Archive for June, 2020

“Altar Rock” production

Monday, June 29th, 2020
The director and AD prepare to rehearse a party scene at the titular rock

The indie feature “Altar Rock” originally had a budget of around $2 million and was scheduled for a 21-day shoot in Plymouth, Massachusetts subbing for Nantucket. I was in Plymouth a week before the shoot to make last minute revisions to the script. And I was there for the first week of shooting. But the first day of shooting there were two huge semi-trailer trucks, several make-up trailers, a crew of 65, and 30 extras… for a brief scene at a bar that has no dialogue and features the main villain watching a news bulletin on the bar television. My first reaction was… there’s no way this is a $2 million film; the director might as well think he is making a $20 million film. And, sure enough, the budget eventually bloated to over $3 million and I was given a call toward the end of the production with the instruction, “We have to cut several days from the shoot,” and whatever pages of the script that might entail.

Production vehicles line the street on the first day of production

The director, Andrzej Bartowiak, who had been the cinematographer on many major films, including “Terms of Endearment,” “Falling Down,” and “Speed” had me cut the original script from 112 pages down to 88. Much of the character development portions of the script were excised, while the action sequences were expanded during the production. So a one-page fight description in the script turned into a 5-minute drag-out brawl in the film. It became obvious the director, relishing the power above previously just being the cameraman, thought he was making an action film like “Speed,” and not the more nuanced romantic thriller as originally intended. I was okay with that as long as it was a good film, which, though compromised, I think it turned out to be.

FBI agent Cantrell (James Remar) delivers some upsetting news to Tillie’s aunt
Lead romantic couple Tille (India Eisley) and Niko (KJ Apa) at Altar Rock

The other location shoot I was present for was when lead character Tillie discusses her new boyfriend with her best friend Felicity on the beach near her aunt’s house, where she is living. This went smoothly, and I was able to have the production photographer get a shot of me and Kristin with the two actresses; India Eisley and Sydney Park. Lead actor KJ Apa wasn’t present for this scene, and I didn’t get a shot with him, unfortunately.

Production resumes at a beach location with India and Sydney (on beach under umbrella
Writer with India Eisley, Sydney Park, and Exec Producer and co-writer Kristin Alexandre

The production did have to be cut short because of budgetary reasons, and I was tasked with excising several elements and pages of the script at the last moment. This was my opportunity to remove all of the cops and FBI that the director had somehow wanted to insert toward the finale that also bolstered the impression the film was a cop drama. The finale, as Kristin and I had intended, was always supposed to be showdown alone between Tillie and her new boyfriend, Niko, on the boat. Now, without a bunch of cops running around, I was able to restore that focus.

Older brother Marco (Scott Atkins) commands the boat where the finale will take place

The crux of the picture was always, who would Niko be loyal to - his brother and family blood, which required he go through with a terrorist bombing revenge act - or his new love; Tillie. The finale would find Tillie confronting him on this conflict, and ultimately discovering his true choice. If the story had developed properly, this would be all the conflict and suspense needed to make the finale powerful, even without the baggage of FBI or police running around with walkie-talkies. Ultimately, the audience will decide if we were successful in that intention.

Location board in the production office showing the title location chosen

And, hopefully, the film will make back some of the $3 million it ultimately cost.

Tille talks to Niko on her cell phone
Niko drives a cab on Nantucket and ponders his predicament
The original poster for the film before it was cast

“Altar Rock” cast script reading

Saturday, June 27th, 2020

Just prior to the production of the independent film “Altar Rock” there is a script reading with the main cast. Okay, where is everybody? Well, no video or camera shots or selfies are allowed during this process. But this is the room where it took place and where I was sitting. Just across from me were KJ Apa and Scott Atkins, who portray brothers Niko and Marco. Next to them was Sydney Park, who played the main character’s best friend, Felicia. And immediately to my right was lead actress India Eisley portraying Tillie.

KJ Apa plays Archie Andrews in the popular CW series, “Riverdale,” and recently starred in the feature film, “I Still Believe.” His father is a maori chief in his native country, New Zealand. He was up every morning at 5 a.m. doing wind sprints up a hill to stay fit. It worked, as he displays his physique in just about every episode of “Riverdale.”

I explained to India that this script gave her the ability to play just about every emotion imaginable for an actress: intense grief at the loss of her parents; drunken despair; joyous discovery of newfound love; fear; betrayal; anger; the works. She explained that, during a read-through, she holds back and just does the reading somewhat expressionless. Well, okay, but as long as you put it out during the actual shoot. She is beautiful, as expected, and is the daughter of Olivia Hussey, who played the original Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.” India also played opposite Chris Pines recently in the limited Noir series, “I Am the Night.”

India Eisley and KJ Apa as lead lovers, Tillie and Niko

Scott Atkins is a popular international Martial Arts film star, more known in the far East and Europe. He’s playing the older brother, Marco, from Albania, who is trying to recruit his younger brother into a terrorist act to revenge their father killed by the FBI. He learned the dialogue and read it with a style or dialect as someone using English as a second language would speak. The director suddenly wanted him to speak perfect English as if he were trained at Oxford. The executive producer (and co-writer) of the film and I were aghast at this proposal. There needed to be a foreign quality about his presentation. The executive producer spoke with Scott on the sly and he assured her that he wasn’t about to change his reading at this point, as he had practiced and learned all his lines the original way. Crisis averted.

Brothers Marco and Niko, as played by Scott Atkins and KJ Apa

Sydney Park is known for her continuing role in AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” and probably headed toward bigger and better things. Watch her star rise. She has the potty mouth in the film and wears a drop dead bikini at one point. But her Asian father was with her the entire shoot and didn’t seem to object, but it made me feel a bit awkward. Not at the reading was James Remar, who plays the investigating FBI agent in the film. Viewers know him from dozens of appearances on television in series such as Showtime’s “Dexter,” where he played the father of the title character.

Sydney Park (Felicia) poses with the writer’s son, Justin

The reading went off smoothly, and I took notes, noting how certain lines of dialogue were delivered, and if they came off awkwardly and needed to be finessed. The only other persons at the reading were the director, script supervisor, and Kristin Alexandre, the executive producer and person who first had the idea for the story based upon her fears that her own daughter could have unwittingly have dated the younger, cute, and more personable brother of the Boston Bombers (she didn’t, but it was as good a ‘what if’ as any to launch a romantic thriller feature premise on).

The classic film “Romeo and Juliet” starring India’s mother, Olivia Hussey

“Altar Rock” pre-production meeting

Saturday, June 20th, 2020

Since the film “Altar Rock” is finally coming to a streaming service near you, I’m going to share some photos from the process of preparing the film for production.

Above is the full pre-production meeting immediately prior to the shoot in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This is where we read through the script and address all issues the various departments are responsible for as those elements appear. Costumes, props, locations, stunts, and permits are covered, usually as overseen here by the assistant director. The director is more focused on story-boarding, or blocking the action of each scene from the script, and working with the actors on their performances.

My seat was in the center of the table on the right side there, and my role was to sit back and listen to the script being read, and possibly answer any questions about intentions or specifics relevant to the production needs. If only the rest of the production and post-production went as smoothly as this meeting did. More on that next time.