Note: The following is the latest installment in a look at the making of “Target Audience” — a low-budget, independent Asian Pacific American feature film co-directed by Jennifer Phang and Dominic Mah.
It was 6:30 on a Sunday morning when the sleeping Dominic Mah heard his phone ringing. At first, Mah thought it was his line producer calling about some last minute issue since they were scheduled to start shooting at the Van Nuys State Building in a couple of hours.
But instead, it was the police. There was an emergency that required his immediate attention.
The night before, Mah had parked his rented van (full of lighting equipment for the shoot) in front of the State Building. He figured it would be safe to leave it there since the police station is right across the street.
He didn’t figure that the police would call in the bomb squad and set up numerous security checkpoints around the area.
Once the reality of what the policeman was telling him set in, all Mah could think was, “Oh my God, it’s all over! The movie is over!” He recalls, “I told the police that there was only lighting equipment in the van, that we were just shooting a movie.”
Luckily the misunderstanding was resolved (but not before the police caused $800 worth of damage to the rented van by breaking in) and the shoot proceeded as planned.
Mah and his co-director Jennifer Phang can laugh about the incident now. But when you’re filming a low-budget feature, the “we were mistaken for terrorists” story clearly illustrates the fragile line filmmakers must walk to get their vision on screen.
The two started shooting their project Target Audience, a dark comedy about aliens from space who organize focus groups to learn more about human behavior, back in late January and spent the next six weeks (mostly weekends) getting their film in the can.
Now with the craziness of the actual shoot behind them, they are preparing to edit their movie using a new computer — though they are still having difficulties figuring out the system. Hopefully, they will have the film together in time to submit it to the Sundance Film Festival, the mecca for independent filmmakers who hope their projects will bring them fame, fortune or at least the chance to make another film without going into further debt.
Although the rest of their shoot wasn’t as dramatic as the morning they were mistaken for terrorists, trying to make a feature length film with little money presented plenty of other challenges.
“When you don’t have the money to do everything you want, you have to find creative solutions to the problems, but sometimes that actually made the movie better,” Phang says.
At one point in the story, a group of children were needed, but with limited resources, the filmmakers had to find an alternative.
“We thought wouldn’t it be easier if instead of seeing these kids, we could suggest them by just showing bits of them — close-ups of their hands and mouths,” Mah says.
So the two directors found adults (mostly crew members and friends of the crew) who had “childlike” features and shot close-ups of their hands, mouths and other various body parts.
Despite all the difficulties they encountered, both Mah and Phang had a great experience working with the cast and crew to bring their vision to life.
“We had a very supportive cast and crew,” Phang says. “At the end, it was hard to let go.
“That’s why we’re still scheduling re-shoots,” Phang adds. “Any excuse to get everyone together again.”
As soon as they resolve the problems with their new computer, they plan to start editing. First, they will need to log the footage, a long and sometimes boring process where every take that was shot gets digitized into the computer and logged for future reference. Then, Phang and Mah may bring in an editor to help them at a later date.
The Sundance application deadline is in the fall, so they will have the summer to build and shape their vision in peace, barring any further terrorist threats and run-ins with the LAPD.
Philip W. Chung is a writer and Co-Artistic Director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble.