On: The Set
Over the last few months I’ve had the privilege of working on the set of a few films. From a German watch commercial, to a Chinese blockbuster to a Japanese student film, I’ve been able to stand on the sidelines and observe how the camera interacts between the director and actors. Usually, when I’m on set I’m so busy—either as the director or camera man or production assistant—that I have never actually gotten the chance to observe from afar. These experiences on set mixed with inspiration from some of the films I’ve been watching at festivals have led me to define a style of filmmaking that I believe captures the moment. And it’s the opposite of everything they teach in schools.
Filmmaking has long been in a debate between formalism and realism. Yet, the films that have struck me over the last few months use a sense of stylization that heightens the sense of realism in the film; they blend both. To name a few: Tharlo, Tangerine, Leopard Do Not Bite, Krisha, Black Hen, Embrace the Serpent and Behemoth. What makes these films extraordinary is not their highly composed images or on the other hand their lack of direction, but the infusion of emotion into the visuals of the film. Standing on all of these sets, I began to notice that in the rigidity of planned out story boarding and take after take there seems to be a lack of attention to the emotions that the characters are experiencing. After all, a director is not just directing a film, the thing on hard drives made of pixels, he or she is also at second hand directing an experience in the mind's eye of the audience.
In short, all three sets that I have been on seemed utterly false, artificial to the point of the absurd—one set even had plastic food in it. Of course, this studio filmmaking with its dependence on stages, copious amounts of lighting and star power will continue indefinitely. Yet, with the shrinking size of cameras and their ability to work in more diverse lighting conditions I think films are beginning to step back outside the studio. The films that I have drawn me in usually blend a documentary sensibility with a fictional story. I want my films to utilize real characters, to cast people with a similar set of experiences or emotional maturity in regards to the content of the story. The more I spend time on set, the more I come to regard it as an increasing antiquity of the past.
I think the future of filmmaking lies in taking the camera out of the studio and getting into the nitty gritty. It’s in the more anthropological approach somewhere in between the Neo-realism of Altman’s ambling Nashville and De Sica’s Bicycle Thief and in the orbit of living filmmakers like Pema Tseden, Ciro Guerra, Sean Baker and Jia Zhangke that the images jump off the screen.
A hundred some odd years ago Gertrude Stein wrote “A rose is a rose is a rose” and it couldn’t apply more to film today. Take a rose and put it in a vase, under high wattage lights with a fan blowing on it for effect and a backdrop for context and it’s not a rose anymore. All things, people and places are defined by their relationships and these you cannot recreate. It's like trying to create a Biosphere; every time you will fail. More than ever today films are returning to the streets, to the characters from which they were born and I’m looking forward to joining the ranks. Banksy's mural at Sundance perhaps paints it most clearly. Goodbye sets.