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Palm Springs Int’l Shortfest: Gus Van Sant’s Early Shorts & Set Stories; Robert Elswit’s Cinematography Master Class

Palm Springs Int'l Shortfest: Gus Van Sant's Early Shorts & Set Stories; Robert Elswit's Cinematography Master Class

The Palm Springs Shortfest 2012 has come to a close. As a first timer at the fest, I was treated to some wonderful films, a Master Class with cinematographer Robert Elswit, a fab Q & A with the Spirit of Short Film award winner Gus Van Sant and, of course, the welcome company of film lovers and filmmakers. Below, stories and wisdom from Elswit and Van Sant. Here’s the report on the winners, my favorites and a few trailers.

Gus Van Sant receives the Shortfest Spirit of Short Film Award

A handful of Van Sant’s early short films and music videos were screened during the Q & A with fest director Darryl Macdonald, including “The Discipline of De” (his adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ short story, which got him his first exposure) “My New Friend,” “Junior” (evidence that he had “perfected the art of making two and a half minute films for $50”), “Four Boys in a Volvo” and an early cut of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” video. Van Sant also discussed “Drugstore Cowboy” (“I didn’t make an honest living until then”) and “My Own Private Idaho,” during which his stars, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, lived in his newly acquired Portland home and partied so hard that he had to move back into his old apartment (the one “Junior” was made in) to get some sleep and focus on the shoot. “I wanted to have fun, but not that much fun.”

Van Sant shared some great insider details on “Good Will Hunting,” the script for which was purchased from Castle Rock for $1 million by Miramax, who would go on to score two Oscar wins in 1998. Van Sant says the project had thirty different directors attached during its development, none of whom believed co-writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck could star. Imagine their thoughts now. Van Sant saw things differently. He remembers his “To Die For” producer Laura Ziskin declaring Damon a movie star when the then unknown young actor auditioned for the 1995 Nicole Kidman film (he was too pretty to get the part that Joaquin Phoenix would play).

Van Sant didn’t want to direct Columbine-inspired “Elephant” so he pitched Bela Tarr-esque shooting and storytelling styles to HBO, thinking they’d scoff and replace him. Fortunately, his plan didn’t work and they loved his artsy ideas.

An audience member asked if Van Sant had had any issues with or advice for directors regarding final cut. He says it’s all about “convincing people to do what you want to do,” adding that if you’ve come to the point of arguing over final cut, you’ve already “slammed the door to communication.” However, he offers a tip for directors: have your actors refuse to do publicity for the film unless you are given final cut.

Van Sant believes digital “will overtake film at any moment,” if it hasn’t already, and says Alexa’s arrival was a revelation. But, trusting in his “Promised Land” cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s expert opinion, he states film is still technically better, plain and simple.

Robert Elswit’s Cinematography Master Class

In his Masterclass, Elswit discussed several of his films at length, from George Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck” to Ben Affleck’s “The Town” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” With 30 years in the business and over 60 films under his belt, the audience got the sense that he could regale stories from many a notable film set for days on end. Much of the discussion was on how a cinematographer works with a director. Any and all of a DP’s control is dictated by their relationship with the director, he says. The most valuable and basic takeaway is that the strength and success of this relationship comes from the two connecting over shared taste. For example, Elswit explained that because Anderson (twenty+ years his junior) grew up watching and loving old movies, they share a great library of references and love for certain methods of storytelling. Not so much with Affleck, he says. They simply didn’t connect in the same way. Affleck does, however, share Elswit’s praise with Clooney for being the two “nicest guys in the world.”

Elswit says when it comes to process, there’s Anderson, and then everybody else. On an Anderson set, there’s no announcement of “rolling” and “action” or the usual constant retouching and fluffing (which Elswit hates). The rehearsals just gradually turn into shooting. Elswit says for him it’s ten straight hours of paying very close attention. He says having such an inclusive and familial shooting style that creates this environment, a significantly more organic and involved experience for everyone, is something that only happens when a director insist on it. Elswit adds that Anderson truly loves actors, the more personal turmoil the better, and believes the director’s connection to his actors is unique. After being on an Anderson’s set, it takes Elswit a while to transition back to more traditional modes of filmmaking.

Among his stories from the set of “Good Night and Good Luck,” Elswit explains that in all of the group scene shots of Clooney looking down, the director-actor is actually watching a monitor to see the scene play out blow by blow. On the set, Clooney insisted on shooting the film in a way that honored the story’s origins (it was written to be a live show). It’s not a traditionally told film, he explains, and was aided significantly by production designer Jim Bissell, who earned himself an Art Direction Oscar nomination for the $6 million dollar production, which shot entirely on a sound stage (that year’s big budget competition included “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “King Kong” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”)

Elswit says most cinematic lighting is stealing directly from Vermeer paintings. He believes strongly in visual metaphors – something he shares with Anderson, Clooney and Tony Gilroy (with whom he shot “Michael Clayton” and “The Bourne Legacy”), as they all feel lighting has a direct impact on how the audience feels. Elswit says directors like Alexander Payne don’t agree.

The audience was keen to hear Elswit’s thoughts on the death of celluloid, which he, like Van Sant, believes will happen soon if it hasn’t already. He also agrees that film is the better medium, but concedes that “even ‘Winter’s Bone’ on a fucking RED camera looked fantastic.”

Elswit recognizes that there are significant workflow advantages to shooting digital, but on the flip side notes post production is more complicated and time consuming.

 Asked if he’s felt resistance from studios to shoot on film, he says he hasn’t; when you’re working at a studio, having the up front money isn’t an issue. He says the only studio where it matters is Sony, because they are so invested in the digital technology. So how did Wally Pfister get to shoot “Moneyball” on film? Simple. He’s Wally Pfister and he refused to do the film any other way.

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