A writer observes the making of her friend's movie: watching Moze Mossanen's Canadian dance film, Roxana, come to life.

Location: Ontario, Canada

A Canadian writer, story editor and teacher of film and theology. Looking to integrate spirituality and the arts in a celebration and love of visual and written language.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

amy's turn and shooting wraps

Stage 15 of The Toronto Film Studios seemed unusually quiet on Saturday evening when I dropped by for the last remaining hours of production on Roxana. Gone were the dancers, the bright lights and huge spaces. Instead, a small, now intimate family of people remained to shoot the final group of scenes: a series of inserted shots and sequences in which Amy eavesdrops and spies on Roxana with her lovers. The scenes are delicate. The dubious ethics of Amy's actions stems from a deep love: although what she does might appear like betrayal, Amy is almost the only character in the story whose loyalty and devotion survive all others.

For most of the day, shooting was absorbed by a solo to be intercut with a love scene occurring on the other side of the wall between Roxana and one of her lovers. The solo is both an echo of what Amy sees and a sensual projection of her own desire. As choreographed by Roberto and performed by Sheila McCarthy, it is aching and edged with slightly tortured longing. The movements are expansive and yet end by curling inward. It is the kind of thing that is rarely done in a dance narrative context and will provide an important insight and texture in the film's depth of emotion.

In the small space representing Amy's apartment, a vent had been dramatically overlit to allow a surreal spotlight on the floor in which her dance may occur, further accenting the uncertain boundary between reality and fantasy. In keeping with the production's very strong design values, the rest of the room was both well-appointed and sad, reflecting its owner's loneliness.

When the sequence was finished, another short scene was shot in which Amy watches again, this time from a darkened space, and lit from below by the grate. She slowly focusses her camera and fires. The magic of filmmaking was more apparent here, as only a small bit of floor space, erected on a scaffold, was dressed and used. It was surrounded by empty wide open space. (In fact over Sheila's shoulder was the shell of another plane set.) And yet when the camera was rolling, the feeling of intensity was just as strong as in the other spaces. Pulling the camera from her face to stare, the same longing is there.

Then it is done. At about 7:30, the last remaining actor was broken from the film. As soon as Sheila had said her goodbyes and slipped away, the only shot remaining for the night was a close-up of the grate itself. With the final wrap on the shoot so close, and such emotionally intense sequences behind them, some of the keys were giddy. "Moze, you have notes for Miss Ceiling?," joked Maria, and everyone laughed. The camera was focussed intensely on the wall and its little golden chute cover. "Standby," said Moze, and everyone laughed again. "And action!" The camera slowly glided toward the grate. Incredibly, but in testament to the perfectionism at work, the shot required 5 takes. "Can I print this one?" asked a weary Angela, the Script Supervisor, also grinning. The jokes played on til the shot was done. Suddenly, the end was here and hugs were exchanged in relief and happiness.

Outside, in the cold, a small group gathered to say farewells. As I drove out of the lot, I reflected on a whole new phase which now begins. From here, there is the five months now til the film must be finished, editing, creating the music, making the story work with what has been done and what is still to be created. This blog will continue throughout all. (Beginning soon with Moze's notes on the road ahead so stay tuned!) Roxana has been shot. And 'in the can' are thousands of feet of emotion and colour and story, soon to be woven into magical life.

Friday, December 16, 2005

swinging! reunions and farewells

Wednesday night, I drove through the large impressive but stark iron grid gates of The Toronto Film Studios on Eastern Avenue, one of the most popular places of production in the city with its fifteen soundstages. On Stage 3 I found Roxana, occupying a completely enclosed set that had been dressed to serve as many different rooms of Roxana's apartment. After almost two days of shooting, the video village of monitors and grip equipment was right now parked in the main hall of the apartment and behind us furniture from the space had been crammed into the adjoining rooms, which included Roxana's bedroom.

The action focussed on the enormous living room area with its risen space at the back. Production Designer Rhonda Moscoe and Art Director Martha Sparrow had converted it into the large living room space of a would-be sophisticate nouveau riche, circa 1960. Classical pieces of art existed alongside square shaped standing lamps that looked pulled right out of the Dick Van Dyke show. As usual the lighting had combined with the set design to shimmer colour in yet another perspective on the era I've seen painted many different styles over the last ten days.

