This is the second in a short series of features drawn from Donovan Wheeler’s lengthy interview with Reparation’s director Kyle Ham and screenwriter Steve Timm. In part one, Wheeler discussed the impact of filming in Western Indiana. In the remaining segments Wheeler will talk with both men about the two-decades they spent bringing the film to life, the challenges modern day filmmakers face in the digital era, and the fundamental themes the two men raise in the movie. In this installment Ham talks about the ups and downs of working with people and inanimate objects on a tight schedule.
by Donovan Wheeler
photos courtesy of Kyle Ham and Red Dirt Pictures
Seventeen years ago, on location for the 1999 production of She’s All That, a colossal mistake “at the gate” risked putting the film behind schedule, and it unfolded (in a literal sense) right in front of Kyle Ham’s eyes.
“We were shooting a soccer scene,” Ham—an associate producer for the movie—recalls, “and we spent all day shooting it. Back then, digital cameras were rare, so we shot this on film and had to wait until the dailies to see the results.”
The dailies. When I was kid it never occurred to me that movie makers could actually see their work on the same day they filmed it. After all, the rest of us had to drop off our Kodak rolls at the Rexall, wait two weeks, and hope that at least half the shots were in focus. Today, the idea of clamoring into a small van, shutting the doors, and rolling footage to check the results seems antiquated. Like writing a term paper on a Smith-Corona. But as Ham settled into the van with his All That production unit, and watched the shadowy sliver of human hair wiggle across the screen, he turned ashen.
“It’s one of the first things you do…you check the gate,” Ham explains. The expression, a studio term commanding the camera crew to inspect the small frame mounting exposed film to the lens, was no doubt uttered before shooting started. Part of the daily minutiae of a movie shoot. So routine that sooner or later, the fella working the lens is bound to slip up. Maybe it was an absence of mind. Maybe the gate looked clear at a glance. Maybe the cameraman’s wife moved out, or mother had died. Whatever the reason, it happened and Ham and company had to make use of a second unit, reshoot the all the footage, and go on.
A generation later the past had to run through Ham’s mind on the eve of shooting his directorial debut, Reparation.
“…one of my very first cast members was a blue 1971 Ford F-100 pickup truck by the name of Ol’ Blue,” Ham said in this piece from MovieMaker Magazine. “Ol’ Blue was my father’s truck and my grandfather’s before that. I learned to drive in it on the farm, just as soon as my feet could reach the clutch. Ol’ Blue has a three-on-the-tree manual transmission—its gear shifter mounted on the column. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.” As Ham would explain, late in the afternoon before shooting, the gear shift linkage, as he put it, “disintegrated.” Rescue came in the form of Reparation’s production designer, Duane Skoog, who walked Ham, leading man Marc Menchaca, and the rest of the team through the involved process of shifting gears from under the truck’s hood.
Donovan Wheeler: So, besides the truck, did you run into any other snags or surprises while shooting the film?
Steve Timm [screenwriter]: We had to make adjustments on site…within seconds of beginning the shoot. We didn’t have the luxury of being able to ‘dress a set’ or take the time to look at a set through the camera for a while.
Kyle Ham: We didn’t have a set dresser. Our art department was the most understaffed on the film…and we had a lot of understaffed departments on this film. Barbara Fields-Timm did the drawings, and that was an amazing, involved job, and then we had Duane.
DW: G. Duane Skoog, your production designer.
KH: Yeah. Normally you’d have a production designer, an art director, two set directors, a buyer, and an on-site dresser. That would be your minimum art department crew for a feature film. We had Duane, and we had Barbara.
DW: That’s honestly a tribute to them then, because the film is visually spectacular.
KH: “They did great work. So many people did. And I really want to take this moment to mention just how hard Jon Huertas worked on this film as well. Not long before shooting, he got married, right after his work for the last season of Castle ended. And on his honeymoon…right? On his honeymoon, he’s calling me saying, ‘Hey, I did some more research about the Air Force…’ telling us how some of the terminology had changed since Steve had originally written the story twenty years ago. He understood how busy we all were, and here he was essentially saying, ‘Here, let me take this work off of your plate.’ So he delved into a great amount of research, and he brought us all these pdfs and images, telling us, ‘here’s where the stripes go’ and things of that sort.”
ST: “He even grew his beard for the part before his wedding. And he also designed emblem for his unit in the film.”
