Posted on Friday, December 13th, 2013 by Russ Fischer
Jacob Gentry has been making movies for a long time; he made his first feature almost ten years ago, and hit the Sundance jackpot as one of the creators of The Signal in 2007. Earlier this fall we featured Gentry’s two-part short film / music video – both parts embedded below –for the forthcoming Broken Bells album ‘After the Disco.’ (The album arrives in early January.)
The short features Anton Yelchin and Kate Mara as a couple who find one another through a sort of science fiction dreamscape. Together with the performances, Gentry uses great visuals and Broken Bells’ cinema-ready music to create a vision where dreamers can get lost in their own desires.
I sat down with Gentry in LA not long ago to talk about the process of creating the video, and we ended up talking a lot about core concepts of directing. I always love hearing how a small project comes together to be more than the sum of its parts, but it was Gentry’s talk about the actual craft of directing that I think are really great for other young directors to read.
How’d this project begin? Was there always the idea of the two-part release?
Part of the idea was that, when Brian [Burton, aka Danger Mouse, and half of Broken Bells] gave me the short story in a long email, I turned it into a 15-page script. We were going to do it as a prologue, and then do the music video in the same way we did one last time, kind of like a short film and video at the same time. But Brian and I wanted to do something that encompasses the whole album, that covers all of the songs and the whole feel of it. So it became the two-part thing that way — two short films rather than a prologue and a music video.
The idea was that the first part would be from his point of view, and the second point was hers, and hopefully by the end of both parts it would be both of them. It was the notion of the “dream girl,” literally and metaphorically, and making her real, to the degree where she starts to dream about him.
How do you get Kate and Anton involved?
The same way you would do a film: you just reach out and give them the material. Obviously, because Brian and James [Mercer, the other half of the band] are well-respected, they’re attractive to people. At the end of the day it has to be the way they approach the material. We reached out to Anton first and he was excited because he was a really huge fan of [Brian's earlier project] DangerDoom. Anton dug the concept and once he decided to do it, as far as teaming him up with someone, Kate was our first choice. They both have a youthful innocence mixed with a soulful maturity. They can feel really young and quite old at the same time, like the way people say someone is an “old soul.” Kate can be both a young girl and a wise woman.
You see her going toe to toe with Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, and realize she’s pretty powerful.
Yeah, in House of Cards she starts off seemingly naive, or maybe just green, and ends up being one of the most powerful characters on the show. And they’re both super-smart people. I just approached it like it was a movie. It wasn’t like trying to find a celebrity cameo that would be cool, it was “who’s the actor that would be right for this?”
They both have very expressive faces — Kate can do stuff with a look that other people can’t manage with a page of dialogue.
Both of them are so nuanced, and would do things I might not even notice until I was in the editing room. Working with them kinda makes my job easier in a certain way; when you have actors like that they’re invariably going to be the most interesting thing that you’re filming. So they take the onus off the spectacle, and put the focus on the relationships between the characters. Which is nice, especially when you’re doing something that is essentially a silent film. Well, this isn’t a silent film, but it doesn’t have any dialogue.
Was there ever any conception that involved dialogue?
I think there was a version that did; I had some conception of them meeting and trying to communicate. The helmet she’s wearing was always a separation, and so the metaphor of taking the helmet off is opening yourself up to someone. It would have been too big, but they were trying to communicate by writing their names in the dust on her helmet, because she couldn’t hear him with it on.
But I got really excited about the notion of just telling a story visually. Not in the sense of abstract images, but literally “can I communicate the themes without them having to say anything to each other?” That’s been a really good exercise for me with both of the Broken Bells projects that I’ve done, because I’m a huge dialogue fan, and I’ll sometimes default to dialogue. I’ll find myself writing these really indulgent passages when really all I need is one person to look at another in a certain way. When you have actors like Anton and Kate, it allows me to do that. I’ll tell you, man, when I’m in the etiting room and cutting it together, you realize why they’re considered some of the best actors of their generation. Little things they do — there’s all these little acting presents they give me that I can use to say more than any dialogue could.
Are you at a point where you feel like you have a directorial style?
I guess? It changes… like everyone says, and I think it’s true, every actor is completely different. I’d talk to Anton in a different way than I’d talk to Kate, which would be different than the way I’d talk to Brea [Grant]. When you cast intelligent, nuanced actors, you’re just there to make sure they know where they are in the space, and make sure I have the camera in the right place.