The set up was focussed on long extensive wide dolly shots of Roxana and Amy arriving late to their own party. Guests are already there and ready to get down. A swing dance emerges and Roxana does a short vampy solo in its midst. A young hired waitress offers a drink on a platter and noticing her charm bracelet, Roxana and the girl have an immediate understanding: the girl is Roxana's own abandoned daughter Susan. The scene freezes, the lighting shifts to a dramatic red to represent an emotional solo, the music returns and mother and daughter dance an intense and emotional duet. When reality re-emerges, Susan wants to press the connection and Roxana shies away, first to Amy, who realises what is going on, and then to leave the room. It is a lot of action for one take! and will in the end be about five minutes long.

When I first arrived, the dolly tracks were already in place along the front edge of the room, echoing the view I had seen in both the Chez Paree and Art Gallery numbers. Soon after, however, the tracks were moved on an angle to allow a more intimate angle on the mother and daughter duet. I stood on an apple crate (used by the grip team) in the triangle of space leftover to the corner of the set and looked down to see little Olivia Ballantyne, the young actress playing Susan as a very young girl in other scenes. In this sequence, a brief moment had been planned in the silence and light change when Roxana and Susan first recognize each other. A superimposition was going to replace the older Susan with the younger one. As time played out in the day, however, the shot was cut. The young actress had been on set since 3:30 but did not seem to mind. Indeed, her bright emotional face watching the action of the older women, modelled for a brief moment the gifts of an acting generation to come.

The studio buzzers sounded, marking the beginning and ending of takes - several times. Each time, it was back to "ones", the starting positions of all players. I again marvelled at the endurance and stamina of performers especially those gyrating intensely to the swing style of the new years eve rhythms. At one point, an ensemble dancer appears to spin several times in the air before landing. The ensemble whoops in appreciation. (Since the music is being laid in later, the live sound of the scene is not being recorded. Therefore, dancers can say things to create the ambience of the scene, while backstage, director and cinematographer can call back and forth to the set as well.) The action of the dance moves so swiftly and in such upbeat rhythms that the mood is infectious. Beside me another onlooker taps her foot with the beat. The overall mood is festive and light, allowing for a stark contrast when the story moves into the duet between mother and daughter. I found myself wondering how Moze is able to conceive such beautiful shifts in texture in advance.

Eventually, the buzzer sounded for a final time and the day was done at 9:00 p.m. Maria, the First A.D. came forward and announced that some people were now finished and rounds of applause were given, first for Olivia, the young girl, then Christopher Body, whose strong and vibrant dance and acting presence as the Pawnbroker will be a huge part of the film's dynamic, and the extraordinary ensemble who have danced Roxana from decade to decade. Kisses and hugs were exchanged as the crew began pulling up cable and assembling boxes for the night. I wandered away to have a look at the sets being prepped for the next day - including a plane set, on which Rex Harrington, as Eliot, will receive incriminating photos. The little set had been already transformed into a Gultstream cabin of the period.

As I write this two days later on Friday night, the day of shooting is almost over in Toronto which will mark a wrap for dancer Greta Hodgkinson who plays Roxana. Almost as soon as she has stepped out of the 50s and 60s era costumes she has been living in, she will get on a plane herself for Florence, Italy, to perform with a different Roberto - Roberto Bolle, at the Teatro Communale for six performances before the year is out! Meanwhile, on Saturday's last day of shooting, all of Amy's remaining scenes observing Roxana through keyholes will be shot without Roxana there. Even now, the actors and dancers are retreating into the images and emotion they have created - blurred impressions in the memories of those who watched, while they themselves move on to other worlds.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

early morning ghosts

Although it is still days away, the crew and cast of Roxana are already anticipating the end of 13 long, gruelling and exhilirating days. Entering the beautiful Liuna train station in Hamilton on Tuesday morning as the first light crept over its iron-work roof, the beautiful art deco accents of the interior issued a welcome sense of quiet. The crew moved around in almost a hush, or sleepiness, I wasn't sure which. The airstar balloon light had been inflated and risen to its post above the central waiting area and discreet filtered lights were focussed on the paintings of the walls. The paintings themselves were rich with details: offering nostalgic glimpses at the lives of transportation workers of the past.

This is the setting of the finale of the film and the sequence which I saw being rehearsed a few weeks ago (see "duets and trios" below). At the train station, Roxana must choose between the life she has been leading and sharing with friend Amy and the romantic interest of the Pawnbroker. Although I was not able to stay long enough to see the final trio, I was happy to observe the part of the scene I had not seen rehearsed, in which the Pawnbroker surprises Roxana at the station and duets with her to convince her to stay. The lost sadness of Roxana is mirrored in her movement - sometimes sliding away from him, or appearing to fall away, reluctant but submitted to her fate.

