Song “Are You Real” written by Moony and Opaque. www.bandopaque.com
The Story of Short Notice
Short Notice came about at short notice. Over the past year I’d been talking to my friend and sometime muse Clare Kerrison about trying our hands at an improvised series. I’m a big fan of Larry David, and had watched several interviews in which he talked about his way of working, and I really wanted to give it a go. Plus Clare is an amazingly gifted improviser as well as actress, and I wanted to capture her work.
Pressure of work on The Trouble with Dot and Harry and then Ren, amongst other things, had kept me from committing to the project. But then two movies came out that really inspired me. Birdman was probably my top film of the last year. I loved everything about it, but not least the weird, floaty over the shoulder shots which followed Michael Keaton as he moved around the theatre interiors and streets of New York. It felt like I was a bird flapping just above his left ear, with a gopro clutched in my claws. I loved this perspective, and it got me thinking. What if an amateur filmmaker wanted to “feel the experience” of improvising? What if he was onstage with Clare while she did a show?
The second film that inspired me was Boyhood. Boyhood felt improvised, though it wasn’t, because though it was shot over so many years, the dialogue was always topical and relevant to the ages and stages of the characters. I also loved the way the scenes stood on their own. They were each perfect little short films, that added together had additional impact, but were fascinating by themselves. It was like looking at a family scrapbook, and hearing the story behind each picture as you went.
When I said series, I should make it clear that I have no ambition to make a sit-com. By series, I always meant a series of connected short films, that followed some of the same characters over time. But for a no budget indie filmmaker, that can be difficult to organise. So the fact that Linklater showed this could be done on a kind of “as and when” basis, as people moved through their lives, was inspiring to me.
All of this inspiration happened at the same time as Clare announced that, due to family commitments, she was moving from Cambridge. The whole improv and theatre community here would feel her loss, and I decided that no matter what, now was the time to act on this project.
I found three great collaborators from the Ren shoot. Hermes Contreras, a recent graduate from the Anglia Ruskin Masters in Filmmaking, agreed to DP. I met Hermes when I helped his fellow student out on a filmed assignment – we played judges in an X factor style competition for actors. Hermes was a bit of a TV idol in his home country of Venezuela, and I was immediately struck by this tall, dark and handsome young man who also had a very serious and professional attitude to his work. He came onboard Ren as a behind the scenes cameraman and assistant editor, and also ended up helping with the catering as well as recruiting costumiers and other crew.
Sound man Ash Maharaj also joined us from Ren. He was everybody’s favourite crewmember for the series. Unfailingly willing and supportive, he’s also hilarious and has a unique way of looking at things.
My final Ren alumni was Kate Madison herself. It’s little known to her fans, but Kate’s a great improviser, and I originally asked her to act in the piece, but when Ash was unfortunately only available for one of the three days we shot, Kate also took over that job and also operated her own Canon 7D as a second camera on the first day of the shoot.
This was the plan. Shoot one of Clare’s solo performances, of an improv format she calls Infernal Recall. She tells a story, audience shouts out words, she must use them, and justify them, in the story. The monthly improv show Unscripted Underground agreed to let us shoot during their performance on the 27th of March so we’d have a built in audience. Then I wrote an outline script, setting out some possible scenes that might take place between Clare and other guests after the show. This I only shared with the DP – on the set, without telling Clare, I gave each improviser a subtext and a bit of info (like, she’s going to LA to be in a movie). Sometimes I also gave them a character trait (you take filmmaking very seriously) or a line I wanted them to include.
We shot each scene with three cameras – Kate’s Canon 7D, Hermes’ Canon Mark III and the GoPro on James’ head. My plan was to use the GoPro for Clare’s closeups, the 7D for the other person’s closeups, and the Mark III for the wide. We shot multiple takes of each scene, with a bit of direction in between from me. In the edit, I used the best take as my master but included bits from others if I particularly liked them or felt they made a story point.
The story developed over the three days of the shoot. Some of my original ideas stayed in, others were eliminated, and new ideas were added as scenes evolved from the improv. It was one of the most enjoyable shoots I’ve directed – rough and ready, moving quickly from scene to scene, and rarely more than 3 takes for any scene.
About the Cast
New Zealander Clare Kerrison trained in drama and improvisation in New Zealand and Canada before coming to the UK in 2009. Once here, she was instrumental in re-establishing a community improv scene in Cambridge, teaching for scriptwriting forum WriteOn and eventually founding a number of groups including Cambridge Improv Factory and the Improv Massive of Cambridge. She starred in two other short films I created, Festival of Bruce, in which she plays Hera, queen of the Greek gods, and Gone Midnight, a comedy based on a script by Paul Richards. She has recently relocated to Gloucestershire.
James Stedman, Carla Keen, Mark Whitehouse and Jon M. Thomas are members of Cambridge Improv group Riot at the Bus Stop, which performs regularly at CB2 Cafe and The Boat House, Cambridge. James and Carla are also members of musical improv group Paper Planes, for which Carla is a creative director, while Jon also runs the monthly Unscripted Underground shows at which Short Notice was filmed.
Alan Hay performs regularly in theatres in Cambridge, London and annually at the Edinburgh Fringe, with projects including musicals, plays, short films, sketch shows and improvised comedy. He is one of the producers of the Between The Bars Theatre Company and a creative director of the Paper Planes improvised musical troupe. He plays the part of Torberry in the upcoming fantasy adventure webseries, Ren.
Vaughan Allanson is a member of the Cambridge Improv Factory, which performs regularly at CB2, Lodestar Festival and for private commissions.
Robert Jezek is a professional actor who has appeared in a number of TV shows and films, including Event Horizon, Last Chance Harvey, and The 51st State. He is also well known for his performances as Frobisher in the audio versions of the Dr Who series. http://www.robertjezek.com
Original artworks by David Nunnery and Adam Rowney