Why Over-Prep? It’s the Key to Not Taking Shots In the Dark, Says the Director of A Violent Man

A Violent Man is a throwback to classic film noir, influenced by Hitchcock’s Frenzy and Nicolas Ray’s In A Lonely Place, mixed with the fighting of Bronson, Old Boy and Warrior. I wanted to make a film with style, scope, amazing performances and big, brutal, violent fights, but my big hurdle was that we had less than $300,000 to make the movie.

Low-budget moviemaking hurts when moviemaking is about time, speed and precision, and there are a lot of sacrifices to be made when you have little money. No matter what, the three rules of moviemaking will always be: 

  1. Clarity of Story 
  2. Interesting Characters 
  3. Entertainment value

Every director, producer and cinematographer always says, “You never have enough money and you never have enough time”. When you have no time and little money, what’s essential is prep, prep and more prep. Now, facing another problem: In a world of over-saturation, how do movies break out? They have to be great. I wanted A Violent Man to have big, beautiful production value, but most importantly, a great story and great performances.

Legendary editor Robert Ferretti told me, “Filmmaking is like going to the gym. It’s exercising our film muscles.” So, I realized the best prep is to actually make the movie before you step on set. Six weeks before principal photography, I picked six scenes from my film that I felt were going to be the most difficult to direct due to screen direction, set-ups, blocking, stunts, or not enough time, and I decided to shoot each scene and edit them. I needed to know what worked and what wasn’t going to.

I got my shot lists from each scene and I used my producers, friends and crew to begin what I call “Rehearsal Production.” We shot all the rehearsals on iPhones, Canon 5Dsanything to get it on tape and into the editing machine, cut it up, sound design it and watch.

When you have little time and little money, filmmakers need to know exactly what they want, and more importantly, how to get it. Here’s how I did it.

Director Matt Berkowitz (R) directs Thomas Q. Jones (L) and Isaac de Bankolé (C) on the set of A Violent Man. Photograph by Jeff Katz

Opening Fight—Round One

So, here’s a little secret: Before A Violent Man, I had never directed a fight scene—at least not with Chuck Liddell and football icon Thomas Jones going head-to-head. And I didn’t want to follow the traditional fight scenes. I wanted to make them more visceral and engaging, creating a wildly moving camera that has multiple set-ups, POVs, stunts, slow-motion and cameras. I knew that on the day, I wouldn’t have any time for mistakes, so if I was going to make mistakes, I better make them now. Anybody can shoot a wide-shot, but once again: How do we make it new and fresh? All I had to do was test my ideas and see if they would work.

My shot-list for this scene was close to 18 shots, which is doable, but I also had an additional eight to 10 “special shots,” which I was more worried about. These would be big throws and kicks at camera, and punches to make the scene look as realistic as possible, as well as the best angles that capture the action. 

Jones (L) and Chuck Liddell (R) rehearse a fight sequence of A Violent Man with fight choreographer John Lewis. Photograph by Jeff Katz

I treated it like a real production, and my producers and I scheduled the shoot like a real day on set. I started filming with my iPhone. As you would in production, we crossed off the shots on our short-list and moved on to the next one. We did our wides, close-ups and OTS and then we hit a snag. A lock-up and series of gut pushes against the ropes became a little clunky when choreographing our camera moves and fighting. My fight choreographer and producer John Lewis, Thomas, Chuck, Justin Steele and I kept working the scene into a fluid piece, as the push-off and following punch was easier for actors at a quicker speed. But it was better for a camera at a slower speed. After a few minutes we got it, and adjusted the blocking and shot-list moving forward, changing our angle and altered our fight choreography.

I was able to begin to drop shots while I’m shooting, realizing that I’m getting the coverage from different angles. At one point in the fight, Chuck tosses Thomas, and I wanted a low-angle shot in slow-motion and then to move into a close-up of Chuck. But instantly, I realized I didn’t need the close-up. I shot it anyway and later scratched that off my list.

That Saturday, I began cutting the rehearsal production footage. It really came together as I started dropping shots in the cutno more unneeded close-ups—realizing now that I don’t need four takes in wide shots, because my edit is mostly living in coverage and specials. This helped me schedule my day, shot-lists, etc., because I dropped four to five shots, and I gained more time for what I found most useful.

Victoria and Ty Sex Scene

This scene was complicated for many reasons: I was directing not only a very intimate sex scene, (without giving any spoilers) but one that takes a very dark turn. I knew we had Denise Richards for one day and that our actual production day was going to be hell, as we had a six-page dialogue scene, then a location move in the middle of L.A. traffic, a sex scene, three wardrobe changes, two steadicam shots, blood and makeup FX. Not only did my blocking and cinematography need to be top notch—and I had, literally, not a second to waste—, but I needed my actors, Denise and Thomas, to trust me and see my vision, so they could be comfortable enough to give their all.

This scene could have swung multiple ways, as many sex scenes can—a little raunchy, or too soft, or even funny. I set out to make it feel both loving and devious. When I planned to shoot our rehearsal, I wanted to focus on the intimacy of the characters, the tone of the scene, the slowness of the blocking and, most importantly, find a way to teeter on the explicit.

