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Mistakes and Missed Takes

Adventures in amateur filmmaking - learning the ropes behind the camera from disasters to brutal feedback to the glaringly cringe.

My directorial debut came on a study abroad year in the USA, when I entered a student competition to make a five-minute short film. I’d love to say my effort was a resounding success, a prize-winner, but it was a disaster. I tried to tell a feature film story in five minutes. I did most scenes in one take. All the scenes were very obviously on a university campus. I even had a conversation with my cameraman while the camera was rolling (pretty unforgivable, that one). Although these rookie errors had me pulling out hair as I edited the footage, everyone involved truly enjoyed themselves, which is a standard I try to maintain.

With a couple more shorts under my belt, and many more mistakes, I felt confident enough in my abilities to attempt something larger in scale. I already had a story in mind – a short fantasy about a former bank robber who must confront his demons – and I knew a few people who would help out. A few friends were kind enough to do a read-through of my script, and they were pretty brutal. Clearly, I didn’t know anything about bank robbers, and my friends couldn’t help but read their lines in parody Italian accents – “Forget about it!” Lesson learned and back to the drawing board, I rewrote the script with characters I understood. I still shudder at some of the lines that made it into the film, but it could have been worse.

For this more ambitious film I was leaving the university campus behind, choosing to shoot at an unfamiliar location downtown. What I hadn’t planned for was the parade going through town that day, as well as the heavy police presence. As a director I was on the edge of a breakdown with worries over a flashback sequence involving two armed robbers in masks, one with a realistic-looking plastic gun, the other with a very real shotgun. As the American police are not known for their sense of humour concerning firearms, I made the decision to film from inside the car and just suggest that the characters were getting out, which works well enough in the final edit.

When filming a night sequence, I learnt the importance of location scouting the hard way. What was supposed to be a deserted alley happened to be behind a busy nightclub, so if it wasn’t a train ruining the audio, it was drunken revellers screaming at the top of their lungs. Apparently, I was also shooting around the corner from a motorcycle gang meeting point. I was considering abandoning the shoot due to near- constant sounds of engine revving and competitive doughnutting, when thankfully the police appeared to shut down the meeting. Thinking back, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to film this happening, because it might have been more interesting than the eventual film.

The most important thing I’ve learnt from all my mistakes has been that none of them were insurmountable. When things go wrong on a shoot, most of the time it can be solved by keeping a cool head, and when one of those once-in-a-lifetime disasters occurs, remember that you’ll laugh about it later.

It is said that someone who never makes any mistakes never makes anything at all. I try to remember this when I watch my old work. Even though the glaring mistakes make me cringe, each and every one has made me a better filmmaker. That train was a bloody pain though.

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