Microbudget director William Dickerson (Detour, The Mirror, Shadowbox) doesn’t believe in the traditional mandate to get as much as coverage as possible. But while this strategy often serves him well on his low-budget quick shoots, it ran him into trouble on his latest feature, Don’t Look Back, when producers asked him to turn a one-shot scene into a sequence with cuts. How did he pull it off?
My debut feature film, Detour, was in many ways an experiment in microbudget film making. The question was: “How much could I, as a filmmaker, do with little-to-no-budget?” The film took five years to make from screenplay to screen, but we eventually saw its worldwide release theatrically and On Demand. After its release, I gained a reputation for being able to make a micro-budget movie into something that looked like a million bucks.
As a result, I had several “general” meetings with production companies – in other words, the best meetings you think you’ve ever had… until you never hear from the people you met with again. One studio I met with, MarVista Entertainment, was looking to hire directors to helm projects they already had in development. The movie was called Don’t Look Back, which they pitched to me as a contained thriller in the woods with lots of twists and turns. I was intrigued. They told me that the script was still being developed and we kept in touch about it for several months. Six months later – just when I thought the results were entering “general” meeting territory – I got the call. They had a script and wanted me to direct it.
However, the script still needed some work, with pre-production starting in less than a month. To top it off, I only had 14 days to shoot. That’s not a lot of time. To give you a basis for comparison, I’d shot a movie about a guy in a car, and that took 23 days. Even that wasn’t enough time. The Don’t Look Back budget was 10 times the budget of Detour, and I had nearly half the time to shoot it. (Don’t Look Back was still a microbudget film, if that gives you an inkling of just how cheap Detour was to make.)
When one of the producers asked me how I was going to shoot the film in the required time-frame, I pointed out that I wouldn’t be shooting coverage just for the sake of coverage. I don’t typically shoot a lot of coverage to begin with, because I feel strongly that if you’ve determined the subtext of the scene and have established your character’s point-of-view, there’s really only one way to film it. It may involve one shot, or multiple shots, but it’s never “Let’s also get this shot or that shot for safety.” That mindset implies that the filmmaker doesn’t know what the subtext or the meaning of the scene is, or how he or she plans to shoot it. It’s an indication that the director does not know what he or she wants. A director needs to be decisive and assured.
With one of the most important scenes in the film (spoiler alert) being the death of antagonist Eddie Starks, played by Roddy Piper (They Live), I decided to shoot the entire scene in a “oner,” or a single shot master that covers all the beats of a scene. It was important for me to show the scene in the point-of-view of the killer. I took inspiration from the likes of Brian De Palma and John Carpenter, who used the lens as the eyes of the murderer in movies like Dressed To Kill and Halloween. In addition to channeling this aesthetic, which places the viewer vicariously into the body of the character, it was necessary for me to reveal the identity of the killer to Eddie, but not to the audience.
How does one shoot this? My choice was to go the subjective route. As long as the camera or character didn’t look into a mirror, the identity would be withheld from everyone but Eddie.
If I was going to remain true to this chosen conceit, I had to forego any cutting in the scene. If we were experiencing the scene through the eyes of a character, then why would we cut to anything else? Where else would we possibly cut? Not to Eddie’s point-of-view and certainly not to a third person point-of-view. To cut anywhere else meant violating the rules that the shot demanded.
As I mentioned before, if you’ve figured out the subtext and have decided the best way to shoot it, you may not need other bits of coverage to capture it. For me, the subtext of this scene was that the past catches up to you, and when it does, you must face it. So my POV idea was thematically in line with the subtext: The camera is the past and the antagonist is forced to look directly into it as it arrives on his doorstep.
We shot it on the RED Epic with a 28 mm lens, and used a Steadicam rig in order to emulate the look and feel of a person walking. The 28 mm lens tends to be an accurate representation of the human eye’s field of view.
I positioned two actresses next to the Steadicam operator—if the lens was the character’s eyes, I needed to see the character’s arms interact with and eventually stab Eddie. The actress on the left was to grab Eddie with her left hand as the actress on the right was to stab him with a retractable knife in her right hand. The Steadicam operator was every bit an actor in the scene, being choreographed right along with the two actresses. For example, every time the camera tilted it would be read as a nod of the head, so his timing and camera movements were critical.
