Posted by Susan Doll on June 2, 2014
I caught only one film at the Sarasota International Film Festival this past April—The Lucky 6, a drama about a group of coworkers who win the lottery. I had a vested interest in watching this film, because it was written, shot, and edited by Ringling College faculty members and students. According to department head Brad Battersby, the Ringling Digital Film department is the first undergraduate cinema program to make a feature film. Though I had nothing to do with the production of The Lucky 6, I felt closely connected to it because many of my students worked in key crew positions, and I watched the film being made last summer. After being behind the scenes during the shooting of several sequences, there was something magical about watching the final version on the big screen in a packed theater. Scenes looked familiar yet registered in a completely new or different way.
Written and directed by Battersby, The Lucky 6 revolves around a group of employees of a high-tech start-up who collectively win a $120 million jackpot on a single lottery ticket. The six friends collect their winnings and go their separate ways; some lead the good life with their newfound fortune while others are. . . well. . . not so lucky. Five years later, a legal investigation into the validity of their big win forces the group to reunite. Like other films in this subgenre—The Lottery Man (1919), Le Million (1931), Love from a Stranger (1938), Waking Ned Devine (1998)—The Lucky 6 paints the consequences of winning the lottery in dark tones. Winning the lottery is not part of the American Dream, which dictates that just rewards come only to those who work hard. Lottery movies are often cautionary tales that suggest unearned wealth will only bring trouble and heartache.
The Lucky 6 did prove to be lucky for Ringling and Sarasota. The crew consisted of 31 students, 3 alumni, and 5 faculty/staff members from Ringling. The actors were members of the highly respected Asolo Conservatory, which is part of Florida State University. The benefits of this project are obvious: The crew gained the kind of hands-on experience that will give them a leg up in the real world, and the actors ended up with professional footage for their highlight reels. Beyond the benefits for the participants, the experience represents a different production model for independent film in which an educational institution provides financial, creative, and crew support, resulting in a commercial feature film that can appeal to a wide audience. The benefits for independent directors to team with college filmmaking departments seem obvious, and the model provides a viable alternative to the Hollywood industry.
The film was shot completely in Sarasota, and the generous support of the city was impressive, including businesses that offered goods and services as well as individuals who lent their homes for locations. It was interesting to see my new city showcased to its best advantage—from the tropical foliage to the Gulf at sunset, from the huge mansions on Bird Key to an empty beach resort on Longboat Key. The latter was a failed resort community called The Colony, which was a well-known fixture back in its day. I heard that George W. Bush once stayed there when he was in town. Now abandoned and in disrepair, the Colony includes cottages on the beach, tennis courts, and a common room with a huge mural of monkeys. The monkeys had peculiar, even scary faces, which, in a key scene in the film, served as commentary on the main characters. Getting permission to shoot at the Colony proved difficult because of the complexities of the legal entanglements. It required getting individual permission from remaining members of the still-existing condo association, among others. This is the kind of nitty-gritty detail that can take up valuable production time and energy, yet viewers only see the end result, which is an authentic location that works naturally in the storyline.
Whenever I visited the set last summer, I felt a little out of place because I was there to observe for my own purposes, not make a contribution to the production. However, my student Nathaniel Turner always greeted me as though I were an important VIP and graciously steered me to a place behind the scenes where I could watch without getting in the way. As the associate producer, Nathaniel’s job was to herd visitors, ensure that actors were on the set when needed, parlay messages, track down needed materials, and trouble-shoot when necessary. People often ask me what the job of a producer is; well, as I learned from Nathanial and producer mentor June Petrie, the job is to anticipate what needs to be done and then do it.
