Below, Slamdance Film Festival co-founder Dan Mirvish shares a scene from his indie “Between Us,” currently out in select theaters, and starring Julia Stiles, Melissa George, David Harbour and Taye Diggs. Go here for the trailer.
In this darkly comedic drama, two couples reunite over two incendiary evenings where anything can happen. Grace (Julia Stiles) and Carlo (Taye Diggs) are a newly married New York couple who visit their old friends Sharyl (Melissa George) and Joel (David Harbour) in their huge Midwestern home. Despite their wealth, the hosts are in a bitterly destructive marriage. A few years later, the couples reunite in New York, but the tables are turned as the young couple struggles with parenthood and finances, only to discover their old friends even more successful and much happier than before.
This sequence is about two thirds into the movie. It starts with Grace leaving the other three actors in her apartment while she goes to the ATM to get some cash to tip the milkshake deliveryman. While crossing the street, she hears a CD vendor playing some bossa nova music that makes her flash back. We’re now a couple years earlier, back in Joel and Sharyl’s Midwestern house, the night she and Carlo visited. Grace and Carlo (Taye Diggs) are getting ready to sleep in a fold-out couch in the living room, when they hear bossa nova music from upstairs. We flack back and Grace is at an ATM, where she flashes back to later in that same night where she and Carlo make love, while further thinking back to happier days when Grace came to that same bodega to buy flowers at night for Carlo. The sound of the ATM spitting out a lowly $20 bill brings her back to the present.
It’s a critical turning point in the movie, one of the few where we really spend time inside the head of just one of the characters who steps away from the other three. It’s a chance to visually show the contrast between Grace and Carlo’s relationship in the past, and how it’s changed so much now.
This scene is a good example of the approach that original “Between Us” playwright Joe Hortua and I took to the play adaptation. Normally, when you tell people you’re adapting a play, they ask “how are you going to open it up” – when really the question is how is going to be cinematic? With movies, it’s more than just moving the characters to different locations, it’s also much easier to move around in time, as well as using camera angles – like close-ups – to draw the audience to one thing or another.
In the play, Grace exits the stage but we don’t really know where she goes, or what she’s thinking. The two flashbacked scenes are actually at the very end of the first act of the play. But in crafting the adaptation we thought this was a great opportunity to not only expand and deepen Grace’s character, but also visually and editorially play with our flashback structure that we’d established for the film – but do it in a more intricate and layered way than many of the other flashbacks.
This sequence is also a good example of how we shot principal photography (most of the interior scenes with all four actors) in LA, but then several weeks later, I went first to Omaha, and then to New York to shoot exteriors. For a so-called three-week shoot, it seemed to last for about four months!
Here, the scenes with Julia and Taye are all shot in LA – mostly at a house in Los Feliz, but the bathroom scene was at the Redbury Hotel, where we shot literally two-thirds of the movie. For some reason, our costume designer kept insisting that Taye shoot scenes without a shirt. Thankfully, he obliged, and amongst the crew, there was much
swooning. The scenes with Julia crossing the street, and going to
the bodega, were all shot in New York.
Our DP, Nancy Schreiber, ASC, and one of our producers, Mike Ryan, both met me in New York. Larry Fessenden, who’s an old friend of mine, loaned us his crack New York production team – with whom Mike had worked on a number of films as well. Nancy also brought in some of her NY camera crew. My Slamdance colleagues Paul Rachman and Karin Hayes let me crash on their couch for a week, and also shot some great behind the scenes and second unit footage in New York. For as much as we had to shoot in one day, we were remarkably efficient. Unlike most of the LA shoot, I meticulously storyboarded, using color coded PostIt notes for each shot, which definitely helped keep us on track. It was my first time shooting in New York, and it went incredibly smoothly, I thought. We had a background actor selling those bossa nova CDs on 23rd Street, but those were real people stepping up to buy them. You just can’t pull that off in LA!
The advantage of doing it that way, is that the interiors very much informed our framing and eyelines, so that the close-ups of Julia at the ATM would match with her flashing back to her love scene with Taye. Also, knowing the color schemes for the interior scenes gave us the opportunity to really play with yellows and greens for the New York scene. In color correction, Nancy and I pushed those different looks even further; particularly in desaturating the look as we come out of the flashback.
This is one of the few sequences in the movie where we used a lot of music. My composers Tobias Enhus and H. Scott Salinas captured the perfect mood and tone of the sequence with their score, and really
used it to heighten Julia’s performance, without overpowering it. Throughout, we used music themes and instrumentation as leitmotifs to indicate the different characters as well as the different time periods and locations (see, I really did learn something in filmschool!) In addition to being composers, Tobias and Scott were also in charge of the entire sound design, and this was a sequence where that marriage of sound design and music made perfect sense.
But at the end of the day, the film as a whole – and this sequence in particular – really comes down to performance. Taye and Julia are both amazing here, and Julia especially, in those ATM scenes where she doesn’t have anyone to play off. These eyelines and expressions aren’t easy – too much and it looks like she’s looking at a cheesy ghost of herself, and too little and the emotions don’t convey. She put a lot of trust in Nancy and me that the eyelines would all match and it would all cut together.
Regardless of whether the film works as a whole or not (you’ll have to be the judge of that yourself!), I’m very happy with how the sequence worked out.