Below writer/director Aimee Lagos shares one her favorite scenes from her feature debut "96 Minutes," opening in select theaters this Friday.
"96 Minutes" is on it’s face a story about a carjacking gone horribly wrong, but at it’s core it’s an exploration of four young characters – all very different on the outside and from completely different walks of life, yet whom are all struggling with many of the same issues emotionally that face so many kids as they come of age. These four characters are thrust into a situation that is way beyond anything they’re prepared to handle and in that heightened state of life and death they are forced to confront the big issues of who they are and who they will choose to become.
The film is non-linear so as to highlight each of the four characters’ individual journeys and explore how even the most seemingly innocuous moments of everyday life can dramatically effect how a person will react in any given circumstance. Each choice they make (or attempt to avoid) along the way ultimately determines the course their lives will take. This scene takes place just as the two timelines begin to intersect – the story of how they got there and the story of how it will all end. It is a climactic moment in the counterpoint of these characters in which we see their true characters finally crystallize - the debate is over and the final decisions must be made.
This scene takes place in a darkened, gang-tagged tunnel – a pathway, both literally and symbolically, between one world and the next. The actual location itself was a bit of a dividing line in an incredibly rough neighborhood between a well-lit street with a local church on the corner that felt relatively safe, and a street riddled with needles and razorblades where the homes were swallowed by weeds and pit bulls were chained to front porches. It was one of the first locations I saw on an initial scout to Atlanta and I knew immediately it was meant to be a part of this film. We did not dress the tunnel, we shot exactly what was there (even the abandoned couch was not our addition). There was an intensity to that place – a dark and deadly history that was palpable and that effected all of us and I think ultimately that feeling translated to the screen.
The handheld camera work is meant to evoke a feeling of reality, almost as though we are merely accidental witnesses to the story unfolding before us. In many scenes the story is consciously told visually from the point of view of one character thereby allowing us to walk in their shoes for that moment in time, however in this scene the balance is a delicate one and camera placement, lighting and blocking play a huge part in whose story we’re investing in at any given moment. Each character is at a crossroads in this moment, so it was important to really focus attention on the character who was driving the story through each given beat.
At the top of the scene we are with Carley (Brittany Snow) and Lena (Christian Serratos). Carley’s confusion is our confusion. We are as unsure as she as to what is happening and what will happen next – things are moving quickly and the camera is struggling to keep up, as is Carley. Dre (Evan Ross) is driving the scene – he’s made a choice the ramifications of which will change all of their lives forever, so the camera most closely follows him although he often falls into darkness accentuating how much he is hidden from us.
There has been a connection building between Carley and Dre throughout the film – an unspoken understanding that has yet to pay off but has suggested that there might yet be hope for survival. It is in this scene that Carley attempts to use that connection by addressing him by name in an effort to humanize the moment and bring Dre back to the core of goodness she knows is there. The camera work suggests the connection by panning between them – focusing our attention solely on the two of them and the space between them. It is their moment and it’s almost as if the other two are not present.
The choice to minimize the scene presence of the other two characters is intended to sharpen the focus of this watershed moment and minimize the emphasis on the competing journeys. To a large extent the fates of the other two characters Kevin (J.Michael Trautman) and Lena have been sealed. Lena is struggling to stay alive despite a horrific gunshot wound and Kevin has, to my view, lost our sympathy with his repeated disturbing actions. At this point in the story, we know whom he has chosen to be, yet there is hope still for both Dre and Carley. It is for this reason that I chose to keep Kevin off camera even when he is speaking. His power in the story now is in how his actions and words effect Dre so it is more important that we stay with Dre than we spend time with Kevin. I also chose to keep Lena in the background in this scene because ultimately I felt the audience needed to be most connected to Dre and the culmination of his relationship to both Carley and Kevin and the intensity of her final moments would ultimately distract from the poignancy of the choices being made.
Once the connection between Carley and Dre is broken and he solidifies that break by making her face the wall so he no longer has to look in her eyes, we stay with Dre. The street lamp and the break lights from the car cast him partly in light partly in shadow – a visual manifestation of his struggle to reconcile the conflict within himself. Kevin’s line, “Can I do it” changes the course of events entirely. Despite the importance of the line, delivered as Dre holds the gun preparing to shoot, I chose to keep the shot on Dre and leave Kevin off screen. Again, it’s less important to our story to know exactly how Kevin is feeling in that moment than it is to see how Kevin’s words strike Dre. And they strike hard, shaking Dre from the moment and refocusing him on what is really important.
For the monologue that follows we stay focused squarely on Dre as clarity suddenly rushes over him and he somehow finds his way back to himself. There’s an otherworldly light flare that periodically flashes across the lens giving Dre an ethereal glow as he finally speaks his truth, which symbolically indicates the light that is rushing over him and our hope that he will finally embrace that light. It’s an almost ironically beautiful moment in the most horrific of situations and, for me, it works to reconnect us to Dre and allows us to continue to stay with him for the rest of his journey.
During the shoot, we all knew that this was one of the most important moments in the film and we spent a good deal of time blocking this scene and choreographing the actors and the camera in an attempt to strike the right balance. We spent perhaps as much, if not more time, dealing with the difficulties of shooting in such a rough location that was not always easy to control – especially in the middle of the night with actors wielding what to an onlooker would seem like a very real, very dangerous weapon. But ultimately, despite all the difficulties, or perhaps in some ways because of them, this scene turned out to be one of my favorite moments in the film.