'Untitled DC': The Final Days
By Matt Slovick
Wednesday, October 21, 1998
"Untitled DC" is a low-budget independent film being shot on the streets of Washington during October. This is the third of a series, in which we visited the set, talked to the film's creators and traced the film's progress. The movie is the story of four people whose paths intersect one day as each struggles to rise above the history that overshadows them. Gregory returns to town after 10 years and recognizes Isabel from his childhood. Her boyfriend, Raymond, works for Gregory's father, a congressman. They meet Roz, who wants to stop a monument slated for her Southwest neighborhood.
But the days spent shooting indoors were every bit as exhausting as the outdoor shoots.
In order to get a sunrise shot in Prince Frederick, the cast and crew left the District at 5 a.m. They worked until sunset, then made the 90-minute drive back to Washington. And then it was right back to work the next morning, of course.
Actor Derrick Damions, who plays the lead character, Gregory, had one of his roughest days at El Tamarindo in Adams-Morgan.
"That was pretty . . . hmmmm . . . grueling," Damions says. "It was two big, long, drawn-out scenes that we shot. I was there over 14 hours. It was a long day it would have been nice if it was broken up. But it was tedious. A lot of blocking, a lot of dialogue, a lot of choreographing . . . ."
But Damions sees the silver lining in having the opportunity to work with less than a titanic budget.
With a small budget, "you get more of a sense of teamwork, a sense of family," he says. "It's not as stressful, and the pace is quick. It's like a soap: You get down to brass tacks and then you move on to the next scene. God, on a bigger production you can spend three days on one scene."
"Sometimes it does get frustrating that you just can't act," says Patricia Williams, who plays Roz. "But for us, we knew what we were coming into it's part of our job and that's what we do.
"I think the toughest part is just to make sure that, along with my fellow actors, that we are on, that we know our characters, that we have our lines down. Unlike a big-budget film, we can't do a trillion takes. So we have to make sure that we are really honed."
Mark Selinger, who like Williams and Damions has had small roles in bigger productions, also understands the restraints that come along with the low-budget indie experience.
"Inherent in this sort of budgetary pressure is an arduous schedule," Selinger says. "You've got to really focus and really concentrate and get it right the first couple of times. You don't have a lot of film to burn. You don't have the luxury of some of these big Hollywood productions. . . . From my point of view, it's healthy to work that way. It keeps you sharp. It keeps you disciplined."
Rack 'Em Up
It's Day 13, a Friday, and the cast and crew are crammed downstairs in a small room with two pool tables. The scene includes only Raymond (Selinger), Isabel (Kate Stewart Mayfield), Roz and one pool table. Damions is off-camera, and joining him are glaring lights, various crew members, the camera and other equipment.
Williams wears an elegant black dress with spaghetti straps; Mayfield, a slinky red number. Selinger is dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and tie and has obviously been under the lights for a while. Reminiscent of Albert Brooks in the movie "Broadcast News," he is sweating up a storm. Assistant director Terry Nickelson is fanning him with his slate, which is used primarily to describe the scene and take numbers.
Gregory's garb is somewhat comical. In an earlier scene, when the group decides to go out on the town, the taller Raymond offers him a suit to wear. Gregory's sleeves are too long, and his pant legs are rolled up a few inches. Actor Damions says that while waiting outside, a well-dressed older woman had stopped and offered to hem his pants.
In this scene, Isabel walks up to Raymond and suggests he play Gregory in a game of pool. Gregory declines before Roz steps into frame and grabs the pool stick. As usual, most of the time before the camera rolls is spent on blocking positioning the camera, lights and actors and rehearsing. Williams must grab the stick, turn, hit her mark and say her line, making sure the lighting remains consistent. Nickelson orders the fans turned off and the door secured. He yells "quiet" before placing the slate in front of the camera. During the first take, Williams blows a line. But the scene is done in three takes.
The next scene, in which Williams has to sink the 8-ball, is unexpectedly tough. Her character in the film is a pool shark, but she most definitely is not. After it becomes evident that she probably won't make the shot with the camera rolling, director Adam Joyce decides just to film her striking the cue ball. But this doesn't work either.
Joyce asks Lars Sandvik, director of photography, to take the table out of frame. They film Williams pantomiming the shot and then her reaction. At the end of the scene, Isabel (Mayfield) has to rack the balls. A few seconds later, the sound of balls bouncing on the floor is followed by laughter.
With the camera rolling, seemingly simple tasks become complicated ripping a business card, lighting a cigarette or sipping a drink. The actions have to be in frame and done quickly and smoothly. You don't want to drop the cigarette or spill the drink.
Washingtonians on Film
Two of the principal actors in "Untitled DC" Damions and Selinger are Washington natives, while Williams has lived in the District for 15 years. All three say they enjoy being a significant part of a project that portrays the Washington they know.
"My father, who passed away years ago, was a small businessman," Selinger shares. "He had a warehouse over in Northeast. My mother ran a house, raised two kids. It's nice to be part of an enterprise which reflects that there is much to this city which is not political, as in any other city."
"'Untitled DC' actually uses people who know and love Washington," Williams adds. "They are a part of Washington. The characters are Washingtonians . . . so are all of the aspects of Washington the politics, the race, the activism, some of the male-female aspects. It's really who we are, which is part of Washington."
Damions echos his colleagues: "You're not seeing the fancy veneers the marble, the bronze and gold. You're seeing a slice of life that's not really too exaggerated. It's pretty real," he says.
But before he can begin this work, he must return to his real life. Back in New York, he has a full-time job and a wife, who he's seen for a total of five days during the past three months.
"I have to get my life back in order and have to get back to work," Joyce says. "Once I get all that accomplished, I will start [post-production] in the middle of November. I would like to have an entire cut of the film by the end of December. It's possible that we have to re-shoot some stuff. I hear film is very delicate. There might be some scratches on a roll."
Joyce will keep in contact with Kurt Olmstead, his co-writer and co-producer, who lives in the District. They wrote the screenplay together, using the phone and e-mail. Now, they'll be using the services of UPS and Federal Express to continue their venture. Joyce says he'll probably end up sending Olmstead roughly edited sequences for his input.
Joyce also has to find a sound for the film. "I would like a full score and then maybe songs," he says. "I would like to feel a unified movement through the piece. . . . I don't know what I hear yet. Again, it's my inexperience here. I'll go in the editing room and feel what it should sound like."
Although the shoot is over, Joyce is nowhere near finished. "Ever since Aug. 3, all I've done pretty much is produce this movie," he says. "It was the greatest thing I've ever done professionally . . . . I have no regrets about anything, including how tired I am.
"I made 50 mistakes a day, and it was great."