I was particularly struck this time by the importance of background extras. The thankless work that these people do is often inspired by a sheer love of movies. Throughout the movie they have worked long hours to provide sometimes just a very brief moment of colour in a scene. In this case, the presence of a man on a bench reading a paper offered a sense of the unstoppable nature of time - while he is engaged in something routine, behind him a woman considers the ultimate decisions of her life. Sadly, I had to run off to Toronto to teach. But as I left the station in the full sunny morning, my breath making fog, I wondered how many times every day scenes like this play out in other lives. Scenes unassisted by dance to show outward expression of feeling. The old station seemed alive with the echoes of such moments.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

moonlight duet

Night shooting is one of those crazy realities of making movies. Some filmmakers and crew thrive on it, others hate it. Roberto likes it. He describes the feeling of pleasure in creating while others are sleeping. Stephen, on the other hand, prefers weekday shoots with weekends and evenings off. We're shooting on Saturday and overnight on Saturday, he says, shaking his head. At the same time, he is resigned. It was the only way to obtain the beautiful location: the lobby of a courthouse in downtown Hamilton. The setting serves as background for a midnight duet between the Pawnbroker and Roxana. Returning from a New Years' celebration, Roxana saunters through the lobby of her penthouse building, reflectively. The Pawnbroker catches up to her and entices her into a romantic dance in which the uncertainties and inevitabilities of their relationship are played out. The marble corridors and inlaid tile ceilings serve as an austere sign of the opulence in which she now lives. But at the same time the moonlight is a hint at the warmth or satisfaction she might also be missing.

While waiting, it was a great pleasure to finally catch up with costume designer Debra Hanson. (Here, she and Moze consider a piece of jewellery for Roxana's costume) Sipping a coffee, Debra describes the differences in working for film and working for theatre. Her credits in both are impressive to say the least, and our paths met some time ago when we both worked for the Stratford Festival. In the theatre, she explains, costume fittings are long and detailed, sometimes an hour or two to make sure they are right. In film, the designer is lucky to have fifteen or twenty minutes with the artist, and often close to the shoot itself. In theatre, clothes are designed to last eight or nine months of repertory performances and are built to be sturdy and endurable. In film, budget constraints and the likely necessity of last minute adjustments and perhaps even no use at all mean the costumes are built to last only a few days. At the same time, the eye of the audience (the camera) is closer and more scrutinizing so they must be convincing. In a dance film, they must also be designed to allow for free movement. Roxana's jacket this evening, for instance, is made of a two-way stretch material, making dance movement possible.

As we wait for picture up, the cold air wafts into the lobby through the only accessible doors and Moze looks on with concern about the potential loss of heat. Meanwhile nearby, dancer Rex Harrington who plays Roxana's lover Eliot, a politician, waits in costume, reading a paper. His entire call tonight is for one simple reaction shot which they must get at this location to his observation of the duet. The duet sequence is being covered by a steadicam, a camera which is strapped to an operator who moves with it alongside the dancers. Tonight, the steadicam operator is Mike Meagher, being guided by Michael Spicer, the cinematographer, who calls out directions during takes and while the dance is occurring. Breathe it out Mike, she's gaining on you! Immediately, the image on the monitor widens. Michael responds with That's it! When the take is over, the camera is hastily put back on its stand, the weight of it clearly a relief for Mike to have off for a few seconds!

The duet is meant to continue into a surrealist sequence in which Roxana, moving through time, dances from one man to the other in a succession of encounters that also symbolically represent her upward movement in her own social sphere. The plan is for it to include a duet with a banker, played by Roberto, to be shot later in the night. The reverse wall of the courthouse corridor is perfect for the "hallway of power" indicated symbolically in the shooting schedule to represent this timeless transformation. However, scheduling is tight, and time is running out. In the end, it seemed likely that the duet between Roxana and the banker might have to be cut, though the rest of the sequence will remain in tact.

"Lunch" is called and while others hurry across the street, Moze chats with me quietly about how he might use this as an opportunity to do something different with his vision. During the next week, he will perhaps pick up a shot that covers the missing link, but will do so creatively, with a gesture or a very brief image or scene in which the steps in Roxana's rise may in fact also include a moment of her own reflection on it. In the end, he goes off to eat, still ruminating. I was reminded of Debra Hanson's comment about how movies are ongoingly creative. Even when the cameras have stopped rolling, the wheels are still turning and minds are still humming! While limitations do exist, it seems anything is still possible.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

waltzing roxana

On Tuesday afternoon I journeyed to Kleinburg studios - the location set north of Toronto where the company had moved for the day. Driving down a very steep driveway through picturesque snowy hills, the orange light of sunset glinted off distant trees. I wondered silently how trucks and cars get up the road in the middle of winter - how easily it must freeze over. But grip trucks are like battle tanks, they are built to get through anything! The parking lot was jammed, proof that nothing gets in the way of making movies!

