Joss Whedon used every cost-cutting trick he knew — or could invent — to keep production of the sci-fi feature "Serenity" in L.A.
'Serenity': On Stage 12 at Universal, Whedon directs actor Nathan Fillion.
But by filming his sci-fi feature film debut, "Serenity," in town, he found himself something of a local hero, one of a growing number of people who are fighting to keep Hollywood in Hollywood. Essentially it required deconstructing every part of the process — casting, crew, locations, lighting, wardrobe, props, production design, technology, special effects — to find efficiencies that would make a $39-million movie look and feel like $100 million.
Two years ago, the writer-director of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and its successful spinoff "Angel" watched his newest show, a futuristic western called "Firefly," get pulled from Fox midseason. A silent howl of protest went up from cyberspace, followed by the clatter of online petitioning. Although it wasn't enough to revive the show, it did convince Whedon that the feature-length movie he had been writing as an accompaniment to the series still had an audience.
It just didn't have a green light.
Universal Pictures had acquired the rights, but while executives liked the premise and loved Whedon, they were not so fond of the numbers. Set in space and on planets colonized in a wide variety of ways, "Serenity" had all the trappings of a $100-million-plus project. That, they told Whedon, was just too much.
Whedon pushed back. If Universal let him have his way, he promised he could shoot the film — which just opened to great reviews and good business — for less than half that. And not by running off to Toronto or Bulgaria.
"Joss was adamant from the very start," says James Brubaker, president of physical production for Universal. "He was so eager to show that you could make a movie in L.A., we never thought of going anywhere else."
"My reasons were completely personal," Whedon says. "My wife is an architect; I have two kids under 3. There may be a time when I am willing to uproot them, but this is not it."
Whedon put together a cast and crew equally driven to buck conventional wisdom, which says it is no longer possible to make a decent-size film in Los Angeles, in part because of the cost of local talent. Producers and studios often bemoan the price of unionized workers.
"It takes an act of Congress to get a film of any size made in Los Angeles," said veteran cinematographer Jack Green ("Unforgiven," "Girl, Interrupted"). "Studios think they save so much money going abroad. Which I don't think they do, but that's just my opinion."
But though every union position on the film was filled by a union member, Whedon saved money because he was able to recruit local talent, such as Green, that he otherwise might not have been able to afford.
"It was hugely helpful to be able to tell people they could stay with their spouses, with their children," said executive producer David Lester. "I shamelessly used that argument. Everyone was committed to showing that this could be done."
Whedon, who has spent much of his career shooting television in L.A. (one episode of "Buffy" was shot in England when the plot shifted the storyline there), hadn't given the issue of runaway production much thought until he found himself suddenly being congratulated for taking a stand.
"There were no groupies," he says, "which was disappointing. But I did hear from a lot of people. I realized that we are in a state of crisis and that this is something people feel very passionately about."
For years, people in the entertainment industry have been bemoaning the drain of runaway production. But while the guilds continue to lobby Sacramento for incentives that would make California competitive, individuals such as Whedon have planted their feet on various projects that have no artistic reason to leave Los Angeles.
"People are starting to say no," said Brubaker, even as he was leaving for London for an upcoming film that he swore had to be shot there. "Stars, directors, especially people with children, they just don't want to go unless they have to."
The recently released "Flightplan" was scheduled to be filmed elsewhere until star Jodie Foster said no. "To go through what I had to go through emotionally on the film and be away from my kids?" she said. "No way." So she "made it worth their while" to keep the production in L.A. Though she won't discuss the specifics of her salary, studios have long contended that far more film production would stay at home if A-list talent would cut their fees.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently brought a certificate of commendation to the set of the thriller "When a Stranger Calls" to thank the filmmakers for keeping the production local, and many point to "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" as a good example of a movie that could have gone elsewhere but didn't.
Cinematographer Green, who worked on "40 Year-Old Virgin," has turned down jobs when he felt the filmmakers were going out of town unnecessarily.
"They wanted me for 'Miracle,' " he said of the film about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's surprise win. "But here was a film about the American Dream, and they were shooting in Canada. It just really disturbs me."
