Written by William Donaruma
What do you do when you write an original musical production, cast it, rehearse it, but can’t perform it? You make a movie out of it.
Veronica Mansour wrote a musical theatrical production, “An Old Family Recipe,” with Matt Hawkins directing. It was cast and in rehearsals in late 2020, hoping for in-person performances by the following spring. We all know how things went during the pandemic months, so when they realized they couldn’t sing with masks on, and no one could be in an indoor theatre seated together, how could it be filmed to showcase all of the work put into this production? Even a full performance with no audience wasn’t allowed in the venue because of protocols involving cast members especially when singing, so a documentation video wasn’t feasible either.
Matt then asked me about coming in and filming individual scenes and how we might approach that. I didn’t want to simply document scenes from a single point of view, and Matt wanted to maintain the theatrical aesthetic of the performance. “Hamilton” was used as a potential model for when the camera was in the audience and when and how the camera came on stage with the actors. Our approach was to establish a set of rules as to where an audience perspective would be from and when the camera would break the fourth wall of theatre allowing the viewer to experience a moment not possible in a theatrical setting.
We then measured the distance and height of the first row and fifth row of the main theatre. Those positions were marked in front of each set on a black box theatre and stands were used at certain heights for each row to place a dolly track to move horizontally in front of each set. The camera would never move on a Y axis towards the set, since an audience member would never view a performance in that way. Moving side to side just positioned the POV in a seat in that row. An additional camera would pick up fixed shots from what we would refer to as the box seats to the side, but never so close as being on the wing of the stage itself. These would be standard rules of engagement for the production along with a shot that might be from the balcony at a high position from a ladder. We would then look to break those rules during psychological “dream” scenes in a liminal space between the sets.
We also wanted to be able to see the sets side to side and avoid the floor and walls off sets, so shooting wide screen in a 2.40 aspect ratio was the best option, which also saved significant drive space since we were shooting on RED in both 8K on a Helium and 6K on a Komodo. First row was generally shot with a wider angle 18-35mm Sigma Cine lens and the fifth-row perspective was with a 50mm. There were a few times when our main character, Toni, falls into a moment of extreme anxiety and there were some time shifts that, again, wouldn’t be possible in a normal, staged production. After a few conversations with Matt and trying a few things, we went with one take, handheld shots with some visual tricks for editing time shifts. There were also musical moments when we would see from behind sets and a climactic scene when we reveal all of the sets, and Toni’s word, for the first time.
I also worked with lighting designer Kevin Dreyer, to augment the theatrical lighting for digital video and make some changes for composition using mounted lights behind the set for color and balance. Filming in RED raw allowed me to bring down the walls in the background and really work with the color shifts that would happen based upon characters and emotions in any given scene.
All of this took place over the course of eleven days, with COVID protocols in place. Ventilation tests were done with running fans on the floor and masks were only off during performances. The cast was like a sports team, tested on a regular basis and playing together on a stage rather than a court in an arena. Filming began in early March and ran into April with private showings by mid-May. That’s a feature length film shot and edited, to a certain degree, in about two months! The talent of the production team and cast really made this production possible and enjoyable and a new experience translating theatre to film. We now begin a film festival run while we continue tweaking the final cut. Veronica and Matt certainly cooked up a recipe for success that need to be seen and heard by a much larger audience.
William is currently a Professor of the Practice in Filmmaking at the University of Notre Dame and also serves as Creative Director for the Office of Digital Learning. His courses involve narrative digital cinema production as well as visual research in anthropology stemming from his documentary work off the coast of Ireland and local barns in Indiana. He forged careers in academia, cinematography and directing winning awards for both teaching and filmmaking. His work includes a project in Thailand profiling the work of architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu. More of his work and continuing adventures can be seen at williamdonaruma.com.