Thursday, January 26, 2012

3Questions: Doug Richardson - Screenwriter

As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Doug Richardson, screenwriter of Die Hard 2, Bad Boys, and Hostage, (among others) and author of the novels Dark Horse and True Believers. As Doug puts it, "I'm an author/screenwriter. Which means when I'm fed up with Hollywood, I work on a book. So what I do depends very much on my mood. Presently, I'm promoting my most recent novel, The Safety Expert."

HBAD: How did you get your start?

DR: I got my start like anybody else interested in writing. I got behind my typewriter and wrote. And I did whatever I could to maximize my time at the keyboard. Write, get read, rewrite it, and move on. Eventually I got noticed.

To fill you in a little bit more, this is from Doug's bio: Doug left Northern California for Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema. For as long as he could remember, Doug had wanted to be a movie director. But in pursuing his goal he discovered how movies are really made: in the writing.

After finishing college, Doug signed a two-year contract with Warner Brothers. In 1989 he garnered national attention when his spec screenplay was the first in Hollywood to sell for a million dollars. Doug’s first feature film, the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder, was produced in 1990. He has since written and produced feature films including the box office smash Bad Boys and, most recently, Hostage. To date, Doug’s features have grossed over 800 million dollars worldwide.

HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?

DR: Other than the obvious and somewhat overwhelming competition in the screenwriting trade, I'd say it's keeping a moral center. Hollywood isn't a gentle place. Honesty is in short supply. It's very easy to become cynical in this town. Yet after a lot of years, I still believe in movies and their power to entertain, uplift, or transport. For me it's a healthy mix of cynicism and faith.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to break into representation?

DR: Simple. The road to success is paved with the bones of talented who've been run over by relentless people. If you don't find that fire in you to succeed, to put in an effort beyond everyone else who claims to want what you want, then you can't expect to ever arrive at your destination.

Visit for more info and follow Doug on Twitter at @byDougRich

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dig: Official Selection -- Durango Independent Film Festival

I am pleased to announce that Dig is an Official Selection of the 2012 Durango Independent Film Festival. The festival, which takes place in Durango, CO will run from February 29th - March 4th. Check back here for more updates, including screening times and locations!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Level 26: Dark Revelations -- Production Journal - Day 5

Warning: Potential book and cyber-bridge spoilers ahead.

Day 5:

Call time: 10:00 am

Burbank. Undisclosed hotel location. The fact that we were able to shoot in a working hotel in the manner we did was such a coup I can’t even begin to explain. This was another massive day: 10 pages / 5 scenes. Looking back on it now, this really should have been split up into two days but operating with the budget available to us, there was no way to build our own location on a stage and, unfortunately, it would have been a little risky to do two days at the hotel.

We had a lot of different scenes with a lot of cast, effects, a few small stunts and a tight confined location (which didn’t help with the lighting).

We started the day with a flashback scene that comes in the middle of the third bridge. As Labyrinth is talking to Charles Murtha he thinks back to this scene. Labyrinth, essentially, was a Jason Bourne type of assassin for MI:6 in Britain, having come up through the SAS. One of his first missions was to assassinate this man named Lisandro, who was a revolutionary leader in Santiago, Chile (invented, of course). This was the one scene completely invented separate from the book and Travis and I wrote it to explain the moment when Labyrinth began his journey towards where he is now. Lisandro challenges him in a profound way that alters his vision of what he’s doing and why.

Photo by Alex Minkin
We’re filming this scene in a practical bathroom with mirrors everywhere so it took a little working out. For the gun shot, Bruce, our prop master, brought in a guacamole gun, which is essentially an air powered device that can shoot blood, guts, etc. to mimic a gunshot. It’s pretty awesome but, of course, it’s messy. All I can say is that Hal looked badass in his black gear with the silenced Browning .22.

I actually learned something really fascinating on this shoot. Initially, in the scene, I had Labyrinth using a silence .45. Bruce, who was a former member of Delta Force and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan back in the 90s, told me that the only gun that can actually be silenced is a .22. Anything larger and you still hear the gun shot. In fact, if you were to fire a silenced .22 all you would hear is the click of the hammer. Crazy!  Wanting to maintain as much authenticity as we could, we switched it to the .22 and it plays really well. We never fired the weapon as the shot happens off screen. It took us quite a while to wrap this scene up, after which we moved immediately into what will be cyber-bridge 5.
Photo by Alex Minkin
In this bridge, Labyrinth has kidnapped Shane Corbett and brought him up to a hotel room where the three of the many women he raped (remember the scene we shot yesterday?) are given the chance to get their revenge.