I am sure many of you have read the credits for a feature film and wondered what a “best boy” does. Two of my students served as best boy on The Lucky 6; oddly enough, both were girls. If “best boy” sounds kind of fun, the job description will convince you otherwise. CJ Hipp worked as best boy grip, explaining, “My biggest responsibility was the [grip] truck—knowing where each piece of equipment was, [returning it] to its place on the truck at the end of the day, loading and unloading safely, and strapping everything down for safe transport.” When it was time to shoot night scenes that were actually shot during daylight hours, CJ noted that she “helped ‘tent’ the windows of the room they were shooting in. This meant that we covered them with a very thick, black, flame-retardant fabric, so no sunlight would enter.” Several night scenes took place at the Colony, including a beautiful sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. However, the crew could not shoot at night on Longboat Key because of the birds and turtles, so the night scenes were the result of movie magic.
Best boy electric is no easier and no less physical. According to Leila Battersby, “From what I understand in the professional world . . . the job is all about organization. Key grips and gaffers get sent home when a moderate to big budget union shoot wraps for the day, so the best boys of both departments supervise the wrapping of each and every piece of equipment. They check all cases to make sure things were put back in the correct place. They know the grip truck like the backs of their hands. On the set, when anyone asks for anything, whether it’s the DP wanting a ‘sider’ on a light, or a producer wanting another director’s chair for a visitor to the set, the best boy retrieves that piece of equipment.”
I was impressed with the way these young women embraced the physicality of their jobs. Leila noted, “Wrapping, because we were so well-organized, was fun. This sounds weird, but…there’s something beautiful about a perfectly wrapped electrical cable, its coils flowing in circles like a sleeping serpent.” Reportedly, only 18% of behind-the-scenes crew and creative types are female. Women make up only 7% of directors and 10% of writers (2011 statistics). In that context, CJ, who has just produced a program for our local PBS station, and Leila, who has moved to Hollywood to work for grips and gaffers in the industry, represent hope for the future.
Like a good film historian, I scribbled notes while watching The Lucky 6; one of my scrawls reads, “good editing.” As it turns out, the editor was another one of my students, Andrew Halley, who graduated from Ringling last month. Andrew, who plans to establish a career as an editor by starting in television, is quite articulate about his profession. When I asked him about his experiences, he offered a terrific explanation of an editor’s role on a film: “An editor is a creative individual. An editor is presented with all the hard work of the crew and rewrites it in the most effective and emotionally satisfying way. It is the editor’s job to communicate the story as close to the original material as possible, unless he/she sees an opportunity within the footage to enhance the story for the better. An editor, just like the writer, director and cinematographer, is a storyteller above all else.” It is evident that Andrew understands and loves his craft when he added, “All the work that has been put into the project up to the end of shooting is channeled to the editor, and this is a remarkable stage where things can be fixed and/or manipulated to reach the final product. For me, it’s where the real emotion of the film comes to light—in the editing room.”
One of the reasons I was impressed with the editing (and the narrative structure) is because The Lucky 6 shifts back and forth from the past to the present as way to underscore the impact of the past on the lives of the characters. Yet, the time frame is never confusing. Andrew admitted that the flashbacks and shifts in time were the most difficult aspect of editing the film. He said, “. . . it was difficult taking each individual scene, with its proper emotional resonance, and organizing them as a whole to create a dynamic and engaging piece.”
If you want to learn how techniques like editing or cinematography impact a story, then listen to an articulate director, cinematographer, or editor explain their work on a specific scene. Andrew again: “I think my best work on The Lucky 6 was a short sequence beginning with John calling Natasha while in the water. The first scene is simple and emotional, but then transitions and grows into John’s nightmare. The nightmare reveals so much about his relationship with Simon and Darla, and explains his drive in the following scenes. The nightmare was not written in the script, and I was proud of my addition.” Andrew’s assessment of his best scene reveals how an editor works. While he/she physically cuts together one scene, he/she is mentally relating it to situations from past scenes and thinking how it will affect editing future scenes.
The Lucky 6 proved a valuable experience for me for a couple of reasons: Not only did I learn about shooting an indie film on location, but it was exciting to see my students work as professionals. Their attitudes, work ethics, and skill sets and gave me a new respect. Lucky me.
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