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God’s Land—Production Diary #3

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God’s Land—Production Diary #3

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

Days Three and Four

Like most of the others working on God’s Land, I have a day job that has nothing to do with filmmaking or entertainment. I depend on the job to support my wife and two kids, the youngest only three months old. Shooting must be done at specific times, usually on weekends so as not to interfere with the cast and crew’s money jobs. This means that even though a shooting schedule exists and is constantly modified, not everything that’s listed on a certain day will actually materialize. It’s up to me to see it all the way through. When resources are temporarily missing, I have to come up with solutions to keep this train moving lest the riders decide to jump off.

We shot days three and four without the benefit of my two greatest allies, producer Jeremiah Kipp and director of photography Arsenio Assin. Our assistant director Alex Gavin was there both days, and we took up the slack by both operating the camera and recording audio. Knowing in advance that Jeremiah was going to be away (producing another feature in Sarasota, FL), I purposefully scheduled two light working days. Saturday saw us at my old haunt Spaghetti Western, a bar-restaurant in Tribeca, and Sunday we were in high-larceny mode, again stealing shots at a Long Island shopping mall, but this time with much more involved dialogue.

Come mid-week, I get the call that Arsen will also be away on a job that he needs for his financial survival. What was going to be an easy couple of days has now turned into another full-blown panic. Arsen, who I’ve worked with since I arrived in NYC in 1992, would already know what we are going for—and have us in and out of the locations in no time. For large chunks of Jones, he and I were the only crew! To add insult to injury, I can’t find a sound engineer that is not working this weekend or will agree to our meager compensation. After striking out for the fifth time, I deputize Alex to the “senior-audio-recording” position. Now I have to collect the props and wardrobe from discount stores, rent and pick up the wireless microphones, secure locations, communicate with actors, but also learn the camera. The learning curve should not be too steep as I have operated this type of camera before. This one, though, is brand new so I’m not yet versed on where all the buttons are and then there are the menu settings…

God's Land

On Saturday, we meet my old friend Allison Pantoch at the restaurant. She works there and I have known her for over 15 years. Spaghetti Western is closed on weekends so she (with the gracious permission of the owner, Robbie Sinder) lets us in. I briefly flash back to 1994. Allison let us in when we were shooting my short Dishwashing Detective there on a similar Saturday back when I was in film school. After all this time, my crew has actually shrunk! It was fun and we got great footage. It felt a little like playing with talented studio musicians when your band mates are away.

God's Land

The “Maggie Feng” character (played by Nancy Eng) is from Taiwan, but is not involved in the religious group. She had moved to the Dallas/Garland, TX area a couple of decades before. Maggie is a distant relative or older family friend to the lead character Xiu (Jodi Lin). Xiu’s husband, Ming Hou (played by Shing Ka), is a devout member but Xiu is there more to protect her husband and their little boy from rumors of a possible mass suicide by the group. Maggie, in her brash and brassy way, attempts to dissuade Xiu from remaining with the cult while Xiu insists that there is nothing to fear.

Nancy has been ready for weeks to bring it! She was the only one to memorize all of her lines for the audition—she didn’t just read for the part, she attacked it. On the day of shooting, Nancy brings in a number of costume options to supplement the red-white-&-blue theme of her character’s ensemble. Maggie has fully embraced her adopted country and her fashion choices revolve around her fervent love of America. Originally, I had thought of her being obsessive over the Dallas Cowboys (everyone knows SOMEONE who is!) but couldn’t find enough wardrobe/props to make it interesting. Americana-kitsch, on the other hand, is readily available in high quantity and low price at A.C. Moore Arts & Crafts, just in time for the Fourth of July!

God's Land

The actresses are ready and launch into their roles with gusto. Nancy has created a fascinating accent for her character, a mix between a Texan-drawl and a Taiwanese-inflected, almost broken English. It sounds great, and of someone who is still coming to terms with how their own voice defines them (Southern v. Asian.)

