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July 29, 2013

ATBS Frames, Pt. 6


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When we did our secret guerilla Texas shoot last October, one of the opportunities we jumped on was to spend a little more time with Keith Carradine - both because he's an amazing person to hang out with and also because we wanted to give his character a little more screen time.

This is one of a handful of shots that was filmed in my hometown of Dallas. We shot this in Uncommon Market, an antique store in the design district that is next door to Ideaman Studios, where Toby Halbrooks and I have produced pretty much everything we've ever made (music videos, the SXSW bumpers, my wedding, etc.). We based out of there for this shoot, and then carted everything over to the location. The shoot was relaxed enough that the crew was able to spend a fair amount of time shopping for home furnishings of their own. It's a pretty amazing place.

This is a shot that actually was lit naturally. That desk lamp in the corner is the only bit of electric light - everything else is good old fashioned sunshine, coming through a conveniently placed window (and lots of scrimmage) off to the left. The cohort in the background, credited as Myles, is our friend Eric Steele, one of the partners of the Texas Theatre and who's amazing short film Cork's Cattlebaron, starring Robert Longstreet and Frank Mosley (both of whom place sheriffs in ATBS) I edited two summers ago.

Ostensibly this new material was supposed to clarify who Skerritt was, but my idea of clarification is still willfully obtuse. I preferred visual heft to exposition. For this scene, I wrote half a page of dialogue between him and a cohort, which we covered in the above shot. The first line was "sell all of it." My thinking was that, if you're a businessman and you've just lost your son and you're grieving and angry but don't want to show it, that it would be an appropriate way to express yourself. Later in the movie we see that he has sold pretty much all of it, the it being his giant warehouse we briefly see him presiding over at the beginning of the movie. What business is he in? Who knows, but he had a warehouse, and it was big. In hindsight, I probably should have shown him running illegal card games or something just to make things crystal clear.

Anyway. Not one person ever intuitively picked up on what the dialogue meant, except for Bradford and, I think, Shane Carruth. After Sundance, when I was making my trims, I decided to cut the lines out altogether. The shot's composition and Keith's expression were such that I felt that they conveyed what the dialogue stated all by itself, which is true and which is this: that this once mighty figure has been dealt a grievous blow, and he is turning his back on everything he strove to build up. Not that one could literally ascertain that from the two or three seconds that it's now on screen, but hopefully, cumulatively, subconsciously....

Reader, I regret that change. It's especially easy when writing about these shots here in such a singular fashion to disregard how they work in concert with everything around them, but in this case the composition's strength doesn't do any favors to the way it's now cut into the film. It's just a little too ostentatious to just slip by, which is what the sequence demands. In its original incarnation, the dialogue was cut into the montage in a way that it really pushed its rhythm to a hilt. The words meant something, yes, but even if one didn't pick up on that meaning, it functioned formally. Somehow, I managed to overlook that when I took it out. It's almost too small a thing to call it a mistake, but it is. No one will ever miss it, except for me. This is one of about four decisions that I made post-Sundance that, in my immediate hindsight, were a bit too impetuous. They now exist for me to lose sleep over and for everyone else to hopefully never notice.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:10 PM

July 28, 2013

Intake 7/28/13

Film
Kill Bill vol. 1 & 2 - dir. Quentin Tarantino
The Silence - dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
Melancholia - dir. Lars Von Trier
The Brinks Job - dir. William Friedkin
The Goonies - dir. Richard Donner
Rocky Horror Picture Show - dir. Jim Sharman
Chasing Amy - dir. Kevin Smith
The Conjuring - dir. James Wan

TV
Orange Is The New Black (the rest of it)

Posted by David Lowery at 10:55 PM

July 26, 2013

ATBS Frames, Pt. 5


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There could have been a version of the movie made up entirely of shots like this, held for great lengths of time - a wide tableaux that suggests something we never see in detail. If there's a manhunt for Bob Muldoon, this shot is all the evidence we have of it, and I think it's all we need.

Like the image of Bob emerging from the woods, this is another shot that was always in the script, going all the way back to the earliest drafts. It was a defining image for that chapter of the film. The dogs were always a part of it, and something that I insisted we keep in the budget even as other line items were being trimmed. There was a time where the scene was set at a public train station, but that fell by the wayside for reasons both logistical and creative, rendering it simpler, more straightforward, more timeless.

