Back towards the end of June, I covered Christopher Jason Bell’s left for my For Future Reference feature and, now, I am happy to announce the online premiere of that film right here at Film Pulse. The film is available for free and streaming at the bottom of the page. I also had the chance to conduct an interview with Bell about the making of his film and his thoughts on online self-distribution.
Can you talk about the genesis of LEFT? Where the idea came from and what initially drew you to it?
I had caught Tsai Ming-liang’s “Madame Butterfly” at a retrospective. He’s a master to me, a perfectionist. So here was this movie that was super lo-fi — shot on SD I believe, or at least that’s what it felt like — and done in a hand-held, less precise manner compared to his other works. The long takes remained, though. He was still playing with time. The short really blew me away for many reasons. You don’t really see too many directors using consumer HD or SD cameras as an aesthetic choice, it’s really unexplored which is unfortunate — there’s the lo-fi- rawness of it that is a really interesting layer to play around with.
Anyway, Tsai did this idea — shooting lo-fi, hand-held super-long takes, in what seemed like an uncontrolled set/location — and to me, it seemed fun, adventurous, and very doable. I had wanted to collaborate with my friend Brittany and figured an airport would be an area that would lend a lot to a barebones film.
As for the story, one day I was on the way back from a trip and on the air train with all of my luggage. I noticed a woman asking people for help — she eventually came to me and told me she missed her flight and needed advice. It was a really unique scenario, which is weird to say, because people don’t usually go up to strangers in this manner. It’d be nice if we were there as a society, but we’re not. I thought about this a lot and it eventually became a springboard of sorts.
With LEFT being a small scale production, what obstacles did you encounter during the shoot?
Not too many, actually! No one really bothered us, which was kinda weird in retrospect given how intense airport security has become. The hardest thing with these one-man-band projects (this was just me on camera and running sound) is keeping track of everything, which includes technical stuff and the actors which, in a semi-improv super-long take, can be very difficult. One-man-banding is good for shooting in a crowded area like an airport but next time (if there is a next time) it wouldn’t hurt to have one other person helping with the technical side of things.
The film places all of the narrative weight on Brittany Connors’ performance, in the sense that she is responsible for almost all of the dialogue (which isn’t much) but also her body language and composure tell most of the story. What was the directing process like with her given the circumstances?
It wasn’t too different than what I normally do — talk about the script and figure out where everyone is on the idea(s) and then practice blocking. For this one I had to stress that she had to roll with the punches — since it was such a long take anything could happen, so we had to be prepared for maybe someone trying to talk to her, someone being in the spot we decided she would sit in, etc. You generally do this when your films are less tied down, but since this was a more extreme process — we didn’t want to lose 35 minutes of a take if some kid decided to mess around with us towards the end — it was like “well, we really have to be ready for anything.” She brought a lot to the role, though — there’s a subtlety and naturalness to what she did that is pretty difficult to nail down, but she did it.
Even though it is small scale, there are large aspirations in terms of execution – talking the fact that it is entirely one take. First, what made you decide on the single take? Actually, is it a single take?
The final film I think has three cuts in it. It was supposed to be a single take, but at the end of the day you get to it and maybe something went kinda poorly in one take and it’s like… whatever. What’s the difference? If a cut comes 25 minutes in there’s a chance nobody will even notice it anyway because they’re so entranced.
The main idea though — aside from copying Tsai Ming-liang’s method ‘Butterfly’ as best as I could — was to use real time. Something extremely in the moment. I remember seeing “The Company Men” and, hey, I hate to spoil it, but here’s your warning. Ben Affleck goes off to a job interview in another state but then finds out that the interview was actually the following weekend. This moment was incredible to me. Unfortunately, there was a cut and hey, he’s home, he messed up, that sucked. But what if you stayed with him in that moment and took it as far as it could go? Within reason, I guess.
It’s not a great movie for many reasons but I saw the potential for something radical in a movie that is certainly not that. Stay with a character for an extended period of time and really, really push it. It’s all about doing something different than what you normally see, experimenting. There were a few people that told me to cut this up here and there and make it 15-20 minutes but that would really destroy the point of it all.
