The Making of “Steampunk Neverland: Episode 5 – “Forever.” A Film Director’s Journey (Pre-Production)

by Peter D. Marshall

The Project: The Entertainment Business Management (EBM) program of the Vancouver Film School (VFS) is in production on their third Compendium Series called “Steampunk Neverland.” These 5 high-end special FX short films (5 – 9 minutes) are being created for distribution into an interactive digital magazine.

“Steampunk Neverland” is a version of Peter Pan’s Neverland re-imagined with Steampunk technology. I directed the last film in the series called “Forever” which depicts the final battle between Hook and Pan.

I will be using this blog as my weekly journal to demonstrate what a director goes through during the three production phases of a film. My goal with this journal is to put you in the passenger seat with me and give you an insider’s view of how this short, low budget film was made – as it happens!

Please check out:
(1) “Steampunk Neverland – Forever” Overview


(2) PRE-PRODUCTION

Thursday, January 6, 2011

4:30. Our first meeting with all five directors and the EBM student producers about the concept of “Steampunk Neverland.” Jessica Leigh Clark-Bojin (Head of EBM) is the Executive Producer and she gave us an introduction to the series and handed out the Compendium Series Bible.

I got together after the meeting with the four student producers I will be working with on “Forever”: Sergey Brezhnev, Lyndon Gumban, Justin Fisher and Hernando Beron. We had a brief discussion of our roles and responsibilities and we set our next meeting for Friday to go over the script and discuss our pre-production game plan.

Friday, January 7, 2011

I spent today reading all five scripts and the Compendium Series Bible. I then started the process of getting to know my script (by writer Josh Tuftin of Edmonton) by doing my initial script and scene analysis and making notes. I created a new beat sheet of the script which outlined the specific moments in the story I wanted to add or change.

4:30. The four producers and myself met in the boardroom of the Film Production campus to discuss the script and prepare our pre-production game plan. Several very good points were raised by the producers and after an hour we had our new beat sheet for the film.

Since I am the “new guy” on the show, I’m still getting up to speed on the concept of the series as well as specific story beats in our script. The producers have been involved with the series for several months and they know much more about the story and the politics than I do right now.

After the meeting, I re-worked the beat sheet and made additional script notes. I then emailed those to the writer. After Josh read them, I phoned him and we discussed the script in detail. His job now is to write a second draft of the script based on our notes.

Each script is to be no more than 5 minutes in length. Josh’ s first draft was 5 pages and our notes were mainly about turning it into a shooting script by breaking up the scenes more. We decided that he should just write the next draft and not worry about going over 5 pages. We will reduce it on the next draft.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The writer sent me his new draft today. It was 9 pages and was very much improved. Now comes the hard part – we have to eventually cut the script to 6 pages.

I have two sword fights in the script and they will take up extra screen time. If we are to get this film under 5 minutes, the goal now is to cut dialogue and take out any unnecessary action. I start at Scene 1 and go through my script analysis and character analysis process again.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

4:30. The producers and myself met in the Film Production campus boardroom to discuss the writer’s draft and my script notes. We worked through the script for about an hour and I came away with a better structure for the script.

We are having our first casting session on Thursday night so the priority now is to have a script that reflects the dialogue we want for the characters. So with the writer’s blessing, (he lives in Edmonton and we are in Vancouver,) I cut and paste his draft, along with our changes, into Final Draft and came up with a 7 page script. We’re still at least one page long, but this is the draft we will now use for our auditions this week.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

5:30. All the directors and producers spent 1 1/2 hours watching a introductory casting tape of over 90 VFS acting students. Each student told us their name and what class they were in. They then performed a short scene from one of the scripts. The idea of this screening was to make a short list of all the acting students we wanted to come to our first casting session on Thursday night.

After the screening, we sorted out which actors we wanted to audition for the four roles. We came up with 20 names. The producers then emailed each of these 20 students to let them know the character we wanted them to read for along with the appropriate sides (script scene) and their casting times for Thursday.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The shooting location for all the films will take place at Storyeum, located in Vancouver’s historic Gastown. This tourist venue has been closed for several years, but many of the old sets still exist which will give major production value to all our films.

“Forever” takes place entirely on Hook’s Airship. There is a very simple mock-up of a sailing ship in Storyeum and even though this is a fantasy film, we still need to be very creative on how we shoot our scenes.