What I wanted out of the shot was so specific that, indeed, I felt comfortable not even being there when it was filmed. James M. Johnston and Toby Halbrooks were our second unit directors, and Joe Anderson was the cinematographer, and on three separate occasions they splintered off and knocked off a laundry list of important shots that didn't feature the primary cast. This was the first one they did. I'd already taken pictures and made photoshop mock-ups of what I wanted, and Toby would text me images from the monitor to make sure they were in the right ballpark, but it was still always uniquely exciting to get these particular dailies back and see what they'd been away working on. This one was especially satisfying, just because I'd lived with it for so long. I found the exposure of this frame thrilling - the way the sky above and the earth and train below are so perfectly balanced in terms of density and detail. This is the kind of shot that could hold up for however long you want to let it play. I wish I could have let it run for 10 minutes, James Benning style. A James Benning outlaw movie - there's something!

Sometimes I wonder what the consequences would have been if I had made a choice like that. It wouldn't have been the right one; the movie isn't a study, and as much as it might lean towards what you might call a meditation, it has just enough plot to keep it from being that. Letting this shot play out for longer than the 15 or so seconds that it's on screen would have gained us nothing but an audience's impatience. That being said, had I made that mistake (and I considered it!) it would have been a mistake that pointed in the correct direction. The film is demarcated here and there by various shots or sequences designed to more overtly orient audiences towards the level that the film was functioning on; on that regard, taking a narrative break to watch a bunch of sheriffs investigate a train is more right than wrong.

The first pass of the grade on this shot was more blue. I asked Joe Gawler, our colorist, to push it more towards a rusty red, so that it would help us segue into the next shot - an establishing of the exterior of Sweetie's bar, which is a red building full of red light. I like that the vanishing point of the trains points us towards Bob Muldoon's next stop.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:42 AM

July 25, 2013

ATBS Frames, Pt. 4


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Today I'm going to feature two shots, both of which are defined by accidental obscurantism.

The first was very simple. We noticed it first in rehearsal. Casey was escorted into his prison cell and sat down, and where he sat was perfectly aligned with one of the out-of-focus bars of the door, once it was slammed shut. The first time we rehearsed this for camera, he was sitting there casually, perhaps sleepily, with his head in his hands. Who knows what he was thinking, but the image was wrenching, especially with this irresolute blue bar running down the middle of the frame, offering some iota of privacy to this perception of grief. As soon as we realized what we were looking at, Bradford quietly started rolling camera. He whispered to me, "you're gonna want this." And of course I did. We got a few discreet seconds of it, and then set a mark so that the actual take would be similarly obscured. That's what this frame depicts.

In the first few cuts of the film, I made a hard cut from this actual take to our surreptitious footage of Bob with his head in his hands. I loved this jump cut. It was bold and evocative, jarring in just the right way, and I told anyone who asked that I'd be damned if it didn't make the final cut. It was a great edit. Towards the end of post, however, it became clear that it wasn't exactly true to the character - or at least, true to the shorthand of the character we needed at this point in the film. The jump cut revealed a degree of weakness on Bob's part that, while accurate in a humanist and/or realist sense, was on dramatic terms best saved for the end of the movie. So, what we're left with is this image, on its lonesome - still plenty evocative in its own right, although the sequence of shots that it segues into is one of the areas that I still think could stand some fine tuning. I think I took one big step forward when I recut this section of the film after Sundance, and two little steps back. This shot serves as a sort of mental bandaid for me.

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This second frame is taken from the longest scene in the movie: Bob's conversation with Skerritt (Keith Carradine). I think the scene was about six pages in the script, and it's about six minutes in the film too, although on the day, prior to editing, it ran closer to eight. The coverage was based on four set-ups, both utilizing about 24 feet of dolly track parallel to the counter in the shop, with the lens facing in opposing directions as per the rules of traditional coverage. Bob starts on one side of the shot, walking from the front to the back and around to the counter. Skerritt starts behind the counter, and follows Bob with his eyes as he makes his way over to him. We started with Skerritt's angle, on a 50mm lens, slowly pushing forward and backward on the dolly as he watched Bob mosey around his shop. To the credit of Keith and Casey, we were able to run through most of the scene on each take, letting it play out and build and get good.

