Cinematographer, Todd Banhazl is our guest blogger today, representing the feature film Four Dogs now playing at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Banhazl lives and works in Los Angeles and New York. He has shot several festival favorites including the Asian American family comedy All About Dad and Palimpsest which won Joel Nagle Best Actor in a short at Sundance 2013. He has shot commercials for Vogue, CNBC, American Apparel, and Coca Cola, as well as music videos for Miley Cyrus, Hanson, Companion, Boy, and Hearts. Four Dogs marks Todd and director Joe Burke’s feature debut in a partnership that started during their days at The American Film Institute.
Four Dogs is about Oliver, a man whose Hollywood dreams are in a slump so he bumbles through his days hanging with an acting school buddy and tending to his aunt’s yappy dogs in this surprising, delightful rumination on the absurd and hilarious things we go through to find ourselves.
Prior to Four Dogs all of the work Joe Burke and I had done together was entirely handheld. We were both interested in the small moments between people – capturing something authentic and flawed and real and messy and funny and human. We had refined a working style that integrated Joe’s style of directing actors with my particular brand of reactive searching handheld camerawork.
That being said…one of the first things Joe said to me when we started prep on Four Dogs was, “I don’t want to be between the characters, I want to stand back and watch”. This became the single most important idea for me on the film. It’s the statement that all other visual decisions were based off of. Our lead character’s monotonous life in the valley motivated a similarly static visual style. And so we embarked on the film, trying to capture that small hidden thing that we both love in film, but with a visual language that we had never attempted together.
How can we interfere as little as possible? Can we put brilliant actors with basic motivations and real people in the same room together, put the camera in one spot, and just roll. Can we be simple and true to each individual moment as it unfolds. Can we all discover the movie together as it’s happening?
Of the many films we watched that helped inspire Four Dogs, perhaps the most important were the unofficially named “trilogy of death” films directed by Gus Van Sant and shot by Harris Savides – Elephant, Last Days and Gerry. We were inspired by the radical simplicity – extremely long takes that allow the mood in a room to build and build, allowing the audience’s eye to have time to examine the entire frame, to spend time with different aspects of the image, with different characters.
There’s a scene in Gerry where the two ‘Gerrys’ are trying to figure out if they’ve been going north or south. It’s a simple two-shot pointing up at them, hot sun on their backs, harsh blue sky above them. And that’s it, we watch them discuss and remember. The shot holds for so long that all those mysterious things in the air start to become denser and denser: The exhaustion, the confusion, the heat, the growing sense of hopelessness, the renewed hope, the friendship. As an audience you are free to spend time with either character. The film allows the audience the space to sink into the image, to learn more from it as time goes on.
There’s another scene where Gerry is trying to help Gerry jump safely off a large boulder. Most of the scene is played in a wide that shows both the character on the ground trying to help and the character on the top of the rock trying to work up the courage to jump. There is something so refreshing about this visual simplicity. The camera has been placed in the smartest simplest position to capture this moment, and now we are free to watch these actors figure it out.
I think what excited me the most about this style of filmmaking was the idea of applying these visual inspirations to a comedy about a kid who lives with his Aunt in the valley smoking weed and dressing up like an old jewish woman. To use an aggressively objective visual style to capture that flawed funny humanness that Joe and I usually captured with an aggressively subjective handheld camera.
A small family of passionate excited friends made Four Dogs. For 15 days we lived and breathed this house and these characters. Joe asked all of us to be as vulnerable and open as his actors. The film is what it is because of this tiny group of people who allowed each other to take risks – to discover a movie together as it was happening in front of our eyes.
Four Dogs had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival yesterday and has two more screenings – one tonight at 9:50 pm and next Saturday at 9:40 pm. Go here for tickets and more information on the film. For more info on Cinematographer Todd Banhazl, check out his website.
The Los Angeles Film Festival runs through June 23.