By Brad Wise
We were three days into our 25-day film shoot for a movie I wrote and directed called A Strange Brand of Happy. Things already felt like they were spinning out of control. Making movies is terrifically hard work. Not as hard as coal mining, I’m sure. But the days on set are 12-14 hours long and I’m on my feet constantly, making decisions. Money is always tight, the costume department needs more money and a bigger trailer, the art department can’t afford the props needed, and the sound guy is mad that there’s not enough cheese and yogurt at the food table. Film crews are a beautiful mess of chaos, ego, and excellence. When things are going right it’s magic. When they aren’t, it’s terrifying.
So that night we were behind schedule in a bad way. It was 2:00 a.m., we had three more shots we had to get in order for the scene to make any sense, and we had to be done by 3:00 a.m. to avoid paying overtime. Getting those three shots in an hour wasn’t possible. Paying overtime wasn’t possible. As a young, 32-year-old director, losing the crew’s respect and trust so early in the shoot wasn’t possible if we were going to finish.
I was about to have a panic attack. I had no idea what to do. All I really wanted was to quit, go home, and tell the investors that I didn’t have what it takes to direct a film. Because in that moment I didn’t feel like I did.
As various crew members raced around doing their jobs, I muttered the only prayer I could in that moment. “Help!” A memory from a couple of months earlier flashed through my head—the birth of our first child. In that brief moment I remembered Dr. LeMasters.
My wife, Leah, and I had struggled for years to get pregnant. So when it finally happened, it was hard to ever relax during those 40 weeks. As much as we tried, we never stopped worrying that something bad would happen. I remember one conversation with Leah’s parents where we shared that we couldn’t wait for the baby to be born so we could stop stressing so much. Leah’s mother laughed at us and said that’s when the stress actually starts.
Leah’s due date came and passed, much to our impatience, and they scheduled an induction date. We tried every home remedy to make the baby come earlier, but not surprisingly Evening Primrose Oil did nothing to accelerate labor. So in the middle of the night on July 1 we drove to the hospital and started the process of induced labor and delivery.
Things were progressing normally they told us. We had no idea. It was our first time, so everything felt weird and foreign, but that’s all we knew. Around noon the next day it was go time. The delivery nurse got everything ready and Leah eventually started pushing. Again things seemed normal despite how strange the whole experience is when you think about it.
The nurse coached Leah along, and I stood beside her, trying to help as much as I could, which was nothing much. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless or worthless in my life. But the nurse said I was doing great, so I chose to believe her. Meanwhile Leah was going through so much pain to bring life into the world. A life that we had been praying for and waiting on for what felt like an eternity.
The nurse started to watch the baby’s heartbeat a little more closely. Whenever Leah pushed, it would dip. Then during the break the heartbeat would come back up. Dr. LeMasters came in and she traded places with the nurse. After a few moments she looked calmly at Leah and me.
“The umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck. Every time you push, it gets tighter. The baby can’t breathe, and that’s why the heartbeat is dropping. So we’re going to get this baby out now.”
I can’t overstate how calm Dr. LeMasters was. She gave a few instructions to the nurse, and almost instantly there was a whole fleet of nurses in our room with new tools and tables. And I know I keep saying this, but because this was our first time we didn’t know there was three times the normal amount of help in the room.
In a cool and collected tone, Dr. LeMasters told everyone what was going to happen. Leah would push one last time while she used the forceps to pull the baby out. She looked at Leah and asked if she was ready, but it felt more like an empowering command. “You’re ready.”
Everything went as planned. Dr. LeMasters pulled the baby out in a pretty gruesome medieval fashion, if you’ve never seen forceps in play. She unwrapped the umbilical cord with a few graceful flips of her wrist, and before we knew it our newborn son was laying on Leah’s chest, crying a beautiful wail. With tears in our eyes we shared in the overwhelming surprise of having a boy. We tested the name Henry quickly and decided it fit, and the nurse took him over to the weighing table.
The unexpected beauty of that moment was life-changing. It was a moment that could’ve been pure chaos. Henry was literally choking to death every time Leah pushed. But Dr. LeMasters came in and took control in a way that put everyone at ease. If we had seen any hint of stress or fear in Dr. LeMasters, both Leah and I would’ve panicked. If she was barking rushed orders at the nurses and they were racing around, who knows what could’ve happened.
Yet her calmness was contagious. We had no choice to be anything but calm because of how in control she was. Who knows how she was feeling about the situation inside. On the outside she exuded confidence.
That memory of beautiful calmness came to mind during my chaotic night on the set. I remembered the masterful leadership of the properly named Dr. LeMasters.
So I went up to Isaac, the assistant director, and calmly and confidently said what he already knew. We had to cut shots and we had to finish on time. Together we explained this to the cinematographer, who protested. And together we calmly laid out the plan of how we’d make it all work.
It was a line in the sand moment that set the tone of the entire shoot. I was not going to lose control or bend to the chaos. Together we weren’t going to quit. We were going to finish on time despite our incredibly difficult schedule. We were going to finish on budget despite how meager it was compared to what we were trying to create. We would work together despite how challenging that can be when you have no money, no time, and no sleep.
It didn’t matter how I felt inside during all the ups and downs of that experience. If I wanted to bring to life this movie that so many of us had waited, prayed, and worked for, I had to be like Dr. LeMasters—beautifully calm inside the terrific chaos.
Brad Wise is a writer/director at Rebel Pilgrim Productions in Cincinnati, Ohio.