This week’s entry is a bit of shameless self-promotion. I’ll be continuing Welles-Fest in the coming weeks, as we still have a few movies to get through and chat about there….
The advent of quality cameras/DSLRs at relatively affordable prices has created something of the idea that making a short film (or indie feature for that matter) isn’t professional work. I think the ease of consuming the product over the web might sometimes give audiences the idea that the creation of the work itself was just as easy.
Over the past few weeks I’ve debuted two short films online. They are Chapters 1 and 2 in what I hope will eventually end up as a 10 part web series. The series is titled, “Never To Turn Back”. The episodes cover the battles of The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse respectively. If you’d like to view them before reading all of this babble go HERE. Together both episodes are about 10 minutes….
This project has its roots near the beginning of my career. Around five years ago I was working with a best-selling author (I shall leave names and titles vague to protect certain participants) on adapting one of his Civil War novels into a screenplay. This novel was a sequel to two previous bestsellers, which had also been made into films. One of these films was great, the other was decidedly not good. We advanced past preliminaries in the process and definitely saw eye to eye as to how we wanted this script to turn out.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Rights issues with previous parties arose and the project was killed unceremoniously. One of the last things the author did say to me was, “No one owns the rights to history, there isn’t any reason you still couldn’t tell a different version of this story.”
Fast forward a few years later. I had just completed my first project with my producer. We were keen to start up something else. I had been toying with the idea of doing some type of web series. The initial idea was something called “Mission Red”, which was about a hypothetical top-secret race to Mars set during the 1970’s.
While doing research on some NASA footage from the era I came across a YouTube video where some chaps had experimented to create a pretty convincing recreation of portions of the Omaha Beach scene from “Saving Private Ryan” with only 3 actors.
This really got the gears turning in my head. The American Civil War as a topic was always something I was passionate about. I’ve lived in Virginia, a hot spot for the conflict itself, pretty much all my life. I also knew there was a large base of reenactors in the area that I could possibly engage to make this happen. I had the setting, the characters, and any number of stories in my head…I decided that this was the challenge I wanted to take.
I had seen a few indie shorts that tackled war. Most of the time though they were confined to a couple characters in the prototypical “lost patrol” scenario. I wanted something bigger than that. This project was very experimental. I wanted to see if larger scaled combat could be done convincingly with about 40 plus reenactors and three DVX100as.
I chose battles from the same time and theater of the war that I had previously worked on a few years prior, Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign. While I developed the two scripts, my producer went into the planning stages of what was turning out to be rather daunting task.
This is probably a good time to talk about why the “Auteur” theory as taught in film school is a lie. Young directors and writers are too often taught that the full impetus of a project comes from their creative center. They then wonder why projects they attempt end up unfinished. The truth is you need talented people around you willing to give their time and efforts. More importantly you need to be willing to trust their abilities.
Welles was an auteur, but please don’t mistake that he made the legends of Gregg Toland or Robert Wise. Those were people that were essential to the sum of the qualities of “Citizen Kane”. The story might have emanated from his creative center, but he by no means did everything by himself. An Auteur doesn’t have to, they need to know how to communicate their vision to talented people in the various departments.
I lay no claim to being an Auteur. I do however assert that these films would not have been possible without the producer, cinematographers, composer, casting director, reenactors, and various other contributors. I came into the good fortune of being able to work with the right people at the right time. (To read about some of those folks click HERE. You’ll also find links to some of their other projects)
Principal photography was completed over the course of one weekend on two main locations. Location A was a fairgrounds area that actually had a pre-built trench line that had previously been used for re-enactments. It also had a pre-constructed (and period correct) plank bridge in a separate section of forest, which was nice for a marching scene or two. You can’t have a Civil War movie without a couple shots of soldiers marching. The trench would fill in for ‘The Bloody Angle’ from the Battle of Spotsylvania courthouse.
This location was also great because it had more than enough space for us to shoot with two camera units. One unit could take a group of reenactors in Confederate garb and film reaction shots and retreat sequences while the other had two columns of Union Infantry filming marching sequences in the woods. This would become our mode of operation when possible, with myself running between the staging areas to direct. All in all we filmed more than 12 pages of mostly dialogue free action material through the process of these two days. That is a lot of hustling when you’re shooting combat. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I couldn’t trust the quality of my cinematographers.
