The first time I went to see a 70mm widescreen film at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, I was an adolescent, and I sat with my father on the far right side. I don’t remember what film we saw, but I do remember it being good enough that I wanted to return to see the left side of it.
Sometimes you get an idea for something too wide to fit in your field of vision. Seeing only portions at a time can be a mercy, though, as the entirety can be daunting. Recently as I was describing the Praying the Hours project to someone new, he said, “So it’s like a feature film and a television series.” Right, I thought. It sounds overwhelming when you put it that way.
Eight producers, nine lead actors, a gang of supporting and extra roles, many locations and shifts of people on cinematography, DIT, and editing—that’s our ground floor. I was at an event recently where a stranger introduced himself and said, “I’m working on your movie.” It’s the first time that’s ever happened. Once, I set out to estimate the number of locations, shooting days, actors, and pages of script that we are likely to accumulate by the time we finish. I stopped, sensing it is better to live in mystery when it comes to impossible tasks. David Mamet says, “work until it’s done.” That’s our focus.
But here is evidence to back up our faith: a great team of producers; fantastic actors who are willing to be vulnerable beyond what a director could hope to request; one Hour shot out in Indiana (Compline: The Story of the Reluctant Teacher); one Hour done in Echo Park (None: The Story of the Mournful Songwriter); and the next Hour (Terce: The Story of the Single Mother) nearly ready to go. Audio and video files are being synced for editing, equipment packages are slowly being completed, and new team members are being added weekly.
[By the way, welcome Wes Halula, who is working on the script for Prime: The Story of the Rushing Man, and Glen Hall, who is our production design consultant.] While people float in and out of our filmmaking ecosystem, we often say to ourselves with surprise: it’s happening.
A no-budget production can share, ironically, a freedom similar to a production with an unlimited budget because for us both money is no object. We cope calmly with shifting schedules, losing and gaining team members, locations, story plans, equipment, and/or finances because the biggest risk is the one we took when we set sail in the first place. It’s been impossible from the very beginning, so the fact that it’s getting done is like watching the experience play out in the Cinerama Dome—bigger than we can see, happening right before our eyes, can’t wait to see the whole thing.
A strange thing happened on our first day of principal photography for “None: The Story of the Mournful Songwriter.” The script called for a woman to interrupt the main character “None” (Aaron Paul Ballard) as he is trying to write a song. She urges him to open his frame shop early because of a framing emergency.
Because framing “emergencies” are hard to come by, we had concocted this idea that she wanted to frame a rock and roll poster for her boyfriend’s birthday party that night.
A long and equally strange series of events led me to send a Facebook message to director Michelle Steffes the night before and ask if she might be available to play that customer. She wrote back, “do you want me to act? Or to help you find someone?” I knew for certain I wanted her to play the customer, but I couldn’t explain why. So I didn’t. A great sport (and a good actress!) she said she would give us her day, but that she had one chore she had to take care of: a framing emergency. Imagine her surprise to be called to the set of a functioning frame shop.
Her boyfriend’s father had passed away that week and she had to get his photo framed for the memorial service. A strange coincidence. While I was trying to tell her what I wanted for the first scene, all I could think about was her boyfriend’s father.
Finally, I realized why: the hour of None is when monks go into their cells alone and their prayers include the petition for a “holy death.” That means they face the disappointments that accompany the “none” season of their lives, and ask God to sanctify their remaining years. I asked: will you let us frame this photo in the film? She called her boyfriend, and he said yes.
That found moment shifted the tone of the whole scene. When her character returned to pick up the frame job, she was invited to an impromptu Parson Red Heads concert that night, as a way of lightening what was sure to be a heavy evening. She asked what she owed for the framing job, and I told Aaron, “just tell her it’s on the house, and to ‘come back in happier times.’” So, Aaron said just that. And, in a case of life imitates art, he gave her the framing job he had done, and he choked up on every take (and so did I). Later that evening, when None sees Michelle at the concert, there is a brief but very genuine moment of connection between them. We did not film what we planned, we filmed what we were given.
I do not know Michelle’s boyfriend, but I spent quite a bit of time with his father’s photograph that day, filming it and framing it, and—for my part—praying for him and for the family. It was a very rich and mysterious connection. Just the sort of thing one should expect from this particular hour of prayer. We asked permission of Joey (through Michelle) to tell this story, and he agreed, adding: His name was David. Rest in peace.