When Oscar-nominated producer-turned-director Ross Katz makes a movie, he hopes his crew is as emotionally invested as he is. When he found one of his Teamsters weeping in the restroom after an especially detailed scene in a military mortuary, he realized the difficult subject matter of Taking Chance—nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival— was as emotional for everyone as it was for him.
A self-avowed 24/7 news junkie, Katz found he’d become desensitized to the Iraq war news and was feeling helpless about his ability to do anything to affect the bloody conflict. Then he read Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl’s journal—an account of the journey taken by the Strobl to escort the body of 19-year-old Marine Chance Phelps back to his family for burial in the heartland. He was so moved by the real-life events contained within that he felt compelled to turn it into a movie. Katz wanted to give at least one combat casualty a name, and, without taking sides, bring the war back home. In this heartbreaking homecoming, Lt. Colonel Strobl, played by a poised Kevin Bacon, discovers humanity and decency in the people he meets along the way.
Below the Line: Why did you decide to make the move from producer to director?
Ross Katz: First of all, having nothing to do with your paper’s title but because of the way I came up, the idea of an “above” and “below” the line drives me nuts. As a producer and now a director, I see it as such a full collaboration with the crew, that I can’t stand the differentiation. There shouldn’t be a line. Perhaps it’s because my first job was as a grip on Reservoir Dogs.
BTL: Maybe all producers should have to do that.
Katz: I think so, although I was a fairly terrible grip. I hit the dolly grip on the head with a piece of track the third day of shooting. I had never gripped before. I had driven my car to Los Angeles on this whim of wanting to make movies. I had no connections. I certainly did not know anybody in film. I blanketed the town with resumes and got a call from Reservoir Dogs. They asked if I was interested in being a grip, and I didn’t really know what it was. They kind of hazed me in, in a real charming, funny way. This wonderful key grip, Ric Urbauer, who I haven’t seen in 13 years, taught me how incredibly creative gripping can be. He actually called it grip-ology. It was my first real experience in understanding the mechanics of how a film is made.
Having produced five movies, and now having directed this one, I still find filmmaking to be an amazing, mysterious process. To say it’s a collaboration is an understatement. All of these remarkable people come and magically turn what was in your head into reality.
BTL: The filmcraft on Taking Chance is impeccable.
Katz: Our cinematographer, Alar Kivilo, is a brilliant guy and one of the most gentle and kind-hearted people you could ever meet. The man loves what he does. He stayed in Chinatown, in a hundred-degree apartment to do this film with me. It was so exciting to come to the set in the morning, groggy, begging for that coffee, and have Alar saying like a little kid, “Okay, so, here’s what I’m thinking. I know we talked about a dolly shot here…” This guy has made so many films, so many commercials and there is not one ounce of cynicism in him. He is totally idealistic. We had that with our A.C. David Baron and our camera operator, Gábor Kövér, as well.
BTL: Did you have a shot plan ahead of shooting?
Katz: We had a phenomenal A.D. named Rob Albertell. Very early on he said, “If you trust me, I will get you every single shot that you want in this movie.” He did and it was an ambitious schedule. We went to every location that we could and shot-listed with our script supervisor Eva Cabrera, another unsung hero. You don’t hire Eva if you want someone to tell you the glass was in your right hand. If she said I got a shot, I knew I was good for the editing room. I also knew, and our A.D. knew, that when she said I did not have the scene, I needed to shoot another take. Whatever you think the job of script supervising is, it just doesn’t encompass what she did for the film.
BTL: The production design and art direction is extremely detailed.
Katz: This was a very difficult props movie, because there are about a billion specific props that have to do with the military. We would go page by page through the script. I would describe a watch that someone was wearing. Our prop master, Rob Currie, would come to the set with seven options. He’d say, “I know you said black, but Alar and I are worried about the reflection of this watch, so I’ve gotten these others, which I think are creatively what you want, but they’re better for camera.”
I had worked with production designer Dan Leigh before. One of the most difficult things was recreating the mortuary. We wanted to be meticulously accurate. I explained to Dan and Alar that I didn’t want it to feel unreal, but wanted a hypnotic, almost dreamy quality because I felt the mortuary workers go into this ethereal private space as they’re caring for the bodies. I kept comparing it to a silent ballet. I didn’t want to shy away from the agony of it. Dan worked like an animal to not only get it right, but to make it beautiful. I know it sounds strange to make something that grim and horrific beautiful, but he did it. I depicted completely accurately the process that remains go through from the time they arrive at the Dover mortuary to the time they are sent on the road and back to their families. It was a difficult assignment.
BTL: Your quest for accuracy must have affected costume designer David Robinson and his department.
Katz: I went berserk about making the uniforms completely accurate. I wanted to put the ritual on display. In many ways the ritual is what saves the escorts from breaking down—the spectacular beauty amidst unfathomable loss. I felt my job was to make sure the unfathomable loss was felt and it wasn’t politicized. It was a real sense of absence and at the same time relayed the majesty and beauty in what these military personnel do for each other.
BTL: You had two editors. How long did it take to edit the film?
Katz: All in all it was about six months. We started with Lee Percy during production. What’s wonderful is that Lee and Brian [Kates] have very different styles. The collision of their styles is the magic combination. Lee had a lot of faith in the material. When I was having doubts, Lee was able to see the film in a big-picture way.
At the four-month period, Lee had another film and Brian came in with this fresh perspective. He felt I had not fully tapped the more lyrical moments of the film because I had been consumed with structure, and that there was room to balance the structure with these more dreamlike moments. To work with artists such as these, I felt it was an embarrassment of riches. They were not in the room together, but it was as if they were creatively connected. Brian would start riffing on what Lee had done. I’d show it to Lee, who was on another picture and he’d say, “That’s so cool. That’s what we were going for.” What I loved about Brian finishing the film is that he will not let one thing go. The second that we locked the picture, Brian was knee-deep in the sound, the score, the title design.
BTL: Who else had an impact on the film in postproduction?
Katz: Postproduction is such a different vibe. Composer Marcelo Zarvos worked for eight months on this movie—an enormous commitment. Our collective fear was about how to maintain the restraint that I tried to show with the film and at the same time find the moments of catharsis, the moments where we’re not telling anyone how to feel, but we’re allowing the scene to come to life. I’d say in this rambling, inarticulate way, “This needs to be more ethereal. It’s somewhere between life and death,” and literally the next morning through his instrumentation he had rendered exactly what I was talking about. It’s magical, being able to translate those words into music.
Also our sound designer, Frank Gaeta, did a great job. Our sound mixer, Rick Ash, is a true genius. He comes in with a very strong point of view about what the mix should convey. Then you work with him on it. He would say, “I have a concept. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I feel like this is the intent that you’re going for.” One day I watched a scene and said, “Rick, am I crazy? Was all the airport ambience there and did it disappear?” He smiled and said, “How did you feel about it?” I was blown away. Kevin’s character and this young sergeant on the tarmac go from being part of this very alive world to this very intimate connection. What Rick did, as their conversation got closer, was very elegantly remove all of the ambiences in an almost imperceptible way so that all that was left was two characters talking.
Associate producer Fred Berger took post on and wanted to get it right. He was digging to find CNN and military pieces. Nine times out of 10 he was right about what I would like. Every time I look at the film and I see the picture cut, hear the sound design and what we did on location, I am grateful and amazed at what a team can do when they are motivated, excited and feel a part of something.
BTL: I have to tell you, I cried the whole time I was watching the movie.
Katz: There is a certain cruelty factor. But in this movie, I know I’m in trouble if I don’t hear any sniffles. Hopefully it is also inspiring.