“What is the new thing that I want to focus on and that I haven’t necessarily done before?” director Charlie McDowell asks himself each time he starts a project. For his new Netflix thriller Windfall, it was all about the blocking.
“A lot of the times, the blocking will dictate how characters are interacting or connecting or disconnecting,” he says.
Shot in one location during the pandemic, Windfall has three leads, played by Jason Segel, Jesse Plemons and Lily Collins.
“I started to look at a lot of classic noir and also films that leaned into that style and tone,” he says.
This included masters of suspense like Hitchcock and Polanski.
“Something like Knife in the Water, where you have three characters on a sailboat: how do they all interact with each other? How does the blocking change over the course of the movie? How does the way in which they shoot it change over the course of the movie?” McDowell says.
But it wasn’t all looking to the past. Windfall follows a young arrogant CEO (Plemons) who made his fortunes quickly. He and his wife (Collins) are robbed by a down-on-his-luck have-not (Segel).
“We did a hybrid of an indie film of today, but we also nod to a period of time that felt quite classic and seemingly simplistic, but quite layered in its execution,” McDowell says.
Building these layered elements required McDowell to shift his usual pre-production approach. The pandemic meant he couldn’t rehearse with his actors. He also likes to do visual storyboards with stand-ins, and he couldn’t do that either.
Instead he went to the location with his cinematographer, Isiah Donté Lee, for three weeks before filming.
“We walked through this space, walked through every scene, and talked about where we felt the characters were in the space,” he says. “We weren’t even talking about where the camera would be, but more about the blocking. From there, we really let that take charge.”
When the pair did discuss camera placement and movement, it was again motivated by character.
“In the first half of the film, the camera moves are dictated by characters’ movements. So if one character is crossing the room, then the camera will dolly and pan with that character,” McDowell says.
“And then in the second half of the film, the camera starts to move based on the emotion of the character,” he continues. “So they could be sitting there, but something has changed in them or a feeling about them is changed, and then the camera starts to move as a result of that.”
Much of Windfall revolves around the three characters “waiting for a bag of money to come,” McDowell says.
“There aren’t many plot obstacles. It’s more character obstacles that show up,” he adds.
But at a key moment in the film, an outside obstacle arrives.
“OK, we’ve had quite a few moments of character, obstacles and character growth. And now we needed something new to come into the story to flip it on its head and create more chaos in terms of plot,” McDowell explains.
So screenwriter Justin Lader and McDowell went back and revisited McDowell’s debut feature The One I Love, which Lader wrote. This film was also shot in one location with a minimal cast.
“And we remembered that we had a rule with that film that every 10 minutes, we needed to introduce a new idea or a new obstacle, so that the audience wouldn’t get bored of this space, or this idea that we’re exploring,” McDowell says.
For Windfall, this concept was applied more instinctually and less mathematically.
When something disrupts the dynamics of the trio, McDowell says, “We certainly felt like, OK, we’ve had a few scenes now with people talking in rooms.”
Windfall, directed by Charlie McDowell, is now streaming on Netflix.
Main image: Lily Collins as Wife, Jesse Plemons as CEO, and Jason Segel as Nobody in Windfall, from director Charlie McDowell. Images courtesy of Netflix.