There’s a lot of movement in the scene, from Labyrinth dragging in Shane, sitting him down, getting in his face, turn to stop a girl from attacking too early, going back to Shane, tying him up, standing back, pulling out a phone, kneeling down to film as the girls approach Shane and cut him. Paul and I decided to shoot this whole scene hand held and in order to capture a certain amount of energy from both the actors AND the camera operator, we decided to try the angle looking towards Shane in one long shot, as opposed to breaking it down. The idea was to then turn it around and shoot the angle looking towards Labyrinth and the girls in one take, using two cameras (as most of this shoot did). We did several takes of it and the energy of both Hal, the girls, Shane and Nate (camera op) was fantastic. And I could see the bits and pieces I know I’d end up using in the edit, which were usually parts of a shot or angle that would be tough to explain to an operator to get or that happened accidently because of how everyone was moving through the scene. (Hence, my reason, as explained in yesterdays post, for shooting long takes.

Photo by Alex Minkin
 After finishing the angle on Shane we broke for lunch. Afterwards, we came back and shot the other angle out, followed by shallow focus slow motion shots of the girls slicing Shane to death, followed by some inserts of the glasses being broken. We next had to get the girls, Nathalie, Jennifer and Haley, bloodied up to show the progression of the kill. So our make-up artist, Jennifer Mann, took them into the bathtub and went Jackson Pollock on them.

At this point we had gotten really behind on our schedule. Coming up were two scenes that took place in a hotel room both involving the same actors and technically the same location but I was being told that we couldn’t continue shooting in the hotel until 3am. Beyond the fact that it would have been nearly five hours over our day we also had guests staying on the same floor. So, I was informed that I needed to cut a scene. Without a doubt, I knew which scene I had to cut. While both were important, only one was crux to your understanding of the story in the book. I felt terrible about it, especially because I had asked a friend, Bella Dayne, to come out for it and that she and Alain would be speaking in English, French and German. I was heartbroken when I had to tell her but I knew in the back of my head that I’d find a way to shoot the scene, since I wasn’t cutting it because it wasn’t important, it was because I had to choose one. 
Photo by Alex Minkin

The scene we did shoot that night was probably our most traditional. Lending itself to the nature of the scene and to do something different, we shot the back and forth interview (it wasn’t suppose to be a taped TV interview however) in lock offs with your more traditional master/medium/cu format, albeit, with a little tweak in the framing to satisfy my desire to not do something traditional. It was nice to just let the camera run as these two battled it out and the two actors, Thomas Mikusz playing Alain Pantin and Christopher Frontiero playing Johnny Knack, really killed it. 

Lastly, we had to get the beginning portion of the scene with Lisandro, where he’s standing by the window on the phone saying goodnight to his wife. The scene plays via Labyrinth’s POV view through a closet as Lisandro dismisses his bodyguards and retires to the bathroom. We shot the scene quickly. Jesus Diaz, who played Lisandro, did an amazing job bringing humanity and strength to the character.

And with that, principal photography on Dark Revelations was over. The next day, Saturday, Paul, Hal and I went down to Angels Flight in LA to shoot a quick scene of Labyrinth overlooking the location where the bomb goes off. We totally stole the shot and got what we needed but not before having to kick a homeless man off a bench.

At the end of the day, we shot a 53-minute film in five days, capturing an enormous amount of varied content that, having seen it in its final form on a big screen, feels really epic, really big, very cinematic and incredibly satisfying. I know Zuiker loved it. And I hope you like it as well.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Level 26: Dark Revelations -- Production Journal - Day 4

Warning: Potential book and cyber-bridge spoilers ahead.

Day 4:

Call time: 8:00 am

Malibu. Otto, our Line Producer and 1st AD, picked up Paul and I on the way to the beach. It down poured the day before, when we were on the stages, but it was looking like today would be warm with clear blue skies. Of course, you never know what’s going to happen out in Malibu but it was a beautiful early morning drive in. 

