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Producing an Independent Documentary Part 2: Notes from Production

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Andrea HeadshotWhere I last left you was getting on the plane to New York heading towards the second round of principal photography for the documentary I produced called MY AMITYVILLE HORROR. If you want to jump ahead and check out the film now so that you can follow along with the next three blog entries after having seen the end result, it’s available on Netflix and many other streaming outlets as well as on DVD.

As I mentioned last month, during our flight to NY,  director Eric, the other producer John and I spent the entire time discussing our production plans. After a brief layover in my hometown of Denver, we arrived at La Guardia Airport on Saturday, February 12th, 2011 at 9pm. We picked up our rental car – an SUV that we had prearranged. You actually see our rental in the film – on the highway heading towards Amityville and I think a few other spots as well. While we determined later that it would have been helpful to have more than one vehicle for the three of us, we were always trying to save money where we could so that as much of our budget as possible went into the actual film. From the airport, we immediately went to our hotel: a La Quinta in Queens. We had negotiated a rate for a block of rooms as we put up everyone affiliated with the film there thus making production call times and departures easier. However, the crew and primary subjects were not set to arrive until the evening of Monday February 14th as the following two days were to be the only time John, Eric and I had to quickly location scout and try to finalize the shooting schedules as many of our locations were still not confirmed. That first evening, we continued our planning discussions over a bland yet expensive Italian dinner at the hotel restaurant. I didn’t want to eat there again, but over the production period I was so tired of making decisions that I ended up giving in more often than not because it was easier to take the elevator and overpay than it was to find a new place that would require leaving the hotel.

Sunday and Monday were complete blurs of meetings as well as driving from location to location, buying food for craft services (we did not hire anyone for this so myself and our single PA handled all food, from crafty to the full meals), sending emails, discussing things with our executive producers, making phone calls and finalizing schedules. Many documentaries don’t get the luxury of being able to location scout at all and we weren’t able to get everywhere in two days. We were not able to make it to Connecticut to scout Lorraine Warren’s home before shooting but it turned out great even though the room we predominantly shot in had an extremely low ceiling.

There was one day in particular that concerned me greatly as we hadn’t confirmed the reporter Marvin Scott’s participation in the project. We were set to shoot with a group of paranormal researchers and Laura DiDio on a specific day. But if Marvin agreed to be involved he was only going to be available that same afternoon.  This meant a full company move from West Babylon to either Manhattan proper or Brooklyn. Either of these would be difficult and made even more so by the fact that without prior knowledge we would be unable to get proper permits in a timely fashion. This meant that in order to transport equipment, the production van would have to double park and we would need to hurriedly pull everything we thought we might need out of the vehicle and have someone stand watch over the equipment on the sidewalk while other crew members loaded into whatever location and the production van driver found parking. True guerrilla style, this is what ended up happening, but we didn’t have confirmation on any of it until late the day prior to the shoot. Thankfully, we ended up shooting at a residence in Brooklyn as another venue suggested was a place of business which would have largely complicated issues. Still, this was one of our more stressful days which culminated in some tension between the director and the DP at one point which was diffused (but is never fun to deal with in the moment).

Typical to small indie production, I handled much more than normal producers do. I put together the shooting schedule and call sheets as well as distributed them every night and made sure we had extra for the morning. I oversaw purchasing decisions even though John actually handled the dispensing of petty cash. I ordered the food for meals often picking it up as well. I coordinated the transportation of our subjects as well as made sure they were happy and well taken care of and took care of any issues the crew brought up. I like to treat people fairly and run short days – union or not – but when you’re working in cold conditions with little to no full crew production meetings or collaboration prior too shooting, that makes it much harder. Eric had shot with a lot of the crew previously so there was a short hand that had developed, but we had a lot less time than we would have liked. It was exhausting trying to keep an eye on production while also working to make sure everything was set up for the next day and hopefully catching a few minutes to check some things off for the next few days. It’s hard to describe the constant motion that you are in when you are overseeing a full production.  Our PA Aja and John worked in conjunction with me as much as possible, but even translating what needs to happen sometimes is difficult. Dunkin Donuts coffee was my sanity and probably most of my nutrition as well.

Since there was a complimentary continental breakfast included in the hotel rate, we made sure that our crew and subjects staying on site were aware that they were responsible for breakfast, provided by the hotel. This was a cost-cutting maneuver which allowed us to save money on craft services and meals. I did put special effort into ensuring that any meals provided to our hard-working team were quality. I know that experienced crews are much happier and easier to work with when they feel that their needs and wants are being taken into consideration.  All of the little things you can do to make the people working long days under difficult scenarios and freezing temperatures is always duly noted and appreciated.

One of my favorite memories during our production was the evening everyone voted that we should just order pizza and grab beer for dinner so that we could hang out and relax back at the hotel. While I try to avoid pizza as a general rule for crew meals, this was something that was approved across the board and it was nice to just kick back and laugh about some of the more difficult periods of shooting.

After the week of production with a full crew everyone except for Eric and one cinematographer named Joe wrapped out and went home. While Joe had initially been brought on to film for our EPK, we ended up using a lot of his footage in the film.  Joe and Eric ended up staying on for a few days more to get some pick up shots, B-roll, etc. I took a train and then a bus into New Jersey to attend a college friend’s bridal shower before heading back to Los Angeles to start readying everything for post production.

You can read about the long editing process in my entry next month. In the meantime, if you want to find out more about the film, check out www.amityvillemovie.com.

Andrea Adams

About Andrea Adams

Andrea Adams Spellman is a Colorado transplant who has worked at companies including Anonymous Content, WME Entertainment, Team Todd and Davis Entertainment. She has received credit in Disney’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE ROMANTICS and CHRONICLE. Andrea produced the documentary MY AMITYVILLE HORROR on Netflix, DVD and VOD. Andrea now works for a software company that supports the entertainment industry by day and (attempts to) write by night. Andrea fosters dogs through Much Love Animal Rescue, is a Daughter of the American Revolution and a P.E.O. member. She got married in September 2015 and her current obsessions include her husband's shrimp tacos, Stranger Things and tennis.