It was early August when I had coffee with the Chicago International Film Festival’s Anthony Kaufman and he mentioned that, for the first time, CIFF was inviting filmmakers to contribute trailers to promote the festival’s theme, “Because Everyone Loves Movies.” I brought the news back to Fawzia and Eugene in our weekly meeting and suggested we make one, using Fawzia in her “Signature Move” character Zaynab, albeit in a different scenario than those included in the film. This might be the foundation for a promotional technique we might deploy throughout pre-production, and would give the film a nice boost if CIFF chose to use it. And, it would give us a chance to work together as a team, rather than just talk about it, not to mention the opportunity to work with a director who might be a candidate for the director’s chair for “Signature Move” as well.
We did not have much time, as the finished trailer was due to CIFF by September 15, about a month away. And Fawzia had a heavy travel schedule for performances and screenings of her short films, one of which was working its way through the highly competitive NBC Universal Short Film Festival. Eugene had met Wendy Roderweiss at the Athens Film Festival, where both had short films. Since she was from Chicago and was working in the comedy genre with her short-film series in process, “Stages,” he thought she might be a good candidate for us. We had coffee with Wendy, she was interested, and off we went.
“Zaynab Loves Movies” — Behind the Scenes
Fawzia would write the script, a one-page scene where Zaynab would be en route to the movies with a date, and comedic complications would ensue. Since Newcity has a relationship with the Music Box, I’d see if we could shoot it there, and struck a deal with owner Bill Schopf to do so. Eugene would work with Wendy to organize a cast and crew who would be both available to shoot on September 9, the only day that would work for Fawzia and still give us time for post-production, and be willing to do so on a volunteer basis. We had about a week to pull it all together.
Wendy is on the film faculty at DePaul, which afforded us great advantages in terms of crew and some of the equipment. She found a DP, John Klein, who also had some equipment. Miraculously, the crew came together. The script came in a couple days before the shoot. Fawzia was traveling again, so Wendy and I did some tweaking with it, and then Fawzia gave it a final polish the night before the shoot. Casting of the other two principal roles was up in the air till the morning of the shoot. Fortunately Melissa DuPrey signed on to play Sophia, and we were set.
Eugene had arranged for documentary filmmaker Alessandro Giordano (“Dreams For Sale”) to shoot behind-the-scenes footage and stills. She, along with Wendy’s cast and crew of twenty-five, showed up early that morning of September 9 to get started. We had the lobby for about a half day or so, till the theater opened for business.
Though she did not show it—or tell us till later how sick she was—Wendy had caught pneumonia and her doctor had advised her not to go forward. Not only did she show up, she even made her signature cheesy taco dip for good luck. Wendy, DP John and First AD Timothy Farrell made for a well-organized and productive team. For this first-time filmmaker, I marveled at two things: one, how hard everyone worked, with no complaints or drama and two, how fully the sprawl of people and equipment occupied the Music Box lobby and new lounge.
Part of Fawzia’s strength as an actor is in her improv; dozens of takes later, we knew we had some great stuff to work with. While the crew broke down the set, Ward Crockett, a grad student in film at DePaul who was serving as DIT that day and would edit the film, was transferring all the footage from the camera’s drive to a portable drive we’d purchased.
While that was going on, we brainstormed about the edit. We knew we had multiple, very funny improv walk-off endings. I suggested that we use the commercial technique of the coda; that is the scripted portion plays, then the commercial messaging (in this case, a visual and or voiceover by Ken Nordine of “Because Everybody Loves Movies”), and then, afterward, a return to the scene where the improv element would play. Since trailers play frequently at a festival, I suggested we could send over three different codas, which would “reward” CIFF’s most regular customers. We had our plan.
Just about twenty-four-hours later, Ward sent us all a rough cut. For the next couple of days, many rounds of edits. Fawzia and Eugene offered many precise notes on timing and cuts which Wendy and Ward worked with. I tended to offer more broad-stroke feedback when I felt like I had something valuable to add. Late in the game, a consensus was building to cut a line of dialogue where the character Taryn, realizing that Zaynab does not know her name, says “you don’t remember my name do you?” before storming out. We were trying to cut seconds out to get the trailer down to the one-minute target and my teammates seemed to think this worked.
That cut was not sitting well with me, but I felt like I was so deep into it, that I’d lost perspective. I wrote:
I’m OK with all though have some lingering concern about the lost line. Here’s my thinking on it, but I’ll live without it.
Taryn is the proxy character for the audience. In the first part of the piece, she’s being charmed by Z. and so are we. The forgetting of Sophia’s name is a transgression, but it’s likely one the audience “forgives,” in part because we have no investment in Sophia, in part because we can all relate to the situation, of forgetting the name of someone we have not seen in a while. But forgetting Taryn’s name is a whole other level of wrong: she’s the date, and she is the audience. Sophia’s brisk departure is expected. She was just passing by any way. But Taryn’s departure completely reverses the whole piece, from a love fest with Zaynab to something else. The magnitude of this might need an extra moment to set in. And maybe the line offers the moment for the audience to get the magnitude (Sophia, no biggie, Taryn, biggie.)