After the second or third take, I decided to loosen it up a bit. Rather than stick to Keith, I asked Bradford to drift across the shop to Bob, and then back again to Keith, and so on and so forth. Bradford was operating for these shots, and I'd just follow him and Teddy, our dolly grip, and tap them on the shoulder to suggest a pan, or to get the dolly moving again if it had come to a stop. If Bradford's instincts dictated a move, I was happy to let him call the shots as well. We moved forward thusly, loosely, drifting around, and in doing so the scene came to life in a new manner. It's lackadaisical mood was perfectly disarming, setting the stage for the intensity to come once we switched to a 100mm lens and didn't have as much spatial ground to cover.

One we were done with Keith's side, we switched over to that 100mm, laid some new dolly track behind the counter and started looking the opposite direction. Technically speaking, the shot was set up to catch Casey in his final position, but I wanted to run the scene from a bit earlier - employing the same drift - and that's how we wound up with the above shot. The camera was moving slowly on the dolly, and Casey was moving of his own accord, and they both landed in this precise formation, with the cash register's handle blocking his face at the precise moment when he's engaging with some personal mythmaking. It was too perfect. I remember seeing it on our terrible little monitors and knowing that it would wind up in the movie.

This scene was a nightmare to edit, but this was one of the shots that anchored it during its many permutations, and kept me from cutting it entirely when I was at my wits' ends. Technically speaking, the image was a little out of focus - drifting without marks on a 100mm lens is nigh impossible for a focus puller - but not too much to keep me from loving it. In fact, I think the softness, the diffusive nature of it and its imperfection, was part of its appeal. The shot blossoms into something literally radiant once Casey hits his mark, but it's this happy accident right here that I'm more eager to embrace.

Incidentally: the hat that Casey wears went from being a good idea while we were on set to a nightmare when we were editing to something that I now love for the same fanciful reasons we originally felt that it was a good bit of costume design. Love and hate are circuitous things on movies. My movies, at least.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:48 AM

July 24, 2013

ATBS Frames, Pt. 3


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Does this image even register? You might have to increase the brightness of your computer screen. There have been constant references to the sun-dappled Malick-influenced golden hour imagery in the movie, which I have to admit have been slightly surprising in their prolificacy, because pretty much all of that happens in the first five minutes. The rest of the movie largely looks like this. Extremely intimate and dark, dark dark.

This shot is locked off and comprises an entire scene, and it was difficult to pick which piece of blocking to pick an image from. The shot begins with Ben Foster sitting at the table on the right, facing the camera, directly in the light of the lamp. It's a very formal and solid composition, and perhaps slightly unusual for the movie in that Ben is so squarely off-center. When Rooney enters, she balances out the frame for a moment - and then Ben stands up into the composition above. I went with that final iteration, because it's how most of the scene plays (it's a little over a minute long) and because it's where the scene gets weird - and where the composition and use of space really gets interesting to me. There's a strangeness to it, an eerie elegance; the awkward formality of the dialogue is countered by the precise formality of the image.

Allow me to get thematic for a moment. The scene is squarely from Patrick Wheeler's perspective, both because we start in solitude with him and then because, when that solitude is broken, we roughly maintain his perspective in that his back is to us. Ruth remains in shadow, which is appropriate because he doesn't know what her intentions are at this point in the movie (although her dialogue makes explicit that she feels the same way about him - no one ever knows what anyone's up to in this movie because everyone always tiptoes around everything, and she's the only character who repeatedly makes a point of trying to clear the air with an honest question). The light is behind her. She's keeping it hidden. Patrick, up to this point, has been stand-off-ish and shy, but here he leaves the safety zone of distance - he steps out of his light, towards hers, but stops halfway because he can't bring himself to do what he really wants to do, which is come clean to her and just give her a goddamn hug. He's stranded between two points of light, both thematically and quite literally. The lamps anchor the composition until, at the end of this scene, Patrick leaves, head hung low, leaving the frame a mirror of its initial form.

Did I think in such terms on set? I wish I could say yes, but - nope, not a chance. There was scarcely time to. I knew I wanted to try and cover the scene from a single set-up. We could have staged it on the couch, but in script-order we'd just spent a lot of time there and were going to wind up back there again, so we went with the table. I picked what seemed the most advantageous spot. We put the camera on a slider in case we wanted to start off with a slow pull-back on Ben, but quickly decided that it was unnecessary. We blocked it out roughly, set marks for the actors, and then Bradford spent about 30 minutes adjusting the placement and wattage of those lamps. That was the one thing that was clear when we set the frame - those lamps were going to carry some weight.

