Writer, editor, and director John-Michael Powell just wrapped production on his first feature film, The Send-Off, which premiered this April at The Cinequest Film Festival. In an exclusive interview, we spoke with John-Michael about his favorite scene from the film and how made it come to life.
PH: Which scene was your favorite to work on in The Send-Off?
John-Michael Powell: They were all fun to work on. And I’m not just saying that. Truly. We were very fortunate in that we didn’t have any nightmare roadblocks during production. Not one. That’s a testament to the crew, the cast, and our amazing producer Undine Buka. She’s Latvian, so you know she means business. She kept our eyes on the prize throughout production, which helped free up every day to be fun and exciting creatively scene to scene.
Alongside that, this film centers on a Hollywood house party. Our energy on set felt very much like what you’d expect of a get-together with friends in that it was light and laid back. I know that’s not what you usually get on a production, but that was how it felt on this one for me. And not that you can lump cast and crew into introverts or extroverts, but I think because our cast was also almost as many as our crew — the party personalities on set balanced out the work personalities. I very much enjoyed the entire production and working with everyone on this film. They’re all family to me now. That said, my favorite scene actually ended up being the dance sequence.
PH: Describe this scene and its significance to the rest of The Send-Off.
John-Michael Powell: Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but the dance sequence in this film can hit people in one of two ways: utterly baffling or utterly cathartic. Whichever way you lean, I think both camps will think it’s off its rocker in an unforgettable way, given the context of the rest of the film.
From a narrative standpoint, it’s a scene that really is meant to poke holes in anyone taking Hollywood too seriously as an institution. That’s really what this film is about. It’s about our propensity as a business to deify the lights and big names on all those big screens (and small), while ignoring the real flaws of the business behind the curtains. We originally had a much more dramatically grounded scene here, and Undine rightly said, “we’ve earned the right to go left when everyone expects us or might even want us to go straight.” I immediately knew she was right. This film is not about doing anything safe. We really took some swings, and the dance sequence is probably our biggest swing of all.
PH: What tools, plugins, or instruments did you use in your production of this scene?
John-Michael Powell: We shot the bulk of the film on the Alexa Amira. At one point, it was going to be a Mini, but my good friend Martim Vian, a very skilled cinematographer in his own right, was kind of enough to let us rent the Amira he owned for the price of a meal. He was also kind enough to let us take out his set of Cooke Speed Panchros. There was one scene we shot on a Sony Venice with Angénieux glass that was a creative choice to mimic the look of Sam Jones’s show Off Camera, but 95% of the film is the Amira/Cooke combo.
As for lighting — we were basically running with as bare minimum a package as you can imagine. Elijah Guess, our amazing cinematographer, used to be a gaffer, so he’s really skilled at making very little lighting go a long, long way. Ultimately, we were a hybrid kind of one-ton G&E mixed with a lot of Home Depot runs to get lamps and bulbs. We placed practicals around to get as much of the room lit naturally and then used lightmats rigged to our ceilings, which were vaulted about 12-20 feet.
PH: What technical challenges did you encounter while working on this scene?
John-Michael Powell: Where do I start? The technical challenges were many, as I’m sure you’d expect.
Thankfully Damian Gomez, who plays Deano in our film, brought on Jillian Meyers to help us choreograph the sequence. Other than table reads, really the only rehearsals we had were two dance days. Jillian and Damian got the entire cast out in my driveway and basically turned it into a dance studio. We shot the scene on our ninth day (out of twelve) of production. And mind you — very few of our actors had actual dance training. So Jillian smartly had one day of dance prior to production where everyone learned the steps and then we had our second dance rehearsal during our lone day off. That way the actors could lock in the rote movements closer to the day we shot it and not forget the muscle memory.
When you talk about on-set and actually shooting… we’re talking about what’s basically a two-minute scene that moves through four different rooms of a house built with numerous steps and stairs and requires an immense amount of precisions to make your day. Not to mention, the only time we could schedule the dance sequence was at the end of a ten-page day. For a laid-back shoot — this was the highest stress day.
The only downside to being gifted the Amira was that once it was kitted out, it wasn’t the lightest rig. Remember, this wasn’t La La Land. We didn’t have the budget to afford a Steadicam operator. We didn’t even have the budget to afford an EasyRig. And Elijah heroically strapped this big rig on his shoulder and just said, “GO!” That’s a lot to ask of a camera operator. The other hero behind this scenes was our awesome second assistant camera, Carlos Barreto. Shout out to Carlos for swooping in after every take like the Flash and grabbing that camera off Elijah’s shoulders. That truthfully saved us.
On the lighting side, getting four rooms lit with what little we had was a huge challenge. Still, Elijah and our gaffer Anders Asbjørnsen managed to work magic with what we did have. They lit four rooms at once while Anders sat on a wireless DMX adjusting the lightmat levels which allowed us to have fifteen actors dance through these rooms — as well as a camera rig flying around following them — without any piece of equipment buzzing the frame. It was insane.
PH: What was the dialogue like between you and your team regarding this scene?
John-Michael Powell: The biggest conversations we had were between me, Elijah, and Jillian - and those revolved around what lenses to shoot on. Dance creates very specific shapes and movements, and you can’t just slap any lens on the camera and expect that movement to work. Jillian had the expertise from her work on films such as La La Land to tell us exactly what route to take, and she helped us pick the lenses we needed and where best to put the camera. Truthfully, she was as much a director of that sequence as I was.
In the end, we shot the scene on a 40mm lens and decided to break up the sequence into four movements. We really got two takes per movement, at most. I actually think the final movement we only got one take because we were pushing hard up against our day. And the final movement required the camera going up about ten to fifteen feet in the air to look down on our entire cast. With the magic of a ladder and some elbow grease, we pulled it all off. I have no idea how. But we did. Somehow. It’s a testament to how amazing a crew this was.