“The Chaplain” Behind The Scenes: An On Set Diary

Santiago Yniguez reviews the layout of a dolly shot on the set of “The Chaplain.” Photo credit: Trevor Morgan

By: Marjorie Galas

Writer/director Jeremy Breslau knew he needed a talented team to bring his short, “1982”, to life. As a young father reflects on a formative year in his childhood, a continuous panning shot shifts seamlessly from mornings to evenings; passing effortlessly from a bathtub to a backyard and gliding through rooms as seasons pass by.   Interconnecting sets, flawless lighting and expert camera direction not only led “1982” to numerous accolades during it’s festival run but also resulted in recognition for crew members including director of photography Frank Buono, who received top honors at ICG’s 2014 Emerging Cinematographers Awards.

The buzz from “1982” was still palpable when Breslau launched a Kickstarter campaign for “The Chaplain.” A stand-alone segment from the feature length script following an ex-Army chaplain whose search for his daughter tests his waning faith surpassed its financial goal and a December production date was set. Eager to watch Breslau at work, I requested permission to visit the set. Days before Christmas I found myself on “The Chaplain” soundstage.

What follows is a brief overview of the experience.

6:15am – Second assistant director Damien Martorana escorts me to the production’s warehouse location. Familiar with Martorana is an editor, I ask “Why the shift from post to production?” Martorana explains he has a desire to understand production from every possible angle. “I want to be well-rounded, and ‘The Chaplain’ places me amongst professionals I can really learn a lot from.”

7:00am – Like clockwork, the camera and grip department members arrive and immediately busy themselves with prepping the first set up: a lighting transition from evening to dawn. There’s a serene focus to the upbeat crew who neither yawn nor complain about the lack of coffee. Mona Sumibcay assures me “it’s the calm before the storm” as she hurries off to provide directions for gaffer Phillip Jackson. After a busy year as set production assistant on “Masters of Sex”, “Parenthood” and “Scandal”, Sumibcay is capably handling the role of first assistant director as she oversees the efficient and safe relocation of lighting equipment. Line producer Robert Brown is on the phone, resolving an order confusion that’s delayed the crafty’s breakfast set-up. The educator behind USC’s long running “Scheduling and Budgeting for Film” class, Brown is happy to have a hand on a physical location. “I’ll sweep floors, make calls; I’m here to do whatever needs to be done.”

7:30am – The shoot’s punctuality continues as stand-ins for actors Bailey Chase, Hayley McFarland and Trevor Morgan take marks enabling DP Frank Buono to run lighting cues. Observing the process on a monitor in the set’s video village – a carpeted area lined with folding chairs, an audio table and a DIT station – Buono notices some light flares on the camera lens. Returning to the closed set he reviews camera operator Santiago Yniguez’s movements during four significant light cues.

I’m intrigued by costume designer Rachel Apatoff’s sequined sweatpants; surplus wardrobe she acquired working on a reality dance program.  “The Chaplain’s” clothing needs prove far less flashy. The story line required her to distress contemporary casual outfits by roughing them up with a cheese grater and sand paper. Getting the correct fabric for a hospital gown proved more challenging. “It has to be a bit stiff, due to the (activities of the scene),” says Apatoff. “I rented a gown to get the perfect balance of wash and wear within the natural stiffness of the fabric.”

8:00am –Shafts of light ornately dance through the set -a dilapidated, seedy motel room. Art director Rose Youmans and set decorator Kendall Huberman punch additional holes in the wall to enhance the ambiance. During the adjustment, Breslau gives notes to Yniguez, preparing him for a more refined push into Chase’s face. Script supervisor Sandra Fleck reviews the markings on the slate. Regularly working on series including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Justified”, Fleck embraces opportunities that allow her to join intimate sets where she can extend her attention to detail beyond the script. “You may have a lot of down time, and then suddenly you have to be firing on all cylinders,” said Fleck.

8:30am –The next rehearsal results in additional refinement to the lighting. With new bulbs in place, Buono carefully reviews the camera movement with lighting cues to ensure the sequence meets Breslau’s expectations. Noting the timing is slighting off, Breslau and Buono work through the choreography Yniguez must perform. I wonder how he can achieve the complex motions with the heavy steadi cam rig and no visible marks on the floor. Somehow, he recreates the meticulously designed movement, presenting a shot that looks completely spontaneous and natural in playback.

Sound mixer Dan Monahan has been quietly monitoring audio throughout the morning, zeroing in on the actors’ wireless mikes. The indie sound veteran informs me he’d rather capture the sound with a boom because “body mikes are unreliable.” However, the camera’s complete rotation through the room leaves no space for a boom operator or dangling equipment. “Three-sixty shoots makes audio a real challenge,” says Monahan. “They are doing a delicate ballet.  The dialogue happens before the light cues are called out, so it won’t affect the sound.” Monahan points to a wall, revealing a camouflaged mike. “I do have a boom set up to capture ambient sound.”

10:30am – After several angles of the first scene successfully wrapped, Buono and Breslau work with Yniguez to capture the next scene’s sweeping camera moves. The set is encased in a wall. My only vantage point is what’s transmitted from the camera to the video village monitor. Currently the camera’s at rest, pointed at the carpet. It disturbingly resembles my apartment’s old, thread beaten brand.

11:00am – Breslau has been closely monitoring the movement of a curtain – a key plot point that’s rehearsed and reshot until the movement synched with the director’s expectation. After two successful takes they move on to a tight shot of Chase’s face. The next scene involves the hotel room’s door opening. Jackson notes the shadow of a figure is needed to add realism to the light entering the room. A member of the camera team quickly fills the need.