Inside the studio the Art Gallery sequence was being shot. In this scene, the Pawnbroker introduces Roxana to glamorous society who do not know quite what to make of the vampish newcomer. While the women of the party wear gorgeous but conservative dresses with full skirts, Roxana saunters into the scene in a stunningly more risque evening dress, the skirt hugging her legs and soon showing a revealing slit. Paintings and statues on small tables cling discreetly on or near the walls, creating the right atmosphere but leaving lots of floor space for the dance. The costumes seemed to vibrate the colours in the paintings, as if they were coming to life.

The breath of fresh air and relief for the crew was palpable at being in a studio with almost palatial spaces behind set and vertical reach to the lighting grids above. It seemed to be a welcome break from huddling in breathfrosting basecamps and sets elsewhere. I do like studio, grinned 1st Assistant Director Maria Popoff as she moved through the open spaces. Meanwhile, the start had been complicated by a minor injury sustained by dancer Greta Hodgkinson, who stoically continued. Two cameras were operational: an A camera focussing on the wide angle and a B camera taking a closer view.

The first part of the shot happened in silence, with Roxana and Amy making their entrance with the Pawnbroker. Roxana is introduced by name to various guests and then, as it becomes clear that the men of the gathering are instantly smitten, she is drawn into a waltz in which she partners almost every single man present in a whirlwind of encounters. I was reminded of Roberto and Moze discussing the need for the dances to push through the narrative and how successfully that has happened. Through clever orchestrations of choreography and use of a later steadicam, the dance and the camerawork model the life of Roxana to come: many lovers, many broken hearts. Including, perhaps her own. Meanwhile, Amy walks the perameter of the room, observing Roxana's success with that mixture of nervousness and pride that Sheila McCarthy creates movingly.

At lunch (which came at 5:00 that day), I sat with Maria and 3rd Assistant Director Shauna Janssen. One of them must always be on headset - and turns were taken as they tried to eat. Conversation ran to the schedule for next week, including a very early morning to come at the Liunia train station in Hamilton. Getting the crew there for the 5:15 a.m. unit call was going to be complex. Eventually, Shauna and Maria left to work and Moze himself sat down. Soon he regaled those of us left (including Roberto) with a story about his first experiences with dance and public performance. As an 8 year old, he signed up for a talent show in an English boarding school, determined to do flamenco as he had seen it on tv. Spending all his time on the costume (which was custom fitted and included ruffles) it wasn't til he was waiting in the wings to go on that he realised he didn't have either music or dance steps. He improvised by stamping his feet to the strange melody played on a recorder by a math teacher yanked out of his seat! (Manijeh, Moze's mother, says there are pictures. We want to see them!)

Before the day continued, time was taken for still photographs. A sofa was pulled forward and Greta Hodgkinson as Roxana lay across it to a flurry of flashes and cameras. Besides the still photographer, his assistant, the cinematographer, myself and a behind scenes doc filmmaker were all shooting pictures. The men joined her and the results reminded me of production stills from 1960s movies - a tribute to the designers that the colour tones match so beautifully, both on camera and off.

While waiting for things to resume, I chatted with dancer Emma Lu Rommerein (that's her in the middle, resting). She plays an ensemble dancer in this movie, and was the featured actor and dancer in Moze's last film, From Time to Time. In that incredible way of hyphenates that everyone in the business seems to have, Emma is also a baker, starting up a business making gluten-free breads. Called Miss Emma Lu's, the specialty is a chocolate chip zucchini bread. Everything is in place, she says, she is just seeking a kitchen to work out of. While we were chatting, someone offered a contact. Like everything in this business, it's all about networking!

Back on set, cinematographer Michael Spicer and his teams moved the dolly tracks to get closer angles. One camera would follow just Roxana, the other the Pawnbroker. They changed position of the enormous airstar balloon light that appeared to float along the ceiling and was guided by a rope. Elsewhere above, a grip adjusted a lamp on the grid so that it focussed a little less intensely on a particular painting. So much of filmmaking is this kind of painstaking perfectionism, aimed at making the illusion as real as possible.

Eventually, I left, driving up the steep hill now shrouded in night. Exhausted. I left behind a crew still going strong and expected to shoot til midnight. Wednesday and Thursday, they are at locations on Front Street in Toronto shooting exteriors and interiors related to the drama and not involving dance. When I mentioned it to Roberto before I left, it was his turn to grin: a day off!, he said with unconcealable pleasure.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

shooting begins!

