Arts

Blossoming Talent

Behind the scenes at Fire Escape Films

By James MacKenzie | Produced by Forrest Sill | March 6, 2015

Grace McLeod/Chicago Maroon

86 degrees. Everyone acts surprised when reading the temperature in that room, but it shouldn’t really be a surprise. Somewhere close to 20 people are crammed inside a living room and kitchen space designed for three. A set of huge light fixtures gives off heat like radiators. Red gels in front of those lights bathe the walls and people in a red monochrome daydream. This stuffy room is a hot spot surrounded by the coldest winter, a red blip amid the endless white waiting outside. It’s almost a different world. Perhaps this is fitting. The film being shot here, entitled “Age of Blossoms", is like a dreamy shadow of reality more than an accurate representation of it. No one can see it during shooting, but the film will make heavy use of slow motion and feature no sound recorded on set.

It might be for this last reason that production is moving along so smoothly. The various productions of Fire Escape Films, the RSO behind this and numerous other student projects, have historically had more trouble with the sonic elements of film production than the visual ones. Part of the rationale behind director Grace McLeod’s choice to omit dialogue from the film was to circumvent this technical challenge, calling it her “best decision.”

Stillframe of movie
Grace McLeod/Chicago Maroon

But behind this nonchalance is a meticulous attention to detail that has paced the project throughout its nearly six-hour shoots. On the kitchen counter there is a short stack of papers with neat and detailed diagrams for every shot in the entire film. They remain untouched for much of the shoot, but that only seems to indicate that everyone knows their contents already. The actors require little coaching and each shot needs only a few takes before McLeod is satisfied. “I think it’s a reflection of how much time we put into pre-production that it wasn’t crazy on set,” McLeod said. She chuckles, “At least it wasn’t that crazy.” She has been at this for a long time. Though only a first-year, she took a gap year after graduating from high school to participate in a fellowship at the Tribeca Film Festival. She directed a film as part of this program, following others she had made in high school.


“It’s child actors, animals, ping pong balls. Those are the hardest things to deal with.”

This quarter, Fire Escape called on its members to create pastiche projects inspired by the style of famous directors. McLeod wrote and submitted the script for "Age of Blossoms" as a homage to Hong Kong–based director Wong Kar Wai, specifically 2000’s In the Mood for Love ("Age of Blossoms" is itself a translation of the original film’s Cantonese title). Soon enough, McLeod found herself sitting in the director’s chair. Her film is one of five pastiche films and one of the eight overall films produced through Fire Escape this quarter. In recent years Fire Escape has been increasing its resources and membership, giving students opportunities to work on films in many different roles — often with relative newcomers alongside hardened veterans.

Stillframe of movie
Grace McLeod/Chicago Maroon

McLeod borrows several visual elements from Wong’s film in areas ranging from the rich colors to the film’s slow frame rate. The film itself crosscuts between two parties: one a typical if decidedly red-hued college apartment party, the other a children’s birthday party. This juxtaposition requires the crew to transform the room into yet another strange space. Off came the red coverings, into boxes go the prop bottles of liquor, and out came the cone hats and birthday cake. Soon, fistfuls of candy were being thrown around the room. These were among the more technically challenging shots to complete, along with several of a beer pong game where the balls proved uncooperative. As a crew member retrieved a bouncing one with some difficulty, director of photography Keegan Morris grinned and said, “It’s child actors, animals, ping pong balls. Those are the hardest things to deal with.”

Stillframe of movie
Grace McLeod/Chicago Maroon

Like McLeod, producer Sofia Butnaru, and much of the cast and crew, Morris is a first-year but still looks confident on set. In high school, he would regularly work on student video projects and even occasionally made videos instead of papers for class projects. In some sense he is a triggerman, framing and filming shots that have been pre-planned, but in between takes he was constantly in dialogue with McLeod over possible revisions, both technical and creative. He was the first to see a stray shadow that would interfere with a shot. He was often the first to propose a correction. One shot features a close-up of actor Eric Kirkes, but his face was not well lit and space was too tight for a proper light fixture. Morris suggested the shot be changed so that Kirkes looks down at his phone, the light of which will illuminate his face. They try it, and McLeod later calls it her favorite shot of the film.


“I went all the way to Party City to get this beautiful pink cupcake piñata that I wanted to be this crown jewel of the film.”

But once all the footage was taken and the equipment packed up, there was only so much that could be done about a shot gone wrong. Among the casualties was McLeod’s most prized prop. “I went all the way to Party City to get this beautiful pink cupcake piñata that I wanted to be this crown jewel of the film,” said McLeod. But alas, an at first unseen pair of hands of a crew member holding the piñata in place were just inside the frame and had to be cropped in postproduction, much to McLeod’s dismay. “You see it...but the top part of it is kind of cut off.”

" Once she began editing the film, McLeod was forced to make many more tough decisions. Slow motion is integral to the film’s style, but it led to an initial cut of the film because it was twice as long as intended and monotonous in pacing. The majority of the shots in the film had to be shortened to some degree, leaving McLeod in a cycle of editing the footage and showcasing it to close friends to put together a coherent film. “My concern was asking people, ‘Do you know what’s going on? What do you think this is about?’ And finally on my fifth or sixth round people starting giving me the same answers so I felt good about that.”

Stillframe of movie
Grace McLeod/Chicago Maroon

Now the cameras and lights are all safely back in Logan, and most of the cast and crew are studying for finals. The apartment has returned to a comfortable room temperature, with natural light coming in from covered windows instead of red-tinted spotlights. But that miniature world made in there still exists. Now it will just be on a movie screen.

“Age of Blossoms”, as well as seven other new Fire Escape productions, will be screened at the Max Palevsky Theater in Ida Noyes next Thursday at 5 p.m. Admission is free.