Photo by Alex Minkin
Photo by Alex Minkin
We were shooting at a small beach house out near Point Dume. The scene is pretty much the entirety of cyber-bridge 2, wherein Labyrinth holds hostage a Hollywood actress, her producer boyfriend and orders them to strip naked before turning them against one another.

It was a roughly six-page scene, with nudity (nothing you’ll see in the final cut) and there was a lot to get through. To add to it, we were in the living room of a house, which on one side had a huge bank of windows. Obviously great for light, but it also meant we had to bring in some of our own. We were also fighting light; since we couldn’t be shooting once it got dark (and honestly, didn’t want to anyway). In addition to the bulk of cyber-bridge 2, we had one small series of shots to get of Labyrinth standing on the beach as well as another scene, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Today would be a closed set due to the nudity. As mentioned, you won’t see anything in the final cut, since we’re not allowed to show it anyway, so aside from a key shot here and there, we never see anything and the actress was never fully nude on set. However, for the comfort of everyone involved, the set was closed down to all except the very essential personnel.

To play the role of Faye Elizabeth, I called Tiffany Brouwer, who’s been a friend of mine for a while now and has appeared in several of my projects. In addition to needing to be beautiful and attractive this was a really emotional scene, with the character being put through a fairly harrowing experience and I really needed someone that could deliver on the performance. I had absolute faith that she would (and she did) as well as knowing that she would be comfortable working with me in the described situation. While this role was technically a “day player” there was so much more that had to happen in it that I really needed someone I knew would deliver and could trust.

David, her producer boyfriend, was played by actor Daniel Probert, and of course, Hal was on set as Labyrinth. The scene wasn’t difficult to get through, it just took time. As a director, even when switching angles, I prefer to try and shoot as much of the scene straight through as possible. This allows the actors to have better starting points, allowing them to really get into the scene, but also because I like the surprises that come from it. I’d rather have the actor (or the camera operator) make a bold choice late into a scene and have something really great, than shoot bits and pieces. So, of course, it takes a while to get through but I find that I’m better served by it in the editing room. But it’s also why I don’t spend too time doing too many of takes of any one angle.

This scene was important in a number of other ways. It was the first time we see Labyrinth interact with anyone so I wanted to make sure we had the tone and function of the scene down. While I was somewhat rushed during the other scenes from previous days, I really wanted to take the time to get it right.

Once we had finished angles on both Tiffany and Daniel we needed to get Hal’s. Rather than staging him so the camera looked into the room, we set him up so the camera would be looking right outside, with him in the foreground. Because of this, we needed to deal with the disparity between the outdoor and indoor light so Hal didn’t play as a silhouette.  It was fortunate that we started getting into the end of the day as we shot this so it wasn’t super bright and sunny outside.

While Paul started lighting, Nate (camera op), Tom (1st AC), Hal and myself went outside to get the stuff on the beach. Initially we were going to finish the scene in the beach house before doing this but it was smart we decided to do it when we did because we didn’t end up wrapping the beach house scene until close to sunset.

Once we wrapped cyber-bridge 2, we had another short scene we wanted to grab at the house, where one of the rooms stood in for a dorm room.

The scene is a flashback scene for cyber-bridge 5, where three girls are being raped, individually at different times, by this character named Shane Corbett. I’ll talk about the cyber-bridge itself tomorrow but the point was that we had to shoot the rape scene while out at the beach house.

I had found the three girls during my casting session with Jennifer Cooper the week before, three really amazing actresses: Nathalie Fay, Haley Strode and Jennifer Holland. They all came in for the same role but I knew that whoever was playing these girls would need to be really accomplished and despite the limited lines, perform in a believable and emotional way. I actually rewrote their scene for cyber-bridge 5, based on the casting session, in order to differentiate between the three of them and give them all moments within the scene.

While we were waiting on lighting I sat down with the three of them, and Jared Ward, who would be playing Shane, to discuss the scene. We worked with our stunt coordinator to figure out a struggle that would look real but keep everyone safe.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Nathalie, Haley, Jennifer and Jared’s willingness to bring it to the scene. After one particular take, our stunt coordinator said that he was three seconds away from jumping in and pulling Jared off before slugging him in the face, it was that believable.