We discussed how dark Rooney's half of the frame could safely get, but beyond that, we didn't really think about what the composition meant. We ran through it and I just knew that it felt right. If it hadn't, I'd have asked that we move in for coverage or (god forbid) restaged it. But it held up for the whole scene, and we felt safe moving on after six or seven takes. It wasn't until we were editing that the strength of the shot really emerged, and it wasn't until I started writing this that I started to think about why it was strong.

Another note on the darkness. We really wanted this movie to be dark, even in daylight exteriors, and Bradford went to great lengths to find the perfect combination of exposure, filtration and processing to achieve a pretty rich level of darkness. We would often cite this one shot of Charlize Theron walking down a hallways in The Yards, in which you can barely see her and yet perfectly see her at the same time, as our ballpark goal for exposure.

This shot, however, has its own very specific lineage. On the big screen you can just barely make out Rooney's face - as dark as the film gets at times, there's always something there - but in the broad strokes of this frame, she's a shadow, and there's something about that which chills my heart and makes my hair stand up a little bit. I can trace this back to Hitchcock's Marnie, which I haven't seen since I was probably 9 or 10. There's a scene where Marnie talks to her mother, and the mother's face is kept in shadow the entire time, and this subtle (although in truth it's probably completely unsubtle) visual trick terrified me far more than the mother in Psycho. It's haunted me ever since. My intentions with this scene of Ain't Them Bodies Saints have nothing in common with Hitchcock's in that film, but my inclination to keep Rooney in shadow here, to court the sort of mystery such lighting represents, certainly owes a debt to whatever sleep I lost as a child because of that image.

Posted by David Lowery at 11:43 AM

July 23, 2013

ATBS Frames, Pt. 2


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This shot existed in every iteration of the screenplay, described on the page exactly as we photographed it, as seen above. I love the image of someone emerging from the woods, dwarfed by the nature around them. Something about diminishing a character in a frame like this felt right for the story (especially since this image in effect represents a major plot point, and the movie is all about diminishing plot points). It's a rebirth of sorts for Bob Muldoon, but I also wanted him to feel like a ghost, like someone who is in a strange place where he doesn't belong.

We shot this on the first day of principal photography, on July 9th of last year. It was the last shot of the day, and we timed it out so that the light would be at just the right point in the sky. Naturally, that also meant we had very little time to get it. The shot is actually a dolly shot, which begins pulling back from the woods, very slowly, before Bob emerges, and then gradually drifts left to the blacktop once he climbs out of the gully and crosses the road. It was a very specific move, but it took a while to get it right. I remember our camera operator having trouble understanding what it was that we were trying to achieve; we had all just started working together and weren't speaking the same language yet. He kept trying to follow the action, or find some movement on Casey's part to motivate the camera's movements, which is technically the proper thing to do but which rendered a shot like this one pretty pedantic. Bradford explained to him that the move was its own thing, that it needed to be perfect unto itself, that it was what the shot was about and that this barefoot guy in the woods just happened to move through it. A far more precise way of describing it than the hand gestures that I was probably trying to use to say the same thing.

I don't know if we ever got it 100% perfect. The take in the film is the second to last one, and it's just about there, but there's a slight bump early in the shot. On the subsequent take, one of the picture cars broke down, and after that we were out of light. But it's 95% there. And you can hide camera bumps in sound design.

There was record-setting rainfall the night before we shot this (and a fair amount during the day as well), and so the location that was dry as a bone when we scouted it had suddenly become a swamp. You can't tell from the image, but Casey is standing almost knee deep in water here. The woods were completely flooded. Dutch, our AD, braved the waters first to make sure they were safe of detritus and snakes. The brown leaves that offset the green ones on the left side of the frame were a great example of art direction in the wild. We hauled that branch in there to give a splash of color and break up the muted green of everything else.

This image is one of only a handful that had a direct precedent in another movie. There's a shot in Apichatpong Aeerasethakul's Tropical Malady that is probably one of my favorite shots of all time, or at least one that's hung around my head and inspired me more than most. It's a wide shot. A group of soldiers march towards the jungle. They all gradually exit screen left. After they've vanished from the frame, the camera slowly, slowly begins to push forward towards the jungle wall. It's a shot of sheer intention, and so full of mystery that I never get tired of thinking about it. I feel like it's had a major impact on everything I've done for the past six or seven years, since seeing that movie for the first time.

