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Mark Decena
Mark Decena on the set of Dopamine.

You can talk about pixels, resolution and transfers all you want.
For first-timer Mark Decena, the choice to go the digital route
on his feature debut Dopamine was about one thing: having
the time–and tape–to work with his actors. It’s a level-headed
approach, but then again Decena has had a lot of training–first
as a short moviemaker, with both Fly By Shooting and One
of  Those Days
screening at Sundance, and then as a student
of the Sundance Lab.

Opening in theaters in October, Dopamine is the story of
a computer programmer whose view of feelings as nothing more than
a chemical activity begins to change through his relationship with
a schoolteacher. Here, Decena talks about what he hoped to achieve
with the digital medium and answers a few of the recent false claims
about Sundance.

Jennifer Wood (MM): It’s almost impossible to talk about Dopamine without
talking about the role Sundance has played in its progression,
from being developed in the Sundance Lab, to premiering at the
festival and now to being part of the Sundance Screening Series.
There are so many critics who claim that Sundance has become
too commercial–that it’s not the indie-friendly place it once
was. How do you respond to those comments?

Mark Decena (MD): Well, I think it all
starts with the support of  the Institute. I had originally done
some short films [that played at Sundance] and the one in 1996
was One of Those
Days.
Shortly after that, Lynn Auerbach from the Institute
called and asked if we had any feature scripts.

I think the goal of the Insitute is to bring in people who don’t
normally do film or haven’t done film. When we finally submitted
and were accepted in 1998 there were spoken word artists, there
were poets–a whole slew of people. We had never done a film before
and I think we learned that what the support was about was what
your vision was. [We learned] what you should be doing with film
to have it do well in the market. That was instilled in us from
the beginning and I think it’s a great boot camp for first-time
filmmakers.

MM: What about the production of the film: when did
you shoot it and for how many days?

MD: We shot it last year and it was a 25-day shoot.

MM: Was it all shot in San Francisco?

MD: Yeah, pretty much. It was all shot in the Bay Area;
we had a couple locations in Marin and one in Oakland, but all
in the Bay Area.

MM: I know the film was shot digitally, but what camera
did you use?

MD: The Panasonic 720p.

MM: What was it that eventually sold you on this camera?
Did you test out other options?

MD: We had come back from Sundance the year before and Personal
Velocity
and Tadpole were there, so we thought we
were going to shoot on the Sony PD150. The story required some
effects–like slow motion, time lapse, that sort of thing. My
DP, Rob Humphreys, who I actually worked with in the Sundance
Lab, just said during pre-production ‘You know, you’re trying
to run the Indy 500 in a go-cart.’ He had done some shooting
with the 720p and was really amazed by the camera.

MM: But did it help in integrating all of the effects
that you have in the film–the computer animation, the chemical
sequences, etc.?

MD: Yes, all of that. And you know again, this being an
independent production, I thought originally I was going to be
picking up stock sequences for all the inner-body stuff, but we
ended up getting that from PLF in LA, who did it for us for very
little money and really stepped up the production value.

MM: When people talk about ‘should I shoot digital or
should I shoot film?’ it always depends on the story. As
Dopamine is
a story that is defined by science and technology, the digital
medium really works for it. Did you consider film at all, or
did you always want to go for the digital look?

MD: It wasn’t necessarily the look. Most important to me
was having time with the actors. As a first-time director, not
having to worry about how much film I was burning was of paramount
importance. So I discussed the look with Rob and what I was going
for, but ultimately I put it in his canvas. Getting everything
I needed to give me time to work with the actors and do takes and
run as many masters as I want and let the actors find it in a scene.
We ran the scenes quite a bit and even in close-ups we were able
to do that, again not having to worry about film being run off.

MM: I thought you also did some really interesting things
with color in the film. When the story starts out, it’s a bit
muted. But as the main character’s outlook seems to brighten,
so do the colors of the film. How did you go about addressing
these specific elements ahead of time?

MD: Rob is very experienced. He also shot Charlotte
Sometimes
, and those were the PD150s, but they cheated an
incredible looking using post–the Da Vinci systems. We worked
with Chris Miller at Visionbox and their recommendation was to
shoot everything straight and then budget in time on the Da Vinci
and we’d be able to achieve the colors that we were going for.

Rob counts his blessings every day. Because
I had very, very tight ways that  I wanted to shoot this, not
only in the color arc but in movement of the camera. Of course,
best laid plans, you get
into the edit and realize that the story works better if you use
the opening scene a little bit later or vice versa. So, if we hadn’t
shot everything digitally, we’d be in trouble.

MM: When all is said and done, how
would you advise other first-time moviemakers exploring the
digital–and specifically
HD–medium? You mentioned working with the actors, which I think
is so important, but it’s an aspect that is often overlooked.

MD: That was my primary concern, and
having that freedom was the most important thing to me. But I
think it also depends
on, and it’s cliché to say, but it depends on what your story is
about. There was a digital tie-in to what we were doing, so it
made sense for the story. That’s not saying that I wouldn’t shoot
film next time or shoot with the PD150 if I wanted more of that
handheld look or something more verité or dogma.

MM: So are you planning to do another feature?

MD: Oh, yeah.

MM: So you’re hooked now! Do you know what you’ll be
doing?

MD:  Tim Breitbach, my creative partner and co-writer on Dopamine, and
I have a first draft of a script called Hanging Chad. It’s
about a family that’s all too reluctant to talk about anything,
including politics. But it takes place on Thanksgiving weekend
during the whole 2000 election debacle and the recounting that’s
happening there so it sort of brings political discussions to a
forefront of the family to boil over a little bit.

MM: Do you know when you’ll be shooting it?

MD: Well, our hope–and this is very aggressive–is that
we’re going to get it into distribution by the 2004 election. So
we hope to raise money and be shooting by next year some time.
I’m also working on some documentaries. So I’m doing a few things!
[laughing]

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