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God’s Land—Production Diary #6

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God’s Land—Production Diary #6

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

Days Seven and Eight

The kid is standing there punching my hand over and over again, monitoring his breath. Matthew Chiu, age eight, who has never acted in a feature film before, is working himself up for a scene where he has to attack another child actor, Brandon Suen (who plays the role of “Jesus,” the spoiled son of the cult leader—his sister Caitlyn plays “Buddha”). He has to endure a scene where he is nearly tied up to a tree and humiliated by bullies, then in a burst of rage lashes out against his oppressors. He has to knock Brandon to the ground and assault him, slapping him in the face, saying, “I’m not bad! I’m good! I’m good!” It would be a trying scene for any actor, and Matthew is just a boy. So there we are, with this child actor punching the palm of my hand over and over again, doing deep breathing exercises, in order to prepare for this scene and find the necessary level of exhaustion, frustration and energy to get through the scene.

It’s not easy for him, because he’s used to Preston’s laid-back rhythm of filmmaking. But he’s also used to me stepping in and saying, in an authoritative way, that it’s “go time” and that he has to bring it, and I won’t let him go out there in front of the camera unless he’s ready to bring his war face. Matthew, who’s an old soul, understands—he commits to the rigors of punching my hand over and over again, and breathing, and putting himself into a state of mind uncommon to him. He’s used to being a friendly, affable, quiet and introspective kid, so it’s a real struggle to find that inner anger. But he gets there, not because he wants to—he frankly does not—but he knows he has to for the movie, and he’s committed.

God's LandGod's Land

What’s funny is the child actor playing opposite him, Brandon, is having an easy time of it—he’s acted in many more projects than Matthew, and when he shows up on set he’s more interested in playing video games and watching cartoons than running lines. At first, I worry that it’s going to be a big problem, and he’s showing up to the set lazily refusing to do the work, but then the minute we run our first rehearsal, Brandon not only knows all of his lines to the letter, but he has found his way completely into this bullying character. It’s so easy for him to play this role that it’s almost boring for him before the camera is rolling. He’s relatively game about having Matthew knock him to the ground and smack him around for a little while.

The scene is borderline surreal, with three little kids in their white cowboy outfits—and two of them wearing blue and yellow towels as capes to play Batman and Robin. When it gets to the fight scene, I feel like Matthew is Gary Cooper and Brandon is Lee Van Cleef.

God's LandGod's Land

The next day, Matthew has to face another difficult scene—one where he is being screamed at by the actor playing his father (Shing Ka). He has to kneel on the floor, surrounded by adults, all of them accusing him in various ways of wrongdoing (“How could you do this? Attacking the teacher’s kids! What they must think of us?”) I’ve gotten used to Matthew treating the scenes as if he were a grown-up actor, gradually learning the rules about eyeline and hitting his mark—he even calls cut once in the middle of a take when another actor skips several lines and throws him off and tells the actor (a professional who has made dozens of feature films) to do the scene again. But this moment when he is getting yelled at by a father figure is tough for him; it blurs the line between making movies and a real situation of pain. It happened once before in a scene where the actress playing his mother (Jodi Lin) burst into tears, and Matthew reacted to it on camera in a kind of shocked awe—that this actress opposite him was being so emotionally open, so disturbed, affected him in a profound way. It’s not a game for him; it’s real.

So there we are in this interrogation scene, and you hear actors all the time speak about how difficult certain roles are, how they find it hard to shake off the emotional impact of playing a scene that is traumatic—usually, I find this to be a little ridiculous. The process of acting allows you to feel so many things, an entire rainbow of emotions, and the effect is cathartic—it brings you to life, which is the very opposite of a deadening experience. Certainly, Matthew is alive during this interrogation scene, and between takes he’s himself again, relaxed and cordial, but in the moment he finds it unnerving, and for the first time he asks Preston how many takes we’re doing on this scene because it’s so emotionally disturbing. Afterward, we give him many high-fives for his bravery and he looks like he has been climbing Mt. Everest. At the end of the day, it’s just play-acting, not psychodrama—and Matthew, while committed, isn’t a method actor and easily slides back into his relaxed, easy-going mannerisms.

We’re over the halfway point now, which helps with morale, and a few of our major supporting actors have been shot out of the movie entirely. Preston seems relieved, since it means less people to have to schedule over the summer. We should be wrapped in July, but scheduling a no-budget movie involving nearly 30 speaking roles and a dozen principal actors is a never-ending nightmare. Preston has been shooting this movie on weekends and as we make our way into the summer months it’s vacation time and many New York independent films are going into production, which limits the availability of several cast members. As it stands, Preston is juggling the time of professional working actors who have other paid gigs lining up and non-actors who don’t understand the seriousness of calling off a shooting date at the last minute. I’m amazed the man doesn’t have gray hairs as he works the phone, politely trying to work out with at least a dozen people every week whether they can do it. He finds this to be single-handedly the most difficult, painful part of the process; it’s the drudgery of looking at a calendar and negotiating time, which is the managerial part of filmmaking—a million miles removed from the joyful art of playing in front of a camera, telling stories, drinking a couple of beers after the wrap and slapping each other on the back.

God's Land

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