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Checking In

In September 2011 I saw a post on good ole Facebook asking for writers for a comedy script. As my writing was taking off I figured “I can do that” and threw my hat on the table. The film is an anthology piece called Checking In, five stories set in a hotel over a 24 hour period. I was handed the opening story; a piece about a couple struggling to find the spark that has gone from their marriage. Ted & Mary came about quickly with me using a large A2 pad on my wall to throw my ideas at. They were fighters, battling with each other every day in a struggle of one upmanship. My focus fell on the dialogue – I wanted it to zing like volleys in a pro-tennis match.

I had the 20 page script polished and ready in two weeks and baring two small dialogue changes that first version of Ted & Mary was what we shot. I had a lovely surprise though when I was asked to direct my segment of the film. I’ve done some DOP and AD work in the past and worked on enough films to know what works and doesn’t. It helped that I have a very cinematic style when it comes to my graphic stories too. Suddenly though I’d gone from writing to shouldering the responsibility for shooting the opening of the film and making something that had the audience laughing. That was when I made the decision not to do make-up on the film, allowing me to concentrate on giving my directorial debut my best shot.

My first challenge came when the main actors attached to the project had to drop out. Fortunately I found two perfect replacements; Suzanne Kendal-Morgan and Ernest Vernon. Suzanne was cast first and came in to read at Ernest’s audition. The pair read a scene from my screenplay for three of the anthologies other director. From the opening line I knew I had my stars because the “audience” kept smiling and laughing. We cast Ernest on the spot and suddenly I was making a real movie with real actors.

We shot the film out of sequence with stories 2 and 5 being worked on first. My second surprise came when I volunteered to be on set for the filming of story 2 because I was offered a role in it. My sleazy businessman made his appearance, propped against a bar, slightly drunk and eyeing up a singer played by Michelle Rachel Cox. Michelle has an amazing singing voice (which we spotted when I got to her to sing, unprepared and unaccompanied during her audition) and she was brilliant fun to act with. The scene also featured a cameo by one of the actors from story 5 – a thread we would follow with the rest of the film with characters crossing over between each part.

Two weeks before principal photography on Ted & Mary I spent a great day rehearsing with Ernest and Suzanne. We worked through each scene, going over lines, the character’s motivation and reactions. That day gave us an essential head start for when we finally got to the location and I was able to make decisions about how I wanted each scene to play out. I also prepared a series of storyboards for one scene that was a homage to the final standoff in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly! Shot lists for each day and the completion of the production were the final elements and then we were ready to film.

The shoot took 21 hours over two days.

Day one started in a hotel room where we filmed my irate couple cheerily bickering. With a crew of seven and two actors it was a good job that the room was big enough to fit us all in. Unfortunately it turned out to be a scorching hot day outside which just added to the heat generated by our lighting. Poor Ernest was the lucky one because he got to spend the morning in shorts and tee-shirt while the rest of us roasted. On the downside he did have to spend it wearing shaving foam all over his face!

Other than the heat we had another problem to contend with – trying not to laugh as Ernest and Suzanne delivered their dialogue perfectly. It was amazing to watch the characters I had written being brought to life in front of my eyes like that. For the afternoon we moved into the corridors of the hotel to shoot some walking dialogue. It was awkward to light but using a stabilizer on the hi-def camera gave us freedom with how we shot the sequence.

Our second day began in the hotel reception with a stand-off between Ted, Mary and the hotel manager. The storyboarding helped to speed the sequence along and what we covered in rehearsal helped. The physical comedy in the scene was brilliant and Mary racing out of the hotel doors waving a stolen towel like a flag had me grinning like a loon. Our longest scene was set in the hotel restaurant and my sleazy businessman made his second appearance. That was my Hitchcock moment as I cameoed in my own film. Ernest spent hours working his way through a bowl of Cheerios while we filmed the breakfast sequence. We almost melted again because it was another hot day outside, the actors were set in front of a large window and we had to blast them with light from off camera.

The last scene of the day was Ted & Mary’s daring escape and the stabilizer was used to brilliant effect by my DOP Ben Thompson. We captured the frantic energy of the scene perfectly and things flew along until I called a wrap. That’s not the end of the story though; by the time you read this the editing should be completed. I’ve selected a song by local musician Sandy Stanton for the opening of the film and as I write this I’m looking forward to getting my sleaze on again for a brief cameo in story 3.

The cast and crew for Checking In have been amazing. Honourable mentions go out to Dave Hastings, Kaush Patel, Rebecca Harris, Leah Green and Mark Adams; the hard working writer/directors of the five segments. I can’t wait to see the finished film and get it out there onto the festival circuit. I’ve always said that if something isn’t fun then it probably isn’t worth doing. This film has been tremendous fun so far and the Checking In story is only just beginning.

Not the end…