I am pleased to end this week with a guest article from Brian Pearson, a director of photography who shot the indie movie American Mary in 15 days (let me repeat that: 15 days) with the twins directors Sylvia and Jen Soska.
Brian, a mentorless.com reader, sent me American Mary‘s trailer a couple of weeks ago. I usually receive emails from Producers or PMDs, and seeing a cinematographerthat involved in getting the word out about his last indie project definitely picked my curiosity.
So I watched the trailer and I was even more surprised to discover it looked good. Good like hello-atmosphere-and-mood good. I asked Brian if he would like to share his experience as a cinematographer, and he kindly wrote me back a detailed and very interesting post.
If you want to watch the trailer before reading Brian’s article, go all the way down.
PAIN IS INEVITABLE, SUFFERING IS OPTIONAL:
Thoughts on shooting American Mary
On how Brian came on board
It was just luck that had me involved in American Mary. I was visiting friends on a studio lot and just happened to run into a Producer I’d met before. In the course of catching up with her she told me she was producing a low-budget movie. She told me the outline of the story about a med student who gets lured into the underground world of body modification and I was intrigued. She mentioned it was going to be directed by twins and it would be their 2nd film. I asked if they had a DP yet and she said that they did so I just asked her to keep me in mind in case something changed on their end with the DP.
The whole idea of the film idea and the twin directors intrigued me. That was in the summer of 2011.
Cut to late fall and I get a call from the producer saying that the DP had just dropped out and she asked if I would like to meet on the project. Between the dark storyline, the female protagonist and the way her character was drawn, and the chance to work with Sylia and Jen Soska it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Many years ago I had worked on a few indie films and really enjoyed the challenge and experience of working with crews whose sole purpose was to make a great film in spite of budget limitations. Everyone on those kind of films is there because they want to be and not because they are looking for a paycheck. That kind of positive energy from the crew is very special and it is reflected in the final film as well.
On American Mary’s pre-production
Many of the film projects I’d worked on had more luxurious shooting schedules than American Mary. My most recent previous project had been a 60 day shoot whereas Mary was only 15 days! So I had to readjust my expectations and we had to collectively out-think our limits, both financially and with the schedule. As a team we organized our priorities and jumped into head-first and made it happen. Everyone was thinking and working as quickly and efficiently as they could and any problems, creative or logistical, were handled head-on, never pushed to the side for later as there was no “later”.
Prep for me was two weeks but with the majority of the crew starting 3-4 days before the shoot. The script was 105 pages with roughly 100 scenes but the director/writers had been very clever in the way it was constructed. There were no vast night exteriors. A significant percentage of the film takes place inside Mary’s apartment, which was a set we could control and which was actually located just adjacent to the production office in an industrial park, as were another 4 or 5 sets. Making the decision early on to group sets gave us great flexibility in terms of our schedule and weather. I never wanted it to be sunny for any of the day/exteriors so we were able to keep Mary’s world dark and grey by scheduling around the weather for the few day/ext scenes. There is only one scene where the “sun” shows itself and that’s when Mary wakes up in her apartment with a pile of money in front of her. Alas, it brings her only false hope.
On Building the Team and Getting Equipment
Once I decided to come on board I started to make calls to friends in the industry to see if any of them would like to work on the show. I called my usual gaffer with whom I’d done 6 projects to ask him if he knew if anyone on his team who might like to upgrade to gaffer on this one and he called me back to say he’s like to be the gaffer! The project’s budget was very low and although everyone was paid the rates were far below the usual union scale in every department. Also the budget for all gear was very limited. In the end I found favor with a few friends who owned Epics and Red lenses and we cobbled together a pretty fantastic camera package consisting of 2 Epics, a complete set of Red Primes, and support. Also, the owners of the gear offered to work as camera operator and DIT/download manager which was fantastic
For lighting I went back to a grip/electric rental company that I had done many jobs with over the years and pretty much begged them for a lighting package. They were extremely generous and gave us everything we needed at a fraction of the cost as a way to support indie film-making. Without the generosity of the camera owners, lighting company and all the amazing crew who nearly volunteered their time the film would have struggled to have the “professional” look that I think it has, given what we really had to spend. I also knew it was a great opportunity for me to do a project with definite limitations in both time and equipment and I was 100% ready to take advantage of that opportunity and see it in the most positive light. I often feel that my work is more inspired when I don’t over-think the lighting set-ups or decisions. And having very little time and equipment made us work just in that manor.
On Brian’s stylistic choice
I wanted to make the visuals in Mary’s world as dark and mysterious as possible. I pushed the contrast levels hard in certain scenes to make Mary’s world very dark and bleak at times. I experimented with underexposing the Red Epic-X cameras which gave the image a kind of wonderful (digital) grainy feel, something like one would have had underexposing a fast film stock in the past. I tended to expose more in the toe of the sensor which seemed to give her world a slightly hazy quality, like when you’re in a dark room and you’re straining to see something in the distance or when you’re in a dream. The look the images had when underexposed felt right to me for this story and gave Mary’s world an uncertain, unstable quality where not everything was clearly defined or clearly illuminated.
On Working with the Soska’s Sisters
It was fascinating working with twin directors Sylvia and Jen Soska on this film because they both had such a similar version of the project and of “Mary” in their minds. If one director took off to look at wardrobe or make-up, or to go into make-up for her role, the other one could immediately answer any questions for myself and the crew. Our collaboration was very smooth and worked hard to define an arch in the camera and lighting that would support the story of Mary’s journey.
We started with the camera work being very static in the few first scenes where we introduce Mary to try to support the idea of what her life is like at the beginning when we meet here. Then, slowly, scene by scene, the camera begins to move as we see her begin her dark journey and we also started to increase the contrast in the scenes and add more darkness to the frame. When Mary’s in the depths of her journey we employed loose, rough handheld camera work when should help to support the feelings she’s experiencing in those scenes. It’s fantastic to realize you don’t need a large budget to take advantage of the most basic grammar of film-making by changing exposure, contrast and utilizing different styles of camera movement. Making those decisions with the directors was part of the fun challenge of planning this film.
On What Brian Took Out From This Experience
What I took away from my experience on American Mary is the camaraderie that you get when you’re in the trenches with the crew and there’s no extra money or extra time to fall back on. Everyone knows this is the one and only moment that you get to pull of something special and everyone’s mind is working on hyper-drive just trying to fit all the work into the day. We were shooting an average of 5 to 7 pages a day with limited resources and no second chances and to do so in a creative and efficient way and to connect the audience with the character in a deep an emotional way was the real challenge of this project.
And I feel that because of the emotional story and strong direction from Jen and Sylvia and the amazing performance from Katherine Isabelle that people will hopefully connect with the film on many levels. We strove to make a film that defied definition. Mary’s not a horror film and it’s definitely not torture-porn. It’s a psychological exploration of a fractured woman who makes some desperate and unusual choices in life and who then has to live with the emotional consequences within herself. I hope that in the end the audience connects with her and feels empathy for her in spite of how horrific those choices may be.