TIP: For a director, seeing a set or location as early as possible is crucial. It effects how you want to shoot the film, (art direction, shots, blocking etc.) and the earlier you find and lock your locations, the better.

12:00. We visited Storyeum to see the ship set. We walked every inch of the ship and we took photos from every angle. This first location visit gave me an idea of the scale of the set and where to place the action. It also enables me to now change the script action to fit the actual location.

TIP: As as a director, you need to know each location you will be shooting intimately because you will need to find the best places to stage your scenes as well as pick the best camera angles to shoot them. You will also need to eventually visit these locations with your Production Designer (for all the art department and the set dressing details) and your Director of Photography (to figure out the lighting and the best angles to shoot the scenes.)

4:30. All the directors and producers met at the EBM campus to hear Siobhan O’Keefe (Film Production Art Instructor and the series Production Designer) talk to us about the look and feel of the series. She showed as many examples of Steampunk props and clothing. We also discussed the looks and colors for the main characters and potential designs for the different sets that each film will use.

6:00. Our first casting session. The producers organized the room and set up the camera. We had a list of our 20 actors and the characters they were reading for. We had 4 hours to do this first audition because we wanted to give every actor 10 minutes for their audition.

Hernando greeted the actors and brought them into the room when we called for them. Lyndon was on the camera and Sergey and Justin sat with me watching the actors and making notes. We also had a reader (thank you Ashley) who read lines with all the actors.

The process: When the actor was brought into the room, I introduced myself and the others in the room and we then recorded the actor’s name and the role they were reading for. I asked the actor if they had any questions about the part. We then showed them the area of the room where they could freely move around.

Once the actor was ready, we rolled the camera and the actor presented their first take on the scene. I then made an adjustment with the actor (change of objective) and the actor read the scene again.

We thanked them for coming in, told them they would be contacted tomorrow about any callbacks, and they left. We then took a moment to write down our observations of the actor – and the process started all over again.

TIP: Because you never have enough time to work with actors in a casting session, here are the top three qualities you should look for in an actor when they audition for you: 1) Do they look the part? 2) Do they have range? 3) Can they take direction? There are many more qualities of course, but these three can usually give you a enough information about an actor in under 10 minutes!

Friday, January 14, 2011

TIP: Casting sessions are not just to pick your actors, they are also a very useful way to improve your script. When you listen to actors performing a scene in your script, you get a real feel for the words and how they flow when different actors read the same scenes. You can see (or hear) what works and what doesn’t. It is from these casting session that many of your script changes will happen.

I made more script notes this morning based on the auditions last night. As a result, I managed to cut about 1/2 page from the script. (Had to sacrifice some of Hook’s fabulous dialogue. Sigh!)

1:00. I sent Josh my new script notes and then phoned him. We went over the script and he agreed with the cuts. His job now is to cut some more of his brilliant dialogue and finesse the rest. (I am very happy with the script so far. Josh has done a fabulous job of telling a compelling story with quirky and multi-dimensional characters.)

6:00. Second casting session (first callback). We are now down to 12 actors for 4 parts. We have three actors reading for each part tonight and we will pick two actors for each role and then make the final decision at our last callback session on Monday night.

We also brought in two non-VFS actors to read for Hook. We all agreed that Hook should be in the 30-40 age range. Most of the VFS acting students were to young for the part.

TIP: Callbacks are a little different then an audition. This is where you want to spend more time working with the actors. You also want to pair the actors up and watch the chemistry between them. I usually budget about 15 minutes per session. You also want all the actors to show up at the same time so you can mix-and-match actors as you see fit. And if you can, you should also choose different scenes for them to perform then they did at the first audition.

TIP: The most important job a director needs to do before a callback, is to make a list of the actors you want to read together. Depending on their schedules, I like the first actors that read for me at a callback to be the ones I am most interested in. If they work out, those first reads are the standard by which you can gauge the other actors performances.

After the session was finished, we went through our notes and picked the 8 actors we want to come back on Monday night. We now have two actors to read for each role. I feel we are in very good shape with any of these actors. So…who will the 4 actors be? Have to wait until Monday night. 🙂

Monday, January 17, 2011

Josh sent the next draft of the script. He got it down to 6 pages. That’s good. He took out some more dialogue but based on how the actors were performing in the auditions, we may put some of it back in.

