“Who does what” in practical terms: the making of “Grasshopper”

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Following up from my previous post, wherein I described, in rather dry, technical terms, the jobs of some of the principal players on a movie set, to give the novice some idea of what all that means I offer this personal experience.

In the autumn of 2001, a PRODUCER named Patricia Maguire came to me and asked me to write and direct a short film based on a Chekhov story of my choosing. I chose "Grasshopper," a tale of marriage and betrayal and seduction and sudden death.

I wrote my script (it was 25 pages) and submitted it to Patricia. She had a few notes, which were good notes, and I incorporated them into the script. (The wise screenwriter accepts good ideas from anyone, no matter who they are — producer, director, actor or man on the street. The trick is having a clear enough understanding of what you’re doing so that you can tell a good idea from a bad one.)

The script was approved and we went into production. As Patricia was busying herself with contacting artists and craftspeople, I took the time to "board" my script — that is, I bought a little sketchbook, went through the script, and drew a little picture of what I wanted every shot in the movie to look like. And, because I had written the script with a couple of easily-accessible locations in mind, it was possible for me to actually shoot "demos" of a few scenes, using a consumer-level video camera and some friends of mine as temporary cast members. I also designed and created a few key props, props which I knew exactly how I wanted them to look and it would have been pointless to turn the work over to someone else.

Patricia located and hired for me a costume designer, a production designer, a makeup designer, a sound designer, a director of photography, a script supervisor, a first AD, a steadicam operator, a sound crew, a grip, a gaffer, a line producer, a squad of production assistants and God knows who else. She arranged catering, transportation and lodging for forty or so people, a massive undertaking. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a producer. If I was this person, I wouldn’t bother chasing after studio projects all the time, I would just pick up the goddamn camera and shoot movies. A producer has to know all these people, get them to want to do the project (usually for less money than they would normally get) and get them all in the same place at the same time — and have them be happy doing it.

We got a bunch of actors on board (I had written all the roles for old friends of mine, so there was little coaxing to do — they all knew they weren’t making any money off this thing), we scheduled a week to shoot and we all converged on a house in upstate New York on a chilly day in October.

My little storyboards were useful as a guide, but my DP, Jonathan Furmanski, had a much more fluid, dynamic understanding of film logic than I did and we ended up using perhaps 60 per cent of them. There was no shot that I had planned that my DP did not make more beautiful, more graceful or more compelling.

My First AD (that is, first assistant director), Patricia DePaula, did a spectacular job. What is the job of a First AD? The First AD makes the set run on time. Time is the most expensive thing on a movie set — a film crew that runs on time, where everyone is where they’re supposed to be, ready to work at the moment they need to work, a film crew like that is an efficient film crew, and when a film crew is efficient everything takes less time and saves the production money. So it’s the job of the First AD to make sure everyone knows when they are expected to be someplace ready to go, so that there’s no waiting-around time. She’s kind of like the Stage Manager of the movie set, and, like a Stage Manager, her word is law. My First AD got the low-paid crew to hop like bunny-rabbits, and she got them to do it without hating her (or me).

The moment-to-moment shooting went like this: the DP would say to me "So how do you want this to look?" I’d say something like "You know that scene in Hannah and Her Sisters, where they’re in the kitchen talking? I want to do that, and I want it all in one take so we see the actors interacting in the same frame," and then my DP would nod and say "Okay, give me ten minutes." At this point, my brilliant First AD would go around and tell everyone "Five minutes" so that they would show up to the prepared set in a timely fashion, and then the DP would have the set lit in eight. So when he said "ten minutes," he meant that we’d actually be shooting in ten minutes, and that’s exactly what happened. And I’d come back to the set and the DP would invite me to look at the "tap," that is, the video monitor showing what the camera sees, and by gum if the scene didn’t look exactly as I imagined it would, but better.

Now then: there are a lot of moving parts on a movie set, which means that a lot of things can go wrong, and do, and it’s not really anyone’s fault. The camera makes a noise, a jet flies overhead, a prop falls over, the boom slips into the shot, a door fails to open or close. Because of all the different things going wrong, we generally shot six takes of each shot — four takes where things went wrong, one where they did not, and then one morejust in case we missed something in the previous one. I rarely had to "direct" an actor’s performance; I had written the parts specifically for the actors I’d cast, there wasn’t much for me to do except let them play the part. I might say "A little faster" or "20 per cent more energy" but mostly I just let the actors do the thing that got them the gig.

