Today, just days before the release of my first feature film, Run the Tide, flipping through my initial lookbook feels like looking back into time.
It’s much like reflecting over old photographs—how innocent and naive I was back then!
The central action of Run the Tide is formed by two competing road trips, as Rey (Taylor Lautner) “kidnaps” his younger brother Oliver (Nico Christou) and runs away, while his mother Lola (Constance Zimmer) gives chase with her husband Bo (Kenny Johnson). Having grown up in Texas at a time when family vacations consisted mostly of long drives to nearby towns, I have first-hand experience of how the open road presents an emotional dichotomy—the feeling of complete freedom, along with a sense of entrapment with your fellow travelers. It’s the perfect setting to explore the myth of American individualism versus the pull of family. Traveling also provides the space and time for dormant feelings and issues to finally find a voice.
The visual design of the film was a collaboration between myself, director of photography John T. Connor, production designer David Batchelor Wilson, and costume designer Kim Ngo. I wanted to create a subtle visual progression to help immerse the audience psychologically in the journey. The film is about “shedding,” in that every character sheds some emotional baggage through the journey (i.e. sheds his anger, sheds her pride, sheds her nostalgia, etc.). In support of this idea, Kim and David built a gradual progression from warm to cool colors into their design.
We also made choices that would slowly strip away other barriers standing between the characters. Sometimes, this amounted to something as simple as dressing a character in a button-down in earlier scenes and then just a T-shirt in later scenes, or cutting back on the amount of makeup as the road trip progressed. As the journey wears the characters down, they face each other more directly with less artifice.
I also wanted to differentiate between the two contrasting road trips. For the boys, the journey presents an opportunity to finally break free of their oppressive desert small town. It’s an adventure filled with the promise of fast food, fart jokes, camping underneath the stars and swimming in the ocean. Conversely, Bo and Lola struggle with the claustrophobia of their trip as both adults are forced to share space in motel rooms and Bo’s truck while past resentments simmer beneath the surface. To achieve this distinction, we tried to play out Bo and Lola’s scenes with as few shots as possible. We often staged their action as a single, long take and allowed the silences to live in the final film. For the boys, we covered the scene more conventionally with masters, two-shots, and matching singles. Practically, I knew this approach would also give me more freedom to shape my child actor Nico’s performance in the edit.
My most difficult decisions in designing the film centered around the camera work. With 19 practical locations to shoot in 22 days, with no prior on-set rehearsal time, I knew we needed a shooting strategy that would allow us to work as quickly as possible. This was a very performance-dependent film, so I wanted to minimize setup time and allow the actors to stay in the zone once we got started. Breaking out track and a dolly everywhere would have just killed us—not to mention, many of the locations just wouldn’t have the space. I wanted camera movement, but using a Steadicam felt too smooth and polished for the subject matter, so we chose to shoot handheld.
When Connor came on as DP, the first thing he did was convince me to shoot anamorphic (using the Arri Alexa 4:3 with Kowa Anamorphics). I loved the look but worried that the widescreen ratio would make the handheld camera work feel even more wobbly. We did a camera test and compared a 16×9 sensor with spherical lenses, 16×9 sensor with spherical lenses cropped to 2.39, and a 4×3 sensor with anamorphic lenses. Connor and I shot footage with him following and leading me as I walked and also sitting in the passenger-side of my car as I drove. Once I saw the footage, I was sold. Shooting anamorphic gave the most simple shots a more dramatic feel, and Connor was such an amazing operator, I no longer had any concerns about increased shakiness. Going wide was a natural fit for the exteriors of our road trip, but it would complicate getting clean singles in our tight locations. Considering our film was relationship-focused, I was willing to accept being forced to shoot most singles over the shoulder.
Once we had resolved to shoot anamorphic and hand-held, we still had to work out our approach to composition. I got my start in theater and have a love for compositions that reveal the relationship dynamics between characters through their staging within the frame. In film, you have the ability to cut or move the camera to direct the audience. In theater, you use the staging and lighting to direct the eye. Even though we would be shooting handheld, I wanted to allow the camera to occasionally sit back and let the actors move through the frame rather than always acting on the impulse to follow them. I wanted to balance the immediacy and flexibility that shooting handheld lended us with the formalism of composed tableaus.
