“We Knew We Couldn’t Mess Around” - Ethan Warren in Conversation with Phil Bernstein
Following the release of West of Her, writer/director Ethan Warren and emerging filmmaker Phil Bernstein got together to discuss the nitty-gritty technical details that go into putting together a microbudget independent road movie—from camera choice to sound pitfalls to unexpected VFX work, and beyond!
PB: I checked the “technical specs” page on IMDB and it says that you shot on a RED Epic. Why was that the choice?
EW: Back in 2011, when my DP Cam Bryson and I were first talking about shooting West of Her, RED was an extremely sexy name in my mind. Since I knew I wanted to highlight landscapes, I wanted a camera that was synonymous with “amazing imagery” and to me, that was RED. I was relatively inexperienced when we started working on this—I had done a four-week intensive film production course in 2006, and then gone back to being an armchair quarterback—so my sophistication about benefits and limitations in different models wasn’t all that high.
I’ve never so much as been in the same room as a RED but I’ve heard they can be temperamental, which would scare the crap out of me during a shoot that’s largely exteriors and far from cities.
You’re totally right about the temperamental thing (there’s even a version of the El Risitas meme all about that very topic). I don’t remember if anyone ever tried to talk me out of it, but the biggest issue was the fan. The camera overheated really quickly, and this insanely noisy fan would kick in. We would usually stop and let it cool down, but if we couldn’t, we would just have to give up on getting location sound (during the Four Corners scene, the temperature was pretty close to 100 and the fan was running the entire time, so that whole scene needed to be ADR). I don’t remember any other major issues off the top of my head, nothing we couldn’t troubleshoot ourselves (i.e. being far from cities wasn’t a major concern).
You can’t argue with the results—it’s totally cinematic. I’m also curious about the lenses you used.
We had a package of five ARRI Ultra Primes.
I imagine that most, if not all of the daylight exteriors were naturally lit. But were you bouncing or diffusing the light at all?
You imagine right, the majority of the daylight exteriors were natural. For the montages, we didn’t need to worry much about the lighting being too consistent. But any longer dialogue scene, we did have flags and bounces set up. Dan’s backstory by the lake took the better part of a day to shoot, so we were micromanaging the lighting considerably (and even then it came out kinda iffy). Here's a photo of that setup (fun fact: that scene, and Jane’s monologue, were both reshoots a full year later; most of the movie is shot in real time, except the two big scenes when they’re a year older. Movie magic!)
And what did you do at night? Those night exteriors look really nice—were you doing a lot with lights? Is the Epic just that great in low light?
For the night exteriors we had a simple lighting setup. The primary items were an LED panel, a 300w fresnel and a 650w tweenie, along with various usual accessories. The Epic does really well in low light, which was definitely a huge consideration for us—with the Corn Palace and the diner confrontation on our minds, we knew we couldn’t mess around when it came to getting good images in the dead of night. And the raw footage looks pretty decent. For example, these two screenshots are both raw:
Speaking of using natural light, did that create problems at all in the edit? I can’t imagine you were doing too many takes, or that you were getting all that many clouds messing with things that far out west, but I’ve still heard of people having to go to great lengths to keep natural light consistent.
As I touched on above, Dan’s backstory required the most damage control on natural light. Aside from that—along with the Four Corners, which is a) impressionistic enough that we could get away with inconsistencies, and b) was shot REALLY quickly—there aren’t a lot of major dialogue sequences shot outdoors in daylight.
I’m curious what you used to light interiors—assuming you weren’t lugging tons of lighting gear all those hundreds of miles, but you must have had some stuff. Did you pick up more gear just for the interiors in Chicago and Memphis, or was it the same stuff for the whole shoot? Did you actually shoot the various interiors in the cities where they were set, or did you substitute some locations?
We weren’t picking up anything as we went; we were lugging everything everywhere. Cam put together a lighting kit with a rental house in Chicago, and we loaded it into our rented RV and hauled it across the country. After we wrapped, production assistant Devin and I had to drive the RV back from Memphis to Chicago and return the kit and the vehicle (though we rolled back in to Chicago over a weekend and had to wait until Monday for the returns, so we bummed around having a lost weekend that could be a little movie in and of itself). In addition to the lights I mentioned above, we got some china balls and a few fabrics at a craft store. The Chicago and Memphis apartments really were shot in Chicago and Memphis—I found those apartments through AirBnB, an extremely 21st century method of location scouting.
