My on-going VideoBlog, as much for me as it is for everyone else…I’m aiming for bi-daily updates, as they come, and I’ll be as forthcoming as possible. Some networks and deals are best not spoken about directly until the ink is dry, if you know what I mean, but I’d like to have this as straight up as it can be!
It’s been a year since the Canadian Release of my first ‘big’ movie, so I thought it might be as good a time as any to publish my “Cinematographer’s Notes” Six Reasons Why on my blog, since the only other people who have them are the distributors, Thinkfilm, E1 Entertainment and Image. So here you go, a nice retrospective on the $12,000 baby that turned a quarter million in a bidding war. Proof that an indomitable indie spirit really can come out on top in Hollywood.
The Look of Six Reasons Why
Matt Campagna – Cinematographer
Whether you’re looking at Ford’s Monument Valley or Leone’s Spanish Deserts, the unspoken star of any great Western is, without a doubt, the landscape in which the film occurs. When we set out to make “Six Reasons Why”, our very first decision was place the main story of the Nomad in a barren and dangerous desert, and so it became our most crucial location to scout. Spain, Australia, the Middle-East and Africa were easy to write off, since we had so much delicate equipment to transport, any damage to the gear would shut our production down the moment we landed. So the plan had to be to drive our team across North America to our shooting location. That left us with the American desert, complete with the iconic Monument Valley, or the Canadian desert, with its harsh and alien Badlands. Ultimately, one look at the bizarre land formations of Drumheller, Alberta, and I fell in love. Here was a location that had been used in the great tradition of the Western genre, from Unforgiven to Brokeback Mountain, yet had never been truly exploited for its most distinct and photogenic features. Instead of using Drumheller as an inexpensive stand-in for the American West, the story of “Six Reasons Why”, with its anonymous Badlands, offered me the opportunity to shoot the surreal Hoodoos in all its eye-catching glory, and exploit the most unusual aspects of the terrain, both natural and man-made.
Once location scouting was out of the way, the look of the film next depended on costumes and props. The essential wide brim hats that would let me shoot for shadows over the eyes for mystery, or fully illuminate for soul searching scenes, were among the first costumes to fall into place. I knew that in order to get the most dramatic lighting in our barren set, we’d be shooting mornings and afternoons, keeping the sun as low in the sky as possible, and so Jeff and I made sure that the shadow of each hat on each actor was painstakingly adjusted to give our characters maximum bad-ass appeal.
Here in “Six Reasons Why” were four characters, each written as an amalgamation of many legendary gunslingers, and so the guns they were slinging were going to have to be larger than life. We finally settled on 12-inches of larger than life, Spanish-made hand-canon, giving me the chance to shoot down the barrel of an almost impossibly large and intricately engraved revolver, and allowing our characters to wield weapons of clear value and tradition; simultaneously beautiful and deadly in one elegant package. Incidentally, 3 months after we ordered and received our replica revolvers, the manufacturing plant in Spain caught fire, and all production on the models has been halted indefinitely, and our props have since become limited editions.
The unique silhouette and high-contrast look of “Six Reasons Why” was something that developed out of my reading comic books from a very young age. The simple imagery of a black and white image can portray such a dynamic composition, drawing the eyes into the pose and action rather than to extraneous detail. That was one of the tools that I felt could make the cinematography in this film distinct from other Westerns, and with the popularity of films like ‘Sin City’ and ‘300’, it seemed like the time was right to bring my comic book influences to a motion picture.
Once we had driven 36-hours across the largest country in the world in May of 2006, principal photography was set to begin. As cinematographer, my real focus during location scouting had been to find the right places in Drumheller to bring our storyboards to life, and so when our audio supervisor, Nick Name, arrived on the scene to begin shooting, he had more than a few criticisms of my choices. For one, Drumeheller is in a valley, a natural wind-tunnel, and every shot we needed audio for was going to be a nightmare for him. Last-minute, he drove into nearby Calgary to rent a very elaborate ‘one size fits all’ windsock, that didn’t actually fit our microphone. So between huddling sweaters and human bodies around the microphone to keep the wind noise to a minimum, Nick Name was able to effectively counter our first production challenge. And then came the transport trucks. Drumeheller, it turns out, also hosts the only east-west road in the area that made it ideal for many, many, MANY transport trucks, dump trucks, garbage trucks and pick-up trucks to haul up and down the valley while we were shooting our film. Another nightmare for Nick Name. While I had my shot perfectly lined up, beautifully lit, every actor hit their mark and the performances were perfect, Nick would chime in with a “CUT!” in the middle of a scene, because he was hearing a Mack truck from 2 miles away. Windsocks they make, Trafficsocks they don’t. So the shooting of “Six Reasons Why” happened at carefully plotted moments, during intervals of complete silence in our high-traffic wind-tunnel of a valley. But man, did it ever look great from my point of view!
