So I decided to write up my journey on the making of 5AM. For posterity sake.
In 1994 I wrote out a short story. It was, and still is, called Multiples. It’s about five identical brothers. The short became a comic book story. 5 books. I started illustrating.
Things went to the wayside, as they do, and I turned Multiples into a screenplay. Entered it into some contests, but nothing came of it, so I shelved it.
One day I get introduced to this very sweet woman, Julie, on a pool league night. She’s joining our team. This was about three and a half or four years ago.
Once on the team, we became instant friends. She was working for a producer, and I casually slipped into the conversation that I was a writer. I gave her a copy of Multiples, and she liked it. Soon after, we began working on 8 for Vegas.
Now, I mention Multiples because of the number 5. Not sure why that stuck in my head the day I started conceptualizing 5AM. What originally was going to be a story about two twins quickly moved away from them being relatives because it seemed too simple a story to tell.
Or, I should say, not challenging enough. At the time I was unemployed and off of The Thing for the winter. I had this camera equipment sitting there and needed to shoot something.
So, I moved to clones. At first the idea was a comedy. A clone comes home after losing his job.
I had watched a tutorial on how to create a copy (twin) of ones self in the same frame. I had shot some test footage, showed Julie, and said “This could be fun.” I wish I had that footage, it was a quick nothing take, but after viewing the tutorial, it all presented a lot of possibilities.
That test shot ended up being the inspiration for the final 3-clone shot in the film.
But, I’m ahead of myself. A clone losing his job.
I mainly work on comedies. 8 for Vegas, Off Off, Internet Affairs. Even The Thing, to me, is more comedy than anything else. I didn’t want to shoot a comedy. Or, at least, not all comedy.
So I started thinking darker. I pictured my apartment and tried to place clones. One on the couch. One across from him. One on the sleeper sofa. Ok.
I’m in the shower doing all of this. Standing there, counting on my hand. 30 minutes. 35 minutes. At the 40 minute mark there was a knock on the bathroom door asking me if I was still alive.
By the time I finished that shower, some time the next day, I had four clones, the last being in the kitchen.
Cool. I started coming up with the conflict and realized there had to be an out-of-the-apartment element to add some depth to the story. This would also help with the conflict.
The underlying story that I was interested in conveying was that history inevitably repeats itself. It was around this time, hour eleven in the shower, where the comparison to “Arbeit macht frei”, or ‘Labour Makes You Free’ came in. I thought that was important, and would help set a tone.
I wrote it out, re-wrote it, got it to 5 pages, sent it off to Julie. “Let’s shoot this,” I got back.
I broke down the script into shots and started production with what I thought would be the most difficult, the two shot. The timing had to be right, the eye lines had to be right.
I flooded the room with a 750 watt Tota, along with some available light. I put a lamp in the background of one of the characters, looked reasonable through the lens.
I shot it with my 7d and a 24mm 2.8 lens. I shot a ton of footage that day, along with some b-roll. I was really jazzed.
Checked it out later on the computer, and hated it. It was bland looking. The shots were boring. The background was my blinds covered window, and the light was just kind of trapped back there.
I tried doing some color correcting to see if I could make it more interesting. First I tried black and white. That looked like a big grey mess. You really have to go in deciding it’s going to be black and white before you shoot, so, this was no good.
I was thinking of films and how a lot of great color correcting jobs look so incredibly seamless… and then I started thinking of the other way. More saturated, apparent correcting work. I had recently watched Dredd. A good example of some great color work, but not what I was looking for.
I look on my desktop, and I had just recently burned a copy of The Matrix: Revolutions.
Green, huh? Ok.
I brightened everything and crushed the blacks a bit, threw in some green. I sat back and said “Huh.”
“What?” Karen asked.
“What do you think of this?”
I got out of the way.
It was still a mess, but there was something about the skin tone that I really liked. But the lighting was shit. It’s the major component of filmmaking that I have to get a better handle on, but I’ll get to that.
So. I tell Julie I need her help. We have to figure out a way how to light my apartment so that it’s consistent with each of the clones. 3 in the living room, one in the kitchen.