Jones (L) and Denise Richards rehearse a scene from A Violent Man. Image courtesy of IME Films

I took the shot-list for my scene, and using my co-producer, we began shooting. I really wanted to see for myself whether or not mixing an intimate scene with such a dark turn could work, or if I’d have to rethink the entire scene.

After I edited it, I saw clearly what I was going for and decided to add a few more shots and really push it. But the blocking didn’t change at all! 

When you’re working on any budget, sometimes your actors don’t have the opportunity to meet before production. In this case, the first time Thomas and Denise were rehearsing was 20 minutes before shooting. Thomas and Denise asked me, “So, umm, sex scenes like this… how do you think it should go?”

I pulled out my iPad and pushed play on the rehearsal. They both watched, and Denise said: “You made this?” I responded, “Yeah, I shot it a couple of weeks ago, so I can show you what I’d like to accomplish in the scene.” I continued to speak through the video, explaining my vision, but once the rehearsal video was over, they felt a lot more comfortable—not only with me, but also with themselves—to be in a scene like this. I honestly think that if I didn’t have a video reference, I would have lost these performances and the safety the actors felt on-set.

Alley Fight

This was one of the early rehearsals that I shot. My motivation was to capture a really convincing punch, and to use practical blood to sell when it hits. But punches and blood are all about the angles. My original shot-list contained shots that were much different than what appeared in the film. This is a great example of how my rehearsal shoot went completely right, as I changed most of my shot list after the shoot.

Jones rehearses an alley-set fight scene of A Violent Man

I began the shoot wanting to track the man leaving the bar, and then reveal the attacker as he hits the man. I shot and cut that, but wasn’t happy. I didn’t think it was the scene I wanted to make. I felt that I lost the suspense of the scene. 

Some of the shots stuck, but mostly it allowed me to revisit my shot-list. I’m glad I did, because the final scene looks better than I could possibly imagine. 

Final Fight

There was not a moment to breathe this day on production, and I knew that that would be the case months before. I was shooting a three-round fight scene, two cameras, two pages of dialogue, seven principal actors, three backgrounds, blood and makeup FX. I was pushing 40+ set-ups that day, without room for error.

Since I was terrified I wasn’t going to make my day, and the daunting three-round fight scene seemed impossible, I planned to shoot them out of order. Rounds one and three were most important to the story, but round two happened to be my favorite. The plan was, shoot round one, then round three, then, if we have time, take blood and makeup FX off my list and reset the actors to shoot round two. Then, after the fight, I’d shoot a two-page dialogue scene. We were all scratching our heads for weeks on how this day was going to work. 

Jones and Liddell rehearse the “final fight” scene from A Violent Man

I shot this rehearsal three times, building my shot-list, then dropping new shots and adding new ones. The extreme close-ups weren’t working for POVs—the swinging camera wouldn’t work when the actors got punched and Go-Pros wouldn’t work either. We shot the rehearsal over and over, and not only did I want Chuck and Thomas to memorize the choreography, I needed to live and breathe it.

Co-producer Orson Oblowitz, cinematographer Luke Hanlein and I memorized our set-ups and how fast we could move camera B while filming a POV on camera A, then re-staged both for wides while shooting Go-Pro coverage. Not only was the shot-list tight, but the scene had been memorized, shot and edited over fives.

So, come the day of the big fight, we knocked out rounds one and two before lunch, including all “special shots”, slow-motion, POVs, body slams and big stunts. After lunch, we spent more time than we ever expected having for better trick shots, and for getting extra coverage for the finale in the most brutal round of the whole movie.

The final cut in A Violent Man is, shot-for-shot, almost exactly what I rehearsed. The prep for this day is invaluable. A studio film might have three days to a week to shoot this, but we prepped our asses off. 

Shot-for-Shot Storyboards

Storyboards are great off-set prep that allow you to exercise your visual storytelling skills. Two of the film’s most complicated scenes, for which storyboards helped me the most, were the opening scene and the final fight. 

The opening scene was difficult to block: It had expository dialogue between two groups of people on separate sides of a gym, totaling six principal cast, plus extras. 

Shot-for-shot storyboards of a scene in A Violent Man. Courtesy of Matt Berkowitz

When I arrived on set, I threw it all away… but not all the time. I was able to show my cinematographer an actual visual reference for us to emulate. There were a few times when directing six actors became complicated, so I stuck to my storyboards as best as I could. My actors had a strong visual reference to start with, and from there I was able to make the scene come alive.

Storyboards force moviemakers to think only in framing, and prepare by using a minimal amount of shots with which to tell a story. Once you are aware of this, you’ll know that all the coverage you’ll get after is a bonus.

Prepping A Violent Man changed the course of the film’s production: It made it more professional, made me better, made the actors better, made the cinematography better… everything became better. Moviemaking is about working out the kinks. But what happens when you work out the kinks before you get to the set? In my case, I was able to have more time to advance my narrative, keep to what I have, and, most importantly, focus on the three rules: Clarity of story, interesting characters and entertainment value.

Actors prep day and night, acting out their scenes over and over, memorizing every line until they live and breathe them. Moviemakers should do the same. MM

A Violent Man premieres Thursday September 14, 2017 at the Oldenburg Film Festival, and will be released in 2018 courtesy of Tricoast Worldwide and IME Films. Featured image photograph by Jeff Katz.

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