Also, why the hell would I shoot something on consumer SD in a 40 minute take, designed to be so, and then cut it to make it more palatable? At the end of the day, who is going to take the time to watch, access, appreciate, whatever this film if it is 20 minutes as opposed to 40? It doesn’t make sense to me. Of course, I see where they’re coming from, but the core idea was to make this kind of movie. It doesn’t seem right to go back on that for this imaginary audience that I don’t think will come around on this kinda movie if it’s only 20 instead of 40.
I’d love to do a couple things like this actually — something actually feature length that is one take in one location and something similar to Kalili Blues where there is a 20-30 minute single take somewhere in the movie. The former idea is tough because there’s a tendency for these things to be stagey, but I dunno. Maybe I’ll crack it.
What were the difficulties in accomplishing the single take?
I can’t speak too much for Brittany, but I think for actors it’s a bit nerve-wracking to remember the points of blocking in such a long take. We tried to conceive it so that it’d be loose enough that if something happened we could keep going. Aside from that, it was just the technical hurdles — I did camera and sound, so it was trying to make sure that both were working, that I wasn’t about to run into anybody, and that Brittany was framed well. It was a huge pain in the ass, obviously.
Airports and the people in them are obviously unpredictable, how did you handle the logistics of the action while recording?
We blocked it out before shooting and then crossed our fingers for each take. Making the film in real-time made it easier — that was built-in to the story. Fortunately, we didn’t have a problem.
What are your thoughts on the single take, by the way? It seems to have become quite the talking point over the past several years.
The single take is extremely my shit. It’s a very powerful technique, it can be used to draw you in or push you out (in the way that Brecht’s alienation effect would do — to call attention to the work or to make you think critically about what’s going on). Obviously, a slow-moving film composed mostly of long takes isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I do think it’s a good thing to slow things down in general — these days there is so much stimulation that it’s worthwhile to take in something with an unhurried aesthetic. Slow cinema is part of a healthy diet.
It felt as if the camera was a character in of itself, was this a wholly conscious decision or partially happenstance?
Conscious, yeah. The script is about this woman in limbo — she’s left someone and is looking for somewhere to go, maybe out of the country or maybe just a nearby friend’s place, though she doesn’t want to put anyone out and reveal that she really needs help. She’s completely alone and alienated despite being surrounded by people in this location where everyone is pretty much in limbo — on their way to a new place or on their way home.
It’d be easy to leave it at that — maybe shoot wide, show her alienation and leave it at that. But the camera stays with her in order to empathize and, in this very vulnerable state, sort of provide a counterpoint to the lack of unity and fellowship that is absent in both the script and location. The camera is always following her and, in general, always close by, and it’s meant to be comforting in the sense that someone is with you, you are not alone. Shooting guerrilla also means that, although we were left alone during the shoot in terms of being shut down, there were people at least on the fringes that would be looking at us as we walked around the airport. I think this allows a similar kind of fellowship. There’s the idea of someone in a lot of trouble being a huge spectacle about things (and I’m not saying this is bad, who am I to say anything like that?) — then people will rubberneck and gawk, and that’s certainly not a comforting thing. It’s unfortunate. But Brittany’s performance and that ultra-presence of the camera almost allows a kinder inquisition than what you’d normally find. I was interested in having this kind of energy surround us.
What made you ultimately decide on releasing the film online?
It just seemed to make sense — I could take a chance submitting this film to festivals but I think it’d feel even more like throwing money out the window than normal. I had a lot of fun doing this and I am proud of it and I’d like people to see it — but do I trust that a film festival is gonna be like “Yes, I’m going to keep this slow 40 minute film shot in real time on a consumer SD camera in mind when programming!” No, it wouldn’t stand a chance, which is a bummer but it is what it is. I think it’d be really effective in a movie theater without the distractions a computer has but isn’t that the case with most movies?
What are your thoughts on online self-distribution?
I think it’s great, in theory, but it seems like most of the dedicated websites either shut down or end up programming solely clean, well-funded shorts & features. Or ones by already established filmmakers. Which like, great, but what about the rest of us? A couple of websites dedicated to work that never found life on the festival circuit, and/or dedicated to experimental, super low budget, personal work would be great — along with an accompanying essay exploring the film and a Q&A. That would be ideal and it’s a shame it hasn’t happened yet.