Songbird: I Can See Clearly Now The Rain Has Gone

Shooting the dreaded 'scene 17'... (photo credit: Robert Brown)

  Back in December 2015, writer Tommy Draper, producer Laura C. Cann and I had a sudden surge of interest in Songbird - and from that moment on, it seemed to take up most of our time. It was the biggest project my team and I had attempted since Stop/Eject, and my biggest undertaking as a director so far (multiple locations! Multiple actors! Magic! Aaah!). Even though we were working on it constantly, over several months, it always seemed as though there was lots to do. I thought I would never be ready for it - but now, all of a sudden, the shoot is in the past.

   In spite of a couple of last-minute line-up changes (something which seems to be inevitable with indie filmmaking), we started the shoot in very fine spirits, mixing some seriously quality work with constant laughter, hugs and innuendos. Apart from a mid-week blip where the weather slowed us down (we were out in 30 degree sunshine with minimal shade), it seemed as though things were running so smoothly that I'd love the shoot as much as Night Owls.

  But Friday and scene 17 were always looming on the horizon; Scene 17 was a complicated and long outdoor scene (it takes up almost half of the screenplay) and we knew how challenging it was going to be. Then, to make things even more difficult, the weather decided to turn again - just for that shoot day - and we were met with torrential rain. We had to buy a last minute supply of ponchos, groundsheet and gazebo just to avoid cancelling altogether. But the rain came in fast and heavy, occasionally going sideways, and the gazebo - originally our only source of shelter - started to flood. 

   Everyone was exhausted, and - understandably - tempers grew short. My brain was so fried, thinking about each shot felt like trying to assemble a jigsaw in oven gloves (whilst soaked). There were a few times when I had to bark, "just keep going! Keep filming!" through the rain. From the word go, it was one of the most difficult days of my career - so much so that it took me a little while to look back at the shoot with the positivity I started out with.

Directing Janet Devlin. (Photo credit: I C Things)
   However, a few sleeps later, I see it as the brilliant shoot it was. The word 'family' has been used amongst the crew a few times, which always fills me with such happiness; people supported each other throughout the shoot, and often went beyond the call of duty (shout out to 3rd AD Demetri Yiallourou and his team for doing that every day). Old partnerships were made stronger, and new bonds were formed - one particular example is the friendship I made with Production Designer Charlotte Ball. I often struggle to delegate art department duties, but I already miss her frequent evening messages, saying things like "which of these white sofas do you prefer?" and "is this nightie subtle enough?" I hope that our paths will cross again.

  Above all, having had the opportunity to direct Janet Devlin was a clear highlight. As I'd been a fan of hers for a few years, I was really looking forward to working with her, and she didn't disappoint. If anyone was wondering whether or not she can act, let me confirm this for you; she bloody can!

   Every time I direct a film, I learn something new - and I like to pass those lessons on to you guys. So, before I ramble on any further about the film in general, here's five things I learnt from the Songbird shoot:

1) You need to learn to drown out the background noise

   On the days leading up to the shoot, I genuinely lost sleep worrying about directing my first ever outdoor scenes. I didn't think I'd be able to lead my actors through difficult scenes with the constant distractions of disgruntled public, disrupted businesses and forests with certain strict location requirements. But, as another great director promised it would, all those worries faded away when I was on set; with a good producer and ADs to worry about location logistics, all you can see is your actors.

   However, one thing I can't ignore is the distress of my crew. As I said, Friday was very difficult, and at the slightest hint that any member of my team was unhappy, my brain crumbled. Challenging shoots happen sometimes, and as a director, it's good to play the leader and care about your crew. But there's a reason the director should always try to rehearse with the actors away from the crew, and join them on set when any technical issues have been sorted. You need to be in a distraction-free zone when you're creating a character together.

2) Don't forget about your Sound Guys (even when they're camouflaged!)

Spot the sound guy! (Photo credit: Charlie Clarke)
   Bringing sound recordist Rob Brown onto the production early on gave him the opportunity to join us on location recces,  and I learnt how invaluable that process can be for planning your sound recording in advance. On reflection, there really aren't many stages you shouldn't invite your sound guy to: inviting them along to rehearsals will save time on set, because they can pre-plan their levels. And when you're running through each scene or shot with your cast and DP, don't forget to include your sound guy in this conversation!

   Also, I still have the bad habit of calling 'cut' before an end board. It's very easy to do when you're caught up in the scene - but my apologies again to Rob and his boom operators, Johann Chipol and Laura Clough, for the times when I did this!