What was your shooting ratio like? It felt like you got a lot done with fairly limited coverage, but I noticed a scene or two where it felt like you’d gotten a bunch of angles. Were you shooting the whole scene over from each angle or did you already know what moments you needed in each shot (I imagine this is also kind of a balance between shooting quickly and giving your actors room to actually perform).
I don’t think I could comfortably give a ratio, but a lot of the long dialogue scenes are fairly static, so we could just shoot the whole scene from a few different angles. Dan’s backstory is a good example there, as well as the Oregon trail scene. We blocked out a few simple position shifts for them—Jane starts down here, goes up to the fence, gets down and lands here—and then ran enough angles to get good coverage and leave it up to the editor. The Four Corners scene is the outlier; you can read about that chaotic madness in my blog post about that day.
I also noticed a lot of handheld and also a lot of tripod shots. That’s pretty much the whole movie, right? How choreographed was the handheld operation? During Jane’s monologue, while the sun is so low in the sky, I love that camerawork, and the way it feels natural and spontaneous but still restrained, and I know you probably didn’t have time for a lot of takes of that. How does that work?
Yup, handheld and tripod is pretty much it, though we did strap the camera to a car a couple times. That ended up being so arduous that we did it very rarely. For the most part, the handheld stuff was not choreographed at all. Cam had the camera up on his shoulder with his camera assistant chasing him with a follow focus whip (good thing they were both in good shape). In more complex, scripted sequences—say, the Corn Palace scene or the diner confrontation—we were rehearsing and repeating movements, but in the case of the improvised montages (1880 Town, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon) and Jane’s monologue, Cam was freestyling. He recently described it by saying, “the actors and I would intuitively play off each other in a sort of reactive dance.” As you may have noticed, the monologue is an unbroken take, so we got up at about 4AM, drove out to the desert, and then ran four or five takes in a row as the sun rose (I think we used the third). On that day—which, as I mentioned, was a reshoot shot in southern California, and I kinda hate that you can see Joshua trees in the background, since those are so specific to that region—Cam wore an easy rig so he could comfortably hold the camera for that length of time. So yeah, basically a lot of graceful, intuitive movements on Cam’s part. He’s really damn good.
As far as sound goes, how were you recording? I figured it was mostly boom and shotgun, but there are points when their voices sound so close, I feel like it must have been lavs. I just have no idea how you’d have been hiding them when they’re just wearing t-shirts.
Yup, we had boom, shotgun, and lavs. The lavs were taped to their chests, and they would often catch on the T-shirts, so we had a VFX artist come in and take them out. Here’s a little before and after on that:
So you can see the little square right in the middle of Ryan’s chest, where the tape was catching on his shirt as he moved around. There were only a few spots where it was particularly visible. We had to do the same with the battery packs clipped to the back of their pants, too. There’s actually a handful of VFX tweaks throughout the film—we stabilized some driving shots a little; in the scene after the Grand Canyon when they argue in the car, it was raining on Dan’s angle but not Jane’s so we had to put rain on her window to keep it consistent; we took out a couple large raindrops when we were shooting the picture car through the windshield of the follow car.
And finally, some logistical stuff. I’m assuming you rented a van or a truck or something to get your cast and crew and gear around—you couldn’t have just been in cars, right? Was the car that Jane and Dan actually drive around also a rental? Can you actually shoot in rentals, or are there weird legal things with that? Did the crew just divvy up driving duties when going from location to location?
As I mentioned, we rented an RV in Chicago. That carried pretty much everything—gear, luggage, and most of the crew. We also had two or three people sleeping in it at a campground every night to save on motel rooms (though towards the end, crew members would sometimes finance their own motel room to avoid it; after three weeks of roughing it, you get desperate for comforts). The picture car was a rental—we never asked permission to shoot it, so if there were legal issues, we were, and still are, blissfully unaware. Kelsey and Ryan drove the picture car every day to keep their chemistry fresh and real. The rest of us cycled around—only a couple of us felt good driving the RV, and that was the real tough work. There was one miserably long day when we crossed pretty much all of New Mexico and half of Texas, and some crew watched There Will Be Blood and Beasts of the Southern Wild right behind my head while I drove. Thank goodness they chose movies with good dialogue and music, and movies I know so well I could enjoy them as radio drama…
Thanks so much. I wouldn’t be geeking out this way if I didn’t like the movie so much. Hope it doesn’t seem like I’m missing the forest for the trees, but, well, I really like trees.
Thanks for the interest, it was fun to dredge some of these old memories back up!