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God’s Land—Production Diary #10

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God’s Land—Production Diary #10

The following is the ninth in a series of on-set reports by producer Jeremiah Kipp on God’s Land, a feature film written and directed by Preston Miller.

Part I: Days Eighteen and Nineteen (Jeremiah Kipp)

The final days of principal photography are upon us. God’s Land has been a long haul, exhausting but ultimately rewarding—it reminds me of when I used to run marathons. At a certain point in the middle of the run, the mind concentrates only on moving forward; as the finish line nears, there’s a surge of renewed energy.

Preston and I enjoy our location scouting in New Jersey, where we stumble across the perfect location for our hotel scenes. The King’s Inn has an outside décor that resembles a pyramid converted into a NASA space shuttle by way of 1950s Americana kitsch. In other words, we took one look at it and knew it was Preston’s cup of tea. The hotel owners were reasonable and supportive of low budget independent cinema, though they did enjoy telling long anecdotes about how MTV shot there, and the abundance of trucks and lights and personnel. Preston smiles, acknowledges the grandeur, and tries to make it clear that our mom and pop operation is nothing like that. We’re small potatoes!

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The hotel shoot is an all-day affair. Shing Ka, who isn’t in many scenes, spends most of the day taking pictures and making plans for the second unit photography he and Preston are going to do in Garland, Texas. Yes, the actual, real-life location where Teacher Chen’s cult had their 15 minutes of infamy. They’re excited about it, and when Shing is asked about why he’s taken on this extra level of responsibility, even paying for his own ticket to Garland, he responds that this project has become very personal for him. He’s invested a lot into this character and project, and has brought so much passion to the work.

I have to laugh when I think back to his audition, believing Shing was more of an action movie guy. My exact words were, “If we need a hitman, let’s cast him!” As an actor, he has been typecast as a tough guy, since he exudes a kind of aloof strength. But watching him embody the role of Hou, it reminds me of the possibilities of what actors can bring, and the frustrating limitations of being typecast. Shing has had the opportunity to break out of the mold with this role, to do something different, more dramatic; it’s allowed him to paint with more colors than usual. And he and Preston have become friends along the way. Preston even has a saying that has become one of our on-set mantras: “It’s good to be Shing!”

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We shoot some scenes in the hotel lobby, and the staff is easy to work around. It’s a slow weekday, and they let us know the hours when they have the least amount of customer service. We film scenes involving the Indian hotel owner (Ranjit Chowdhry, who has a recurring role on The Office and has appeared in such films as Mississippi Masala and Fire) and his pal Ostaro, who plays himself. Ostaro is an older gentleman who acts, directs, has celebrity friends, and offers life changing self-improvement through astrology. They watch the Asian cult press conference on television together while Ostaro bemoans, “What a load of bull!” and rambles on at great length about why this is a bunch of silly nonsense.

Ranjit is a pro, slightly testy and slightly curious about this low-budget shoot, since he’s used to working on much bigger projects. As an actor, he hits his marks and tries to offer subtle variations in his performance with each take. He’s meticulous in asking rigorous questions of Preston, so even if he walks through a door, he wants some precise direction as to his motivation. While Preston’s style of directing often feels more like he’s making a documentary and tapping into qualities within the real person he’s filming, he’s able to shift into Ranjit’s more “actor’s studio” temperament. It all works out fine, and Ranjit even brags about working with a crew of six later in the week when he’s on a bigger show. “What do we need all these people for?” he wonders aloud, and is reminded that Stanley Kubrick often used a crew of six when he was shooting certain scenes of Eyes Wide Shut.

On the other side of the solar system is Ostaro, who is more of a force of nature than an actor. His performance is incredibly funny, and he’s a good sport about munching on a bunch of potato chips as his character rambles on, but he relies heavily on the script in his lap when we’re filming his medium shots. When we switch to the wide shot coverage, Ostaro seems totally lost and unable to remember his lines, even after reciting them a dozen times. Ranjit is impatient to carry on with the scene, and sighs audibly. He’s worked with Ostaro before, so they have an entire dog and pony show together. I say the hell with it and create GIGANTIC CUE CARDS on the fly, holding them up and saying, “Hey, Ostaro! Read this! Roll camera!” Ostaro is happy, Ranjit is happy, Preston is happy—and we roll.