To me, it’s evolved to be a lot more about making people comfortable. When I was younger, I was more into getting people in a tizzy, like the way you read about some people doing, getting a tension going and that translating to the screen. I don’t think that any more. I think the more relaxed and comfortable and open and honest relationship you can have [with the actors[ the more they’re able to do their job. It’s something you don’t really think about — your own style. with some actors that I’ve worked with a lot, I can just mumble something that’ll make no sense to anyone else, and they’re like “OK, got it.” Someone like AJ [Bowen] it’s just “do it again, you know, the thing with…” and they will, and it’s the thing I had in my head. But I’m trying to be more articulate, and be as clear and direct and say as little as necessary to get the point across.
I think many people have a hugely varying conception of what directing is. And in my own experience, both working on set and talking to directors, it’s simply about communication. You have to be the most effective communicator around.
I think it’s also, too, that there’s a misconception that directing is the shooting. That shooting is where the bulk of the job is. And that may be true in some instances, like some television. But for me, the shooting is only a third or less of the process, and it’s the least enjoyable. Developing the ideas, designing the world of it, then the shooting is just a scramble to keep your sanity and get everything [you need].
I do love working with the actors; that’s the enjoyable part about shooting. That’s probably my favorite part of filmmaking — the moment when they do something you would never have thought of, never even imagined. It’s so wonderful. Or digging in, rolling up your sleeves and figuring out a moment, finding out how to do it, and making a discovery — that’s great.
The times when I’ve been present to see the efforts of 100 people kind of funnel through a wormhole to become one specific moment that works onscreen — it’s just amazing.
It reminds you that you don’t have any control over this. It’s a gift from the movie gods when something like that happens. I think that’s what movies are — the performances, and the characters and the heart of what they are. But to get that, the shooting is… there are moments when I really enjoy it, but I really love the editing process. I love finding those gifts, like I was talking about before, that allow you to craft these moments.
You started out young, and I can imagine that you’re different as a director now than ten years ago.
For me, when I first started, I didn’t overthink things. The benefit was I’d just do stuff and not worry about whether or not it was going to work. Just try things. Then I went through a phase of over-thinking; the more I learned about the craft the more I was trying to fit it into some idea of what I thought that should be. The goal for me, as I get older and make more movies, is to find the bridge between those two things, where I’ve gotten better and learned more but also I’m still open to just trying things, and not being afraid to fail.
And it’s also just about learning what gets the best results. It’s a slippery slope because, as a director, if you throw a tantrum you can get what you want. What’s the number one way to get everyone on set to stop fucking around and do their job?
Lose your mind.
Yep, lose your mind. But it’s a terrible place, and it’s one of those things I don’t ever want to resort to. The more stuff I do, the more I like just having an environment where everyone feels like they can do their job and create.
Who shot the Broken Bells short?
A guy named Morgan Susser; he shot Hesher. I looked at a lot of his work, and realized that he’s done a lot of great music video work; he’d shot some Bob Dylan stuff that was more narrative, and he seemed right. And the VFX is from this boutique company called Rainfall. They did a great job with a limited amount of time and money. It’s not the most straight-forward concept in terms of… the whole aesthetic is taking fantastic design elements, and telling something sincere and truthful. So it’s a combination of really stylized and really naturalistic elements bridged together. Morgan can do that; he gets the sincerity and the stylization.
And the costume designer was Christine Clark, and we were so lucky to get her. She was on Ender’s Game, and did Tron Legacy — when you design the costumes that become almost an icon of costuming, that’s a big deal. She created costumes for Tron that you’ve already seen reiterated in many forms. She was able to understand my idea of doing Barbarella/Logan’s Run/Zardoz, but wanting it to be real.
I wondered how you pitched this — like “I want it to look like a Roger Dean album cover for Yes, but…”
I did say that! That’s what I said word for word to the location manager. I wanted unique features, and I wasn’t married to desert or tropical, and said “I want it to look like a Yes album cover.” We went to this Malibu Canyon location, which was a two-hour hike in to where we shot. And it was a public park, so if you moved the lens over an inch or two you’d see people hiking.
Were there any directives about what music to use?
They had notes, and I wanted as much input from Brian as possible. I took all the music, and he gave me access to music that wasn’t on the record, string parts and other things connected to the songs that aren’t on the album. I put it all together with the film, and then was able to go back with him once I’d done that and we refined it together. We went in the studio, and he’d get on the Wurlitzer and just play something that would bridge two pieces of music together. It was a back and forth.
Ultimately I’m such a fan of their music that it evokes certain scenes; I’d listened to the record over and over before I even started on his, so I already had ideas. The big thing is most of Broken Bells stuff, and Brian Burton’s music in general, is they’re making soundtracks to movies that don’t exist.
Here are the two halves of the short, once again: