Filmmakers are often touted for their “vision”—their singular sense of how a movie should look, sound, and feel. But every film starts on paper, with a screenplay or even just an idea for a character or a mood. A director must partner with a cinematographer, a production designer, and others to translate that idea into a compelling, visually sophisticated narrative. Below, how three filmmaking teams on tight budgets brought their stories to the screen using film, digital video, high def, and anything else they could get their hands on.
Written and Directed by Austin Chick
Director of Photography: Uta Briesewitz
Production Design: Judy Becker
Austin Chick began his first film XX/XY by imagining the most common of male fantasies, two girls and a guy. “I sort of liked the idea of exploring how awkward and uncomfortable a situation like that can be, as opposed to what everyone thinks it will be,” says Chick. “It’s hard enough for two strangers to go to bed together, let alone three.” The writer-director wanted to launch his career with a small, personal movie that would evoke the newest wave of French films and 70s-era anti-romantic comedies like Carnal Knowledge and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, films Chick calls “fucked-up relationship movies.”
For XX/XY, Chick wrote an unconventional script about an aspiring filmmaker named Coles Burroughs, who pursues a beautiful college student named Sam. He falls into bed with Sam and her friend Thea, though their ménage quickly becomes uncomfortable. Coles and Sam begin to date in earnest, but their relationship eventually disintegrates as well. In the second half of the movie, the audience encounters Coles, Thea, and Sam ten years later. Coles is still an indecisive narcissist, only now he has money and comfortable furniture. His long-time girlfriend, Claire, realizes he is still in love with Sam and demands that he make a real commitment to her. She makes a speech at the film’s climax that will resonate with everyone who has ever worried that they were someone’s “consolation prize.” When the film closes, the audience is still unsure whether Coles has made a definitive choice, or if it is Sam who has finally left him behind.
Chick, who initially trained as a visual artist, knew he wanted to give the two halves of his film distinct palettes. He and production designer, Judy Becker, used blues and yellows to evoke the aimless, slightly degraded world that the younger characters inhabit. They frequent bars and parties, travel on the subway, and do almost everything at night, lit by flickering fluorescents. As things begin to go wrong between the characters, the blues and yellows begin to bleed into green—an uneasy, sickly color. By the second half, Coles, Claire, Sam and Thea live in chilly, beige, Pottery Barn interiors—“blank and neutral,” says Becker.
Despite his firm ideas, Chick didn’t want his audience to take active note of XX/XY’s production design: “I didn’t want to do anything that looked overly designed or stylized.” So Becker used the blue and yellow elements sparingly. “We discovered together that a very little went a long way,” she says. “We incorporated all the colors, but in just one place or in a muddied version on the walls.”
Still, XX/XY has a tonal consistency that grew out of Chick and Becker’s commitment to their limited color range. That range only expands, says Chick, when the characters venture outside. “The scenes I like least in the movie are the exteriors, because I couldn’t control those,” he says, laughing. “All the different colored shirts that people are wearing and the bright green foliage—that drives me crazy.”
Initially, Chick thought he would make his movie on DV. The limited scope and intimate nature of the story seemed perfect for cheap-and-easy digital. But as Chick began to describe how he wanted his movie to look to his cinematographer, Uta Briesewitz, she realized that he wanted to make a film in the true sense of the word. Briesewitz, who also shot the psychological thriller Session 9, and is DP for HBO’s The Wire, wanted XX/XY to look lush and jewel-like, even when the characters live in cramped, messy apartments, drink too much, and sleep with the wrong people. It needed to be dirty and pretty at the same time. “I felt that [the movie] really needed to have a certain elegance to it,” she says.
Chick had planned on making a $120,000 DV movie and found himself in the end on a $500,000 35mm film shoot in fifty-seven locations. “Both Uta and Judy were amazing,” says Chick. “And I think the movie looks like it cost more to make than it actually did.”
“That’s really the goal,” adds Briesewitz. “Every independent film should look more expensive than it was.”
The Shape of Things
Written and Directed by Neil LaBute
Director of Photography: James L. Carter
Production Design: Lynette Meyer
Until last year, Neil LaBute kept his two identities separate. To theater audiences, he was the author of a series of dark, dispassionate social comedies, and to movie audiences, he was the filmmaker behind an entirely different series of dark, dispassionate social comedies. But in 2001, LaBute decided to transplant his play The Shape of Things from the stage to the screen.
