British director Nicolas Roeg once said to me that making a film is like horse racing. To start with you give the horse a nudge to get him moving, then as you gather speed there's a point where you have to trust the horse. You hold on and the horse will carry you across the finish line.
I've just returned home from shooting a Sci-fi proof-of-concept film in Monterrey, Mexico. The most challenging shoot I have done to date. An 8 page script, shot in two days in multiple locations in the 35 degrees heat of the desert. Vehicles, drones, full military costumes, no budget, no electricity or toilets and a cast and crew I had never met. What could possibly go wrong? To date I've worked on 20+ feature films as a VFX artist, including Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and the Harry Potters, and directed 5 short films through my company Andworks Pictures. Each time trying to make something different. A new challenge as a filmmaker in preparation for my feature debut. This time I picked science fiction. A feature script idea that I plan to pitch to studios with a proof-of-concept short. For the location we chose Mexico. A country I had never been to before.
After my last short film, Red Handed (a dark comedy also shot in 2 days in the UK), I said to myself; the next film I make I'll give myself more time on set. However, it seems my film-making path has it's own agenda. Only two weeks after initially coming up with the rough feature idea for Hecatomb with my good friend and producer Eduardo Parra, there was an opportunity to fly to Mexico to shoot something. We decided it would be good to film a test on an extremely small budget with minimum crew. In reality though this was never going to happen. If I'm going to Mexico for 3 days to make a film with my own money, the budget and crew will stay small but I'm going to make something big.
This is where Carlos G. Davila and his production company Reverie Workshop came in. A successful director and producer in his own right, Eduardo introduced me to him over Skype. Our flights were booked for 5 weeks time and it was arranged that Carlos would handle the production side from Mexico and Eduardo and I would nail down the story here in Vancouver and deal with the post-production afterwards. Patricio Marin, Eduardo's relative would accompany us onset to film the behind the scenes. It's safe to say that without Carlos there would be no film. He arranged everything. From casting calls to crew, location scouting, props and logistics. The guy was fantastic. What happened next though was out of all of our hands and a real test for everyone involved.
Thursday 24th March. Day 1 - scouting in Monterrey and I'm ill. I met Carlos for the first time in person the night before and also met up with Simon Arblaster, a talented Kiwi actor friend from Vancouver and main star of the film. He also is tired after a 26 hour delayed flight. Now it's 8am and we are on our way to see the locations with cinematographer Alan Zuniga. This is also the first time we have met.
It takes longer than we hoped. My head is pounding and one of the locations isn't how I pictured it from the photos. We walk for over an hour around the desert until eventually we find a place that will work. Alan is great. We have the same vision for the film and I can tell that this is going to be a good partnership. With locations sorted we quickly head to a press meeting with Mexico's newspaper El Norte. It's already late so we have to do this over dinner. I then finally get a chance to meet the other actors. David Angulo and Guillermo Callahan. Cast for their parts days before, we haven't had a chance to speak until this moment. What a relief to see that they have the same vision for their characters.
Friday 25th March. Day 2 - production begins. It's 5:30am. I'm in the lobby of my hotel meeting all the crew when the first wave of bad news hits us. It's massive. The truck has broken down.
The film revolves around a vintage military truck driving through the landscape. If it doesn't work, what do we do? I keep in touch with Carlos as he tries to fix the problem. The mechanic is on his way. It should be working in an hour. Okay, lets rehearse. An hour passes. Still trying to figure out the truck. 2 hours. Okay, we need to reschedule. The budget won't allow us to get a new vehicle, and the truck has all the equipment in it and was supposed to transport some of the crew to the location. What can I shoot without the truck and my producer / AD? We head to the location nearly 3 hours later than I had intended. A couple of my main extras have also dropped out so I'm limited to working with what I've got.
The mechanic can't fix the truck and I've run out of things to shoot without it. We decide to pay for it to get towed to the location. Extremely slow it takes hours to get it there and into position. It doesn't start so I can only film the static scenes. By this time we are starting to lose light. We've rescheduled everything that we can. The crew is amazing. It was an absolute pleasure to work with them.
We lose light and a new problem arises. How do we get the truck back to town. Do we tow it there then back again in the morning? It will cost a fortune. Or does someone stay with it over night. It can't be left alone. We have a meeting in the desert in the dark. Carlos has volunteered. It will mean he can't do the call sheets and fix any other problems as he won't have the internet. Sleeping in his car, he also won't get much sleep. A crew member reminds us where we are. This is Mexico. We are in the desert. Cartels have been known to pass through. A reality check. It's decided that the truck will be towed to the nearest town and we will pay someone to keep it on their property.
