Monday, 25 February 2013

Location Scout/Assistant Director Jesse MacLean talks about his CHARLIE ZONE experience

As our Line Producer said, "Every production needs a Jesse MacLean on it". This week's guest blogger  started as a Location Scout and before the end of the shoot, every department was fighting over him. Why?  He's a hard worker, a thinker and a doer. Not to mention a talented theatre director, and a new dad as well! Here are some of Jesse's perspectives on the "Making Of Charlie Zone".  

JM:  It’s early morning, late January. Location scouting for Charlie Zone. Pick up the director Michael Melski to drive through a Halifax snowstorm, searching for the perfect beat-to-hell house to serve as the beat-to-hell drug den in the film.

He piles into the car. Melski has been up most of the night, cranking out a new rewrite of the script. He buys the Tim Horton’s. We slide through the streets of Halifax and Dartmouth, eyes peeling back as the coffee kicks in. He discusses new twists and turns in the plot, while everyone else was asleep, he was up typing, furiously it seems, by the sounds of the daily evolution the script is undergoing.

We don’t have a huge budget, but we call in as many favours as we can. Making a movie in your hometown reminds you of how many people you know. It’s no-holds barred. I scour classified ads, and drive slow down every street in the city. Melski is relentless in his pursuit of the right location for each shot. We gain access to some of the sketchiest properties in the city. We step carefully through abandoned warehouses, we learn the story of long-dead businesses and avoid the rusty remains. We talk our way toward the top, we take off our shoes and get grilled on our cinematic intentions in multi-million dollar homes with vast oceanside vistas.

We find the perfect movie crack house in a rather notorious area. It’s for sale. It’s been on the market for months. Our Real Estate agent connect tell us we may be able to offer the owners some money to rent the property for a few days of filming, as she thinks it won’t sell any time soon. Why? Because our perfect movie crack house, up until it’s recent tenants moved out... was a REAL crack house!

We drive on. More coffee, we find a view of the cityscape that needs to be in the movie. The omnipresent red light on the top of the director's phone flashes again. He responds to an email. Or three. The other producers have casting news. Or funding news. Or notes on the new draft. 

End of scouting day. Sifting through hundreds of pictures taken at the possible locations, searching for the perfect angle. Burning up the phone lines, lining up new leads. 

The feel of a movie depends so much on it’s locations. This one has got to feel like the Halifax we don’t know, the dark gritty one bubbling under a surface, the one most people probably prefer to have swept under the rug.  

MM: Thanks Jesse. It was hard work but fun. It was great to watch you grow into such an all around on-set presence. You and all the crew are heroes of CZ. Congrats on being a new father and for helping bring this film to life as well. Hope to do it again soon!

CHARLIE ZONE opens this Friday night in Halifax, Toronto, and Sydney. 

TO BUY TICKETS NOW in Halifax, please go to: 

Tickets onsale ONLY AT THE DOOR at the Royal Theatre in TO: 

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Film Composer John W.D. Mullane on 'The Making Of Charlie Zone"

When you see our film, you'd never guess it was only the first feature film music score by composer John W.D. Mullane, also the front man of excellent rock band In Flight Safety. What an inspired job he did. Evocative, driving, stirring and touching. Everything you'd want a dramatic thriller score to be. 

Here are some of John's insights on putting together this essential piece of the CHARLIE ZONE puzzle. 

JWDM: I have to admit Charlie Zone was a mighty daunting project for me. I had previously scored a whole whack of short films, had written stuff for a few ad campaigns and some other bits and bobs but had never done a feature film. It turns out that thrillers have music basically through the entire film. I think my ignorance to the sheer size and time commitment made it possible to 'start' it. I think we had about 45 music cues by the end of it. I approached the score much like I approach other musical projects. I looked for a palette, motivations on why things would sound they way they would, and for some 'rules'. Then I worked within those rules. The rules were the instrumentation and style that became Charlie Zone. I probably sent 30-40 sound ideas or part ideas before we started locking in actual music cues. It's similar to how I would conceive the idea of a new In-Flight Safety record.

MM: What were some of your film and musical influences on Charlie Zone? 

It was definitely a hodge podge of influences that lead me to the palette of sounds and styles that would make up the score. There are some subtle references to Jon Brion (you can hear the Jon Brion- style piano on Lily's theme, it sort of dances between two keys oddly but hopefully beautifully). I also felt compelled by 90s thrillers such as Heat. The synth loops, drum machine percussion, and pulses. These sounds, to me, seemed very 90s and seemed to marry well with the picture. The main theme was influenced by Arvo Part's minimal style- a hyper minimal piano melody is something I hadn't tried before.

