Once you're actually in pre-production, it's like hitting fast-forward on life. You go from months or even years of waiting, plotting, hoping, planning, to suddenly making actual progress from hour to hour. It's not exaggerating at all to say it's a thrill.
An office is rented, you meet with crew, make hires, locations people start showing you photos of possible shooting sites, and that's the first day of the first week.
I had a great crew come together on "The Face of Love." Many of them came from big budget movies. How do you get the best people to work on a lower budget indie? Well it turns out there are pros and cons to both ends of the budget spectrum.
Among the advantages of big budget projects is, of course, that they pay well, and they tend to be pretty high profile. And with bigger budgets, there's often more you can do: the vision can afford to be grander, and the execution is achievable on a much larger scale.
But the advantages of a movie like this one, if it's done right, is that a little family comes together. People get attached. It becomes more of a home-made kind of thing, a "let's put on a show" kind of feeling. Budget constraints can often inspire creativity, even artistry. You can't just throw money at a problem. Solutions need to be imagined and delivered upon with very limited resources.
Our brilliant costume designer, Judianna Makovsky (Hunger Games, Harry Potter) went "shopping" in Annette's closet for her costumes. Really. Many of items 'Nikki' wears in the movie were clothes Annette already owned.
Genius production designer Jeanine Oppewall (LA Confidential, Pleasantville) offered up much of her own personal home furniture for main character Nikki's house... (walking into Jeanine's house while we were working on the movie, it was so empty people thought she'd moved out). As an aside, Jeanine actually started out as a designer in the legendary Eames design shop making the iconic furniture that defines much of twentieth century design. That's the stuff you see populating Nikki's house in the movie.
However, I don't mean to imply that we were working on a total shoestring budget either. After all, we are making a Hollywood movie! The Mexican restaurant you see at the beginning and end of the movie was designed and built entirely from scratch on an abandoned stretch of asphalt in San Pedro. Shooting within the incredible galleries at LACMA is not without expense. The beach that doubles for Mexico was actually a beautiful and wild stretch of sand south of Los Angeles in Laguna Niguel. And there are many, many more examples in the movie.
The point is that on a movie with a limited budget, resources are prioritized and allocated where needed most, and then spit and glue and creativity has to hold the rest of it together.
One of the biggest challenges for us would turn out to be choosing a satisfying medium on which we could afford to shoot the movie.
I had my heart set on 35mm film.
I'd never seen a love story told effectively on digital. The lines are too harsh, the contrast too high. You see too much, too clearly. There's no poetry in the image. Unfortunately, as fewer and fewer studio movies are actually shot on film, the costs skyrocket, not just for purchase of film stock, but later for processing, and for eventual transfer to digital for post production. It's increasingly an expensive proposition... too expensive for us on this one. We needed an alternative.
Director of photography Antonio Riestra had fortunately shot several movies already with the Alexa digital camera. He was a big proponent. Antonio is a man with the soul of an artist. He lives in the moment, open to inspiration, fearless. He suggested a visit to Panavision.
There I was introduced to in-house mastermind Dan Sasaki. Dan is truly a seer. I brought a book of visual references with me, and Dan assured me he could figure out a look for us that would work with the Alexa.
The challenge of the look we were after was that we were bucking the trend. For the last decade or so, the visual trend in American filmmaking has been towards higher and higher contrast, sharp lines, deep dark blacks... image with bite.
I wanted the opposite: something softer, gentle. A lower contrast. Romantic. Dan assured us he could assemble the lenses we needed.
A week later, we all descended on Panavision headquarters in Woodland Hills: me, Antonio, the producers Julie and Bonnie, Judianna, Valli O'Reilly (our incredible makeup artist -- you know her work from "Lemony Snicket" and "Alice in Wonderland"), Annette and Ed of course, and many others.
Lights were set up to mimic every possible lighting set-up (i.e. front light, back light, side light, etc). There were two dozen lens combinations to test out.
We spent all day testing out the looks with Ed and Annette. We returned the next day for more tests.
By the end of the week, we had found our look and we had our lenses. Dan had them manufactured for us, and those are the lenses we used to shoot the movie. I'm very proud of the look we achieved.
I've been told that, although the movie hasn't even been released yet, many cinematographers are already requesting the "look of love" lenses. (FYI - "Look of Love" was our working title. We ended up have to change it when another director swiped the title and released a movie under the same name six months ahead of us... Such is life in the movie business. You can't copyright a title.) I am forever grateful to the incredible insight Dan brought to the process and for the artistic touch Antonio delivered in zeroing in on a look that I didn't think was possible in a digital medium.