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Director Series: Nicole Kassel

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By Sam MolineauxDirector Nicole Kassell achieves the almost impossible with her debut feature The Woodsman: a mature film on her first time in the director’s chair. Despite an almost impossible budget of under $3 million, Kassell cooks up a film that is intensely moving and brimming with technical artistry. Her crew roster reads like a who’s who of independent film’s top talent, whom she steered graciously and respectfully down the path of recreating her vision. The film’s cast is led by husband-and-wife actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick (Bacon is also executive producer).Kassell became aware of The Woodsman, a bleak tale of a reformed child molester coming to terms with civilian life after 12 years behind bars, when she saw the play of the same name in New York in 2003. The experience so profoundly affected her, she knew she had to tackle the story, despite its unlikely choice of material with which to launch her filmmaking career. Fresh out of NYU film school, she convinced the playwright, Steven Fechter, to collaborate on the screenplay. She then set about shopping it to Hollywood, with the proviso that she be attached as director.Helped by some film festival buzz of an earlier short she had directed, Kassell got her wish. And now The Woodsman has been carving up some buzz of its own. Of course, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. Managing a 25-day shoot on entirely practical locations in unpredictable early spring weather in Philadelphia was just one of the obstacles she had to overcome.Below the Line: Describe your experiences on set, as a first-time director surrounded by such established actors and crew?Nicole Kassell: It was the best experience. I was so thrilled to be finally making my movie. In a way it was surprisingly easier than the student films I’d made because of the caliber of cast and crew. Here were professionals, everyone was serious about their job, very focused and wanted to do the best they could in their specialty.BTL: How did you go about picking your crew? Who had you worked with before?Kassell: I hadn’t worked with any of them before. In film school we would all crew for each other. I looked up films that I’d really admired in the last couple of years, mostly independent films knowing that that was the budget we’d be working in, and made up a wish list. The producer of the film, Lee Daniels, had produced Monsters Ball, so of course I wanted to meet those people. One of the most exciting parts was meeting people who’d read the script and hearing their reaction to the project and the ideas it triggered for them.BTL: How did you get seasoned crewmembers like your editor Lisa Fruchtman and costume designer Frank L. Fleming?Kassell: Frank Fleming did Monsters Ball. He was very passionate about the material. He came to our first meeting with ideas of what Vickie would wear and different characters that were very exciting. Brian Kates was the primary editor; Lisa came on as the second editor when we were under the time crunch. She saw the work in progress, and really responded to the material. It never hurts to have a fresh eye.BTL: Why did you choose to shoot in Philadelphia?Kassell: I chose Philadelphia because most of us involved in the film were New York-based, and I didn’t want to go too far. Lee Daniels and Kevin Bacon are from Philadelphia and I was born there, so I knew that they had the connection and that the city would go the distance to make the film. Also there’s been a lot of film production in Philadelphia, so I knew the local crews would be experienced. The second AC, second AD, and the full grip team were all local. And they were really incredible. Most importantly the location visually really suited the film. I was looking for a city that was past its prime, and unfortunately Philadelphia has had a bad bankruptcy experience, though it’s doing better.BTL: It seemed like it was raining a lot. Was that deliberate, or something you had to deal with?Kassell: It was very difficult; just physically being in the rain was tough, and then it would go on and off, the sun would come out, then it would go away. That was a battle. Some days it rained so hard, we had to go into a covered set. It kept us on our toes.BTL: The shooting style was very effective, with closeups on characters creating intimacy, and unusual compositions. How much of that came from your director of photography, Xavier Pérez Grobet?Kassell: I did a lot of prep before the film; it was my one big shot at making a feature. I studied a lot of films beforehand and looked at composition. I came in prepared with a binder full of stills I’d pulled from a variety of films. Our DP came on late, just two weeks before the film. The previous DP had to fall out for personal reasons. Xavier was a wonderful spirit; he constantly inspired