I decided, for the comfort of everyone involved, to operate the camera myself. We went through two versions of the scene, one that was very specific for the flashback as written and a longer one to give us more material to cut with.

Despite Nathalie, Haley and Jennifer going through the same routine, each girl made it profoundly different and everyone, including myself, was very disturbed having gone through it. Despite the fact that no clothes are being ripped off, no nudity, no simulated sex, the scene itself comes off as incredibly violent, both due to the performances of Shane, Nathalie, Haley and Jennifer and the camerawork and lighting.

I can’t imagine it was a pleasant experience but everyone was extremely professional about it, it was a huge asset and comfort to the girls to have our stunt coordinator there to take everyone through everything and honestly it shows in the scene. It’s a testament to the professionalism of the cast and crew that we shot some pretty harrowing, difficult and disturbing scenes and got everything we needed.

Tomorrow: Day 5 of Production

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Level 26: Dark Revelations -- Production Journal - Day 3

Warning: Potential book and cyber-bridge spoilers ahead.

Day 3:

Call time: 8:00 am

Photo by Alex Minkin
While Paul started lighting the main CSI:NY set for our bomb squad scene (which intercuts with the interrogation room scene we shot on Monday) we flipped the lights on in the autopsy room and shot two quick plates of the television for the final scene just before Dark walks out.

In addition to the main scenes we had to shoot, the bulk of which was the bomb squad scene, we had a few pick ups from the day before, include the rest of the black ops hospital scene (Labyrinth’s angles only) as well as a shot of Labyrinth in his costume from the fight scene calling out to and taunting Dark.

But first, we had the bomb squad scene. As mentioned above, this is the second component to the first bridge. We couldn’t have higher production values than on this scene. Not only were we shooting on the main CSI:NY set where the lab, video room, Gary Sinise’s office and more is located but since it’s a bomb squad scene we went all out. Our amazing costume designer, Amanda Riley, went out and found the same bomb suit that was used in The Hurt Locker.

Photo by Alex Minkin
We had three awesome actors playing the bomb squad officers: Voltaire Sterling, whom I worked with on Dig; Garret Davis, who played one of the pilots of the doomed FedEx plane in Cast Away; and finally, Andres Perez-Molina, who came into play Cruz, the technician in the suit. If there was a scene in which we had some amazing production value, this was it. And the bomb suit looked fucking amazing. I couldn’t be happier with the result.

While shooting one of the close-ups as he’s opening the box, I watched as this bead of sweat rolls down Andres’ nose. So amazing!

It took us a while to get some of these shots off however. We had to move the character from one end of the hallway to the other, one of the angles was on a dolly, moving through a room and it was a big space to light. This got us into lunch.

After lunch we moved into one of the offices to shoot Labyrinth’s side of the Charles Murtha scene. Contrasting with the dirty, grimy feel of the basement, we decided Labyrinth’s angle should be warm, elegant as he talks with Charles from his office in New York. I hope the contrast will play up well.

Photo by Alex Minkin
Photo by Alex Minkin

This included a few pick-ups on some lines of dialogue; insert shots (in which my hands doubled for Dark’s), and some intro and outro shots of the scene. Despite the lower page count for today it still took us a while to get everything shot since we had five separate scenes/settings to go through.

In addition to that, this was our final day on the stages before moving on to Malibu, so we had to get everything loaded up onto the trucks and wrap out the stages. 

Tomorrow: Day 4 of Production

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Level 26: Dark Revelations -- Production Journal - Day 2

Warning: Potential book and cyber-bridge spoilers ahead.

Day 2:

Call time: 7:30 am.

Big day today. Three scenes, 9 3/8 pages, a fight scene, gun fire. It’s a lot to try and get through. What’s going to make today even more difficult is that we have one hallway that needs to be made to look like five different spaces. It’s somewhat fortunate that the scene itself is supposed to be dark but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier. Any time we turn the camera around, we’ve got to change lighting and figure out the exact logistics of how this works.

I had done much of the work ahead of time while planning out my shots but it’s still a challenge. And that was just shooting everything leading up to the fight.

Adding to it, we were under a lot of pressure to get these three scenes done today because we only had Daniel Buran (Steve Dark) for one day and it was Hal Ozsan’s (Labyrinth) first day on set as well. Just a big, big day overall.

