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Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

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Uncle John (2015)

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Steven Piet, John Ashton and Erik Crary on the set of Uncle John.

As the film’s publicity materials succinctly note, “small town bully turned born again Christian, Dutch, has gone missing. Well-regarded member of the community, John, is not a suspect, but has everything to do with it. Dutch’s younger brother, Danny, has his own theory about the disappearance and it centers on John.

Meanwhile, John’s nephew, Ben, arrives in town with his new girlfriend Kate just as John finds himself confronted with threats from Danny.” And that’s just the beginning of one of the most beguiling and mesmeric films in recent memory, made by two young men in sixteen days on an absolutely minimal budget. But as David Lynch noted on his Twitter feed, “check out @UncleJohnMovie – it caught me up and held me for days!”

As Neil Genzlinger noted in a rave review in The New York Times, “the simmering mystery Uncle John is so subtle, so exquisitely paced and so determined not to go in any of the obvious directions that it’s hard to believe the film is Steven Piet’s first feature. Piet, who with Erik Crary also wrote the script, sketches some memorable characters while keeping his two-pronged story sparse, ominous and deliciously ambiguous.

John Ashton is just right as the inscrutable title character, an older fellow in a rural town where an unlikable man named Dutch has gone missing. Shortly before his disappearance, Dutch apparently found Jesus, and he had been visiting various townspeople, confessing to misdeeds and such. Dutch and John’s sister were an item long ago, but something murky happened to the sister, and perhaps now something murky has happened to Dutch.

While all of this is being slowly revealed, many miles away in Chicago a young man named Ben is becoming smitten with a new co-worker, Kate. Alex Moffat and Jenna Lyng are very watchable as this might-become-a-couple, but what do they have to do with the goings-on out in the country? Turns out Ben has a beloved uncle who raised him, a man by the name of John. And when the two young flirters head his way for an impromptu visit, all secrets will be revealed. Or will they? It’s tantalizing, sublimely creepy stuff that keeps you guessing even after the credits roll.”

Added Frank Scheck in The Hollywood Reporter, Uncle John’s “other virtue is reintroducing John Ashton to the screen in his first major role in decades. The character actor, memorable for his sardonic comic turns in Midnight Run and the Beverly Hills Cops movies, delivers an understated but career-defining performance as the title character.

Seen disposing of a body in the film’s opening moments, John is an unassuming widower who looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Whether engaging in small town gossip with his buddies at the coffee shop or politely ignoring the flirtations of one of his carpentry clients, he maintains a low-key demeanor that is only betrayed by the quiet intensity of his gaze . . .

The film is an impressive dual calling card for its tyro director who keeps the tension at a simmering boil throughout both genres. And the late-career performance by the veteran Ashton (sans his usual mustache) is a revelation. The now 67-year-old actor has been steadily employed over the years, but he’s rarely had a role as good as this one and it’s a pleasure to watch him run away with it.”

You can also read an excellent interview with the director and screenwriter in Indiewire, in which Piet and Crary note that “throughout the process, we tried very hard to keep from becoming precious about the whole project. Not that its easy — trying to get a micro-budget film together is all-encompassing because it requires your non-stop attention and a willingness to ask for endless favors.

However, keeping that framed inside the fact that the rest of the world is also doing its own thing was incredibly helpful. Without proper money, way more no’s than yes’s came in. But, by keeping things reasonable and honest, the yes’s we got were for the right reasons.

In terms of production specifically, micro-budget on this one meant there would be no room for indulgence, ego or indecision because it was all going to be over in 16 days anyway. By doing what we could in extensive prep to set that up for success, and by trying to maintain a collaborative, healthy vibe on set because you are all there making a movie together, the whole experience was the most difficult but satisfying thing attempted to date. For us, the goal now will just be respecting those lessons and trying to grow from it all as the next project gets set up.”

There’s one other person who really deserves mention here – cinematographer Mike Bove. Bove’s clean, CinemaScope-ish visuals, shot with an Alexa digital camera, really bring the film to life, and take full advantage of natural light and the sparse settings of the film, which was shot on location in Wisconsin, and briefly, in Chicago.

