Reeling From the Experience
Derek Cianfrance, the local filmmaker headed for the Sundance Film Festival in a few weeks with his first feature, Brother Tied, had good reason to become unhinged during the process of making the film: At one point, his landlord locked him out of his editing room.
The solution? Equally unhinged. Using a fork and knife, Cianfrance and his editor, Joey Curtis, removed the door hinges. Just so they could put in another shift of 30 hours or so (one editing stint stretched to 54 hours).
That sort of maniacal intensity has paid off: After impressing audiences at last summer's Edinburgh Film Festival, Cianfrance is getting ready to take his work to the Mecca of American independent film. More than two years in the making, Brother Tied will be the first film from Colorado to show at Sundance.
"It was a continually desperate situation making this movie," Cianfrance says. He and his core collaborators--mostly University of Colorado film-school students--basically pulled out of society for three years to make their movie. By the end, says Cianfrance, "I was sick of the sunrise, sick of eating breakfast before going to bed. It was unhealthy. We were sick, weak and pale. We looked like vampires."
Cast and crew are feeling fine now. Cianfrance is animated about the film, hoping it will be an antidote to movies that are "basically stage plays photographed. I wanted to make something that didn't look like any other film." He dreamed up the movie, a kind of interracial Cain/Abel allegory about the bonds of family, in 1993. But in many respects, the story is just a launching pad for Cianfrance's attempt to test "the plasticity of the medium. Every shot, every cut, is unique. We go overboard on this film; it's an excess of style. We wanted to try everything."
The results are surreal. Telephoto lenses flatten faces and give the film a two-dimensional feel, but the number of edits (more than 1,600, way above the total for most two-hour movies) makes the film seem multi-dimensional. Abundant closeups create claustrophobia. Almost a third of the movie is shot in slow motion. And the sound is just as experimental: Sound designer Jimmy Helton laid down more than a dozen tracks of sound effects on top of each other, playing some backward, overamplifying others. The effect, Helton says, is "sound dissolving into sound dissolving into sound."
Cianfrance and company may be trying to pioneer new visuals for the medium, but the process of getting the film made was, as it is for most indies, sheer struggle. Cast and crew shot and reshot, raised money and raised some more, trimmed and added, and watched as months became years. Everyone worked for free, and all were amateurs.
Actor Carey Westbrook came to his audition with a middle-school yearbook photo as his head shot. Film editor/co-writer Joey Curtis and Cianfrance had never shot with sound before. Helton knew little about sound-effects design, but learned.
As the project dragged on, Cianfrance and Curtis dropped out of school. Most of the rest worked whatever jobs they could to keep going. Helton worked at a video store and moved back home, Westbrook worked as a room-service waiter, and Curtis sold off his car.
Pope Innocent Productions, named after a portrait of Pope Innocent X by Spanish painter Diego Velasquez, was formed, and funds were raised from, as Cianfrance says, "anyone we knew that had money." Enough to fund 23 days of production.
The first two weeks of the shoot went well; people responded to Cianfrance's democratic approach. "I told them, 'We'll feed you every day on the set, and you'll have a creative hand in this. Do what you want with the characters.' Everyone had a say."
Then a film lab inadvertently ruined their first seventeen rolls of film, wiping out ten days of filming in the process. "We had a roomful of people--amateurs--crying, thinking the world was over," Cianfrance says. "I told them it was one of the many hurdles we would have to jump over. It wouldn't be the last."
"It takes so much out of you," recalls actor Keith Zimmerman. "You don't have a life, an apartment, a girlfriend--and then all this film gets ruined. It's devastating. It was the hardest thing to get through."
What turned them around was Cianfrance's hokum about taking "your black eyes and treating them as feathers in your cap." And that became the team's motto.
So did reshoots. There were so many that the sessions seem blurred in the crew's memory. Just when everyone thought they had burned out, someone else would encourage them to do it one more time. Zimmerman had to shave his head several times to reshoot some scenes and wait for it to grow back to reshoot others. It took so long for him to grow his hair that the crew bought him a wig, added some shoe polish and dragged it around a parking lot until it looked dirty enough.
For a scene depicting a fire engulfing a barbershop, Cianfrance and his team snuck into a burned-out house in Boulder and loaded up on wood, ash and cinder. They spread the soot all over the shot and, with the aid of a smoke machine, created the illusion of flames. It took weeks to clear the soot away, and they had to agree to repaint the barbershop.
Misadventure followed them everywhere. At one townhouse where they shot (and reshot) several party scenes, they were threatened with eviction after a neighbor complained about the noise. And when they weren't shooting, they were on their hands and knees begging people to let them come back and shoot some more.
With the film half finished in the fall of 1996, they took it to the Independent Feature Film Market in New York City. Brother Tied was not screened at the main venue, so the crew hawked fliers in front of the theater and bought people cab rides to their screening.
When they returned to Colorado, they worked around the clock to finish editing the film in time to submit it to the 1997 Sundance festival. Around Thanksgiving, Sundance got back to them: The film was just what they were looking for--only it was too long. Try again next year.
"We were pissed," Cianfrance says. "We made a pact to do heavy drinking for a year. We were cussing out everyone we could. 'This is the director's cut.'"
"We thought it was the greatest film ever made and Sundance sucked," says Curtis. Cianfrance says he was ashamed to be seen in public because he'd blown his shot at the big leagues. "We wanted to punish ourselves," he says, "because we didn't make it good enough."
Once their heads had cleared from the booze and after the Berlin Film Festival rejected the film for the same reason, Cianfrance and his collaborators went back to the editing room. Thirty minutes were cut; entire characters and subplots were eliminated. But the cuts left huge holes in the film, which required yet another reshoot. "A little more sacrifice wasn't going to kill us," Cianfrance says.
The final cut, finished last spring, ran 109 minutes--20 minutes shorter than the original. Brother Tied was accepted into the Edinburgh Film Festival--at 51 years the oldest in the world--but even that almost fell through. Out of money to produce a finished print, they had to rely on the financial help of local TV producer Kenny Burgmaier, who had met Cianfrance and Curtis at the studio one night when they were editing a fight scene. "The intensity of the segment was overwhelming," Burgmaier recalls.
Cianfrance and about a dozen others scrambled together enough money to go to Scotland with their film, and after "whoring ourselves" in the lobby, he says, they packed the small theater that was showing the film and received two glowing reviews in the local papers.
Now it's up to the Sundance audience and critics. But Cianfrance is eager for other projects--with the same people. "I will give them all the blood I have," he says.
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