When I think of independent film, true independent film, I think of filmmakers who will stop at nothing to make their movie, who cobble together as much funds as they can so that they can bring their unique and personal story to life on the screen. In an industry that is dictated by star power, a marketing hook and whether or not you can turn your script into a trilogy, it’s super refreshing to sit back and watch what I love about indie film — a simple character story and glimpse into a curious world full of humanity, humor and heart. The film is Four Dogs, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week, directed by first time feature filmmaker, Joe Burke. It’s a slice of life comedic drama that observes a week in the life of twenty-two year old Oliver, who lives with his aunt and her four dogs in Encino, CA, and spends most of his days hanging out with his former acting buddy, Dan, who’s twice his age and one rejection from calling it quits. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Todd Banhazi, an overall a finely crafted film, Four Dogs surprises with really interesting, yet understated performances that, in the end, help create an honest, naturalistic portrait filled with moments we can all relate to in our own way.
I had a chance to speak with director Joe Burke and cinematographer Todd Banhazi about their creative collaboration and the technical aspects of shooting their first feature.
Let’s start with the basics: How many days was your production? How long did it take you to go from the script to shooting to finishing post? Can you share what your budget was?
Joe: We shot for fifteen days. Five days in a row, then one day off, then ten days in a row. We spent roughly a year and a half working on the project from script to end of post. But I was able to step away from the edit for a few months since we had time before festivals. That time was great to think and let the edit breath. Our budget was super small.
Have you and Todd worked together before? What was your collaboration like in pre-production and production?
Joe: Todd and I met on our first day in grad school at AFI. We worked together on our first AFI short film “Emile” which led to us working together many more times after. Todd and I have a great collaboration, mainly because we find ourselves on the same page with a lot of things. We can almost communicate what we want to each other with little to no words cause it stems from an emotional place for us, and we just know where we’re going and what we want to capture. We like to question all angles, and push each other to think, but at the end of the day, we always land on what we both agree to be the most honest answer to our approach. It’s really a special collaboration process for me. Todd is not just a DP, he’s a filmmaker, and I showed him several rough cuts of our film in post and that process, those conversations really helped get the film to a great place.
One of the things I really appreciate about your film is the care that was taken about the cinematography. Todd, tell me what camera did you shoot on and why did you choose it?
Todd: We shot on the ARRI Alexa with old Cooke S2 pancro lenses. We wanted Oliver’s world to feel soft and muted. The combination of Alexa’s color rendering and the older Cooke lenses got us that feel. I also wanted to shoot with mostly natural light, and I knew I’d be pointing into windows but exposing for interiors a lot. The alexa holds highlights beautifully. I also wanted to point into bright windows and let the light wash over the old cooke lenses. Light bounces around inside the cooke glass and lifts your black levels, bringing soft flat detail into the shadows without having to use fill. It felt right for this movie both in terms of on-set workflow and in terms of the moodiness it gave the image. We shot 2.35 to allow as much of that wonderful house to play in every shot with our characters.
How did you decide on the look of the film? What films were your inspirations?
Todd: Joe and I talked about Oliver’s world and what it feels like for him to live in the valley with his Aunt. The monotony. The pot smoking. The boredom. Walking the dogs. The look came out of how we felt the world should feel to Oliver. We were inspired by movies like Last Days, Greenberg, Dogtooth and Duck Season. Movies with shots that hold unusually long and focus on small interesting moments.
There is simple coverage which works well because the performances by your actors are so good. Was that an economic choice or was that a style of filmmaking that you were going for?
Joe: This was really a style choice, though it also allowed us to spend less money since we didn’t need all that fancy equipment. But my producing/writing partner Oliver Cooper and I had made a short titled “Rick White” that my good buddy and talented DP friend Rick Diaz shot. We discovered in that process an interesting shooting style in which we just found the right frame and let the characters move around within it. I wanted to shoot our film very still. Very voyeuristic. I wanted to feel as if we were just a fly on the wall watching these lives go on. And because I was embracing the improv nature of it all, I wanted the actors to be free to move around and do what they felt was most natural. I wanted it all to happen in the moment. To keep the film feeling “real” and not having to over edit performance and manipulate it too much. I find it really interesting to step back and just watch the world go on.
It’s rare that a film these days is shot so traditionally and lovely. Even though the film is set mostly in the interior of the Encino house, every shot feels cinematic. Did you storyboard each shot?
