Cole's Notes: The Movie!

A behind the scenes look at the making of the epic motion picture.

        This may not be a story of earth-shattering importance. The story of one writer's adventures making a three minute film is not quite the stuff of legend, but at the risk of making a mountain out of a molehill, I submit my first adventures of having something I wrote do something other than just sit in a pile in the corner of my room.

        On January 29th, 1998, I went to a filmmaking workshop sponsored by the Atlantic Filmmaker's Co-operative and hosted by Glenn Walton (a filmmaker who is rather annoyed that people seem more interested in hearing about his bit part in "Titanic" than they are about anything else at the moment.) As part of the workshop we were all to participate in making an actual short film. This was what really attracted me to the workshop. I have taken many different workshops and such on filmmaking but never really had any hands on work.  The group of people was fairly small (around 20 in total) and we were to be split into three groups, each of which would create their own three minute epic.

        Anyone in the workshop was allowed to submit a script and everyone would vote on the ones to be filmed. I wanted to write something but I found I was coming up empty. Several weeks passed with little or no ideas popping into my head. I didn't figure my script would be filmed, but I figured that submitting one would at least give me complaining rights about whatever story I did end up working with.

        I wanted my story to contain something about loneliness - a routine I sort of know all too well. Originally I had the idea of showing a fellow having a really dismal Valentine's Day. Early morning he has to leave his apartment because the amorous couple next door is making just a wee too much noise. He meets a friend on the street who just complains about the fact that he has to work and won't be able to spend the entire day with his girlfriend. Over at the park he goes to feed the ducks with his little bag of popcorn but they all ignore him because a kid walks up with an entire garbage bag of the stuff. Then he goes over to the library and listens to a girl singing.

        That's about as far as that idea went. It didn't seem to have any possible ending. He meets the girl and they fall in love? Too corny. He asks her out and she just tells him to get lost? Too depressing, we need a little hope in the story. I considered the fellow anonymously doing something nice for her and ending it somehow with it being revealed that she knew it was him doing the deeds and that maybe there was a chance for them. But three minutes is pretty darn short and that kind of story seemed like it needed at least ten to be somewhat believable.

        By now it was 4am and the scripts had to be submitted no later than noon of the following day. I had hoped that lack of sleep would somehow lead me to great relevations of imagination. I would see grand visions of the ideal story. Instead, I stopped wandering about the streets of Halifax and went to bed. I woke up two hours later and wrote the script.

        Several days later we all voted and before long I received a call that my story had been one of the three chosen. People seemed to generally like it, though most of them seemed to have gotten the ending wrong. I thought it was fairly obvious, but in case you didn't realize it, the letter he pulls out of his pocket at the end is his own and he realizes he tossed her note in the trash.

        Things moved fairly quickly after this since filming was to begin in just under a week. Because I was the writer, I had forfeited the right to do any of the fancier things such as directing. Instead, I got to sit back and watch others interpret my little story.

        At first things seemed to be looking pretty good. A few of us got together and talked about the script and they all seemed pretty interested in it and excited about the possibilities of filming it. Naturally there were a few changes to be made immediately. Jeff, the roommate suddenly became Jeff, the bartender and Cole would go to the bar to talk about his problems after every failed attempt at meeting Sara. I was asked whether this change was acceptable, but considering the director had already cast the bartender, my opinion (though I wasn't too upset with the change) seemed rather useless.

        The first thing we discussed was location. I originally wrote it with the Halifax Regional Library in mind. A rather popular spot where people often hang out when the weather is nice and you almost always see someone near the entrance strumming a guitar. However, the simple fact that it is such a busy place would be bound to cause problems. We considered filming along the waterfront but eventually chose a spot around the Dalhousie campus (which the director was familiar with) that sounded fairly reasonable. There was much talk about the character of the girl. Some asked why it was necessary that she was busking. Someone even toyed with the idea of making her a mime instead!

        Overall, our first meeting went quite well and I remember myself feeling rather high as I walked back through the slush to residence. I would run and then slide along the sidewalks, wet snow flying up all around me. The idea of filmmaking has always stirred me up inside.

        Our next meeting we actually had one of the actors going through the lines. It felt quite interesting to hear other people speaking words that I had written. We began to make subtle changes here and there. We also began timing the scenes, trying to figure out how to trim it to a reasonable length. (We were only given approximately 12 minutes of film to make this so at four minutes things were looking a wee bit tight.)

        After I explained the supposedly cryptic ending to everyone, a few people had the idea that there should be a final scene showing Cole rooting through the garbage, searching for the note. It spelled things out a little too much for my liking but someone's idea of having the credits of the film shown on pieces of paper he tosses aside was too good to pass up. (However, we never did film the scenes in the end after all.)

        At 8:30am on March 8th we began our first and only day of shooting. The plan was that we would finish the outside portions by noon and the indoor shots by around supper. It seemed rather reasonable at the time. However, we quickly learned just how wrong we were. We finally rolled the camera for the first time just before noon.

        Right off the bat I could see that things were not well organized. The director had not really checked out the location and he began making changes in it that morning. I immediately felt like a fifth wheel on the set. (Or a "third wheel" as I erroneously commented to someone on the set - guess I'm more accustomed to biking than driving.) I had no particular task except to make certain that they didn't completely trash my grand vision. Ooops, I guess I failed in that duty, but I'll say more about that later.

