Below actor/writer/director Michael Tully (“Cocaine Angel”) shares an exclusive scene from his Sundance contender “Septien,” which opens at New York’s IFC Center this Friday and is currently available on demand.
What It’s About: “Septien” follows Cornelius Rawlings who returns to his family’s farm eighteen years after disappearing without a trace. While his parents are long deceased, Cornelius’s brothers continue to live in isolation on this forgotten piece of land. Ezra is a freak for two things: cleanliness and Jesus. Amos is a self-taught artist who fetishizes sports and Satan. Although back home, Cornelius is still distant. In between challenging strangers to one-on-one games, he huffs and drinks the days away. The family’s high-school sports demons show up one day in the guise of a plumber and a pretty girl. Only a mysterious drifter can redeem their souls on 4th and goal. Triple-threat actor/writer/director Tully creates a backwoods world that’s only a few trees away from our own, complete with characters on the edge of sanity that we can actually relate to. A hero tale gone wrong, “Septien” is funny when it’s inappropriate to laugh, and realistic when it should be psychotic. [Synopsis courtesy of IFC Films]
This scene, which occurs early in the film and came relatively early in the shooting schedule itself, actually speaks quite well to how we shot the entire movie. While I had a relatively solid handle on the way I wanted each scene to play out, on so many occasions the mysterious moviemaking gods hinted that my initial idea was wrong and theirs was right (in this case, that moviemaking god went by the name of Jeremy Saulnier). This was often the case, and I’m thankful that I was in an open-minded enough state to welcome these infinitely better ideas as they presented themselves to my scared, bearded face.
When I initially sat down to storyboard this scene, I knew that we would be returning to the kitchen throughout the film and especially in the third act for a few very integral scenes, so it was important to try not to shoot it with the exact same coverage. But I also didn’t want to be self-consciously “different” just to make sure we weren’t repeating ourselves. As we got closer to the actual shoot and the pressure started mounting, I simply decided to break down each scene on its own and figure out how to bring it to life in the most honest way possible.
For this scene in particular—the first time the Rawlings Brothers would be in the same room after so many years—I had a solid plan of attack: A wide master shot; punch-ins to traditional medium shot coverage of Ezra and Amos; then, midway through the scene, as Ezra and Amos begin to argue more heatedly, a slow, dramatic zoom into a CU of Cornelius as the continuing off-camera bickering leads to a cacophony of noise that triggers Cornelius’s eruption; finally, back to the same wide master shot.
That day, whenever we had breaks shooting other scenes, Robert Longstreet, Onur Tukel, and I would work on the kitchen scene, rehearsing and discussing and shaping and refining the original dialogue until we felt that we had it in the correct place. As we were shooting on Super-16mm in 16 days (16 days in a row, I might add), we didn’t have the luxury of discovering every single scene while the camera was rolling.
When we got into the kitchen that evening, our incredibly trusted DP Jeremy Saulnier found a frame that could fit all three brothers in the same shot. Since we were on location, this meant setting the camera up in a different room (let it be known: this was purely a function of geography and had nothing to do with film theory). We did a few rehearsals and then shot a few takes, but when we filmed the one that you see here, I walked back inside after the AD Drew Bourdet called cut. Jeremy approached me with a serious gleam in his eye. He told me that we had the scene in the can. He assured me that we could shoot things out as I had storyboarded it, but he felt so strongly about the energy we had captured in that moment that he didn’t think it was necessary to keep shooting further. As Jeremy’s a director himself and is a big believer in making sure a scene is covered, I knew he wouldn’t have said this unless he really meant it.
This came as a bit of a shock to my system, especially since this was a scene that I had envisioned playing out so differently. But I trusted Jeremy—especially whenever he had that look in his eye—and as I began to mull things over, it made perfect sense. Of course, my “brilliant mind” had it totally backwards. What better way to capture the awkward tension of this reunion than by letting it play out from afar in one unbroken take? What better way to present Cornelius’s alienation and further establish an atmosphere of uncertainty than with us never even seeing his face? Getting back to my very first concern, the fact that this shot played out as a one-r made sense in the context of the far more intimate and intense kitchen interactions that were to come. Across the board, it made total sense.
I directed most of the film without the aid of a monitor and without any sort of playback—I was working from instinct when I was in front of the camera and was relying on Jeremy to confirm/deny my suspicions about each take—so in this case I only had the sound to revert to. I took the headphones from our mixer Grant Johnson and listened to the take. Jeremy was right. I was wrong (once again). The scene couldn’t have been more different than I had imagined it, and it couldn’t have been more appropriately realized.