The Shoot: A Brief History

Second-Story Man is the product of two short stories written by Neal, molded by Neal and Richard into a feature-length screenplay. In August 2009, DCP put in place a plan to shoot in and around Rochester, NY in January 2010.

Much of September and October, 2009 were spent tweaking the script, but also really diving into things, with locations, partnerships, equipment, and cold-weather survival gear being lined up.

Eric Zabriskie was brought on to score the film and Scott Lancer was in place to produce, with Rick Staropoli and Neal. Chase Bowman was sought out to DP the project. We didn't officially sign Chase on for some time, but he was on our radar even before we settled on a format.

I usually storyboard about 60% of my films, but thought with the first feature I'd go the full length and board the entire film. Chase and I saw things eye-to-eye right away, and we worked at those boards quite a bit.

We wondered whether we'd be able to cast the lead roles in Rochester so we put out a notice and held two days of casting at an abandoned industrial space in downtown Rochester. Of the eventual cast list of speaking roles, we were able to fill half from those original sessions.

However, we were well short of having a full cast. We put out a call for online audition videos and were inundated with candidates for the roles of Max, Arthur and Janet. We knew that Arthur and Janet had to be cast from this group, but that we had two solid options for Max back in Rochester.

Janet was, in my mind, an easy call. All were very good, but when Lindsay Goranson came in there was no way she was not Janet. Perfect.

Chris Domig had a great video audition and we were very excited to see him in person. I remember recognizing how intensely he listened, even to small direction, and then seeing him process it before running the scene. He had me convinced in his range and ability. We ran the bar scene with Arthur and Max about four times. The difference between the first and last was really astounding. I was very excited to see how he could take some of the other, more dramatic and more subtle scenes, in a new direction.

The main missing pieces: a young African-American girl who could carry one of the largest roles in the film and Max, the second leading man. We started chipping away at it, putting out a call for young African-American actresses, and were lucky enough to stumble upon Zaira Crystal. This young lady blew us away with her maturity and subtlety -- rare talents in ADULT actors, much less eight-year-olds. Perfect. As for Max, we decided that we had what we needed in Rochester, and cast Danny Hoskins.

Once we hit November things moved very quickly. We settled on format (RED), officially brought Chase on board, set up our equipment rentals, and filled out the production staff.

Meanwhile, we searched for locations. And searched. And searched. We needed a large house, now divided into apartments; with a wooden staircase up the side; and remote from other houses; with a large gravel driveway and parking area; with at least two entrances on the first floor, one on the second, and one BELOW; and with "character". The interior had to be old, not redecorated in years, with texture in the walls/floors/drapes/etc. And it had to be available.

So: many hours were spent in a car, driving around Western New York, desperately seeking the perfect match. We looked at countless houses within an hour and a half of Rochester, including three houses that should have been condemned, or at least had no electricity, heat, or water. It was educational, but not fruitful. Eventually we decided to build a staircase and attach it to a friend's 1837 farmhouse, the look of which we loved otherwise. Did I mention this was the easiest solution? And that he is a GREAT friend?

The bank was a headache. Rick and I looked everywhere. When we finally passed the building on Lyell Ave at the end of a long scout, we screeched to a halt, jumped out and snapped a lot of enthusiastic photos. It was set on the corner of a city block, had great old pillars, bars in the window, and plenty of great options for angles. Got it, right? Not quite. We couldn't figure out who owned the place. Rick and Scott put in a lot of calls, and it actually looked like we wouldn't be getting it until a last minute windfall - two days before shooting - got us access.

We had a bank, the outside of an old house with a safe but seemingly rickety exterior staircase, a bar (which was actually the easiest location to secure). This left us in need of interiors. The aforementioned farmhouse is actually quite beautifully restored and maintained inside. We couldn't shoot inside.

The film includes at least four apartments in this one house; and now they had to have layouts matching the house we had secured for the exteriors. How to even start? We saw some SERIOUS dumps. Places in questionable areas, with no heat, maybe some plumbing, surely with asbestos issues... but nothing was coming together. And at the same time we were looking for just the right motel room. We went to the archetypal cockroach-infested, rent-by-the-hour motel downtown, and couldn't believe the smells. We found a creepy, vacant, sticky ex-motel, packed with infested furniture. We ducked down staircases, covered our noses, didn't touch walls, and bathed frequently.

We eventually found one house that could serve as two of the apartments, and another that could serve as a third. Meanwhile we had decided to shoot one day on a soundstage-so why not make that the fourth apartment? Things were coming together.

