How They Did It: Shooting Mr. Roosevelt in 16MM Was Masochistic, But Paid Off, Says Its First-Time Director

When I turned in the feature script I had written and planned to star and direct, I think a few people had concerns about how I was going to pull it off.

When I also said I wanted to shoot it on 16mm, the movie went from what some may have assumed would be a vanity project, to a full-blown exercise in masochism. But through some creative financing and the support from my production company and cinematographer, we decided to shoot our low-budget indie on film.

Even though people have been shooting on film for over 100 years, the swift push into digital over the past decade has made the whole idea of going non-digital seem daunting and dangerous. For me, having shot 35mm on a point-and-shoot camera for the past seven years, it seemed exciting and a little bit liberating. Being on sets where everyone is constantly watching monitors and playback and pushing actors to do endless takes just because they can seems to anesthetize the whole process, making it mechanical and unmagical. The thrill of the unknown, as well as the excitement of creating a film that would look amazing and unique, quickly convinced everyone we should jump into the abyss. But even though everyone was fully on board, there were a few technical issues to confront.

First up, many people worried that as a director/actor, not being able to watch the scenes as they happened and not having a way to watch them back could be a problem. While I felt confident that I could do it without playback for myself, I agreed I was already walking a tightrope, and what maniac doing a circus act for the first time would refuse a safety net? So we got a video tap for the camera that captured the image going through the gate and recorded it into a DV recorder with a hard drive. Our monitor was a tiny, fuzzy screen half the size of an iPhone, and the only reason to watch was to see what was in frame and to check performances. Sometimes the hard drive would fail, and we would have to record video of the video tap on an iPhone for playback. Needless to say, for most of the movie we only watched playback when absolutely necessary, and instead focused on things working in real space, the performances first and foremost. Since the turnaround for seeing our actual film dailies was anywhere between 2-4 days, I relied heavily on my cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen and her word for when the camera got what it needed to get. The whole shoot was an ultimate exercise in trust that everyone was doing their job correctly.

Noël Wells directs cast and crew on the set of Mr. Roosevelt. Photograph by Ramona Flume

Next, our shoot was filled with a young and eager crew, many who had only ever dabbled with film once or twice in college. The biggest question we all asked was, “How will we do this, still make our days, and also get everything we need?” The answer was, we didn’t really. Not at first. Our first few days, if not weeks, our crew struggled with the tedious and obnoxious start/stop process that is shooting film. It took awhile before we got the rhythm of switching mags and getting the timing of our short ends down. There were mix-ups, and yes, I watched one roll of a scene we had just shot get flashed. But miraculously, by the end of week two, everyone was operating like a well-oiled machine, and we were effortlessly making our days and shooting just as much film as we would have shot digitally within a day. I also think the crew sort of started to like it.

Though we managed to get conventional coverage and setups throughout the movie, there were times when we had absolutely no time and no capacity to fulfill complicated shotlists. With one of my favorite scenes in the film, where Emily is sending a guy she hooked up with home, we were so crunched for time that we decided we could only shoot one setup for each actor. This is where film and Dagmar crush it, because the handheld 16mm looked amazing even in simplicity, and we ended up getting everything we needed simply by skillfully following the actors.

The most complicated scene of the movie, and also a scene we had some of the least amount of time to film, was the climactic scene where Emily is being chased by Jen in the front yard. Not only was it an exterior being shot on a hot, miserable day, the coverage was filled with multiple frame rates as well as action sequences that required us to disconnect our video tap. And the lighting kept changing. The only way to pull it off was if everyone was on their toes. But as it seems to go when under the gun, everyone started working instinctually, as there was no time for second-guessing anything. Every move I made as a director was decisive and firm. Dagmar covered each actor in their limited setups like a hunter, running along with them as they made their moves, while the camera department expertly pulled focus and exposure. In this scene, an urn filled with ashes crashes to the ground, and we had no predetermined way of pulling it off. This was indie film-making at its greatest—the art department and props threw it down a bunch of times and we filmed it until we got one that seemed right. Shooting in the front yard of a house on a busy street in Austin, it must have been quite a spectacle.

Noël Wells and crew in between takes of Mr. Roosevelt. Photograph by Ramona Flume

At the end of the day, the few hiccups we did have with film, including one roll unspooling in a changing bag and having to black out a restaurant bathroom to box the film up and ship it off, were nothing compared to the payoff we got. Aesthetically at this budget level, the film has a look that is different from other indies that are being shot on the same digital cameras. We also were able to use a rejected print of the film and scratch it up and use it in the trailer. While it belabored the experience of shooting the movie, by the end, the payoff was worth it. MM

Mr. Roosevelt opens in Los Angeles November 17, 2017 and in more theaters November 22, 2017, courtesy of Beachside Films and Paladin. Featured image photograph by Ramona Flume.

1 Comment

  1. Tom Luca

    November 15, 2017 at 5:12 am

    Congratulations! I believe it is vital we keep film formats such as 35mm, 65mm (or 70mm) and even 16mm and 8mm alive by using them frequently alongside digital. But we don’t have to use them together, we can go with film or digital or both. On the feature LUNCH that I conceived and will direct and produce, we’re filming on KODAK 35mm film stock in PANAVISION PANAFLEX cameras and lenses. We have a crew of twenty five, so far and will even launch a kickstarter campaign so check us out! Please, the link is http://Facebook.com/lunchsfx

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