I knew the DP and the First AD were going to be important jobs, but I didn’t know about the crucial job of Script Supervisor. The Script Supervisor is the one who keeps her eye on the whole script, remembering how it’s all supposed to cut together. Movies are always shot out of sequence for a whole number of reasons, and without someone whose job it is to remember when each scene is actually taking place in the movie continuity errors will spring up like mushrooms. My Script Supervisor saved my ass about ten times a day. I would put extras in the background of a shot, and she would point out, just in the nick of time, that those extras had been in the background of another shot in another room we’d shot two days before, a shot which would occur immediately before the shot we were now shooting — if the two shots would be cut together, the effect would be that the extras would appear to be in two different rooms at the same time. Or I’d put together a lovely piece of blocking for the shot and my Script Supervisor would point out that in the shot to immediately precede the one I’d just blocked, the actors were walking from left to right, and now I have them walking from right to left, with the effect being that the audience would be confused as to where the characters were going.

So, it would go like this: we’d finish a shot, when I was happy with the result I’d say "moving on," the First AD would then shout out "Moving on!" and the crew would snap into action, swarm onto the set to set up the next shot. I’d confer briefly with the DP ("Can you make this look like The Shining?") then get out of his way while he did his work (which involved conferring with the gaffers and grips about lighting and camera movement). While the DP, the gaffers and grips did their work, the actors in the next shot would get into their costumes and makeup and do whatever preparation they needed for the scene to work. After a few minutes, my First AD would call me back to the set, I’d watch a camera rehearsal, and if the shot was to my liking the First AD would call the actors to the set. We’d rehearse the scene for the camera again, this time with the actors, and if everything seemed to be working, the gaffers and grips and PAs would go away and me and the DP would be there with the actors doing the scene (the sound crew was generally in another room — sound equipment takes up a lot of space and it’s not important for the sound crew to see what’s happening on the set). If we got a take where nothing went wrong, I’d say "Cut, good, moving on" and the process would repeat itself all over again.

(One of the cardinal images one carries of movie production is a lot of people sitting around. This is a deceptive image: yes, there is a lot of sitting around on a movie set, but only by one-half of the crew at a time. While the visitor is commenting on all the people sitting around, there is another, unseen group of people working feverishly to get their work done so that the production can continue to run on time. When their work is done, they will go sit down and the other half of the crew will leap into action. The first time I was invited to the set of a movie I wrote, I was perfectly happy to watch production unfold, except that every time I found a place to sit it would turn out that I was in someone’s spot — and every chair and surface was accounted for on the set. There was, literally, no place for the writer on the set. When I was next invitedto the set of a movie I wrote, I had only one request, which was to have a chair for me. I wasn’t trying to be a diva, I just didn’t want to always be in someone’s way. The director, Peter Yates, cheefully obliged me and even had a canvas chair-back made with my name on it, and for that gesture I will be forever grateful.)

Because I had planned my shots carefully and had a talented Producer, DP, First AD and Script Supervisor, "Grasshopper" finished on schedule and on budget. Also, because of my shot design, there was really only one way all the footage would cut together, with the result that my editor (JoJo Whilden) and I had a working cut within two leisurely days of editing. Patricia had scheduled five days of editing, and, since it was already paid for, JoJo and I "tried a few things" for a while, but the final cut was pretty much the same as the first one.

Once the cut was done, we took it to our composer, Rick Knutsen, and showed it to him, and I would say things like "What I’d love here is something like Sonic Youth’s ‘Bull in the Heather’ or something by Pavement," and then a few days later he’d play something for me that sounded exactly like a mix between those two things. Or I’d say "What I need here is some fake Bach" and he’d deliver it without blinking.

Once all that was done, we spent a day balancing the sound and adding sound effects. There was one sound effect we needed to find and punch in that was driving me crazy. There’s a scene in the movie where James Urbaniak (who was one of the stars) walks into the shot, takes a beer out of the fridge, opens it and drinks it. The shot looked just fine, but James’s beer didn’t make an audible sound when he opened it. It made the scene look weird and, as I say, it was driving me crazy. The sound engineer located "sounds of beer bottles opening" in his vast files of sound effects, and we picked one of the tiny sound files (how many different ways can a beer bottle being opened sound?  You’d be surprised) and worked for about 25 minutes shifting the sound this way and that, making it louder, making it softer, making it sound more muffled or more echoey, all so that when James opens his beer in the movie the audience doesn’t notice it.