A few second past the frame captured here, there is an overt reference to another source of inspiration, that being the music of Joanna Newsom, and the song Only Skin in particular.

Also: this shot kicks of another montage. For those who haven't seen the film, there are a lot of montages in it. But I don't like to call them that. We structured the film in movements, and this is the prelude to one of the major ones.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:02 PM

July 22, 2013

ATBS Frames, pt. 1


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Working on a film, there always comes a point where you get tired of the scenes, the dialogue, the entire story. You can't see it as a whole, and when you can that whole sometimes feels terrible. But there are always little things that allow you to refocus, and in the case of this movie, I would often seize upon frames that reminded me that we'd been after something strong with the movie, that we had intention and point of view. These shots would tip my favor back towards the movie and get everything ship-shape again. And they still do. I want to spend this week talking about some of them - a commentary track in text, one image at a time.

This first one is from early in the film. It's part of a montage, but hopefully it carries its own weight all the same. It is evidence of one of the primary visual motifs of the film, which is that the framing is almost entirely centrist, with the subject usually occupying more or less the middle of the image. Usually a bit canted, almost dead-on. I wanted everyone to be framed like icons. In fact, looking at it now, this shot feels lifted right out of Marian Iconography. There's that Roman Catholic upbringing rearing its head.

I love that elderly woman's face.

Finding a church that looked like this was difficult. I wanted something classic, monochrome, with wooden pews. Preferably with clapboard walls. Everything we found was either very modern or very tacky, with a preponderance of purple carpeting; simplicity and austerity was hard to come by. It was well into our shoot before we discovered this one, out in a suburb in the middle of nowhere. The inside was perfect, very dark in spite of an abundance of windows. I recall the day we found it, people were riding down the street on horseback.

I remember telling Bradford that I wanted it to look like it was entirely lit from outside. This was one of very few locations where we actually wanted the natural light look. Which doesn't mean that it didn't take a while to light. I think we wound up with big lights with CTB on them, punching in through the windows from outside.

I went back and forth on whether or not I wanted Ruth to look directly into the lens for this shot. I was thinking of Two Lovers, that astounding moment where Vinessa Shaw nails the lens. We tried it, but it wasn't really necessary. That Ruth was making eye contact with someone at all was enough. Later in the shoot, we did let her look into the lens for a different scene, which was ultimately cut out. The fourth wall remains largely intact in this movie.

I think Sylvie was really asleep in this shot, or close to it at least. Filmmaking in a church - boredom upon boredom.

Early in the edit, this shot fell into place as part of a montage, one cut it to music and almost entirely free of production audio. If we'd left it in, you'd have heard Dutch, our 1st AD, reading Psalms from up on the pulpit. That would have been his second vocal cameo; his voice is also the one in prison which delivers to Bob Muldoon the news that he has a baby girl. Recorded on set to give Casey something to react to, and never bested.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:53 AM

July 21, 2013

Final Poster

Entertainment Weekly premiered our final poster the other day. The image it's made up of, which for many months was the only representation of the film that existed, says on its lonesome almost everything I wanted to say with the entire movie. If it doesn't open in a theater near you (or even if it does), you could stare at this while listening to one of the tracks from the soundtrack and have an equivocal experience.

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This isn't to be reductive about the movie in any way. It's a good movie. But this image is great. It does what great images can do, which is tell whole stories whose breadth isn't bound by a beginning, middle and end. The movie is lucky to have it.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:42 AM

July 15, 2013

Intake 7/15/13

FILM
Katy Perry: Part Of Me - Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz
Pacific Rim - Guillermo Del Toro
Haywire - Steven Soderbergh
The Heat - Paul Feig
Barton Fink - Coen Bros.

TELEVISION
Orange Is The New Black (first four episodes)

BOOKS
Rabbit, Run - John Updike

Posted by David Lowery at 8:35 PM

July 9, 2013

Intake 7/8/13

FILM

Promised Land - Gus Van Sant
A Field In England - Ben Wheatley
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction - Sophie Huber
Jodorowsky's Dune - Frank Pavich
The Past - Asghar Farhadi
Little Odessa - James Gray

BOOKS

The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powers

Posted by David Lowery at 3:44 AM