This little project began one fine afternoon as I was sitting with Sheridyn, discussing her participation in a screen test for our TV show...
I ask her about her aspirations, her response includes a fully constructed character scene about Harley Quinn, complete with a corpse-like pose, a slow head-tilt with an eye roll, leading into a violent and graphic murder scene. She couldnt stop smiling afterwards.
That afternoon I have a discussion with my business partner Salim, he immediately rejects the idea due to time constraints, he further rejects the idea based on costs and lack of a complete vision. I propose that if we can squeeze it into a narrow window of approx 3 weeks of prep, a single day shoot and 3 weeks in post, we can replace one of two pre-scheduled screen tests for Sheridyn with this project in order to secure a working budget AND provided I can develop a reasonably sound vision and assemble enough of a team in the next few days, it should be possible.
Daniel: Its more interesting than talking heads, our new website is a barren wasteland, risk vs reward seems adequate, make someone's dream happen, it's batman...
He reluctantly agrees
Salim: This one's on you man! If it's an epic fail, it was your idea.
That evening I comissioned some writers to create a scene where Harley Quinn escapes from Arkham asylum.
Sheridyn rejects the script and treatment outright (ouch), instead she forwards me a script written by herself and Kerryn Williams, a very specific scene:
This is a loose summary, complete script available on the left;
two doctors walk down the hallway of an asylum discussing their old colleague Harleen Quinzel, their conversation touches on a brief history of Harley Quinn and address that she is in the asylum as a new transfer. When the doctors reach the room, harley is a limp and lifeless vessel, one of the doctors genuinely wants to help her and leans in to tell her "I'm going to enjoy working with you". Harley suddenly jumps up from the chair, biting the doctor's nose, then descends upon both of them in a wicked, serpentine and "spiderlike" murder scene, with pen jabs, strangulation and a coy taught "I'm going to enjoy working on you". She then leaves the room and skips carefree down the hall.
I decide to write the new draft personally,
Sheridyn and I worked through a couple of changes:
The dialogue was a little too heavy for such a short piece, I beleive there would only be two demographics we could target with this video, batman fans and sheridyn fans. I felt batman fans could do without a history lesson and sheridyn fans would want more sheridyn screen time. So I proposed we remove all the dialogue from the first half of the scene, with the hallway scene replaced by the doctors actually dragging Harley down the hallway. I felt this would allow the audience more time to bond with the character and setting, insert faint musical underscore.
We set the world inside of Harley's mind, instead of arkham asylum, as a literal "mental" asylum. This would allow us more freedom for stylization outside established paradigms and would reduce the chances of offending other creators with something they may consider a "poor adapatation" (let's face it we didnt have much time to prep). It also gave me a chance to reference some steampunk into it, which I like to do.
The limp and lifeless Harley would obviously need to be transferred to the dragging scene, so I proposed the metaphor of a large child dragging a ragdoll down the hall. This logically progressed to become guilt doing the dragging, a common metaphorical persona used as a catalyst for unsolicited confrontations, I made the doctor in the scene her original personality harleen, and the other character (nolan) the "voice inside her head" her conscience in a way, I felt these elements would all exist together in a confrontation between Harley and Harleen so I moved the scene in that direction.
The joke is an adaptation of the killing joke by Alan Moore, one of my favourites. I felt it worked well with the notion that Harley's conscience had been corrupted by the Joker. As far as dialogue goes, its not as expressive as a conversation between the two personas might have been, but to summize what would be a rather transformative conversation into only a few minutes felt like a plan doomed for failure. Instead the joke seemed a light hearted way to express a sense of whimsy that may exist in a harley dream.
