It was the middle of the night. We were out in the high desert of the Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles, on our second day of filming the climactic shootout sequence on my latest feature film, Negative.
Camera and sound were rolling, the blanks had been loaded into the gun, and we were ready to go for our next shot, which involved Hollis (Simon Quarterman) firing his gun at a cartel assassin named Camila (Marem Hassler).
This was our big night with the armorer and the blank firing weapons. Because of the limitations of our permit and the use of firearms, we had zero wiggle room. Everything was running smoothly until I saw a few drops of rain hit Simon’s jacket.
Every filmmaker fears this. All of your planning washed away in some freak thunderstorm that comes out of nowhere. And here it was on our doorstep, ready to shut us down.
Four years ago, I directed my first feature film, Layover. Made for $6,000 with a crew of four people, it premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival and received a lot of attention, mostly because of the budget. In addition to helping launch my career, it also taught me a lot about making films with no money: things like shooting in live environments and exteriors, using cameras with solid low-light sensitivity, spreading out the schedule, and using small crews to give us more time for shooting and takes. These were all things that I felt made the film better, and made it feel more real and authentic.
Shooting on the Canon 5D at 6400 ISO allowed us to move quickly and take advantage of the light we had available. Because we weren’t spending a lot of time lighting and the actors could move freely within the set, we could spend much more time shooting takes and focusing on getting better performances—the actors weren’t hampered in any way. My choice was confirmed after screening it for hundreds of people over the next year. Not once did someone approach me and say, “I really liked your movie until I saw some noise in one of your shots.” The audiences just didn’t notice stuff like that.
On my next two projects, a series for Hulu and my second feature, I basically did the opposite of what I did on Layover—big crews, trucks everywhere, spending a lot of time lighting locations, shooting too many interiors, and only having a 15-day (on the series) and 12-day (on the feature) shooting schedule. And I didn’t like it. I thought the performances and the story suffered for the decisions that were made (which weren’t entirely up to me), and I decided that I needed to get back to a production format that gave me what I wanted: solid performances and a sense of scope.
I decided that my third feature film, Negative, was going to be different. It would be an experiment, and I needed a partner who would let me make the movie the way I wanted to make it. I had to ask for a sum that was large enough to pull it off, but small enough that the financier wouldn’t care how it was spent as long as we delivered a finished product. I approached the indie studio MarVista Entertainment, whom I had been trying to work with for a while. I told them I needed $100,000 to make the film, and that I wanted them to leave me alone while I did it. They agreed.
At that point, I had been developing the Negative script with screenwriter Adam Gaines for a year. Katia Winter (Sleepy Hollow) and Simon Quarterman (Westworld) were attached from the beginning, even before a script was written, and we then brought on producer William Borthwick to help us execute the production. I decided that this was also going to be the film on which I made my debut as the director of photography. I wanted to test my theory that we could light less, shoot at higher ISOs, and still get an amazing image. With so little at stake, it felt right to finally take on that duty, since I knew I’d be operating the camera 100 percent of the time anyway.
The goal for the production was to limit ourselves to only what we needed on the day. Actors would do their own makeup and bring their own wardrobe to set. (Costume designer Amanda Riley, a long-time collaborator of mine, helped the actors finalize their looks but wasn’t required to be on set, which helped save time and money and the embarrassment of me offering her too low of a rate). We would crew up and crew down as the days and scenes called for it and we’d shoot a day here, day there, and have days off in between. We’d crew up for a major sequence and then shut down for a week or two while we figured out what was next. Because the film has a lot of driving sequences—and those take a lot of time—we’d drive to the desert when we could and knock off a scene or two. Sometimes the total people on set was two (myself and an actor). Other times, we had 10-15 people for a day or two. Most of the time, it was myself, Katia, Simon, Will, and a sound mixer (one of three we had rotating throughout production). I shot in natural light if I could (especially during the day) and used as few lights as I needed on the nighttime interiors and exteriors. Our shoots rarely ran longer than nine or 10 hours, and yet we always managed to get at least something.
Our biggest sequence was a climatic nighttime shootout. It consisted of 10 pages of material, blank-firing weapons, blood hits, permits, and makeup. Needless to say, most of our meager budget was tied up in this scene. Up until this point, I had been shooting Negative on the Canon C100 Mark II (mostly because I owned it and thus could use it whenever I wanted), but I didn’t think it would work for what I had in mind. I wanted the scene to feel dark and natural, like we were using nothing but moonlight to light the scene. I did not have the manpower or the money to use big lights hundreds of feet away.
Thankfully, Alex Sax at Canon came through and offered up Canon’s new ME-20F-SH: the camera that can literally see in the dark with a sensor that can reach up to 4 million ISO. The camera was incredibly sensitive, so much so that we had to scrap the original lighting plan because the lights were just too powerful. We ended up lighting everything with small battery powered LED lights and a couple of Arri 650s we ran off a small Honda generator. We shot most of the sequence at 25,000 ISO and even had a couple shots at 100,000 ISO. This allowed us to move very quickly since we only had two lights up at any given time. We lit the space rather than the actors, which gave us both freedom to move and adjust as we saw fit.
Everything was running smoothly until I saw those drops of rain hit Simon’s jacket. This shot of Simon shooting his gun was the last one we needed with blank-firing weapons. Since it was only drizzling at this point, I quickly got off two takes of him firing his weapon. Then the rain picked up.
The crew rushed around to shut down the generator and cover the lights (again, we thankfully only had a couple out) while the rest of the crew rushed to the cars. Five minutes down the mountain we had an RV where our make-up artist and some additional crew were hanging out. As the rain started coming down harder, Will and I huddled to try and figure out what our next steps were. We couldn’t just leave; we didn’t have the sequence in the can. There was still a half-day of shooting we needed to get done.
We took stock of everything we had. It was Saturday, so we still owned the camera, lenses, shoulder rig, and lights for the rest of the weekend. The only two actors we still needed were Simon and Marem. We had insurance and location permits through Monday. We were done with the blank firing weapons, so we could lose the armorer and sheriff’s deputy, and the rest of the shots didn’t have any dialogue so we could lose sound as well. I figured I would only need one guy to come up and help me move some lights around. We checked the weather. Sunday night would be clear, so we decided to pack everything up in the RV and call it a night. We spoke to the actors and the crew and were able to finish everything up the following night.
On any other production, we would have been royally screwed. Adding another day would have cost way too much money because there would’ve been a bigger crew, trailers, equipment, and no one would have believed that we could get it done with only a couple of people.
But that’s what we set out to do on Negative—to make a film using a different production model, one based on allowing more time for performance, story, and getting the best you can possibly get, not something that’s merely good enough under the time constraints. That’s one of the reasons Katia and Simon, who are used to working on big sets with trailers and catering and so on, agreed to make this film with me. They knew their craft as actors would be where we’d be focusing the most time and effort. We didn’t have the budget to distract the audience with action scene after action scene. It would all come down to the characters.
Whatever your opinion of the film, I hope that you can at least take away the fact that there is another way to make movies—one that allows you the creative freedom to tell a unique story without having to sacrifice performance and scale. Too often, the production model on low-budget movies is to have all the things you would normally have on a big-budget movie at the expense of the number of days you can shoot. That’s bullshit and not conducive to making great films.
You can make a thriller that has great performances and looks high end. You just have to think of a different way to approach it. MM
Negative opens on digital HD and On Demand (iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, Google, Dish/Sling, OnDemand, Vubiquity, DirecTV, and AT&T) on September 19, 2017, courtesy of MarVista Entertainment.