I’ll take a minute here to talk about Hal Oszan. I’m giving some things away here about Labyrinth but fuck it. Obviously, with Labyrinth acting as our protagonist, it was extremely important that we find someone the audience would be believe is capable of both the crimes he’s committed as well as the deep sense of humanity and conflict he undergoes throughout the cyber-bridges. He also needed to be British.

Hal was recommended to us by our amazing casting director, Jennifer Cooper, and after our first meeting I immediately knew he was the guy. Beyond the fact that he “got” the script, the politics of it, the whole idea of what we’re trying to do with this character, he had a charm to him, he knew when to lay it on and when not to and there was a real sense of humanity in his eyes that could be masked by darkness. All in all, he was the perfect picture of Labyrinth before he even opened his mouth.

We immediately hit it off and continued to do so when I met him at his house to discuss the character on Friday before the shoot. He’s an incredibly gracious actor to defer to me despite his experience in the business. You hear stories about actors coming onto the sets of first time feature directors and just railroading them, taking over, being a pain in the ass. Hal was none of those. At the same time, during our meeting, we both came to a mutual understanding of who Labyrinth was, where he was coming from, and why he was doing what he was. Because we were both on the same page, it made our interactions on set that much easier.

I’ll talk a little bit more about my philosophy as a director later on.

Anyway, the scene begins with Labyrinth observing the aftermath of an attempted assassination when Steve Dark tracks him down in the basement hallways of a building in Edinburgh, Scotland, leading to a chase and a showdown.

Photo by Alex Minkin
Photo by Alex Minkin
Photo by Alex Minkin
The first thing we shot were the bits of the chase, then moving on to the initial confrontation. As Dark takes a couple of shots at Labyrinth, we had Bruce, our props master and armorer (who is a really awesome guy, former Delta soldier) loading up the Glock 17 with blanks. Unlike Dark Prophecy where the one bit of gun fire was done separate to the action, we integrated the shots into a longer take so it felt more organic and real than by shooting them as inserts, as I had done on Dig. It’s just so much better not having to have it cut it up. The energy just flows better throughout.

Photo by Alex Minkin
Photo by Alex Minkin
That took us up to the fight scene. We shot in Dark’s direction first and Dan did all his own stunts save for one moment. Meanwhile, since Labyrinth was in a mask and costume we had our stuntman perform as Labyrinth. Because Labyrinth is supposed to be a master at various fighting styles it was important that he be lightning fast, pointed and controlled. Having the stunt man play him during the fight allowed Labyrinth to look and play as if he’s a badass motherfucker and didn’t require us to cut the shots to hide anything.

In addition to staging the fight similar to the down and dirty fights from the Bourne films, I wanted to take that extra step of putting the audience into the fight as it was happening. So, we rented an HD lipstick camera, which allowed me to get right in there with Dan and the stuntman. It’s gritty, shaky and is going to look fucking rad once everything is cut together. 

Photo by Alex Minkin
Once Dan’s angle on the fight was done, we came around on Labyrinth’s angle and finished the scene with Hal stepping in to perform a final reveal and dialogue of the bridge (this moment will only be available in the full length version of the bridges, released after the book comes out.) I’m telling you, the scene was fucking amazing, despite the need we’ll have for VO from Hal because of some restrictions. It’s too bad it won’t be included in the regular cyber-bridge but the plot point was just too significant to not have in the book.

We spent a good chunk of the day shooting the fight scene, more than we should have, and had to book it up to the autopsy set on Stage 3 to shoot the eighth cyber-bridge. This was a big scene, four pages of dialogue between the two characters and it was a hugely important scene. This is the final confrontation between Labyrinth and Steve Dark and it’s actually the final moment in the book, i.e. the book, and the entire series as a whole, ends on this cyber-bridge so it was really important we take the time to get this right.

Due to the amount of time we had available we decided that we needed to shoot out (finish) any shots where we saw Dan’s face. The reverses on Hal could be done with a stand in, since they were all OTS (over the shoulder). 

