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Nine Lives in Nine Shots

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Nine Lives is a story told in nine intertwined slice-of-life tales. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her) explores nine everyday women at emotional crossroads in their lives, composing the film in nine single unbroken takes.This visual concept grew out of Garcia’s writing process. Each moment is one continuous thought, so it was a logical progression to use one continuous shot for each distinct story. “The project was asking to be shot in real-time,” says Garcia. The contained nature of the script and production requirements of only nine locations allowed production to move very fast; only three weeks of shooting was scheduled, two days for each sequence. The dramatic choice to shoot nine, 10-to-14-minute takes created a special set of creative challenges. The shooting style required fluid, extended shots in all directions to add movement and pace. And most importantly, shots that complimented, even amplified the performances.Plus, the intense shooting days called for a highly skilled crew, with a lot of stamina, that could accomplish the single-take vision with creative flexibility. The experiment fell to director of photography Xavier Pérez Grobet, Steadicam operators Dan Kneece and Henry Tirl and focus-puller Steve Mann.The idea of one continuous take with no stopping and starting was demanding for the actors, but it offered the intriguing, and frightening, opportunity to inhabit a character for a continuous, uninterrupted performance. There would be no coverage, no chance to pick up every nuance from different takes.Garcia began by offering the movie to Glenn Close, Holly Hunter and Amy Brenneman—actresses he had worked with before. “All these actresses adore him,” says Grobet. “They are devoted to his energy, creativity and direction. He totally seduces everybody.” Others who came on board: Kathy Baker, Elpidia Carrillo, Stephen Dillane, Dakota Fanning, William Fichtner, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Jason Isaacs, Joe Mantegna, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Mary Kay Place, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Aidan Quinn, Miguel Sandoval, Amanda Seyfried, Sissy Spacek and Robin Wright Penn.During each day-long rehearsal Grobet recorded on mini DV, experimenting with camera placement and movement. At the end of the day, after the blocking was locked, Grobet and Kneece would design the shot. Kneece would then operate on the last rehearsal take.On day two of every storyline, the production shot 10 or 11 takes of 13 to 14 minutes each, until Garcia received the performance. For the first sequence of the shoot only Kneece was operating the Steadicam. But the team soon realized that doing long take after long take, carrying a nine-pounds-plus camera packet through small passageways, overcoming obstacles, while hitting innumerable marks was too physically taxing on a single operator, so they decided to hire a second one. Talented Steadicam operators usually command a premium price, but despite budget constraints, and presumably as a vote of confidence for the project, Tirl, who had been instructed by Kneece, joined the crew. Once Tirl was hired, the operators alternated doing two takes each.Kneece says focus puller Mann had the hardest job, because he worked with both operators. He had to do every take without a rest in between. On one scene, when the camera got into the elevator with the actors, Mann had to run up two flights and rejoin the camera when it exited the elevator. “The focus pullers are the unsung heroes,” says Kneece. “With Steadicam you can’t see focus on the monitor. You have to rely on the focus puller. He had to adjust the focus on the fly without any marks, any references. There are not many guys who can hit Steadicam focus.”The team wanted to achieve the look of film. Super 16 is a format Garcia has used before and likes. So that it would be physically possible to carry enough film for the extended takes, the film was shot with Kodak’s Super 16 Vision 2 stock using 800-foot, 20-minute loads, then bumped up to 35mm in post.Of course, lighting possibilities had to be considered in choosing the locations. Add the difficulty of lighting a 360-degree shot and it is not hard to understand why Grobet decided the only way to achieve a consistent look to the film was via digital intermediate. To aid the process he overexposed by a half stop to get a thick negative for color correcting and to reduce the grain.The most important factor in choosing the ultimate take for each story was performance. Decisions were never made based on the camera, but Garcia notes that when the performance worked, the take also worked technically. Kneece sums up the unique experience of working on the crew of Nine Lives best by saying, “You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you get a prince. It was a gift to get this project.”

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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