If you’ve a little time to spare, and the inclination – feel free to read the [exhaustive] shoot diary, as best as I can recall it. This is more for my own records, but I hope you can get a taste of what it is like to shoot in a run-and-gun fashion on a no-budget horror film, and maybe learn some lessons along the way… oh and if reads a bit “Me. Me and me.” Apologies, but it is straight from my brain and details only my perspective on events:
Thursday – day #1 – SVEN-GUNNAR
Three things that would be good to achieve today:
- Film SVEN-GUNNAR.
- Keep my temper.
- Get some good shots – in focus and correct exposure.
Darwin for all the driving and Johnny’s family (Sven-Gunnar and Mirja) for all the excellent hospitality.
I had managed to get maybe an hour’s sleep. No way near enough. I felt out of it by the time it was time to get up.
I finished packing my bags and left everything quietly by the front door. Darwin and Johnny were running late, so I dealt with some admin as I waited. Ironically, sods law, they arrived as I suddenly needed the loo. Despite communicating to Darwin that I was in fact on the loo, he demanded that I come out to them. lol yeah right.
Once I was outside, we unlocked the garage and moved the car, and as Johnny put his stuff in the car Darwin commented on the fact that we had more stuff than the day before. There was no way any of us would have got our stuff in the car if I had not whittled down my gear – the previous day when packing – Darwin was just realising this now. It definitely makes sense to try and pack for a trip like this the day before, if you have a safe place to store it, rather than stress when you just want to get out on the road at the last minute.
Then with a smattering of light traffic we were soon driving into the archipelago / heading towards Hälsingland as Darwin fired question after question at us, often from different subject directions, preventing any of us napping :). And had one brief stop off at a petrol station outside Gävle, to eat and stretch, before the final push to our location / temporary home for the next 4 days.
We were the first ones to arrive. We got to the location at Skog, around 9.30 am, and started to unpack. I think that Johnny’s parents were next; then the rest of the cast and crew who were due that day. This gave us much needed time to unload the car, to set everything up in the barn, re starting to unpack gear, assembling the camera and lights etc and start moving things we needed into the barn for the interior shots – before questions and demands on your attention.
Johnny and Darwin went to pick up the car for the shoot. But the breaks didn’t work. Plan B was to muddy up Darwin’s car ‘a bit’…. but Darwin doesn’t do things by half.
By the time everyone arrived, at 12:30, we were in some semblance of order so had a group meeting to introduce ourselves and explain the shoot. This wasn’t really the kind of shoot pep talk I was hoping for. By the end of it no one knew the rules, had an idea about set safety (re cables and lights) how we would take shots etc. This meant that the rest of the shoot was a little chaotic – and I feel in some ways that there was still a little confusion as to what was done and when – and also allowed us in hindsight to be a little lazy when following our own rules. This is also traditionally the time for signing contracts before the shoot begins. Next time – we’ll be better next time!
Before they arrived, we went to check out the side of the barn and there was no graveyard yet. In fact, no grave, no crosses etc. There was also no set built for the fruit cellar. This would have been ideal to have been sorted prior to shooting. But with a late recce, what can you do? The original intended location for the graveyard was unsatisfactory, due to water, so we moved location and started work preparing that new site. Yes, glamour – digging holes etc. Not exactly the best way to start a shoot. But if you need a hole on a low budget shoot you best get digging… yes even the director.
As this film had makeup (prepared by the talented Isabella and Salwa) we were waiting for this to be complete before we could begin. So we had lunch, which was lovely and prepared by Johnny and his Mother Mirja. There we also met Johnny’s cousin, Jenny’s daughter Elina who would play Tim’s daughter.
