First, I apologize for neglecting this blog. I had a really ambitious plan to write a lot during pre-production and even keep a daily log during production, but the stress and exhaustion of prepping and shooting precluded me from such things. My hope is that now that post-production is in its closing weeks, I'll have more time to write and will be better able to reflect on the ACTUAL film rather than offer mere hypotheses. David Lowery's blog posts about Ain't Them Bodies Saints seem like great models, though I won't be doing exactly what he's been doing (analyzing one frame per day).
Now for a few things about the film: I plan to touch on (1) a few stylistic principles & choices, (2) what it's like to shoot a film in Madison, WI, (3) my experiences with our fantastic cast, (4) the benefits of editing-as-you-shoot, and (5) what's left to do/what our goals are for the film. For this first post, I'll stick with #1. Subsequent posts will deal with the rest.
(1) a few stylistic principles & choices
Sabbatical consists of 63 shots. When I wrote it, there were 65. It runs about 74 minutes. I guessed the final product would be between 75 and 80 mins in the introduction to the script. So, we hewed pretty closely to the plan. I'm definitely a pre-planning type of filmmaker. I write in shots. I know which shots will butt up against which shots before we get on set. I can't imagine ever working any differently. The narrative comes to me as a series of specific images and sounds. I don't shoot coverage. I storyboard every composition. I added one shot between the script and shooting (while storyboarding).
What this all means, I think is that I create precisely. I don't assume that being precise is any better or worse than being loose. Different filmmakers take different paths to make different films. It's just how my imagination works. When I write, it always starts off as several distinct images -- images imbued with certain emotional resonances. My job as a writer, then, is to tell a story that connects those images and that allows the emotional qualities of those images to enrich and compound one another. This is probably totally backward relative to how many screenwriters work. But, directing what you write makes you write differently, I think. You are primarily communicating with a future version of yourself.
There are two shots -- definitely the two most important scenes in the film -- that are over five minutes long. Most shots in the movie are about one to two minutes long. I like long-ish takes, but not long for the sake of being long. The long takes aren't stunts (though they can be challenging to shoot). They just fit my internal rhythm. When I see scenes in my head, they usually consist of relative stasis being broken up by small changes. I tend to start still, have something happen, then briefly return to stillness. That sort of thing is very compelling to me on a sheer perceptual level, but even more so when contextualized within a dramatic scenario. I like for characters to be feeling several emotions at once. I like to watch them feel those things. I want to inhabit moods. To be done subtly, I think it requires a certain amount of time and concentration. This also touches on the issue of realism. I don't consider myself a "realistic" filmmaker. I make films about feelings. The feelings determine the nature of the film's world.
I also like shots to register as shots and cuts to register as cuts. This isn't for some alienation effect or Brechtian distancing or what have you. I just like observing the shape of an artwork. I derive a great deal of pleasure from formal relationships, and I think this comes through in Sabbatical. I'm also into rules, creating parameters for a work. The main reason is that rules can force me to imagine things or solve problems in a way I wouldn't normally. One of the most important rules for me comes from Robert Bresson -- his suggestion that sound and image should avoid redundancy. If an element can be expressed aurally, let it be offscreen, show something else. Do we need to see who is talking, or can we just hear them? What is necessary? Thinking this way has consistently pushed me in directions I enjoy.
The last stylistic component I'll mention is aspect ratio. For a long while, I was waffling between shooting Sabbatical is 16:9 (1.78:1) or 4:3 (1.33:1). I really love the latter format for several reasons: (1) it is better for shooting human heads, (2) it makes isolating figures or objects in a frame easier by lopping off the excess horizontality, (3) many of my compositional influences (Dreyer, Bresson, Bergman) made use of it on my favorite films, such as Ordet (1955), Pickpocket (1959), and Winter Light (1962) (though, technically, they shot at 1.37:1), and (4) it allows you to shoot at a wide-ish (35mm) angle in a tight space with minimal spatial warping (since the edges are chopped off). I finally committed to 1.33:1 after seeing Carlos Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux in April. Subsequently, Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights increased my resolve. Having shot and cut the film, I couldn't be happier with the decision.
More to come soon,