Dennis Hauck’s twisty noir "Too Late" takes the classic logline of a "a woman in trouble" to Los Angeles, and to dizzying cinematic heights in beautiful 35mm in five scenes, each of which is one long 20-minute take. John Hawkes plays your archetypal hardboiled gumshoe, a lost man who trails a missing person through the seedy wilds of the city, and into the night.
Writer/director Hauck’s use of 35mm shapes the film’s lived-in texture, transporting us to a Los Angeles that feels family but also like a dream place that could only exist in the movies. "That’s all I’ve ever shot on," said Hauck in a phone interview. He and his cinematographer Bill Fernandez, who also lensed his previous shorts on film, were "probably among the last film school generations to learn on film," before the RED and the Alexa became industry standards.
The film’s occasionally desultory, episodic structure — though set out of chronology at different points in time — captures the feeling of an LA day, where you’re meandering from place to place, one side of town to the other, from a lurid strip club to a drive-in theater in Barstow. Hawkes’ Samson does curlicues around the city as he tries to track down the body (dead or alive) of a young woman named Dorothy (Crystal Reed) who, we learn, came to Hollywood with starry dreams but ended up a pole-dancer. His eccentric encounters include a (literally) hysterical scene at a quintessential Hollywood hills mansion involving a pill-popping housewife and Robert Forster as a pimp, and a moment of painful revelation inside the Beverly Hilton.
Obviously, film technology has changed dramatically since the film started shooting in May 2012, after Hauck landed John Hawkes to play his troubled, instantly iconic detective with an existential crisis. "It was a ‘can’t take no for an answer’ kind of thing," he said of Hawkes, for whom he wrote the script and who he knew peripherally through a friend. "He was shooting ‘Lincoln’ at the time which tells you how long ago this was." Hauck had a shot of bourbon ("I was very nervous"), phoned him up and soon, Hawkes, who ably carries the role of the Southern California private dick, took on the project, and filming began.
Hauck found a crafty way into shooting in the 35mm format. Fuji was still making film stock at that point, "so you had options as opposed to just Kodak. There were more labs open. It has gotten tougher, but as far as getting your hands on film stock, it’s pretty easy," said Hauck, who shot test footage on Fuji before buying directly from Kodak, who helped negotiate cheaper stock. "But it wasn’t cheap enough for us," so Hauck and his crew purchased secondhand film stock leftover from "maybe big budget movies, where they had their camera loaded in the morning, maybe 10 magazines, but only went through seven or so."
The decision to make the film as five stitched-together scenes came organically, and not at first, but it’s integral to the fabric of the story. "In the years that it took us to make this, long takes came into the zeitgeist. Even ‘Gravity’ came out while we were shooting," he said. "We didn’t want to play up this aspect. It was less of a gimmick and more a way to challenge ourselves," said Hauck. "The long takes were more icing on the cake, something cool we thought was fun to do." (Hauck, let it be known, has yet to see LA Film Festival entry "Victoria," a heist thriller that premiered in Berlin and was shot literally in a single, 130-minute take.)
Hauck shot "Too Late" in a number of iconic Los Angeles locations, including Club Fais Do-Do in West Adams, the Skyline drive-in, the Beverly Hilton and in Radio Hill, a remote, sprawling park overlooking Dodgers Stadium that sets the stage for the film’s opening where Dorothy goes missing. "We did each of the five scenes in three days, with a day-and-a-half of rehearsal and a day-and-a-half of shooting." Hauck shot about 10 takes for each scene. "We knew the magic would come toward the end of the day, so we shot the early rehearsals. What if in that last rehearsal you nail it and weren’t rolling?"
Hauck, who has never shot digitally, enjoys "the limitations and quirks inherent in 35mm. There’s something to mastering, or learning as much as you can about, one medium as opposed to these digital cameras, where the turnover is every few years, and then there’s a new camera."
He shot "Too Late" using Techniscope film, which has been used by the likes of David O. Russell ("American Hustle," "Silver Linings Playbook"), David Fincher ("Panic Room"), George Lucas ("American Graffiti," "THX 1138"), Alejandro Jodorowsky ("The Holy Mountain"), Monte Hellman ("Two-Lane Backtop," another great West Coast movie) and Sergio Leone ("The Good, The Bad and the Ugly"). "That format allowed us to get these [five] 22-minute takes. It’s cheaper than anamorphic, and you don’t have to change mags as often."
Thankfully "Too Late" was projected in 35 for its Los Angeles Film Festival premiere, where it looked beautiful on the big screen at LACMA. LAFF’s downtown hub LA Live had the technology to screen film stock "but it’s not in the greatest repair," said Hauck, who almost cancelled the film’s second screening this week but is instead scrambling to create a DCP. Digital copies will help "Too Late" on its way to locking down a distributor as Submarine shops the film for buyers.
This rising indie director hopes to keep screening the film in 35, and believes the celluloid medium is more sustainable than digital. "I can take a hundred-year old camera and put fresh film stock in it and it will always look good," said Hauck, whose indie stature doesn’t quite match the stentorian yawp of celluloid’s most rabid defenders (including Scorsese, Nolan and Tarantino). Still, a brash, imperfect film that embraces those imperfections, "Too Late" makes a strong case for celluloid film as more than the stuff of nostalgia.
"Too Late" plays Fantastic Fest this weekend.