me, the way he looked at new things for himself. He would shoot a shot and if it was something we should punch in or out, he’d whisper to me. We shot as fast as we could and as much as we could. We got an incredible amount of coverage for the time we had. The AC [Michael Asa Leonard] had one of the toughest jobs on the shoot. We shot almost entirely with a jib arm, which allowed us to float around and move. We floated in and out on an instinctual level and the AC had to follow. He did a brilliant job.BTL: What were some of the challenges with shooting so much out of doors and on location?Kassell: I love shooting on location because you get the real character of the place. We were out in real locations a lot of the time: all the park scenes between Walter and the girl, the river scene where we end the film, all of those exterior school shots, the mall and bus. They all had their challenges. The park scene in particular, turned out to be a sound nightmare. It was too close to an airport, and when school got out it was a busy children’s neighborhood.BTL: Who was your sound recordist?Kassell: Tom Lino. With the park bench scene, the tighter I could shoot it, the better he could record it, to get the mic closer to their mouths. He had little mics on both their bodies as a backup. There was a big fear that we would have to loop the scene with Walter and Robin on the bench, but Tom underestimated what a good job he was doing and we didn’t have to loop anything.BTL: That scene in the park with Walter and Robin is both subtle and extremely intense. How did you create such a complex scene so effectively?Kassell: That was the scene in the play that made me want to make this movie. During shooting I treated it like any other scene. It was the hardest scene to shoot emotionally and physically, and I knew it would be, but I didn’t know that I was landing such a tour de force.BTL: There are some interesting dramatic touches in the editing. What did your editor Brian Kates bring to the table?Kassell: Brian was the primary editor on the film, from production all the way through sound design. He’s very talented. He had done The Laramie Project. He had an incredible eye for performance. The film is very tightly edited, there isn’t one extra second in there. He’s ruthless when it comes to that, in a way I appreciate.BTL: What, and who, drove the decision to use jump cuts and freeze frames?Kassell: That was me. When I was writing the script I saw The Getaway by Sam Peckinpah and was blown away by the opening sequence of that film, so I ripped it off… or I should say, I paid homage to it! I wanted to find a way to collapse time in the opening of the film: I had a lot of information that I wanted to tell. Dynamically you win or lose your audience in the first five minutes. Beyond that, I wanted it to be a motif.BTL: The original music throws out some surprises, which seems to heighten the film’s sense of internal versus external. How did you collaborate with your composer, Nathan Larson?Kassell: We started out in preproduction. I talked to him about wanting a raw sound. I wanted it to feel like it was real instruments, but not purely orchestral and not purely
electronic. Throughout the making of the score he came up with these amazing sounds which I didn’t recognize. And it would be him doing something like banging a pipe against another pipe. I gave him a lot of freedom, and it was amazing to see the way in which the film inspired him creatively.BTL: What was the contribution of your production designer Stephen Beatrice?Kassell: I had seen Stephen’s work on Roger Dodger and Love Liza and I thought he was so talented. I had a specific look I was going for in terms of color palette, and it was a pleasure being surprised by him taking what I had started to the nth degree. He’s an incredibly talented draftsman, he could literally sketch something from his mind’s eye.BTL: The costumes are starkly realistic, downplayed even. Talk about the work of your costume designer, Frank L. Fleming.Kassell: Kevin and I initially talked a lot about what his character would wear, and he felt it was important that the whole point with Walter was he was trying to be invisible. He had the idea he’d be wearing a lot of layers, and be burying himself away. Frank took that and ran. I really gave Frank that freedom. He went shopping, he put together different options and did shoots with the actors, and basically I went through and if there was anything I didn’t like we would take it off the rack. The rest was as he’d envisioned. My only strict rule was no red for any of the characters. I didn’t want any primary colors, until we were looking at the children, so the schoolyard and the mall would be a counterpoint. I had the red ball which was the metaphor throughout the film. And little red riding hood, I wanted Robin to wear the red coat and save it for that moment.

Written by Sam Molineaux

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