KH: “He was very deeply invested, very early on.”
DW: What was it like working with Marc Menchaca, who plays the leading role in the film?
KH: “When people ask me what he’s like, I tell them he’s a lion. He has this prowling kind of presence about him with an explosiveness which lurks underneath, and you never really know if it’s going to come out. That’s relevant because I knew that Bob, as a character, would be the hardest role for an actor. And there was a point in the rehearsal phase, about a week before shooting started where I could see him kind of circling around the character, but not getting in there until the day we started filming. That’s when he approached me and said, ‘I’m good.’”
DW: Did that make you nervous?
KH: “Marc and I developed a sort of shorthand together which evolved pretty quickly. He would come to me with questions, and we could sort those out right there. Once he sorted out all those issues, all that was left was putting that character in front of the camera. But in those early days, watching him work through all of that did seem like a struggle. So…yeah…I was worried for a little while there.”
DW: What’s it like, as a first-time director, working with experienced actors?
KH: “First of all, it’s a gift to work with these people. Nothing could have been better for me than to work with a cast and core group of people as talented as the ones who helped make this film. Were there times where I was worried about earning my ‘director’s authority’…yeah, I suppose. But my focus was always on keeping things simple, giving the least amount of direction necessary, and letting the actors take it from there.”
DW: How did you respond to suggestions from your actors when they wanted to change something?
KH: “That depended on what the change was. There were days when I got challenged a little bit, especially early on, but I think that’s part of the process. Part of what contributes to the stress which swirls around those moments are the competing interests at play. On the one hand, you want to make this as artistically perfect as you can, but on the other hand you’re always watching the clock. Your time is finite, and your schedule is even more so. That’s definitely an area where I know that I need to improve for the next time.”
DW: [To Steve Timm] What’s that experience like for you? What’s it like to see an actor suggest a change to a story you’ve been massaging inside your head for most of your adult life?
ST: “I’m not new at writing, and I learned a long time ago that everything that I’m doing is pretty much an outline. Then, when some live person comes in, they’re going to layer this thing and add elements to a character which I would have never thought of. One of my favorite lines in the film come from [Jon] Huertas, when he’s explaining the scar and says, ‘Does this mean I’ve got the job?’ then flashes a grin…I could never write that in a hundred years. Everything about that character is contained in that moment. That’s the work of a live actor who has studied the script, and took his character to that next level which only happens when actors and other people get involved.”
DW: One of the things which fascinates me about the film is the pacing. It’s patient. It moves deliberately, and it gives you time to fully digest what’s happening. This is very, very different from all the blockbusters and comedies hitting the multi-plexes. Was this a deliberate decision on your part, or was the pacing somewhat built into the story because of its stage roots?
KH: “I didn’t think of it in those terms, but…most of what I’ve been doing to pay the bills for the last ten or twelve years has been short-form video for the Internet or for sales. Rapid-fire material that’s all just ‘Go, go, go…’ So it’s very refreshing to get to indulge in a little air. ‘Patience’ and ‘Restraint’ became my keywords for this…a sort of mantra. So I kept telling myself, ‘Wait…wait…wait…’ I had to learn to sit back and watch, not hurry things, and see what evolves. This was not what I was used to, and it was a muscle I wanted to exercise.”
DW: Since you edit the film as well, how does shooting in the manner help or hurt when it comes to the final cut?
KH: “That’s the good thing. If you exercise too much patience on a scene you can always trim that down to something more digestible for the viewers. You can’t add extra to scene after the shooting, but you can always take any extra away. My shot list was written with my head thinking as an editor. But on set, of course, I was shredding my shot list every day. I would come in hoping to get a long list of angles and takes…you know… ‘W, X, Y, and Z.’ But on the day of the shooting, I’d only get ‘W’ and ‘X’ and I’d say, ‘Okay…we’re good.’”
If history repeats itself, on whatever scale is applicable, then Ham and his crew are “good” indeed. Almost two decades ago, She’s All That easily survived the lost day’s footage becoming a sleeper hit and one of the last defining teen flicks of the previous century. Presumably then, Reparation’s broken gearshift hardly seems some harbinger of dark times ahead. In fact, if the film’s impressive array of eleven festival awards stands a testimony on the matter, then ‘Ol Blue may have given Kyle Ham the best omen he could have hoped for.