Shape premiered in London in 2001, starring four actors, Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol, and Frederick Weller. A defiant art student named Evelyn (Weisz) woos Adam (Rudd), a hapless undergrad, and over the course of their relationship, she transforms him from an overweight, self-effacing loser into a svelte, confident boyfriend whose makeover baffles and alienates his friends. Evelyn’s coup de grace is talking Adam into a nose job.
Like many of LaBute’s works, Shape is about the superficiality and brutality of ordinary human interaction. The play’s climax is Evelyn’s presentation of her mysterious final art project. Adam and his friends, Jenny and Phil, played by Mol and Weller, take their seats in the audience—in the stage production, they are quite literally sprinkled in among theatergoers—and listen as Evelyn describes Adam as her creation. Feigning love, she manipulated him into changing everything about himself in order to please her. Adam has even, in the end, given up his old friends and asked Evelyn to marry him.
In its theatrical incarnation, Shape was deliberately spare. Minimalist sets and a few carefully chosen props filled in the details of the various locations: a museum, a doctor’s lounge, an apartment, a playground. Jenny and Phil were dressed in preppy neutrals and Adam in baggy, indistinct college-kid garb. Only Evelyn popped on stage, her punky, bright clothes demanding as much attention as her cruelly ambitious project.
Shortly before LaBute brought the play—complete with the same cast and sets—to New York City in the fall of 2001, a producer offered him funds to turn Shape into a film. He jumped at the chance, but decided not to change much about his production. Shape would keep its essential form and message. Instead of the usual fifty to sixty scenes, the movie version would have only ten just like the play. And instead of slashing away swaths of dialogue to make room for the kind of visual storytelling that is impossible on stage, LaBute made only a few minor changes to accommodate his new medium.
The resulting movie, which was shot on film in 18 days, may be the most rehearsed movie ever made. Rudd, Weisz, Mol, and Weller had been running their lines for a year.
“With the film, I was trying to achieve something akin to the theatrical experience,” says LaBute. “I like it when a movie is basically two people talking. If the script is good enough, I don’t think you have to have a lot more than that to make it interesting.” To that end, LaBute used the camera to create a kind of static frame in which the actors delivered their dialogue. He seldom cut between his characters; instead, he showed them reacting to each other and the space they occupied. In addition, LaBute and his DP, James Carter, rarely moved the camera and almost never quickly. In the final scene, a swooping camera movement startles the viewer precisely because the camera has moved that way only a few times before.
There are of course, significant differences between the theatrical and film versions. This is largely because a play has one thing going for it that a movie will never have: an audience just doesn’t expect it to look real. On stage, for instance, Rudd wore baggy clothes and slumped over when he was the old Adam. When changed by Evelyn, Rudd donned a form-fitting costume and carried himself with more grace and confidence. But onscreen, LaBute supplied Rudd with devices to add nuance to his character’s alteration. He wore pads that made him look overweight, and he had prosthetics in his nose, which came out after the operation.
“Everything that Paul conveyed on stage was through is own bodywork, what was in the text, and with the costumes,” says LaBute. “And of course the added ingredient of suspension of disbelief. In a theater, the audience says: ‘I’ll give you this. I know he’s not losing 25 pounds over the course of two hours, but just let me sort of believe it.’”
At the movies, an audience requires proof.
The story’s location also had to be more concrete on film. The play took place at a Midwestern college. The site was left deliberately vague, and allusions to place were only meant to evoke the insular cocoon of a university town. On screen, however, Shape’s venue is clearly Southern California. The palm trees and idyllic campus setting offset both Adam’s awkwardness and Evelyn’s defiant remove from the mainstream. The sets, in particular, were a marked contrast. Where the stage was almost bare, Shape’s filmic scenery was maximalist, a heightened version of reality. Evelyn’s apartment is a riot of primary colors and littered with her art projects; Phil’s living room a goofy beige lair, cluttered with knickknacks a college student might describe as “cool.”
