Sometimes it all just comes together.
If you've been watching carefully, you'll notice that, "The iPod Maneuver 2", or "iPod 2" as we call it, is the first episode of the season that happens outdoors at night. And while we don't shoot the episodes in order necessarily, it happened to be our first time shooting this way as well. And it almost didn't happen.
A lot goes into making a web series - even a modest one like ours. We don't have much physical action - no special effects, no long scenes or trick shots - but the amount of effort and care that goes into making sure the lighting and sound are uniform and convincing on each episode is significant. So, at a certain point last summer we decided to help ourselves out and enlist some more technical assistance. Eric, who plays Theo and is our resident technical expert, has a solid amount of camera experience but he is but one man (and is often IN the episodes), so we were excited about bring in some new blood. One of our cast members (who shall remain nameless) knew a couple young filmmakers who had recently moved to the city and were hungry for projects. They had cameras, equipment, and, most importantly, experience. We met up with one half of the duo at a greasy Thai restaurant near Union Square to discuss the possibility of working together. Our new friend was clearly very confident, capable, and surprisingly assertive. The only problem (besides the seaweed salad I ordered, which tasted like worms) was that the duo was tired of simply shooting projects and wanted to be more involved in the creative decision making process. An alarm went off in my brain. I'm not against creative input; I collaborate well. But I'm very careful about whom I collaborate with. We are, again, a modest web series but we've got a good thing going. The four of us have a strong democratic partnership. We know each other very well at this point and know how to give each other input, advice, and direction. We have a clear vision and a specific and, might I say, airtight style. So, I was hesitant.
After the meeting, the rest of the team was much more optimistic than I. This is essentially constantly true (I have a touch of the cynic in me) but I was still a little surprised. They thought we could involve our new friends in creative decisions without having to make any concessions. They even thought the new duo didn't entirely mean what they had said - that they would be happy to be involved and wouldn't feel the need to manhandle the style. We planned a rehearsal as a sort of dry run of the collaborative relationship.
We met up at Aubrey and Eric's UWS apartment and began working through the script. It quickly became clear that the duo was unaware that we had already a) written a bunch of episodes b) decided on a season order and c) shot several of the episodes. Distressing. We discussed possible changes to one joke (that was already fine) for a half hour. Upsetting. One member of the duo started all of his/her comments with the phrase "what if…?". No bueno. They tried to give Aubrey notes about her delivery on one of her lines. Aubrey's a pro and considered their notes respectfully but I could see her bristling. We mercifully segued out of discussing the script and began to go over how we would approach the episode in a technical sense. This conversation went markedly better. They had a lot of great ideas about shots and were excited about finding a good outdoor location for a night shoot. They were enthusiastic and confident. This was encouraging.
We parted ways under the agreement that the duo would scout and confirm a location and we'd shoot the episode in five days. We were cautiously optimistic. We still hadn't worked out exactly how to handle the creative input but the added technical boost seemed worth it. And things so often just work themselves out.
A couple days passed and we didn't hear anything. I sent an email to the two of them, checking up on the location scouting. I received a short email back saying that they hadn't looked yet but were thinking of shooting on the sidewalk outside a bodega at 125th and Broadway. Another alarm went off in my head (I have many at the ready). This location was problematic for many reasons, the main two being that a) it's a loud area, which would be a nightmare for editing and b) it's a highly trafficked area. Shooting outside is not especially illegal (at least not without an expensive permit) and the more busy the area, the higher the chance of finding ourselves in a conversation with the police (rarely pleasant). We were worried but put our faith in our new collaborators. What else could we do?
By the day before the shoot we still hadn't heard much. Aubrey and I were out in Astoria drinking margaritas when we got an urgent email from one half of the duo saying that the other half had sprained his/her ankle in a pick-up basketball game and was in horrible pain. They weren't going to be able to make the shoot and they were so, sooooo, sorry. I sent an e-mail back inquiring if the ankle injury was somehow so serious that it had affected both of them or would the ungimped half of the duo still be able to make it? But I already had the sinking feeling that was this their way of bailing without really bailing. I never heard back from either of them.
Now what the hell were we going to do? We had 24 hours, no location, and no real prospect of one. I sent out an alarmist e-mail to the team recommending that we either switch to an indoor shoot or cancel entirely. Eric, as always, had a significantly less doomsday outlook. He e-mailed back that he was already out and about on the UWS, scouting locations and had found an elementary school near his and Aubrey's apartment that was relatively well lit and located on a lightly traversed block. He e-mailed us pictures that looked promising. We were back on.
