Posted on Sunday, January 31st, 2010 by Brendon Connelly
Now playing in NY and LA is St. John of Las Vegas, the debut feature of writer-director Hue Rhodes. The picture gives Steve Buscemi a too-rare leading role as John Alighieri, a man with a gambling problem who is sent to investigate an insurance claim on the outskirts of the Nevada casino capital. Also amongst the cast are Romany Malco, Sarah Silverman and Peter Dinklage.
The film is pricked with references to Dante’s Inferno, though certainly has it’s own narrative which requires no knowledge of the Divine Comedy to understand – think how the Coen Bros. and Homer blended into O Brother Where Art Thou. And whereas the Coens’ film stood on the shoulders of Preston Sturgess, the equivalent influence on St. John would appear likely to be Ozu or Milos Forman.
After the break you can read my edited transcript of some of what Hue has said to me in our conversations over the last few weeks, sharing some of his thoughts on both this movie specifically and films and filmmaking in general.
I shouldn’t probably admit this but I grew up in the Cineplex, like most people in America, but I had no idea what any of the people at the end of the credits did. I couldn’t have told you what a director did, or any of the other credits. And I had no cinema education. Which is very surprising because I went to great schools, so I certainly know about classical music, I certainly knew about literature, but amazingly, though, I have never heard the name Fellini, I had never heard of Buster Keaton, I had never heard of any of the people you would consider in the canon. I just loved movies.
I had this very naïve thought – maybe I could make a movie. I was a film lover, but not in a way that would command any respect film snobs because I just went to the movies.
I knew pretty early on that I didn’t know what I was watching. When I watched a movie, it wasn’t revealing itself to me how to make it. I think you can eat your whole life but not know how to cook. I decided I wanted to make these things but I didn’t know how. I was older, I was 30 and I hadn’t put in any of the time. The people that you know in the film business, from the beginning they’ve served an apprenticeship.
So I decided to go to Film School because I needed anchoring in something. I got this great opportunity at the ripe old age of 31 to spend 5 years soaking in film history. I’m very glad that I did, I don’t think that’s a step to be skipped.
Love of film didn’t shape my identity. I have a whole other rich life and set of skills that are completely independent form film and it’s allowed me to have the discipline to approach film as a vocation.
The film is very much about work and this surreal experience of office life. It’s a tall tale, certainly, and I think I’ve taken fanciful liberties but I don’t think you could make this movie if you had not spent a lot of time in “cubicle hell”. The experience and ideas all predate the film school but the execution, I think I owe all to film school. It armed me with a library of references that was efficient and elegant, I think. First of all, when I first met Buscemi, he read it and he liked it and we spent a lot of time talking about Buster Keaton. Immediately we got off on the right foot. And the cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and I had a very fruitful and rich collaboration through talking about movies I only had access to after going to film school.
We used Final Cut Pro all the way down to the digital intermediate. That was the system we were in the whole time. The production company Indievest bought a system using Final Cut and they can use the same system and computer going forward for different movies. I like both Final Cut and Avid. I think that Final Cut is best used when imposing a certain amount of self organising discipline. It doesn’t have the same sort of bumpers on it Avid will, just in terms of media asset management. Certainly, Beginning Editing students, you’ll often see them stressed about organising and finding, sometimes, their media because they’re not careful.
There are definitely scenes that were a lot longer in the movie than they are in the page, I don’t think that they feel long. We adopted a style of shooting that just also helped us be efficient and consistent on set. The camera is always square to the frame. There are no dirty over the shoulder shots, there are no dirty two shots. We do a lot of 90 degree rotation. What this allowed us to do is to start shooting without shooting master shots. It’s an odd thing. You get a sense of the place in some ways quicker than if you see a whole high angle master shot that informationally shared this space. What you end up doing is establishing the space without having to actually show the space. There are several scenes in the movie where we have no master shot, but you don’t notice. And that is a fortunate by product for a restrained time schedule and limited budget of this style of shooting. We were inspired by Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde. There are several scenes in there that have no master and you don’t notice until you go looking for it.
This almost became like good editing in writing. We were trimming away the things that don’t mean anything. We don’t have wild walls – indie films are shoot to space. There’s a particular shot that I see sometimes in independent films that I just don’t like. It’s shot in which you put the camera high up and in the corner and the only reason you put it there is because it’s the only place to put the camera where the lens will be wide enough to capture the scene.
The great thing I feel about this movie is that it is cleanly done in it’s own way, there’s no compromise visually for any sort of information. You never have that shot that is just like “Now we have to show what is happening”. You get to have a movie that is much more uniform in its style and its grammar. That turned out to be a wonderful thing.
Having shot my first feature, and this is feature in how it is different than a short, I think I will have much more ability to think on set about how the things I am doing will effect pacing, which is very much an editing decision. The counter to this unity with these clean singles was our photographically inspiration. If from a movie perspective we were inspired by Ozu and Loves of a Blonde, photographically I personally discovered the photographer William Eggleston. His pictures capture the spirit of this great desperateness of mundane life which is what I mean by “cubicle hell”.