Photo by Alex Minkin
Photo by Alex Minkin
However, once we got shooting and started wrapping up Dan’s shots, I decided, after discussing with Hal, that we should come around and get a couple takes of him. Despite the shortage of time and the amount of material to shoot (4 pages for each angle) Hal was just really on fire and I thought it would be a shame to 1) break and come back and 2) not have Dan there for Hal to play off of. So, I made the call to turn around and get Hal’s coverage of the scene, knowing that if we needed to, we had the next day to pick up the non-performance sections of the scene. In the end, it was definitely the right decision and Hal delivered a great performance.

The third scene we had to shoot was actually done during the scene described above. While lighting for another shot, myself, Paul, Nate (camera op), Tom (1st AC), Maria (Script Supervisor) and Dan went out to the front of the CBS Radford Admin building to shoot the final shot of Dark in the series.

As mentioned above, there are spoilers here, so if you don’t want to know what happens, I would suggest you stop reading.

The Level 26 series has never been black and white, at least for the audience. Clearly, Dark sees both good and evil as very definitive things, but for the audience, they’ve been on a ride with a deeply tormented and divided protagonist. Steve Dark is not your normal good guy, walking a fine line between the establishment he represents and the bad guys he attempts to put behind bars. I have to applaud Anthony for creating a character so three-dimensional. Travis and I really wanted to use Labyrinth to challenge Dark, to really put Dark’s faith in the system to the test and I believe we succeeded, having seen the final cyber-bridges and heard reactions to it.

Labyrinth is not your typical bad guy. I’ll admit he plays more like one in the books, but as mentioned in an earlier post, we really wanted to make him a protagonist for the purposes of the bridges. In that sense, Labyrinth is really someone who wants the world to be better, believes that humanity is capable of it, but just needs a push. He is that push. He is that spark that will ignite the flames of revolution, so to speak. He’s chosen victims who, by all accounts, probably deserve what they’re getting, and is doing so in the name of making the world a better place. To quote Thomas Jefferson (which was included at the beginning of the script):

"What signify a few lives lost in a century or two?
The tree of liberty must from time to time be
refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
It is its natural manure."

-- Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Labyrinth is merely acting on the same principals as the revolutions long before him. However, he is facing a world that is lazy, that is unable to fathom the thought of revolution, and sees murder as the only way to call attention to the injustices visited upon humanity by a select few – the elite.

As mentioned before, we wanted the audience to agree with what Labyrinth is saying (though maybe not his methods). In this way, with Dark a protector of the status quo, he in fact becomes the villain of the bridges, finding himself perhaps on the wrong of the fight.

This is what Labyrinth hopes to challenge Steve Dark on. In the same way he was challenged many years ago by a revolutionary in Santiago, Chile (Cyber-bridge 3) Labyrinth manages to get into Dark’s head.

The book ends with Dark capturing Labyrinth, thus winning the battle, but the war rages on as Labyrinth’s message spreads from country to country. The revolution has already started and can’t be stopped. So while Dark wins the battle, he doesn’t win the war. As Dark attempts to stand stoic against Labyrinth in his finale moments, Labyrinth calls him on it, leaving Dark with the feeling that he does protect the elite and that, in fact, Dark is not a hero.

The last shot follows Dark walking out of this government building, presumably a black ops hospital where Labyrinth was being held and as he stares off, thinking about Labyrinth’s words, the building stands tall and looming above him. He’s trapped until he makes a decision on which way to go. And the crazy part is, we never see him make that choice. We don’t know what Dark ends up doing. But that, in a sense, is the point. Dark is the reader, someone thinking that they’re on the right side, as we (Labyrinth) start to question that. It doesn’t matter which way Dark goes, the question is, which way will YOU go.

That, at least, is the intent. We shot the scene at dusk to play for morning, did several takes until we were out of light and moved back onto the stage to the finish the day.

Tomorrow: Day 3 of Production

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Level 26: Dark Revelations -- Production Journal - Day 1

Warning: Potential book and cyber-bridge spoilers ahead.

Day 1:

Call time: 7:00 am.

It’s supposed to be a fairly easy day. Four scenes, 4 3/8 pages. Probably the easiest day we’ll have so far (which does turn out to be the case). We’re filming for the next three days on the CSI:NY stages at CBS Radford Studios, one of the amazing benefits of this being an Anthony E. Zuiker project. Even though we’re operating on a fraction of the budget we’ve had before, much less than CSI:NY’s per episode costs, we still get the benefit of multi-million dollar sets, which adds so much production value I can’t even begin to tell you. (Well, you can see it for yourself.)