We weren’t always able to split up though. We had a few sequences that required everyone present to be outfitted as one army. We had somewhere around 40 reenactors. I wanted this to convey a sense of scope so the easy answer was to get in tight where possible and fill the frame with bodies. This made editing a tricky process. I couldn’t show the same face too much. Some actors that were featured as one side or the other obviously had to stay hidden for the duration of the episodes. Here again, the reenactors helped a lot. They are experienced at this type of thing and each individual would routinely change the look of their uniforms in between sequences.
Location B. was a private farm residence that had a fantastic forest which would serve as the setting for Chapter 1 (Battle of the Wilderness). This location was fantastic and relatively untouched. It had a lot of dense brush with a few clear and worn pathways. It was the perfect stage for what was a very chaotic battle. Essentially we were able to create 6 different sets in this area alone. Our main staging area was near the farmhouse and then we had a general line of supply that extended through the grounds in an around the forest. It was a bit like planning an actual battle.
Both chapters were shot simultaneously. This wasn’t a problem thematically because the battles took place successively in the chronology of the war itself. I still have to give credit to the reenactors thought for being able to switch gears pretty easily. Re-enacting is a wild hobby, but it ultimately makes them easily adaptable to filmmaking.
I’ve mentioned before that we were able to do this all for around $600. There is no way it could have been done without a lot of people generously donating their time and resources. Our cinematographers (Chris Curl and Tom Shortridge) provided their own equipment and a lot of energy. It’s easy to work on someone else’s brainchild and not really put all of your creative energy into it, but that wasn’t the case with these guys. We had a ton of set-ups per day and they didn’t falter one bit.
The reenactors all worked for free, someone even traveled from other parts of the state and camped out in civil war era tents. These guys were passionate and enthusiastic about the process. We did feed everyone involved and kept the craft services table stocked. This type of thing is essential for an indie production.
I should also mention that the co-ordination of all of this fell on my producer, Amber Alderson. She was willing to take care of working out the food, water, and other real world tasks. This allowed me just to worry about the artistic side of things, which is rare in this type of situation.
Some of the trickier sequences to shoot were the melee/hand to hand combat scenes. Contrary to what you might see in some films, the bayonet wasn’t the main close quarters weapon in the Civil War, the butt of the rifle was. When the lines of the two armies did intersperse it was probably more akin to rugby than anything else….a test of pure will. Luckily, this was something the reenactors were practiced in. They were experienced in safely mixing it up to put on a good show for a crowd. We were able to let them go at it while filming with three cameras. Again, the challenge for each unit was to keep the frame filled and keep it moving to give a sense of the kinetic danger of the situation. There is one steadicam shot at about 3:20 in the first episode that I think works particularly well. This was shot normal speed with the camera moving backwards through the clashing lines. In post it was sped up just a smidge to give the impacts a bit more force.
Editing was completed utilizing Final Cut Pro with just a bit of after effects. Most of the musket firing was practically done, but there were certain places we just couldn’t do that for safety reasons. There were also situations where I wanted the frame filled with extra smoke. Sometimes this was done with an artistic bent in mind, others it had the practical element of filling the screen and making our armies seem dense.
A lot of time was spent working on the sound. For example, I had to find the right sound for bullets zipping through the air. In the end I actually ended up using some arrow flight and impact sound effects that I altered.
Francis A. Rabanes custom created the score for the project. It ended up being the easiest part of the production for me as I was able to give him temp tracks and say, “Make this kinda like this but not at all.” I’ve put up isolated tracks of his music from the films HERE.
We premiered with a cast and crew screening of both episodes at the Naro Cinema in Norfolk, VA. I had seen some of my work on the big screen before, but seeing these in that way was a pretty cool treat. In a lot of ways I think it works so much better in a theatrical setting. The combat scenes really resonate when they are allowed to rumble through a large setting like that.
So what’s next with this series? The 3rd and 4th episodes are completely scripted, with 6 more after that sketched out. The benefit of adapting history is that I knew clearly what points I wanted to hit and how I wanted it to end. I’ve done the hard part of setting the world up, so now each additional episode will be a more conventional self contained story.
This has also allowed me to play with genre a bit. Chapter 3 tells the story of a Union surgeon working behind the lines, praying for just one day’s respite from the steady stream of gore he experiences. It definitely has more of a horror bent as his mind tries to process the gruesome situation.
When I do it depends on funding at this point. I’m hoping to raise enough to do that in the next two months then probably take a break from directing this and move onto other projects. I’ve been tinkering with a few feature ideas and I think it’s probably time to make one of those a reality.
Never To Turn Back Website
Never To Turn Back Episode 1
Never To Turn Back Episode 2
Never To Turn Back Facebook Page
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