How They Did It: Recording Live Musical Performances Added Sonic Realism to The House of Tomorrow

My first feature film The House of Tomorrow was shot in a small town in Minnesota called North Branch, as well as in and around the Twin Cities. We had about two weeks of prep going into the 18-day shoot, so as one might imagine, that’s not a ton of time.

Especially considering that the film contains a few crowd scenes, live music, a fight scene, and a top-notch cast who have worked on projects that probably spent more on craft services than our entire budget. Thankfully though, when you make a movie this small, people are doing it because they are invested for all the right reasons. Although we had an ambitious task at hand, cast and crew came ready to dive into work and make things happen.

I felt nothing but pure excitement (and maybe a little bit of terror) as we embarked on our production. There were a few key decisions made along the way that I think contributed to us pulling off the film and that’s what I’m going to talk about here.

First, knowing that we needed a visual approach to fit our story and our production realities. My cinematographer Corey Walter and I settled on shooting the majority of the film on a zoom lens, which saved us from spending time laying dolly track and swapping lenses for different coverage. The visual tact also captured the ideology of futurist philosopher Buckminster Fuller, whose ideas loom over our story. Fuller said: “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

Cinematographer Corey Walter with Peter Livolsi and crew on the set of The House of Tomorrow. Photograph courtesy of Shout! Factory

When we hit on the idea of shooting almost exclusively on a zoom, we revisited films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Being There, in which zoom is used as a practical tool to allow for long takes and long travel. As a result, the film evoked a distinct feeling that we loved and don’t see much of these days.

To me, a dolly move is a conscious and almost physical act a viewer is often aware of when watching a film. That can be totally right and beautiful for some stories and I’ve enjoyed using dolly moves in past work, but for this, I wanted what I consider to be the more subconscious feel of a zoom. The zoom began as a tool to solve a practical problem of moving through our schedule efficiently and ended up sparking a visual language that gives the film part of its personality.

Our second big production hurdle were the scenes in the film where Asa Butterfield and Alex Wolff’s characters are playing music as The Rash. Describing the boys playing in a script is one thing, but actually making that music is a whole different story. And since I’m not a musician, I turned to Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan to help create a believable sound for two 16-year-olds in their first band. Mac recorded a few demos for us, inspired by bands Alex’s character Jared might obsess over. I then shared those with Alex and Asa who added their own spin to help define the sound of The Rash.

In The House of Tomorrow, Ellen Burstyn plays Nana, grandmother and guardian to Sebastian (Asa Butterfield), pictured in their geodesic home

Alex is an incredibly gifted musician who’d grown up playing everything, but Asa had never played bass before. Instead of using the teacher we’d hired, Alex offered to teach Asa himself. It was a wonderful idea that not only saved us a little money and time, but most importantly, it bonded our two actors in a way that ordinary rehearsals can’t.

Then, with the help of my 1st AD Chad Rosen we were able to schedule all of our music scenes in chronological order so that we could chart the band’s journey in the film alongside what was happening between Asa and Alex off screen. When Sebastian first plucks a bass in the woods behind the dome, the bass was still fresh for Asa. As they practiced in their hotel rooms at night, we would shoot them during the day writing a song and learning chords. Finally, on the last night, we shot The Rash’s big performance when Asa was about three weeks into learning and they’d even played a show at a local bar.

The final component in keeping The Rash feeling real was in recording sound. I spent a summer assisting screenwriter Barbara Turner (Pollock, The Company) and among a host of other valuable lessons, I learned that all of the music for her film Georgia was recorded live. She reminded me that Robert Altman had done the same thing in Nashville and early in my writing process, she strongly encouraged me to do the same. I’m so glad we did, because even though recording music live presents production challenges, you gain authenticity from your actors and from the sound itself, which is nearly impossible to replicate otherwise.

Nick Offerman as Alan, young punk Jared’s bible-banging single father, The House of Tomorrow

The last piece of the puzzle for us telling a story with so much scope in so little time was utilizing some of my team beyond the job they’d signed up for. Making a movie like this is an all-hands-on-deck affair, and without help from our 2nd Unit team (led by producer Tarik Karam) we couldn’t have come close to a finished product. Tarik and I went to film school together, so he was someone I could trust completely to hunt for and return with great material that married seamlessly with our principal photography. Using our backup camera, Tarik and his operator were able to grab inserts, exteriors, and any other images we needed to fill in the edit.

When you’re moving at a clip with a lot on your plate, sometimes the little pieces are the first to get cut from the schedule. But they become invaluable at the edit stage, and I’m so glad we had a great team to help us pull it all off. MM

The House of Tomorrow opened in select theaters on April 27, 2018, courtesy of Shout! Factory. All images courtesy Shout! Factory.

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