We started the day in the Interrogation Room set on Stage 2. The scene revolves around two detectives who interrogate a crazy homeless man about a box he’s brought into the police station. This scene intercuts with another to make up the first cyber-bridge. The detectives were played by Dave Baez, best known for his multi-episode stint as Debra’s boyfriend in Season 2 of Dexter, and Tom Ohmer, a former police officer with the LAPD and motorcycle cop with the Simi Valley Police who has made multiple TV appearances on network shows in recent years.

MJ Gazali, a newer actor from Lebanon, played the Homeless Man. All three of them came in and killed it. It was an intense scene, with some dragging, punching, throwing in to walls, but the performances were great and I got what I needed as we moved into lunch.

Following the meal, we set up for a simple News ENG style shoot of Alain Pantin, a European Parliament Member delivering a speech. This will be cut together with shots of protests and riots and comp’d onto a television that Dark looks at in the final cyber-bridge of the novel. Simple shoot. We shot it two ways, one on the HVX in 29.97 for a more TV news look and also on the 5D for a more filmic look.

This is probably a good time to mention that we shot the cyber-bridges on two Canon 5Ds, just like Dark Prophecy. Though it’s been a year, I don’t feel like there have been any dramatic low-cost improvements in terms of production with the Canon cameras. We were still tied to about 20 feet of monitor cable; we still had HDMI cables breaking. Unlike last time, we shot on Canon lenses (before we had cine lenses that weren’t available to us this time around), which is something I was a little worried about. However, once we started shooting they worked great and we really didn’t have outstanding problems with focus or zooms (except when I was operating, ha, I am a terrible focus puller). I was really surprised at the versatility of the lenses we used, moving back and forth between a 24-70mm F/2.8 and the 70-200mm F/2.8. I was really happy with the image we got.

Also, slightly different than last time, I decided to shoot this framed for 2.40:1, instead of the more traditional 16x9. I did this because 1) it’s an aspect ration I’m more comfortable composing in and 2) it gives the whole thing a much more cinematic feel that I think the series could benefit from. Considering all the bridges not only take place indoors but also are mostly dialogue scenes, I felt the widescreen would help enhance the epic quality of the book. I’m more than happy with the result, though the frame lines on the video village monitors were a little wonky due to the down-rezzing and stretch while rolling the camera.

While we were at lunch and shooting the Alain scene, our art department team, led by Art Director Raul Contreras and his On-Set Dresser Tyler Travis, started to dress the interrogation room for the result of a death scene. The walls and so on were covered in gore and blood and it looked really fuckin’ cool. Unfortunately, this shot did not end up in the final edit, as we found through screenings that people were confused about what happened. In an effort to make it easier to understand, this shot got dropped, despite by initial objections. This is a great lesson though, in that nothing in the edit room can be sacred. It’s all about the project, even if that means cutting shots that took you and others a long time to get.

Once we completed the last few shots in the Interrogation Room we moved down to the basement of Stage 2 where we setup a shot with one of Labyrinth’s victims who is chained inside a backup supply pipe. We had to hide the fact that we were in a low, boxy hallway and not a round 10-foot in diameter backup supply pipe. That said, regardless of our limitations, I always imagined it as barely lit, the only light coming from a cell phone and creating a real sense of claustrophobia for both the character and for us, as the light just falls of into darkness.

Actor Alan Brooks was a sport for having to hang from a pipe for most of the scene, despite us making it as comfortable for him as possible. It’s a great scene and looks amazing. Paul did an great job lighting it to look like single source and my camera operator, Nate Kolbeck, took the camera handheld, focus buzzing, moving in and out, and really made you feel like you were the victim. Some great camerawork in this scene.

It wasn’t the most pleasant place to shoot, a dark and dingy hallway, but it got the job done. Regardless, we’d be back the next day for the fight scene between Steve Dark and Labyrinth.

Tomorrow: Day 2 of Production

Monday, January 2, 2012

Level 26: Dark Revelations -- Pre-Production Journal

Photo by Alex Minkin
Writing and Development:

I am, obviously, writing this after the fact. I’m not entirely sure it’s even possible to write a production journal during shooting. There is just absolutely no time. Maybe on a bigger production when you’re not shooting between 7 and 10 pages a day, when there’s slightly more downtime and you don’t have THAT much to worry about when you’re home at night.

