Laboratory Conditions was the first screenplay written by Academy Award nominated screenwriter Terry Rossio while attending college at California State University, Fullerton. He read a newspaper story citing an offer of ten thousand dollars from some rich guy, to anyone who could prove the existence of a soul. A group of graduate students in Arizona took him up on the challenge. Terry thought, wow, there's an ideal concept for a film: explore big, universal ideas of life and death in an intimate setting.
The story's medical setting appealed to director Jocelyn Stamat, herself a licensed otolaryngologist and graduate of Duke Medical School. Stamat stole a page from Hitchcock and insisted on extensive preparation and storyboarding every shot prior to production. I called in favors from professional actors, and Jocelyn supervised a table read of the screenplay which we held at the conservatory where my wife teaches, Gary Spatz’s The Playground. The audio from that read was then used to cut together an animatic.
The team wrote down our A-list dream cast and one of my oldest LA friends (Casting director Michelle Lewitt) came on board to handled the delicate process of making offers to high profile stars. Michelle helmed a full audition session for the supporting roles as well. In a few cases, actors we knew nailed the part, and we assembled a great mix of new faces and known friends, which was crucial when it came to handling the pressure of knocking out too many setups in too short a time.
Marisa Tomei was at the top of Jocelyn’s list to play Doctor Holloway. Her team came back with a yes upon reading the screenplay. A face-to-face meeting in Beverly Hills offered an exciting opportunity to hear Marisa's plans for her performance.
I had met Minnie Driver while working at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. She was walking down the stairs of the Gibson Guitar gifting lounge that I helped run that year. I thought it would be neat to say a quick hello, and tell her how much I enjoyed an interview she gave at SAG a year prior. Quickly after I said hello to her and mentioned SAG, an event staff person tried to pull her away, saying, “Minnie, we don’t have time for this.” Minnie’s response was memorable and direct. She turned to that person and said, “Don’t ever interrupt me when I’m speaking to a fellow actor.” She then turned back to me, like she had all the time in the world and said "I am so sorry for that, what were you saying dear?" We ended up having a great conversation that led to her to invite me to her gig later that night, where she demonstrated she is also a talented musician. I wrote Minnie a letter reminding her of that encounter, Michelle forwarded her the script with an offer letter, and Minnie said yes in one business day. Kismet.
With our leads in place, I worked hard and fast to secure the crew, which we accomplished exclusively through referrals from friends and colleagues and individuals I had hired for previous projects. Our requirements were simple: talented professionals who were nice. We hired DP Ben Kutchins off his amazing demo reel and a Skype conversation, as he was shooting in Brazil during our interview process. Production Designer Eve McCarney came to us through Blumhouse producer Jeanette Brill. Our editor, Rob Scheid, was an instructor at UCLA, and had taught a class on Final Cut, attended by Jocelyn and Terry. Wardrobe Stylist Maggie Kaiser worked with me on a Target commercial. Mike Mayers (DP of the West Wing) shot the first feature I produced and offered to run 2nd camera. This was a key position, given our limited shooting schedule. We had to run two cameras continuously, and that's not easy to do, given intricate blocking and lighting schemes.
As I was locking down crew, locations, and equipment, Jocelyn met with AD David Dwiggins to hash out the production schedule. We would shoot all of our principle photography in five days, and then do one day of green screen effects once we had a rough cut assembled.
It took weeks to find our laboratory location. I happened upon ATB Studios in Burbank, which used to be a book bindery, but once business slowed down, the owner, Lucy Arnold, turned it into a film stage. It was ideal. I got to know the place pretty intimately since I decided to sleep there during production. We had about a million dollars of rented equipment stored there during our shoot, so I thought it best to stay and keep watch. It was dark and creepy, but my overprotective nature won out over my fear of ghosts. Oh, also, I saw no ghosts. So you should totally film there.
We filmed four days at ATB Studios and then moved on to the Verdugo Hills Hospital for our last day of principle photography. Luckily, unluckily it rained on us! We were prepared with tents, tarps, umbrellas, boots and plastic for all the equipment. The rain gave the roads and parking lot and other exteriors that neat reflected watered look. Here's where the insistence on hiring a friendly crew made a difference. Despite the wet and cold late night filming, our crew remained positive and professional. My wife even ordered us all soup.
Upon wrap, our editor Robert put together a rough cut of the movie. Once it was in good shape, Jocelyn put together a shot list that included all of our VFX plates and some inserts. We shot our green screen plates at Loyal Studios in Burbank, and then went back to ATB with a skeleton crew of twelve to get a few pick up shots. With our fine-tuned cut completed, we kept the "dream big" tactic alive and asked Hans Zimmer for help with the score. Hans happily connected us with his business partner, Stephen Kofsky who suggested prodigy Andrew Kawczynski. Andrew is an amazing composer whose work emphasizes the storytelling and themes of the film. Nathan Ruyle at This is Sound Design completed the post sound mixing and Leo Marini, at Local Hero, oversaw our conform, color and final outputs.
With Laboratory Conditions, filmmakers Jocelyn Stamat, Terry Rossio and I set out to redefine what was possible in the short film narrative genre. It would start fast, no waiting through credits. It would have the visual style and editing pace of a studio feature. It would present an ambitious unfolding narrative, with twists, turns, sub-plots, not letting up through to the final frame. We would storyboard. We would commission a score. We would hire movie stars. We would design key roles for supporting actors. We'd use visual effects. And we would shoot it all in five days.
Our ace in the hole was this: it didn't matter whether the film was fantastic. Our real goal was to gain experience, with an eye toward shooting an indie feature. We needed to experiment with lenses, rehearse actors, practice using green screen, design an editing workflow, and explore a hundred other special requirements of filmmaking. All on a smaller scale before moving on to a larger project.
Over one hundred people contributed their talents to Laboratory Conditions and Jocelyn, Terry and I learned to work together as a team. Any indie film team can tell you, the road continues long after the film is finished. We are excited for our festival run and our next projects, already underway.