OMATG - Wrapped!

May 24, 2017

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Week six ended at 5 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and with it went all the usual stress of a film production in full swing. We still had a little bit more to go, but that little bit would fit into just two days, with a travel day in between. It felt like we were basically done.

And basically done we were! Monday was a long split with lots of shots in tight quarters (a motel room, which we realized halfway through is the one set which there's no excuse to never build on a stage) and a higher page count than any previous day of production, but it was unburdened by the usual subconscious consideration of the days and weeks ahead. We wrapped at four in the morning, marking the official completion of production in Ohio. I went home and watched a rough assembly of a scene we'd shot a few weeks prior, and lo and behold it mostly worked and so the spirits I fell to sleep in were good, and remained so the next day when we drove up to Michigan, and were good still the morning after that, for that final wake-up, the last morning meditation, the one remaining drive to set. We got to prison at 7:30, got our first shot off by 9 and then just kept shooting. We shot, and shot and shot, for almost eighteen hours. Seven scenes, seven locations. By the end of it we all got a little loopy. I lost confidence in one scene and thought about scrapping it, but Joe Anderson figured out how to make it work. Everyone was a trooper.

It was almost 1am before we arrived at our martini. The set-up looked just like this, but with Robert Redford in place of Dutch, our beloved 1st AD.

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We rolled the first take. It wasn't great. We did a second. It was good. We went for a third, and the mechanism that made the prison cell doors open broke. A few minutes were spent trying to fix it before I decided that take two was fine and asked to check the gate. The gate was good, and the movie was wrapped. Anticlimax has never been so satisfying.

I'm doing best not to romanticize the end of things because it wasn't really over - we'll be getting together later this summer to get some pre-ordained pickups and anything else I decide we need between now and then. But for now it's done, and it was great, and if this really is Redford's final movie in front of the camera, we did our best to send him off well. I've made two movies with him now and am a luckier person and better storyteller for it.

A few of the things I learned on this film are:

  1. A little bit more about how to work with actors - a never-ending study that always reveals new dimensions, partially within the process but mostly in myself.
  2. How to let go a little bit more and not shoulder everyone else's burdens. Everyone has creative challenges on movies, but I chose the people I chose because I trust them to handle them well.
  3. How to move on after take two. And sometimes takes one! But almost always by take three. If you get a good take and don't know how to make it better, don't ask for another one just because. But if you do, which you probably will, and it doesn't get better, don't do another one after that. Swap a lens or move on!
  4. How to watch the take unfolding before me with a clear focus and no presuppositions. This is a lot harder for me than it should be.
  5. That if you are going to be working with rain towers or in potentially inclement weather, invest in a good pair of waterproof pants (water proof, not water resistant). Worth their weight in rainwater that would otherwise be soaking through your jeans.
  6. That you should always and only work with a gang of folks who will leave you sincerely quoting Royal Tenenbaum: "I'm loving every minute with this damn crew." I knew this already but it's always good to be reminded of it
* * *

I drove home last Friday, down through the bluffs of Kentucky, across the Mississippi, under the Ozarks. As I crossed the state line back into Texas, I did a previously scheduled interview with American Cinematographer about A Ghost Story, which was just about as fitting a transition as I could have asked for. This past Monday, after unpacking, I watched the final DCP of that film at the Texas Theatre. It was the first time seeing the film since before Sundance - and I loved it! It was exactly what it should be. It looked and sounded better than ever.The only three things that bothered me:

  • The credits, which used to be really short, are now really long - a last minute change due to various union stipulations and such. We all love our unions so no arguments there, but sorry to anyone who's sitting through them. Hopefully they're calm and meditative in lieu of being expeditious or aesthetically inventive.
  • The accidental glimpse of a Nietzche book on a bookshelf. People are going to read way too much into that, but it was purely accidental, just one of many prop books gleaned from a second hand store, and its presence means nothing. When we were shooting that bookshelf scene, what I was really worried we'd see too much of a Garcia Marquez book, which is far more apropos - but it's practically invisible.
  • The whole movie felt too short!

Lastly: I saw Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion last night. It was phenomenal. The tintype time-lapse is already the best VFX sequence of the year. And there was one line I repeated to myself over and over after it was uttered so I wouldn't forget it, because it has a whole lot to do with A Ghost Story.

Posterity is as comfortless as God.

