Brent Green on Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then
Brent Green is a self taught filmmaker and artist who lives and works in the Appalachian hills of Pennsylvania. His unique hand drawn and stop motion short films have played venues including the Sundance Film Festival, the L.A. Film Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. He was also one of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces in 2005. Recently he wrapped up filming his first feature-length film, Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then. Shot entirely in stop motion using human beings, the film tells the true story of Leonard and Mary Wood, two people joyously brought together but separated through forces far beyond their control — a schism that results in creation of something wonderful. The making of Green’s new film has been a process unlike any other. He crafted it by hand with little more than the help of his friends and his own ingenious creativity. In this article, originally published in our Spring, 2010 issue, he talks of the daunting, obsessive production of his new film. Green is currently on the road with a live version of his production, featuring music, performance and projection. Check here for the tour’s itinerary.
Leonard Wood lived outside of Louisville, KY. He built his house into a kind of healing machine to try to save his wife’s life when she was diagnosed with cancer. Rural PA where I live looks a lot like the area around Louisville. I have six acres of land and very little money, so the only way for me to tell Leonard’s story was to make it on my own property. I had to reconstruct the house. I couldn’t make the film a hand-drawn animation or shoot it on miniature sets because Leonard’s act of building the house wouldn’t seem so Herculean. He built this thing himself, by hand, with no money over the course of 20 years. I knew my movie about his life had to embrace a similar kind of crazy ambition.
When I decided to rebuild Leonard’s house I started by making a small-scale model so I could decide where to place the trusses, how much wood building the whole thing would actually entail, and how I would make it with what I had or could access. Luckily, two of the things I had were falling-down barns. I knocked them flat, stripped the wood and the giant old beams and got to work. I spent my version of a fortune at my local hardware store on screws, L-brackets and electrical wire (the whole set was wired up proper — it’s a really pretty thing). I pulled the toilet out of the abandoned farmhouse I live next to. (It’s the house where I grew up, but it’s empty now, with a huge hole in the side I haven’t been able to fix, yet. This year…. the film has to do well, but this year….) So, most of the film’s building supplies came from abandoned farmhouses and barns in the area and Dewald & Lengle, my local hardware store.
Building the set outdoors had its upsides and downsides. The hugest upside was in making the house look old and lived in. We built the floors and interior and exterior walls first, no roof, and finished the rooms beautifully. Some of the rooms have old cloth wallpaper, others are painted, and we made really nice-looking hardwood floors out of planed-down 2x4s. We built the floors, put up and decorated the walls, and then waited. The rain and wind did amazing things to them. The house began to look incredibly worn and lived in. The floors warped. Mice moved in. It had to look old. It did. It was gorgeous.
To further control the lighting and try to increase the amount of time we could shoot in a day, Donna K. (who plays the character of Mary Wood in the film) sewed 34′ tall black cloth curtains that we could use to cover the walls around the set. As the film goes on, the curtains are pulled back and you see more and more of the walls.
Everything I built for the film was built entirely with my filming needs in mind. I wanted to be able to circle a room at any point and see entirely new and interesting details in everything from the furniture to the wall to the set as a whole. Outside of the house we built three 64′ long x 32′ tall walls — an open ended square. We strung wire across the top of the walls with pulleys so we could hoist our wooden stars up and down to accommodate any kind of shot. Every light in the film is on a dimmer, too, so we could use them in all kinds of situations. All stars are on dimmers and the moon too, which is 16′ tall, made out of wood that I routed paper-thin so all the light-bulbs inside it would glow through it beautifully. The front of the moon was faced in cloth to disperse the light around each bulb and then covered in strips of thin balsa wood, like the kind hobbyists use for model aeroplanes. All of the electricity for my little solar system above the set ran into one of Leonard’s neighbor’s houses (which we also built). I could stand in the first floor of the house and twist dimmer switches, watching the stars through their window, until I had the shot I wanted.
Building the set in my backyard in PA rather than on a soundstage somewhere, in itself, I think, made the whole film a lot more honest. I had to do the vast majority of the work myself. (I have an amazing girlfriend and some awesome neighbors who all helped a ton). It felt like I was Leonard, driven by an obsession to save something (his story) by building something wonderful (this movie), which seemed completely impossible when I started out a couple years ago. And the best part of making a film like this with no budget is the fun! There was all kind of problem solving at every stage of the game. How could I make Mary Wood 25 feet tall without hurting anyone? Giant wooden legs! With concrete shoes! When we had to crash cars, we crashed our own cars. Donna made her own dresses for a bunch of the scenes. Everything in the film is either stuff we made or found around the property, which led to the film having a “strange now” quality, rather than looking like any kind of particular period or period piece. There was no extra money for anything, which I really think helped in telling Leonard’s story — the truth is a lot easier to discern when everything in front of you is stripped bare.
