Would you drive after having 4 beers?

Didn’t think so.

But what about texting while driving? Think that’s a piece of cake? Think again.

I was nearly hit by an SUV while crossing at a pedestrian crossing. It sped through making a right turn on red without looking out for the pedestrians who had the right of way. I froze in my steps as it zoomed past me, missing me by just a hair. I stared at the driver in shock… and true enough, she had her phone in her hand. Texting while driving is more distracting than you think.

Just ask Karolyn Szot, the director of Message Received. She felt compelled enough to make a film about it.

Enough lives have been lost, enough people have been injured and enough cars have been crashed. You have the ability to make the responsible choice. On this first national No Phone Zone Day, take the pledge to say no to distracted driving.

Kudos to Oprah for leading this life-saving campaign, and kudos to the 2.7 million people who’ve already taken the pledge. So what are you waiting for?

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Message Received… The Making Of (Part 3)

So it was down to our final day of shooting on Karolyn Szot’s Message Received.

7.30am call time. With just a small crew, we headed out to the front of Evanston Township High School to grab a wide establishing shot. As we unloaded our gear onto the sidewalk and started putting the crane together, a bus from the nearby Double Tree hotel pulled up right next to us. Next thing we know, out pours a group of young Asians who start taking pictures of the high school. It all seemed rather bizarre to us at first, since 1) it was really early on a Sunday morning and 2) our dear neighborhood Evanston Township High School isn’t usually a hot tourist attraction. I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting to see a film crew on a random sidewalk either. So as much as both groups tried to carry on like nothing unusual was going on, we all couldn’t help but take repeated glances at each other, wondering what on Earth the other group was doing there.

I thought it’d be fun to see if I could determine where the group was from by identifying the language in which they were speaking. So as I worked with Benz to set up the camera, I put my eavesdropping skills to use.

Can’t quite hear them… oh wait, i think they’re speaking in English… hey, that accent sounds familiar…

“AH!” I exclaimed to Benz excitedly. “THEY’RE SINGAPOREANS!”

Our actor Johnny Langan talking to the students from Temasek Academy, Singapore

I haven’t been home in a year, so seeing them brought tremendous joy to my heart. Can you believe they were also from the school where my dad used to teach? Talk about coincidence! Oh boy, the odds of that happening must have been one in a million. Apparently, the students from Temasek Junior College’s Integrated Programme were there on a Science and Mathematics trip and had visited ETHS earlier.

Karolyn decided it’d be a great idea to ask them to be extras in the movie and after some persuasion, they kindly agreed. So now we’ve got a shot of our main character James walking to school with lotsa fellow schoolmates! Sweet. :)

The next shot took us around to a parking lot at the back of the school. What we didn’t realize was how popular a place to park it would be among the lacrosse moms going to support their kids at a game going on nearby. One of them even stopped to ask us for directions to the field house. Good thing our Gaffer Brandon knew exactly where the field house was. “It’s over there, where the sign says field house… (pause)… darn, that made me sound like a total douche.” Being on crew’s tremendous fun, especially when you witness something like what happened next. It basically involved our Sound Designer Marshall sprinting across the parking lot after our moving U-haul truck, yelling at the top of his lungs. It was epic. Good thing we had all those donuts right before.

DP Josh filming Johnny texting behind the wheel.

Then off to St. Paul’s Forest Preserve again it was to get shots of Johnny driving and getting into the big crash. We knew that it was going to be a challenge filming our two cars getting into a head-on collision without actually damaging the vehicles or hurting ourselves. It involved precise steering and the ability to apply the brakes on time so we’d stop right as we were about to collide, all while avoiding the regular traffic along that road. So it was lead actor Johnny, DP Josh and Director Karolyn in one car, and me in the other. (I certainly didn’t wake up that morning realizing I was gonna be a stunt driver!) After several attempts to make it look like the two cars actually collided, we decided that a different strategy was needed. We treasured life too much to get close enough for the shot. That was when the brilliant suggestion of starting the shot with the two front bumpers touching and having both drivers go in reverse was made. The rest of it will be done in post-production. Oh, the magic of moviemaking! :)

Director Karolyn and DP Josh taking a shot of Johnny from outside the car

After a delicious lunch at a Chinese Restaurant (the rendezvous we went through to get there is another story altogether), it was on to complete the final few shots of the movie. With both Karolyn and Josh both outside the car concentrating on the shot, I took it upon myself to direct traffic to go around us. That’s when a lovely old couple on a stroll stopped to talk to me.

“Are you the same group that had the wrecked cars here yesterday?” the lady asked.

“Yes, that’s us!”

“So what’s the movie about?”

“It’s about the dangers of texting while driving, ma’am.”

“Oh! A worthy cause! Good luck!” She said, nodding her head in approval, as they both waved goodbye and went on their way. Aww.

Josh leaning on the hood to get the shot as Karolyn gives Johnny directions.

Our crew went through great lengths to make the film pretty, even if it meant our DP Josh working those back muscles, leaning on top of the hood with his legs stretched out for balance to get the final shot.

And with that, we could finally clasp our hands together and yell out with joy those three magic words: It’s A Wrap!

After months of preparation, 4 days of shooting and hours of lost sleep, we’re finally ready to move into post-production. Our Editor Andrew and Sound Designer Marshall are gonna have a fabulous time.

While looking back on the fun times and crazy adventures we had on set will definitely put a smile on all our faces, what I’m most excited about is the impact the finished film will have. Yes, it’s going to look fantastic and sound amazing, but more importantly, it’s going to make our roads a safer place for all.

Thanks for following our journey so far. Look out for Message Received next year, coming to a screen near you. And finally, please remember, don’t text and drive.

