Celluloid Dreams: Matthew Mishory Shoots a First Feature on Film

Director Matthew Mishory’s debut feature, Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, is a visually stunning, meditative film steeped in the classics, from its subject matter—Old Hollywood icon James Dean, played by James Preston (“The Gates”)—to the director’s decision to shoot on film.

Here, Mishory outlines his reasons for eschewing the digital format so embraced by most of his low-budget indie contemporaries.

From inception, it was essential to me that we shot Joshua Tree, 1951 on film. While many similarly budgeted first features opt for the RED or even a Canon 5D, celluloid was an integral and irreplaceable component of the vision of the film. A combination of strategic planning, careful budgeting and on-set restraint made it possible. The result, I believe, is a level of production value and emotional intimacy within the image that we could not have accomplished any other way.

I have never truly warmed up to video; I will always prefer film. I find it not only more beautiful but also more emotional. There is a living, breathing sadness and warmth in the tangibility of the celluloid object. And I think Apichatpong Weerasethakul was correct when he said that the photochemical process better replicates the mechanism by which the human eye reacts to light. I also love the variety and textures of film—the many stocks and gauges and varying grain structures. I have always used small gauges in my work, and while most of Joshua Tree, 1951 was shot on 35mm, there are blasts of super16 and super8 interspersed throughout. Even my current project, a documentary about urban farming called The Farm, features super8 interludes.

While the “gold standard” is still to shoot on film, finish photochemically and project on a 35mm print, the industry conversion to (inferior) DCP projection has rendered that workflow less practical than it once was. Shooting on film and finishing digitally is the next best thing, and that is what we did with Joshua Tree, 1951. Our aim, creatively and narratively, was to fuse the classical with the modern to create a unique and highly unconventional portrait of a fascinating protagonist. I was fortunate to get to work with one of the great cinematographers, Michael Marius Pessah, and we took that same approach with the look of the movie, pairing classically Hollywood elements with revisionist modern touches. Our visual references ranged from Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly to Tom Kalin’s Swoon to Douglas Sirk’s only black and white film, The Tarnished Angels.

The vast majority of Joshua Tree, 1951 is black and white, but we shot on color Fuji stock, desaturating in the D.I. to achieve a much greater range of tonalities in the grays. Our colorist, Alastor Arnold at Fotokem, had just handled a black and white feature for Vincent Gallo, and he was very much keyed-in to what we were looking to accomplish, allowing us to move quickly in the D.I. room. Similarly, for the color sequences in the desert, we created the Old Hollywood “technicolor” feel by super-saturating the palette in post-production, bringing out the full potential of the stock. But we also did a lot of work in-camera, and for the Ansel Adams-style desert wides, Michael often had as many as six color filters on the camera body to bring out the sky and clouds. For much of the film we used vintage Cooke lenses, sometimes paired with Mitchell filters for an Old Hollywood “softness.” We augmented those classical compositions with more modern techniques absent in films of the 1950s: Macro-lens work, split diopter shots, even bits of broken glass placed in front of the lens.

I always maintain that film can be far cheaper (and digital far more expensive) than one might imagine, and Joshua Tree, 1951 is living, breathing proof. Our producers, Edward Singletary, Jr., Randall Walk and Robert Zimmer, Jr., built a plan around shooting this feature on film, and we stuck to it. I will never quite know how they negotiated the deals they did, but great producers make miracles happen, and these are some of the best in the business. Ingenuity and compromise played a role, too. I wanted several super8 color segments, but we could not really afford to work with the last remaining super8 specialty house in town. So Michael devised a work-around. We shot our super8 sequences on our super16 camera body with a custom ground-glass that exposed only a quarter of the film negative, which was then blown up in the scan. We saved thousands of dollars.

But the great compromise was in takes. Film stock is a scarce, precious resource, and on our budget it was especially so. We had just enough stock to shoot the movie and very little to spare. In practicality, that meant shooting the “old-fashioned” low-budget method (the way I had learned—and the way independent directors had always worked before the advent of video), with more rehearsal takes and fewer live takes. It also meant more confident and assured coverage, strategic long-duration takes, the use of movement (especially the dolly; Fassbinder was an inspiration) in place of cuts and painstaking preparation.

The decision to shoot film brought out the best in my own directing work habits. Michael and I spent several weeks deliberating and finalizing the shot list and rarely, if ever, deviated from it on set. I knew exactly what I wanted, and more often than not we accomplished it in only a few takes. Often, to save time, we worked without a video tap. I think a cast intrinsically works better on film; as that familiar sound of burning money (film running through the gate) hums quietly in the background, the actors rise to the occasion. None of it would have been possible without a talented, dedicated and efficient crew. A director is only as good as his 1st AD, and Daniel Curran is one of the best. His relentless insistence on a second camera body for the desert shoot saved the movie. When the A camera seized up without warning overnight, we were stranded three hours from the city on a Sunday. Fortunately, we were able to go to the B camera and not lose an entire day’s shooting budget.

When we scanned the film, we decided to forgo the “dust-busting” process that carefully scrubs every last speck of dirt or dust from the negative. We wanted audiences, even if they were watching the film on a Digital Cinema Print, to feel some of what moviegoers have felt for decades. An imperfect, worn 35mm print is a reminder that a film is an object, made by hand and worthy of preservation. I cannot imagine feeling quite the same way about a compressed digital file stored on a cyber-cloud. MM

Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean is having its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival, with screenings taking place May 24th and 25th. For more on the film, visit www.joshuatree1951.com or check it out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/joshuatree1951film.

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