Even though there is a lot of starkness in the film I built a lot of beautiful details around the house. There are really pretty hand-carved wooden light bulbs in the door frame corners. I made a working piano where the sound comes out of two phonograph horns on the top. The keys are weighted with old fishing weights, and all the hammers in the back of the piano are oak — but they grow out of the keys in a complicated tangled mess, like weird plants at the bottom of a pond. There are all kinds of beautiful little details like that throughout the film, but I try hard never to call attention to them. When you’re obsessed with something, or when I’m obsessed with something, anyway, I’m not able to see the big picture. I can only see the little details and imperfections right in front of me and can only think about how to change those little details. I tried to do that with the whole film: a straight narrative love story told relatively normally, but sort of patched out of glimpses and occasional clarity.
Even the special effects in the film are in camera and, I hope, truthful. We shot the whole film frame by frame with a mix of wooden characters, moving wooden set pieces and real people. In order to make the spectacularly strange special effects sequences flow with the more standard scenes, the straight dialogue scenes and the portraiture, the whole film had to be shot stop-motion. So, for instance, the dialogue was all pre-recorded. After I recorded it, I’d go into the audio file and map out the syllables everyone was speaking frame-by-thousands of frames. It was obsessive, but I didn’t want the wonderful scenes, like someone flying through two windshields in a car crash, to stand out. I didn’t want the film to be going along and have a noticeable shift to, “OK, here comes something strange.” I wanted the viewer’s eye to adjust to the stop-motion so even the impossible things seemed like normal life.
The film was shot entirely on a digital still camera (a Nikon D-70, until that died, after five years of impossibly hard and reliable work, and then a Nikon D-90). The filmmaker/narrator is a major character in all of my films, and I wanted his presence to be felt with the camera floating around and following people. I had some furniture dollies and I’d tape the tripod onto those and wheel it around. There were also a few amazing days where I rented a crane from a friend and flew around the set on that thing, camera in tow. The sound… since this whole thing was stop-motion we had to do all the sound in post, which is really effective. All of it was done like in old cartoons: huge sheets of metal, sandpaper, throwing cinder blocks across our basement. For the dialogue and the foley, we recorded on a combination of relatively fancy mics a musician friend lent us (an Audio Technica AT3035) and whatever mic was on the front of my Canon XH-A1. We’d recorded everything through those mics and a small Samson mixer and put it together in Garageband.
The dialogue was fun. I had it all written, but I wouldn’t let either of the main actors read any of the script. We’d start on a scene and I’d say, “This scene is where Leonard and Mary first hang out. It’s their first date. We’re going to start around here and, Mike, you’ll say something like….” Then Mike McGinley (who portrays Leonard Wood) and Donna would instantly dismiss my dialogue and go into much better, much funnier bits, with the same base feeling as what I’d written. The two of them were a godsend in terms of making this film accessible and, really, so damned funny.
I approach all my films from a very literary perspective. I’m much more interested in literature, and stories in general, than I am in films or pictures. So, when I design the set, title cards, narration and overall look of a film, I’m only trying to accentuate the story. I know some scenes have to be beautiful to look at, and I certainly aim for that all the time, but even a visually stunning scene should only be there to push the narrative forward. When I’m planning out a film, I’m thinking much more about how to recreate a feeling of, for instance, reading a Kurt Vonnegut scene, or how I felt actually standing in Leonard’s real house. I’m thinking much more about life and literature than filmmaking.
One of the main points of the film is: “You have to build your own world. Everyone does it. From the richest Wall St. investor and medical venture capitalist to the biggest nerd dropping a McFish into a deep fryer. All of us do it.” In my mind, the film’s design is a physical representation of how much not just Leonard but single person I respect really builds his own world.
I love ideas that seem impossible. I love reaching further than I can actually grasp. It makes me focus on every little detail. There’s no comfort zone whatsoever in making a film for me, as long as I keep it impossible. A couple years ago, the idea of building a town in my backyard seemed absolutely ridiculous — and that’s the kind of idea I want to start with when I make a film. That’s what keeps me concentrated and excited to get out of bed every morning. — Brent Green