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Why I Chose to Make my Feature Directorial Debut Without a Screenplay

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A little over three years ago, my daughter was about to turn one. Probably due to the demanding task of early motherhood, I came up with this crazy idea of making a movie about two people who don’t speak the same language and have to find a way to communicate. This is how “In Transit” was born. My tired, sleep deprived mind trying to find a creative outlet for the first year of motherhood.

The more I developed this idea, the less I thought it was viable as a feature film. So, I eventually dropped the aspect of language barrier, and focused on two strangers meeting for the first time and changing each other lives completely. That was enough of a metaphor for motherhood for me. As much as we share skin as we grow our children inside of us, once they are out they are basically strangers we have to get to know and learn how to survive together.

Setting the movie in an airport felt so natural to me, as someone who has lived in a foreign country for 20 years and still has a lot of family back home, I travel constantly, or at least I feel like I do. Airports are my home away from home. I probably have had some of my most profound thoughts and epiphanies while sitting on an airplane or waiting for one. I wrote most of my previous movie “Occupants” while on a flight to Brazil.

There’s something about that weird state of traveling but not quite, especially if your flight is delayed and all you can do is sit and wait for your plane. Is that considered traveled time? I often felt like I had been traveling for hours but I could almost still see my house from the airport.

It’s a strange place to be, especially if your reasons for traveling are any other than tourism. And that’s what traveling has meant to me in the past 20 years. An activity that often carries a lot more weight than simply visiting a new place and sightseeing. It’s about seeing family I haven’t seen in a while, and always wondering if it will be last time I see someone. Was that goodbye actually goodbye forever? I never know for sure.

So, armed with all my complicated feelings about travel and time away from the people I love, I started shaping “In Transit” in my mind. Two strangers flying for very specific and complicated reasons end up both stuck in the same airport lounge overnight.

Now, here comes the part you’ve been waiting for: why no script? I constantly say to anybody who cares to listen that I’m a writer first, a director second and a producer third. I only started directing my own short films because I was sick of hearing no. I was taking charge and greenlighting myself.

How did I get to a place where the script was non-existent? I knew I wanted to do something different, I wanted to experiment and be in the moment with actors. I was coming from a place of analyzing my previous experiences as director and feeling like the script got in our way. I remember sitting in the editing room for another project and feeling like every take was the same, and because all the scripted lines were said, I felt like I had what I needed. It’s one of the issues I faced wearing too many hats on a no-budget film; when it comes time to direct, I’d forget to be present with the actors and really make sure the performances were genuine. The words can get in the way, sometimes. They become a crutch for both performer and director. I moved on to the next scene without that genuine moment being captured. I watched dailies and didn’t see what I wanted. Who else could I blame but myself?

That’s where this crazy idea came in. The actors would have to be completely in the moment because they didn’t know what was coming next. They were hearing things for the first time and learning information as we shot. In my mind I thought this idea was brilliant.

I was incredible lucky to find such amazing actors willing to go down this journey with me. Even luckier to have a life partner like Tim Aldridge, my husband, producer and DP, who backed this crazy idea I had and said we should try this out first before we commit to the main shoot. So off we went and started shooting the flashbacks, the pivotal moments that lead the characters to their flights. And with each shoot we learned and adjusted our strategy for the next shoot day. And we shot a total of two days before our main “airport day.” Because of life and different circumstances, the day we shot all the stuff with the child (my child, in case anyone’s wondering. Yes, I’m casually Willow Smith-ing my daughter, her album drops next week. Jk.) was really supposed to be a rehearsal and a moment for Kim Burns (who plays Nancy) and Oliver Rayon (who plays Daniel) to meet and create a bit of a rapport. It ended up being in the final cut. Our first official day was Oliver and Kim’s big chunk. It was the day I learned good actors have great instincts about scene development. Half way through our first take, I realized I wanted that scene to end with the two of them kissing. I made the mental note for the next take. Before I called cut, the two of them exchanged a kiss. In that moment I felt like this was all going to work out. Somehow, we’d find our way and would tell this story in the most natural, unscripted and unrehearsed way.

The first day took me back to my days as a theater performer. No two performances were alike. You can’t ever recreate a unique moment. Our second day of shooting was with Branca Ferrazo (who plays Olga) and Al Danuzio (who plays Lucas). We had to get Al last minute. I hadn’t planned on showing Olga’s fiancée. We were going to shoot a scene where she’s on phone call getting some pivotal news and her aerial stunts. But Branca got injured training shortly before the shoot and we had to improvise. The first day I met Al was on set. Actually, at my house, our meeting point for hair and make-up before we drove to set. He gave a lovely heartfelt performance as if he had known Branca his entire life.

They only had a few moments to talk before we were all on the sand, shooting. It ended up being one of the most challenging days with sound issues and Branca being ill. She soldiered on and deliver one of the most moving performances in only two takes.

And then came the meat of this movie. A few months later Branca and Oliver met for the first time as we all got to set. I asked them not to exchange any words unless we were rolling. I didn’t want them to get comfortable with each other at all. So, if they seem slightly uncomfortable around each other on screen, know that it was a real human reaction.

I gave Oliver the toughest task of all, and part of me wishes I had changed the way they first meet. That’s the issue with creative work, sometimes you change and evolve before you complete said work, but you still have to live with the choices of a previous self. I gave Oliver the task of approaching a woman, a stranger. Every woman on the planet knows what it feels like to be approached by a stranger. He could be (insert the name of man you find extremely attractive here) and you’d still wish he left you alone. Women spend so much time politely listening to strange men and finding a way out of unwanted conversation, that I think some of us have an immediate negative reaction to his character.

But not to worry, he charmed her into the conversation, and sucked her in with his vulnerability. Have I mentioned how thankful I am for working with artists so willing to give all of themselves? Once we got going, the conversation between them flowed. I called cut and adjusted performances and story as we shot three cameras at the same time.

We broke for lunch and I gave a phone interview. I was in the early stages of promoting “Occupants,” my third feature film as writer. We wrapped in just under 12 hours and started editing.

Life again got in the way and it took us another year to shoot Branca’s aerial stunts. Fast forward to another two years of editing, shooting B-roll, more editing, music, sound mix, etc. Post-production on a feature film proved to be a lot more challenging than I expected. Living in the DIY world of filmmaking meant Tim and I usually handled all aspects of post for our short films. Given the length of the film and the fact that parenthood consumes so much of our waking hours, we had to bring more people into the post-production mix.

At one point I feared we’d never finish the film. But I am no quitter and have never abandoned a film project before. (Except for one short in film school, but I think your first short sometimes is like the first batch of pancakes, meant to be burnt and thrown out.)

Our premiere is now imminent; we are an official selection of the Glendale International Film Festival and will screen during the festival that happens October 5th-18th.

It has taken me longer than I expected to complete this journey, but I’m so happy with the final product and with what I’ve learned along the way. And if you get nothing else out of reading this, remember the most important lesson I learned: Never underestimate the power of being one hundred percent present with your actors in their performances. Don’t let the script, the words, the continuity, the schedule, the lights get in the way of the emotional truth of your characters. And don’t ever be afraid to experiment and take risks.

 

Julia Camara

About Julia Camara

Julia Camara is a Brazilian award winning writer/filmmaker living in Los Angeles. She has a B.A. in cinema from Columbia College-Hollywood. Julia is also a UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting alumna. She has written the features films 'Area Q' (starring Isaiah Washington), 'Open Road' (starring Andy Garcia, Camilla Belle and Juliette Lewis), and 'Occupants' (starring Star Trek Voyager's Robert Picardo). Julia's feature directorial debut 'In Transit' is currently in post-production.