As the calendar turned, we sent positive vibrations out into the universe. Hopeful that we might shoot in the planned 18 days, two-thirds outdoors, in January, in Rochester - did I mention no OT? On the evening before principal photography was to begin, Scott's kitchen stove caught fire.

Production was looming. Most pre-production pieces were in place. All crew - some NYC and some Rochester - were ready to go. Travel and lodging had been arranged. Locations were (for the most part) set. Talent was lined up. I had done my homework. Snow was falling - a good thing. I bought new socks. My mom and sister Sheila committed to coming up from Philly to cook. I bought more socks. I put my final production binder together. I got ready to get no sleep.

On the first day of shooting, crew awoke at 4 am to discover eighteen inches of new snow on the ground. Fortunately for us, it was Movie Snow. The snow did not stop that first day. By the end of the second day, we were walking in twenty-something inches of snow.

The first day of production we had more than two feet of snow at our exterior location. I had a crew that for the most part was young. I hadn't slept much.

So here we are. Fifteen or so of us huddled in our not-warm-enough jackets. It's early morning. I'm sweating bullets. We started to block the first scene.

That first scene is simultaneously the most exciting and scariest moment. There were so many times during the production of SSM when I was too tired, too caffeinated, too cold, or too something and I would tell myself, "Come on. Concentrate. Get your bearings and make this scene as good as you're capable of making it." I've never slept so little in such a long period of time (and Scott slept less than me). When the shoot was over, I remember just wanting to think of nothing for a little bit.

For reasons to do with scheduling nightmares and child labor laws, we moved from the first location, an isolated farmhouse in Brockport, NY, to a series of locations throughout Rochester and the surrounding area, then back to the farmhouse. Among our adventures:
Two run-ins with local police resulting from the confusion of an alert citizenry, two locations pulling out within ninety minutes of our arrival, a soundstage with no heat, no snowplow, and an icy ramp to the loading bay, an outdoor location in below-ten degree heat with no power, a very nearly broken jib, faulty microphones, and some excellent catering.

As the second week opened, we had returned to the isolated farmhouse, now blanketed with thirty-some inches of new snow. It started to get warmer. You may note upon viewing the film that much of it was shot outdoors. Ah, continuity.

The second week of production saw Chris gaining weight. Not for the role, but because of our superb craft service and Rochester's blessings of world-class barbecue - specifically a joint called Sticky Lips. We also discovered the thorough dedication and energy of our unpaid interns and Production Assistants, all of whom went above and beyond in the interest of the film. Temperatures occasionally rose above 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Winds occasionally rose above 30 mph. In a week of bitterly cold exterior shoots, our crew was magnificent in their energy, performance, and skill.

Week three opened with warming, and moved indoors in East Rochester. By the end of the shoot, our planning was determined to have been sound when there was no snow on the ground and the crew was wearing shorts while we filmed indoors.

Meanwhile, Scott's new stove caught fire three days before wrapping. He now has both a new stove and a new teapot, and bears no grudges.

Our camera and grip departments were underpaid, overworked, and very happy. Our sound department saved the production about once every three days. Our Production Assistants were inordinately dedicated, and by the end of production had in many cases become critical members of several production departments. Cast and crew never missed a meal, always had hot coffee and breakfast waiting, and were begging for pizza after three weeks of gourmet cooking.

I had a lot of fun working with the cast. They all have different approaches to acting, which kept me on my toes. There'd be scenes where I'd get 15 questions before and after each take, and then others where we would just do take after take without anyone saying anything else. How they were able to move their lips, let alone perform, in numbing cold is beyond me and very impressive.

Shooting wrapped with a not-quite-sixteen hour day, followed by a party which made it clear that among the fifty people present only Zaira's mom can dance (in the interest of full disclosure, Lindsay and Valerie had wrapped and returned to NYC by this time.)

There's a lot more to be said about production: battling the melting snow, breaking into the bank, losing locations the day of the shoot, great cooking, Holly saying "Can I have a piggyback ride," a Volvo that wouldn't start without its Tibetan prayer flags properly mounted, early morning coffee, cars stuck in the snow, hard-working PAs, fun with squibs, and more. But we have to save something for the DVD.

We would like to extend an explicit and deeply felt offer of gratitude to Chase Bowman; without his dedication, generosity, and spirit, this film could not have been made. Our cast, Chris, Lindsay, Val, Zaira (and her remarkably patient parents), Danny, and everybody you see onscreen brought a spirit of thoughtfulness, community, collaboration, trust, respect, and dedication from day one. There are quite a few names in the final credits, and every one of them identifies a person to whom we owe this film.