One of the questions I get a lot on A Year Without Rent is "where do you find all these films?" Well…there's a lot of ways. Some of the filmmakers are people I have a pre-existing relationship with. Either I've known them for a couple of years or I've worked with before or I talk to them a lot on Twitter or whatever. But there's only so many of those projects to go around. The rest come in a variety of ways, but usually because someone heard about me via some channels, one thing leads to another, and I end up on a film set. That's kind of how I ended up back in Seattle. Sort of.
Between then and the time I'm supposed to show up, my communication with the production is pretty spotty, so I'm slightly worried. Just how much do the producers know? What's this film going to be like? It's one of those strange situations where the film is already in production, so my arrival is obviously low on their lists of priorities, but still these are the kinds of things that serve as red flags before I show up.
I get to the building and can't really see anyone. There's an equipment truck parked on the street, but I can't really see anything going on. Then again, I'm pretty early. I spot a tent with food under it (craft services!) and they direct me around the corner to where the producers supposedly are. I turn the corner and there's an entire block of RVs and trailers. Holy shit, this film has a budget. I'm shown to the 1st AD Allison Eckert and Key Set PA Keri Owens. They know what I'm doing and proceed to take me into the building where they're filming and give me the tour of the production. I meet some of the producers, who all know who I am and what I'm doing (would you let me on your set without doing some research first?). It's a tiny set, just a 1-bedroom basement floor apartment that's being made to look bigger than it is.
One of the first things Allison and Keri ask is if there's a specific thing I want to do, but since my mission is to pretty much fill in the gaps as needed, I shrug and say that I'll help wherever they need me. So their plan is to rotate me around the different departments. For Day 1 I'm in the Art Department.
The Art Department has 3 people in it (plus me) and the primary job today is to dress the bedroom of Jacob Wysocki, the titular Fat Kid. The character is big into online gaming, World of Warcraft type stuff, so we're hanging posters of game levels and maps on his walls. The maps are made out of multiple sheets of paper that'll be taped together. It's a simple enough job, but you want to check to see just how they should be taped. Are these maps that the production has taped together to look like one big map? Or are these maps that the character has taped together to look like one big map? Because those are two completely different tape jobs. And maybe it's something that very few people watching the movie will ever notice, but it matters. All those little things add up.
Next, we have to arrange some Tabasco bottles in his room. Apparently the character is a big fan, as he's got bottles all over the room and a poster on the wall (bonus: Tabasco has signed off on the use of their product). All the bottles came in boxes, so someone has come up with the idea to take the bottles out of the boxes, thus doubling his collection. Then, we set up the computer to play a DVD that's just a collection of solid colors one could chroma key to. Somehow I get pegged as the computer-savvy person, which would be fine, but we're using a pretty old PC. It takes a few minutes to remember how to get a DVD to play in full screen in Windows, especially since the default media player refuses to do it. Later, when we'll shoot in there, my job is essentially to stay close by so I can jump in and put it back to the full screen mode, should something happen to it (and it does).
All the while, the production is filming in different rooms in the apartment, namely the living room. I'm in the living room, taking pictures during the slow moments, when director Matthew Lillard (yes, the actor) spots me and introduces himself to the new guy on set. I tell him who I am and what I'm doing here. His eyes light up in recognition, "Oh, you're that guy! Wait, I'll do something interesting…"
I love those types of responses. They're so much easier than the ones where I have to keep explain why I would do something like this.
Before Matt can do "something interesting", they're ready for the next shot and he's quickly to the monitor, talking to the gaffer about hot spots on the wall and whether or not that one shadow looks right. It takes about 10 seconds to realize he very much has a clear idea of how the film should look.
And that's maybe the most interesting thing he could possibly do.
Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter:@lmcnelly.