Independent Filmmaking >> Fontana, recollections of a film shoot, finding your voice…and why

“Even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole, it would be about me.”
Federico Fellini 

Ain’t that the truth!!

As artists we all need to find our voice.

Your reason for creating.

Your ‘why’

In some cases, such as mine, it can take half a lifetime to find, but once you have found it, it’s hard to ignore.

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‘Fontana’ 2011, 52 Weeks/52 Films

 So to give you a little insight in to how I found mine, I thought this week I would go back a bit in time, not far back, just to 2011 and to one of my favorite films of the 52 Films/52Weeks project.


This was the film, that made me really think about my ‘why,’ and that gave me the first insight into what seems to be my cinematic theme.

Adapted from two of Javier Ronceros’s (my talented husband’s) short stories, ‘Fontana’ is a bleak but poetic exploration of death and abandonment.

“A bedraggled group of apocalypse survivors find themselves abandoned by their leader in their darkest hour.”

This bizarre group awake one morning in an abandoned, partially destroyed house to find their beloved leader, the one person with hope and the strength to keep them alive, has shot himself.

Clearly this is not a comedy….

This film was certainly one of the more obvious explorations of my eternal ‘why’ question that I have written so far.  Every choices we make every day, mundane or otherwise, lead our lives in such a wild variety of different directions.   Life or death is pretty serious stuff.

This group of survivors waits for a scouting trip to return in their truck, the only mode of transportation, and as the days pass they realize they are alone, with no hope of rescue.

How would they cope under such circumstances, how would any of us cope and when would we decide that death on our own terms is preferable to the inevitable decline into despair, savagery and violence.  When does the need for dignity and permanent escape seem the obvious choice, and to whom.

Why, why, why?

I have been told, on many an occasion, that asking ‘why’ is a pointless and ultimately unfulfilling quest, but, it has become my most defining theme, and not just in film…

Finding your story to tell and your theme to follow will be what makes you decide which film to make and even if you want to be a filmmaker in the first place.

Each filmmaker has their own recurring themes of course, Spielberg has his absentee fathers, the catholic guilt of Scorsese’s films are evident in every one of his brilliant works and Quentin Tarrantino does like to talk, in between eviscerations.

As a filmmaker, or an artist of any kind, everything we create has its own unmistakable color, wether we intend it or not.  After making 52 short films in a row in 2011, I look back now and I can clearly see the themes that reoccur in my work.  Death, choice, fear, love and the mind constantly at work trying to find a way through, without unravelling.

Funny stuff…

Really, I’m not a cynical person…..

I’m just drawn to the big questions.

Making Fontana, was a big adventure.  Shot over two days in Lancaster, CA in a very cold Spring.  The location was an abandoned house that our AD found for me.  Since it was empty, had been for some time and was in the middle of nowhere on the high plains of the Antelope Valley, we decided to shoot on the fly….hoping no one would care enough to call the cops.  Certainly the nearest house was ten miles away and we would be shooting mostly inside the house anyway, so any kind of  sheriffdom interruption seemed a rather remote possibility.

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‘Fontana’ set Antelope Valley, 2011, 52 Films/52 Weeks

The location was amazing, it really looked as if someone had picked the house up off its foundations, shaken it a bit and put it back down, carelessly.  I couldnt have had an art department build me something more perfect.

One of the first rules of making very, very independent films is find an amazing location that looks as if you have spent a fortune on it and exploit it as much as you can.

I would go back to this house tomorrow and shoot just about anything, if its still standing that is.

This was also one of the most rehearsed films I have shot, and by that I mean we actually had a rehearsal….

Since the film was set a couple of years after whatever disaster had befallen the planet, the actors and their wardrobe needed to look particularly destroyed.  Because of that I asked the cast to bring some clothes that they didnt need back so we could distress them and thats exactly what our amazing wardrobe department did.  The highly scientific approach was to tear the clothes, rub dirt and grease into them and stain everything with tea, or at least that is what we told the actors is was, fray everything at the edges and then finally set it all on fire a bit.


The result was that we had custom fit, beautifully ruined wardrobe, for free!!!

We also had a couple of amazing makeup artists, we needed two since all the actors had to look pretty rough and a couple of them very badly beaten up.  We had a safe house, up the road where we prepared for everything and had lunch, out of the wind and the rain thankfully.

It was very important, since we had such an incredible location, that the actors not look out of place in it, and they didnt, they looked amazing.

All these details helped the actors feel and act perfectly authentic to the story.

It really was cold and damp and they really did feel as uncomfortable as they looked, but giving great actors all the opportunity you can to perform as well as they want to is so important.  Too often filmmakers on a budget forget that the performances are the most important aspect of a film.  More so than lighting or what camera you can beg, steal or borrow.  If the actors aren’t given every chance to use their craft, then they feel a huge lack of respect and trust from the director, and however hard they then might try, they can never give as good as they hoped and the film will always suffer.

Authenticity is the foundation of every film, and very, very independent films must cling to it more than most, or it will show in every frame and the point of any film is to be true.

We shot the first scene of the film, the death scene, on the first day, with just a stripped down crew, me, basically, and the actor.

The suicide scene.

Since it was the cause of everything that followed in the film, I wanted to make sure I got the action right.  Having someone shoot themselves on screen is very powerful stuff, and because we couldn’t actually show that, we had to get quite creative, and in the end the build up to the actual shot was enough to let our imaginations do the rest.  I think it worked really well.  Actually, I’m quote sure that if I could have really shown the whole thing, blood, brains and all, it wouldn’t have held the same power somehow.  Sometimes we see too much, just because its possible to recreate gore, doesn’t necessarily mean its necessary or even preferable.

The second day we brought everyone up, makeup and wardrobe during breakfast and set out to the location.  Everyone was impressed with the location, and we all took a moment to really feel the power of it.  After that it was really just a question of putting the actors in the right positions and letting them do their thing while we captured it on film.  The perfect way to shoot I think, all the preparation and the work has been done, flip the record button and let the magic happen.

We did have a bit of a panic when we got back from lunch at the safe house to find the sky was black where it had been blue and the wind and rain had swept in.  But in the sequence of the film it worked so perfectly, its like I arranged it with the universe!

The camera person had the flu that weekend, so Javier shot it for me and it was a magical couple of days that  reminded  me what a brilliant team we make.  I even dragged my son Josh along for the day, he was a huge help, so it was a real family effort.

Of course we had our faithful grip Mike, and even a sound guy Scott, which was rare.  With the wind and the rain he had a very hard time, but it was worth the effort, and any wind noise was thankfully explained away by the genre.

Over the years I have been on many sets where magic has happened, I’m lucky I know.  But this film, with its dark and emotional story, and its heartfelt anguish was the most magical experience to date, which is saying something I can tell you.

It just worked.

The actors, the crew, the location, the weather, the wardrobe, the makeup, everything.Sometimes, when you think you have a fools hope of anything working at all, everything does and you can’t wipe that smile off your face for quite some time I can tell you.

Why does that happen, I hear you and especially me asking.

To quote a great and wonderful screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, “Everything will work out in the end, how?  I don’t know, it’s a mystery”.

It is a mystery, just as mysterious as how a box with glass and mirrors and a bunch of chips in it can capture action and sound and emotion and then recreate it an infinitesimal number of times at our whim.

At its best making films is like creating memories that we can relive over and over again.

I may be over romanticizing, again… but these best memories, of our art, self made and self financed, are us.  As a filmmakers, and  as a human beings.

Every word spoken in a film that I have written is my ‘Why.’

Enjoy Fontana…..