We started shooting around 2.30 that afternoon, the scenes with ANJA (Emma) and TIM (Hasse Brontén) – down the road from the barn – and we were now 1.5hrs behind schedule on the first shot. There wasn’t much traffic luckily until around 5pm when we saw 4 vehicles, including a truck all at once. So we had a pretty easy shoot in what was an uncontrolled location / public highway. However, the fact that it was sunny and I couldn’t see the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K’s screen in the sun without holding a reflector over my head like a sun hat! meant that it was stressful to take any shot or try and keep focus. If I’d had a cage I would have mounted the Small HD monitor and used that… but this was essentially a running theme through the entire shoot; that and scrabbling around for different lenses, and trying to change them on the fly without dropping them or getting dirt in the camera or lens. And having to keep feeding batteries into the speed freak of a junkie camera, that chewed through batteries like nothing I’ve seen before was terrifying. You could not keep the camera on between takes if you wanted to get any shots. And I was so nervous about damaging the SSD / cable, and losing our shots, with the hastily jerry-rigged mobile phone holder mount and rubber band solution – that I had to use, because my rig only arrived after we’d started shooting :(. This was also the start of failing to mark each shot or to take focus and colour references or record sound for very take. Not a good way to carry on. But then think of the actors, they also were working without the benefit of rehearsals and advanced blocking, so everyone was under pressure. This was also not cool, as I had urged everyone to do rehearsals at a production meeting weeks before the shoot to avoid any on-location fuckery.
Darwin recognised that we needed more crew members. We needed at least 3 more people. We needed someone to do sound, someone to run the clapper board and mark shots / give colour / focus references, someone to mark the shots taken and note down key shot info e.g. what lens / time, whether they were good or bad takes etc – as well as lighting or continuity or a focus puller etc. Yes it is more people to feed and more hands to keep occupied etc. But they would be worth it to aid a more efficient process and ease post production later on. Darwin tried to take care of sound, in between directing and giving everyone the information they needed – but hard to do so when you need to direct and keep every informed, and Johnny tried to run the clapper board when not in a scene / shot, and give me what I needed, but basically as we were already 2 hours behind before we’d even got underway in the shoot, everything soon became sporadic, chaotic and not as professional as I prefer.
By 5.30, we were ready to shoot JULIA’s (Alicia) scenes with TIM, on another stretch of road. This presented minor problems, but mainly cost us valuable time, when things like crash pads for the stunt and necessary equipment was not with us and needed to be brought to location. And this stretch of road was a little narrower and slightly busier, with human and vehicular traffic. One dog was very keen to get in on the shot, despite its owners’ efforts to drag it away.
I’m not proud of being snippy at times. But asking questions and being ignored or talked over, triggers me every time. Tempers did get frayed as the pressure of slipping behind mounted, especially when hunger began to kick in and questions are whizzing around. Nevermind the flying vampires (aka Mosquitos) that preyed upon us, even through two layers of clothing. I looked hella stupid in my bug bucket (mosquito hat with fitted net), but it helped. The Mosquito repellent that I bathed in, did not help at all – as the next 10 bites I would get, would testify. So yes, I got snippy and I’m not proud of it. But I’m impressed that others did not, especially when the cold night air bit and when Alicia voluntarily lay face down in the dirt for one shot.
We moved on to dinner around 7.30 isn I think. And then afterwards at 9.45, it was time to resume shooting. This time it was JULIA’s escape from TIM where shots were taken from inside a bush, holding leaves in front of the camera to add visual interest / depth of frame.
We wrapped at 10.40. Way too late, nearly 2 hours behind schedule. And at the time I had not realised (and did not realise until the 3rd shoot day) that Darwin had elected to cut a scene that I was keen to keep in the film, one that crucially and efficiently tied many plot elements together. I know that he didn’t see the benefit in it, but to me it was crucial for Tim’s character arc in the eyes of the viewer. Too late now.
When questioned by Sven and Tim about how the shoot was going I was not the most positive. I was just tired and grumpy. But I was sure we would get better. First days can be tough when you take on too much and don’t allow more padding or plan for it well in advance of the shoot. And I hate starting off on the back foot, when there was no good excuse for it. We would catch up. But it was a 5 day shoot, crammed into 3.5.
Unfortunately, despite being exhausted and having no sleep that morning, I was unable to shut my brain down. The bedroom was full of mozzies, it was too hot and and I’m bad at sharing rooms. I was too conscious of disturbing Darwin, and tried not to, but the squeaky bed and stairs / door was impossible not to. And then buzz…buzzz…buzzz… smack!
I tried to meditate…
Friday – day #2 – SVEN-GUNNAR
Three things that would be good to achieve today:
- Get through day 2 of SVEN-GUNNAR.
