David Siegel And Scott McGehee, Uncertainty
If one had only a single adjective with which to describe the body of work that directing team David Siegel and Scott McGehee have crafted over the past decade and a half, cerebral immediately jumps to mind. Since their debut film Suture (1993), an austere, black and white thriller starring Dennis Haysbert that took Toronto and Sundance by storm, they have often found it difficult to get their peculiar brand of thoughtful, idea driven filmmaking off the ground. Even if it was far from experimental hijinks of a Hollis Frampton or Kenneth Anger, the fact that the original Suture VHS and DVD boxes from MGM were packaged as “Avant-Garde Cinema” surely didn’t help the film find the audience it should have.
After The Deep End (2001), a startlingly effective update of Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment (1949) with Tilda Swinton and Bee Season (2005), a star studded adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s celebrated novel, they embarked upon a series of projects that proved difficult to make a reality. In the interim they conceived and quickly made Uncertainty (2008), a film that conjoins the formalistic and genre elements of Suture and The Deep End with the familial drama of Bee Season.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins play a young New York couple who are at a loss as to how to spend their Fourth of July; should they go to her families’ Brooklyn enclave, where during the course of a long holiday dinner party various secrets and disappointments may unavoidably be revealed, or should they go to Manhattan to celebrate at a friends apartment? The film allows the couple to indulge in both choices with the help of some metaphysical chicanery; They dash to opposite ends of the bridge separately, only to inexplicably meet the other upon arriving in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The film tracks both pairs of lovers as the Manhattan bound couple find themselves pulled into an elaborate thriller upon finding a phone in the back of a Manhattan cab, while a visit to Kate’s family in Brooklyn slowly enmeshes us and our protagonists in the rhythms of domestic drama.
Filmmaker caught up with the directing duo, out for breakfast at a Flat Iron district bakery, to discuss the unorthodox process through which they made the film, the various pros and cons of shooting on HD and how the desire to work with (and against) genres impacts their choices.
Uncertainty opens in Manhattan and on VOD this Friday.
Filmmaker: What informed the conceptual quality and look of the film? It has both a formal and a loose quality. You often use composition and color very deliberately, yet you relied on hand held shots more so than your previous films.
McGehee: I think this film more than any we’ve done since Suture started out with a broad concept. We were frustrated with the process of trying to make another film, a bigger film that had reached a dead end. We were really frustrated with the process of making films that were traditionally financed, the cast contingent, foreign money model. We were looking for something to do that we could do quickly and immediately. The whole idea of how things happen or don’t happen and why was really on our minds. We set a task for ourselves to sort of make a film about chance. We came upon the title of Uncertainty very early on and that was the mantra of the entire process of the film, how do we keep an element of Uncertainty and chance in the filmmaking itself? The dialogue was improvised through a long process of rehearsal with them. We’d written a whole script of story beats where the plot of the film was laid out, but we shaped the voices of the characters through a process with the actors.
With the camera style, it was partly a necessity driven by the style in which we were working with the actors. We knew that each take would be a little different and we needed to develop a style that would be loose enough to cut between takes that didn’t match. We also thought it would be interesting to have a different relationship with the camera and the DP.
Filmmaker: When did you settle upon the idea of having a two pronged story involving the same pair of lovers, a thriller set in Chinatown and a familial drama set in Brooklyn? What specifically about those boroughs made them the desired setting for each half of film?
Siegel: Well, the Brooklyn Bridge connections them. [Laughs]
McGehee: The Queensboro Bridge doesn’t seem quite as romantic. [Laughs]
Siegel: It’s a lot longer for Joe and Lynn to run.
McGehee: It’s not as photogenic either.
Siegel: The story got built from little nuggets of ideas. Tossing a coin and running in opposite directions on the bridge was an early idea. Part of the idea of chance as Scott was saying. So the Brooklyn Bridge seemed like the obvious bridge for us because it connects what are perhaps the two most iconic boroughs of New York. So the idea of a genre story and a more neo-realist, quotidian story and how those two things might relate to each other, we didn’t go into the process of writing thinking we would know how those two stories relate to each other before making the movie. I’m not even sure after making the movie precisely how those stories relate to each other. We like that they create something else, a third thing resonate in people’s minds about the process of living.
Filmmaker: Throughout your career, the pair of you have been very attracted to the notion of genre. You’ve not so much worked within genres as on top of them. I don’t think either of the strands here function in the typical way we come to expect from the genres you’re indulging in, but the cool formalistic quality of the movie seems to tie them together. Was this a conscious attempt to get back to some of the formal rigor of Suture?