Last but not least, I couldn't leave out Asche and Spencer who did the score for Monster's Ball. That was huge for me as a teenager, and I tried to evoke its nightime feel.

MM: How did your background as a musician or as a film afficionado inform your process?  

JWDM: My wife and I watch a lot of film and television. I mean, a lot. We fill a lot of our down time watching whatever we can get our hands on. It ranges from Sleepaway Camp II to bingeing on shows like The Killing or Six Feet Under. I have been obsessed with films since I was very young, in particular I have been obsessed with cinematic music. I think my knowledge of anything from 1980 and up really helped me when I was generating ideas. For example, I don't have as vast knowledge of movies from the 60s. but I did watch just about every thriller that came out in the 90s. I think that's where Charlie Zone benefitted.

MM: What were some key musical themes or motifs, or instrumentation that you chose?

JWDM: It took a while to nail down the instrumentation for the score. We ended up using a ton of piano. Here I was thinking I was being hired for my ability to play atmospherics on guitar. I think I picked up the guitar twice. One when Avery is home and outside wandering, and another time I used a cello bow across the strings. That was it. The score is rife with violas, piano, and synthesized drones, and loops. We needed tension, but we needed tension that had some humanity. So sparse piano became thematic. The main Charlie Zone theme used 4 piano notes. But the opening theme to the film encompassed sub themes from other characters. So rather than write this one-off piece that opened the film, we introduced 3 character themes that we would touch on later.

CLICK to hear the compelling Charlie Zone- Main Theme 

MM: What were your favorite scenes or pieces of score? 

JWDM: My favourite scene is when Avery and Jan have their "dad and daughter" moment in the motel. I wrote a piece of music that I think help transition them from adversaries to two people who were now  looking out for one another. I was also really happy with the main theme of the film. It's 4 diads on piano that took me 18 hours to come up with. So simple, but I feel like there are exactly what the film wanted.

CLICK to watch the turning point scene.

.MM: John, thanks again for your work in this film. Yet another example of the Halifax film and music community rocking in collaboration. The whole team of CHARLIE ZONE thanks you for your valued contribution, and best wishes on the new In Flight album! (Side note: I heard some rough tracks while we were working on the movie, and I'd say it's gonna be their best yet.) 

CHARLIE ZONE opens on Mar 1! Get your tickets now at 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Award-Winning DOP Christopher Ball C.S.C. on "The Making Of Charlie Zone"

CHRISTOPHER BALL:  For me, Charlie Zone started with a phone call from Michael Melski… a few years ago now… after we had completed Growing Op.  It was a totally different film from the comedy of Growing Op, much darker and very sinister.  Over the course of development, and the realities of budgeting independent film, the original concept of a road movie changed and it would now take place entirely in Halifax - Dartmouth.  Thinking back, that strong sense of place probably makes the suspense and drama work and gives it a claustrophobic feel….the characters hiding in dark rooms and back streets, closed off from the world we generally know as Halifax.   It also allows for social commentary about the underbelly of Halifax, a city seen mostly as a scenic, friendly tourist destination.  For the most part it is that, but there is a dark side to the city which is rarely explored. 

MM: One of the storyboard/reference images we used from the film BLOOD SIMPLE. Chris and I loved the shadowing here, how the visuals suggest a character is dislocated, holds a dark secret.

MM: The shot of Amanda Crew as Jan where we employed the reference. It was a day shot and we liked it subtler.

CB:  When Mike and I met after the production draft of the script, we both agreed on the overall look and approach.  I remember saying that the typical way to shoot this type of story would be to go for a desaturated, grainy, mostly handheld approach, even doc/reality style…but I didn’t feel it was right for the script.  I felt that the intensity of the drama needed an intensity of look, and I felt that the “normal” approach of shaky handheld and stark lighting would weaken it rather than strengthen it.  So instead we went for a very vibrant colour palette and a much more fluid and intense camera approach.  The camera is very much inside the heads of the characters and inside the spaces, gradually revealing the environment as the story is told and revealing it from the character’s point of view.  

CB: The visual approach is contemplative, intense and deliberate.   Colours are vibrant, however the colour palette is not “pretty”, but features oppressive off-colour hues of red, sodium vapour amber, green and steel blue.  Daylight only seeps into spaces through cracks and curtained windows, especially in Jan’s world, and there is a lot of dark, unseen space.  The exception to this is the Millbrook Reserve, the only “escape” in the film, where natural light is allowed back in and a more soothing colour palette is introduced. 