We finish the first production day far behind schedule. Alan and I are sat in the lobby going through the shot list. It's 11pm, we're tired, I'm still ill and we need to be up at 5am. Tomorrow is our last day and Eduardo, Patricio and I have to catch a flight back to Vancouver at 9pm. There's too much left to do, but Alan is positive. What a guy. He feels we can combine shots, we can cut small parts and we can salvage what went wrong. I head to bed knowing that I have an incredible crew behind the project. We'll figure out a way.
Saturday 26th March. Day 3 - final day. I've contemplated changing my flights but I really can't afford to and it would be hard to get all the crew together again. We head to the location. I find out that the night before they had problems trying to house the truck. Someone also took another crew member's car keys with them back to town. That person's car had to be left behind. If something happened to it, it would have been up to me and Eduardo to pay. Luckily, it was fine. Everyone looks tired but extremely enthusiastic and optimistic. Today is going to be a good day.
We are off to a good start. The truck has arrived and the mechanic is here. He's fixed the part and put it back in the truck. We are now going to jump-start it down the hill. The film hinges on this moment. A few guys push the truck as fast as they can and the mechanic turns on the engine. Nothing happens. They keep pushing. Nothing. I watch as the truck rolls to a stop at the bottom of the hill. I feel deflated.
I walk back to camp and wonder if I will complete the film. It's 9:30am, I leave at 7pm for my flight and I have shot approximately 25% of the film. I sit down and feel drained.
Then… someone amazing happens.
I hear a noise and look up. A Mexican man with a cowboy hat, riding a donkey passes the crew. The donkey is overloaded with bags and its an amazing sight. I remember where I am. I'm making a film in Mexico! How cool is that?! Instead of taking the road the donkey turns right and heads down the track towards the truck. No one else that has passed the shoot has taken that path. I film him on my phone and ask if this is meant as a lucky charm? Carlos, Eduardo and Alan come over. All three positive as always, they say its time to give it another go.
Everyone from the cast and crew pushes the truck. We gather speed. The mechanic turns on the engine and…. Boom! The engine rumbles to life and we have a moving vehicle! The crew scream and cheer and it's a wonderful moment.
The truck can't be turned off though. It's bit of a problem for Jerry our awesome sound guy but we'll figure out a way. First off let's film the main scene. The crew comes together and everyone works extremely fast to get ready. It's 10am and I have rescheduled and cut shots to make the film work. We jump in the truck ready to leave when I hear a screech of tires. I turn around just as a passing car on the road crashes into the back of the mechanic's car. Oh shit! In the mayhem Eduardo tells me to leave and he'll figure it out. We drive away as everyone else huddles around the crash. We move fast, grabbing the shots we need, only doing one or two takes. Simon, David and Guillermo are incredible. So professional - we get what we need. We also have a drone flying overhead, trying to get two shots in one. Rodrigo and Roberto from The Drone Xperience are fantastic. So friendly and enthusiastic, it was a pleasure working with them.
We fly through the shot list. It's crazy and I'm loving it. We move from location to location, not taking any breaks, finally ending on the prison scene an hour away from where we originally were. The military extras turn up and we get the shots we need just as the sun disappears behind the mountains, illuminating the sky red and orange and symbolizing the end of what was the craziest shoot I've ever done.
I feel quite emotional as everyone comes together and congratulates each other on completing what seemed impossible. We grab a quick crew photo then it's straight off to the airport and back to Mexico city. I'm drained, but I feel great.
I wouldn't change this experience of Hecatomb for the world. It was so much fun and I met some incredible people. When things go wrong it's for a reason and you have to embrace and enjoy the experience. To all the cast and crew I say thank you so much for being with me on that journey. Jerry, Hugo, Paco, Mike, Barbara, Yiyo, Chava, Gerardo, Monica, Delta & Jimena you are awesome. I'll always look at the crew photo with fond memories. I've had a chance to look at the footage and I'm so impressed with what we got. This is going to be a good film and it has one hell of a story behind it.
I finally understand what Nicolas Roeg meant when he told me that film-making is like horse racing. You prepare for production as much as you can in the time that you have and you give the film that push to start moving. There is however a point when the movie will take on a life of its own. You have to hold on and trust you have done enough to see yourself across the finish line. For this project we held on and finished on schedule as planned. However, instead of a horse... Hecatomb was sent a donkey :)
UPDATE: (June 2016) We have since gone on to shoot more scenes for Hecatomb in Vancouver. Expanding on the story and bringing more talented crew on board such as producer Philip Planta, who made it all possible. Please like our facebook page and look out for the first episode of the behind the scenes documentary by Patricio Marin. Our website www.Hecatombfilm.com, will be updated regularly. Keep posted on Hecatomb's journey!
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