And that’s pretty much it. "Grasshopper" screened three times at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003, and got a huge response each time. It remains one of the most fulfilling creative events of my life. Through careful planning and having people like Patricia, Jonathan and Patricia working with me, my time on the set was actually quite relaxed and stress-free. Orson Welles was right, it’s the best train set a boy ever had.


10 Responses to ““Who does what” in practical terms: the making of “Grasshopper””
  1. Anonymous says:

    A very informative narrative — thanks.

    Now, what’s the afterlife of a short film these days? Will we see “Grasshopper” running at 2:30 a.m. on IFC? Will Patricia Maguire put out a DVD of Chekhov-based shorts? Or does this just become an item in your IMDB listing and a legendary experience for all involved, waiting to be rediscovered 40 years hence as part of a Todd Alcott retrospective at the Film Forum?


  2. naltrexone says:

    Are there any opportunities for us to see the finished product, either online or at a festival?

    • Todd says:

      Patricia’s original idea was to make five or so of these Chekhov adaptations and then sell them as a feature, with an eye toward an educational market. Life intervened, as it often does, and the project remains unfinished. Two shorts were made, “Grasshopper” and Itamar Kubovy’s “Upheaval”.I should ask Ms. McGuire about posting them online somehow — although that would, of course, permanently obviate any possibility of making money on the project.

  3. quitwriting says:

    I’m sure this is a big thing to ask, but since you appear to be in Professor Alcott mode, I figure I’d hazard a request: can we see a break-down of the concepts behind the Multiple Acts school of writing?

    I’ve had the idea of three acts only shoved down my throat for years and it feels wrong to try to shoehorn a story into this particular artificial construct. Is there some magic number of acts, or do you just need to make sure your story has a beginning and an ending of some sort and build from there or something else entirely?

    Anything you’re able to enlighten us about would be greatly appreciated.

    • erranthope says:

      Completely agreed.

      While I really enjoy reading the analysis here, I don’t fully understand what makes one act disparate from the next. I’ve only ever been taught the classic three act structure in regards to Hollywood films, so I was unaware you could even view a modern film in any other light.

    • stormwyvern says:

      I’d be interested to see this as well, thought I’m also looking forward to the rest of the “Batman” films getting analyzed.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m not Perfesser Alcott, obviously, but the Multiple Acts school of writing is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Thanks to Mr. Alcott and Wadpaw, I feel like my writing has improved tenfold, which probably doesn’t make me an expert, but it’s given me my own answer to this question.

      I currently define an act as when the status quo changes into something else, and those changes are irreversible. One of the problems of plot is continually hustling your protagonist through a series of doors that close and disappear behind him/her — all too often I’ll come up with something, only to realize, why doesn’t this guy just go home? What keeps the story from reverting to a previous status quo? So when this status quo changes, it becomes a new status quo, which will change and become irreversible, etc. etc.

      How many acts, though? My answer right now is “however many you need to tell the story”. That’s only theoretical for me at this point, though — I’m working on a couple different projects simultaneously, and haven’t got past Act II in any of them. I’m aiming for 4, maybe 5, but if it’s 10, its 10, and if it’s 3, it’s 3. (In Kristin Thompson’s book, “Storytelling in the New Hollywood”, she makes the argument that the 3 Act Structure is really 4 acts — the second act is broken in two. She even has names for the 4 acts and what they do and what’s going on when there’s clearly more than 4 acts. I really recommend it — great food for thought.)

      Hope that helps!

      — Kent M. Beeson

  4. mr_noy says:

    Thanks Todd. I wish I had read something as succinct as this before going on set for the first time. I think the first few times I bluffed my way through and acted as if I knew who everyone was and what everyone did. Mostly I just did my job and tried to stay out of the way. Later, I was relieved to know that many others had similar experiences their first time on set.

    Even if you kind of know what someone does you rarely appreciate how much their contribution matters until you experience it firsthand and posts like these are a huge help to the unitiated.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Grasshopper video

    there’s a snippet of the film on Furmanski’s website (featuring Mr Urbaniak) if you click on Film/Television and then Narrative:


  6. Anonymous says:

    thank you for this. very informative and interesting.