CB: The film was a huge challenge to shoot.  The realities of low budget filmmaking in Canada are intense, with ridiculously short schedules and very little money.  Canadian Films compete with American low budget films that have triple the budget and double or triple the schedule, and we still manage to come up with good competitive product….but it is a challenge and a lot of sacrifice on the part of crews, suppliers and the producers.  Charlie Zone was shot in 20, ten-hour days (12 inclusive of wrap and precalls) and one 2nd unit day.  Features like this in the US or Europe would have a 40 day schedule.  It was a very location-intensive shoot, with lots of unit moves and technical complications.  We were lucky to assemble a solid crew, however, and pulled it off with mostly humour and fun and only the occasional frustrating moment here and there.  I still think of Mike and I driving around Halifax and over the bridge with a complete camera package hanging off the front of my little Imprezza for the 2nd unit travelling shots, or the challenge of lighting up the entire MacDonald bridge, a parking lot and a playground for a night shoot with a small crew and a tiny equipment package; all in the last four hours of a busy day with several other locations. But we did it.
 A very talented and dedicated cast also made it easier for us and I’d say, in general, we pulled of a lot of miracles!  The icing on the cake was the Quadruple Awards, including cinematography, at the Atlantic Film Festival, an event I was actually able to attend (I am usually working during festival time).  The audience reaction was also fantastic, and I have heard many good comments since.  Here’s hoping for a good theatrical release..another big challenge in Canada…but please come on out as it is a film worth seeing on the big screen!! 

MM: Thanks Chris, you're a talented guy and a pleasure to collaborate with. So deserving of the award you won for this film. Best of everything and we'll do it again soon! (Hopefully with more $)  

Saturday, 2 February 2013


"The end of a picture is always the end of a life." 
Sam Peckinpah. 


The beginning of prep, March 2011. I am so sick that I have no voice in our first production meeting. 

My first AD Mary Reynolds brings tea with honey but it doesn't help much. A voice can't heal if it doesn't rest. There is no rest during prep. One of the crew suggests I sound like Tom Waits after a bender with Bukowski. Good one. By the end of week two, my nasty cold has jump-cut into a nasty flu. Through congested eyes, I see an amazing crew and cast is coming together. I communicate with DOP Christopher Ball using a book of images I've been compiling for the past months. And charades. Acting out the shots in tiny rooms of the Roy Building.

Lucky that this is a physical film. 

The consensus is that we can't make this movie with the money we have. 

True to the subject matter, it's going to be a fight all the way. Against time, money, weather, available locations, available crew, scheduling, rehearsals, the unions, flu season. Pretty much everything.   

When there's a great team like this? Never tell us the odds. 

                                                                   Hello from Halifax


Mid-Shoot. Glen has bruised and likely broken ribs from the fight scenes. He keeps going. The Red Camera keeps freezing mid-shot during waterfront exteriors. We keep going. Amanda is so cold she probably wishes she could crawl into a taun-taun and be airmailed back to LA. She keeps going. The material is so emotionally draining. My girlfriend says I wake up shouting 'CUT! Bullshit. Let's go back and do it again.' She's concerned I'm talking about our sex life. Gary Levert cries after the the Russian Roulette scene. Many in the crew cry during Amanda's withdrawal scene. We keep going. Everyone worries about the "Motorcycle through the Door" gag. Everyone, from Props to Transport to Stunts has a solution for it. Together, we all pull it off in two takes. And keep going. Amazingly, we are getting it done, on time and budget. Glen and Amanda are killing this. The supporting cast is delivering just as well. Everyone, from craft to the grips to the producers, are complicit in making that happen.  

But scary Day 10 is coming up. We'll be shooting the ending in just one day, a combination of wide exterior shots and major dramatic interior scenes. A 10-page day. 

AND a blizzard is forecast. Heading our way. And we have zero cover. 

Motorcycle Madness

                                                       Day 4: The Coldest Night of the Year


I've never done a 'making of' blog before. I hope this will be entertaining and revealing somehow, and enhance your enjoyment of the film. So I wonder what should I tell about next? 

The time we shot in the very real and recently-operational crackhouse at Primose/Pinecrest, and how the people and the kids in the hood responded? 

The time several crew and I were almost arrested by the RCMP because a bloodstained Glen Gould decided to wander on a smoke break between takes?

How I hid one of craft's excellent fajitas in my car when I was too wired to eat it during subs, then forgot about it until the smell overwhelmed two months later? (Thanks Rose, and sorry).

There are so many stories. Filmmaking isn't glamorous. This was very hard work all the way. But what a great bunch to play with, and damned if I don't miss everyone just talking about it. I'll tell you about some of them in future posts. 

Let me know what you'd like to hear about. 

Or maybe I'll just surprise you. I do like my twists. 

Best wishes, chat soon-