Giles noticed, from looking at his pictures, that Eggleston, by using medium format and by rotating the camera and shooting vertically, he was always putting people in places. They weren’t portraits of people, they were portraits of places where people were elements. In imitating this style we shot a lot of wide shots, a lot of medium shots but there are very, very few close ups. So there’s plenty of space and breath in the movie. I will confess for all the space in the movie, you can’t get out of the movie. It maybe feels like a very, very big casino in that, because the shooting style and colour palette is so uniform, because there was so much discipline, you can’t get out of the movie.
That’s perhaps one of the things that high angle shot gets you, a chance to check out of the movie altogether, to look at your watch and eat some popcorn. I don’t think that’s easily done because there’s no shot in the movie that doesn’t look like every other shot in the movie.
I think emphasis is sometimes relative. If most of the shots are medium shots, then a close up shot says something but if you’re all close up, then you have to go down to the eyeball to say something. And I may not have any cinema background when I started, but I loved it when I saw it and the people that are celebrated as heroes use a lot of wide shots, a lot of medium shots, do a lot of work to create scene rather than provoke emotions from actors.
It’s a very simple story, we have a lot of great locations, but in the end it’s a very simple story about John interacting with people. John talks to these freaky people and they stop being freaky when he talks to them and they help him solve this insurance case. It’s mostly one on one interaction, even if the characters are in varied and surreal locations.
When you have clean singles when people are looking almost at the frame, the next shot is the thing that person is looking to. Even if it’s a full body shot, there’s one person in the shot. When I say a close up, a close up in our movie would be at the shoulders and the head, a medium shot would be at the waist. So that’s still pretty specific. And even if it’s a full body shot and there’s one person in one frame looking straight at the lens talking and it cuts to another person who’s full-body, straight at the lens talking, there’s no ambiguity.
Normally when you jump, even if you do a 180 degree cut it can okay but in one scene in the strip club the backgrounds are so similar it’s almost as though you didn’t jump, it’s almost like we swapped the people. I think the tricky thing in that particular scene is not necessarily the camerawork but the production design. If one wall had been red and one wall had been green with the exact same camerawork you might not have had the same effect. I saw a wonderful Movie that Scott Cann wrote and produced, called Mercy. They did something at one point equally stylised in a way, and I think it’s funny, this could be the problem with making movies is that you appreciate things, you might even like things, that might take other people out. In Mercy I didn’t actually mind, and in fact I appreciated, the fact they were doing something aggressive. An extreme example would be in Copolla’s Youth Without Youth. At one point he turned the camera upside down and the car was driving at the top of the frame. I was sitting next to person who I think sort of hated that but I thought it was wonderful. That was very clearly by design, though in my case, I’m not sure the homogeneity of the backgrounds and the shots was purely by design, though overall I don’t think I mind that sort of thing. I don’t think I noticed it when we were cutting the scene, but I didn’t mind.
We didn’t have a lot of insert work and when I do have inserts, we were very careful. You can see in the trailer when Sarah Silverman’s hand wraps around the edge, we addressed that shot the way we would a close up of a person. The thing we are showing is the fingers, so the fingers became the thing we took our style of portrait of.
What we restrained from doing was using the camera as a kind of prodding device. We did not do that. We did not poke with the camera. Every set up that we tried to do had elements that were balanced in the frame. This was Giles’ takeaway from Eggleston was that you look at an Eggleston photo and people and objects are in balance and the thing that is photographed is the collection of these elements.
I don’t think this style is alienating. I had a feeling that I hoped for as a movie experience. One of the things you get from not growing up in cinema, I think, is a kind of real heresy. You don’t even have ideas for what a movie should be. Or maybe I should say, you grow up watching one kind of movie then you see there is all these different kinds of movies. The spirit I was hoping for was… I do like being in Las Vegas, I do like being in casinos, and what I find is that when I’ve been in one of them all night, is that when I come out and I look at the real world, the real world looks fake to me. In the casinos, the larger brighter casinos, they hijack your orientation cues and make a new reality for you.
There’s a specific example that I can cite. There’s a casino, The Bellagio, and when you walk into the lobby there’s this beautiful chandelier, it’s probably 50 feet long, and it looks like it’s bathing this room in this wonderful soft light. Of course, the light is not coming from that chandelier. A chandelier would do top-down lighting that would be harsh and dark, the lighting is coming from somewhere in the base boards but the casino has given you this object to fix on, the chandelier, and then has provided lighting from elsewhere. So, in a way, you oriented yourself with the chandelier but the casino has hijacked the means of orientation by changing the lighting. In a similar way, by doing this colour palette restriction but still having it feel real and by having this geometric framing that frame by frame looks real but over the course of 90 minutes is not what you would naturally see, I think we hoped to create this alternate reality. Perhaps, at the end of the movie you would blink a little bit and say “Where was I and how long was that?” I did hope that if that was the experience you had watching the movie, then that would be a success. Now, I’m not sure that experience is exactly what every moviegoer sits down to watch but what I hope is that enough people enjoy that experience.