Toward this goal, I worked with artist Austin Jose to storyboard just the one key frame from each scene that I felt revealed the scene. With images in hand, I met with Connor and together we shot-listed the entire film. Even though we knew all of our shots, by keeping my focus on my one key frame, I kept myself more open on set for opportunities as they presented themselves. Rather than worrying about matching every shot to some pre-drawn image, I always knew what was most important. The actors could pursue their motivations and discover their own blocking while I encouraged them along in certain directions. Connor had freedom to follow his instincts with the camera and adjust to the actors as needed. I kept my one frame in mind, and in most scenes, we found ourselves working our way there organically.
As I compare my lookbook, storyboards and shot lists with the final film, I definitely notice the deviations, but I am struck by how much the film adheres to my initial intent. I always wanted to make Run the Tide accessible to wider audiences despite the heavy subject matter. The look and feel should not overtly telegraph the unfolding drama. Kim and David created a world that mixes the hopefulness of vibrant colors along with the bleakness of the desert. Connor’s camera work captures the playfulness along with the drama. Tommy Simpson’s score infuses moments of warmth along with the expected tension. Producer Pilar Savone and assistant director Doug Turner provided the backbone to the whole endeavor. Writer Rajiv Shah was on set if I ever wanted to discuss the inspiration for a moment or we needed to rework some dialogue.
Despite everything my amazing team did to help me bring the film to life, I often felt alone. As the director, you’re the final arbitrator, as you take everyone’s ideas and attempt to shape a cohesive whole. A better team means better options, but you’re still the one that has to decide. Only you know the film that you’re trying to make. You try to articulate your vision as clearly as possible, but there are aspects of it that live only in your instincts.
Only now do I realize that the lookbook, the storyboards, the shot lists and everything else that I created to communicate to the team were only partially for them. The true benefit of all that work was actually to prepare myself, so that I could tackle each decision, consider every compromise, and come through the process with the film that I envisioned all along.
The Breakdown: The Evolution of Five Shots
1. A preset tableau. We got to it by following Rey from his sitting position back to Oliver’s bedroom all as one shot. The final tableau changed slightly as we modified it to better fit the location.
2. People have often told me this is one of their favorite shots in the film. We wanted to play out the scene when Bo tells Lola that the boys have run away in one shot and in a reflection. Instinctively, it felt more isolating and cold for Lola. We conceived of the shot playing out through the rear view mirror, but on set, we realized that we could actually play it in the rear window of the truck making it far more interesting.
We begin with Bo watching Lola come through the prison gate as she’s released. He gets out of the truck, but the camera hangs on the window and picks up the action in the reflection. We did a couple of takes, but it just wasn’t working because we couldn’t read Lola’s reaction. As the pressure to jump in for coverage increased, we discovered that if Lola staggered forward towards the truck, we could register her devastation. Constance did an inspired job of making the blocking feel motivated.
3. We discovered a better way to stage this on set, but it still illustrates the dynamics of their relationship with Bo looming large in the foreground and Lola shrinking into the corner in the background. The shot continues with Bo leaving the room and pacing on the balcony. Lola eventually gets up and watches him. I love seeing the empty room with her small in the background. It gives his absence an unspoken weight.
4. This shot establishes the beach fire and the group enjoying themselves before Rey walks into the background and watches them, observing the youthful life that he’s missing out on by taking care of Oliver. I had it designed with Rey much closer to the fire, but Taylor felt that it was unrealistic that he would hover so close with an empty beach all around. He was right. The shot actually becomes stronger with him deeper in the background and receding into darkness. When an actor feels your blocking is awkward, listen!
5. This happens late in the film, so as per our design, we wanted to minimize warm colors in the frame. After finding this diner, we actually looked around to find one that had grey booths instead of bright red. We couldn’t find anything better, and we didn’t have the time or money to change out the booths, so we lived with it. You try to control as much as you can, but the deviations from the plan are sometimes what make it feel real rather than “designed.” In retrospect, the clash between the warmer and cooler colors in this scene perfectly underscores the tension between the characters. MM
Run the Tide opens in theaters and on Digital HD and On Demand December 2, 2016, courtesy of Momentum Pictures and Orion Releasing.