The content of the joke is obviously reflective of the two personalities, hence two sisters, one sane and one insane. The voice of the sane sister is structured after a classic Harley template to lead the audience to the twist that the "sane" persona from the point of view of the dominant personality (harley) is in fact Harley and not Harleen (who is the one trapped inside the asylum in the joke, and in her mind). The face cutting metaphor was also visualised in the facial scars of the various other characters in her mind, namely Nolan and guilt, who "have their faces cut up real bad" to mask their identies to show the internal conflict that might occur inside her mind. Salim tells me nobody will get it. I have faith someone will... The scars on Nolan reflect Harley's own makeup in other adaptations of the character, I was trying to show that this Harley is a "post-harley, harley" a version of her character that is aware of previous versions of herself and has them existing her in mind, the makeup is scarred into her conscience to reflect the shackles of servitude and... nobody is gonna get it.
The skipping down the hall played well to harley's character, but I felt we needed an additional layer of depth for the ending. Considering there isnt time for the traditional 3 stages in this short, I felt we could seed the concept of a no running sign in the first shot, then in the final shot, have her running, then stop when she sees the sign before skipping off, like she respsects and understands the rules, but chooses to follow them in her own way. A homage to the Joker's whole differently sane outlook.
We elect the location of the decommissioned asylum at Callan park, almost a no-brainer.
The script was approved (mostly) by all parties and that became the official draft.
The next day I ask the SYNC team who wants in on a last-minute batman fan video, half the team raise their hands, just enough.
I take the draft to Salim as well as a vision with a subtle steampunk baseline for the peice mixed with some vintage noir stylings.
Daniel: script, vision, team and budget, it's on!
Next, it was with Salim for cinematography,
Daniel: I know its quite short, so try to embellish it a little in the cinematography if you can...
He comes back to me 3 days later with a shot bible consisting of 61 shots without the fight sequence, we leave approx 20 spare shots for some kind of a fight sequence which we would need to run past Kyle our fight director.
Salim: you said to embellish!
Now with one camera, 80 shots, with 10min setups between each shot, 1min per take, with approx 2 takes per shot, a 1/2 hr breakfast lunch and dinner and tag team breaks throughout the day, its a 17hr day not including initial setup, blockout, lighting and makeup time. Impossible.
With 2 cameras, if we allow the consideration that lighting matchups were possible 50% of the time, it becomes possible... theorectically... to shoot it in a 12hr day 10am -10pm, which is still 2hrs longer than a standard day.
Now considering we are operating on a one-day budget, a two day shoot is not really an option.
Instead of cutting content from the start, we decide to flag priority footage and leave the shotlist instead of wasting extra days trimming it down, we pass it over to our 1st AD, who pretty much confirms its impossible and we're crazy.
We flag the character scenes as priority and the action sequences as a bonus. While it would be great to have Harley spin in 312fps and deliver a spartan-esq big kick, its something the peice could do without, and considering the time considerations and the lighting changes to accomodate the shutter speeds (especially since we couldn't use half our lights due to the flicker), we reluctantly decided action scenes were considered bonus assets.
Next it was time to cast
Casting is never a process we like to rush.
however, considering our timeframe which was now less than 3 weeks, rushing seemed like a solid plan.
There was no time to really contact a casting director, so we decided to try to just cast it ourselves as plan A, and do a blind pick with agents as plan B.
In the end we ended up speaking with some of the cast we had optioned for SYNC, and everyone agreed to join the project and take a pay cut as this was not for profit.
Beau Baker was chosen because of his great voicework and I felt he could add a depth to the voice of Nolan that would really make the piece. He was also part of another Harley Quinn project at the time, I asked him to cheat on them. He agreed but with a hint of remorse.
Kasia Stelmach is a favourite with our crew. I thought a tall leggy Harleen who towers over Harley a little (especially in heels) would make for a great character juxtaposition seeing as she is not the dominant persona.
Kyle Rowling was an obvious choice, he's intimidating already, which is how I would picture guilt. He's also a great fight director and generally a great person to give advise on set, plus he was a jedi master and runs sydney stage combat school, knows how to stylize a fight sequence for the screen and can choreograph fights pretty much on the fly. He had me at Jedi.
Sheridyn Fisher, of course we cast her as Harley...
