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LAFF: Character Thru a Strong Sense of Place

June 13, 2016 | By

Realistically detailed worlds that define the people that inhabit them were common elements of films at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Expressing not only a diversity of character, but also location, the creative collaboration between directors and their crews was essential in bringing these environments and characters authentically to the screen.

LR-Sensitivity-TrainingWinner of the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award and an Alfred P. Sloan grant, writer/director Melissa Finell’s comedic look at anger management, Sensitivity Training, stars Anna Lise Phillips (Revolution, Animal Kingdom) as Serena, a misanthropic scientist, and Jill Alexander (Silicon Valley, Mad Men) as Caroline, a bubbly life coach – two distinctly opposite personalities, living in two very different worlds and the unlikely friendship that develops between the pair. The director’s fascination with human behavior led her to the story and her first feature.

Finell relied upon key crew from her days as a UCLA grad student to bring her film to the screen. Early in pre-production, the director and cinematographer Paul Cannon shot-listed the film, pre-visualizing the scenario of what the spaces would look like. She had similar conversations with production designer Richard H. Perry. With the world being a large part of what made the character, the production team got numerous images together for every location in a shared online look-book.

“Finding the right locations is important, but then of course not just accepting it as it looks, but making it your own and making it the character’s own location with art direction and production design. So we really knew what we were looking for,” Finell commented. “Even though we didn’t have a huge budget, I kind of have this belief that beggars can be choosers when it comes to filmmaking. It doesn’t mean you should take anything. You should use the extra time when you can afford it.”

Looking to find the story in real-world details, production designer Perry worked with a scientist to create an authentic microbiology lab, an essential setting for Serena’s profession, which also served as a visual metaphor in support of the film’s theme of self-protection. The team used a combination of color, lighting, location, and composition within each location to build the different worlds. The cold, monochromatic starkness of Serena’s apartment contrasted with the colorful, vibrant and full-of-life home where Caroline lived with her family.

Different camera work also accentuated the contradictory personalities. The frenetic handheld camera had a more organic feeling that supported Caroline’s busy, chaotic life whereas a dolly was used for moves when shooting Serena since it was more stable and controlled for a character that needed to be in control in her own space.

Approaching his work from a story first perspective, Cannon’s use of anamorphic underscored Serena’s remoteness. The format’s shallow depth of field meant the she would be in focus as the background visually fell away, a contrast made even greater when Caroline comes into the picture. “Paul and I decided to shoot the film on anamorphic lenses to emphasize Serena’s isolation and how Caroline impacts her world,” Finell said.

Anamorphic also provided a great medium for the comedy. There was room in the frame to enhance the humor by stacking information in the foreground and background. The widescreen aspect of the Red Epic camera, combined with character-based lighting and color schemes. supported Finell’s vision for the story.

Paced with a ticking clock tension, 11:55 draws upon the western genre in a modern day showdown where a Marine (Victor Almanzar), back home from years of duty overseas, has to face off with a drug dealer whose brother he killed. Writer/directors Ari Issler and Ben Snyder set their modern parable on the mean streets of Newburgh, New York, a distressed city that plays a major role in the lives of its residents, including the protagonist. Staying close to real life, the story was inspired by what co-writer, Almanzar, went through when he came home from service.

Although the filmmakers originally intended to shoot in Holyoke, Massachusetts, because they were familiar with the area, for logistics, they searched for a small working-class city closer to their New York City base. As a cinematic backdrop Newburgh fit what they were looking for. The community was engaged in the filmmaking and, for the most part, welcomed the production.

Authenticity was extremely important to the filmmakers. The visual representation of the film was a key factor to achieve emotional resonance in support of the story. The co-directors brought individual skills to the process. Snyder’s background is in live theater, while Issler comes from film, cinematography in particular. Having worked together for a long time, their choices were derived from “a constant dialog.” Snyder usually spoke with the actors and Issler communicated with the crew. They gave each other notes in order to speak with one voice.

Before cinematographer Tim Gillis was even involved, Issler shot listed, and shot listed again based upon input from Snyder.  “In doing that we were able to fix a lot of scenes because you ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to say?’ If I can’t fathom how to shoot this three-eighths of a page, maybe it’s not written very well. So we kept refining the draft. With Tim, we did the same thing,” explained Issler.

