurants and surrounding streets. Given the limitation of shooting hours and the festival rules that restricted shooting to Messhall premises, this meant the script needed an overhaul.
 
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Saturday, June 22

No better place to gain inspiration than the actual venue we'd be shooting in, so I grabbed my laptop and headed to Messhall. The brunch is solid, and there's a sneaky $12 basic breakfast value hidden amongst the $20 benedicts and other fancy fare. Laden with eggs and tater tots and coffee served in a thick classic diner mug, I cracked open the submitted script and rolled up my sleeves. I quickly realized that by excising the references outside the restaurant, the basic storyline of the script was essentially gone, so this overhaul was clearly headed into page-one rewrite territory. The question was: how much of the original script could I retain at that point, and was it better to just start over fresh?

90 minutes and a cup and a half of coffee later, I had my answer as I was staring down the barrel of a virtually new storyline. It opened just as the original script did, with a classic film noir voiceover, half of which I kept. I reused existing character names, which were on the “cute” side (the gumshoe main character was Walter Macademia, the femme fatale was Dominique Campari). And there was some murderous business that involved chicken wings and a hypodermic needle full of poison that I felt I could keep. Everything else had to go.

Outside of the main two characters, I was envisioning a bartender and a police detective. While I was writing the outline I got word from the guys that Jenette Goldstein might want to act in the festival, and could I find a place for her in my film? I recognized the name immediately—she played Vasquez, the badass space marine in Aliens, with the Steadicam-mounted weaponry. It turns out that her son is one of the kitchen runners at Messhall, so the door was open. I did a quick dive on Google and realized that she also played John Connor’s foster mother in T2 (and was in Titanic, Lethal Weapon 2) which is really quite amazing as she was all but unrecognizable between these widely varying characters; great character acting! At 62, she could easily portray a grizzled, gritty, tough as nails bartender character so I began to write in that voice. I was still looking for my overall tone for the film, I knew it was going to be a comedy, but there are many flavors within that genre. The more I thought about having Jeanette in the film, the more I realized how much fun it would be to recreate her iconic characters. What if she pulled a shotgun out from under the bar, we cut away, and when we cut back she is decked out like Vasquez with the banadana and the shotgun perched on Steadicam arm and vest?! And in another section where she calls the police, what if she thrust out her arm and we panned across it to reveal the T2 arm/blade. These are just sight gags, but if I leaned that direction, I could move the whole film into a Naked Gun style of “anything goes” which could be fun.

6 p.m. I’ve been perched on a barstool for 6.5 hours straight and my butt is a little sore, but I have a first draft of a new script. “A Messy Affair” (the original script) has now become “One Night on the Boulevard”. Looking back on it from some 10 revisions later, it was a solid 85% of where it is now, certainly all the bones and most of the dialogue.
 
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Monday, June 24

We have learned that Jenette wasn’t going to be in LA the day this shoot was scheduled, but thought it all sounded like great fun. Dammit! Out goes the callback sight gags with the bartender—and with that, the Zucker/Abrahams style is rolled back and it becomes more straight comedy. I’ve spent the past two days since the first draft revising non-stop.

The length of the shoot is dictated by the availability of the space. In previous years, the restaurant closed at 9 pm and while we had the opportunity to unload gear in the loading dock, we weren’t permitted to start bringing things inside until the guests all left, usually around 10 pm. Camera wrap was at 7 a.m., as that is when the cleaners arrive. With a lunch break, that’s all of 8.5 hours of shooting. The scripts vary in length from 5-12 pages, and some are far more complicated than others. Some people have tiny crews of two or three, others (ahem) have brought in up to 12. The goal is to keep it small to minimize our footprint within the restaurant, but of course we have to be efficient as well. It’s a balance. My script is at 10 pages and slowly ballooning as I punch up the dialogue, which is a little worrisome.

There is a backyard patio at the restaurant as well as a sizable parking lot, and my thought was to frontload some work into that location and start earlier than 10 pm, as others have done in the past. I thought it would be great fun to corral a period 1940’s roadster and have our gumshoe driving it through Hollywood in the opener, via classic process (existing stock footage) shot greenscreen in the parking lot, and then send out a small splinter unit to shoot drivebys of the car in period-appropriate sections of the neighborhood while we were setting up inside.

Today I realized that the restaurant hours had recently changed, adding on an extra hour at the end of the night. I frantically texted the festival organizers: did we just lose an hour of shooting this season?! It turned out we had. 8.5 hours was now 7.5 hours. And there was to be no shooting ahead of the scheduled hours: call time for all films was now going to be 9:30 pm. This was not good news. There was no way I was going to be able to shoot out this script in that period of time. I went back into the script but couldn’t find any easy to way strip out entire sections without the storyline falling apart—it may be a comedy but it has the bones of a classic noir thriller, with a murder that needs to be solved, flashback scenes and all. I realized the easy edit was to eliminate all the car work, I’d settle for stock footage of 1940’s Hollywood under the voiceover and one or two shots to get us into the restaurant to begin the story. Such is life.

By the next day, the shortened script went out to the actors including the writer of the original piece, as my first color revision (blue), with the similarly shortened title “On the Boulevard” (the restaurant is located on Los Feliz Boulevard). I held my breath for the writer’s response to seeing his script changed so radically, but he seemed entirely enthusiastic about it all. Phew!
 
