Sun Choke was meant to open with a big, bravura tracking shot.
The film centers on a traumatic collision between three women, as every attempt at connection only leads to deeper despair and imminent disaster. As Janie (Sarah Hagan) recovers from a violent psychotic episode, she begins to develop an unhealthy obsession with a younger women (Sara Malakul Lane), all the while fighting for control of her mind against her seemingly well-meaning caretaker, Irma (Barbara Crampton).
For that opening, we would start on deep red, then tilt up slowly, revealing a knife and blood spatter. We’d go out through the door of the pool house, continuing to tilt up so now the whole house is in view. Then across the surface of the pool, and past a bloody hand print on the frame of a sliding door, into the house. Around a corner, past the father character, past Irma the caretaker, until finally Janie comes into view, struggling like a trapped animal against the two paramedics trying to get her to an ambulance. Then, finally, up a long flight of stairs backward away from the action. Cut.
It was the most difficult shot of the entire production, and it never made the final film.
We shot the opening midway through our shoot, scheduled that way so the crew would have developed a good rhythm by the time we got to it. Before we even started rolling we were burning time, waiting for it to get dark enough to shoot. We ran some rehearsals, and stole a couple quick evening establishing shots, but there was already an anxiety in the air about what was coming next. Maybe it was excitement (the symptoms are essentially the same).
We brought in a MōVI stabilizer and an operator to accomplish what would, on a higher budget, have been some kind of wild crane/Steadicam hybrid. The tech was pretty new at the time, and at times baffling in ways I’m not qualified to explain.
The idea was to start close up on the puddle of blood, then guide the MōVI/cam rig outside, where it would be quickly and delicately attached via a (cross your fingers) sturdy hook to a length of speed rail, held on each end by grips who carried the camera across the surface of the water. On the far side of the pool, our DP Mathew and our MōVI operator would run around and pull the camera off the rail, and go back to carrying it through the rest of the shot. All the while, we’d have our actors going full bore the entire time, because the house was essentially all glass, and there was nowhere to hide, and no point in the shot where they could relax.
I sat at the very top of the stairs, chain-smoking cigarettes and racing down after each take to look at the footage.
There were rogue reflections in the floor to ceiling windows, and problems with the stabilizer, though at least the camera never went in the drink. By the end, the actors playing the paramedics were sore, heaving breath from trying to restrain Sarah Hagan, who struggled violently against them take after take. It was genuinely terrifying to watch her performance, though I already had a week to see the amazing things Sarah was doing. But as these background actors started to genuinely fear for their safety, I couldn’t help but feel proud and that we were onto something.
This went on for five hours and 15 takes. We had it on 14, but there’s always the one for the road. We watched those last two takes back to back, over and over, needing to be sure. But sure or otherwise, sometimes you just can’t allot your crew any further overtime.
Fast forward a few months. I had my first concerns not long after we finished our first cut. It started with the technical details. I was seizing on every conceivable imperfection, like a slight bump coming out of the pool that was particularly maddening. But the real problem was that we had this two-and-half-minute shot that didn’t get us any closer to the film. In fact, after a while, it genuinely started to feel like the shot was actively holding up the story. Alarm bells weren’t ringing yet, but we all knew something had to be done.
We explored a variety of VFX solutions: digital stabilization, some homemade strobe effects… We did discover this interesting 3-D shadow effect that would sort of “doppler” over the frame, obscuring different areas at different times, but we couldn’t afford to get it done.
The shot was only getting more costly, yet it felt essential in spite of all the headaches. So it stayed in the cut that we first submitted to film festivals. And—no big surprise here, and not by any means just because of the shot—we were rejected from a couple festivals we’d really pinned our hopes on. So we went limping back into the edit room. It’s a frightening thing to stare down the barrel of a “finished” film and ask yourself what isn’t working.
It all came down to that shot. Technical nitpicking aside, the real problem was we were crafting this really intimate narrative, and our opening shot started about as far from the main character as was geographically and practically possible. This created a cognitive dissonance that, more and more, made that opening shot look like it was cut into Sun Choke from another film.
The following shot, however, was only a few inches from the main character’s face. That was our opener.
In the process of making it the opener, the film became more “itself”—for lack of a better descriptor—than maybe even I had expected. It demanded a really delicate touch; a focus on the “who” and the “how” more than the “what.” Cutting that shot not only refocused the beginning of the film, but it brought into sharp relief any errant moments throughout the narrative where we were drifting from our characters and their relationships. That was always meant to be the engine and the heart of the film, so removing the shot almost instantly made things better.
There’s still plenty of disappointment to go around in the wake of a decision like this, but at a certain point, it’s not about your or my disappointment anymore. It’s about what’s best for the film. That’s what makes this process so fascinating: that each step along the way, the film sort of expands into a new dimension. MM
Watch the original opening shot from Sun Choke on Vimeo here (password: sunchoke).
Sun Choke opened On Demand August 2, 2016 and opens in theaters August 5, 2016.
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