- Get some good shots.
- Enjoy the shoot.
Darwin for allowing us to finish earlier today.
I did not sleep – as far as I know. If I did it was no more than an hour. I felt like ass, and was utterly exhausted when I got up. So when Darwin got up early, I then followed and showered and dressed and treated my bites and got ready for the day, starting with a lovely breakfast, thanks to Mirja and Johnny.
Day#2 of SVEN-GUNNAR started with preparing the grave site. Johnny came out to show us the site, where he’d proudly cut some more of the grave. But it was only deep enough to bury a tiny baby lying on its back. So Darwin and I dug and dug, taking turns until eventually he could lie in it on his side. the real Sven was instrumental in this success, as he had a great spade that made better work than the older one we’d found. We all – Johnny, Darwin and I – then also built crosses and arranged the site, while the first makeups were being applied. It was hot and sweaty work and the bites from last night were itching.
Then at 10:30, it was off to the vampire forest, to (fight mosquitos) and film JULIA (Alicia) and SVEN (Johnny) in the woods. This was to film some running shots. It was a bit tricky to dress the scene. But we gave it a shot, dragging various fallen trees in to the scene to add some interesting visual features. Then we ran through spacious and then very tightly grouped, branch-filled woods. At one point Alicia almost did her ankle in, and I got caught across the head when I stumbled into a branch and saw stars. And we were constantly covered in insects. Darwin and I traded cameras at this point, briefly as I was filming the scenes running with the DJI Osmo on a hand held rig, and Darwin kept filming with the Pocket 4K so between us we moved swiftly and enabled him to Direct the scene as well as to get more hands-on when it was quicker to try some experimental hand-held stuff.
By 11.30 we were back at the barn and gravesite, to continue digging and rigging crucifixes, and to film ANJA (Emma) as she met her final resting place. Here we had to work out how to drop her into the grave without injuring her as the ground had hardened in the sun, since we’d left the site. She was up for trying this minor stunt herself. But Darwin bravely stood in for her and we got creative with the shots / edits and Johnny got to put the boot in for the first time :).
We broke for lunch, but then Darwin went off and filmed JULIA’s final scenes in the barn. I was gutted to miss out on it, but needed food. I was flagging in the heat but tried to keep hydrated.
Then we resumed trying to get shots around the grave site, reusing my old fake arm from MR CLEAN and the intestines. And we did the vomiting scene with TIM (Hasse) and SVEN (Johnny). And there was a lot of me lying in the dirt to get the extreme low angle shots of vomiting – beware the downdraft fragrance of fake vomited soup on a hot day! – as well as the high shots, filming with the Jib Crane setup I’d created for the DJI Osmo (fixed to the end of a 3m boom pole to simulate a sort of spacey / out of body experience). I was impressed how this turned out, but still think that a walking shot would be easier with a drone in tripod mode, or another operator to work the phone and lots and lots of takes… but we make do with what we have.
At least we try to but sometimes we have to bow out. As we headed back to the barn to film ANJA’s scenes in the barn, I suddenly had a crushing headache or potentially the start of a killer migraine and my vision was going. I stumbled groggily out of the barn, leaving the camera to a confused Darwin, and ran to the summer house to climb up into the attic and rifle through my bags looking for pills. Luckily I had a few with me. I was able to stumble back and able to continue shooting – after downing a lot of water and the pills started to kick in.
We did get the stabbing scene and this was a tricky thing to do. A nice stunt pillow, rigged up with an improvised blood bag inside a copy of the dress, and some careful framing would hopefully give us what we needed. All in all the scenes worked well, but it was stressful with the need for lots of coverage and swapping lenses and moving light setups. But Emma was a trouper, putting up with more and more blood as it dried, and everyone mucked in to make it work.
By 8pm those scenes were done. And we could all head to dinner and socialise with Sven and Mirja and the cast and crew. A little wine came out and everyone properly got to know each other. This would have been ideal on the first day, but sadly we had to wait until the 2nd day. But it was great when the ice was broken and we could all enjoy a more productive day.
Then afterwards it was Sauna time. I like to think that time to think and decompress, in 60 degrees, and with a glass of wine, helped me sleep later on.
