Day 0: Chicago

After two long days of driving, producer Dave, production assistant Devin, and I arrived in Chicago. It was July 6th, 2013, and the day after tomorrow, we would begin production on West of Her. The drive had been dominated by anxiety bordering on terror—I’d dreamed my whole life of this day, the day we started making my first feature film. And now here we were at the starting gate of production, where our crew would assemble from all over North America, and leave two days later for a three-week adventure across the United States, making what we hoped and believed would be great art. Or else, of course, making colossal mistakes that would end my career before it began. One or the other. There wasn’t much in between.

So fear was the dominant emotion for me, even as the excitement grew. We set up camp at the Residence Inn near O’Hare as people arrived a few at a time—Cam, assistant director Mario, and sound guy Tanner, all got in from Toronto the first night, though Cam’s camera assistant Adam had shown up at the wrong Toronto airport for his flight so he wouldn’t arrive until the next day. The six of us got dinner near the hotel and tried to figure out who knew whom and how, and even as we struggled to make connections, there was a charge growing in the air: Oh, these guys are pretty cool. I think we can work together.

Kelsey and Ryan both arrived from Los Angeles that night. We all convened in the hotel room I was sharing with Devin, and sat back, taking stock, a strange sort of air pressure in the room as we made small talk on the edge of the unknown. The next day, the Chicagoans arrived, including our costuming and hair/makeup artist Hillary, and our grip Anneliese—well, I thought Anneliese was a Chicagoan, but I was in for a surprise. I’d initially offered the position of grip (essentially the on-set electrician) to someone else, but when she’d been unable to accept the position, she referred me to Anneliese, whom she described as, “One of the best crew members I’ve ever worked with.” And so as I scanned the hotel lobby, I was looking for a seasoned Chicago professional. Instead, a young woman of about 19 walked up to me and said, “Hi, Ethan?” Yes, it turned out Anneliese had just finished her freshman year of college, and I was initially bowled over by the revelation, but two things quickly struck me: for one, despite her age, she seemed to have the confidence to back up her recommendation; for another, we had literally no possible alternative at this point, so sure, there’s a teenager on the crew now!

Once Adam finally arrived that night, we had a fully assembled crew, and it was time for the work to start. I was already losing sleep as we began to prep shot lists and schedules for the next few days, but I coasted on the hope and belief that I had surrounded myself with talented professionals who could cover the gaps in my experience. We had the first of many big days ahead of us tomorrow, but we decided to all have an early crew dinner at a restaurant near the hotel, a strange establishment decorated to evoke a movie theater, complete with popcorn before the meal rather than bread. We sat at a long table—three pushed together, actually—and pockets of conversation broke out as we perused the menu, discussed what this whole “gluten free” thing meant (it was 2013, early days), and Dave, Cam, and Mario began mapping out a schedule for the next day. I looked down the table and thought, I should really give a toast.

I wanted to tell everyone how grateful I was that they were giving their time and efforts to this project, how lucky I felt to have the opportunity to work with them, and to thank them for taking a chance on this project, promise them I would do everything I could to make sure that trust was repaid. I knew saying all that would make me feel good, and that they’d like to hear it.

But I didn’t do it. I was shy, and feeling awkward and intimidated. Except for Devin, I had the least experience in film of anyone at the table—Adam had crewed on one of my favorite TV shows, for goodness’ sake. So I kept my mouth shut.

I regretted it then, and I’ve regretted it ever since. I had a chance in that moment to start this production off on a strong foot, to cast myself in a leadership role and cement the camaraderie of the team. But instead I just stayed at my end of the table as people chatted, ate, and decided to head to bed. And I left feeling shy and weaker than I ever would have wanted for myself or for my movie.

But there was no time for wallowing. There never was, not when there was work to do. That night, Cam, Mario, and I drove out to Uptown Chicago to check out the location I’d chosen for our first shots the next morning. We stood there in the streetlamp glow, picking out backgrounds we might like to highlight, spots we might like to shoot from. And that was when it really, truly hit me, the thrill of realizing: we’re about to make a movie, my dream movie, using my dream equipment and my dream crew. My dreams were becoming reality, all around me.

That’s when the joy really sank in. The terror was still to come.