6:30. Callbacks. Down to 8 actors for 4 roles. We worked everyone hard – coming up with new objectives and new scenarios. Whew. Going to be some hard decisions.

8:30. We finished the callbacks. The producers and I then went over all our choices. It took us some time but we all finally agreed on our 4 choices. The producers will phone all the actors tonight and let them know the results.

Next thing to schedule is the cast read through. This is when we discuss the script, the scene objectives and the character objectives with the actors so we are all on the same page.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Did another revision of our script this morning. Added all the notes we had from our last casting callback session on Monday night. Script is 6 pages now. Structure is good. Should only be dialogue changes from now on. (Actors can help us with those.)

Completed my first pass of the shot list this morning. I’ll go to the Storyeum ship set Thursday to work out my shots with the location.

The producers are arranging for meetings with Make Up team this week as well as a Cast read-through on Saturday.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spent an hour on the ship set this morning revising my preliminary shot list based on the actual location.

TIP: Revising your shot lists on location is a very important part of the director’s process. It’s only when you can spend some time on the set (or practical location) that you get a real sense of the best directions to shoot and where your best camera angles will be. These decisions will greatly effect the Art Department and the DOP. They will also give the 1AD an idea of how to schedule the shots.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Revised the script again. Want to create more of a shooting script now, so I divided the larger action scene up into a 2 more scenes to reflect my shot list.

4:30: Meeting with the  producers. We went over what happened this week (art department meetings and make-up meetings.) We have a good feel for the 4 characters now and we will use this knowledge to create the look we want (Hair, Make-up, Costume, Props, Set Dressing.)

We have a read-through with our 4 cast members tomorrow from 1:00 – 3:00. We then visit the ship set with our Fight Co-ordinator to show him the set, talk about the fight sequences and walk through my preliminary shots.

We sent out the revised script to the actors. We will use this script for the read-through on Saturday.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

1:00. Our 4 cast members joined us for a one hour cast read-through of the script: Mark Downey (Hook), Ian Belcher (Pan), Emily Vickerson, (Tink) and Martin Story-Kapusta (Jeffery).

The first thing we did was have the actors read the script through once, with Justin reading the scene descriptions. We then discussed each scene by first defining the scene objectives, and then discussing each character’s objective in the scene.

We had a lively discussion on each character and this opened up more possibilities for playing the subtext.  The last thing we did was read the script through again, but just the dialogue and not the scene descriptions.

I also gave the actors some homework. They are to email me any line changes they would like in the script based on our newly defined character traits and objectives.

3:00. We met sword fight coordinator Braun McAsh, on the ship set at Storyeum to walk through the fight sequences. We spent about 1 1/2 hours working out all the details of the each fight.

We have 4 fight scenes that have to be choreographed and rehearsed before our shoot day on February 4. I walked Braun through the set and then went over each scene by showing him the location, the rough action I would like to see and the shots I want to use.

We also talked about each character and what they were doing and feeling at that particular time of the story. Braun told us he figures out how to choreograph a fight, and what weapons they should use, based on the characters and what they are going through emotionally throughout the story. This is why directors need to know our script and our characters intimately!

The producers now need to arrange the times for the actors and Braun to get together over the next 10 days and begin the rehearsal process. The producers also have to arrange for Braun to see the variety of swords they have collected so he can choose the right one for each character.

TIP: I left this critical decision (choosing the swords) up the Braun because not only does he have to match each sword to each character, but also match each sword to each actor and their physical capabilities. You don’t want to have an actor standing on the set holding a cool looking weapon – and not being able to handle it properly! Now that’s not cool 🙂

Less than two weeks before we shoot!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

6:00. We watched Braun (our sword fight coordinator) begin to teach our actors the basics of sword handling tonight.  Mark, Ian and Emily spent an hour with Braun as he walked them through some routine steps as well 8 ways to handle the sword. He will begin to rehearse the fight scenes we discussed on Thursday.

7:00. We talked to our key make-up artist (Malin Sjostrom) about the look of our 4 characters.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

6:30. We had our ship set Tech survey at Storyeum tonight. Our 1st AD, Arun Fryer (a VFS grad) introduced everyone and then I walked them through the set and then showed all the locations where the scenes took place on the ship. Our DOP, Vince Arvidson and I discussed the lighting and logistics requirements for the set as well as special requirements for individual scenes.