Roxana has kicked her way into life, principal photography has begun on the movie. For the next two weeks, adrenalin will run high as the temperatures outside continue to run low. The shoot began on Thursday in snowy cold Hamilton, where it will stay through Saturday. On Tuesday, the crew moves to Kleinburg for the art gallery sequences (shot in a studio) and the remainder of the shoot will occur in Toronto.

I joined them on day 2 at the location set in Hamilton for the Chez Paree number that opens the movie. It's rare that the making of a film begins with the actual opening scenes of a film. When that happens it gives the performing company an unusual chance to establish their own sense of natural character progression, normally only possible on stage. The timing is accidental here, but there are benefits all around.

In the previous post, I e-chatted with Production Designer Rhonda Moscoe about the transformation of the old burlesque theatre discovered above a Chinese restaurant. By looking at the first picture above and scrolling below you can see the 'before and after' - and the tremendous work that has been done. Catching up with Rhonda on set yesterday, she and Art Director Martha Sparrow (both pictured) seemed very pleased. It was decided to keep the Chinese characteristics of the space in tact and to work with them as a context for the theatre, adapting it to another era.

Roberto Campanella's choreography is an almost elegant burlesque - with slow and erotic, but not provocative gestures. The combination of his movement and Rhonda and Martha's set work, along with Debra Hanson's stunning costumes, creates a feeling of a very tony torchy hideaway for high-ranking politicians of the late 1950s.

The day started with a sizeable delay. Stephen Traynor (arguably the calmest looking producer that ever lived) did not seem too alarmed, given that a very full schedule was ahead. So much of the quality of life on a film set is determined by the tone that is set in the key personnel. If the producer, director, cinematographer or their key assistants appear to be fretting and tearing their hair, then so will the others. The key is trust - and these folks seem to trust their crew implicitly. A new light needed to be added to the ceiling; the scaffolding was not big enough. But eventually the matter was taken care of and the set filled with the gorgeously and meticulously dressed and coiffed extras. Fog was pumped in to give a slight nightclub feeling of smoke and the camera was finally rolling.

First up: a full dolly shot moving along the front edge of the theatre at a wide angle as Roxana and the other dancers make their way down the steps of the stage and into a performing space between tables. I thought suddenly of the conversation I'd listened to between Moze and Roberto on the street in front of 509 Parliament just a few weeks ago, in which Roberto wondered aloud, as they imagined the set, "will there be tables?". Space on set was so tight that Moze and Roberto and Stephen watched from behind the sealed off area on a monitor, in a space equally small and running over with cables, boxes and set pieces (not to mention people)! As the dance progressed, everyone stared at the tiny television, transfixed. Several takes later, it was time for lunch. Lunch at 4:00. Lunch on a movieset is the main meal of the day and the main break. On the Saturday shoot, "lunch" starts at 7:00 p.m.!

As I wandered around, I recognized many of the crew from Moze's previous films - even behind the scenes he likes to keep his talent familiar. This 'family' sensibility only adds to the shoot, as everyone knows from experience how the others prefer to work and can be one step ahead of the game. Even on a complex day like this one, with setbacks and tight space, there is a strong feeling of camaraderie and understanding. And speaking of family, that's Moze's mother, Manijeh, taking a moment out with her son. Moze's sister, Mirella, an accomplished photographer, and a family friend, were also on hand to share in the excitement.

Lunch was served by the Harvest Moon Chinese restaurant that owns the location downstairs. While the company ate, I noticed Moze chatting with Maria Popoff, the First Assistant Director, about the next day's schedule. While the room filled with dancers and extras covered in robes, hair and makeup and head pieces still in tact, sitting to eat Chinese Food, Moze and Maria worked out the complexities of making sure everything is covered before leaving the location. Near to Moze, an extra still dressed as an army officer, chatted with a guest. Work and rest are co-existent in the movies - only there's very little of the latter for some people!

The shoot resumed with the same sequence, now shot closer: medium range, to be sure to have a track specifically on Roxana. I watched through a slat into the set the action taking place on the side, not much on camera in this shot, but still being observed with care and detail. Sheila McCarthy's character Amy, moved among the extras offering them souvenir pictures from her polaroid camera and occasionally glancing at the dance floor. I was impressed by how thorough and committed performances are, even when they are largely off-camera.

At 6:30, I called it a day as they were getting ready to move the dolly tracks to a different area of the space. Ahead: a shot of the very side action that I described above. After that, the reverse angle, Roxana's point of view, from the stage. It was early evening, but the night was still young in terms of work. For many I left behind, the working day began at 9:00! As a footnote, the mystery of the swan (see below) was resolved for me by walking on set. It seems everyone gets their own transformation!