The question is, does the audience “get” what just happened in the new brisk cut? The only way we could tell is to have someone watch this fresh (with no familiarity to the story) and ask them…
But I might be overthinking…
I totally hear what you are saying. Ward and I will try out a couple of options for comparison. Coming soon.
An hour and a half later, Wendy wrote back:
I did a little test audience session this morning per Brian’s suggestion and 4 people overwhelmingly decided that “her_her_04” is the cut. This includes Taryn’s line “you don’t remember my name, do you?” I showed them a cut without it and they all thought the scene was about Zaynab cheating on her date, not about her forgetting their names. When I showed them the cut with the line in they thought it fixed the problem, like magic!
We had picture lock.
All that was left was the sound mix. We went a few rounds on music choices, before settling on Wendy’s original pick. Eugene and I would come over for the final sound mix the night before the trailer was due. We went over to DePaul’s CDM center at 8pm and joined Wendy and sound mixer Rob Davis (who I’d met at the Chicago premiere of “Animals,” a film he’d worked on—small world). For a couple hours we tweaked minute details to perfect the cut. And then we noticed a problem: Fawzia’s lips were moving in one reaction scene, but no sound was coming out. The problem was caused by overlapping dialogue and the need to drop her voice out. But it looked wrong. So we went through multiple iterations to try and get it to work. In the end, we compromised on something satisfactory, if not ideal. Another problem came from Fawzia’s jangly bracelet. With her body mic, it sound like crashing rocks when she moved her arm. Again, more tweakage from the sound mixer, and we had a solution.
Ward was offsite, simultaneously working on a final color correction. Once the sound mix was locked, the color mix was sent over for review. To my eyes, it was perfect, but Eugene picked up on some slight variances of skin tone. Eventually, the whole thing was done, and the next morning, we sent over our trailer, with three different versions, each with a different coda.
What an amazing amount of work, and precise detail it had been, to create a one-minute film. But everyone involved agreed that we’d really knocked it out of the park. This was quality, compelling and funny work.
When I sent over the trailer, I asked Anthony Kaufman for feedback as soon as possible. He called the next day. I breathed deep and asked him what he thought. “Ahhhh… I did not really get it,” he said. “What’s the significance of the turkey leg?” I explained that it was just a bit of absurd comedy, not any kind of subtextual phrase or anything. We discussed the coda structure, and he seemed concerned that that might not work for them. The call was not going well. It got better. “We’re probably going to use all of them, if folks went to the effort to create them. But I will get back to you soon about the structure.”
The next day, Anthony emailed me. “I wanted to let you know that Kutza [Michael Kutza, the CIFF founder] loved the trailer/intro you guys submitted, but I’ll still need to get back to you on the ‘coda’ issue.”
The coda, it turns out, was not to be. Anthony chose his favorite of the three and asked us to edit out the break. And then we had to edit our credits. I’d had the impression that the credits would not run with the film but rather be printed in the program. We listed everyone who’d contributed. It turns out that they were running them after the trailer, and had room for very few. So, below, the full credits. An amazing team to whom we owe a deep measure of gratitude. if they’re indicative of the talent pool in Chicago film, we’re in good shape.
Watch the trailer here, as used by CIFF.
And here is two of the three “coda” versions we submitted. What do you think?
Postscript: One of the things I was most excited about was seeing the trailer on the big screen, with an audience. How would it play? Would it get the laughs we thought it would? Alas, CIFF did not release the schedule for this, or any of the trailers, meaning the filmmakers had no rational way to see their work. This was a major shortcoming of this undertaking, not to mention an abandonment of revenue for the festival. I expect, for example, that our trailer alone would have sold as many as fifty tickets, as crew members and guests would have gone to see their work, regardless of the film it introduced.
That aside, it was a compelling start to a new initiative to engage emerging filmmakers with the festival. And, as far as we were concerned, we done good.
Newcity’s Chicago Film Project and Full Spectrum Features
Producer – Brian Hieggelke
Producer – Eugene Sun Park
Producer – Fawzia Mirza
Producer – Wendy Roderweiss
Writer – Fawzia Mirza
Director – Wendy Roderweiss
Director of Photography – John Klein
1st AD – Timothy Farrell
2nd AD / Set Photography – Alessandra Giordano
Camera Assistant – Jason Woodward
Gaffer – Randy Taylor
Key Grip – Chad Gilchrist
Grip – Alex Phillips
Production Designer – Molly Hickey
Sound Recordist – Tim Calistro
DIT/Editor/Colorist – Ward Crockett
Post Audio – Rob Davis
Production Assistant – Dane Haiken
Production Assistant – Tucker Dryden
Production Assistant – Ray Goldberg
Zaynab – Fawzia Mirza
Taryn – Jessica Thigpen
Sophia – Melissa DuPrey
Concession Stand Guy – Griffin Rhyne
Ticket Taker – David Zallis
Extras – Brian Naughton, Julio Padilla, Keith Nixon, Mary Padilla
Filmed on location at Music Box Theatre
Special thanks to William Schopf, Ryan Oestreich, Buck LePard and Alex Peters