That's a Wrap! Thoughts on Visiting the Set of PROJECT PAY DAY, My Latest Movie Project

Quinn McColgan (as Hannah); Cameron Ocasio (as Curtis); and Jaz Maret (as Dave),

Quinn McColgan (as Hannah); Cameron Ocasio (as Curtis); and Jaz Maret (as Dave),

I wrote before how one of my screenplays, based on my 2007 novel Project Sweet Life, has gone into production as a feature film.

The project has since been renamed Project Pay Day, and I spent much of the month of June on the set in various locations around West Chester, Pennsylvania.

The movie is the story of three fifteen-year-olds who, when forced by their parents to get summer jobs, instead invent fake jobs and then embark on a series of get-rich-quick schemes into order to get the money they should be earning. Along the way, they get embroiled in a local mystery, and nothing turns out exactly the way they expect.

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It’s a little bit Stranger Things and a little bit The Goonies, and it will hopefully be in theaters (and/or on Netflix) next year.

I had a ball on the set! I loved the cast, especially the three leads: Jaz Maret (as Dave), Quinn McColgan (as Hannah), and Cameron Ocasio (as Curtis).

(If you don’t remember Hannah from the book, it’s because I rewrote one of the boys as a girl for the movie. And if you never read the book, rest assured I’m working on a movie edition for release next year that will update the book for 2020, and also incorporate some of my favorite elements from the movie.)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I showed up the first day. They happened to be filming the “jellybean contest” scene at a local mall. I kept thinking I was going to knock over the bin of jellybeans. Had that actually happened, it would have been the world’s shortest set visit, because I would have immediately fled and never showed my face again.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, everyone was extremely nice — and also true professionals. I finally got a chance to meet the director, Greg Koorhan, and he couldn’t have been any more welcoming.

A film set is a busy place, and everyone has a very specific job: camera operator, lighting, sound, set design, hair and makeup, script supervisor. There’s even a guy whose job is to write the right take on that clapper board that they knock together before every single take. (One of the most difficult aspects of shooting a movie is making everything look continuous, since almost everything is shot out of order. Does the set look exactly like it should? Is the hair and makeup consistent? What about the costumes? The lighting?)

Austin Ku (Uncle Michael), the REAL Uncle Michael and me, and A.J. Cedona (Uncle Brad)

Austin Ku (Uncle Michael), the REAL Uncle Michael and me, and A.J. Cedona (Uncle Brad)

A few days later, we were filming a shot with “Uncle Brad” and “Uncle Michael” (a gay couple who help the kids in their caper, unimaginably named after me and my husband Michael). Uncle Michael brings a pitcher of lemonade out to the porch, and I thought, “Wow. I wrote a screenplay with this scene, and five years later, here are all these actors and crew members making it come to life.”

And then being somewhat neurotic, I immediately thought, “Wait! Did I make the right choice? Maybe it should be Gatorade! If I’d known this would be a scene in a movie, I would have thought about it a lot more!”

But no. This is exactly the kind of thing that can drive a writer crazy. The scene was the best I could do at the time, and it seems to play great now.

In the end, I was reminded again and again how movie-making is hard, complicated work. This is a movie with lots of moving pieces: dozens of speaking roles, plenty of crowd and outdoor scenes, and even an underwater sequence.

And they filmed it all in three weeks? Are you kidding?

Actually, the underwater sequence got delayed until later in July. The divers who were going to double as our characters asked for more money at the last minute.

But almost every other scene they needed is now in the can, soon to be edited into a finished movie.

Underground LARPers!, along with me and costume designer Anna Frangiosa (center)

Underground LARPers!, along with me and costume designer Anna Frangiosa (center)

Which doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of problems along the way. The set for the underground caverns sequences was finally completed at 5 AM — three hours before we started shooting! And that didn’t stop the soundstage from almost flooding halfway through the shoot because of a sudden rainstorm outside. Thank God there were plenty of sandbags on hand.

And did I mention all the outdoor scenes? Summer is an important element in the movie, but you can’t force the sun to shine on schedule.

I tried to do my part. Once we were filming in the villain’s crappy apartment, and the director of photography had brought some “haze,” which comes in an aerosol can, to make the room look especially musty. I volunteered to spray the stuff between every take.

But I was mostly an observer. Everyone else on this movie worked their ass off. Ironically, the story of the people on the set was a lot like the story of we’re trying to tell on-screen: hard work in pursuit of a common goal builds both character and friendship.

As the shoot progressed, I kept thinking, “I can’t wait for people to see this scene! They’re really going to like it!”

I love writing both novels and screenplays. But the creative process is very different for each medium. With novels, the writer is God. The editor offers suggestions to improve the book — and a good editor is worth their weight in gold! — but ultimately what ends up in the book is all the author’s call.

With screenplays, it’s much more collaborative. Yes, I created the characters and the story of this film, but the words on the page are really just the starting point. It takes a cast and crew of dozens to turn the words in a screenplay into an actual movie. Every single thing you see on screen is the result of a choice that a cast or crew member made. And ultimately, the finished product is all the director’s call.

In a way, this is a good thing. This particular cast and crew took this project to places I never would have imagined. And frankly, it’s kind of nice not having the success or failure of this project resting entirely on my shoulders.

Will the movie be any good? I’ve been working in film long enough to know that you never know how a movie’s going to play until it’s all put together. There are so many moving pieces! But I did the best job I could do at the time, and it’ clear that everyone else did their best too.

So now all I can do is hope for the best — that Project Pay Day will turn out great, and (even more importantly) that audiences will somehow connect.