Half Sisters : A Quirky Webseries
Recently HALF SISTERS was accepted into the LA WebFest. With across the board nominations, it is truly an exciting time for the series! I decided to write a post about my approach to shooting and directing it.
Aside from a few short hints dropped here and there by Christina, as well as knowledge of the show's premise, I stayed out of the writing process until the month before the shoot. At this point we began meeting weekly to read through drafts out loud (the show's co-creators were also the three leads...with me play-acting the other supporting characters). These staged readings were crucial for me to find the style I wanted to approach the series with. Getting a rhythm for the jokes, timing for scene changes and the quirky tone before bringing in the day players was also helpful for me to know exactly what I wanted from the other actors who may only have 2-3 hours of production time before they were off to their next project.
I look for inspiration from other great directors and once I found the tone for HALF SISTERS I turned to Wes Anderson and Richard Ayoade this go around. I felt the film needed a bit of stylized/over-the-top execution coupled with the a matter of fact "this is who these people are" attitude. Christina and I went to the camera store after one of the staged readings and picked out a wide angle lens for the shoot. I was looking for something at the edge of fisheye without the distortion. This was both stylistic and practical as many of the filming locations were in extremely tight spaces. I knew I wouldn't be able to get far enough back for your standard 24mm wide angle lens to get me anything more than a waist shot. These girls were kooky both in their physicality as well as their wardrobe. I wanted to see the whole body whenever possible.
Web series are nearly always no-budget endeavors and it is incredibly difficult to get everyone together for extended amounts of time as we all have day jobs and prior commitments. I was wary of doing the "every other weekend" shooting style because often momentum is lost between shoots and inevitably acting/directing choices can change per shoot. So we opted to do a 5 day shoot over a long weekend (Thurs-Tues) to squeeze all eight episodes in.
We had practically no budget so I threw a desperate hail marry pass to find anyone on Facebook who would be willing to help. Melissa Rossi, an FSU film grad who is a talented filmmaker herself, agreed to help be 'the other everything' for the shoot. From holding the boom, setting up lights, moving props and giving an extra filmmaker's eye to how the different scenes were landing, Melissa was perhaps the greatest unsung hero of this shoot. Without her, I don't know what I would have done.
Another friend, Meryl Murman - who is also quite the talented director - came for a couple of days while she was taking a break from editing her feature dance film Le Pain (which is stunning, by the way). I felt truly blessed at the caliber of filmmakers willing to take a few days to help me realize this project.
We moved fast and light on this production allowing 3-4 hours to shoot each episode. We kept the lighting fairly flat and used angles and lens choices to give the shots a dynamic feel. I often remained on the wide angle lens to get my close ups (which involved putting the camera literally inches away from the actors). We stayed primarily on sticks aside from one dramatic scene in Episode 5. I just couldn't help myself and had to switch to the uneasy handheld feel at least once in this series. My documentary days sneak up in the weirdest moments :)
WORKING WITH THE ACTORS
I was a bit nervous directing something I had little to nothing to do with the writing. And even scarier was the prospect of directing the people who actually wrote it. I was dreading the moment when I might say "Try the line like this" and their response would be "I wrote it and it isn't supposed to be like that." That scenario was something that never happened with HALF SISTERS. The three women treated me with great respect and saw me as the filmmaker, which was extremely satisfying and empowering. In return, I made sure to be clear that this project was their baby and I was there simply to facilitate bringing it to life.
I found that the major joy of directing something I didn't write is that I made choices based on the how the story was coming across and not based on some personal need to "do what I saw in my head," which is a problem with projects that I've been too close to before. If it wasn't working, I just switched the shots without any fuss. There were shot lists but no storyboards. Obviously we didn't have the ability to make t-marks or move furniture on a whim with no crew. So we did a few rehearsal stumble throughs before building camera, set up interesting angles based on the natural obstacles and I then called "action." I only re-directed if something felt false. Otherwise I trusted the actors to be the actors and in turn they trusted me to guide the story. It was a dream.
All first edits suck and this one just fell flat when I started doing the rough cut of Episode One. Christina was out of town working on another film project and I luckily had the night alone to think about it before she would inevitably come back excited to see how everything was going. For inspiration I rented Vicki Christina Barcelona and marveled at how effortlessly Woody Allen can convey tone. I immediately sprang out of bed, deleted all the music I wrote for the show and started looking for fun archival music from the 1960's. I thought about shows like BeWitched and I Dream of Genie. I put these tracks underneath the Episode One rough cut and everything started to work. I began to laugh at the on-the-nose dialogue and the over-the-top quirky behavior. The film had found its soundtrack in all those cheesy open-source soundtrack samples.
The last piece of the puzzle was the voiceover done brilliantly by Ant Simpson, an Australian voice over artist who had worked with the show's creators at UCB. We started hosting test screenings and people loved it. My first comedy series is in the can and I'm eternally grateful to the cast, my film school buddies and of course the incredibly talented group of women who asked me to direct this show. I hope you enjoy the episodes!