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Get it right, get it fast: The imperfect art of guerrilla filmmaking

Meet Hannah and Mackenzie, two women standing at the intersection of legacy media and new tech, making “Internet odysseys,” like their new Web series Whatever, Linda, alongside TV and films. In their first monthly column, they take us behind the scenes of their latest film shoot in Miami.

As for Whatever, Linda, the series remains in a holding pattern. After a distribution deal was offered, the initial plan was to release the remaining episodes (the first is streaming exclusively at tgam.ca/whateverlinda) in December. But in an ever-changing industry, some things never change: The deal is still in the works, and so Linda waits.

What a night! #thedefinites #artbaselmiami @hannahshazaam @redheadinthecity

A photo posted by Brittany Allen (@britt_audrey_allen) on


Before the party, we’d been given clear instructions by the organizer, a film guy himself: Keep our crew lean, be discrete and expect no special treatment; this was not a film set, it was a party.

And so in a graffiti-filled, barbed-wired event space in Miami’s hip Wynwood art district, amongst 1,500 partygoers enraptured with a hip-hop DJ and his 10-person entourage, our two-person crew did their best to navigate camera and mic through the pulsing crowd, all the while keeping on the trail of our four-person cast of fictional revellers.

That was how we shot our party scene: guerrilla-style, an approach that pretty much typified our week in Miami shooting The Definites, our company Aberrant Picture’s first feature-film co-production. At 4 a.m., with the party finally over, we shook off our sweat and asked ourselves, how did we manage to get here?

Just three weeks before, we didn’t think we would make it to paradise. How were we going to shoot permit-less and union-less, Canadians in a foreign country, with a harried timeline and no budget in sight – on top of full-time jobs on Orphan Black and Whatever, Linda duties? Why put our professional and personal relationships – and our nascent reputations – on the line?

Doubt was beginning to creep in on our ambitions. Our title seemed laughably ironic; nothing felt definite so far.

Why Miami? Why keep going? Because we believed in the story: An advertising account manager, Anna, abandons her long-term boyfriend and heads off to a libidinous, party-filled weekend at Art Basel, the city’s annual four-day, heat-drenched art fair. When her younger sister crashes the party, Anna is suddenly forced to face the grief that’s overwhelming them both, and confront her own pathological self-deception.

Within the themes we were looking at – denial, sexual desire, self-reflection – Art Basel provided the essential dichotomy between art and advertising, depth and surface, beauty and commerce. (And sometimes the ideas co-mingle. Where else can a piece of art like Damien Hirst’s White Cube sell for $7-million?) We were steadfast that this was where our movie had to play out.

Stubbornness, however, begets risk-taking. We had to confront the oppressive bedfellow to creativity (hello, fear) and choose to say yes, no matter the obstacles.

Once we made this decision, the stars aligned and the world started saying yes back. We managed to secure the media accreditation that would allow us to shoot within Art Basel, finished rehearsals via Skype with our far-flung actors, and found the executive producers who would financially back us for the gear rentals, accommodations and plane tickets. With everything booked, there was no turning back.

Standing next to the TRUTH and that guys in the white shirt #artbasel #TheDefinites #filmmaking #MIAMI #ABM

A photo posted by Hannah Cheesman (@hannahshazaam) on


In Miami, we drew on the guerrilla-filmmaking skills we’d picked up while making Whatever, Linda (we shot exteriors on the down-low in New York and Brooklyn). But shooting without a full set of permissions is a high-stakes gamble, especially when filming abroad and one of your main characters is the city itself.

On the day we shot at Art Basel proper, we eked past security with our media passes and confidently switched on our camera and boom mic. But just as quickly, we began to draw attention. Onlookers asked if they could get an autograph from Taylor Swift, since one of our actresses bears a faint resemblance; attendees photo-bombed the frame; and our cameraman almost ran into a large, balancing structure, drawing the notice of festival organizers – exactly what we didn’t want.

One of our producers acted fast, assuring them we were journalists filming a “digital documentary.” The rest of the crew didn’t waste a second either. In the four minutes it took to talk them down from kicking us to the curb, we got a gallery manager to sign a release form and shot an ad-libbed scene in a roped-off section containing several $5-million Picassos.

This was how we approached almost the entirety of our in-situ shooting: Keep rolling at all times possible, and for as long as possible; responsive guerrilla-filmmaking at its best.

And that's a wrap on Miami. Time to take off. #thedefinites #miami #artbasel #ArtBaselMiami #guerrillafilm

A photo posted by Mackenzie Grace (@mackiegd) on


We planned, however, to shoot our most crucial scene at a controlled location, where we could manipulate the environment, the lighting, even the time we could afford it. We spent three hours getting the film’s climax just right, an emotionally charged, nude pool scene where the sisters finally confront one another after a drug-addled party night. It was raw, intense and utterly moving, and we could never have captured all that in a guerrilla style.

Imperfect but interesting is how we’d describe The Definites so far. Our calculated risks paid off. We travelled with two cameras and five actors to one of the world’s largest arts festivals, infiltrated it, and got most of the footage we wanted. In spite of everything that should have made this impossible, we managed to land on the side of “we can do this,” because we simply did.

But we’re not done doing. Our second phase will see acts one and three of the film being shot in Toronto. Then there’s editing and rewriting the story based on what’s in the can from Miami. And we haven’t even got around to fundraising. But the electricity of the first shoot is something we’d never experienced, and we want to carry that feeling through every project moving forward.

At least that much remains definite through all of this.

Aberrant Pictures made half a feature. And we aren't happy about it at all. #miami #thedefinites #takeusback #ArtBaselMiami #artbasel #southbeach #summer #producers #guerrillafilm

A photo posted by Mackenzie Grace (@mackiegd) on


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