Darwin and I sat in the kitchen and went through the dailies, not logging and capturing, but just checking if we got the shots we needed from the first day and today’s shoot. We definitely had a few great compositions, but I wasn’t sure how it would later grade, as we were in uncharted territory with the Pocket 4K and extreme ISOs.
Then it was time to get ready for bed. I opted for another bed downstairs, to leave the vind to Darwin. That way we’d both be relatively less disturbed. Then, I tried to meditate myself to sleep, and ignore the constant relay of dive bombing mosquito attacks. Buzzz… buzzz…
Saturday – day #3 – SVEN-GUNNAR
Three things that would be good to achieve today:
- Get through day #3 of SVEN-GUNNAR.
- Avoid a migraine.
- Try to enjoy the shoot.
Jenny and Emilia for some easy shots later on, and great makeup and improvised wardrobes from our talented makeup team.
I had been bitten more in the night, despite killing three mosquitos. But even more amazingly I had gotten a few hours sleep. Although no more than 4 hrs, it was enough to help fuel me for the coming day.
I got up at 6.30 to go and shower and breakfast and get ready for the day’s shooting, treating my bites and reapplying mosquito repellent, despite it being ineffectual – in fact it was becoming a constant joke to me. I’d even been bitten between my fingers and it was right on the bone. lol.
The day started with a great, warm and friendly breakfast, aided by the social activity the evening before. Then Darwin and I left everyone to it, so we could check the frame from the night before and recreate the last setup /vscene to do another shoot outside the barn.
Around 9am, it was time to check the shotgun, and the situation re blanks, as firearms are not something to mess around with without supervision – before then shooting SVEN and TIM’s confrontation. As we’d found in the recce, the dragging of a fully grown male human was difficult. Luckily this time it had rained, and the grass was damper, so Johnny had no issue doing so, and I spent most of the morning lying on a damp crash pad, filming dutch / corpse angles.
Then we took a break while make up was being applied, to go and shoot some potential stills for a temporary poster.
At 10.30 it was time for the barbecued flesh eating scene. This was okay, until it involved macro shots. I am always stressed out by such shots especially handheld. But this time it was stressful trying to shoot into a fire, and dealing with the smoke and ash that was blinding. The flip side was that it drove the mosquitos away for a while. And despite my doubts, Darwin was right and the scene seemed to turn out fine in camera, despite not looking like I had originally envisaged when writing it. We had opted to move the location from the woods to near the barn – who cares, it is his vision and that’s what is important!
Lunch was fun, because Hasse was on form as a comedian who loves horror and sharing his love of various horror films between jokes. And explaining how he became involved in the project. What a great stroke of luck to have a true horror fan aboard this crazy project! And the girls all discovered a collective love of the THE ROOM, the classic Tommy Wiseau film “I did not do it!”.
At 13:50 we were able to start shooting TIM’s (Hasse) and SVEN’s (Johnny) scene in the barn. This was tricky as it involved moving everything around and relighting from three setups and having a gun shot / special effect. I was disappointed to find that the special effect / my pressure sprayer didn’t work as planned. But with some improv a creative solution was found – that and gaffer taping a mount and rigging the Pocket 4K from the top of the ladder! A setup that reminded me of previous shoots of old. It was also interesting to have a photographer – Piotr – come on set to shoot stills while we shot, and then disappeared again 2 hours later – God knows how we appeared to him.
There was a moment in this shot where Johnny and I had to fight with Darwin to get a shot of loading the shotgun shells. Darwin was against it, but then eventually was instrumental in helping us get the shot. And although we won’t know how it will be needed until it is needed, then it may or may not be used, it is the shotgun porn of shotgun shots and must be attempted at least – later when we went through the dailies it looked amazing.
Around 18:25 we suddenly found a second wind and ran through three shots. We shot TIM’s family scenes (Hasse, Jenny and Emilia) , then TIM and the daughter playing cards, and then the family running through a field of long grasses in a golden hour shot. This was the time to break out the crazy romantic / radioactive / vintage glass and shoot in 24p and 60p. It all seemed to go well, and even the golden hour sunlight came out when we were shooting the running scene, so a few more extra takes were in order, just to be sure. Thanks to our cast for putting up with it – and risking tick and other insect bites (no one was bitten to our knowledge).
