One concept; three filmmakers, three films. Vijaya Cherian goes behind the scenes to find out how Table for Three was produced and the challenges of making an “experimental” film.
A few months ago, three Dubai-based directors came together to discuss the viability of making a film they called Table for Three.
The concept was fairly unique: each of them would work with the same story brief but would have to write up individual scripts and direct a short film based on it. The three shorts would then be integrated into one film.
Conceived by Karim Ghoul, the storyteller in the trio, the idea was to get different directors to tackle the same concept in different ways.
“It was an idea I came up with about a year ago. Two characters meet up in a café, and one tries to shatter the other’s perception of reality. While I was writing it, I came up with several different versions of the same story and thought it might be interesting to see how other people tackled it,” he says.
A few months down the line, Ghoul met with directors Ziad Oakes and Jehad Ghader, who were keen to take the project forward.
The idea was “narrow enough to keep it common but wide enough to explore further”, according to Ghoul.
While all three have previously worked as producers and directors on TV commercials, music videos, documentaries and the like, this was their first attempt at cinema, and more specifically, “experimental” film.
“We were literally just given a simple brief about these characters meeting in a café and how one tries to alter the other’s perception of reality. Each of us then went away and wrote our own scripts. It wasn’t until a week before production that we actually showed each other our scripts and that was mainly to ensure that we didn’t have too much similarity in our storylines. We needn’t have feared; each was radically different and brought their unique directorial flair and style to their scripts,” explains Ghader.
While all three brought directorial skills to the table, Oakes brought something more – his RED ONE camera.
The camera was key to this shoot as there were plans to shoot in 2K, 3K as well as 4K. In addition, each of the films had a slow-motion scene in it and the RED was a perfect fit for this requirement, according to them.
Furthermore, in keeping with the experimental nature of the film, the trio also decided to lay down a set of rules.
“We decided that each of us would have only one day and one location to shoot our film. Secondly, we had one line that was to appear in every film and very late into the production, we also felt that each of us must pay a small tribute to Michael Jackson in our films. Those were the three creative rules; it reminded me of the Dogma 95 movement and was quite challenging to work around,” explains Ghader.
Funding, which is usually the challenge in such projects, was not an issue for the team as several Dubai-based companies came forward to help with portions of the production.
Rental firm, Gamma Engineering supplied the camera equipment and the focus puller while Action Filmz and The Frame chipped in with the lights and SAE institute send along an assistant director, a sound man and a steadicam operator.
One unique aspect of this project was the locale. Two of the three films were shot at The Shelter, a friendly and creative version of the proverbial English coffee house where filmmakers, script writers, designers and other people from various creative disciplines meet. It was at The Shelter that the group met often to discuss their script and share their ideas. It also provided the perfect locale to shoot Table for Three.
This production, however, was not without its challenges, and the rules placed an additional burden on the directors.
Oakes, for instance, was the first in line for production and discovered a day before his shoot that he would have to scout for another location as The Shelter would not be available.
“Eventually, I shot at Shutter Films, a photography studio in Dubai. It wasn’t too much of an issue as my film is mostly shot under low-light conditions. I was especially keen to try the RED under low light because there is a lot of talk about it not faring well in dim lighting. However, the footage I’ve got in low light is remarkable,” explains Oakes.
Oakes’ troubles did not end there. As the DoP on all the three shoots, he had to work around the technical challenges and come up with quick solutions.
“As we were getting a lot of stuff for free, the challenge for me was to make do with what we had and come up with solutions on the spot. For instance, Karim (Ghoul) had shots where he needed a full circular dolly track but we had only a half circle and we had to make do with that,” explains Oakes.
Ghader adds that on the day of his shoot, Oakes had to take his camera apart and re-rig it to accommodate a Steadicam.
“I required a Steadicam for my shoot. One day before the shoot, we discovered that our Steadicam could not handle the weight of the RED so Ziad had to take the camera apart and re-rig it to make it lighter. It was still a bit heavy so the Steadicam shots are not as steady as they should be but looking at the footage now, I realise that those shots work well for my film. I know what I should do the next time I want to create such an effect,” jokes Ghader.
Oakes, who owns the RED and has worked with it for almost a year, luckily knew how to take it all apart.
“The RED is completely modular so it comes with a base and you can build all the accessories around it. In this case, we took out everything and kept only the LCD screen and repositioned the battery,” he explains.
The easy availability of a Steadicam operator for such a small project is also a key indication that people with specialised technical skills are becoming available in the region. Previously, a Steadicam operator in Dubai has been a luxury that only some of the bigger production houses could afford while most others flew them in from other countries.
“SAE provided us with a Steadicam operator. Their field work was awesome and just as good as that of any of the other pros we have worked with,” explains Ghader.
The self-imposed creative rules brought other challenges to the project as well. For instance, Ghader struggled to complete his film in one day and the team is still debating whether to bend the rules to accommodate his excess.
“I had 30 shots to take. It was almost impossible since we were working with amateur actors. The casting started a week before production began so we had only two days to rehearse with the actors. At the end of the day, after 14 to 16 hours of filming, the actors were really tired and I couldn’t hold them any longer so I had to call it a day. We are still discussing whether we can bend the rules,” explains Ghader.
In the meantime, each director is individually editing his footage on Final Cut Pro.
“We plan to do the editing separately and then bring the shorts together. It will be interesting to bring them together as we will have to find a way to link the three,” explains Ghoul.
In the meantime, securing most of the sponsorships, holding casting sessions and catering to the crew’s requirements was the responsibility of Serene Touma, the fourth member of the team, who worked in the background.
“She brought a freshness to the production as she’s new to this field,” explains Ghader.
Unlike most other such projects, the team also claims they will not be considering entering festivals at this time.
“We wanted to do this film because the concept excited us. Although we’re not ruling out film festivals, it’s not the reason for doing this film,” explains Ghader.
Oakes seconds that. “This film allowed us to do things we wouldn’t normally do.”
Ghoul chips in that “weird lighting moments” don’t have to be explained as there’s enough room for poetic licence.
“I have created some lighting in my films that wouldn’t make sense in the kind of work we do normally. These weird lighting moments don’t necessarily make sense but fits the story at that particular moment. The lack of continuity for artistic effect is permissible in such a project,” Ghoul explains.
Ghader emphasises that the key word is “experimental”.
“We wanted to experiment with the film, the technology, the rules and think out-of-the-box. We like to think we are creating a movement here; that Table for Three is a movement.”