Well said, movie version of Emily Dickinson.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:37 PM

OMATG Weeks 5 & 6

May 14, 2017


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Two things have happened. The first is that:

There was a big sequence in this movie that was alway meant to be the kick-off to the whole story. It was the very first scene I wrote in the very first draft, and it remained through every single draft that followed over the ensuing four years. As the budget got tighter and script got slimmer, the idea of cutting it or replacing it with something more manageable was gently floated, but I held firm. I could trim it down, make it a little less complex, but without this sequence I didn't want to make the movie. So it stayed in.

And stayed in, and stayed in, even as the time we had to shoot it shrunk, even as the location became a patchwork of different stand-in locations, even as the VFX line grew on the budget to cover the things we couldn't actually shoot practically, even as we all squinted and convinced ourselves that it would still work. And then, about three weeks ago, in the middle of a late night safety meeting, reality hit. It became clear that for a number of unanticipated reasons, the sequence as planned was not executable. Everyone was doing their damnedest to make it a reality, but we were setting ourselves up for a whole bunch of different failures if we actually tried to pull it off. It would be a poor facsimile of what we wanted to make, and that's no way to begin a film. It was time to plant a big red flag in the sequence I'd staked the movie on.

Doing that two-thirds of the way through a shoot is a great way to cause a lot of scrambling and fretting and worrying, all of it justified, none of it really accomplishing anything. It's like an avalanche. Everyone is scrambling for footing. There are desperate attempts to hang on to some version of what was planned, but it's your job as a director to convince your friends and collaborators that it's best to just let go. It's also your job as a director to come up with the solution, a responsibility that comes part and parcel with its own paroxysmic uncertainties, most of which are best kept mostly to yourself (when you're making a movie, it's of utmost importance to be open about the fact that you don't have all the answers - except for the times when it's not). I didn't have the answer right out the gate. Or at the next gate, or the next. Still, once I declared the original plan untenable, I found myself at peace. I wasn't going to have to squint any more. Now I just needed something new that we could actually pull off with the means at hand. I spent about a week batting ideas around, some of which were okay, some of which might have tuned into something good, but none of which I could explain without a lot of probably's.

But the further I got from the initial big decision, the more those ideas calmed down and simplified themselves. And then, finally, one early morning, they resolved into the ideal solution: the entire sequence, distilled to a single shot. I committed to it instantly - it just felt right - and then sent a few text messages and drew some diagrams on the back of some old script pages to get everyone else on board. This happened on a Sunday. We'd have to shoot it the following Friday. Triggers were pulled, plans were put into motion, technical specifications were worked out, one big set was rejiggered, and around midnight on Friday, after eight takes, we nailed it. This shot has a completely different feeling and different energy than what was originally scripted, but it's still telling the same story. I also think it's better than what was scripted - or at least, more elegant, more cinematic and more me. After going out of my way to make this movie feel less like one of my movies, that little pocket of familiarity came at exactly the right time.

So anyway. The point is - be prepared to kill your darlings at every stage of the process, and be confident that you'll figure things out, because no one else knows what you're doing as much as you do, even when you feel like you don't. Which you will.

The second thing that happened is:

If you ever have the chance to run a race on the second-to-last weekend of an exhausting movie shoot, take it. We started the Flying Pig Half Marathon at sunrise, crossed the river to Kentucky, and then ran alongside a perfectly-timed train on the bridge back into Cincinnati. The conductor blew his or her whistle for encouragement as we turned out of downtown and ran uphill for over three miles, climbing over 800 feet to the highest point in the city before gently winding back down to the banks of the Ohio. Every step was a joy. I was worried I'd be too tired, or that my knee would give out, or that all the production troubles would muddy the experience - but no. I never stopped running, never stopped running faster, and couldn't stop smiling. I haven't been that happy for a long time, and it was the perfect note on which to begin the last full week of this shoot - a week that has now passed, along with its own sets of crises and joys, troubles and epiphanies, and all the other ups and downs that make making movies such an all-consuming experience. I can't wait to be through with them and I'll miss them terribly when they're gone.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:56 AM

OMATG Week 3 & 4

April 30, 2017


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All through prep, I was working out at the YMCA almost every day and running a lot. Then I got runner's knee and stopped running for a bit but pushed myself even harder at the gym. Then we started shooting and I mostly only managed to exercise on the weekends and the rare days when we wrapped early or started late. But this Saturday, I realized I'd reached the point in the shoot where it was more important to simply nap. This is a prelude to my acknowledgment that: I've fallen behind in my accounting. We've been working too much, sleeping too little. There's a whole lot of movie happening and my body is officially bent to it.

