BUILD GOD // shoot

So finally we went to Caronport to shoot BUILD GOD. The seven of us, five adults and two kids, plus Blanche and Susie, all drove eight hours south-east, then swung west at Moose Jaw and I found myself at twenty-five driving a pickup truck back into my childhood hometown. Dylan and I went a day early to dress sets, find places for all of us to sleep, buy groceries, and generally scope out the scene. Dylan wore a cowboy hat, moving more and more ambiguously back and forth over the line between costume and working uniform the farther out of the city we drove. On the one hand, cowboy hats are really more of an Alberta (rancher) than Saskatchewan (farmer) thing; on the other hand, irony in general becomes less recognized and appreciated once you leave the city. And Dylan was wearing the hat because outdoor film shoots are notorious opportunities to get sunburned. 

In Caronport, we rented two rooms in one of the Briercrest Bible College dorm buildings. We went and visited Carla--my old babysitter--who'd offered back in July to let us shoot in her trailer, and I think promptly mortified her by ignoring her beautifully decorated living room and dressing her storage room as an extremely cluttered, even neglected, child's bedroom. The rest of the cast and crew, still on the road, got a flat tire outside Lloydminster, which Dylan (always the producer) charmed the tire shop in Lloyd into fixing before the end of the day. We explored the drainage ponds across the highway, where I was envisioning a sunrise scene. The mosquitos were as horrific as they can only be in Saskatchewan, and we kept encountering hoards of them all week (basically whenever we went to shoot any kind of windswept, romantic, horizon-heavy, trailing-through-the-wheat-and-clover type scenario).

When the others (Alley-oop and August the actors, Ashleigh their endlessly forbearing mother, Jenna my assistant director, Tom who had supplied most of our equipment and was also manning a camera) arrived, we set up house between the two dorm rooms. Ashleigh and the kids had the one with the working fridge and the other bedroom set we'd created in the dorm livingroom; the rest of us slept on couches and bare mattresses in the other suite, where we also cooked and played Bananagrams until the small hours and stored the equipment. The dorms were lit with exactly three dreadful fluorescent tube lights each, so on the first night we set up the Arri lights Dylan had insisted on bringing, despite my protests, covered with some nice orange gels. (I thought I wanted a primitive, Dogma 95 ish set, without lights to slow us down or make anything look too idyllic. We used the lights in almost every shot. This is going to be a beautiful movie.)

The shoot itself was complicated. I'd subbed in August to play the part of Becky after my other actor cancelled the day before we had to leave. August changed the dynamic between the two characters--and the dynamic on set--drastically. We had to set up his scenes so that they would work if we just let August run in and do his thing. He brought an energy and level of pathos, violence, and comedy I probably couldn't have scripted if I tried, but trying to capture it all meant we couldn't count on much else. 

I almost expected to fall apart at some point. I've been a director, I guess, on all the film projects I've worked on since last summer and let's just say it's a learning experience I value more than it is a role that comes naturally to me. But I didn't fall apart. 

Sometime during the second day of the shoot, it struck me that there were six other people here in this tiny village with me, six people who'd driven hundreds of kilometres and donated a week of their time in order to work on my project. Doubtless, everyone had their own reasons for being there, and a movie is never one person's sole creation. Nevertheless. They were all there to help me do something that two years ago even I didn't think I could do. Living all piled together as we were, they weren't only running sound and setting up lights and hauling gear and battling mosquitoes and consulting on framing and composition, they were also cooking communal meals and washing dishes and taking out the garbage and making sure everyone was getting along. And I didn't have to ask them to do any of it. I found myself able to take naps when I needed to, and go to bed early, and still there was food on the table, the footage and sound files appeared on my hard drive, the kids were entertained. Life was good. Ally-oop kept up a steady stream of ethical dilemmas from his Book of Questions. August swore like a rig pig. Jenna went swimming in Moose Jaw. Tom seemed to survive on Tricuits. Dylan and Ashleigh talked about David Foster Wallace. When I got sick on the third day, I made ginger tea for everyone, which we dosed surreptitiously with bourbon (as far as I know, Caronport is still, officially, a dry town; but they'll have to dispose of the beer cans we forgot under the sink). I woke up from a nap to find Dylan and Jenna making spaghetti, Tom playing with the kids, and thought, This is what it must be like to have a wife. 

