Francis Ford Coppola said that a film gets made three times: when it’s written, again when it’s shot, and yet again when it’s edited. These are all crucial stages to storytelling in film, and each one has its own demands and creative requirements.
We are in a season where all those stages are intermingling: we are editing Compline and None; syncing Terce so it can enter the editing process; shooting pick-ups for Terce and None; finishing scripts while in preproduction for Sext and Prime; and drafting treatments for Vigils and Lauds. That doesn’t take into account all the ancillary elements to keeping a production going. Blogs and tweets and posting facebook updates and finding money, filling out our equipment packages, casting, securing locations and navigating the never-ending challenge of no-budget filmmaking: scheduling.
It’s good to stop at this stage and acknowledge that everyone who lends a hand during this time is donating to the Praying the Hours project. The hours that Meaghan Baldwin has spent in Pasadena sync’ing audio and picture for Terce. The hours that Greg King has spent at his studio in Los Angeles helping to define the editing style for the project through his work on Compline, or those spent by Patrick Duff helping to bring the footage for None to life. The hours and hours and hours spent by producers Rob Bethke, Ron Allchin, Matt Webb and Tamara McMahon who meet weekly to keep things in motion, to schedule (and reschedule), to search for lens prices, to ingest or copy footage, to color correct stills and to send the scores of emails necessary to firm up all the details of an active production shoot. And those who pray and who send money. All of them, filmmakers.
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.
By Director Lauralee Farrer
One recent morning, before the None shoot, an unexpected expense came up that was very disheartening. That afternoon, in an equally random, unexpected way, someone texted to say she had been praying for us, and thought: I could give some money. I could do that. And a figure came to her mind, so she thought, that’s good.
The expense was over three times the amount of the donation, but a strange thing happened: we were more encouraged by the gift than we were discouraged by the expense. It made me wonder if there is such a thing as kairos (grace) money as well as time.
The incredible timing of her gift gave us the feeling that God sees us and draws others to us who are called to pray or to give at just the right time—this is a mysterious lesson that is as inspiring as it is unpredictable. It gives you the assurance that you are not alone. That, as Goethe said, the cosmos will open to help when you need it.
Other amazing things have given us the same “illogical” but profound encouragement. For example, we were planning on shooting with two cameras, but we still hadn’t received all the equipment for the one Red Scarlet that we ordered and paid for back in October. Yet the day of our first shoot here in Los Angeles—the very day—another friend of the production received the Red Scarlet camera he also ordered back in November, and he rushed it over to us to use. To my mind, that’s two miracles: that the camera arrived within hours of our need for it, and that the new owner was as excited as we were that we should use it. The brand new camera for which he’s been waiting breathlessly since November—that’s the one that he dropped off for our use and thanked us for the privilege of doing so.
We are limping through the costs one inch at a time. That is stressful. But now and then, at just the times when we need it, an inspiring gift of confidence, generosity or other encouragement will come through. Like the day that a location turned sour and we lost an important venue, only to replace it immediately with something much better—Mario’s Añejo Duddery in Echo Park. We rewrote the scene to make use of his unique place, and we had a blast. He thanked us over and over for coming to his shop, took photographs with us, invited us back, helped move equipment, acted as an extra in the scene—even loaned Aaron Paul Ballard a shirt for a pickup scene that he later gave him as a memento.
Alongside these uneven ups and downs, slowly but surely, we’re shooting the project. We are 2/10ths of the way done. No one is quitting their day jobs or wrecking their marriages or losing their health, and the film is starting to get in the can (or the hard drive). That, too, is a mystery. It’s not easy. Tamara and I were just discussing yesterday how this work pushes us to our edges and forces us to face our weaknesses. But it’s good work. And good stories. And good filmmaking. And in the midst of the good stories and filmmaking, the generosity of friendship is the truly transformational power, through which we end this process different people than we began it.
Thank you, Patrick Duff for the photos, and for your remarkable friendship.
When we were in Indiana, early one morning before a day of shooting, I texted my friend Keri Tombazian to ask her to pray for me. I realized with horror that I had texted her at a little before 3 a.m. in Los Angeles (or at the hour of Vigils). Later, at a “decent” hour, I texted again to apologize. Typical of Keri, she replied: “don’t ever worry about that. My phone is on kairos time.”
Kairos, of course, means “grace.” Chronos time is the polar opposite, it is unforgiving, relentless, unstoppable. That’s the time we live by, mostly, with the exception of the transcendent kairos moment here and there. In a conversation with Tricia Harding the other day we were both bemoaning the fact that in this life, at least, we will always be caught in tension between chronos and kairos. The late Ray Anderson put it this way: we are made of dust yet we have eternity in our hearts.
Making this movie that focuses so intently on the hours, you’d think the one thing I wouldn’t forget is time. The truth is, I not only forget the hours, I forget to pray them. That’s a short route to hypocrisy and to losing sight of the purpose of this ambitious project in the first place—which is to dive more deeply into the mystery of the place where time and prayer merge.
So, we have a modest plan. We have a small team that thinks about distribution and social media, as we hope that by the time we’re done with this project we’ll have our own delivery system for it. In those conversations, we’ve been considering the value of Twitter for slowly building an audience. We invited Eric Jessen and Matt Lumpkin to one of our producer meetings to give their opinions on the subject. Both said the same basic thing about the secret to Twitter: say something interesting.
Among us, we decided what would interest us would be a daily tweet at a specific hour of prayer with a reflection, scripture, or thought about the personality of that hour. To remind us that while we are making the movie Praying the Hours we ought to be praying the hours as well.