The lobby scenes offer some technical challenges—white walls, glass partitions that reflect, and crappy lighting. We’re happier to be shooting inside the hotel room, where a handful of family scenes take place. Preston’s favorite one to shoot is of the family’s first arrival in Garland, Texas, where Xiu (Jodi Lin) haughtily examines the new surroundings, kills a cockroach with her cigarette, and glares at her husband (who is resigned to being in the doghouse) while their son Ollie (Matthew Chiu) happily jumps up and down on the bed, having fun. The husband-wife tension in contrast to the oblivious, cheerfully gymnastic kid amuses Preston to no end.

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Our final day of principal photography is a relatively easy one, shot in a controlled environment. Preston has set-decorated one of his bedrooms for the hotel owner and his wife, played by the delightful Geeta Citygirl (who appeared with Jodi Lin onstage in Chuck Mee’s Queens Boulevard). Geeta and Preston have a lively discussion about the character, and also about Geeta’s considerable efforts in supporting minority actors through her theater company, sponsoring events, and securing jobs for Indian actors. It’s easy to see why she’s so popular in the community; she has a buoyant personality, a winning smile, and determination in her eyes. She was involved in helping Preston cast Ranjit and Ostaro, and he’s profoundly grateful to her. Geeta remains modest about her considerable efforts, and on set she’s as much a pro as Ranjit.

They blaze through their one scene together very quickly, and before you know it, we’re wrapped on principal photography!

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Preston still has a few more pickup shots of various characters, but it amounts to less than a page of the script and the shooting days aren’t even “days” but more like the thirty minutes it takes to bang out a shot. For example, he filmed actress Gloria Diaz working out on a treadmill, and it went very quickly. Preston is more or less self-sufficient from here on in, and my on-set production work is officially done on God’s Land.

But now we move on to post-production, and as an executive producer once told me, “Now the real work begins!” Already, we’re discussing music rights and how to track them down. Preston has been diligently cutting the picture, and is about 45 minutes into his first assembly. He seems happy with the work we’ve done, and when I catch a few glimpses of the opening of the picture, I can see the rough spots (the first assembly always feels a little rough), but also feel he has a compelling picture on his hands, with emotional impact and great acting. The shifts between comedy and drama keep the movie feeling loose and unpredictable; I have a feeling it’s going to be a pretty wild ride, because just when we are settling into amusement at the antics of the cult, Preston throws in a powerhouse scene, sometimes conveyed in a very simple shot, that shakes our complacency. They say a director’s personality informs his films. That’s certainly true here. His style of filmmaking, a cross between documentary, absurdity and art-house, feels very present in the footage.

And there you have it. It’s been enjoyable writing these production diaries throughout the making of God’s Land, which provides a frame of reference for the joys and struggles of no-budget independent filmmaking. I’m grateful to the cast and crew for their candor throughout, and their talent. But mostly, I’m thankful to Preston Miller for bringing me aboard this wild, exhilarating ride. He’s been a real brother, partner and friend. And finally, thank you for following our making-of anecdotes; we hope not to deceive you with the finished product. Watch for updates on screenings of God’s Land in 2010. Happy trails.

Part II: Last Days (Preston Miller)

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In and around the completion of principal photography, other shooting also commenced. Mainly there were what we call “the press conference scenes.” These are the eight or nine scenes of supporting, non-cult characters that appear in the film watching an on-going press conference before the main Hou family arrives in Garland. I thought that this was a nifty way to see how folks in the Garland community reacted to the group’s existence and final proclamation. Some were worried or amused; others just ignored them altogether. We were able to broaden these characters a bit, perhaps to show different shades of them outside of their primary interaction with the religious group.

For these shoots, each lasting a couple of hours, I generally was the camera and boom operator. The actor(s) and myself would set the frame and I would set up the on-screen monitor connection with a DVD player or laptop playing a pre-recorded “press conference.” Generally, the players and I would look over the scenes as written and then improvise, sometimes completely altering the page. These were some of the most enjoyable, liberating experiences for me on the shoot. Similar to the working style on my previous film Jones, the ideas and sense of play were anxiety free, especially since the shooting didn’t last long, there was no pressure to ’move on,’ and our number only occasionally exceeded three.

