Something Like Life


Actor Cully Fredricksen plays Officer Lee’s loveable Sergeant.
Actor Cully Fredricksen plays Officer Lee’s loveable Sergeant.

I spent a couple of hours on Saturday back on the set of Kilo as it neared the completion of shooting. It was a bit melancholy for me, knowing that the project was about to move to the next stage, post-production, where there would be no need of stills, and thus, no need for me to attend. My only regret about the week was that another project kept me away from Kilo as much as it did. I would’ve loved to have been on the set everyday as the official production photographer and had the chance both to get to know the crew members better and to see more of the scenes being filmed. I know a bit of the story, but only odds and ends that don’t add up to anything cohesive. I’m very curious to see how it all comes together and how Officer Lee gets out of her predicament.

The Armory’s Drill Area, complete with spectator benches.
The Armory’s Drill Area, complete with spectator benches.

Day 8 took place in The Armory, a National Guard facility from 1914 until 1976. It began its new life as a sometime movie set almost immediately after the National Guard left, as George Lucas filmed some of Star Wars there. Yesterday The Armory had a higher calling, serving as locations for a series of interior shots for Kilo; much of the old world architecture inside The Armory makes it look quite a bit like a police station. And what the original architects didn’t provide, the Kilo art department made on site. For the first time I heard on set the familiar sound of a circular saw as the art team fashioned needed props from plywood and other materials in the Armory’s drill area. Seeing these people at work reminded me again of how diverse in talent and experience a film crew’s members must be to make the entire project happen. In a way this is one of the nicest things about a film set: No matter what you know how to do, a film production will probably need a person like you at some point. A film set is like a little world unto itself, wherein those operating cameras or setting up lights or recording sound need the support of a lot of other people who do other things more familiar to the rest of us, like accounting, sales, marketing, catering, music, carpentry, first aid, graphics, and on and on. Heck, even a photographer can come in handy once in a while, which still strikes me as a bit odd, given all the equipment and expertise already present to record visual images. Lucky for me, though, that the fancy One video camera is not as easy to move around the set as my (relatively) little DSLRs.

The Armory, or police station hallway with bulletin board?
The Armory, or police station hallway with bulletin board?

Compared to the other sets I’d visited there seemed to be more down time inside the Armory as the crew moved from one interior location to the next and the lights, camera and sound had to be set up from scratch over and over. So I had time to think about the appeal of a movie set, and why so may talented people are drawn to that environment. Perhaps it was the novelty that made me look on the entire process with such wide eyes, and maybe those whose careers consist of moving from one film set to another come to think of their work as just a job like any other. But to me the film set, no matter where it was placed for the moment, was like a sort of fantasy land where all could be made right with the world. How the world looked, how the people in it behaved, and the results of their actions—all was under the control of people who knew just what they were doing.

We lead lives fraught with uncertainties, injustices, and disappointments to offset the things that keep us going in spite of those daily blows. We try to accept not being in control in spite of our deeply rooted desire to be just that, to be safe and able to steer the events in our lives in the direction we believe will make us happy. But every day many things beyond our control happen, and we’re left knowing that the only thing we actually do control is how we choose to respond to the good and the bad that the universe presents to us.

But on a film set, a group of people band together to make life, or what looks a lot like it, unfold according to a predetermined and carefully considered plan called a script. The writers/directors know the ending well ahead of time, and in fact might even shoot the ending at the beginning of the process. Any injustice too painful to bear can be addressed and righted within the story. A character can find the courage to overcome weakness if the writers want to uplift the audience, or left in place to show us tragedy if that is the writers’ goal.

There are still uncertainties, of course, because even though there is a script ahead of time and skilled people doing their thing to make it all happen, scripts don’t always work out in fact as they do in theory. Sometimes what makes sense on paper just doesn’t happen on the set as planned. Maybe an actor gives a performance from scene to scene that changes how the writer sees that character, or that gives the writer a new, better idea to incorporate into the script. And sometimes what sounds like good dialog in the writer’s head just doesn’t work when spoken by the chosen actor.

And ultimately the filmmakers don’t truly know what they’ve made until all the pieces are put together and they find out if they have a gem or something else. But before that stage, when the scene is lit and the sound’s at speed and the camera is rolling, it’s a very special feeling to wait for that magic word: Action! As a group everyone with a role in the process is coming together to make something like life obey their commands. And if it doesn’t quite obey on the first take, they just do another and keep going until it does.

It sounds nice, that romanticized notion of filmmaking. But in fact life itself does not bow to the power of the script, and things like budgets and ticking clocks can intervene to threaten the film crew’s illusion of control. I heard that shooting went and hour and a half over the schedule. I thought that was pretty good, all things considered, but then again, I didn’t have to write the check to the Armory for the extra time.

Officer Lee about to have an idea.
Officer Lee about to have an idea.

So Saturday night was the last work for the actors on camera, and Sunday was spent shooting some scenes at different locations without the actors. I’m not sure what exactly that entails, but I expect I’ll recognize it when I see the movie. And I’m REALLY looking forward to that. I want very badly for this film to be great, not because I watched it being made but because the people I met so deserve their efforts to be rewarded with a good film. I will be sure to let you know when and where it can be seen. Sundance? Canes? Mann’s? Who knows…


  • Mythbusters has used the space a few times as well.

    -jim