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Eco Movie, Take 1

A filmmaker struggles to go green

Email icon  sdo230@nyu.edu

Outside Jack’s Stir-Brew Coffee in Manhattan, the gasoline generator strained to provide power for the set of Carmen Angelica’s independent film, “Grounds.” Inside, crews rigged lights and charged battery belts, sucking electricity from the coffee shop outlets. But despite her concessions to the usual, energy guzzling methods of movie production, Angelica had painstakingly set out to make an eco-friendly film.

As concern over global warming has spread, a growing number of directors and producers chafe at the amount of energy spent on a film set. Although it’s rarely examined, moviemaking stands as the most wasteful artistic medium. With its high-powered lighting, transportation, food services, and reams of paper for scripts, the industry extracts a huge toll from the environment.

Angelica is among a scattered collection of filmmakers looking for a better way. The results have been mixed, but the idea is catching on. Although the new alternatives can be expensive, filmmakers are attracting interest from investors looking to support the movement.

“How hard could it be to make a short green film?” said Angelica as she recounted her decision to turn “Grounds” — about a group of young people who work in a coffee shop instead of choosing college — into a green production. “Apparently, really hard.”

“I had $10,000 to make it, and all anybody told me was that it was going to cost $15,000 to make it green,” she said.

Scaring Up Free Food

At first, the plan seemed promising. Craft service, the food brought to set each day for the cast and crew, usually soaks up a hefty chunk of a film’s budget. For a short film on the scale of “Grounds,” $2,000-3,000 is generally put aside. But Angelica got away with spending about $300.

“Every day I would send out six emails to organizations that were green for food donations,” she said. Soon, people were pitching in bottled water, vegan cookies and food supplies for free. “The fact that the film was green turned out to be a selling point,” Angelica said.

But her eco-ambitions were tested throughout the rest of pre-production.

It’s Tough to Be Green

Many elements of a film must be worked out in the months before arriving on set. A crew must be assembled, actors auditioned and cast, locations secured, dates set, transportation planned, equipment rented, sets designed, costumes chosen. And for Angelica, each task would be a challenge.

“As we started trying to find solutions to our green problems, we realized that we couldn’t fix everything,” she said.

First she attacked the problem of location. “Grounds,” can essentially be pitched as The Office inside a coffee shop.

“I originally thought I would find a location where we could use only natural light,” Angelica said. “Turns out that’s just impossible.” And if lights had to be used, then the location had to provide green power.

Enter Jack’s Stir-Brew Coffee. Located at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, Jack’s enjoys energy provided by one of 10 1,500-foot deep geothermic wells nearby. It was the ideal location. Except that Jack Mozzola, the owner, wanted nothing to do with Angelica and her crew.

Hello Jack

“Jack originally told me that it was never going to happen,” she said. “It’s hard getting someone to shut their shop down for a few days so a bunch of people can make a movie.”

After much pleading, Mozzola agreed, but with restrictions. “We had to shoot on the weekends and at night,” Angelica explained. “We weren’t allowed to touch the espresso machine, and they wanted to be paid.”

The final agreement was for a $1,500 location payment, along with $10 gift cards for every customer turned away.

Danush Parvaneh, one of three producers, tried to solve the problem of gasoline. Since wall outlets alone can’t provide enough electricity to power the lights on a movie set, a generator would be required. But generators require gasoline.

“Every company we went to with generators outfitted to use biodiesel or some other renewable energy source went bust before they could rent us their equipment,” Parvaneh said. “We ran into a ton of companies trying to do green filmmaking, and going bankrupt because of it.”

“We just ran out of time,” Angelica said. As an alternative, she required her crew to plug only two lights into the generator, and use what she called the “dirty lights” only when absolutely necessary.

Pulling it Off

“There were definitely some eye-rollers when we got to set,” Angelica said. Brian Streem, the crew’s gaffer, who arranged the lighting setups for each shot, was rattled.

“I need power,” he said. “If you know what I mean, I need electricity to do my job.”

But instead of empty plastic bottles filling trash bags, each crew member carried around a canteen. A compost bin was kept outside, sprinkled with oat bran to limit the odor.

The night after the shoot, Angelica debriefed her producers.

“We came in under budget. Way, way under budget,” she said to a weary round of applause.

Weeks later, she sat in front her laptop and a stack of blinking hard drives editing her film on Final Cut Pro.

“I’m not sure if you can totally call this a green film,” Angelica said. “But would I do it again? Hell, yeah I would. It’s cheaper. And now that I can prove that to people, it’s just going to get easier.”

Sam Osborn is a journalism student at New York University.

Making a green movie was a challenge. Photo by Sam Osborn

Director Carmen Angelica brought "Grounds" in under budget, her movie costing less for being "green." Photo by Sam Osborn

Take 2! The filmmaker had to agree to give $10 gift cards to coffee shop customers turned away while the crew was shooting inside. Photo by Sam Osborn