When starting out in film, you take on projects of all shapes and sizes and content and genres. You want to work. You want to get experience and exposure. As you continue, the goal is to be more selective. Finding a good project is a like finding a stretch of downtime in James Franco’s calendar.
Today’s guest blogger, director of photography, Jay Hunter (also a writer/producer/director), talks about being at the point in his career where he can be a bit more selective so when a script like writer/director Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth came his way, he signed on before even reading the script.
Life After Beth – Sundance 2014 U.S. Dramatic Competition
Zach is devastated by the unexpected death of his girlfriend, Beth. When she miraculously comes back to life, Zach takes full advantage of the opportunity to experience all the things he regretted not doing when she was alive. However, the newly returned Beth isn’t quite the way he remembered her, and before long, Zach’s world takes a turn for the worse.
There once was a time in which the Internet appeared to be nothing more than a series of boring chat rooms and (at best) a more efficient system for delivering mail than the USPS. You couldn’t spend your entire day gazing into a magical pocket-sized device that held all of the knowledge of mankind within it. If you needed to tell someone something you had to actually speak to said person. It was crazy.
During those primitive days of yore I spent most of my time devouring every videotape on the shelf of West End Video (the video rental shack conveniently located at the end of my street). My parents gave me unrestricted access to movies there ever since I was 8. They told the owners that I could rent any movie they had regardless of the rating. Blade Runner? Yes sir. Revenge of the Nerds? Certainly. Class of Nuke’em High AND Slumber Party Massacre? But of Course. My informal goal was to see everything ever shot on film (only to be transferred to VHS tape) and I’d say that I came fairly close to doing just that….or at least as close as you can get while still graduating high school and bathing regularly.
The very best part of my quest was to discover the hidden gems. For every 100 pieces of forgettable trash there would be 1 Buckaroo Bonzai or a Reservoir Dogs or a Bottle Rocket. Often the movies I found to be the most memorable and affecting were the ones that had the worst sleeve covers ever.
The cover of David O Russell’s Flirting With Disaster is the epitome of banality. The stilted flat photographs of the Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette and Tia Leone are composited together in such a poor way that it appears to be making an ironic statement about poorly composited movie posters. The expressions on the actors faces are so broad that it’s hard to imagine the “selects” process being much more than a series of darts thrown at a contact sheet. Even the font of the main title is gag inducing with its rainbow-colored lettering trying so hard to reinforce the “eccentric and wacky” romantic comedy contained therein. Everything about this movie cover is offensive to me and logically the film contained within it should be of the lowest most despicable nature.
But…I’m on this quest and so I end up renting it one day and OH DEAR GOD IT’S AMAZING!!! Well, I’ll admit it’s not the best movie of all time. It’s not even the 20th best movie of all time. The performances are at times a bit over the top and the photography is utilitarian. Nothing in this film is flashy or irresistibly seductive and yet I fall madly in love with it from the first frame.
I’ve tried to reason out why this film is so magnetic to me. The only way that I can describe the effect the movie has on me is to say that each scene unfolds the way a man spinning in circles will eventually spin out of control and either collapse onto the ground or take a header full speed into the nearest wall. It’s unbearably funny watching the guy spin around and around becoming progressively disoriented but the real comedy, the real pathos, is when the guy is face first on the ground clawing at the dirt trying to make the spinning stop. In Flirting With Disaster that guy is Ben Stiller and when I gaze into his eyes I see a man who does a great job maintaining a conservative veneer whilst a sea of anxiety and tension lurks just beneath the façade.
Case in point: The scene where Richard Jenkins gets dosed with LSD. It’s arguably the most accurate portrayal of a psychedelic experience I’ve ever seen on film. We see Jenkins slowly descend into his trip in subtle out of focus moments in the background of shots. Eventually his trip becomes abundantly clear to the rest of the gang and the chaos erupts into a frenzy. An exhausted disillusioned Ben Stiller calmly announces he’s tired and escapes to the bedroom upstairs. He couldn’t act more civil and yet we know that just beneath the surface he’s about to completely melt down. That overpowering desire and desperate need to keep it together in the face of epic disaster is such a genuine human instinct. It feels so damn real.
Romantic Comedies never feel this authentic. Romcoms are nearly always total manifestations of pure artificiality. I suppose that’s why that, although the cover slip for the VHS cassette would have us believe so, Flirting With Disaster is no Romantic Comedy. It’s simply an awesome movie. I can absolutely say that Flirting With Disaster inspired me to be a filmmaker. I’ve always closely followed David O Russell’s career after seeing this film first. He’s always shifting his style around and no two of his movies are anywhere near alike.
When my agent came to me with the script for Life After Beth he mentioned that it was written by and to be directed by Jeff Baena (who co-wrote I Heart Huckabees with Russell). I didn’t know Jeff at the time but I knew that I wanted to work with the guy who co-wrote Huckabees no matter who he was or what the project entailed I told my agent that I’d read the script but that I was also absolutely IN right at that very moment. Luckily the script I read was brilliant and Jeff Baena was not only a fantastic writer but an incredibly gifted director as well. You don’t often come across the kind of Kung Fu-Style that Jeff employs every day. He’s got the instincts that you can’t learn and can’t develop working on a thousand sets. Sometimes you are a just born to direct movies. It’s a real privilege to get to work with him and I hope to do it again many times more.
I think that the most important thing you can do as a DP is to seek out scripts and filmmakers that you would work with for free if you had to. When you make your decisions based solely on the size of your paycheck you will look back with great regret. I try and look back at movies like Flirting With Disaster and other favorites of mine and compare them to the work I’m being offered. If they don’t jive then it’s a good sign to pass but if they start gelling together…man, there’s nothing quite as good as that.
Jay Hunter, a Chicago native, attended the film department at the University of Colorado at Boulder and had the honor of studying under the eyes of legendary avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage during the final years of his life.
Jay has worked as the Director of Photography on many scripted programs (Ricky Gervais Meets, 10 Items Or Less, and The Papdits) as well as numerous network reality tv programs (Steven Spielberg’s On The Lot , Rockstar Supernova). Jay recently photographed Paper Heart, a feature film staring Michael Cera and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Read more Sundance 2014 Guest Blog posts here.