Then at Dinner, Sven first announced that he noticed his neighbours had come to the summer house and they had a daughter that we might be able to use in the beach scene the next day. He then brought out the big guns, more wine and then some Jinn and some vodka. Big mistake. But much appreciated by all. 🙂
Darwin and I then sat and went through the dailies and unfortunately this meant it was another late one. I don’t think we crashed until around 11pm, after sauna showers were had.
I tried another mosquitoless bedroom and tried to meditate myself to sleep. But I knew that I was buzzing too much… my head buzzed…. buzzed and buzzed…
Sunday – day #4 – SVEN-GUNNAR
Three things that would be good to achieve today:
- Finish shooting day #4
- Pack up, and get all of my gear back home.
- Back up SVEN-GUNNAR.
Johnny’s wonderful parents for their hospitality, and to the entire cast and crew of SVEN-GUNNAR, including the last minute local additions – for without their help the film would not have happened.
I had difficulty sleeping. I know I got a little sleep. Or at least think I must have. But mainly I was trying to meditate, to rest and trying to ignore the midsommar light telling me to get up from 3am onwards.
I got up at 6.45 just as tiredness was kicking in, to go and shower, treat my bites and get ready for the day. I had breakfast and then headed back to the house to change and then repacked my bags – gathering my laptop and assorted gear from the kitchen area, and the rooms I’d slept in, and repacked it all in the Vind / attic.
Then at 8:30 it was time to move the gear for the first internal scene of the day, the fruit cellar and barn / attic parts. I knew that if we wanted to stick to Darwin’s plan to finish everything and leave by 1pm I would need to take charge of packing gear we didn’t need, and arranging gear for this shoot and the next one down by the lake. So while Darwin and Johnny tried their hand at setting up the shots upstairs and constructing a makeshift room under the hatch, I busied about, tracking down every light, extension cable, SFX element and tripod etc – not easy to do – and sorted out what we needed and began disassembling things like the GH5 cage and packing anything that could be packed away before shooting and during breaks in shooting.
The upstairs shoot of the barn was carried out by Darwin and I. it was a tricky shot – it involved many tests and repositioning of lights etc because the ‘fruit cellar’ was not a real fruit cellar and we were shooting handheld, with the GH5, and the DJI Osmo.
I was disappointed that no actual room had been constructed for the set. It looked a bit shit and not what I had envisaged originally. But hopefully we could pull it off with the right angle / shot. The girls (Jenny and Emilia) were really good, but it did bother me that we took the quickest route to something that was a key shot of the film and should have been done correctly. Why rush it? Why not put the effort in? It’s not like we didn’t have the space and materials and know-how to pull it off. It was just like the grave all over again, it was needing others to care as much and see what you see….
The reason for using these cameras was that the Pocket 4K was not stable enough to guarantee that we would see what we wanted to see without getting other elements in the shot / that we would consistently get the right angle. Both Darwin and I shot with the GH5 and at one point, taking turns when trying to frame a shot that ended with me between Johnny’s legs and resulted in me pointing the camera down over the hole and filming the girls, as he stepped over me to get out of the way. At this point he accidentally landed a blow to the side of my head, cricking my neck and making me see stars. Luckily the camera wasn’t dropped and no one got a camera in the face. Phew! – crazy and not at all how such potentially dangerous shots should be done – better safety on future shoots I think. Eventually we got some pretty good shots also with the handheld DJI Osmo rig, rather than the Jib Crane one – the latter was better for walking shots but impossible to control and too unpredictable for pointing it down without another operator and more takes.
Once the makeup was done, we headed off down to the lake / beach, and tried to get two scenes shot out of the one location. I think we pulled it off, despite Darwin being against even attempting the 2nd shot – despite him previously agreeing to attempt it. The only thing I could figure out that was going on in his head, was the weariness of the no-budget indie film director, when you’re making it up as you’re going along and by the last day you just want it to be over already. it is exhausting. Yes we had not scripted this scene, and we might not need it, but again the reasoning was that if on later viewing people needed us to connect Tim to Sven, and explain how Sven targeted Tim – this would be a good replacement for the Restaurant scene that we did script and did not shoot and might save us a future reshoot.
