It Takes a Village to Wrap a Film Shoot

A first-time filmmaker chronicling his experience for The Atlantic finishes principal photography.

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The author and assistant director Lenny Payan plotting out a shot at the Copacabana in midtown. (Richard Louissaint)

We wrapped principal photography on Big Words shortly before midnight this past Wednesday. We finished out the shoot in a cute, little Brooklyn wine store and there was much toasting and rejoicing. My first feature was done and I thought I might cry in that moment. But I didn't; I was probably just too tired. It's Friday now and I still don't feel fully recuperated from the exhausting 18-day schedule. Nevertheless, I've already begun to miss the voices, like Lenny's calm baritone, constantly in my ear and in my head asking my opinion, lending advice, and helping me refine my vision.

Filmmaking is such a collaborative process that it is dizzying. I thought I was making a tiny movie, but it all got weird and massive for me over a month ago when I started receiving emails from a prop master whom I had not personally hired containing images of nuggets of sticky, green mock-pot in various stages of congealing. Some woman who I had never even met or spoken with had apparently been up all night experimenting with different combinations of honey, eggs and oregano—all because, like so many lazy storytellers before me, I'd off-handedly written a weed cipher into my movie.

And that's just pre-production. From the moment, you first yell "Action!" someone is always chiming in. Whether it's your script supervisor warning you that the camera is over the wrong shoulder for that last "dirty single," or your sound mixer letting you know that, while your lead actor may have just nailed a take, that barking dog/honking car/screeching jet/marauding ice cream truck outside just rendered his last few lines unusable. 'Going again,' I say. 'Wait,' shouts the director of photography, 'We need to put some black wrap on that china ball," and on and on like that...

The voices can be overwhelming. After a long, hard day in a cramped location, they can certainly be irritating. But eventually, it hits you: These are the smart people. If you did your job right early on, these are the professionals you hired to safeguard what was, at the time, really just the idea of a movie. In the case of Big Words, this was a rag-tag gang of incredibly ambitious and resourceful creatives who signed on despite a paltry budget because they believed in the script. (Regardless of how this film turns out, I'll always know I wrote a hell of a screenplay by the caliber of talent I was able to attract.) Knowing all this, you begin to trust these people. They become your friends, but better, because they're saving your skin every day in one way or another. Pretty soon, it's impossible to imagine going through the process without them.

Then, suddenly, something that seemed like it might last forever is simply done. The last martini shot is in the can. "Ladies and gentleman, that's a wrap on Big Words," I tried unsuccessfully to announce with Lenny's same cool. Then the voices simply went home or, hopefully, moved on to better paying jobs. And it's friggin' strange. I can't speak for every director, but without my crew around me, I feel alone in a profoundly disturbing way—like sitting in the middle of a vacuum waiting for someone to clap the slate. Maybe this is something you get over. But then again, maybe it isn't. There appear to be many addictive things about being a filmmaker, and maybe this is one of them: You get hooked on the voices. You spend your career desperately chasing collaboration, art by committee. Fortunately for me, I still have weeks of post-production to get the film ready for festival submission. So I have plenty of time to get chummy with my editor.

And, also, tonight is the wrap party. I get to hear the voices all together again one more time—even if they are a little slurry from alcohol.

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Neil Drumming is a filmmaker, screenwriter, and journalist. He is a former staff writer and editor at Entertainment Weekly, and his work has appeared in Wired, The Washington Post, Vibe, Rolling Stone, Essence, and Vanity Fair.

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