We wrapped principle photography on Dante's View last Wednesday at noon. The location was Ago, an Italian restaurant in West Hollywood that is a favorite among movie stars, partly because it is co-owned by Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken and several other Hollywood heavyweights. The scene was a meeting between the main character, played by Jon Sperry and a woman he has been trying to set up a deal with, played by Ivana Massetti. Jon and Ivana are friends with one of the waiters at Ago and he got us permission to shoot there. So there I am, shooting a scene from a movie I wrote with two of my closest friends in one of the hippest spots in town, saying things like "Cut" and "Action" and "That's a wrap." It was soooo cool!
I had to learn a hell of a lot during my week as a "director." One of the first things I had to learn occurred on the first take of the first day of shooting. We were in a parking lot behind a Sav-On drug store doing a scene where Jon's character encounters a homeless woman. At the beginning of the scene I ask the actors if they're ready. They nod. I frame the scene and start shooting. But nothing happens. Nobody moves. Then Jon says to me: "Uh, there's a particular word you're supposed to say..." Who me? Oh yeah, I'm the director... "Action!" I bark, and off we go.
The woman playing the homeless woman is a beautiful actress with shining hair and piercing blue eyes named Linda Michaels. When she showed up on set that morning I took one look at her and thought she looks way to good to be a homeless woman. What am I going to do? Linda told me not to worry. She went over to the edge of the parking lot and scooped up a handful dirt from under some bushes and smeared it all over her face. It took several handfuls to hide her good looks but eventually she actually started to look pretty bad. Then she began to get into character and her face literally changed before my eyes, she became older and angrier and a little crazy looking. I was amazed. Even though it was just a small role in a low-low-budget indie flick, she had done some serious preparation. Linda gave me her time and her talent and a little part of her soul and she did it all on faith. I knew that making a movie was a collaborative venture, but I wasn't prepared for the incredible generosity and goodwill that people like Linda were willing to offer me. Another lesson.
The next morning we were scheduled to shoot in another parking lot, behind a Radio Shack on Sunset Blvd. I went up there early to stake out our turf and within minutes I was told by the owner of the lot that I had to leave. You see, I never really did ask for permission. I did speak with the lot attendant one afternoon and he seemed agreeable. I'm not sure if he spoke English, but he seemed agreeable. Anyway now I'm in a slight panic. I have another actress on her way to meet me to shoot the "Hooker" scene and I have no location. I improvise. I tell her to meet me at my house because we are going to change locations to somewhere better. Actually I have no idea where we are going. Fortunately, the actress, Patti Troisi, is really cool and as we drive over to meet Jon and Ivana I tell her that it's no problem because according to Sidney Lumet's book the accidents and mistakes always lead to the most interesting results.
Anyway, we pull up outside Jon & Ivana's place and they climb into the Lincoln Navigator I've rented for the week. We are about start off toward the unknown location when Ivana tells me to stop. Why don't we use the parking garage under their building? There is a frosted glass window right in front of their parking space which offers excellent lighting. We go in and check it out and it works great, in fact better than the original location because it offers more privacy. And since we are shooting the "Hooker" scene, a little more privacy wouldn't hurt.
Patti, as you may have guessed, plays the Hooker. Again I was amazed at the amount of work the actors do to prepare for even the briefest moment in their character's life. The situation was potentially awkward, but Patti made it a breeze. She invested her character with attitude and charm and spirit and allowed us to pull off a tricky scene with humor and class. Like Linda, she put her trust in me totally on faith and allowed us to share her unique gift.
It was an added blessing to have Ivana involved. Not only did she contribute ideas and suggestions during the writing of the script, not only did she agree to play the pivotal role of "Christina" in her acting debut, not only did she provide tremendous insight and practical knowledge throughout the production, but she's also a great friend who made this experience so much more exciting and fulfilling just by being there to share it with me and talk about it and plan and strategize and just plain enjoy. Because it was more fun than I would have ever imagined. And when you're having fun, it's even better when you can share it with people you love.
Speaking of which, none of this would ever have happened with Jon. Day after day, take after take, cigarette after cigarette, Jon worked harder than anyone, worked more than anyone, performed far beyond my expectations and really took the whole project to a higher level. And he did it all with smiles and jokes and charm and grace and wit and fun and complete professionalism. For the past two days, I have been looking at the rough footage from what we shot last week and I keep thinking the same thing over and over: "Man, is he making me look good."
A script is only a script, but a performance is a living breathing organism with a life of its own. Jon's performance has given my script a life I never knew that it had. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Jon and learn from him about what an actor can do. Because a good actor makes all the difference in the world. And for all I've learned in the past week, the most important thing is that there is a whole lot more for me to learn. But I am hooked for life on this gig and I'm going to keep on doing this until I get it right.
But first, I have to learn how to edit.