Next It was costume time
Lisa Walpole is who we had picked to make some of our gear on SYNC
I begin concepting ideas with Lisa on the lab coat first. Obviously it needs to look like a doctors lab coat, but I want it to be sexy, tailored to hug Kasia's curves. It needed to be short enough to be ooohh! but not so short as to be hmmm...
Lisa knew what I meant.
The straight jacket elements were added in the form of straps, to give the character her identifiable doctors look, but also reflect her status as an inmate. The straight cut industrial lines as well as the high collar and buckles gave it the steampunk edge I wanted. Made with cotton and organza over the top.
Next we started on Harley's costume. This was a hard one as Sheridyn wanted to do the Harley from the batman games, a sort of tomboy getup with the bodice and pants. I wasn't a big fan of this look, to me it was a little too cosplay common, I wanted something a little more identifiable, something people would say "HEY! I like THAT Harley", which meant working outside the standard harley paradigms somewhat. As we established it was in Harley's mind and not so much in Gotham, we had some freedom to create a projection of Harley inside her own mind that would be free to defy convention.
I sent Sheridyn loads of reference pictures, none of them really struck a chord with her, I had in mind a vintage porcelain doll, an edwardian era corset with some flourish and lace, with an elegant doll's face. She didnt like it.
Eventually among many images I send across a patient in a straight jacket. It's a hit.
I quickly discovered "straight jacket" is a very broad term. Some just look stupid, some are a little too "practical" and some just make you look fat. It seemed ordering a straight jacket pre-made was out, so Lisa and I began a design process which took a good 2-3 days. Every jacket I saw looked "blah". It so happened one day I am walking past by Blu-rays and happen across my collection of anime, I grab my copy of Hellsing and there it was! who says a straight jacket needs to be practical? In the anime the vampire Arucard is found bound in a basement, thats pretty much the starting point for the design of Harley's jacket.
The straps were made from faux leather (sheridyn is vegan) and I wanted it to look like she was being strapped into the jacket with buckles front and back. Big brass buckles to give it a steampunk feel, but the lower half of it to be ripped off, and have her running about in a pair of torn up knickers. I figure even if the jacket looks lame, her abs would give it the kick it needed.
After the first fitting, Sheridyn agreed it looked good, but she felt something was missing, we decided to cut and suture "wounds" into the jacket itself, complete with blood stains around the cuts to make it look like a second skin Harley had been wearing for a long time. Everyone was happy after that.
The knickers shrunk in size twice before we were happy with them, we also added a few holes and shredded one side to show some extra skin (for the fans of course)
Next we moved onto Kyle's orderly outfit. This was relatively easy as we had established a precedence with the other two costumes already, the colors were a no brainer, but we threw on some heavy duty buckles, some brass colored piping and referenced the styling of the Lab coat as these characters would be connected.
Beau brought his own costume, what can I say, the guy has a serious suit collection.
As a last minute change, our original ending had Sheridyn skip past Kyle in the hall, then Kyle get hit by the straight jacket and we see Sheridyn bareback, skip into the darkness. I did feel a little cheap being so overt with Sheridyn's sexuality, I wanted it to be a little less sex-bait, so at our second night of rehearsals I brought up the idea of a tattered singlet. Sheridyn has a figure that works well from the front and I didnt want to hide it under a jacket the whole time, only to see it from the back for a moment. Kasia and Sheridyn went to work on an old white singlet, Sheridyn steeped it in tea overnight and thats how we came up with the last outfit she wears.
2 weeks away from the shoot.
There is simply no time for a proper pipeline, storyboards, location setup samples, all too time consuming, we decided to adopt the timeless tradition of "winging it".
Elijah Akouri and Lawrence Wong get to work creating concepts, we used the arkham games mixed with the classic DC comics as a moodboard to save time, with a steampunk undertone of course and some Bioshock concept art.
Gathering props was reasonably easy, canadian surgical tray, extra surgical tools, etc were ordered online.