We allotted a good chunk of time to rehearse this shot. It was all about rehearsal – which goes for any “oner.” We spent about three hours blocking and rehearsing, and then shot three takes of the scene, which lasted about a minute and a half. I won’t bore you with the specifics of what had to take place, other than the fact that it involved three people playing one person, focus marks that were too many to count, a dark set with practical lighting, a lens that was WFO (“wide-freaking-open”), a blood pump effect that kept breaking, and a monitor (in another room) that, without fail, disconnected from the feed each time I called “action.” This meant not seeing the shot in real time (I had to review it afterwards).
After reviewing the third take, I signed off on the shot and we wrapped the scene.
Fast-forward to post-production. The schedule was as follows: three weeks for editor’s cut, two weeks for director’s cut, and two weeks for producer notes. On my first two films, I was in control of the final cut. Don’t Look Back was a hired gun gig, though I didn’t treat it as such.
The executive producers were on board with my overall vision of the film, but after I delivered the director’s cut, it became clear that the Eddie death scene didn’t work for them (this is a subjective business, after all). I was given two options: 1. rethink the post-production approach to the scene or 2. cut it from the film. I sure as heck didn’t want to do option 2 (frankly, it wasn’t an option for me), and how on earth was I to rethink the edit of a scene that was previously edited in camera as one continuous shot?
It was a bit of a conundrum. If it were up to me, at the time, I would not have touched it. However, I was tasked to cut the total time of the shot in half, to jump time within it, and to adjust a performance (typically, this means using different takes of the same shot to modulate the character’s dramatic beats – impossible to do in a oner since there are no other shots to cut to).
I asked the executive producer to give me two days to come up with an alternate approach. After digesting the setback, I set about problem-solving, and what occurred was a cut-and-dry example of limitations breeding creativity.
I began thinking about the aesthetics of the literal first-person POV shot that I executed and what other shots in the film were similar. If I hadn’t been forced into asking myself this question, I would not have come up with the solution: the 3D camera. While there aren’t any other literal POV shots like the one in this murder scene, there were several instances when our camera shot through the viewfinder of a 3D camera (one of the more significant props used by the characters in the film).
That thought lead me to posit the “what if” notion of converting the frame of our camera into the literal frame of the 3D camera. This meant that the conceit of the shot would no longer be that it was the eyes of the murderer, but the eyes of the murderer holding and looking through the 3D camera during the scene.
What did this idea allow me to do technically? It allowed me to cut within the shot, which would allow me to address the producers’ concerns about both timing and performance. How did I do it exactly? If the perspective was the viewfinder of the camera, the character’s intention was to take photographs of Eddie—which meant it was up to me to figure out which points I wanted the character to click the shutter and take a photo. Having done my homework, I knew what the beats were, and therefore, knew which parts I wanted to show. Every time a dramatic beat was completed, I’d click the shutter, thereby punctuating the beat. Furthermore, when the shutter was clicked, my editor, Blake Barrie, froze the image on screen for as long as the shutter was held down. When the shutter was released, the image unfroze, and we were farther along in the scene—often much farther, and not only that, we were often in another take. This technique killed two birds with one stone. We didn’t have any money in the budget for additional visual effects, but I was in possession of the prop camera. I bought a green poster board, pointed the 3D camera at it, and Blake and I shot plates through its green-filled viewfinder with my Canon 7D. Blake then took the still, chroma-keyed out the green, and created a simple matte of the viewfinder. He placed the matte over our shot and voila!, we were suddenly able to edit it as much as our hearts desired.
But did it work from a storytelling perspective?
In my opinion, not only did it work for the story, it actually enhanced it. The scene still involved a character (who is unknown to the audience) killing the antagonist of the film and it remained true to the subtext. We were still seeing it through the eyes of the character, but now it contained the additional layer of the camera – a prop that was once less important had now become vital.
In the next scene, when Peyton enters the house with the camera, the audience can assume it was her, and that she is the murderer. That was an important aspect for me. I wanted to mislead the audience into thinking Peyton is up to no good. What was previously a benign scene had just become one of the most suspenseful scenes in the film – just by adding the camera into the shot.
Thanks to this obstacle, I ultimately came up with a way to improve not only the scene, but the entire film. And it did not cost a dime. MM
Watch Don’t Look Back on Amazon Prime here. Top photograph by Ann Doria.
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