We shoot Xiu in a single-angle, changing out of her white cult outfit that all the members wear as their uniforms and into a more casual dress to meet Maggie. The clothing itself is a statement, bought in defiance of the dress code that effectively kills individuality. Myriad emotions cross Jodi’s face as Xiu applies lipstick for the first time in weeks, deeply conflicted about her temporary freedom and the imagined consequences of getting caught. After the first take, I have a lump in my throat. Being that she plays the featured role of Xiu and is on set a good deal of the time, Jodi has become a confidante and as much a part of the crew as Jeremiah and Arsenio. She is able to slip in and out of difficult emotions with unbelievable ease.

God's Land

We finish at Spaghetti and that afternoon I plan on taking Nancy back to my house to shoot the rest of Maggie’s scenes. One scene has her collecting her mail where her profession is revealed (tease, tease) and the other scenes are of Maggie watching the press conferences from the group. But the weather on Long Island is rainy, almost foggy. I want Maggie’s exterior to at least appear sunny. We reschedule this bit for later in the weekend. I bid the team adieu, drop Alex at BAM so he can see The Limits of Control and head to Hicksville.

God's Land

On Sunday, we meet in the late morning to shoot at a local department store in Hicksville. Our first day of shooting went really well there and I was frankly surprised how undisturbed we were. I’m hoping for the same streak of good luck. In addition to Alex, we have Scott Perry to assist with camera and sound gear. Scott helped us on the exhausting shoot two weeks prior and we were fortunate to have him with us today. When shooting covertly in a very public place like this, the more eyes the better. Even my wife Pia is there with our kids lazily pushing a cart around, texting when a manager seemed to wander a little too close for comfort.

This time we also are fortunate to have my “brother” Leif Fortlouis there to assist and play the role of Lewter the Security Guard. He basically made his costume that morning with nametags and various security badges. Jodi and Carrie Kiamesha (in the role of Bijou) round out our group. Carrie is also thoroughly prepared. She brought a number of outfits, and while she models the costumes, she runs lines with Jodi.

Once we are camera ready and all the costumes are on, we keep having people come up to Carrie for help in the store—and Security Guard Leif actually helps load old people’s cars for them! A good laugh, them in their “HATSTACKS!” name tags that Leif has designed. This is the fictitious name we gave the store we were shooting in. “HATSTACKS!” comes from a name my oldest son Nikhil came up with for his little brother just before he was born. We still don’t know where he came up with this name, but it fits very well as a retail department store. (Nikhil later informs the actors at lunch that he, too, was an actor…in Jones. True dat!)

God's Land

We shoot loads as we aren’t hampered by security or store management. The worst is that groups or families will unwittingly plant themselves in the middle of a shot and just hang out. The wireless mikes I rented work out very well. If you are doing this kind of covert shooting, I highly recommend them. We didn’t even need a sound person as I monitored the sound with my iPod earbuds as opposed to the big, honking headphones I usually use. Additionally, Scott plays the asshole reporter that harasses Xiu and is told to leave by Bijou, a role he relishes! Carrie is excellent as Bijou. Her sweet nature and easy going attitude capture the embodiment of this character more succinctly than any of the characters I’ve created for this piece. Carrie’s Bijou is exactly as I imagined her; a warm, full-blooded Woman! When she is asked, in the middle of scenes, where the face cream or appliances are by real customers, she doesn’t miss a beat.

All three actress do top rate work and the film is richer because of it. All of these actresses are jobbing performers and I am quite sure this project is on the low end in scale to what they are used to doing. Nonetheless, each one has not only the skills and professionalism but a genuine desire to use their talents to make something out of nothing. The generosity they’ve shown is unbelievable. Jodi even says this is her favorite shooting day so far. Considering the resources we have and the conditions, I take heart in that. Can’t wait for you to see their work. I think you’ll agree that they all possess something special at any production level.

God's Land

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