The opportunity to work on a professional film set is a dream come true for anyone passionate about movies, but rarely does the chance present itself, particularly this far from Hollywood.
In recent months, however, a number of Caymanians have realised that dream, thanks to a multi-picture deal involving Productivity Media, Darius Films and Balcony 9, supported by the Cayman Islands government and Dart Enterprises.
From a cavalcade of extras, many of whom have never worked on a movie before, to behind-the-scenes crew, Caymanians are getting valuable firsthand experience that may give some of them a step up in a new career.
Heavy-hitting actors like Harvey Keitel, Ron Perlman, Joel David Moore, Bob Saget, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jackie Earle Haley and Academy Award-winner Nicolas Cage have all been spotted around Cayman or popping up on social media pages of local fans. In fact, one of our very own – Caymanian Grace Byers née Gealey – is slated to appear in ‘The Retirement Plan’, the most recent film to be shot here.
Byers is best known for playing the role of Anika Calhoun in the Fox ‘Empire’ series.
Working on a film set is not for the faint of heart; the hours are long and crew members have to think on their feet. The Cayman Compass caught up with some of the local talent that has been learning the ropes, to see how they’ve fared thus far.
Tremayne Ebanks had 10 years of prior experience in film production, which was an advantage when it came to getting the job on-set as 2nd Assistant Camera. He was recommended to the producers by others with whom he’d worked, and hit the ground running, saying that the training was more of an “on-the-go-experience”.
“I ask a lot of questions and adapt to the environment quickly,” he said. “I’m always observing and absorbing from every department. It’s always good to have an idea of what each department’s roles are on set, as we all have to work together like cogs of a machine.”
Realising the possibilities of there being a future film industry in the Cayman Islands has been the best takeaway for Ebanks so far, who said that the use of local talent and locations made it seem more tangible. He is working towards becoming a cinematographer and getting into directing, and so is definitely planning to continue his career in this vein.
He also encouraged those interested in the industry to take the plunge.
“Having prior experience is great, but you don’t need a lot to get a foot in the door,” he advised. “Show your interest and drive.”
Badir Awe is a well-known name in Cayman when it comes to the arts. The creator of the Poinciana Festival, which celebrates music, art, dance and film, Awe is no stranger to the world behind the camera, with eight years working in production for commercials, reality shows and short films.
He was introduced to the producers based on his previous experience, but it was how he showcased his abilities through several interviews, coupled with the successful completion of assigned tasks, that led to him being offered the Unit Production Manager job.
This has been his first opportunity to work on a feature film and, just like many others, he’s been learning a lot of skills along the way.
“Working on the films themselves is intense training,” Awe said. “Hundreds of things happen on a single day of shooting, so by the time you’ve finished 30 days of shooting the movie, you’ve been exposed to thousands of different types of scenarios.
“The first AD (Assistant Director), Jeff Chapman, is in charge of the set and is pretty amazing to watch as he balances all the elements of the scenes, and where they will play, and when. Watching him as he ruminates over the scenes, you can almost see the bubble form over his head as he performs the complex calculus problems to determine what’s needed,” he added.
To see the script broken down into little bits and pieces, which are filmed across a wide variety of days and locations, has been one of the most rewarding parts of the experience, Awe said.
There have also been a few humorous moments to report.
“On a film set we will say ‘911’ to any task that is deemed super urgent,” Awe said. “One of our generators died on set and we needed to replace it immediately. Someone shouted over to a new local crew member, ‘We need another generator, 911!’
“The new guy picks up his phone and starts calling 911. We had to stop him! We had a good laugh afterwards, and I must say the kid took it well.”
Awe was already on the path to his next step in film-making, so this opportunity has been a fortuitous one and he hasn’t taken it for granted.
“I would say these films are the pinnacle of my film career, so in a sense this is my dream job,” he said.
Steff McDermot is better known as an environmental conservationist, rather than someone you’d find in a film crew, yet she has turned her hand to being a Set Dresser with ease.
Awe actually put her forward for the job, and after a resume submission and interviews, she was hired. She works in the Art Department under the Set Decorator.
“I had very little training for my current position, but my established skills are utilised and every day I learn something new,” McDermot said. “We have to learn quickly and keep up independently. [As] the engine never stops moving, it’s easy to get lost.”
Seeing spaces transformed for shoots has been the best part of the job for her.
“When we first arrive at a location, we completely strip it,” McDermot said. “From there, we may paint, fabricate, and dress the set with furniture and gak to fit the description of the scene… to bring it to life.
“We transformed a kitchen into a bakery, a garage into a meth lab, and even the Kimpton lobby into an office in Toronto.”
Having worked on the film sets for a couple of months now, McDermot’s practical advice to anyone interested in the industry focusses on wellness.
“Adjust to an ambiguous schedule of 12+ hour days in a healthy manner by drinking water, eating properly, and getting enough sleep,” she said.
Michael Pearson made his way onto the set thanks to Caymanian screenwriter and film director Frank E. Flowers, and then Awe. Pearson said the opportunity wouldn’t have happened for him, if not for those two men.
He does have some previous experience under his belt. “[I’ve worked] on short films, been involved in private/public filming events, making documentaries… the list goes on,” he said.
He has been working as a Grip for these productions, receiving a lot of on-the-job-training from other crew members, one of whom took the time to show him how to operate a dolly.
“It’s really awesome equipment that plays a big role when it comes down to getting smooth shots,” Pearson said. “I’m pretty sure your favourite movies all used dollies.”
He also enthused about his work, and the joy of being part of the set staff.
“Every day is an exciting day for me. Think of it this way – you’re basically watching a movie,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed being a part of this journey with these absolutely amazing people. This feels like home to me, as everyone gets along on set; we all have great times together.”
He encouraged those keen on getting into films to make the move.
“First, trust in God,” Pearson said. “Second, apply yourself and reach out to people in the film industry, [as] you’d be surprised how nice everyone is towards others.
“Also, see what skills you have and how they could benefit you and the industry. Any tips that you would like from me, I’m always willing to help you in the best way that I can.”
Pearson leaves no question as to whether he would like to continue on this journey, although perhaps transitioning to a role in front of the camera is on the cards.
“My dream is to become the best actor I can be,” Pearson said. “I still have a lot of training to do… but the idea is to keep pushing forward with my dreams. To me, this is just the beginning of a long journey to success.
“Like what Mr. Joel David Moore once said to inspire me: ‘This is the right path you’re taking towards acting’. Those words coming from a talented actor like Mr. Moore will forever stay with me.”