I’ll say this though, despite the amount of material we had to shoot in only five days, this was probably the least stressful shoot I’ve ever directed. I had an amazing production team, led by producer Orlin Dobreff, Line Producer/1st AD Otto Penzato and 2nd AD Ron Dempsey, who really allowed me to do my job and focus on the actors and camera, except when it was absolutely necessary to talk about any production related issues (more on that later).

It was also my ninth project with Director of Photography Paul Niccolls, so we were able to easily slip back into an easy relationship that we’ve perfected over the course of working together since 2004.

For those unfamiliar with Anthony E. Zuiker’s Digi-novel series “Level 26,” of which “Dark Revelations” is the third and final in the trilogy, the concept is this: you can consume the novel like any other, read it cover to cover, without missing a beat. However, about every 40 pages, you’re given a code to log in and watch a “cyber-bridge,” which is a several minute long piece of motion picture footage that will continue and/or dive deeper into the narrative of the book. The last two sets of cyber-bridges for “Dark Origins” and “Dark Prophecy” were written and directed by Zuiker himself. This time however, he’s handed both duties off to myeself and it’s a huge honor. Travis and I co-wrote the cyber-bridges together and I directed them.

Each version of the cyber-bridges has been, if nothing else, an experiment in how this multi-media experience works. After readers got a hold of “Level 26: Dark Origins” we heard that they felt like they were missing a part of the narrative if they were unable to watch the bridges, say if they were on a plane or at the beach. We corrected (maybe over-corrected) for “Dark Prophecy” by making the bridges their separate, yet related, self-contained movie. Many readers then felt that watching the cyber-bridges wasn’t really necessary.

On this one, Zuiker allowed Matthew Weinberg, the President of our company Dare to Pass, Travis and myself to come up with a solution. Anthony was interested in exploring the villain, Labyrinth, in the bridges, so together we turned that on its head and not only made Labyrinth the subject and focus of the cyber-bridges but decided to explore his mission from his point of view, essentially turning him into the protagonist (hero) of the cyber-bridges.

Travis and I relished the idea of giving the audience a glimpse into the humanity of a man who believes he is on the right side of history. It’s that famous quote from Joseph Campbell; “The villain is always the hero of his own story.” And so we dove in and began a historical journey through the great revolutions and revolutionaries of the past several hundred years. I’ll let you decide when you see it in the end, but I think Travis and I were able to present a sympathetic character, despite his actions, and may have even pushed you so far as to be on Labyrinth’s side by the end.

We did several drafts of the script, all the way up to shooting, each time building Labyrinth’s arc, building his humanity, his argument and in the end, based on everything the crew and cast said to me, we succeeded, with many thanks to Anthony and Matt’s guidance. Almost everyone came up to me and said, “You know, it’s funny, because I actually agree with Labyrinth.” That was gold because my goal as a filmmaker is to challenge your preconceived notions about how things are, how they should be, to make you think. NOT convince you of one way or another, mind you, but to push you in a direction you might not have thought of going.

I did the same thing with Dig. We took a Nazi, probably one of the least sympathetic characters you can think of, and really did our best to find the humanity in him and I think it shows. We don’t excuse what he did but we do show you a three dimensional human being. Many people have told me, after seeing Dig that they actually felt bad for the guy and were a little weirded out by it.

That’s exactly how I want you to feel watching Dark Revelations. Not that you should feel bad for Labyrinth but that you should find yourself on his side even though he is, by definition, the “bad guy.” (However, I would ask you whether you believe that to be true once you’ve finished watching the bridges and reading the book.)

It’s really a testament to Zuiker and Matt, that they let Travis and I go in this direction but we’ve gotten so many compliments from those that have read it that I really think it was the right thing to do.

Overall, Level 26: Dark Revelations is about revolution. It’s about the very thing that is going on right now with #occupywallst and the protests around the country and the world. Labyrinth believes this world can do better. Maybe his methods are questionable, maybe not, you be the judge. But the parallels to what’s going on across the globe are ridiculous. I really can’t wait to hear what you think.

Tomorrow: Day 1 of Production.