The shoot by the lake was… interesting. The beach was very narrow and we needed to make a large body of water look like a sea, despite it not being wide enough – even though this was not a relevant detail for the film and no one apart from Darwin cared about that detail. With some careful positioning, Darwin got the frame he wanted and I hoped it would look good on camera, to be worth it. This involved standing on a table on grass, with the tripod, as when I tried it on sand the table proved particularly precarious – I was more worried for the camera taking a tumble than me. That and the difficulty of keeping a consistent frame on a constantly moving surface…. Then Darwin got into frame, as the father of the new family to be targeted, and Isabella (makeup) as his wife and a shy young neighbour of the real Sven-Gunner (Emma) got into frame as her daughter, and did the weirdest play in the ‘sea’ I’d ever scene. It was weird because the water was too cold / too early in the day to really swim and dunk someone etc, so there were moments of splashing and fun, but mainly just a lot of strange running around in circles. I couldn’t help but laugh. I wanted an extra take of Johnny with cigar in hand, going to light it to tie up to later scenes, just in case and had to fight to get that also. This time I was suspecting that this was Darwin’s desire to press on, as he had plagued me on the last day of MR CLEAN when there was no need for it. So I resisted and stuck to my guns.
After the reverses of Johnny, and close ups, Darwin wanted to wrap. I felt that we had to get this other scene, so I convinced him to come with me to a cafe area further down and explained how we could pull it off in two shots. He was against it. But the actors were up for it, and we still had an hour, so why not? He relented, but rather than direct, or assist. Just stood there as I quickly arranged them and knocked-off the shots we needed. The actors were all great, and Johnny was spot-on with his marks. And the mosquitos were kinder and the local girls let us hog the swings a little longer, until the shot was done. Bless.
Then it was a wrap! We took a group selfie, thanked the family for lending us their daughter and headed back to the house to pack. Such events are a blur sometimes.
Despite some false starts, where a lens cap had gone missing and was then found and we did last minute checks to ensure nothin else had been left behind. We managed to get ready to leave at 1pm – packing the car full of gear, despite the real Sven-Gunnar doubting our space management skills, and then waited for Darwin to wash the car off. Johnny and I then enjoyed a nice Sven-Gunnar shot in honour of the movie and had our own two-man wrap party; Darwin was driving so couldn’t join in sadly and many others had sadly already gone home earlier. It was a damn fine shot too. To be revisited at the premiere!
Soon we were hugging and waving goodbye to our amazing hosts and cast and crew and then on the road home. Before the post-shoot malaise set-in, Darwin drove us back, firing off his trademark questions / comments that seemed to come out of random directions. And then we dropped off Johnny and made it back through the traffic to mine with no issues – to unpack the car, and start backing up all of the footage.
It is a rule of mine, never leave a shoot without three copies. One to edit with, one for safety and another off-site backup for more safety, in case of fires etc. Always bring three drives to the film shoot party.
Sadly, there were some other personal events that evening, so sleep wasn’t forthcoming.
But thinking back on the shoot, I am glad that the only casualties were one fake severed arm – which is now minus some fingers – unless I can glue them back on – the twenty bites I received and my pride at losing my temper and my dissatisfaction with wanting to achieve a better quality result and not wanting to rush things so much. But again, as I kept telling Darwin, despite writing the film and doing the cinematography, and all of us helping in our own ways, no matter whatever gripe I might have had – this was his film. It is ours if we want it to be, but only he can get it over the finish line now. Only he can see it through the rest of its journey…. and now that it’s done. What could have been is not important, only what will now be…. I will never be satisfied, but that’s because we must keep striving beyond our means to improve and grasp at something greater than us. It’s not important whether we achieve it. It’s important just to try.
I am glad to have met and worked with and spent time with some amazing people; and to have shared a bizarre cinematic adventure in Hälsingland and to have worked with Darwin again. It was crazy, unpredictable and fun at the end of the day and I can’t wait to share the end result with you all in the near future. But now I need to rest…. and get back to MR CLEAN. And plan the next film!…
If you got this far, thanks for reading! I applaud you.