Last month while attending Slamdance, I caught the world premiere of Best Friends Forever by actor turned first-time feature director, Brea Grant. Part road movie, part apocalypse story, Best Friends Forever, is the story of two hipster girls who head out on the open road to follow their dreams. Harriet, a comic book artist decides to start a new life in Austin, TX, while her best friend, Reba, goes along for the ride. On their journey across the western landscape, unbeknownst to them, disastrous nuclear terrorist attacks hit the county. As the fate of their lives become clearer, Harriet and Brea must come to terms with what’s important in life and in friendship. Moody, with a dark comedy tone, Best Friends Forever feels like its paying homage to zombie movies other apocalyptic films by not taking itself too seriously, which is part of the fun. Shades of Mad Max meet Thelma and Louise make for a fun romp in this clever and ambitious little film.
I spoke with up and coming cinematographer, Michelle Lawler, about her decision to shoot s16mm on a tiny budget, workflow on the road, and the importance of fighting for what you want as a DP.
Congratulations on your first feature being accepted into Slamdance. How did you come to the project?
The co-writer of Best Friends Forever, Vera Miao, and I are good friends. When they were looking for a cinematographer, I was in my 2nd year at AFI in the cinematography program. The director of BFF, Brea Grant, had seen a feature documentary I directed called Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight and she liked the spirit of the film. When Vera told me that Brea wanted to interview me to shoot BFF I jumped at the chance. Brea and I met a couple times and got along really well. We looked at a lot of photography books and discussed her vision for the film. We were on the same page right away and she hired me to shoot the movie.
What were some of the visual references you used to achieve the look of the film?
I like to look at paintings a lot when I’m preparing for a movie especially when talking to a director about color and light. We looked at Gregory Crewdson, William Eggleston, and some Gerome paintings that were a reference for the landscapes. On low budget movie like this we had to think creatively about ways we could visually sell an apocalypse. A big reference for Brea was Night of the Comet, which was a great 80’s zombie movie that I loved as a kid. We talked about wanting there to be a progression in contrast and saturation as the apocalypse becomes real to the main characters. Brea also writes comic books, which heavily influenced our storyboarding and framing choices. Brea wanted the film to be entirely handheld so we watched a lot of movies with varying degrees of handheld. A film I always go to for hand held inspiration is A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, shot by Eric Gautier.
How many days was the shoot?
It was about 19 days. Most of the film was shot on location in Texas.
I believe you shot on s16mm. In the new world of digital moviemaking, why was it important for you to shoot on film?
When I read the script I thought that s16mm was the right format. The grainy texture of s16mm would add a grit that we needed to feel the apocalypse. With our budget and crew size I also felt I would be able to move faster on film. A lot of the movie takes place in the back of an AMC Pacer so my AC Brian Nelligan and I were often crammed into the back of the car. The Arri SR2 was small and light and the only cable I was connected to was a battery belt. The SR2 is like an indestructible little tank. Film is tried and true and I wanted to minimize any chance for technical problems while in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes our locations were 2 hours apart with nothing but a road and maybe a rest stop connecting them.
I also needed the latitude that film offers. Trying to balance car interiors with bright Texas exteriors was something that was important to me. I really wanted to feel the outside environment while we were inside the car. I was amazed at how well the interior of the car balanced with the outside! With our budget I didn’t think we could afford the kind of digital camera that could handle such an extreme ratio.
What camera / lenses / stocks, etc. did you use?
We were fortunate to work with Mike Dalletore from Panvavision through the New Filmmakers program. Panavision gave us a free Arri SR2 package with Zeiss superspeed primes. We shot Fuji Eterna 500T and Eterna 250D. I rated the 500T at 400 and the 250D at 100. Micheal Bulbenko from Fuji gave us an amazing deal on stock.
Was it challenging to work with film?
It was a pleasure working with film! The only thing that was challenging was shipping the film to Fotokem and waiting for the DVD dailies to come back in the mail. At one point our shipping got backed up because we were moving around Texas so much. I didn’t see dailies for over a week! The other challenge was that since Brea Grant was directing and was also the lead actress in the film, it would have been great to have a monitor for her to watch playback. We rigged a tiny HDV camcorder to the video tap so she could watch some of the rehearsals on its 1” screen, but the internal battery on the HDV camcorder decided to stop taking a charge so that pretty much died after the 1st week. I searched the world for a clamshell before the shoot, but I couldn’t find a cheap one and we couldn’t afford to rent one.
What was your workflow like?
We would ship our film to Fotokem in Los Angeles. Because of shipping costs, we had to wait a couple days to send a full load, so there was a definite lag between shooting and seeing dailies. Fotokem developed and digitally transferred the footage to ProRes 422 HQ files. We wanted to get a scan of the negative to maximize our latitude but the cost was too high. I communicated via email to the telecine and gave basic notes. We did a flat pass, saving the real color correction for later. In the end I think the 422 held up well and we were able to do what we needed in the color correction.
Where did you do your color correction and DI?
We did our color correction at New Hat. Doug Delaney was our colorist and we all had a great time working with him. He has a good eye and is very fast. We had limited amount of time with them, so it was important to be really efficient in our approach.
What format did you screen on at Slamdance?
We screened on HDCAM. I was happy with the projection.
What do you think is the most important thing for cinematographers to know during this time of great technological change in the film industry?
I think it’s important to keep up with current technology. It’s impossible to know everything, but staying informed and on top of the cameras and new tools is important. What is unchanged is the importance of story. Cameras are only tools to help us tell stories so choosing the right tool for the project is the most important thing for me. Unfortunately, we can’t always afford what is best for the project so it is important to stay flexible and find creative solutions to get the result you want. If film is the right format for your project, I think cinematographers should fight for it. Kodak and Fuji were so helpful to us in our decision to shoot on film. There are aspects to shooting film that are expensive, but at the end of the day it all comes out in the wash. People in Los Angeles are really willing to work with you on low budget productions. For cinematographers, shooting on film may mean making some extra phone calls and asking for favors but I think it’s worth it. Filmmaking is a craft and when you are shooting on film everyone on set is reminded of that.
Check out Michelle’s work at: michellelawlerdp.com