The escape of filming from L.A. has created a fractured industry culture. Those who go on location — directors, actors, cinematographers, editors and other high-ranking crew members — have watched their personal lives be strained, often to the breaking point. Those left behind — from best boys to craft services people — have struggled to find work in commercials and television.
Green, Whedon and others involved in "Serenity" argue that keeping filmmaking local is important for reasons beyond local self-esteem or even employment. Filmmaking requires a sense of community — complete with its own language, rituals, boundaries and manner of apprenticeship.
The making of "Serenity," they believe, proved just that.
"People in Hollywood always talk about the sense of family," says producer Lester. "But that's how we were able to shoot a 100-day picture in about half that. Because we had the very best people working for us. Because the very best people are here."
For those not familiar with "Firefly," "Serenity" is the name of a scavenger/smuggling spaceship manned by a crew with the typical assortment of backgrounds — several members of a now-defeated army that rebelled against the vaguely menacing Alliance, a mercenary, a sullen doctor, a wisecracking pilot, a perky chief engineer. Also on board is the doctor's emotionally damaged sister, whom he rescued from Alliance scientists determined to turn her into a clairvoyant fighting machine. The Alliance's attempt to retrieve her, and the secrets she may have learned, drive the plot.
The scene that almost kept "Serenity" from being made comes about 10 minutes in.
Running low on funds, the crew of Serenity robs a bank in a westernish town on a small, dusty planet — most of the planets in "Serenity" are obligingly desert-like, making location work that much easier. Taking care only to steal ill-gotten Alliance gains, the group is attacked by a band of Reavers — flesh-eating crazy people of unknown origin — and a race between members of the crew in a hovercraft and a Reavers spacecraft ensues.
This chase sequence alone could have eaten a sizable portion of Whedon's budget had he chosen to use either computer graphics, à la the pod race in "Star Wars I," or a grimble — a hydraulic turntable like the one used to pitch the ship around in "The Perfect Storm," which would also have required CG.
"People think it's cheaper to use CG," says "Serenity" visual effects supervisor Loni Peristere. "But you still have to hire someone to design the model and build the model and paint the model."
Instead, says first assistant director Rich Sickler, the crew storyboarded the sequence and then built a trailer with a cantilevered arm that would hold an actual hovercraft, with all the actors inside. They drove the thing up to Templin Highway north of Santa Clarita and shot the sequence.
"People will think that's CG dust in those shots," says Sickler, "but that is real California dust."
The Reaver craft was part CG, part old truck. For close-ups, set special effects director Daniel Sudick ripped open and resculpted a truck so money didn't have to be spent on CG for little visual beats — a hand or face emerging momentarily from the ship. "It also gave us a physical model on location and an eye line for the actors," says Peristere. "It was very inexpensive, and it provided a lot of value."
The physical nature of the setup, he added, let Whedon focus on directing the actors rather than the action, which made the shoot go faster. "Traditionally this would have been, like, a 30-day shoot," Peristere says. "I think we did it in five."
When discussing how they did what they did, the crew of "Serenity" agrees that two things contributed to its ability to shoot what at first glance looked like an 80-day film in fewer than 50, and often just 10-hour days (as opposed to the standard 12 to 14) at that: the efficiency Whedon had learned as a television director and the familiarity many of the crew had with one another.
"In TV the attitude is: 'Tell me what we have and we'll build around that,' " says Whedon. "Feature filmmaking seems more like, 'Give me everything and then I'll choose.' "
There's also not an A-lister in the film, he points out, which defies the industry's sacred tenet about the importance of having a high-priced "opener."
"Don't get me wrong," he says. "I love a big movie, and I love movie stars — I'm going to Australia to shoot 'Wonder Woman' because I don't think I can find Paradise Island in Burbank. People just need to think about it more carefully."
He and his crew used all the tricks of the trade — storyboarding everything that moved so there would be no time wasted during the shoot, pre-visualizing it using 3-D images for the same reason, even taking a page out of George Lucas' book and "kit bashing" to create an army of spaceships when they could only afford to build 20.
"Kit bashing is when you go out and buy a hundred different model kits," says Peristere, "and you just move the pieces from model to model to make them all look different."