        I originally imagined opening the film with a pan across a number of people sitting around benches, etc. going past Sara playing her guitar and coming to rest on Cole watching her. Instead, we had a fairly wide shot of a couple walking along the sidewalk (featuring the director in his first of three cameos!) and eventually passing by Cole watching Sara play guitar. No extras coming and going, just a really foolish looking shot with Cole trying to look inconspicuous watching Sara play when he was the only one within a mile of her!

        All the outdoor scenes were done at a distance. Where we really needed to see close ups of the character's faces to read their emotions, instead we saw nothing. The director decided to make Cole even more painfully shy, having him run off after each failed attempt to speak with Sara. The main argument that I had with the director  was the last scene, where they bump into each other and mix up the notes. Once again, the director wanted to have Cole run off after the incident. I argued that it ruined the feel of the scene. You are supposed to feel bad for this guy. He should be incredibly upset, angry with life in general because it seems to be playing cruel jokes on him. However, he annoyingly pulled rank on me and I had it noted in the ship's logs that I was against this course of action.

        Before this scene was filmed, I was sent off to our second location, a nearby university pub which would be used for all the indoor scenes. Several of us messed up the bar, giving it a somewhat lived in look, and tried to do our best to track down all the annoying sources of noise in the place. (It's amazing how many things make noise in a place like that. You turn off the fans only to find the air vents are hissing. You shut them down and hear the loud roar of the coolers. Unplug them and light is now buzzing like crazy.)

        Hours passed while we waited for the crew to finish up their shoot outside. Although I didn't know it at the time, I found out eventually that the director did indeed film the final outdoor scene the way I had originally wanted. My only victory during a day filled with defeat.

        The indoor scenes were extremely tedious as it took many hours to set up all the lights just right. The filming would focus on the bar itself to minimize the area that needed to be lit and the number of people needed for extras. While the camera focused on the action, a few hands in the foreground (cleaning bar or ordering drinks) attempted to create the illusion that the bar was not totally empty. Also, several of us walked back and forth in front of the lights to have moving shadows fall upon the main character as he poured out his troubles at the bar.

        My complaints began to pile up at this point. Cole, in my mind, should not have been smoking. But this was a difficult thing to explain to everyone when I was almost the only non-smoker in the bunch. Then there were a few changes to the dialog, one of which seemed to make it sound as if Cole's main interest in Sara had to be simply sex.

        My shy, likable Cole turned into a clumsy, chain smoking, beer guzzling slob. It was enough to make me consider giving up and going home. But I persevered somehow. One of the few things I was impressed with on the shoot was how well the two actors knew their lines. Only one shot was ruined because of a flubbed line and although they ad-libbed at times, they mainly kept to the spirit of the script.

        I realized we were in deep trouble during one of the shots which required a bit of precise timing as certain lines were said, several people approached the bar, etc. They did one practice run and messed it up. Then the director said "Okay, let's film it." without trying it over again. I protested but he was certain that they would get it right this second time. Sure enough, they did, but it made me pretty much give up on the proceedings after that.

        Many hours passed as each scene was set up. Close up of Cole at the bar, close up of the bartender, longer shot of both of them talking. Before long I was feeling pretty dopey, a feeling which was not helped by the sunburn I received on my face being out all morning or the smoke that was quickly filling up the entire pub. I spent much of the time sitting next to the only open window so I could get some fresh air.

        Things continued along at this slow pace while evening turned into night. My sleepy state was suddenly interrupted when I heard how they were planning on changing the final scene. As it was written, Cole comes back to the bar all upset. He thought the plan with the notes would work but it had failed. He had tried to pass the note off to Sara and she had returned it to him. Surely she had no interest in him at all. Then he reaches in his pocket, finds his own note, which he thought he had thrown away, and a look of realization comes across his face before he races out of the room.

        The new, "improved" version? Cole is drunk at the bar. He complains about what happened. When he goes to pay for his drink he finds the note and when he realizes it is his own, he says something like "She really likes me" and runs out all excited. As he leaves, the drunk fellow sitting next to him (the director in his third cameo, his second being one the other bartenders) belches and falls out of his chair. Any sense of irony or humor was gone. The ending was flat and ruined the entire story. But alas, after perhaps half an hour of arguing, it was filmed the new way.

        Later on, while filming an establishing shot of the bar, I sat at one of the tables, clutching some empty bottles of beer. I wanted a caption under the shot to say "This is the screenwriter after he saw what they did to his script."

        Everything got packed up around 11pm or so and we all went on our merry ways. The film was edited together and a few weeks later we all got to see the final product. It was just as I expected... It just sat there lifeless on the screen. The acting was fine, it looked fairly nice, but it was flat. It had no magic. My first short script translated into film and I wanted to burn the negative.

        Reading this over again, it looks as if this is just one long gripe-fest. More a means for me to vent my frustrations over the event than to pass along any great words of wisdom. But still, that was what the experience was for me. A lost opportunity to do something great. The main thing I learned from this? If anything, it is simply that the next time (if there ever is a next time) I will have to be the one giving all the directions.