Siegel: That’s very perceptive of you. No one else has quite formulated it like that and I think it’s really true. We thought a lot about Suture when we were thinking about this. We liked the building blocks of Suture a lot when we were making it and writing it. As you were saying, we are very attracted to genre and we consider ourselves American filmmakers who appreciate the old Hollywood methods of storytelling very much. That idea of doing something that was both rigorous and free was something we were thinking about very much when we were writing it.
McGehee: I was saying how we started with the idea of chance and Uncertainty. With Suture we started out with a big, broad concept as well, the idea of identity. The story was generated from conceptual level down, in a way. That’s not a typical way to generate entertainment.
Siegel: You could just write an essay instead. [Laughs]
McGehee: Its been a rewarding process for us, to take a big idea like that, a fairly robust idea that can reach into a lot of places and just start thinking about genre, plot, ways to get at that idea from a storytelling place. In both of these films, the process of writing them was similar in that way. It’s the only two times we’ve made films that we’ve written from scratch.
Filmmaker: What is it like directing as a pair? How has it informed your films in a way that would be different if the division of labor was more distinct?
Siegel: We didn’t go to film school. I was a painter. Scott was going to be an academic. We were finishing graduate school when we started working together. It was quite a long time ago. There was no institution to say, maybe one of you should do this and one of you should do that. We were so ignorant and naïve about what filmmaking was, what the process of making movies was.
McGehee: We’re also fans of Powell and Pressberger, so we had one model to think about. [Laughs]
Siegel: So we just did everything together. Things worked out in the way that they did or things remained together in the way they are together simply because that was the process that got worked out. It’s a little bit of a miracle that its lasted this long in that we’re still best friends and yet we’re not a couple and we’re not brothers. I know it’s the luckiest thing for me because I think neither one of us would have probably chosen film. I would have become a painter, Scott would have become an academic. We were both having success at those things. Something clicked between us and that’s continued to work for us.
In terms of what might have been different had we been working individually in film, we both level of ideas with each other, which at times might be a negative thing, but we inspire each other, which is the positive side of it. We made a pact early on that we wouldn’t compromise in terms of ideas. So if one of us did not like something, we wouldn’t say, well you take this one and I’ll take that one. We’d just find another way. That’s served us very well over the years.
McGehee: I agree.
Filmmaker: What was the extensive improvisatory process like? Did it change how you went about directing the film in unforeseen ways?
McGehee: It was interesting. It was a process that really started with auditions. From the first audition on, David and I were learning about the script we wrote, learning how actors would react in certainly situations. We had never directed this way either. It was a very open thing. Actors would come into auditions and we didn’t really know how to help them get to what we needed. Some of them were really good at it and some of them weren’t. Some very good actors aren’t very good at improv, it’s a very different skill. It was kind of self selecting; some people wouldn’t show up to auditions because they got scared. The ones who did, and who were enthusiastic were the ones who were better at it generally. We didn’t end up with anybody on set who was afraid of the process or who wasn’t into it.
Filmmaker: Was it ever unnerving, working without the safety net of a text. With your previous two films, The Deep End and Bee Season, you had a pair of texts, seeing how both films are drawn from other source material…
Siegel: For us at least, filmmaker has to remain a little bit loose. Even with scripts in which we want the actors to say a very specific thing, it’s more about the emotional beat of the scene, than it is about sticking to the book, so to speak. We’ve always allowed a certain amount of freedom with the words. There were times, both of The Deep End and Bee Season, where we’d be like, “no, I want you to say this. Stop saying that.” [Laughs]
We were really lucky with Joe and Lynn, to have actors who are both as talented as they are and committed to the process through which we wanted to make the movie. They didn’t fight us in that regard. That opened up so much trust amongst the four of us. That month rehearsal period we had with Joe and Lynn was mostly spent rehearsing scenes that would never be in the movie. They were scenes from their history, to create a history for them to lean on. That was such a rewarding process for us in a way we had never experienced with actors before. It was so intimate. We would be rehearsing here, right? We’d say, lets do a scene that’s the second time you’d had coffee, after you’d had sex, right? So we’d do it a City Bakery or some other place. We got to be in their private little world in such an intimate way that over the course of a month of that, we really became our own therapy group. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: You shot much of the film on long lenses in very populated, uncontrollable New York City locations. It really comes off quite beautifully.
