II - PRODUCTION - THE LIVES
Paris: City of Lights and Magic (April 2015)
Paris: City of Lights and Magic (April 2015)
I had always planned for Paris to be the last segment I would shoot. Given that Caroline and I lived in Paris, I assumed it would be fairly easy to organize and get done.
I assumed wrong.
First of all, I had a much harder time than expected finding a stylish, modern apartment that would immediately convey a certain standard of living for the Paris life in which I’m supposed to be a successful filmmaker. Most people I knew lived in tiny studio apartments. Around that time, I met up for coffee with an old friend from law school, Marie-Eve. When we had first crossed paths several years earlier, she, like me, was someone who was conflicted about who to become in life, caught between the allure of a free artistic life in the image of her mother, who’s a painter, and the fulfillment of the money-making expectations of her father, a senior VP in one of the biggest luxury hotel chains in the world. Now, she was married to a diplomat, carrying her 1-year-old daughter in one arm and a forthcoming son in her belly. Over the years, despite time and distance, we had remained rather fond of each-other, and I had also become good friends with her parents, particularly her mother, Natalie, who I suspect viewed me as a bit of an interesting anomaly in her daughter’s entourage. When Marie-Eve and Natalie learned of my predicament regarding my location scouting, they offered their family apartment: a beautiful top-floor duplex in the Port Royal area of Paris.
The next challenge was finding a DP. Caroline introduced me to a friend of hers, Adil, a photography and lighting aficionado, who stepped-in as cinematographer and, as every time non-professionals lent a helping hand, he did wonderful. We had two full days in the apartment, and while the first day went according to plan, the second day made me think perhaps the plentiful stock of luck this project had enjoyed from the start was beginning to hit its last reserves, as we encountered the one problem that can mess with all shoots from the tiniest back-yard project to the biggest multi-million dollar blockbuster: weather. The apartment, boasting huge veranda windows, was designed to be gorged in sunlight, but on our second day, the sky was covered by dark clouds and pouring constant buckets of rain. Not only did this ruin the desired atmosphere, but it caused a continuity disaster with what we had shot the previous day.
I felt terrible because on the one hand, deep down, I instantly wanted to postpone the shoot until a better day; but on the other, Caroline and Adil had showed up on time, with no pay, and so I was reluctant to ask them to come again at a later date. Caroline could sense it, so she made the move and suggested what I didn’t have the nerve to demand: let’s take a rain-check. And she didn’t do it because she felt bad for me, but because she didn’t want a below-par result. And this gave me a huge amount of confidence: I wasn’t the only one who had a vested interest in this film. She, too, really wanted this to work out, and I was thankful for this. Eventually, we managed to get our second day of shooting a few weeks later.
To make the Paris life believable, I had to show that the character was already a successful filmmaker, and so in his backstory, I wrote he had already shot two feature films, with Caroline playing the lead in both. I used pictures of Caroline taken by her boyfriend, Nikon photographer William K., and made two mock posters for the character's previous films - the "easter egg" being that they are posters for real screenplays I've written and that I hope to get produced some day.
Half way through the shoot I decided that I wanted the Parisian's arc to end with him walking by a movie theater where he sees his own movie on the board and Caroline's face on it, confronting him with what he's giving up on. To film this, I asked many different movie theaters in Paris - mostly Gaumont and UGC chains - if I could just put up a poster in one of their slots for a couple hours to get my shot, but they all refused. I then went around town asking smaller theaters that had a poster window if I could get my shot there: they refused. Eventually, through an odd-job I did at that time, I met the manager of the Max Linder Panorama movie theater in Paris. She was great, and agreed to give me a full morning to set up my posters and get the shots. It was a little surreal actually seeing "my film" playing at the movies. People walking by in the streets would stop and inquire about it, not realizing it was fake.
Finding a movie set to film on
By this time I thought things were moving along pretty smoothly, but the "apartment & movie poster part" of the Paris shoot was a piece of cake compared to the other major part, which had to follow my character on the shoot of his next movie, with all the equipment and crew around him. This required finding a real movie set that would allow me, along with a DP, to be on-set for a few hours, walking around and filming what was going on. This was one of the things that I initially brushed off with a “All I have to do is find a film set” and turned into a “How the hell do I find a film set." I had absolutely no connections to production companies and knew no one involved in any professional film shoot. What I did know is that productions don’t really go around announcing when they’re coming to town, and were I to find one, I couldn’t just waltz onto it uninvited.
So for some reason, my first idea was: “Why don’t I get in touch with Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael and ask him to be on his next shoot?”