It helped, says Sickler, that many members of the crew had worked with Whedon before, and those who hadn't were old pros. "David Green isn't going to look at a warehouse and say, 'I can't shoot here until you take the roof off.' He's going to say 'OK, let's rig up some recessed lighting' and then help do it."
Green says he learned many of his tricks "from another director who knows how to get a bang from a buck": Clint Eastwood.
"When you have a director who knows what he's doing and knows how to lead," he adds, "you don't have the emotional problem of him feeling like he's not getting enough and so constantly asking for more than is needed."
Whedon made it a point never to ask for more than he needed. "People would say, 'You're going to need this and that,' and I'd be like, 'Not so much.' If I only needed three walls, we only built three, and if someone asked, 'Well, what if you want to do this other shot?' I said, 'Well, we just won't.' "
Lester points out that venerable directors such as John Ford used to film with similar economy, though for different reasons. "They wanted the film to look like they wanted it to look," he says. "So they only filmed the scenes they actually wanted in the movie."
'Blowing things up'
Whedon used free-form camera — in which the camera is seeing the action in much the same way a person would — which saved time and money and gave the film its quasi-documentary feel. They did all their pyrotechnics, which according to Peristere would have taken two weeks on a typical film, in three nights. "We went out to Mystery Mesa, up near Valencia, and spent the night blowing things up," he says.
And it was a good thing they were shooting locally on pyro night: Sudick had been called away to do some work on "War of the Worlds," so they had to find someone else to supervise.
"He was able to pick up the phone and call a buddy, an Oscar winner," says Peristere, "and he stepped right in."
Every film has budget pressures, real or imagined, but for the makers of "Serenity," it was almost like winning a bet. With extensive PowerPoint and 3-D presentations, they had convinced Universal they could do the film in 50 days, and they had to make good on a day-by-day basis.
On the set, Peristere says, Whedon, Lester and executive producer Christopher Buchanan continually reminded the crew members that if they didn't think of ways to save money, the movie either would not be made or would be shipped off to Australia. So everyone was speaking the same language, literally and figuratively.
"There are good crews in every country," Whedon says. "But there are certain ways of working. We were able to communicate quickly in a kind of shorthand — there was a sense of family on the set. Jack Green even had three of his kids working camera."
With 40 years in the business, Green is passionately outspoken about runaway production, which he thinks is leading not only to a lot of wasted time and money but to a long-term disintegration among the various crafts.
"So many crafts people are being hit so hard that they're going into other businesses or retiring early," he says. "There's been a lot of weakening in the knowledge base."
He cites standby painters. With dwindling set work in L.A., as pros retire, they are not replaced, to the industry's detriment. "This is an unrewarded craft, but it takes a good and true artist to make sunlight where there is no sunlight," he says. "Nowadays you can find someone to age down a set, but you want to put a sun strike on a wall? You might not have someone who knows how to do it."
Without steady work in their hometown, people who became artists in hair and makeup, wardrobe and set design, camera and lights, are taking second jobs and thereby weakening their learning curve. "I know guys in the business who are going into real estate or opening bed-and-breakfasts," Green says. This makes the apprenticeship that allowed so many careers to bloom impossible.
"Everyone in this business is freelance," adds Lester. "So they're used to downtime. But if you're a live action special-effects coordinator, you have thousands of dollars of equipment you're making payments on. These are the people I worry about leaving."
As a producer, Lester says he is tired of hearing that Los Angeles crafts people are "too expensive." They cost more than in other parts of the world, he says, because they know how to do things better and faster. He saw this firsthand, he says, when he realized that the big cost-saver he had counted on — the availability of sets from the television show "Firefly" — was not going to work out.
"Serenity, the ship, is a huge character," he says. "So we were chagrined to discover that the TV ship had been built bit by bit as the episodes required different parts." So they had to rebuild the ship, using the DVD images from "Firefly" as blueprints. This required squads of carpenters, welders and riggers working all over gigantic Stage 12 at Universal. Each crew had a gang boss, a supervisory construction position that pays a premium.
"We had 23 of them," Lester says, "each a craftsman and a leader, running independent but coordinated crews. The studio was not happy."
But when the Serenity was created in just 14 weeks, the studio felt much better. "I defy anyone," Lester says, "to find that much talent anywhere else in the world."
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