I spent 10 years planning, writing, researching and visualizing Free in Deed.
But the final film that I wrote, directed, edited and framed still fell so far wide of my original intention that it took me 18 months of editing to realize what this film had actually become. In the end, a different film, with its own internal logic, emerged from the deconstructing chaos of production. It’s the story, based on real-life events, of a Pentecostal minister who attempts to perform a healing miracle on a young boy in a storefront church. Here are some frames from the film—I’ll describe the mix of intention and circumstance that merge to create each single shot.
Day One, morning, out of an 18-day shoot on six-day weeks. This is a disgusting road motel where our protagonist, Abe (David Harewood), is living. This kid, Billy (Noah Williams), rides his big wheel around the parking lot. Abe was supposed to walk up and try to convert the kid to Jesus in this scene. It would have been sublime and hilarious, but all that survived in my edit is this five-second shot.
Producer Mike Ryan and I arrived on location in a car and as we pulled in, I saw two Enterprise cube trucks with crates and C-stands and about 12 people setting up. I got sick to my stomach. I turned to Mike and said, “What are all these people doing here? We don’t need all this stuff!”
He just laughed at me. “Who do you want to get rid of?”
It was cold as ass; the coldest winter in the history of Memphis (and we had moved production from Detroit to Memphis to avoid the winter cold). We set up this shot on track to dolly along obliquely to the walls. But that turned out awkward and fruitless. So we locked it down. Just off frame-right, I had a PA wave a big piece of cardboard and blow the leaves around. Most of the leaves were wet so they wouldn’t move unless there was a huge gust. The PA’s arms were getting tired so she handed the cardboard off to the production designer who was a big (usually patient) lumberjack guy. At the same time, I was shouting instructions to the kid but either he couldn’t hear me, couldn’t understand me, or didn’t care. We had to hide his mother in a car so he wouldn’t keep looking around and talking at her from inside the scene.
I cut the very last frame just as he spins around to look at his mother and say something about ice cream. I framed the shot to include the cell towers and antenna and we avoided a perpendicular angle to keep the shot from being flat or graphic like a tribute to Wes Anderson. For the grade, I added a subtle vignette, mild desaturation (while boosting the red of the bike), reducing reds overall to cool it off and plant a less offending shade of shit-brown on those doors.
Sometime in Week Two. It is turning less cold. This is a small apartment block with a giant tree in the middle of the courtyard. It was the perfect location visually, story-wise and allegorically, and even close enough to film headquarters for actor-holding. Still, the crew was displeased that they would have to carry props and gear up a flight of stairs, and the apartment was going to be cramped for shooting. I felt guilty, but we shot there anyway.
This is a scene where Abe and the local old lady, Isabelle (Helen Bowman), first come to the apartment of a young mother, Melva (Edwina Findley), to take her child to a prayer service for healing. They are standing in the courtyard directing their prayer hands up into her apartment on the second floor.
I love Isabelle’s white fingers, slightly trembling as Abe mumbles his prayer. I wanted the frame line high to emphasize the headspace over the figures and allude to invisible forces within the scene. The creep in over their shoulders was nigh on horror. DP Ava Berkofsky operated, making a push in on the Dana dolly. As the characters walk off deeper into frame right, the camera tilts up to focus on the second floor apartment through the branches. More leaves. I collected leaves for the PA to drop into frame from the second-floor balcony. I had to position her in close above camera and give her a rhythm so that the leaves didn’t just get dumped down in chunky clumps. I held the take while everyone was set, until she got it right. Some crew was annoyed and laughing at me. Why did I care about leaves? I didn’t have time to explain.
This is the first scene with Abe in his bulbous-looking leather jacket. I really don’t like this jacket but there had been some kind of misunderstanding on wardrobe. In the grade, I bumped the saturation on the green leaves and desaturated the red bricks. Also added vignette.
Week One, the third night. Everyone had spent the entire day freezing balls in a half-demolished motel with no walls, throwing trash from four stories up into a giant, moldy swimming pool. This was the worst day of the entire shoot. We’d just shot a three-hour scene I knew I could never use. I was having an absolute crisis in reconceiving Abe’s character and settling on a coherent aesthetic for the film, trying to reconcile what I originally intended for what was feasible. But this church location was a genuine discovery and a throbbing time capsule of deep, old-school soul (thank you, Nicki Newberger).
I thought that just documenting this service might actually be the most important thing we did, even if the rest of the film was a disaster. Earlier that day, associate producer Adam Hohenberg showed me a beautiful book of photographs called The Reverend, by James Perry Walker, and I was dying to make that movie. And here it was.
In pre-production, I told Willie Tate (seen above) that I wanted him to preach about revelations, end times and tribulation. He started the service with a few hymns while we tried shooting. But the old wooden floor would bend and wobble under the slider. The EZ-Rig cable snapped.
Then Willie Tate just started in preaching and I saw there was no way we were going to get any cuts, retakes, resets or alternate versions. He was lit and this was it. We got a few good moves and some shots on Abe in the pew. The footage would never cut together as a self-sufficient scene, but I used the better fragments as a recurring flashback motif. I don’t remember exactly what Ava did for illumination. We couldn’t get on the ceiling and we needed 360 degrees; so, no stands. I think she bounced light in through the windows for fill. It’s a good look.