Having learned all about traffic noise from wrapping principal photography nearly 11 months before, Jeff and I set out to ensure our shoot with a Colm Feore in May of 2007 was very different. With police on site to cordon off roads and the county notified of our presence, the final day of shooting was a very highly orchestrated one. It’s rare that a directing team as young as my brother and I would get to work with so seasoned and talented an actor as Mr. Feore, so it was our intention to get it right the first time. And the moment that I had him framed on camera, and in these unique point-of-view shots, he spoke directly at the camera the words that my brother and I had written, we knew we had an actor on our hands who was worth all the effort. Ever the consumate professional, Mr. Feore not only had every line committed to memory, at our request he had even foregone shaving for weeks, and while on-set, refused to drink hardly any water at all, in order to keep his restroom breaks to a minimum. That’s committed. Shooting with Colm Feore is most certainly one of the most exciting memories for me as a cinematographer of “Six Reasons Why”, if for no other reason than having so expressive and accomplished a countenance to frame in my lens.
From the pages of iN Magazine:
The only thing more daunting than getting started in studio films is getting started in independent films. Why? Because you’re on your own… right? That’s where most independent Filmmakers can easily make their first mistake.
Filmmaking is an art, like painting or sculpting, or even writing. In fact it’s all those arts combined and more. But unlike those art forms, filmmaking is inherently a collaborative art. You NEED other people to make a good film.
I say a good film because, well, let’s face it, you could technically do it all yourself: write the script, direct it, shoot it, light it, act in it, do the sound recording, edit the rough cut, do the sound design, colour correct it, write the music, perform the music, do the fine cut, go to the international sales markets, write the long-form acquisition contracts, account your own books, get the insurance and copyright for the film, sell it and keep all the money yourself.
But if you’re starting out, one, a few or all of those tasks may seem pretty daunting. I’ve done most of them, and writing that list out even scared me.
So your first step is assembling a team of hungry artists and BUSINESS PEOPLE around your project. There is a misconception that a director’s primary job is “getting the shot,” but that’s not really the case.
A director’s first job is to pick all the right people to put on his team to get the shot for him and make that shot go somewhere. A good cinematographer will shoot a scene lit by a good lighting designer that sounds good because of the skilled location audio recorder that’s recording good dialogue written by a good screenwriter in a story written by a good storyteller… And so on.
If the Director has the right team, his job is the easiest one on the set, because he spent the time building that team before they got there and once his job is done, the right people pick up the finished film and take it to market. After all, it is show BUSINESS not show PLAY, and the danger of involving so many people is that their time is valuable and people should be paid for their skill.
If you’re serious about filmmaking as a profession, your project has to cost less than you will sell it for, so you can compensate your team and make a proper business model out of the most fun job on earth.
So before you crack open Final Draft, or buy your Genesis camera and Avid suite, think long and hard about who will be working that equipment on the day and who will see the project through to completion. The movie isn’t done when you watch it on your own Magnavox. It’s done when you see it on a complete stranger’s Magnavox because he rented it at Blockbuster.
And from beginning to end, that process takes not weeks, not months, but years. So make sure your team is in it for the long haul, and you’ll see some amazing results.
You may be an independent filmmaker. But your most valuable resource will be the people you can depend on.
Matt Campagna is an independent filmmaker, whose credits include the feature western SIX REASONS WHY and feature doc ROOTS OF A MAN, which he made with his brother Jeff. He’s also produced and directed webTV shows like BSGcast.com, YourGeekNews.com, WHIRtv.com and NakedWineShow.com since 2005 with his partner Anastasia.