The reason I thought of Van Dormael was because I had long admired his film Mr. Nobody, a film that explores similar themes to those of psi, telling the story of a boy who, forced to choose between his mother and his father when they divorce, remembers choosing both and living several alternate lives branching from that initial decision. If I could find a way to get in touch with Van Dormael, I thought, I could appeal to his artistic camaraderie and ask to come on his next shoot. After some online digging, I quickly found his agent who I wrote to, hoping he would transfer the message. In the e-mail, I added a second request: would Van Dormael also agree to do a cameo in my film. I honestly didn’t expect much from this but a few days later, I received an e-mail from Van Dormael himself, where he expressed interest in the film, said that he would have gladly lend me his set but he'd just finished his latest shoot, and that if I found a convenient film-set elsewhere, he'd gladly come and do the cameo. I couldn’t believe it. Given that Van Dormael is Belgian, I wanted to find a shoot that would be geographically convenient for him, so I focused my search in Brussels. I e-mailed the Belgian film commission, explaining my situation, and they put me in touch with a bunch of different production companies that had upcoming shoots. Over a few weeks, I sent out e-mails left and right, explaining my situation and promising that shooting my scenes would not get in the way of their production and that as a bonus, Van Dormael would spend a couple hours with us on set. However, despite some initial positive responses, they all eventually turned me down. There was always someone – the director, the producer, the distributor – someone whose green-light was necessary, who refused for some reason or another.
Eventually, the Brussels plan dwindled and frustratingly fizzled out. I never got to meet Van Dormael. And I came to accept the fact that I would have to create my own film-set in Paris. This was what I wanted to avoid from the start, because creating a film-set – one that really looks like a big-budget film, of course – means having equipment, trucks, a studio and people. In other words: money.
So where could I start? I remembered, from my film-school days, that the big player in film equipment and studios in France was a company called TSF. I e-mailed them, asking if there was any way I could rent some equipment on the cheap and then use one of their studios (perhaps on an off-day) to grab the few shots I needed. Of course I added the obligatory arguments, such as I was a young director, making my first independent low-budget movie and that I had worked with them in the past as a student. I got no response. I e-mailed again, unsuccessfully. So eventually I called one of their reps. He explained that the first step would be for me to go and visit their studios in Epinay, a suburb of Paris, to see if they could work for my needs. So in July 2015, I met with the TSF studios groundskeeper who toured me around their massive 800m² and 1600m² sound stages. I was like a kid with exclusive access to the theme park, but there was one glaring problem: the studios were empty, there were currently no films being shot there. And without sets, these studios were essentially giant empty warehouses. The problem just wouldn’t go away: I didn’t just need a studio, I needed a studio with a filmset currently used inside of it, and so I was back at square one.
While touring the TSF studios, I wandered my way into the workshops where a bunch of different craftsmen - carpenters, painters, welders - were building sets for upcoming productions. I struck up a conversation with a lady who turned out to be the set decorator for a big-budget comedy called “Brice de Nice, 3.” This was the sequel to an extremely popular 2005 French comedy, “Brice de Nice,” based on a character created and played by Jean Dujardin, who later shot to worldwide fame when he won the Academy Award for his part in the throwback silent film “The Artist.” This was my opportunity: I explained to her my situation and asked if she could put me in touch with the production team, to see if there was any way I could take advantage of their set for my own film. She gave me the production manager’s e-mail, a guy called Pascal. I knew it was a long-shot, but I sent him a short e-mail anyway. While I expected the same kind of response I got from the Belgian productions, Pascal replied with some positive news: the producer, Nicolas Altmayer, had no issue with it and they were waiting on the director, James Huth, to reply.
A week or so later, still no news. I was in my hometown of Pornichet, on the west coast of France, with Thom and some friends. I’m not big on drugs, but there were mushrooms involved - it was the middle of summer, we wanted to cut loose - so we munched a couple and headed to the beach. A few minutes or hours later, we found our way to a bar where we ordered some drinks and stared at them. And then my phone rang – I had a new e-mail. It was from James Huth himself. He wanted us to meet and talk about my film. My face melted.
At the end of August 2015, I met with James in a café in Paris. As I expected, the first thing he asked me was to explain exactly what I wanted to do on his film-set. My pitch was locked and loaded and I delivered it with a special effort to anticipate the few issues he could have: I was flexible on the date, I was happy to shoot right after the end of their daily schedule, bla, bla, bla - all the while, he seemed totally relaxed about the whole thing, casually thinking-out-loud that we’d figure something out. He had obviously looked at my website and watched the few things I had shot in the past - my spec adverts from film school, my GoPro travel video from South America, the “Save The Date” video I shot in Finland for Paul and Julie. He asked what tasks I had taken care of on these short projects: Did I come up with the ideas? Did I direct? Did I do the camera work? Did I do the editing? And as I answered yes to these questions, I could see in his eyes that there was a reason for his interest, and soon enough, he mentioned that he was looking for someone to shoot the making-of (or “behind-the-scenes” documentary) for “Brice de Nice, 3” and asked if I’d be up for it.
At first, I couldn’t quite believe it, but I rode my luck and said that of course, I would love to. He emphasized how hard it would be and warned me of the pitfalls that previous young directors he'd hired had fallen into. But this was a golden opportunity and I had to take it. Apparently, there was another experienced filmmaker already in line for the job, so James told me he would have to think about it. In the following days, I wrote the preceding paragraphs and sent him everything I had written up to this point, indicating that if he were to hire me for this project, it would become part of the wider story of my own trajectory, a huge stepping stone to achieving the ambitions I had set out to pursue 18 months ago, and the title of the chapter dedicated to this experience would write itself: “A making-of in the making-of.”
A few days later, he called me to say I got the job. I was starting in two weeks.
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