Todd: No storyboarding. Joe and I discussed what was the most important thing about each scene. Whether it be a story point, an emotion, a joke, or a feeling. We put the camera wherever that singular idea would be best expressed. We decided early on that the camera should never adjust or pan or follow actors. It just felt right to find a frame and hold it regardless of where the actors went. It was a challenge finding the perfect shot to tell the story while allowing room in the frame for the actors to play and improv. Without ever adjusting camera mid-take, ever.
Now for some technical stuff — can you tell me a little bit about your workflow? Did you watch dailies? What post houses — both sound and picture — did you work with?
Todd: We shot LOG C ProRes 4444, 1920×1080 onto SXS cards. I monitored with a simple custom REC709 lut. There was no director’s monitor, just the small onboard on the camera. We tried to treat it like a film set in that way. We didn’t start working with a post house until after we locked picture. We watched LOG C dailies on our small laptop that we kept at the house we were shooting in, usually in the morning before we started shooting again. After we wrapped principal photography, Prehistoric Digital made offline ProRes 422 dailies with my on-set LUT baked in. That is what Joe used to edit until we went back to final color correct.
What were some of the concerns you had once you moved into post production? How long was your post process?
Joe: My only real concern in post was lack of budget. I edited the film myself, so that wasn’t an issue. But I knew eventually we were going to need to sound mix and color correct the film. Lucky for us, we have great collaborator friends who were willing to work with us and our tiny budget. (I’m looking at you Prehistoric Digital!), and our good buddy Scott who did our sound mix for next to nothing. I spent almost a year and half in post. I spent a lot of time finding the edit, trying cuts out, and exploring all options. I love the editing process. So for me, sitting there in my underwear editing in my room is just a great day.
Todd: No concerns for me. I was just excited to get the film over to my colorist Kevin Cannon at Prehistoric Digital. He is my partner in crime, and he’s the final step in my creative process for everything I shoot.
What was the direction you gave your colorist in terms of style and look you were trying to achieve?
Todd: It was important for me and Joe that we always respect the raw image that we exposed and recorded on the day of shooting. Every step of making Four Dogs was about being true to the moment. I spoke to Kevin about wanting to preserve the raw untouched quality of the original image, while subtlety making sure things matched and were continuous etc. Also since we imposed a “no camera adjustment” rule while shooting takes, there were a few shots that needed repositioning. There was one shot where Dan’s feet were cut off, Kevin adjusted the image to show his feet, and Joe said “I’ve been waiting a whole year for that.”
The images that work best for me during the film are the ones that have a hazy quality due to light washing over the lens and shooting backlit. Kevin adjusted other shots where we were forced to shoot front lit and without light flaring the lens, where the image had too much color and contrast. Mostly, Kevin is a storyteller at heart and I rely on him to remind me when to touch an image and when to leave it alone. Sometimes I forget we did it right on set, and if it ain’t broke…
What were some of the challenges you had making the film, and how did you overcome them?
Joe: I never felt like we had any major challenges, but perhaps our biggest challenge was truly embracing the organic nature of our process and finding some of our big moments in the film while in the middle of shooting. We worked off a 45 page detailed outline, so because we were more loose with it, we needed to stay on our toes and find the honest moments. If something didn’t feel honest, we didn’t want to shoot it. Our movie changed a bit half way through shooting, but we’re all so happy it did because it just feels much more honest the way it turned out.
Can you give me a couple of examples of some of the things you learned in post production that you would do differently on your next film?
Todd: I don’t know if I’d do anything differently. Every step of this film was about being open to new ideas. During color correct we tried adding post grain, we even outputted a final version with the grain on. At the time I felt that the grain helped add to the muted quality of the image. It kept Joe awake many a night until he eventually called me and said he just doesn’t think the grain is right. We went back to Prehistoric and watched it again, and both decided it looked better without the grain. It was truer to what we shot on the day, and without the grain you were able to connect with the characters better. I’m glad we tried it, and I’m glad we eventually decided against it.
Do you have any advice for other first time feature filmmakers?
Joe: Just keep making stuff. Even if you have no money. It’s not about money. Money does not make good movies. You just need to be creative, true to yourself, and be willing to go for it. Just do. Talk less. Do more. And understand that your career is a process, and the film you make today may not be your masterpiece. But it’ll definitely be a better film than no film at all.
What did you finish your film on?
We finished quicktime ProRes 4444 1920×1080. However, we outputted to HDCAM for our LAFF premiere. I wish we could be showing it in 444 somehow, but the image still looks good.