Starting on Monday, March 26, 2012, and for 30 days thereafter, we will tweet every day at 3 p.m. at the hour of None—the hour we finished shooting last week and are starting post production on. Follow us on @praythehours .
None is the hour of the day when “shadows lengthen.” There are only a few hours left to daylight and the heart sinks to consider it, knowing that you will not complete all that you hoped to in this day (it applies equally to a lifetime). This is the hour to pray for courage, to rise up and ask God to help you focus on something that has eternal value. It’s a good hour to admit your limitations and embrace grace.
By Director Lauralee Farrer
The “found moment” is our shorthand for authentic moments that inspire a film but cost a fortune to orchestrate. Here’s an absurd example (except that it happened in the movie Ray): A common hummingbird flies in your open window and buzzes there, then zips out. Your heart pounds as if it were an angelic visitation. You write, of a person who has an epiphany, “a hummingbird flies in her window.” Later, producers have to organize a scene that requires a hummingbird wrangler or expensive CGI. To make an even sillier point, at the time of its release, Titanic was the most expensive movie ever made, while the sinking of the Titanic happened for free. What cost so much was making it happen on cue.
On a far smaller continuum of epiphany to disaster, independent filmmakers try to manufacture the organic moment just like big budget filmmakers do. On PTH, we are using a shooting style that is half-documentary and half-narrative to capture the truthful moment, much as John Carney did so beautifully in the movie Once.
We write a story, built of bones and filled in with dialogue and action—instructions of the kind of thing to look for and to film. When actors are cast and locations secured, we rewrite around the reality in order to accomplish the same ends as the first script, but in a more organic manner. When the script for None called for a baby to be sleeping and she was irrevocably wide awake instead, we rewrote a scene that required a laughing baby.
Before the None shoot I showed DP Abraham Martinez the locations in advance. He said, “these locations are perfect for the script!” Of course they are, I wrote to them after they were secured. We write/film/edit a story from pieces of real life, relying on our ability to see the narrative in the circumstances surrounding us. I told one cinematographer: “God will show up. It’s your job to get it on camera.” This requirement to be present is unnerving to some and liberating to others. To my mind, cinematographer Jordan McMahon is the prince of the found moment. He knows how to compose and frame a shot, but he also has a sixth sense of when something is about to happen—even if it’s stillness—that speaks to the moment the scene calls for.
During one of the scenes it was my job to pick up a mousetrap and place it in one of the kitchen cupboards. We filmed it enough for me to let my guard down and realize that mousetraps are nothing to be afraid of. And then, while scooting the trap to the center of the shelf, it snapped shut, flinging peanut butter in every direction. I have no doubt my screaming was heard in Canada.
That was a simple—and hysterical—found moment that was easy to catch. Recently, as we shot the story of None, there were sober, winsome, sad, pensive, and charming moments, such as a moving bus throwing a maze of shadows across the frame shop (seen by Abe) or a picture frame reflecting the expression of the framer as he works (seen by Jordan). In the script I wrote the line of dialogue: “I just don’t think about it.” After that, on a location scout, I saw a small framed image that had written on the corner of the canvas “I try not to think about it.” That was eerie. And now I realize, often that’s what it takes: stop thinking, and see.
By Director Lauralee Farrer
If you’ve read Matt Webb’s blog on the Kinema Commonwealth, then you understand why I rankle a little at the name “extras.” I don’t need to buy the world a coke and teach it to sing harmony, but extras are human beings, not happy meals. I know that actors are used to the title “extra” and not offended by it, but I like what they are called in the world of opera: “supernumeraries.” The word simply means someone who is paid for a temporary contract, but I like hearing them called “supers” and I like that the word can be applied to actors, professors, police, ministers, judges, military personnel, writers or—if Wikipedia is to be believed—knights and ladies. Now we’re talking royalty.
Extras are the rarest kind of human being—people who will drive all the way from their homes to Echo Park late on a work night, stand in line for an hour just to be in the blur of a filmclip, and go inside to stand for two more hours while the band they’ve come to hear is annoyingly stopped and started and stopped again. In the case of our independent film, they didn’t do it for a paycheck, or to save $5 bucks at the door, but just because they are friends of the production, and because they enjoy one another’s company (and a free Parson Red Heads concert!). We are indebted to Emily Morton who organized our crowd on the night that we shot a vintage clothing shop turned temporary club, who cared for people, made sure they knew what was happening, and whose gift to the production in that form cannot be repaid. Our DP Abe Martinez overheard one of the extras laughing who came out to hear the Parson Red Heads in our PTH story of “None, the Story of the Mournful Songwriter.” Kerry Royce has a unique laugh that he recognized right away: “I used to hear her laugh listening to podcasts while we were in Africa,” he said, “it made me feel like home.”
That’s sort of what extras do—make a unique environment feel like home, and I cannot thank them enough for coming out that night. They give a scene authenticity, focus, attention. Tish Dragonette is the consummate extra. She has a great time while she is there, is patient, attentive, and interested. Not to mention beautiful. Kahle McCann too. He’s good at paying attention and helping to direct focus to what you are trying to create out of thin air, which is, of course, some approximation of real life (also beautiful). And Sarah Parker: unique, lovely, fun. When I listened tonight to Loren Roberts’s mix of the Parsons’s set, I could hear the voices of our friends cheering: full-throated, happy, believable, committed. The script calls for “the crowd goes wild” and for Evan to say, “thank you. Thank you.” When I heard exactly that happen, I got goosebumps, and I thought, that’s more than I hoped for. Something extra.