Even though production designer Lynette Meyer, who also designed the costumes for both the stage and movie version, exaggerated each film set, she had to be careful not to distract audiences too much from their focus on the characters. Rooms could be bright and playful, but they had to be believable. She and LaBute may have been going for theatrical, but they were still making a movie.
Directed by Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand
Director of Photography: Daniel B. Gold
In 1998, Dan Gold and Judith Helfand set themselves one of the most difficult tasks in contemporary filmmaking: They would make a documentary about industrial pollution and environmental toxins that didn’t bore their audience into a stupor.
Blue Vinyl is their account of the siding on Helfand’s parents’ house in Merrick, Long Island. In 1994, Florence and Ted Helfand replaced their deep red, wooden clapboards with powder blue vinyl, a supposedly safe, durable material that would fit in nicely in their quiet, suburban neighborhood. But their daughter, Judith, wasn’t convinced that vinyl was harmless. Helfand’s cinematic investigation into her parents’ blue siding took her to Lake Charles, Louisiana, a city largely dependent on the $6 billion vinyl industry; Venice, Italy, where magistrates have charged vinyl manufacturers with poisoning the city’s lagoon; and back to Merrick, where she finally convinced her mother and father to trade in their vinyl for a building material that was not a hazard at any point in its life cycle.
Environmental films are a particularly tough sell. Documentaries that have done well in recent years have featured adorable children, breathtaking footage of birds, or Michael Moore. Films about environmental damage, in contrast, are usually heavy on the science and on depressing images of sick people or spoiled landscapes. They are not crowd pleasers. To be sure, there is a small, committed audience that would watch paint dry if it were lead paint and the documentary exposed corporate malfeasance. But Gold and Helfand did not want to pitch their film to the converted—they hoped for a new kind of audience.
“We wanted to reach middle-class, average consumers who are going to buy something because it’s cheap and effective, and they’re not going to have to pay a whole lot of attention to it over the long haul,” says Helfand. “They are the battleground between the environmental movement and industry. Everybody wants those people.” Gold and Helfand knew Blue Vinyl had to forge a vivid link between their audience, the workers who make vinyl, the people who live near production plants, and the corporations that work so hard to convince the average consumer that vinyl is a harmless and endlessly useful plastic. To do this, the filmmakers used two primary tools: humor and a compelling aesthetic.
Their first trick was to make Blue Vinyl resolutely personal. Because everything in the movie is seen, quite literally, from Helfand’s perspective, the film is never clinical or pedantic. As Helfand—as well as Gold’s camera—travel from Long Island to Louisiana, Italy, and California, she totes a piece of blue vinyl with her. It is a constant reminder of both the wide-ranging effects of the plastic industry and her own family’s implication in that story. The difficult task of situating the viewer in a dozen different locations becomes a disarming visual joke: Helfand’s vinyl scrap bobs along at a Lake Charles Mardi Gras celebration, in a gondola on the Grand Canal, and on a car dashboard over the Golden Gate bridge.
The filmmakers also used humor to undercut the sober science that they knew they had to deliver. They commissioned stylishly drawn segments by animator Emily Hubley to illustrate the potential toxicity of the vinyl manufacturing process. And instead of filming talking heads in cramped university offices, the co-directors sat a series of experts on plastic chairs on the lawn in front of the Helfand house.
From the beginning, Gold insisted that the film should be beautiful as well as entertaining and informative. As an experienced documentary DP and news “shooter,” he had been on too many shoots where the filmmakers grabbed B-roll or beauty shots as an afterthought on the way to lunch. He knew that the grueling, expensive process of filming hundreds of hours of video footage would make it easy for him to skimp on precisely the kinds of images that would make his film a pleasure to watch. “We were always trying to show everyday life unfolding against a constant backdrop of industry,” says Gold. “We worked from the background forward.”
He and Helfand took one trip to Louisiana exclusively to shoot landscape and setting shots. They hired a jib operator at considerable expense in order to get the height they needed for sweeping shots of vinyl factories and the surrounding houses. And Gold always insisted that they find the most picturesque, appropriate location for an interview—even if it meant spending a few extra hours standing in front of hay bales on the Northern California coast.
Gold and Helfand’s efforts were rewarded with two Emmy nominations in 2003 and the 2002 Documentary Award for Excellence in Cinematography at Sundance, proving that a film with an activist agenda doesn’t have to be tedious.