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Message Received… The Making Of (part 2)

After such a fun time on weekend 1 on the set of Karolyn Szot’s Message Received, I was stoked to return for another dose of movie making magic. On the agenda for the second weekend? Blood! Car Crash! Cops! Uh, exchange students!

I was lucky to get a couple of hours off Saturday morning as only a bare bones crew was needed to shoot our two actresses, Emily Marso and Blake-Briana McKay, driving. Just a couple of shots and a simple scene. Easy as pie, right? Well…

Sign reads "Movie Set! Not Real!". What we mean: please don't call the cops on us again.

The story I heard when I arrived on set? A very concerned passerby had called the cops that morning thinking that the two wrecked cars we had on set was the scene of a real accident. Oh well, at least that means a big thumbs up for prod design well-done. ;)

Karolyn gave herself multiple cuts and bruises before putting some on Johnny.

Another challenge that filming a car crash scene brings is the ridiculous number of people who deliberately slow down to get a better glimpse of your set as they’re driving by. Maybe it was to see if there was a famous actor in the vicinity. Maybe it was to get numbers to buy the American version of 4D. Maybe it was to gawk at the awesome blood effects Karolyn did for our actors. Either way, our crew definitely learned more about directing two-way traffic in one lane. It also helped that we had two actors in cop uniforms on set. I’m not sure what it was, but people tended to drive past faster when it’s a cop signaling them to move. Or so they thought! ;)

Taking a crane shot of the entire crash scene.

When it was time to set up for our beautiful crane shot, it was all hands on deck. Like a life-sized balance scale, we had to figure out the exact number of sandbags to hang on one side to counter the weight of our camera on the other. It was almost like watching a team challenge on Survivor. “Take one more bag off,” one would say. “No, you just have to move one closer to the center!” another would reason. The team eventually emerged triumphant! And our crane shot went as smooth as silk.

Shooting outdoors often means racing against time, especially when you’re dependent on sunlight. Good thing our crew heads had their act together. We completed our shots with time to spare and made some new friends with the many deer roaming the woods near us. I’d say our day was a success! :)

If you thought the shoot so far has been packed with plenty of adventure, wait until you hear about the happenings on our final day of shoot. That story to come soon.

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Message Received – The Making Of (part 1)

Though it’s been months after graduation, I’ve still been going back to work on NU student film sets. How can I resist my little dose of joy, working with some of the most talented people around? The last two weekends on the set of Karolyn Szot‘s senior directing project Message Received were intense. But with such a positive underlying message, and the tremendous potential it has to help make our roads safer, those long hours were definitely worth it.

Doing a tracking shot of our lead actress Emily Marso and friends at choir practice.

Thanks to some great fundraising efforts and the generous support of people, our production got off to a strong start with a relatively big budget. I’m so glad people realize the need for funds to create good work. It’s allowed us to bring on the cutting edge technology and stunning image quality of the RED One camera (and more nutritious food for the cast & crew!).

Weekend 1 of filming was off to a big start! With about 60 crew and cast members all in one place, organization was key. Thankfully, Evanston Township High School was huge (imagine 5 dining halls!), and provided us with a safe and warm space.

First scene of the day was the choir room, where we had the special talents of one of Northwestern’s amazing acapella groups, The Undertones, as guest stars. Hearing them singing to the original tunes of our composer Patrick O’Malley was simply music to my ears. ;)

Karolyn giving directions to our lead actors Johnny Langan and Kale Clauson.

Then it was off to shoot in the dining hall. That was where i witnessed the precision that managing extras required. Everything – from the clothes they were wearing to the seats they were placed in, to the individual actions they had to complete – was planned down to a T. “Close your binder”, “Drop your pen”, “Share your text message with your friend”. Everything needed to make the world around our main characters look as realistic as possible.

With so many people and so much movement, it posed an even greater challenge for our script supervisor. “Was I holding my sandwich in my left or right hand?”, “Was I drinking from my juice box right before I said this line?”, “Which item did I pick up first?” Questions came at rapid fire, but Jingyang always had the answers. The calm, confident answers.

Thanks to some fine schedule management, we wrapped right on time! Headed home to catch just enough rest for day 2.

DP Josh runs a rehearsal for the handheld shot while Sound Designer Marshall gets ready.

Sunday morning was spent doing the hallway scene. Once again, an intricate process involving many extras to make it seem like class had just ended on a typical school day. My Russian buddy, V, came on board as an extra just to see what the experience is like. He was somehow picked to play the jock, tossing a football back n forth with another dude. :) It was also an exciting time for our DP Josh as this scene involved the first handheld shot of the movie! Donning the giant shoulder cushion for comfort always made him look like a Spartan warrior. Or, as Benz would joke, Sparkles. :) Either way, having that Red One on his shoulder rigged with cushioned hand grips made him look like such a bada*s. It even said so on the slate. ;)

And then it was on to spend the rest of the day doing the classroom scene, but not before some production design work to hide all signs of it being a Spanish classroom. The 3 HMIs blasting in from outside the window magically made it look like daytime in there.

Our classroom full of kids!

This scene also involved some awesome tracking shots and what was probably the most complicated shot of the movie involving 4 rack-focuses while on a moving dolly. Nice. It definitely took some precision coordination between dolly grip Alex, AC Andy, DP Josh and our lead actors. Something else I really liked? The beautiful moment watching Karolyn interact with the kids. Most filmmakers will tell you that the most challenging things to work with in movies are animals and kids, but I think she, with the help of our amazing 1st AD Rachel, handled the group of them wonderfully. And finally, with the introduction of Byron who played teacher Mr. Jenkins, it truly felt like we were back in school again. :)

To be continued…

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