Lighting was extremely important to set the tone of the story. Bay area gaffer, Chris Galdes, had worked with the directors on commercials and a short. “After the producers and actors, the first person I needed was my gaffer. I could not make this movie without Chris Galdes,” admitted Issler, who called upon other past collaborators for his team. “My costume designer [Amanda Ford] I’ve known my entire adult life. She is someone who is in and out of the business doing other bigger things, who really wanted to come back in support.”

Even crewmembers that the directors did not know came from the recommendations of people they had known for a long time. “All that helped,” added Issler. “Obviously making a movie on a limited budget is never an easy thing.”

Tracktown

Tracktown

Set at an athletic center in Eugene, Oregon, Tracktownwritten and directed by Jeremy Teicher and Alexi Pappascenters on a long distance runner (Pappas) forced to take a day off from running to recover before Olympic trials. This fresh and introspective look at a unique, but very specific world, benefited from the fact that Pappas as an Olympic athlete, was able to gain physical access to locations that would normally be prohibitive, especially for an indie film.

Teicher and Pappas were interested in shooting a fictional story in a real life setting with real people and real locations. “I began running at an Olympic level at that point and joined the professional team in Eugene, Oregon, which is appropriately nicknamed, Tracktown, USA,” shared Pappas. “I would call Jeremy and tell him about this place where people on the trails recognized you while they were also running around themselves. Billboards were for runners instead of football players. We started thinking we could tell a really unique story in a very specific setting.”

Teicher had worked with cinematographer Chris Collins on his previous film. The directors talked with him about their vision, how they wanted the film to feel, and how they wanted to shoot the race scene. According to the directors, Collins celebrated the location in the way that he shot the action. The handheld camerawork captured the experience of a young Olympic hopeful with a frenetic energy.

When making an indie film, Teicher noted, “Decisions are one part creative and one part practical.”  Working with professional athletes in actual training facilities, meant the filmmakers had limited time to shoot because the real Olympians had to train ten minutes after production wrapped. Still, the filmmakers felt the practical elements helped the race scenes came together.

The production was lucky to shoot in the top track stadium, Hayward Field, and film during a major track meet where they were able to capture large crowd scenes. “Because Alexi knew all the people, we could plant her in the middle of the stadium and get a cool shot of our character with the crowd in the background to intercut with footage we filmed in the empty stadium,” revealed Teicher.

Producer Laura Wagner was instrumental in getting the film made. She took the project to the Sundance Creative Producing Lab and was also a fellow at the San Francisco Film Society with the film. “Through her past experience, and her working in these lab programs with us and Tracktown, I felt like us filmmakers in Oregon had these tentacles out in the rest of the film world. We were able to make a film that would reach audiences outside Oregon as a result,” stated Papas.

The filmmakers were especially proud to have over 50% women in the cast and crew. They also were proud of how Oregon-based the film was and the incentive program support that they received from the Governor’s Office of Film and Television.

Papas concluded, “When you watch the film, not only do you know that this film could only take place in Eugene, Oregon – because I feel we showed off so much of the place – but many of people from Oregon made the film happen behind the scenes. That home spirit bleeds into the film in a really great way.”

The streets of London circa 1979 set the backdrop for London Town, a coming-of-age story where 14-year old Shay (Daniel Huttlestone) takes inspiration from his hero, Joe Strummer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) of The Clash, to help him deal with the responsibilities trust upon him by the hospitalization of his father and abandonment by his mother. Although director Derrick Borte was a Clash fan, he did not come up with the screenplay idea. It came from his producer Sofia Sondervan, tasked with developing content from the Sony library during a time that she worked for the company

Period films pose singular creative challenges for filmmakers in creating their worlds. “What could be done practically, what would be done in post, how to avoid certain things, and how to capture the world without giving away that it wasn’t 1978,” said Borte. “Working with my production designer Laura Ellis Cricks and my D.P. Hubert Taczanowski, together we all addressed the challenges of trying to create this world on our minuscule budget. I think we were able to accomplish it in a way that I was happy with it. It helps to surround yourself with great people.”