Friday, June 28th

With Jenette out of the picture, there was no-one within the Messhall family that fit that particular demographic so the organizers had told me I was free to cast that part myself. I had talked to several actresses and had one locked in who not only seemed perfect for the role, she had by entire coincidence dined at Messhall the previous week and learned about the festival from her server, who happened to have been one of the organizers, and her husband (a venerable comedian) had offered himself for a part in one of the other films). It seemed all meant to be—until a few days later she told me she had forgotten that she had tickets to the Hollywood Bowl that night and company in town. I was considering my options when I bumped into an old friend at the bar during happy hour, Tracie Thoms. Tracie has had a fantastic career, featured in Rent, Deathproof, The Devil Wears Prada and many TV series including a long stint on 9-1-1. I told her about the part and she said “sure, why not?” Boom! Incredible!

In the 1940’s, the building that houses Messhall was one of the legendary Brown Derby restaurants. This was a chain of four restaurants, beginning with the most iconic one on Wilshire Blvd that was shaped like a derby hat, as well as the Hollywood post that was a big celebrity hangout in the day. The Los Feliz location is the only original building left standing—it also had a famous stint in the 90’s as The Derby nightclub, featured in the movie Swingers. I’ve started to wrap my head around how to turn the current industrial/modern look of the restaurant into something resembling a 1940’s interior, but my plan for the exterior is to shoot a couple of shots using period photos with actors keyed into them, plus an opener looking over the gumshoe’s shoulder to a period-accurate recreation of the restaurant. I took the below picture tonight on my way out, then spent a few hours Photoshopping it back in time via historical photo references. Really wild to see it transform! I’m reaching out now to find a VFX person who is interested in building this asset more formally so we could possibly do a matched camera move, and add some period vehicles driving on the street. Any DVXusers interested?!

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Saturday, June 29th


I’ve got a meeting pending with some old friends who are respectively a propmaster and a set decorator, but in the meantime I’ve formulated a way to hide the most egregiously modern aspects of the restaurant—POS units (touchscreen registers), wall-mounted TV’s, artwork and dressing that don’t match the era. My plan is to build a series of boxes and flats out of foamcore covered with adhesive wood-grain vinyl, available relatively cheaply on Amazon for lining kitchen shelves and the like. I did this on a much smaller scale the first season and it worked very well. I found six 4x8 sheets of foamcore being offered on Facebook Marketplace for just $25, a screaming deal. It was a 75 minute drive to pick it up, but even with gas factored in, well worth it. It was a very tough fit into my aging Honda CRV (had to shave 10” off each sheet to get the tailgate to close) and I had to lower my seat and deal with the sheets pressing down on my head for the ride back, but it was still worth it!


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Monday, July 1st

Met with Alex Chinnici, who will be the DP on this film. I thought long and hard about shooting it myself, but once I realized how challenging the shoot is going to be because of the short timeframe, I knew I wouldn’t have bandwidth for that. My plan from the beginning had been to really embrace the period visually: black and white, Academy framing (1:37), hard lighting. Alex was already onboard with that when he read the script. I’d already built a shotlist that initially stretched out to close to 30 setups even with two cameras on most shots, and I knew that had to trim down, but wanted to talk it all through with him to see what ideas he might have. We walked it through in the space and he thought it all made sense, we just revamped a couple of minor aspects. One of the questions he had for me was that I had included Steadicam in the shotlist, which of course is hardly appropriate for the period. My reasoning is purely practical: we just won’t have time to set up dolly shots on this and if we were able to secure a top notch operator, they should be able to duplicate a dolly without introducing the types of errors that would indicate Steadicam. We joked about adding vibration and bumps from planks vs track in post to really cement the look!

His lighting challenge is going to be a notable one—working in hard light is much more delicate than throwing up a 12x booklight, especially given our time constraints. We are going to test tungsten fresnels against COB Aputures soon (which will come stock on the truck we are using)—neither of us have a sense of what those would look like bare on an actor’s face, since we’ve never used them that way. Like myself, he’s more intrigued and excited at the challenge than frustrated by the constraints (that’s kind of what this festival is all about!). I may not have made this clear but this is a virtually zero budget short—the festival is built around everyone donating their time and having fun doing it, which makes it a little tricky to crew sometimes, especially given the overnight of it all. But, so far so good.
 
Tuesday July 2nd

Today’s meeting is with Julie and Todd, my art dept and props friends. We go back to a pilot in 2011 and then Key & Peele later that year, and many shows since. They are both super talented and although they are out of town for the shoot, have offered to help source what I need. In the past I’ve taken care of the props and none of the shoots use any real dressing since the scripts are written to take place exactly where we are shooting, but because of the period setting there is a lot more needed than usual. We talked vintage seltzer dispensers and bar tools for the bar, curtains and tablecloths and potted palms. And of course—had cocktails! Meeting in a bar with an excellent cocktail program makes it fun.

My hair person Jackie popped by on her way to Tracie’s house to do a wig fitting. She sent a short clip and it looks fantastic.

On Alex’s request, I built overhead diagrams for all the shots. I still use Shot Designer for this, as infuriating a program as I find it (my apologies to the creators but it is what it is). In the process I figured out how to combine and thus eliminate two setups. The total shot count now is 19 setups. Current shotlist below. I like using a spreadsheet vs a word doc because it’s easier to slide shots around to re-order them. The thick borders around A and B indicate paired two-camera shots. This is something I’d like to find a more efficient way to indicate but I have yet to do so.

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Saturday July 6th

Took off a couple of days for the holiday, but back in it. Getting ready to cut up all the foamcore, which will be a little backbreaking since I will have to do most of it on the floor. Ugh. Taking a breather on the script, there are a few things I want to punch up but I think a little distance will help. We are 3.5 weeks out from shooting, so that’s not too urgent. Will be going over everything with the costume designer next, which is the last big piece of the puzzle. I think I may have lost my makeup artist due to work commitment. Again, many of these have been positions I’ve never needed on this festival (art/props/makeup/hair/wardrobe) because the actors bring their own clothes, do their own makeup and we shoot much “as is”. Not this one!
 
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