I already had the vintage style Moran chesterfield wingback and oriental coffee table,
Salim and I decide to go shopping for the second chair. We roll into an antique dealership on a sunday afternoon, walk upstairs and spend about an hour in what is best described as a graveyard of discarded furniture (mostly chairs), it was eerily calm but you could hear the creaking of old wooden tables and chairs being crushed by the weight of the younger furniture piled relentlessly on top, like they were crying for help. quite surreal.
We bought the antique rocking chair in the end, it had a nice shadow. We happened across the old radio while we were there as well as the tiny medicine bottles, we had to make the corks ourselves by hacking away at old wine corks, a fine aging bordeux needed to be consumed in the process (there was no other way)
Kyle managed to source the vintage defibrillator and trolley from a mate of his.
I made the switch and soldered the hanging edison bulb myself
We estimated 50 square meters of blackout material for windows and bought the roll from a fabric dealer
The poison bottles were filled with a glow in the dark paint and the stickers and signs were custom drawn by Elijah and Lawrence
The mop was a terribly splintery bastard, I tried to sand it and got two very nasty splinters, I had optioned burning it to a crisp out of spite, but Salim refused to use tracking markers and create a CG mop in post. We flagged it as a hazard and sanded it carefully several extra times, ended up reducing the overall diameter of the handle by at least 2mm.
Kasia's shoes were meant to be a key element, I had ordered a special pair of white louboutins with red bottoms, the red base was suppose to have a closeup, I wanted to polka dot one shoe to have a playful look reminiscent of blood splatter, and I wanted to cut the leather and suture it back together with a medical suture. However the earliest we could have flown in the shoes was 2 days after the shoot, so we went shopping for alternate shoes. Disaster! Salim and I really proved we know nothing about ladies shoes. We ended up with a pair of heels so bad it was laughable, we didnt even know what material it was and when we tried to scalpel it to do the suture, the thing curled up into a wrinkly ball. We also ended up getting two different sizes so one shoe fit Kasia while the other didnt... We ended up just giving Kasia some cash and she bought a reasonble pair of shoes which had silver caps, I didnt get time to ruin them in the end.
We wanted guilt to have a timekeeper element to him, we had considered a vintage pocketwatch but I felt that was trying too hard and far too overt as a steampunk prop, instead we gave him a steampunk AP wristwatch I have, which looks like a modern wristwatch with a vintage steampunk twist.
About one week out from the shoot we bring on Jess, our production designer who finalized the rest of the gear. She came up with the great idea for Kasia's glasses being sprayed silver and replaced some of my surgical tools with more "hack and slash" tools. She also did a great job polishing up the rest of the props and scene and made the finishing touches on almost every prop.
Next came Choreography
Kyle kindly agreed to do the choreography for the short, we book a night at Sydney stage combat school and got the development team on site.
While its preferable not to have too many people at these sessions, the short timeframes meant that nobody really knew what the fight was going to look like until the night, our DOP Brett needed to get the framing right and the whole team wanted to see the sequence so they could be prepared.
We had attempted to sort out preliminary fight moves and choreography prior to rehearsal, but Sheridyn had a few specific moves she wanted to do that were hard to explain and even harder to work into the final cut without seeing them first. Unfortunately we were all incredibly busy in the week leading up to the choreo night so we left the fight sequence blank till the night.
It was a 4 hour session, Kyle and Sheridyn came up with a sequence that suited them both, I gave my input in the sense of "I want some slow motion", everything else was pretty much Kyle and Sheridyn. Kasia and Beau were great sports, being strangled, headbutted, kicked, and slammed all night.
We organized one additional rehearsal, the night before the shoot. This was alot shorter and simpler, just going over key moves and getting the line deliveries right.
Sheridyn came up with this slow prancing leadup to her moves, and also gave a few brilliant little character moments, with a side glance as she does the neck snap and a spider-like leg strut over Kasia. It was with a heavy heart that we cut alot of them due to time constraints on the day (sad face)
Then it was showtime...