The Victoria Theater is shut up tight, with a man sleeping in one doorway and no sign of life inside. After a few raps on the door, a woman peeks her head out and leads the way inside, where a film shoot is underway. No, this isn’t the opening scene of All About Evil, the slasher pic that debuts at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, and features sinister film shoots at the Victoria. It’s the real-life set of a silent film that has been a year and a half in the making. The film has led cast and crew all over Northern California–to a working steam engine in Willits and a Victorian in Forestville with an unusual past, to name a few. Today, the second-to-last day of filming, is Can-Can day.
“First positions please,” the director, Allen White, calls from a red velvet seat in the middle of the front row. Four Can-Can dancers on stage turn around, bend over, and hoist up their skirts, revealing frilly white briefs and gartered stockings. The male lead sticks his face in a fifth dancer’s bosom. “Action!” A miffed redhead strides across stage and smacks the hero in the face as the dancers swish and twirl in the background. “Cut!”
The film, The Picnic, is set in the 1920s, and centers on a tramp-like character on a quest to find the woman he loves. Instead, he finds one debacle after another. In today’s scene, he bumbles onto a vaudeville stage and becomes an entertaining addition to the number.
White and the film’s producer, Bree Hylkema, drew on the ample community of preservationists and re-enactors in Northern California to furnish the film with time-appropriate costumes, sets and talent. The dancers shaking their ruffled rumps today are a troupe that performs at Dickens Fair, an annual Victorian holiday party in San Francisco. They are volunteering their time and historical know-how, and they aren’t the only ones. White and Hylkema stressed the generosity they’ve encountered from volunteers while making the film.
“It’s hard to overestimate how helpful people have been,” White said.
Helpful, but not without their limits, as Allen finds out, checking in with his disheveled actors in the early evening. They’ve been filming since the early morning, and it’s beginning to show. “It’s your fantasy, not ours,” answers one of the dancers resignedly to Allen’s query. “No it’s my job,” he replies. The next shot, he jokes, is his fantasy.
When asked later about making a period film, White stressed that even though it strives for historical accuracy, it is still a product of its time, and of particular creative choices.
“We didn’t try to make it perfect, we tried to make it fun and interesting for us. The fun was based upon our own tastes and our own appreciation of the period, more than a desire to make it perfect. In some cases you just can’t get exactly what you want. If Bree and I had access to a better budget, there are certainly some improvements we would make.”
Though relying on donated time and resources was difficult, it also gave life to the project. For a shot with a train, Hylkema tracked down a volunteer organization in Willits dedicated to preserving steam- and diesel-powered engines. “We got to pick exactly how we wanted our train to look,” White recounted. “The train is unbelievably gorgeous, and it was so fun shooting that part.” That they only had to pay for the coal the train ran on, and not the equipment or labor, was perhaps the most amazing part of all.
They also found their way to a Victorian in Forestville with a backdrop of Redwoods that made dressing the set simple. Or at least, it could have been simple. The voracious director-producer duo decided to tow a 1920s car all the way from San Francisco, just to park it outside the house. It was a journey reminiscent of that of the house itself, which had been purchased for one dollar in Ohio, on the condition that it be rebuilt completely intact in California. Three cheers to die-hard preservationists.
It’s time for the last big shot of the day. The hero’s perplexed face sticks out from under a heap of stockinged legs, lace-up boots, taffeta skirts, and bloomers. “Action!” The hero pulls himself to the edge of the stage like he’s lost in the desert, as dancing ladies tumble off him. “Cut!”
“We wrapped. Right on time!” White announces to a burst of applause. “Forty shots in a day, that’s what I love,” he says under his breath. Signing off to cast and crew as they gather their things together to go home, he says: “I look forward to tomorrow–that’s gonna be another grand adventure.”
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