In the grade, I heavily vignetted this shot, boosted yellow in the highlights, green in the shadows, and gave some glow to the overhead lamps.
“No more tears to cry, cause Satan is chained up! No more dope on the street, cause Satan is chained up! No more young folk wearing their pants down, cause Satan will be chained up!” –Willie Tate.
Day One of Week Three. We are in the basement of the Rev. Libra Yvonne Mitchell, a.k.a. Prophetess Libra’s, church. On the first day at this location, I explained to everyone that we would be moving around with the camera and repeating the service over and over. I called, “Action!”
Prophetess Libra jumped out in her big hat, grabbed the microphone and shouted, “They think they’re making a movie! But we came to have church in here!”
I called out instructions, adjusted people in the frame or pointed out angles as Ava and the AC ran around trying to harvest footage. We would repeat the services over and over again but it was really difficult to get anyone to actually stop singing and dancing in order to reset. Continuity, audio, location music, etc. were all issues in post but nothing superseded the basic need for authentic church services. We would never cast actors and extras to mimic a real worship. Irrespective of any production issues (we had terrible sound problems throughout), we needed to find actual believers to form a synthetic congregation and run church while we inserted our actors into these live, ongoing scenes. We had to shoot for staged, scripted fiction within an unrehearsed, documentary situation.
From the beginning, it was my intention to make a kind of formalist, vérité documentary with highly organized narrative framing of spontaneous “non-narrative” performances—like the early films of Sergei Dvortsevoy. The best photojournalism is inherently narrative because those single, isolated images depict above all, no matter the subject, an intelligence of perception. They are evidence of the process of looking and the art of observation. Henri-Cartier Bresson, Roy DeCarava; each image is a story within a world. Rather than using pictures to illustrate a plot, a world emerges from creating a web of relationships (i.e. figure/ground, subject/object, thematic associations, etc.) Photojournalistic principles would be the way to make story sense out of the semi-controlled chaos we were unleashing. In the edit, I only included the best, usable compositions based on this principle.
Week Three. This is Melva. I wanted the shot framed abnormally high. This was about indicating an absence in the scene—Melva’s own separation and loneliness within a crowd—and to disorient perspective away from a literal depiction of her performance (which was phenomenal). Edwina was genuinely moved in the services and would cry freely.
Ava and I both wanted to find images that would be meaningful and iconic but not be distracting, yet we had different views of what those should be. Oftentimes, after framing the shot and prepping actors, just before action, I nudged the frame line up again. As a general guideline, to get that headroom, I tried to crop frames above waist-level. My typical directives: “Please bump the frame line up. Cut out his ass. I know it’s weird. It’s art.” In the final film, there is more ass than absence, more than I wanted. But since this first experience of working with a crew, and one more (my short film “Midwinter” premiered at Venice in 2016), I have lost some anxiety over insisting on what I really want.
Ava consistently covered scenes with close-ups that I framed as single, wide, long-takes. This ultimately helped save a few scenes in the edit. She also placed objects in extreme close-up to cloud the foreground. This lent an almost accidental, occluding element to compositions that would have otherwise felt too flat, clean and obvious. Very good.
Week Three; maybe Day 16. I visualized this final shot of the film when I first wrote the script. It is a lateral dolly move, tracking Abe from medium wide, standing in the rear of the church, to him going to his knees and crawling up to the altar. The rows of pews in the foreground roll by, turning the screen intermittently dark like an extreme slow-motion filmstrip, until we are in medium close on him on the floor at the front of the church. The “slow-motion” flashing of pews, blocking views of Abe as he devolves in grief, builds anticipation of the final emotional reveal while also helping to subvert and distance what might otherwise be overblown melodrama.
It had to be a single take. No jib arm. Ava and I each took turns operating; starting from a standing position on the doorway dolly, following Abe down to the floor, laying on the platform just as an oncoming pew helped to cover the camera bobble and reset, rolling out to the end. The pews blacking the frame allowed for a few invisible cuts to merge the smoothest portions of alternate takes together in the edit.
David gave a great performance. He had been holding out with sorrowful restraint for three weeks and this was his explosive release. We did three or four takes at full blast and then it was time for a nap—for all of us.
I am grateful to everyone who contributed to making this film what it is. I spent so much of my own time and accepted so much nonprofit, grant money that either never completing the film or making something mediocre would have been unbearably humiliating. While I failed to achieve what I had originally intended, the film still represents and justifies other people’s immense investments and efforts. I am deeply relieved that their excellent work stands out and the film is not a record of our collective shame. Everything above and beyond that baseline is a matter of grace, as anyone with filmmaking experience will admit.
“One sees how one wants to see; how one wants to see is wrong. Art is that error,” said Edgar Degas. Errors, if done right, may still have meaning and value. “Art.” MM
Free in Deed was nominated for four 2017 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Male Lead, Best Supporting Female, Best Cinematography and the John Cassavetes Award for best feature made under $500,000.
This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2017 issue.