We gathered at Casa Pargacerino the following evening ready to rock. We grabbed the equipment, some snacks and bottled water and headed out. The part of the school that Eric had scouted the previous evening was now gated so that option was out, but we were able to find a small ledge by a stairwell a couple doors down that would fit Aubrey and Jordan nicely. I was on sound duty and space was limited, so I stashed our gear near a planter on the sidewalk, trying to keep a low profile from passersby and police. Cars would zip by with unsettling regularity and there was a surprising amount of foot traffic for a weeknight. And it was sweltering. Temperatures had flirted with 100 during the day and weren't a whole lot lower by 9 pm. We knew that episodes surrounding "iPod 2" in the season would have a fall/spring look to them and didn't want to have an episode full of tank tops and shorts sticking out like a sore thumb, so we forced Aubrey and Jordan to suffer in light jackets and pants.
And the lighting wasn't right. The overhead fixtures at the school created a sickly glow and some unsightly shadows on Aubrey and Jordan's faces. We had a portable LED light that we could use but couldn't find a good place to set it. So, I went on a duct tape run. I had had a bit of a taste of the "hurry up and wait" style of film/tv shoots (I was an extra on The Fast and the Furious 3: Tokyo Drift. Oh yes.) but it still surprises me from time to time how different the whole thing is from theater. For theater you essentially need bodies and you can go. For film so much time and thought goes into the technical preparation. If you need to take two hours to set up a shot, you take two hours to set up the shot. If you need duct tape for a light for a shoot that was supposed to have started already, you go get the duct tape.
We taped the light to a part of the school's fencing and fired it up but things still looked a little off. And cars and pedestrians kept zipping by, feet away. We tried a run-thru of the scene and things just weren't right. Jordan and Aubrey wouldn't admit it but it was clear that the nearby traffic was making them nervous. People would walk by and stare at the two actors sitting on the steps of an elementary school late on a weeknight and Jordan and Aubrey couldn't help but notice.
I raised the idea that these were less than ideal shooting conditions but Eric wanted to press on. We had already sunk thought and time into this location and Eric didn't want to bail on it without giving it a solid go. This is a common occurrence in my life. My pessimistic instinct to distance myself or give up on things outweighed by wiser parties. Surround yourself with good people.
Then a janitor came out of the school and began gating and locking an area identical to ours a couple doors down. Clearly our little stairwell would be next. We were out of options. I suggested throwing in the towel. It was late and hot and we could always shoot another night if we needed to; we were on no one's schedule but our own. It was then that Eric suggested shooting on the roof of their apartment. This was a wild card option that had been mentioned before but quickly dismissed as dangerous. We didn't know if we had access to the roof, if there was anywhere to set up a shot, or if our clomping around would cause the residents of the building to call the police. All I'm saying is I wouldn't do well in prison.
Eric was confident that we could make it work, so we put our trust in him (usually a good call). We took the stairs up to the top floor and cautiously opened the door to the roof. Mercifully, it wasn't locked or alarmed. The second we got out onto the roof, our worries began to dissipate. There was room to sit and set up shots. We could arrange it so that we were only walking on the part of the roof directly over Aubrey and Eric's apartment. The sides of the roof extended high enough to block out a little of the New York night sounds and there also happened to be a pretty gorgeous view of the skyline. We couldn't find a reasonable place to set the LED light so we lugged up a standing lamp, duct-taped the LED tight to the top of it and led an extension cord back down to their apartment. DIY filmmaking at its best.
It was almost midnight at this point and the temperature had dropped to a tolerable 80. Aubrey and Jordan were no longer uncomfortable in their outerwear and the roof made it seem as if there was no one around for miles. We had carved out a tiny little space for ourselves, above the hubbub, below the stars. It's incredibly difficult to find solitude in New York. I often don't notice it until I've stumbled upon a little pocket of it. We had created a little solitude.
I leaned against the doorway leading back down into the building and set up the sound equipment. Eric began framing shots and Jordan and Aubrey ran lines a couple times. We soon found that the LED light made it impossible for Jordan and Aubrey to see anything but each other. Like or dislike this episode, love it or hate it, I don't care, but I think it has an intimacy that's sometimes hard to find. There's a quality, an ease, in their performance that the technical side of filmmaking can sometimes encroach on.
We took our standard shots (wide, two shot, close-ups from both angles) as well as a shot from each angle that changed focus from time to time. Eric would adjust with each take and I would make sure the audio was clear and complete. Jordan and Aubrey tried out several different choices for various moments and jokes. And we just worked. For three of four hours on a hot summer night in New York we did what we wanted to do, the way we wanted to do it, together. It can get crazy here in New York city (slash life) and it can be easy to question one's place, one's…correctness. But for a little while we felt like we were in the exact right place at the exact right time.
To see this episode and others, check out our Episodes page.