3) You need to learn about every little area of production - not just the 'main things'

   My main focus when I'm directing is my actors and, because of my background, the art department elements of the film. I also think a lot about the edit, more so than I used to. Many directors think about the camera above most things, and while this still isn't my strongest point, I try to make up for it with detailed storyboards and lengthy cinematographer meetings.

   However, as a director, you need to think about other areas you may not immediately think of. Here's an example: during makeup tests one late summer night, I kept making suggestions like 'I want her skin to look more sallow' and 'try adding more sealing powder to mute the colours'. A few less-than-successful tests later, MUA Charlotte Price politely but firmly informed me that sallow means yellow, not thin and saggy, and sealing powder is completely transparent. If I'd just known a little bit more about makeup  (I know practically nothing) it would've saved us a fair bit of time. (So my second apology of this blog post goes to Charlotte, who did a wonderful job in spite of my ignorance!)

A sneak preview of the raw Songbird footage! (Photo credit: Motion Click Productions)

4) If in doubt, try it anyway!

   In an ideal world, I would've loved a few hours to myself to just sit with the script and get myself into a proper 'director mindset'; and DP Chris Newman and I would've cherished the time it takes to plan every shot down to the exact Fstop. The reality is that most of the crew have day jobs to work around, even those based in film, and often the only time we had to plan schedules and have meetings was late at night.

   We planned everything we could, in as much detail as possible, but there were one or two shots I really wanted to try that we didn't have chance to test in advance. We tried them anyway; one of these shots ended up being my favourite of the film, and it will probably be the stand-out moment of the trailer.

   Sometimes things just happen the way they mean to. Sometimes you accidentally catch the corner of a light in shot, and it floods the image with what looks like beautiful sunlight. Sometimes you realise you can cover two shots in one through an accidental reposition of the camera. Spontaneity can sometimes be your friend, and it's something that's suited this project since the start.

   The same goes with rehearsals. I always love to rehearse with my actors, and we had an extra day to rehearse the most complicated scenes of the film ahead of the shoot. But sometimes on the day the schedule gets a bit tight, and you need to keep moving. It's not ideal, but in this scenario what I did (and recommend) is shooting the rehearsal as your first take. Explain to the actors that it doesn't count as a proper take, and they immediately become more relaxed. You will undoubtedly have to go for a second take, but there's always something you can use from the first take, even if it's just knowledge on how to do a camera move differently.

And finally, 5) if your shoot is a week long, book the following week off as well!

   The day after Songbird, I mostly slept. After that, I shot a music video, then I went back to the corporate film day job.  But films on Songbird's scale involve a massive clean-up operation afterwards: sorting and paying invoices, returning kit and art department items to the people that lent them to you, and so on and so forth. If you don't leave time for these mundane but important activities, or if you don't have someone to sort them for you, then it will be a long time before you can settle down to watch the rushes, and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

All smiles towards the start of the Songbird shoot (photo credit: Motion Click Productions)
   So there we have it - everything I learnt from directing my most challenging but potentially brilliant piece to date. I'm not put off directing one bit, as I'm still dying to direct a feature, but I probably need to direct another film on Songbird's scale to build up my stamina first.

   In the meantime, there's the Songbird edit to keep me busy, and we'll be releasing new BTS photos from the shoot every Sunday, so keep your eyes on the Triskelle Pictures Facebook page to see those. There's also the aforementioned music video, which is soon to be released, and some other smaller projects in the pipeline.

   My final word for now is to everyone who worked/laughed/endured/swam their way through the Songbird shoot. Each of you were brilliant, and all of you will stay in my heart. And I will never again hear the word 'moist' without thinking of you.



  1. Fascinating insight into the role of Director. I am really looking forward to seeing the fruits of evryone's laboure.

  2. A great read. Wish I'd been there. I am really looking forward to seeing the film and I have no doubt it will be excellent. I know your work and that of Chris and Tommy and I also know you always give 100%
    This film will be a hit I am sure of it. Best of luck on the festival circuit. Thanks for taking the time to write this so we can all share the experience.
    Take care

  3. A great read. Wish I'd been there. I am really looking forward to seeing the film and I have no doubt it will be excellent. I know your work and that of Chris and Tommy and I also know you always give 100%
    This film will be a hit I am sure of it. Best of luck on the festival circuit. Thanks for taking the time to write this so we can all share the experience.
    Take care


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