We then discussed all the art department and set decoration requirements with VFS Film Production Art Instructor Siobhan O’Keefe and her two art assistants, Jane Hur and Jan Floor (both VFS grads.)

TIP: Technical surveys are a very important part of your prep. The more you know about your script and your shots, the better you will be able to help the crew with their jobs. Tech surveys are also important because if there are any changes to be made (re: lighting, art department) it is better to know earlier in prep then on your first day of shooting.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

6:30. More sword fighting lessons with our cast and Braun.

On Tuesday night, Braun showed them how to handle the sword, plus basic steps and 8 positions to hold the sword. He now started to rehearse the choreography for the 4 fights we will be doing on set.

He took each actor through a series of moves for one fight and then had then write down the moves so they could remember them. He then went over the moves again, not focusing on speed, but on the moves themselves.

Friday, January 28, 2011

6:30. More sword fighting. Braun went over the first fight moves with each cast member and then taught them the choreography of the next fight scenes each actor will be involved with. The cast then sat down and wrote out the moves so they would remember them. Braun ended the session by going over all the moves they had learned so far.

Special Note: If you are interested in the art of fight choreography, F. Braun McAsh has written the only authoritative book on this subject called “Fight Choreography – A Practical Guide for Stage, Film and Television.”

Monday, January 31, 2011

3:00. Art Department Meeting. We had a look at several of the props the art department were creating for the show.  The producers also showed us photos of all the cast costumes as well.

3:30. Production Meeting. Arun, our 1stAD and Hakan, our 2nd AD, went over all the logistics for our show. We also confirmed call times and make-up times for the shoot on Friday.

6:30. Fight rehearsal on the set. This was the first time the actors saw the ship set. I walked through the entire script with the actors scene by scene, showing them where everything was going to take place.

Braun then began the sword fight rehearsals. Based on how the actors were moving on the set, Braun and I started to change the fight choreography to fit their movements and the physical realities of the set.

9:00. Cast rehearsal. This was the first time I actually had a chance to rehearse the actors for dialogue and action (without sword fighting.) We read the script through first and the actors all made some line changes. Then we rehearsed each scene on the set actual locations.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

6:30. Fight rehearsal on the set. Braun took all the actors through their paces using the locations on the set. This rehearsal was still about the finding the rhythm of each fight and the sword work itself. Braun will go into the footwork on Wednesday night. This will be the last time we can rehearse on the set as the art department will need time to dress it for Friday.

9:00. I had a special treat for the 4 actors tonight. Trilby Jeeves (acting coach) came in for an hour and took the cast through some of her Buffoonery Acting exercises to tap into the depths of their characters.

Trilby’s Buffoonery acting workshops take an actor’s performance to an exaggerated level so they have a tool for “getting out of the head and into the body”. This process also helps actors to make unexpected and honest discoveries that will feed their work.

The cast also had a lot of fun (especially after 2 hours of intense fight rehearsal) and it really helped to solidify their characters. It was also a great time for cast bonding as well.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

6:30. Continue fight rehearsals. Emily (Tink) was not available so Braun worked with Mark (Hook) and Iain (Pan) for 2 hours.

8:30. Cast rehearsals with Mark, Iain and Martin. We went over the script and talked about each character’s dialogue so that we were all on the same page. Then we got on our feet with Mark and Martin and rehearsed their scene several times.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Last day of prep.

6:30. Had Iain and Emily rehearse their big scene so we were prepared for the shoot tomorrow.

7:30. Last sword fight rehearsal with Braun.

9:00. Last cast rehearsal. We rehearsed all the scenes again and had our final discussions on character and motivation. Told everyone to go home and get some sleep. We will be “rockin and rollin” tomorrow.

I also went to the set (the crew were still shooting the second episode in an other part of Storyeum) and talked with Jan and Jane (the Art Directors) about where to start dressing the set in the morning based on my shooting order.

NOTE: Please check out the producers blog on the making of this film: Compendium: The Evolution of Storytelling – Team Rumble

Please continue to:
(3) “Steampunk Neverland – Forever” Production

 

STILL PHOTOGRAPHS: By permission of Chara Berk Photography, Samantha Green and Trilby Jeeves.

 

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