McGehee: It was really thrilling. We weren’t sure how it would go. Normally you lock off a street and fill it with extras that you can control. When we were shooting, we knew Joe had a bit of notoriety, we weren’t sure if he would attract attention, I think it might be different for him now after 500 Days of Summer, we may not have been so lucky…
Siegel: He’s a regular enough looking guy…
McGehee: He fits into the city, he looks like the other people in Union Square enough except for wearing a yellow T-shirt that made him stand out. New York being New York, people kind of avoided the film shoot, even when we were right there with a camera close by and it was clear what we were doing, people don’t look at the lens, people don’t gather around, it was very comfortable shooting a film right in the middle of New York.
Siegel: It was eye opening in terms of what you could pull off. That rooftop chase, had it been done by a studio, would have cost, all by itself, more than the budget of this entire movie. It was like, we can do this in this way and do something interesting for peanuts compared to what a studio would spend and it has more authenticity. So it was pretty exciting.
Filmmaker: You worked with Rain Li for the first time, Christopher Doyle’s longtime protégé. How did she add to the process of shooting the film in this fashion?
Siegel: She’s a tremendously gifted hand held operator, I’d say that’s Rain’s great skill, as it is with Chris Doyle. Her ability to work in natural light and available light, her ability to operate a camera on sticks in a fluid and open way, she’s a very good operator.
McGehee: She’s the same generation as Joe and Lynn. The camaraderie they had was nice to watch. I think that’s a really important thing. The person behind the camera is someone that the actors can relate to and trust and connect with. They had a nice relationship that way.
Filmmaker: How much of the inter cutting between the stories was in the original writing and how much did you find in the editing room? Was it difficult to find a balance between the two story threads?
Siegel: That was the real challenge in the editing. The way we wrote the script, the blocks of moments in each story were much bigger than they were going to be in the cutting. We couldn’t write a script so cutty or it wouldn’t read. So we had imagined in advance moments that we thought would be very cutty and some moments that we felt would be much longer. Finding balance was the real trick. We thought for a long time in the cutting that it was the Brooklyn story that was giving us more trouble. We had to find a kind of life in it, because the Manhattan story had so much more plot in a way. In the end it was the Manhattan story that was more trying in terms of finding emotionality. To talk about things we find successful and not so successful in the movie, we always wanted more conflict on the Manhattan side between Joe and Lynn in terms of the issue of pregnancy. There are things that we shot that are intended to do that. Yet, they didn’t work in relation to the cutting back and forth. So eventually, we found ourselves pushing to have the cutting replace some of that conflict, or stand in for some of that conflict. We thought it was relatively successful at the end, but that’s an example of the struggle we found ourselves facing as we cut the movie.
Filmmaker: This is the first time you’ve worked in HD. Did you like working in the format? Were the differences concerning the quickness with which you were able to shoot, color saturation, ability to handle darkness, difficult to adjust to?
McGehee: Pluses and minuses.
Siegel: Arriflex makes a camera called the D-20. It’s enormous. We chose it eventually. When we started this process, we thought we were going to make this with a camera that’s the size of my first. There are many of those. We tested them and immediate we were like, that’s not really the look that we want. So as we moved up the HD food chain, we looked at the Viper, the Genesis, and then at the Arri D-20. It’s a big camera, its quite heavy, and it looks like a machine.
McGehee: It looks like the bastard child of a cinder block and a machine. It weighs that much.
Siegel: It’s an easier camera to use in terms of being able to see directly on the monitor what you’re getting. We think we got a great look out of it, but it was big camera, it wasn’t faster to shoot that 35mm camera, we were tethered to a deck, it was quite cumbersome. We were able to run though. It allowed us to shoot many, many more hours of footage than we were accustomed to however. It was much less expensive than film.
McGehee: We abandoned that camera when we went into the subway. We shot Super 16mm on the subway. We shot in the subway on the DL. The first time we went down into the subway with that D-20 camera, we were building the camera, and we’re just watching our AC put the camera together, he’s got a battery belt on his waist, he’s attaching a red cable and then a blue cable to this box, then connecting this other box…
Siegel: You’re a suicide bomber. [Laughs]
McGehee: This is clearly not a stealthy way to get a shot in a subway. [Laughs]
Siegel: Who are all these guys standing around? [Laughs] Why are they whispering? [Laughs] Film shoot? Yeah, sure.