I had gone to Reddit for help on lighting this scene, but I basically got ‘learn by doing’ as a response, which was what I should have done in the first place. Here’s the living room:
Julie comes over and we’re looking at the room. After the initial footage, I knew the 2.8 lens was not going to do it, so I went and rented a 24mm 1.4 lens. I don’t know who’s idea it was to reverse the angle of the camera, and open the blinds, but we tried that.
It was such a simple solution. I opened the blinds and the entire room flooded with light. There was a reason I didn’t want to shoot it like that, at first. Because the light in the room changes over the course of about two hours. I had originally wanted the blinds down so that I could shoot more over the course of a day. But the room looked good naturally lit. We’d have to work around the time restraints.
We shot the two shot that day three times. At first, the eye lines weren’t right. Then, on the fly, I said “if we can do it, we need to get the clone in the kitchen to peak his head out.”
Now, unbeknownst to us until that very moment, we realized that my apartment was perfect for shooting a clone movie. Here’s the three shot (click the photos for larger shots):
As we were looking at the second take we noticed the straight lines in the back of the room. With the correct framing, we were going to be able to do this shot by using one master, and then layering the two other shots on top, and cropping like so:
The circle indicates the shot, which is three video files on top of each other, cropped accordingly.
Well, after that we were on our way.
On subsequent days I shot the mediums and close ups. I shot the clone on the couch and the one in the kitchen. That took five days because I kept screwing up shots and takes. So much of the film has a shallow depth of field, and I was having a very difficult time getting my range of motion and the focus correct.
As I checked and double checked the footage, I realized we were getting to the other difficult part of the shoot, the make-up scene.
I got Julie to take a day off from her job. We shot some b-roll at my friend Amber’s apt (the record player) and then we bought some latex, make-up, fake blood and some chocolate syrup.
We got back to the apartment. Julie checked on the computer, some tutorials for doing black eyes and bloody cuts and all. I hear “Ok, I got it, let’s do this.”
She turned into a mad scientist that day. Karen came around the corner at one point and helped out. By the time I turned around to look at my face, I said “You should see the other guy.”
We applied the blood and I ended up looking like this, except not instagrammed…
We shot a bunch of scenes that day. The beaten up clone walking in, giving his speech, the fall, him on the ground, the two shot with the clone in the kitchen, and the fighting scene.
At one point, for the fight scene, I had to leave the apartment and go down to the first floor of my building, in a maintenance tunnel. We took the elevator. The doors opened and I looked at a bunch of people. Julie was there with me. I said “Don’t ask.”
Fake blood everywhere. Clean-up was a bitch.
I was so happy we were finished, I got to work straight away.
I pieced it together, did some color correcting, and, to make a long story short (too late), I was unhappy with the make-up. Not the job that Julie did. Shit, she did a great job. The problem was, the later takes were the best takes, and I had wiped quite a bit of the blood away, and it didn’t look right. The other indicator was, my mouth was clear of blood. And it looked fake.
The fight scene was done. Looked great. The two shot looked great. I needed to re-do the entrance and the exit of the beat up clone. OK.
So, the following day I re-did the make-up on my own. Thank god I paid some attention to Julie. I put on a base, darkened as I went, and then added some latex to my lips, my eyebrows, and my nose. What I learned quickly was that the fake blood was not only super sticky, but it dried quickly. So did the chocolate syrup (I mixed the two. Since I would be crushing the blacks a bit and upping the contrast, I thought darkening the blood would be helpful). But, on the latex, it stayed fresh.
Shot the new footage, cleaned up, again, and pieced it together. MUCH BETTER.
Except now, the make-up didn’t match with the two shot.
I sat back from the computer and said “Karen’s going to kill me.”
I did the make-up a third time. But this time I had to do it all over, except, thankfully, the fighting scene.
I went overboard on the make-up for the third time. More blood, and I also added the bruised knuckles. I chugged on the bottle of blood and chocolate syrup between takes and swished it around.
