Monday, January 23, 2012

Las Vegas "Campground"

Click to watch.

Director: Karni Baghdikian

DP: David Mahlmann

Producer: Camillia Monet 

Why this script/concept? How does it reflect your vision as a commercial director?

I have a lot of faith in initial instincts, and my feelings for this one were were very strong, right away--I literally fell in love at first read.  There were a few other scripts I had tossed around, and I was actually prepping to shoot another spot when this one landed in my inbox.  I requested it within 30 seconds of reading it, and the stars lined up quickly...we shot it a couple weeks later.  

As for my vision as a commercial director, well, I enjoy shooting slightly sinister comedy, and I like strong choreography.  So it was really important that the spot be funny, a bit dark, and something that was relatively easy to execute without a lot of firepower.  I also wanted it to feel like something I hadn't really seen much of in the spec world, which this most certainly was.  Finally, there was the timing component.  With a :30, you have to be very specific, and this spot had to be executed like clockwork to reach its potential.  I had a stopwatch around my neck, and timed each take, so we knew right away if we had it or not.  That was a new approach for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the consistency of the actors' timing.  I think the delta was 2.2 seconds for 40+ takes.

What was the casting process like?

In this case, there were two actors – Chris Pauley and Stephanie Little – who I had known for a while and had long hoped to work with, that I really felt were a good match for the material.  It's not always the case, but when you read something and feel it right away, for me, it comes back to trusting that first instinct.  Thankfully they were available and extremely supportive in the realization of this spot.

How did you search for/lock a location?

We wanted a campground that felt a little shabby, to juxtapose against the luxury of the Vegas experience that appeals to our core audience.  Finding wooded landscape in LA is no easy task, so my wonderful Producer Camillia Monet reached out to as many of our friends as possible for leads.  At one point, we considered trekking up to Big Bear, but didn't want to do that to a crew; we wanted to be able to shoot in one day and not have to spend half our money on gas.  We looked at public parks like Malibu Creek, but the permits and fire trucks were a bit too pricey.  Pretty late in the game, we wound up getting a little lucky, in that I had AD'd a short film a few years back that was shot on a private property up in Topanga Canyon.  We got in touch with the property owner and he hooked us up.

How did you select your DP, crew?

A director is only as good as the people around him, and I'm extremely fortunate to have had such a great crew.  My DP David Mahlmann and I have been working together for a few years.  He lensed a short we shot with the RED ONE in 2008, and we've had a terrific working relationship ever since.  He's usually the first person I call when I have a new project, and when I don't, he's the first person I call for those pep talks that every filmmaker occasionally needs to keep things in perspective.  Dave usually crews up camera, grip and electric with his own contacts; most are people we've worked with in the past, but he never amazes me with his ability to find great new people when we're in a pinch.  He's a magnet for the right kind of crew member.  As for art, makeup, wardrobe, that was all Camillia.  She knows lots of great people, so she knew what we needed right away.  
How did shooting go? Any challenges?

Shooting went well; it was a relatively easy day all-in-all.  The only real challenge we faced was – brace yourself – losing light.  When you shoot in a canyon, you lose light really quickly in the afternoon, so Dave had his work cut out for him in keeping things consistent.  We didn't have a very big lighting package at all, I think we primarily used bounce boards and 12x12 silk to cut the sunlight, with some HMIs on reserve, just in case.  We started at 8AM and were wrapped by 4PM, a pretty nice day, and the lights stayed on the truck.

Tell us about editing and finishing.

Editing is when you cut the shots together in a timeline, and then you mix sound and color grade picture to finish.  Sorry, I couldn't resist.  I generally like to cut my own material, it's just something I've grown accustomed to, as I've been editing for years and really enjoy the process.  I think it was born of an indie filmmaker's need to keep things as cheap as possible and learn by doing.  Now it's the quickest way for me to figure out what works, and what doesn't.  I've worked with editors as well, and that's good and fine, but I'm a very hands-on guy and have a computer arts background, so for something like a spot or a very short film, I'm happy to go it alone.  Sound design was a big one on this, because we had to sell the idea of a swarm of bugs that you can't actually see, and aside from choreography, that was the biggest creative challenge.  I have a great sound mixer in Pat Lydon, who always brings a little extra creativity to the table.  He's another person I've been working with for a few years now, and I enjoy finally getting down to the mix so he can take that track I've heard over a thousand times in the edit, and take it to new and exciting places.

In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently?

As I mentioned there was a specific choreography to this spot, and we were all really focused on that, and I think the actors were tightly wound at first as a result.  With a :30, you're always going to get a ton of takes and different ways of saying "this" and "that," but I think the real gold came when we let the actors go off a little bit and just have some fun with ad-libs.  Chris and Stephanie are tremendously funny and quick with improv, and had us in stitches for a few laughers – you can only imagine the kinds of outtakes you can get with Vegas as your subject matter.  So they loosened up a bit, and I think that helped, because when we returned to the script, everything gelled and it came together quickly from there.  It was a great reminder to sometimes let things come naturally instead of trying to force it.

Any other thoughts.

This one was a a lot of fun.  
We had tons of coverage to work with, plenty of great audio.  A relaxed set.  Lunch was good.  I think this was about as smooth as a shoot can go, and when that happens, you just have to thank your lucky stars, because that always comes down to two things: great collaborators, and a little bit of magic.  

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