Learning the Ropes, Part I: Director’s Chair

“The directing of a picture involves coming out of your individual loneliness and taking a controlling part in putting together a small world.”John Huston

Ross as Director, on the set of 'The Verge' “Overwhelmed” was my strongest feeling the day before we began filming The Verge. I’d just arrived in New York City (along with my good friend and Verge cinematographer, Tony), discovered our lead actress was in Chicago filming a guest star role on ABC’s Betrayal, and our production meeting, while a success, reminded me just how much unknown territory I was about to step into.

I’d directed a couple of short films back in North Carolina, but these were the epitome of micro-budget productions (a few hundred dollars). I’d made these films with a handful of passionate friends, and fulfilled most of the production duties myself, from camera operation to editing (and even acting, in one of them). I’m proud of those films, I enjoyed making them and learned so much, but the stakes were pretty low. Now, I had a 60 page script, 10 days to film it, a cast and crew of 20+ professionals, and a modest few thousand for the budget.

Ross Denyer directing The Verge in Harlem.

On set in Harlem, day three of filming.

I discovered very early that, yes, it’s totally true – things can and will go wrong! But I also discovered, to my great relief, that if you surround yourself with “good people”, these problems are always workable or at least work-around-able. We had a lot go wrong: rescheduling the entire shoot in less than 48hours to accommodate our lead actress (who was totally worth it, she was amazing when she got on set!), talking our way out of a misunderstanding with building management and NYPD (full credit to producer/writer/star/champ Mark St. Cyr on that one!), speedily repairing our Nikon’s damaged image sensor, surviving an SDHC card failure, getting thrown out of a location we thought we had but managing to change the script and get a *better* location for the remaining scenes, and so many other victories in the face of disaster. People rallied, and it made my job easier.

Lighting Test in Harlem

Serving as a lighting subject for our cinematographer, Tony, who pushed the Nikon D800 to the limits and captured some beautiful images.

What would I do differently next time? Well, first of all, I’d make more time for the actors. I was so engrossed with the technical aspects of shooting in locations I’d never visited before (some of which, including an impossibly cramped kitchen, inspired creative solutions, see picture below). I was managing sound, light, and continuity, and I felt neglectful of my actors. Fortunately, they were all amazing, had done their homework, and brought their best to set every day, but as an actor myself, I know what a difference it makes to be actively supported and pushed by a director. That enables good performances to become great ones. Next time!

Creative camera angles on The Verge using Nikon d800

Never underestimate the usefulness of fruit cups on a film set!

A year later, I’m proud to say The Verge has done very well for itself. It’s been accepted to six film festivals and counting, won “Best Drama” at Atlanta Web Festival last month, was featured in print and online in Backstage Magazine, and is currently in 2nd Place for First Glance Film Festival’s “It’s a Short” contest, which ends next weekend.

One Year Later... Verge Accomplishments

From Left to Right: (1) The Verge featured in Backstage, (2) Mark, Tali, Pamela, and Maxwell on the red carpet at Ocktober Film Fest in NYC, (3) The Verge wins ‘Best Drama’ at ATL Web Fest

What’s next on my plate, directorially-speaking? That remains to be seen, but I won’t deny I have stories in mind. But right now, I have some more immediate stories coming to life in an editing suite and behind a writer’s desk. In Part 2 of Learning the Ropes, I’ll share some of my adventures in editing…

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