A CEMETERY STORY
The movie I just finished co-directing, Be Like Trees, is about a struggling artist in Los Angeles afraid of doing stand up comedy. He finds the courage to do it in an unexpected place, his mother’s death.
The main actor, Brian Drolet, essentially plays himself, as do I, and several other people in the film. Each character in the movie plays an artist attempting to find balance between real life and the calling that takes the form of our loftiest dreams. I play a struggling songwriter who finds the courage to record his first album.
We shot the movie on an iPhone 7 plus, on a shoe string budget of $7,500. The movie mostly takes place in Los Angeles, but we also shot a short series of scenes at the home of Brian’s father in West Palm Beach, Florida. One of the scenes was at the grave of Brian’s mother, Diane Drolet.
Here’s what happened that day that moves me to write …
Diane Drolet died of a rare disease, Scleroderma, a slow, painful illness that hardens the skin and eventually takes the life of its victims. She was an artist, and Be Like Trees is a tribute to her, as well as all artists, including my father, Alan Livingston, who died around the same time Brian’s mother did.
While we were shooting the movie, it seemed that everything about the film was blessed.
Making a feature on an iPhone has distinct advantages, one of which is that nobody knows what you are doing! As a result, time after time, we were able to capture things we could never capture with a large crew. We utilized locations we could never afford, had the mobility to maneuver and keep scenes flowing and textured in real life. In short, we were able to open up a world of possibilities without closing down a city block.
Diane Drolet’s resting place is high up on a wall of graves in a cemetery near Brian’s father’s house. Since Brian was home shooting, we included the scene at the actual grave of his mother.
We arrived at the cemetery on a beautiful December day filled with patchy clouds and sunshine. There weren’t many people around so even if somebody suspected we were filming, we wouldn’t have been disturbing anyone.
The day went by easily, just as every other day making the movie had, until we got to the last shot.
The last shot was something we were saving, because it involved getting up high on top of an overturned trash can to reach up to show Diane’s name in the foreground while Brian walked towards her grave down a long a stretch of sidewalk at the base of the wall. We were worried that some groundskeeper might be lurking about, and he wouldn’t appreciate us turning over a trash can in this serene place of rest. We wanted to shoot it quickly and get out of there.
The sun and patchy clouds had been cooperating with us all day. It was a perfect dance between sunlight, shade, and the words "action" and "cut." But suddenly, out of nowhere, the sun poked out from behind a cloud and reflected hard on the white stone of Diane’s grave. The etching of her name got totally blown out and it was all but impossible to read.
I scanned the clouds to see when the rapport between mother nature and technology would resume, but I could quickly see that the sky wouldn’t be giving us a break anytime soon. The clouds were moving in the wrong direction, spreading out and giving us more sun.
With one shot left, we had been stopped in our tracks.
I wouldn't have thought too much about this, except for the fact that this movie had felt so blessed since we started. We had literally been handed the world on a silver platter every day we picked up the camera. Elizabeth Montgomery’s nose crinkle or Barbara Eden’s nod of the head couldn’t have made the production any easier. And suddenly, in this quiet moment, where we should be running into no trouble at all, we were at a stand still. It was an anomaly.
That’s when I noticed a building close by that was creating a shadow at the base of the wall. I watched it closely and realized that the sun was setting in the right direction. The shadow was creeping towards Diane’s name, and eventually it would provide the shade we needed to get the shot. I figured it would take about an hour.
We just had to wait.
Both Brian and I resided to our fate. But ... What was it? Something was tugging at me. Like a pang of guilt as you pass a stranded pedestrian on lonely stretch of highway, but you keep driving your car without looking back. What the fuck was this? I had to look back. Something was trying to flag me down and get my attention. A thought. No, a question. A question burning through the dimly lit layers of my awareness and demanding to be heard.
Why were we being delayed?
This experience was not cut from the same cloth as the rest of the shoot. This was notable ... In my bones, I just knew it. It was not by chance. There was a reason we had been delayed.
Brian decided to go off and shoot some pick up shots around the cemetery.
I decided to sit down on a bench in front of the wall of graves and have a little talk with Brian's mother, Diane.
I addressed Diane first with a thank you. “Thank you for introducing me to your son,” I said. I had a feeling that she and my father worked together to introduce us, and I wanted her to know how much I appreciated it. I then told her, “I'm proud to know Brian and be his collaborator.”
No response. That was to be expected, I guess.
Then, I turned to the matter at hand, the question that was lingering in my mind that needed answering. I said, “this shoot has been blessed every step of the way. We’ve never had any kind of delay or chink in the armor, not one. Why now?! Why are you making us wait?”
No answer again.
I took a few deep breaths and ran a few scenarios through my cerebral cortex. Maybe there was a groundskeeper ready to pounce on us for turning over a trash can. She was saving us from being kicked out of the cemetery before we got this last important shot!
Naaaah. That didn’t feel right. I knew I’d just come back 20 minutes later and get the shot when no one was around. That was too easy.
I wracked my brain. Nothing was coming.
It wasn't long before I noticed the shadow creeping closer to Diane’s name. This conversation would have to wait. I called out to Brian.
Brian returned, and in another ten-fifteen minutes, to our delight, the shadow crept perfectly into place!
We got the shot.
And we moved on to packing up the car.
But the thought was still lingering. I was convinced we had been made to wait for a reason and I couldn’t figure out why.
As we started to drive towards the gate to leave, I got my answer …
“Stop! Stop the car!!” I started yelling.
“Get out. Take the camera!! Go Go!!!”
Brian quickly jumped out.
I screeched the car into reverse, moved a few hundred feet back, and jumped out.
I ran to Brian, grabbed the camera and screamed, “walk from the grave!!!” Walk from the grave!!!!!” Brian ran back towards his mother’s resting place, turned around, and started walking towards me. I followed him as he approached, then he looked up into the sky and noticed something.
I panned over to see what it was.
Stretching from the cemetery to the heavens, in all its glory, the vision had intensified.
I panned back to Brian. He looked awestruck, lingered a moment, then walked away. I raced around behind Brian, and said, “go back! Stand where you were standing!!” Brian raced back and stared up at the sky again.
I got a master shot.
And then it was over.
The slow realization that we had actually captured the moment on film crept into our reality, and my heart, which was beating fast, finally slowed it’s pace. Brian and I were in shock.
What is it that we witnessed? What was it that we experienced that put my conversation with his mother, Diane, into perspective? What did we see on a patchy cloudy day with no rain, that we caught on camera BECAUSE of that delay? What was it that wound up playing a role in the movie, a mesh of real life and art that could never be manufactured or re-created?
What was the answer to my question?
It literally vanished the moment we captured it ...