MWAC Production Days 5-10

By L. Tanner Smith

From left to right: Liam (Benjamin Gipson), Meadow (Elissa Schrader), and Delilah (Heather Elaine)

If I had to choose a percentage that describes how close we are to finishing the production process, I’d say we’re about 65-70% completed with filming. And considering how messy things were at the start of production, that’s a real good place to be.

We have only a few “urgent” scenes left to shoot, followed by some smaller (but still important) material–so, it’s just a matter of how much we can get done in the time we have.

Cinematographer Keenan Capps gets a shot with Heather and Elissa.

These recent days of shooting have been the best so far. I mentioned in the previous post that “when we shoot, we make really good progress.” As it turned out, I hadn’t seen anything yet. For days 5-10, we were shooting probably the more intriguing scenes from the script.

Safety first! Underneath these masks are (from left to right) Heather Elaine, Kelly Woodruff (production designer), Christie Courville, Ashley Moreland, L. Tanner Smith, Megan Hitchcock Smith, Jamie Campbell, Elissas Schrader, and Benjamin Gipson.

Day 5 (August 18)–we shot the first half of the “MS support-group” scenes. In this scene, our main character Delilah goes to her first group meeting and meets Liam and Meadow, who would become her new best friends, and also hears stories from other MS patients in the group. It was a very long scene with numerous characters and numerous setups. But with a minimal crew (just myself, cinematographer Keenan Capps, and production designer/sound operator Kelly Woodruff), we made good time getting it done. In addition to regular actors like Heather Elaine (“Delilah”), Benjamin Gipson (“Liam”), and Elissa Schrader (“Meadow”), we had many newcomers to the shoot: Jamie Campbell (“Joel”), Christie Courville (“Blair”), Ashley Moreland (“Lynn”), and Megan Hitchcock Smith (“Misti”). I also put myself in a role in the support group–a silent jock named “Finn.” Neither Misti nor Finn were in the script, but the characters were included because it would give the group meetings more dimensions than they would if it were just these few people–and also, Misti and Finn are played by two real-life MS patients (myself and Megan Hitchcock Smith). Megan and I improvised a scene together and I think it turned out really well–if edited right, it may be one of the funnier moments of the film.

Jamie, Christie, and Ashley each get a moment to shine in the film, and this night was Christie’s. She plays Blair, an MS patient with spasmodic dysphonia, roughly defined as “interruptions in the voice” due to muscle spasms. And she was absolutely heartbreaking. I actually showed some of my creative consultants her footage from this scene, and they all asked the same question: “Does she really talk like that?” That’s when you know a performance works.

Jamie and Ashley did well this night too–I can’t wait to see how well they handle their “big” moments in the near future.

Heather had to do some of her most subtle acting in this scene, as the listener/observer. Her character Delilah is taking it all in and you can see in her facial expression that she feels both pity and respect for these people.

Lily (Lily Gojcevic) won’t stand for her best friend’s excuses this time.

Day 6 (August 29) was the first time we had worked with Lily Gojcevic as one of the key characters in the whole film: Lily Stevens, the best friend of Delilah. This was the day I was both nervous and excited about, because we were shooting Scene 32 aka “the argument scene.” This is the moment that brings forth the emotional conflict of the story, so it’s the most emotional scene in the whole film–an argument that threatens to destroy a loving friendship between Del and Lily.

I told everyone that if we could get this scene done right, I would have all possible faith in the rest of the shoot. And thankfully…not only did we do it right, but I don’t think it could be done better. Both these actresses were AMAZING! Heather of course killed it as Del (she’s been playing the part for a while now) and she’s always a definite pleasure to work with. Today, I got to see what Lily Gojcevic could do with the complex role of Lily Stevens, who doesn’t understand why Del doesn’t feel well enough to go out on Friday nights anymore, thus sparking the debate about what it means to deal with MS. Not only did Lily share great chemistry with Heather (on camera AND off), but she BECAME Lily Stevens. There’s one shot of her in closeup in which she had to exhibit several emotions in scene 32 alone–giddiness, sadness, regret, frustration, and anger. It’s like magic.

Day 7 (August 31) was the day in which we shot two other important scenes: the “bonding” moments between Del, Liam, and Meadow as they get to know each other and become good friends. I actually got a permit to film in a shelter at Shawnee Mission Park (good scenery there)…….but maybe we didn’t need it after all, because no one asked us any questions and we did whatever we wanted. But oh well. It was nice to have it. (I’m keeping it as a souvenir.)

Between the support-group scene, Scene 32, and these two bonding moments, I think I have enough good material for scenes to include in the film’s press junket!

Day 8 (September 6), we went to Ironwoods Park in Leawood, KS…the shots were good, the performances were good, the environment…in the end, the environment just wasn’t working for us. I think I knew before one of the actors messaged me, saying they didn’t believe we were at our best this day, that we would have to reshoot.

Day 9 (September 8), we didn’t do much–just a couple of pickup shots and voice recordings (for cellphone conversations) with Lily–but every bit helps.

Day 10 was what I called the evening of September 12 and the morning of September 13.

Brent Custer as Gus

On the 12th, we brought back talented young actor Brent Custer as “Gus,” Lily’s arrogant, repulsive date, and everyone else who was there for the scenes we shot the week before. Now I think we can safely say that the previous shoot was a dress rehearsal for the real thing, because everything felt so RIGHT this time. (Even the technical difficulties that couldn’t be avoided can be fixed in post.)

Then, after very little sleep (I hate morning shoots), we shot the “brunch” scene on the morning of the 13th in the living room of Keenan’s house. This day, we brought in Drew Smith to play Liam’s father, Paul Jacobs.

Drew Smith as Paul

Paul serves as the anti-Lily, in a sense that he too isn’t fully understanding about chronic illness; but because it’s happening with someone he loves (his son), he’s open to asking questions about it, even if it slightly embarrasses Liam. And this actor played it perfectly–very funny and very real.

Also, because I had a feeling everyone else hated morning shoots as much as I do, I brought two dozen doughnuts and a big box of coffee for everyone to enjoy. Don’t say I’m not a generous director!

And that’s where we are now. We’re getting there! We may be moving slowly during this process, but it’s better than standing still.

Kelly Woodruff and her design for the MS Strong support group posterboard.

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