The director communicated with his key crew through various visual methods. Cricks assembled massive drop-box files of reference photos. Borte gravitated towards finding reference films to watch with his crew. During their lengthy pre-production prep, the combination of period magazines, photos, and films set during the period allowed the filmmakers to “dial-in” to elements necessary to sell the time frame.

The director could not say enough about the entire art department and felt he could not have done the film without all of them. He was especially complimentary about the department’s resourceful solutions to problems.

“One of my favorite stories in relation to shooting this period was the dustman’s strike,” shared Borte. “In looking at all of these images, and seeing how massive these piles of trash were everywhere, it allowed us this great tool. We would travel around with a box truck full of prop garbage. Nothing smelled. If there was a car that we couldn’t move or a modern vending machine that would give away the period, we would just cover them with piles of trash.”

“Squats” – homes occupied without the owner’s permission – were prevalent in London during the 70’s, so setting the mother’s flat in a one helped sell the era. Location manager Ben O’Farrell found the house and the art department “took it to the next level.”

Borte added, “The squat couldn’t have been better. It was one of my favorite locations. Some of my favorite times on set were scouting with Ben and Laura, finding some of these amazing locations, then walking through figuring out how we can shoot these locations, how we can take advantage of them, and how we can dress them to work for us. That was a very challenging, but rewarding part of the process for me.”

The director referred to period films more for the look, than for a way to shoot. For a few days they tried shooting in a period style, but both the director and Taczanowski felt the result was a bit stale and staged. Consequently much of the camerawork was handheld to help the energy and tension.

Borte noted that he was “a below the line kinda guy.” He loved rolling up his sleeves and painting graffiti with the art department or operating the camera. “I really think that those two departments were just spectacular.” He concluded, “You can see it on the screen, the amazing work that they did. They deserve the same kind of recognition that the actors are getting.”

Girl Flu

Girl Flu

Visually and emotionally contrasting life in inner city Echo Park with the suburban valley culture of Reseda, Girl Flu writer/director, Dorie Barton, tells this mother and daughter coming-of-age story with humor and specificity.

“There is no getting away from the fact that this story is girly. You have to embrace that,” stated Barton. “The very first shot of the film is of a lady doll. That’s where we’re going.”

Drawing upon a crew that came largely from USC where many went to school, Barton said her fellow artists showed a commitment to her vision for the film. She singled out line producer Ian Christian Blanche, UPM Nick Andrus and first AD Mike Montgomery for their major contributions. Although the team was largely male, she attempted to bring as many women into the production as possible.

Speaking about her director of photography as indispensable to the production, Barton asserted, “I love Alice Brooks. I don’t think anyone could have a better ally on a set than she was to me.”

Barton commented that as a writer/director, the vision is hers more than anyone else’s, but Brooks brought tremendous support to the project. As a first time filmmaker, she admitted her lack of knowledge about the technology, but with Brooks she had “no fear” if she did not understand how to achieve a look that she was going for. “To her credit, she made it very easy,” said the director.

One of Brooks’ first questions after they met was “What do you want this film to look like?” Barton wanted it to look “heart-breakingly pretty. She gave me that.” To communicate, Barton found several boards on Pinterest useful as a way of sharing visual ideas, Brooks made a look-book, and they referenced a few other films, but mostly they talked about the emotional quality of the film.

Costume designer Jennifer Soulages captured character through Bird’s wardrobe, reflecting in dress how the character was feeling. “Bird in particular has a rather erratic emotional arc, so each day’s wardrobe was designed specifically to reflect what Bird was going through that day,” revealed Barton. “Some days she was really angry and so we have her dressed in this punked out way that a 12-year old might imagine. One day she is feeling kind of confused and she has a tutu on over her jeans. Something totally experimental.”

The director fell in love with production designer Alec Contestabile from pictures of his other films that had a level of detail that was so specific, that only he knew. He had created a whole sub-level of design within the design to deepen the meaning of the story.

Having a large part of the story take place in Bird’s home, created a strong sense of place in the film. Considering the constraints of an indie budget, the director had originally written the script to shoot for free in her own Echo Park home. Ultimately the production used another house, which had the same footprint as the director’s abode – two bedrooms connected by a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. “That’s really what the film is about,” laughed Barton. “It could be called two bedrooms and a bathroom.”

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