It seems that Piet and Crary had three different levels of budgeting to work with – the dream budget, the “B” level budget, and the bare bones budget, and what happened in the end is that they mostly used the “C” schedule, shooting only what they needed. And that’s good – it’s perfect the way it is.

This is a dazzling debut film – check out the trailer here.

Alex Ross Perry on Film vs. Digital

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

L to R; Alex Ross Perry and DP Sean Price Williams on the set of Queen of Earth – shooting film.

In the continuing debate between film vs. digital, director Alex Ross Perry, and his superbly gifted DP Sean Price Williams weigh in on why shooting on film gives you an undefinable edge over the rest of the field – provided, of course, that your film has some actual content. As Perry notes in an op-ed piece in Indiewire, in part:

“It is quite simple and affordable to shoot a movie of almost any budget on actual, honest to god celluloid. Perhaps I’m not the best authority on the subject; I have never actually shot a film on a digital format. Queen of Earth is my fourth film; the first, Impolex, was made in 2008 with a $15,000 budget and shot on Fuji 16mm film. So ever since then I’ve been getting asked, and really earnestly explaining in the hopes that my words mean something: how?

Impolex was shot in seven days. I think we bought 40 rolls of film. However many it was, the total was something like $2,500 and processing was another $3,000 or so. We got the Aaton camera for free because my cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, worked for the late great Albert Maysles and the company had all this older equipment just sitting around that nobody used or cared about. This is an important thing to remember when planning to shoot on film: practically nobody else wants that equipment so if you can’t get it for free, you should be able to get it for basically nothing.

The same cannot be said for whatever new Red camera is in high demand – if you won’t pay $500 a day for it, somebody else will. For a 16mm camera, I’d be surprised if anybody paid $500 for a whole week. So if you are making a small independent film with a shoot of about two weeks, the film stock, camera package and processing could be as low as five to six thousand dollars . . .

The numbers we landed on for shooting film on Queen of Earth were partially borrowed from producer Joe Swanberg‘s identical production budget and model for his own Super 16mm film Happy Christmas . . . we bought $11,000 worth of Kodak Super 16mm and then paid close to $15,000 to develop and scan it.

Our camera and lighting package was about $10,000 but you’d absolutely be paying the same if renting a fancy pants HD camera and also you have to buy a bunch of hard drives and have some person on set whose sole job is to move stuff off of memory cards or whatever and deal with the footage all day.

That’s a whole extra mouth to feed, bed to rent, seat in the van, and so on. It adds up and the ultimate difference between film and digital on a production of this size isn’t 5:1. It’s probably more like 4:3 when you factor in all the nonsense you are paying for regardless.

Color correction will cost the same. Once the footage is scanned and edited, it doesn’t matter what the origin was, except now you aren’t paying some tech nerd in a post house several thousand dollars to press buttons and adjust knobs in order to retroactively add an visual aesthetic to your movie that realistically, you could have just spent the same amount of money on set and had that texture and experience be genuine instead of inauthentic.

Generally people really don’t seem to connect with that process, and it doesn’t matter if you shot on old converted 35mm lenses either.

The eye won’t connect with digital trickery the same way it will with tried and true imperfect film grain. It may look great and interesting in its own way, as many filmmakers have proven starting, for me, with Zodiac, but at these budget levels, you essentially are saving a little money on the format and then spending it later on somebody who works on your movie for like three days and probably gets paid more than most of the crew who woke up at seven am and worked for twelve hours.

My point is that shooting on film is like anything: if it is of importance you will find a way to make it happen. Nobody will know that you were able to buy an extra two days of filming by shooting on an Alexa but they will know if you are the rare independent film that was shot on actual film. You definitely will have to make a compromise or two but what you get in return is an instant and overwhelmingly present aesthetic that will do more in carrying the audience to whatever place you want them to be than just about anything else money can buy.”

An interesting take; you can read the entire piece by clicking here.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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