As the team preps tracks for a dolly shot, I venture into the closed set: a completed hotel room. There’s glass in the window panes, a bathroom with tarnished mirror, and the walls and ceiling appear to have fifty years of water damage rotting their core, exposing bits of insulation, wires and wood. Production designer Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. explains the room was designed to accommodate all Breslau’s requests. “Jeremy was very specific about the layout of the details around the room, so I designed the space to his specifications, including the placement of stains on the ceiling,” says Sullivan Jr.

The ADG award (art direction “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “Behind the Candelabra”) and Emmy winning (art direction, “Behind the Candelabra”) designer began his process by working on the room’s layout and color palette in Photoshop. Sullivan Jr. built up textures and incorporated set pieces as Breslau approved each previs renderings, – preventing physical errors during the build that would affect the shoot’s minimal timeline and modest budget.

12:53pm – The dolly tracks have been placed and a brief rehearsal ensues seven minutes prior to lunch. The crew happily relaxes, enjoying Panera sandwiches during a half hour break. McFarland, bundled in a sweatshirt, sips a coffee. “I hope I don’t have to scream again, I don’t think my throat can take it,” she jokes.

1:30pm – I’m treated to a repeat of the camera and grip crew’s extreme punctuality as they jump into position for the tracking shot. Once again, the drape is crucial, however the first several rehearsals focus on camera movement and light before the practical is added.

2:11pm – Noticing specs of dirt kicked up during the scene, Buono carefully inspects then cleans the lens. Morgan snaps photos of the distorted images of Buono that appear in the video village monitor. A Teen Choice Award Nominee for his turn as a villain in “The Sixth Sense”, Morgan splits his acting career with his pursuit of documentary filmmaking and photography. “I’m just having the best time here,” says Morgan.

3:10pm – After another camera rehearsal that shifts and circles around each actor’s face, Buono informs me the lighting in the scenes is generated by practicles incorporated into the set dressing, including work lights and candles. In addition to monitoring the camera’s fluidity, he’s also ensuring sharp shadows, a danger when moving around fixed set pieces, don’t disrupt or distort the shot.

Throughout the day, makeup artist John Goodwin pulls actors to a tented area where he applies sweat, dirt and other makeup effects. A special oil blend is applied to the skin, giving the appearance of beaded sweat. “I use a mirror for each application, to see the way the makeup lays on the face in a two dimensional format, similar to a camera’s perspective.”

Having perfected his craft in movies such as “John Carpenter’s The Thing” and “Men in Black”, Goodwin spent years working in the CSI franchise, earning four Emmy nominations and one win. He’s brought a dummy he created for the show to the set: a woman who drowned in a bog. “It worked well for (the CSI episode), but I don’t think it’ll be in use here,” says Goodwin.

3:35pm – Fulfilling Monahan’s expectations, the body mikes are causing interference during a particularly physical scene. An attempted adjustment results in the mike’s wires protruding through wardrobe. Monahan decides riding the audio levels will allow him to deal with the distortion. After the eighth take, Breslau is confident he has exactly what he needs.

4:00pm –Buono cradles the camera and frames a particularly crucial scene, considering the exact angle needed. The DP arose from a fruitful career as a camera operator, working on films including “Minority Report”, “Children of Men” and “The Town.” I wonder if he’ll capture the shot himself, but Buono returns the camera to Yniguez without shooting a frame, satisfied he’ll get what he wants.

5:14pm – As the crew’s energy remains high I find my attention drifting towards a giant chocolate chip cookie. I ask Linda Pottinger, the Oregon, Illinois resident who won the visit to the set through her Kickstarter contribution, how she’s feeling. “Great!  This was my first Kickstarter campaign contribution I ever made,” says Pottinger as she snaps photos with a high-end digital camera. “I’ve never been on set before. I love every moment!”

5:40pm –Sullivan Jr. informs me they’ll get through their complete shot list before the 7:00pm wrap. I check out Jeff Merritt, the onset DIT, and the timeline of shots he’s keeping. He shows me how to build a simple mapping template around Chase’s face, which automatically adjusts hue through an entire scene. “I’m here to ensure the lighting set up will give them exactly what they need for color correction in the editing suite,” says Merritt.

6:06pm – A shot of Morgan closing the door is being rehearsed as crew members begin breaking down whatever items can be put away. Their action becomes overzealous, resulting in Sumibcay sharply stating “Settle for rehearsal!” First camera assistant Allen Chodakowski is reflecting on a scene where he felt his focus was off. “The director was very happy; maybe I’m being too hard on myself.”

6:45pm – Buono and Breslau review the last few shots and discuss what they need to get to maximize the remaining time. A shot of incense being lit causes some focus problems. While the exit energy is growing, Buono patiently provides instruction to resolve the issue, resulting in a successful capture of the image. “These guys really know what they’re doing,” remarks Goodwin. “Every production should be like this.”

7:13pm – Breslau gives the cast members the green light to depart, acknowledging their tremendous performances. The crew remains on set as final pick-ups are captured. Seven minutes later, a minute of room tone is recorded and principle photography for “The Chaplain” wraps.

Breslau walks off the set as calmly as he entered it. Although he guided every aspect of the production, he feels the dedication of his strong crew fully realized his vision.

“I was thrilled to be surrounded by fellow filmmakers committed to creating as detailed, texturally rich and emotionally resonant images as possible,” said Breslau.

Wife and producer Gina Breslau was particularly delighted many “1982” crew members were able to return. “For a producer of an indie project to work with artists like Emerging Cinematographer Award winner Frank Buono and Emmy-winning production designer Patrick M. Sullivan Jr, who typically work on one hundred million dollar studio productions, is an honor and a privilege. We hope to be working with our wonderful team for a long time to come.”

To learn more about “The Chaplain” please visit:
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