I had brought A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf along with me. I didn't get much of a chance to read while we were in Saskatchewan, but when we got home, I was still sick and I finished the book in a day. Woolf is concerned with the conditions under which women have written and can write fiction (read: produce art), and the combination of practical and psychological support that I experienced on the shoot is, according to Woolf writing in 1928, something that women have almost never in the history of the world been privy to.

Woolf mentions two factors that come into play: the self esteem (arrogance, really) necessary to create good art or do almost anything of consequence, and the logistical freedom historically enjoyed to a much greater extent by men.

On self-esteem, and how it has historically been gendered: "Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown. We should still be scratching the outlines of deer on the remains of mutton bones or bartering flints for sheep skins or whatever simple ornament took our unsophisticated taste. Supermen and Fingers of Destiny would never have existed. The Tsar and the Kaiser would never have worn crowns or lost them. Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action . . . That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men." 

On practical freedoms: "First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby. You cannot, it seems, let children run about in the streets . . . People say, too, that human nature takes its shape in the years between one and five. If Mrs. Seton, I said, had been making money, what sort of memories would you have had of games and quarrels? What would you have known of Scotland, and its fine air and cakes and the rest of it? But it is useless to ask these questions, because you would never have come into existence at all . . . It is only for the last forty-eight years that Mrs. Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband's property--a thought which, perhaps, may have had its share in keeping Mrs. Seton and her mothers off the Stock Exchange. Every penny I earn, they may have said, will be taken from me and disposed of according to my husband's wisdom--perhaps to found a scholarship or to endow a fellowship in Balliol or Kings, so that to earn money, even if I could earn money, is not a matter that interests me very greatly."

It might seem far-fetched to address passages like these so directly to my own experience last week, but I think there is a connection to be made here. Bringing these people, all of them my friends, to Caronport to work on my short film was the culmination of a personal creative project in the making for more than two years already. Regardless of my own feelings re: my leadership qualities, in many important senses I was both leader and catalyst in this enterprise, and though the project was shaped by everyone involved in it, I was the reason they were all involved in the first place. The self-esteem (arrogance) I derived from this position had a profound effect on my ability to perform while we were on the shoot. If I hadn't had a whole team of people believing in me and the project, and backing up that belief by taking initiative and interest in their own areas of specialty, managing very gracefully to follow my (shaky) lead all the while picking up my slack, I wouldn't have lasted a day. As a woman, as a person, as an artist, I have never been in this position before--never had the privilege of so many flattering, encouraging, bolstering mirrors surrounding me while I worked.

I also benefited enormously from our communal, familial living arrangements. The constant presence of people, the mixture of children and adults, the shared responsibility for practical and psychological management (making meals, making sure everyone's various needs were met) made for a rejuvenating, ultimately relaxing environment (in spite of the stress of trying to avoid Wet Willies). Managing a living environment and taking care of people (especially children, but also especially husbands) has historically been a woman's job. Finding that this responsibility was not falling squarely on my shoulders was a huge surprise, and a huge relief. There's no way I could have focussed both on directing even this very small production while simultaneously keeping track of a meal plan for seven people. As it was, Dylan did that, and acted as director of photography to boot. 

Finally, none of us would have been in Caronport last week if it wasn't for the grant money I had been awarded, that I was using to pay everybody (shoutout here to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts). Woolf is famous for prescribing women writers rooms of their own, but in her book she always follows up with the need for women to earn or otherwise secure "five hundred a year" i.e. enough money to live and work on. 

So the movie is shot, and I have a beast of an editing job ahead of me. I plan to let the footage chill and my brain recalibrate for a couple of months, then get to editing with fresh eyes sometime before Christmas. In the meantime, I have another film to finish, stories to write and revise, a bar to work at, books to read. I just started Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner, about the history of southern Saskatchewan, and Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace.

Back home, the apartment is too empty and quiet. I think I am done with living alone; I want to live with a group of people, a pack of kids, a family I guess. The idea of a family seems more open and possible and creative-work enabling than before.