“Cut Bank” is Matt Shakman’s first film. He runs the Black Dahlia Theatre in Los Angeles and has a variety of credits for directing television (“It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” “Fargo,” “Mad Men,” “Good Wife”). Starring Liam Hemsworth, Billy Bob Thornton and John Malkovich, the noir thriller follows Dwayne Mclaren, a young auto mechanic and former high school football star, who tries to escape his hometown.
[Editor’s Note: Indiewire reached out to filmmakers with films
playing at the 20th LA Film Festival (June 11-19) to ask them about how
they shot their indie, and what advice they had for other filmmakers.
We’ll be posting their responses throughout the run of the festival. Go HERE for the master list.]
What was the most difficult shoot on your movie and how did you pull it off? The movie was ambitious and the schedule was short, so every day was a challenge. Working in the summer in Alberta meant very short nights (sometimes only 4 hours long). For a film that has strong noir/thriller elements, it meant shooting splits the whole time and carefully dividing scenes into shots that could be done with tenting and ones that required true night. We had a small crew and no pre-rigging but a big appetite for what we wanted to achieve, so Ben and I did a lot of pre-planning, went without a video village, outlawed make-up touch ups, and just put our heads down and moved as efficiently as possible. Ben operated and I stood right by camera watching on a small monitor. It accelerated communication between Ben and me and between me and the actors. It also meant that as soon as we cut, we were immediately moving the camera to its next position. Actors stayed on set and so we kept the mood of the scene intact and moved quickly.
But the hardest day on the show from a sheer survival point of view was a junklot office trailer scene with Bruce Dern and Liam Hemsworth. It was a night scene but we had to shoot it during the day (because of the limited number of night-time hours). So the entire crew was in a very tiny trailer, surrounded by volumes of black duvetyne to make it look like night, with no air-conditioning, on what turned out to be the hottest day in the history of Edmonton. The actors handled it beautifully but if you look closely you can see very red cheeks and sweaty foreheads. Not a day anyone would like to live again.
What’s the one thing you wish someone had told you BEFORE you started your movie? Be more rigorous in cutting your script. If there is any doubt about a section making the final version, cut it. The more time you have for the pieces that matter, the better. Also, shoot more interstitial pieces than you think you need. The more linking shots, the more you can open up your world. We did a lot of those kind of shots but still ended up using everything and wanting more.
What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got? Television is fast, film moves at a better, more sensible pace. Not true!
What’s the best? I have to include the following that Ed Zwick sent me before I started filming. He’s a genius and I found his words of wisdom incredibly helpful (you will notice that he told me not to shoot the parts I was going to cut—which I apparently ignored!).
1. REMEMBER TO BREATHE
You’ve worked for two years to get to this moment, and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get to do it again. You might as well enjoy it.
2. THE CAMERA IS A BUDDHA
It sees the world as it is. It doesn’t photograph your expectations or your fantasies. Try to see as the camera sees.
3. NO PLAN SURVIVES CONTACT WITH THE ENEMY
Over-prepare and then be ready to throw it all away when the actor feels his character wouldn’t do it that way.
4. A GOOD IDEA CAN COME FROM ANYWHERE
You might as well listen to what others have to say because you’re going to get the credit (and the blame). The Key Grip has made six times as many movies as you have.
5. NO MOVIE CAN BE FUNNY ENOUGH
Laughter makes the audience feel they’re in good hands. And it deepens the impact of the serious stuff.
6. ON EVERY PRODUCTION
The director loses faith in the movie, the actors lose faith in the director, and the crew hates the actors. Somehow it all works out.
7. AN AUDIENCE’S ATTENTION SPAN IS EVEN SHORTER THAN YOURS
Fill every moment. Be generous. Be extravagant. Give them all sorts of gifts: jokes, moments, secrets, truths. Stick to the story and try not to shoot the parts you’re going to cut.
8. THE ACTORS MOVE THE CAMERA, THE CAMERA DOESN”T MOVE THE ACTORS
Unless you have a style, don’t pretend you do.
9. MAKE YOUR MOVIE FOR ONE PERSON AT A TIME
Imagine your fourth grade teacher sitting alone in the dark.
10. WHERE THERE IS NO SOLUTION THERE IS NO PROBLEM
As Hannibal said while crossing the Alps, “We will find our way, or we will make one.”
You can’t say it better than that.
What advice do you have for aspiring or first-time filmmakers? Getting movies made is tough and requires a lot of luck and a lot of generous collaborators. No film comes about in the same way—there is no common path. I’ve had several films before Cut Bank almost get made and then crash and burn just before the starting gate. You can only keep finding stories you want to tell and keep trying to make them happen. Eventually they do.