This movie got nutty last week. It is goofy and wild and I have no idea if it will cut together the way I think it will - but I guess the important thing is that I think it will. Or at least am pretty sure it will. I'm putting all my faith in wild tonal shifts and hoping they amuse everyone else as much as they amuse me.

On to week five, which will begin on the edge of a very tall building and end on on a green screen. And then I'm going to run the Cincinnati Half Marathon and hopefully not die.

Posted by David Lowery at 8:15 PM

OMATG Week 2

April 17, 2017


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We began our second week with 5am call times and finished with a 5am wrap. In between we shot some legendary material out at a beautiful Wyeth-ish farm. But! Let it be known that we only spent two days on pastoral loveliness. The rest of this movie takes place under grungy underpasses, on sunbaked freeways and in brutalist interiors.

I mentioned in my last entry that sick-to-my-stomach feeling that greets me each morning. Conversely, on the drive home most nights, I'm full of adrenaline, ready to keep shooting. I've been trying my best to nudge the latter mood to the start of the day. One thing that's helped is meditation. During the shoot of A Ghost Story, I tried this app called Headspace for a ten day free trial and found it immensely helpful in settling my mind each morning. As we were ramping up for this, I went ahead and bought a subscription and started again. I've been doing it each morning and it's become something I actively look forward to. I aim to recalibrate myself to feel excited about the opportunity each day brings, instead of feeling so woe-is-me as I drag myself out of bed, across the floor and into the car that will ferry me to my doom. I realize this sounds like an advertisement. So be it.

Speaking of recalibration, today actually marked the beginning of Week 3, and we started the morning off with a bunch of new cast members. It felt like we were making a different movie. We will feel this sea change at least once more during the last two-thirds of production...

Next week I'll tell the tale of young master Asher, the coolest kid who ever got plucked off the street on his way to school to be in a movie.

Posted by David Lowery at 9:33 PM

OMATG Week One

April 9, 2017

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I'm forcing myself to wind down at the moment, so I can get to bed by 9pm so that I can wake up at 3am to get to location by 5am to kick off the second week of production of The Old Man and The Gun with a nice pre-dawn shot of a fellow on a horse.

The first five days went off pretty much without a hitch, with wheels greased by the two days of prep we'd already spent shooting. We missed half-a-day on a process trailer due to a sudden thunderstorm, but other than that - this whole endeavor feels pretty breezy. I still wake up every morning with a knot in my stomach, thinking that I need to retire, but those feelings have been fading faster than usual. It's a pretty tightly knit group of friends we've got making this movie here, and there's nothing like hanging out in the presence of good pals, watching legends do their thing on super16mm. This movie feels lighter and scrappier than anything I've done. It's also the least intrinsically me of all my movies thus far, which is part of what excites me about it. I'm stepping outside my usual comfort zones a little bit.

I'm not going to post daily updates, the way I did on Pete's Dragon, but I might throw up some images and random asides here and there as we go.One of those asides is going to be a brief mention of Personal Shopper, which I saw at the Esquire Theater (my home-away-from-home here in Cincinnati) last weekend and have since become increasingly obsessed with. I haven't enjoyed thinking about a movie this much in ages. I went home and bought all the records by Anna von Hausswolff, whose music plays during the closing credits, and have been listening to them in lieu of making a return trip to the theater, which I nonetheless hope I'll be able to do next weekend.

Posted by David Lowery at 6:51 PM

Early Hauntings

January 31, 2017

I was tracing the history of bedsheet ghosts in movies and media during an interview the other day, but I think my lifelong love of all things ghostly surely began with the Gus Was A Friendly Ghost books by Jane Thayer.

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This picture above and the one below are both shockingly representative of a scene in A Ghost Story!

I also love that the title contains the word Was, putting the series definitively in the past tense: Gus Was A Friendly Ghost. That sort of contextual titling is like catnip to me! I need to go to my parents' house and find these. Maybe the one where Gus finds a baby ghost in a crib would be good fodder for a sequel.

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Posted by David Lowery at 4:00 PM