Moments: Carrie Kiamesha’s luminosity while humming gospel riffs in the loft of our costume director, Sharon Spiak. Gloria Diaz working out on a gym treadmill with a bum knee, lost as to “ACTION” and “CUT!” Mrs. Ka, Shing’s mom, tsk-tsking the cult while sitting under a huge picture of herself and family from over 40 years ago. Nancy Eng breaking us up trying to do whatever it takes to get her off-screen husband to come downstairs and see the cult on the widescreen. All these add a texture that will realize something fuller in the performers’ interpretations.

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The end of principal photography has come and gone and with it the warm glow of expectations surpassed tempers into the feeling of sitting in a big bowl of your own cold porridge. The idea that now it’s just you, the computer and hundreds of clips which need to be logged, sorted, judged, ordered and bent is not one that produces easy sleep. To me, this is part of the game, just as grueling as shooting but perhaps even more rewarding. At this point you are closer to completion, to moving on, to catching up on movies, to sleep…But for some the sacrifice must continue, especially my family. They have been most tolerant and supportive of my folly and given up a great deal of their time to help see this through. Now I may not be out shooting, but, upstairs in full edit mode, I’m just as inaccessible.

Then why me and not someone else? I have had offers from other folks to help with the edit, but I honestly feel too important to the process. I was there for every frame that was shot and didn’t take but a handful of notes. Plus, editing—next to directing—is my favorite aspect of the process. With apologies to Tarkovsky, editing really does feel like ’sculpting in time.’ I have been editor for some time off and on since I was in college, so it comes somewhat naturally (when there is time).

If we use the tired metaphor that making a film is like having a baby, I hope lil’ GL is not born with the proverbial peanut-in-the-head. For me that peanut would be too much attention being foisted on its obvious budgetary modesty. “They did the best with what they had…bless ’em” is like saying that your kid’s pronounced limp will be an inspiration to others…Yes lil’ GL certainly has its own aesthetic benefits, many of which are intentional, but I tried the very best I could to not allow the lack of funds to be a limitation or a distraction. While I edit, I am not so enamored with lil’ GL that I can’t see that some of the shots and scenes would score him in the lower percentile. I just hope that the strengths of other elements outshine the weaker ones. I think they do, but ultimately that is for the viewer to decide.

When I asked Jeremiah about a year and a half ago if he would read the script and be interested in producing, we sat at a bar table and had a defining exchange. He drew a big, fat ZERO on a pad and slowly pushed it in my direction and said, “This is how much money I can bring to the project.” I looked down and gently pushed the pad back and said “and this is how much I can pay you…” From there we had an understanding that this project would be a labor of passion and that we were free to make a film that would contribute to our unspoken oath of ’Quality Cinema.’ I want to thank JK for coming along and being an invaluable partner, consigliore and encourager. He is unrelenting, honest and thorough. Simply put, God’s Land wouldn’t exist without him. His diary idea was genius. They were well written and well appreciated. I learned so much from them, maybe best of all that, if you are going to work with a producer, try to get someone who happens to be a great writer. Good luck with that!

A final word on the cast and crew: We’ve mentioned their respective talents in earlier entries, but I’d like to add that this was the most big-hearted and generous group I’ve ever worked with. People stepped in effortlessly as casting agents, boom ops, chauffeurs, craft service, location scouts and crowd control (not to mention as look-outs and impostor department store employees!). Even the parents of our child actors, the Chiu and Suen families, had no reluctance when asked to perform in front of the camera. As we go through life, working on many more sets, with many more artists, growing professionally, getting paid (!), for me there will never be a more wonderful group of HUMAN BEINGS than those that worked on God’s Land. I will never be this fortunate again. We were the right crew at the right time to take on an ambitious task that finally evolved into something that will exist longer than us.

This is our final diary entry for the production of God’s Land. I want to thank Keith Uhlich for being so kind as to post these for the House’s thoughtful audience. A number of milestones have been achieved. By the time you read this we will have over 350 Facebook friends on the God’s Land page (could always use more) and 1000 views for the sneak peak on YouTube. I promise, and will try to convince JK to assist when he can, to report back regarding screenings, festival news, cast and crew spottings and updates in general, but that will be a few months off. Until then, thanks for your support and look forward to an exalting 2010!

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Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.

Preston Miller is the writer/director of Jones. His website is Vindaloo Philm-Wallah.