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May 24, 2017

OMATG - Wrapped!


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.


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:

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

May 14, 2017

OMATG Weeks 5 & 6


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