In anticipation of the upcoming SXSW Film Festival, which runs from March 11-19 in Austin, Texas, Indiewire asked this year’s directors: “What shot, scene, or visual element from your film are you most proud of and how did you get it?” Their answers are textbook examples of how independent and documentary filmmakers rely on ingenuity, talent, planning and luck to get their shot.
Ti West, “In a Valley of Violence”: There is one shot of Ethan Hawke’s character standing on a cliff at dusk while his dog leads his horse by its reins across the foreground. It is probably the most incredible thing I have ever photographed. It was just after sunset with this beautiful purple light, way out in the middle of nowhere. Plus, we shot on glorious 35mm.
Joel Potrykus, “The Alchemist Cookbook”: My DP, Adam J. Minnick, and I wanted the look of a dead forest and to amp up the hints of gold. We nailed that. We got dangerous a couple of times with fire and chemicals. That’s the best kind of filmmaking.
Alex Taylor, “Spaceship”: We were shooting at a military base when one of the actors told me he studied ballet, so we spontaneously filmed him dancing on the tank in slo mo. He did all these pirouettes and amazing jumps. It’s totally spontaneous and so beautiful. It was only later in the edit where we realized when the scene should come and what it might mean.
Todd Bieber, “Thank You, Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon”: I am most proud of the behind the scenes footage of famous comedians just being people. I think this is a rare glimpse into seeing little personal moments and opinions from some people you might only see in very conventional television settings.
Sudhanshu Saria, “Loev”: There is a hiking sequence in the film where the characters are lost in nature. The team went on almost 30 hikes, driving out to locations more than six to eight hours away to find something that felt right for the film. It ended up being the most challenging day of shoot for the cast and crew but that sequence really opens up the film and gives it a spiritual lift.
Mark Cousins, “I am Belfast”: The salt hill scene. Whilst walking by the Belfast docks I came across a startling hill of salt which looked like an iceberg. My producers got permission to film it. The sun came out, and a lake of saltwater reflected the hill. The location would give us two sequences in the film, but we only had an hour, so Chris Doyle and I each filmed with our cameras, and we used almost all the shots.
Christopher LaMarca, “Boone”: There are two scenes in the film that take place in complete darkness other than the occasional use of a flashlight. Often times the farmers worked before sunrise, or well after sunset, and they would navigate this night work using their ears more than their eyes. At first I found myself being frustrated by the lack of available light. Lighting the scene was out of the question because the whole point of the scene was to show people navigating their work in total darkness. I realized the most potent way to capture this was to lean into the soundscape more than the available light and to illustrate the experience of being submersed in darkness.
Otis Mass,”The Incomparable Rose Hartman”: There is a scene where Rose and I get into a fight on camera. It was so compelling and told so much about her and the process of shooting her that we left it in the film. It generally becomes everyone’s favorite scene in the film. It happened early on in shooting and it’s literally the moment where Rose and I figured out how to deal with each other and get this film made.
Clay Liford, “SLASH”: This movie centers on a teenager who writes science fiction erotica. We made a decision early on to depict his stories visually. Normally, something like this would be reserved for a production with a much higher budget. But we went for it. Since we couldn’t afford to build massive sets depicting alien planets, we decided to go the route of our sci-fi forefathers. Thus, we shot the epic sci-fi “melee battle” between two alien warlords on the rocky steppes of Vasquez Rocks, the former site of a similar melee battle between Captain Kirk and a huge rubber lizard alien.
Patrick Shen, “In Pursuit of Silence”: I was following a Trappist monk around one morning at New Melleray Abbey in Ohio and I asked if I could get a shot of him reading or praying. He led me to a small room with a little splash of light coming through a window and had a seat where he typically would and started to read some scripture. The light from the window was really nice but not quite enough to make the shot work as the rest of the room was very dark. I propped up a small battery operated LED light on the ledge just out of frame and that gave me just enough to light up a sliver of his face. I sat in that silence letting the camera roll for a good 5-10 minutes. It’s a magical shot for me that reminds me of an old Italian Renaissance painting or something.
Jason Cohen, “Silicon Cowboys”: My favorite scene was the re-creation we shot of our subjects sketching the idea for the first Compaq portable computer at the House of Pies diner in Houston. We shot it at the actual location and when I walked in to the House Of Pies to scout for the first time I felt like I had hit the jackpot! The place was frozen in time. The light fixtures, the wood paneled booths, the plates, coffee cups and even the waitresses outfits looked like they had been done by a Hollywood production designer who knew we were coming to shoot a scene form 1981. We needed almost no art direction for the sequence. The staff was gracious to let us take over half the restaurant for most of the day and provided a waitress for our shot. It allowed us to get some beautiful shots for a key scene in the film and in the overall story. And they had great tasting pie for the crew to keep them happy!
Julia Hart, “Miss Stevens”: About twenty minutes into the film, there’s this shot at the opening ceremonies of the drama competition. At this point in the story, Miss Stevens is beginning to realize that she’s not a part of the world around her, that she’s more disconnected than she thought. The head of the competition leads the group in a breathing exercise and everyone in the room closes their eyes, except Miss Stevens. I had this vision for a sea of faces, all eyes closed but hers. And what I love about this moment is that even though her eyes are open, she’s the one who’s emotionally lost and can’t see. And it’s just an honest moment from the competition itself, but I think it does so much more in terms of character and theme. And it does it without playing any tricks.
Alex Lehmann, “Asperger’s Are Us”: I love the footage of the guys in their show costumes walking across the railroad crossing. It was the day before their big show and they were very stressed about getting enough rehearsal time but they acquiesced to a quick shoot. Then of course it turned into a major disaster and we filmed it all and it’s hilarious.
Jesse Moss, “The Bandit”: We had heard from a retired stuntman that Hal Needham, Hollywood’s top stuntman in the 1970s, had been the first human to test the automobile air bag. Hal Needham claimed as much in his biography. Did footage exist, we wondered? Improbably, our footage researcher Rich Rembsberg found the actual footage – part of an Allstate Insurance industrial film – which is just astonishing – shot in slo-motion of course. Its part of a crucial sequence in the film in which you see the risks Hal was willing to take and some of his incredible, death-defying stunts. It was shot on 16mm film and we had it scanned at 4K.
Nicole Lucas Haimes, “Chicken People”: While I think the whole film looks amazing, thanks to cinematographer Martina Radwan, I am particularly happy with her dramatic beauty shots of the birds. It took much experimentation and planning with Martina and producer Terry Leonard to discover the right set up to shoot live chickens. We had to be careful to safeguard these prized show birds from flying off or flying into our lighting. We discussed three sided boxes and Plexiglas cages until finally we arrived at a system of using flags, clamps and c-stands. The producing team wrangled an exotic assortment of show birds to be handled by their understandably protective owners, but they turned out to be wonderful stage parents.
Sean Brosnan, “My Father Die”: The scene where Ivan (the father) kills his son (Chester). I alway knew I wanted it to be a viscerally horrific, intense scene where the audience is forced to watch something extremely painful, yet I wanted to shoot it all in slow motion and in black and white. The beauty and the horror wrapped into one. I knew I wanted a slow dolly out from the shed, at head level with Ivan, keeping each side of the frame symmetrical as we slowly pull back. We had to build the shed wall three times to get it perfect. I inter-cut the beating with a close-up of young Asher’s reaction to his brother being murdered. It was not only meant to give you a sense of separation between the two brothers, but also a visual metaphor for Ivan (this monster) who is cloistered within the door frame like a caged animal.