What’s funny is that, the “I’m making a mess” line wasn’t in the script. I spit out the blood, resigned that I might have to do another take, and looked at what seemed like a gallon of blood and chocolate and spit on the floor, and reacted accordingly.
I finally pieced the project together after cleaning up a final time. What was originally a challenge to myself ended up being a really neat project.
I finish the edit. I finish the color correcting. I do some foley and help along the sound mix a bit. And then I see it.
The fucking book. The goddamn fucking book. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States.
I sit back from the computer and I go insane. I couldn’t possibly have thought this was a good idea. I didn’t write that book. I know why I chose it. I had a good reason. But… you can’t be serious.
I pick up my computer, ready to throw it out my 6th floor window.
Now, it might not seem like a big deal, but if you want to show your film in festivals, one of the things that has to be assured is that you have permission to use music or a book cover or anything else copyrighted. Because no one wants to get in trouble with the owner of said copyright, and that’s usually a corporation who has a lot more money than, well, just about everyone.
I go into full panic mode. I start burning incense and I purchase a live chicken to sacrifice.
I tell Julie we’re fucked. She says “Calm down.” It’s not working.
She’s saying we’ll be fine, but I know she doesn’t think that. She’s just trying to keep me from doing something rash. If the fake blood was a bitch to clean up, chicken blood was going to be worse. First, the smell…
I say “I have to re-shoot.” I typed it out and felt like this was the project that would simply never end.
I decide to get in touch with the Howard Zinn website. I let them know about the project, and I ask permission to use the book. Then I go to the Harper Collins site. I find a section on permissions. Both reading and prop use. I fill out the online form and the goddamn site is broken.
Seriously. I try again and again and again and the form will not go through. I call Harper Collins and I get to a voicemail. I leave a message.
I look at my living room. I have to re-shoot the entire seated clone. Four camera movements, and I have to rent the goddamn lens again. I’m broke, this project is costing me money I don’t have.
I put a hold on the lens. The chicken is clucking around the apartment. I’m not sure if it can read my mind or not, but it seems quite calm.
I decide that maybe, since I have to re-shoot, maybe I’ll make the clone on the couch an alcoholic. That means acting like one. I have no idea how to do that, but I’m in such a state that I think it’s a great idea. Sure, I can do that. Why not. How about heroin?
The next day I try Harper Collins again. The site won’t work. I call. Yes, we know the site doesn’t work. Yes, we do allow for prop use. Submitting a form takes four to six weeks for approval.
Four to six… are you kidding? This is a goddamned emergency! Festival deadlines are coming up for chrissake.
I leave the apartment, afraid of what I might do.
The next day I get the lens, I head home, and I make a slew of all new mistakes while shooting the new footage. I couldn’t believe it. For one, I zipped up my hoodie I was wearing. A dark blue hoodie, on a black pull out couch. I looked like a disembodied head, floating.
The bottle of bourbon I put in the background made no sense unless I grabbed it and drank from it. Trying to block that shot was a fucking nightmare.
We were definitely having chicken for dinner that night.
I dumped the footage and looked at it with an awe reserved for the truly shocked and disappointed. I leaned back, I swear to God, ready to just lose my mind, and the phone rang.
I sat up and looked at the phone. The caller ID said HARPER COLLINS.
I answered the phone. A lovely woman who I must put in my will said “Hi John, I got your message. Sure, you can use Howard Zinn’s book in your short as a prop. We have a prop fee of $200 -”
She laughed. We talked for a bit, and she got my address.
She sent out permission paperwork. I signed it and sent them a check and was able to keep the original footage, thank god.
And that brings us pretty much up to date. We were official selections to both the Soho International Film Festival, and the Hoboken International Film Festival. I created an intro for Soho, you can see it here:
5AM Soho International Film Festival teaser from John Painz on Vimeo.
And the updated trailer for Hoboken:
5AM Trailer from John Painz on Vimeo.
Thanks very much for reading this tome. Julie and I had such fun shooting this project. I cannot wait to share the new project we’re working on with you. It’s going to be a blast!
All the best,