As people who follow our Facebook page know, our very own Doug Wicker is on the verge of finishing pre production on his film Bad People and sliding into the production side of things. As someone who has read the Bad People script, I can tell you that it is what seems like a familiar concept twisted into its own little creature. But the fact that Wicker is past the pre production stage got me thinking about the topic for this very article. What exactly is pre production, and how important is it to the film’s overall quality? Also, what is set life like if pre production is not up to par?
As people who follow either the Alien series or David Fincher’s career know very well, when he walked onto the Alien 3 set in 1991, he walked into a nightmare. Not only was there not a complete script to go off of, he was working with sets that were built for a concept which was far from his own. This made for a nightmare production, and to this day I have no idea how or why he decided to come back to Hollywood and eventually have the career he did.
While the resulting film was what is undoubtedly the most malaise competently made film of the entire seri
es, Alien 3 illustrates more than any movie how important a good pre production needs to be in order for the film to flow at a consistent pace and concrete vision. Take another film called Jaws. After a pre production that ended up being almost useless due to Bruce The Shark not working, a then 26 year old director named Steven Spielberg had to think on his feet and write scenes pretty much on the fly. For example, the scene of two fisherman getting chased by the shark after it gets tangled in the dock was written almost on the spot after Spielberg saw almost an entire act had gone by without seeing an attack and their mechanical friend was sinking with each passing test. Of course, these downfalls ended up working in the film’s favor, as Spielberg kept the shark almost completely out of view until the third act, building suspense while scaring the hell out of its audience.
So with these two examples in mind, I think you get a pretty good idea of just how important a good pre production process is. But the question remains: What exactly goes into a good one?
1) Hiring a good supportive team – I don’t care how good a director you are or how great your script is, every director will tell you they need a good supportive team in order for their vision to be fulfilled. Think of a quarterback’s job on a football team. They may be able to throw the ball far and accurately. Yet without a good set of linemen to block for them and receivers that can catch their passes, his position is pretty much worthless.
In the few interviews in which he spoke about the Alien 3 experience -he still doesn’t do so very often- Fincher says that Sigourney Weaver, by that time in the producer‘s chair as well as the burden of being the lead starring role, was a huge source of inspiration and a good get out of jail free card. Pressure from the studio caused many arguments between him and producers since the beginning Walter Hill and David Giler. Weaver was there as a mediator between all of them, and it was only in the editorial process -the time when Weaver’s time on the project was done- when Fincher finally decided to walk from the project.
On the other side of the coin, Spielberg would watch his mechanical shark failing time and time again, and associate it with his career sinking as well. Yet, even with pressure from the studio to fire their young director due to expenses and delays Bruce was causing, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown were adamant about staying by their young director, convinced the things he had up his sleeve would be worth it in the final product. We can look back fondly now and say, ‘well of course they would stand by the most successful director of all time.’ But pressure on Brown and Zanuck to fire Spielberg was high, and it was only with them in his back pocket that he was able to craft the blockbuster he ended up making.
2) Location, location, location – If afforded, many studios will allow for the majority of a film to be filmed before a green screen, with surrounding environments and effects to be filled during post production (which will also be talked about at a later date). But sometimes, authenticity is key and a director will take their production to a location.
Spielberg still says to this day that one of his greatest mistakes while making Jaws was how he took it to a real ocean location. If you watch Jaws today, you will notice things such as times when clouds don’t match from shot to shot. While these are things only noticed if you pay full attention, Jaws is so gripping that these are things of only trivial importance. How much would Spielberg been able to accomplish in a studio filled water tank that was dressed up to look like the ocean? Of course, the authenticity he strove for would have been lost. But Bruce would no doubt had been easier to work with, and the simple unpredictable aspect of working in nature would have been alleviated.
Fincher, on the other hand, was dealt a hand he had no way of matching. As already stated, the majority of sets that were built for Alien 3 were done so with another script in mind. So even though the sheer reputation and craftsmanship behind legendary Pinewood Studios was at his disposal, the majority of what he had to work with was not workable. Combine this with a script that was written on the fly to begin with, and you start to see what Fincher had to work with.
What I have given above are scenarios of what goes on when big budget productions get in production trouble. But the truth of the matter is when dealing with indie filmmaking, all of these things roll into the other. For example, big productions have what are called location managers, whose solo job it is to run ideas for where to film by a director, who then goes and sees for himself whether it fits their vision. While making an independent film, it is up to a producer, someone who is already juggling many jobs to begin with, to help find and book a location the director has in mind. The added factor of gathering permits to film at said location is often what leads to what we call guerilla filmmaking.
As filmmakers, it is our job to make sure we make the most authentic, well rounded films we can in order to entertain an audience. But without any pieces of the puzzle I have layed out in place, a what began as an amazing well layered script could turn into a nightmare production in which the film itself suffers.
Jaws and Alien 3 could afford to lose what they did because everyone had teams who could pick them up and send them on their way to filmmaking notoriety. We here at Dead End Films have all decided that, as people who trust one another to come through and be there for each other, we are going to make the best films possible.
Keep an eye on this page for updates on all things Bad People. We wish Doug the best of luck on his endeavor.