Beneath, Between, Behind the Scenes: Shooting an Action Scene

M. Francis Enright
4 min readMar 23, 2024
Photo by Kid Circus on Unsplash

M. Francis Enright is a filmmaker. His first short film, HR, was accepted into zero of the 23 festivals to which it was submitted. His second short film, The Routine, was nominated for Best Dark Comedy at the Georgia Comedy Film Festival. His third short film, Say Your Name, won Best Drama and Best Director at the Top Shorts Films Festival and has been selected for the 2024 Boston International Film Festival.

I wanted to grab the audience with the first scene. I love slow burns, but it can be hard to hold their attention. A better filmmaker can do it but I’m not there yet.

I have never tried to direct any kind of action sequence. On a low budget, they can really come off as cheesy and weak. We didn’t have any kind of stunt coordinator.

We were shooting in downtown Brockton which is a gritty spot. It was perfect for what we needed.

The director of photography and the gaffer and I walked through the scene with the actors multiple times, figuring out how to shoot it.

EXT. STREET-DAY

MARCUS JONES, A LATE TWENTY SOMETHING AFRICAN AMERICAN MAN, stands on the street corner. His shirt is dirty, ragged sneakers, disheveled, unkempt hair and beard. He sells drugs so he can use them.

He suddenly spots something and bolts. Two plain clothes cops chase him, badges swinging from the chains around their necks.

The two cops chase Marcus down the street. Marcus cuts left into an alley. One of the cops, Keith, follows him. The other cop, Tim, keeps going straight to cut him off.

EXT. STREET-DAY

The cops have Marcus against a wall. They search him and come up with a baggie. A close-up on Marcus shows that he is banged up; he has scratches on his face from where he may have fallen and from older incidents.

The hair and make-up artist spent a significant amount of time making up Marcus’s face and hands with old and new bruises and scrapes, the face of a life lived rough the face of a drug addict living on the streets.

KEITH

Damn this dude can run!

TIM (HOLDING MARCUS)

Hey, my man, you becoming a frequent flier. Usin’ now too, huh? (Holds up the baggie.) Mmmm, not smart.

The cops are not sympathetic. The frequent flier line was cut. I don’t remember if the actor just didn’t say or if we agreed on that. I probably just missed it.

MARCUS

Come on, man!

TIM

Come on, what? Jesus, you fuckin’ stink!

Keith holds up a baggie with the cocaine or crack of whatever it was that Marcus had in his pocket. I think it was baby powder or a piece of drywall.

How was I going to get all this? I couldn’t work it out in my head and I was really afraid we were going to be on set wasting time while I tried to figure out what to do.

It is so much easier to film people sitting and talking but Jesus that is so boring. The audience wants to see people moving, doing stuff, running from the cops.

What it came down to was breaking the scene down in manageable pieces.

  1. Camera sees Marcus on the corner.

2. He looks to his left and sees the cops and bolts.

3. The cops chase Marcus. We get them from the front.

4. We get them running past the camera.

5. We get a shot from the back with Marcus dodging into the alley and Keith following him.

6. We get the three of them against the wall.

7. We get close-ups of the actors doing their lines.

There was more to it than that. It was difficult to get all the angles we needed when Kieth and Tim had Marcus against the wall. As usual, what seems simple on paper can become much more complicated when actually trying to shoot it.

But what I learned is to break a scene down into manageable pieces. Get it shot by shot. Concentrate on what is in front of me. Get that as best I can, then move on.

Break a task down into steps. Complete each step to the best of one’s ability and then move on. If all the steps get completed, the task is completed.

Don’t get stuck in perfection. It will never be perfect. Move on.

A bunch of kids were riding around on ATVs, which seems to be the rage among urban youth. One of them stopped briefly to watch us setting up the scene and yelled,

“Y’all ain’t about shit!” before speeding off.

He had a point, but I do enjoy the process.

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M. Francis Enright

Co-creator and cohost of The Working Experience Podcast. We explore what people do for work, how they do it and how they feel about it. Twice a week!