Day 2 of 19: Zach Clark and White Reindeer
In an independent landscape of shaky, handheld cinematography, loose improvisation and bare-bones sets, the precise and punchy dark comedies of Zach Clark stand out. Recalling the days in which low budgets meant inventive art direction, heightened emotions and a rebellion against a default naturalism, Clark’s third movie, White Reindeer modulates the director’s deadpan, quasi-Sirkian camp into something more delicately bittersweet. Anna Margaret Hollyman plays a suburban real estate agent who returns home one holiday season to find her husband murdered. Learning he had a mistress, an African-American stripper, she journeys into a world where kinky fantasy is really just another coping mechanism.
In this column, “The Shooting Schedule,” we look at a film through the prism of a single shooting day. Clark sent the below “day two” schedule by email, and on the phone we discussed its specifics — green screen, vomiting, lightweight dollies — as well as his overall approach to production and shotlisting. White Reindeer is currently in theatrical release from IFC Films and is also available on streaming platforms, including iTunes and Amazon.
TUESDAY, DEC 6th – SUZANNE’S HOUSE
11:00am – Load in, set up.
11:30am – Ext – Suz House – Day
Suz surveys her yard, talks to George and Patti (their reverse to be shot later)
PARALLEL WORK: after wrapping this scene, art department needs to clear front of house decorations for later exteriors.
12:15pm – 76. Int – Suz bathroom – morning
Suz pukes into her toilet.
1:15pm – 102. Nt – Suz bathroom – Morning
Suz pukes, brushes teeth. (decorated for Xmas)
2 shots (1 insert series)
2:00pm – 134. Int – Suz Bathroom – Evening
Suz brushes teeth, looks at stomach in mirror.
2:30pm – Jeff Weather greenscreen
1 shot – GREENSCREEN
3:00pm – 11. Int – Suz Bedroom – Night
Jeff shows Suz their Hawaiian decorated bedroom.
4 shots (2 dollies) NOTE: SHOOTING DAY FOR NIGHT.
5:00pm – Dinner!
5:30 pm – 9. Int – Suz Kitchen – Night
Suz and Jeff have sex.
1 shot (dolly)
6:00pm – 10. Int – Suz Dining Room – Night
Suz and Jeff eat.
3 shots (1 ins)
6:45pm – 15. Ext – Suz House – Night
Suz pulls into garage, finds vacuum.
2 shots (I car mount, 1 dolly)
7:45pm – 8, 36. Ext – Suz House – Night
Establishing shots of house.
8:00 pm – 17. Ext – Suz House – Night
Suz watches forensic crew go in and out of house.
1 shot – police light gag
8:45pm – 16. Int – Suz Basement – Night
Suz finds Jeff’s corpse on the couch.
4 shots (1 dolly)
11:00pm – Wrap!
Filmmaker: Let me start with a couple of general questions: how do you normally prepare as a director? Do you storyboard your films?
Clark: I never storyboard because it’s just going to be like, stick figures and squares, you know? That seems like a bit too much of a box to put yourself in, no pun intended. But, I always go in with a thorough shot list. I’ll often do one shot list before I’ve found the locations, and then I’ll go back and do another one after we’ve found them. That’s so I have a general idea of where my mind was when I wrote the movie, and then we can sort of apply those ideas to practical spaces. But it always changes based on how the day is going. I’m also a really firm believer in getting all the scenes shot. Sometimes that means losing a shot or two in order to actually have all of the scenes. Not shooting a scene is the most terrifying thing for me. Like, your day goes too long and you’re just like, “Oh, we just can’t shoot that scene.”
Filmmaker: You mean you shoot everything you write?
Clark: For the most part. There were a lot of really small scenes in this script that sort of checked in with every character, and about half of those did get weeded out during production because we were just too frazzled with the major locations and characters.
Filmmaker: I understand your production period was broken up.
Clark: We shot two weeks in December and then broke for a month, then shot for four days and broke for a month, and then shot for three days. Two weeks in December 2011, four days in February, 2012, and then three days in late March, early April.
Filmmaker: Was that a function of budget or of fundraising?
Clark: We always planned to take one break to give everyone Christmas and New Year’s [off]. The plan was to reconvene for a week in January. We were running low on production funds then, so that’s why we broke that into two smaller shoots.
Filmmaker: Was the “day two” schedule you cut and pasted into an email to me your official schedule? Or did you have a more formal call sheet?
Clark: That’s what we did. We didn’t have actual call sheets. Half of us were living in the production house, where we shot the first week, and another chunk of people slept on cinematographer and co-producer Daryl’s floor. So, people just kind of needed to know what time to show up.
Filmmaker: So, then, I guess my larger question is, how traditional are your methods of organizing production? Your films are very precisely directed and acted. They are not sloppy. Yet it seems like you’ve got more of a homemade production approach. Do you do production reports? Do you have a script supervisor?
Clark: We don’t really have production reports. We don’t have a script supervisor. I tend to not really cover much. Most of those scenes on that day are just one shot, so we didn’t need a script supervisor as much. We maybe could’ve used one in the long run. There were a few scenes where we messed up costume stuff. But [maybe we just needed] a slightly more organized costume list. But, yeah, no script supervisor, no production reports, no first AD. The crew was I’d say, about 13 to 15 people.
Filmmaker: How did that break down?
Clark: Half of those people were camera, grip, and electric people. We had two or three assistant cameras, and one of those was our DIT. And then, we had a couple of grips. We had a production assistant who would go run and grab things and help us set up food and do whatever. We had an art director and a sound person. Daryl [Pittman] was shooting it as well as producing. I was directing as well as also producing. And then, Melodie [Sisk] was producing and she also did all the makeup, hair, and wardrobe.
Filmmaker: Were you SAG?
Clark: We were SAG Ultra Low.
Filmmaker: Normally with SAG, that’s where a lot of the paperwork comes in — Exhibit G’s and whatnot. You still have to do that with the Ultra Low, right?
Clark: Yeah, you still have to do that, but none of our leads were SAG when we shot. So we really only did SAG because there were two or three local actors who were just the best people for the job that worked a day or two, tops. Of the 19 days of principal photography and then three or four days of pickups, we had SAG actors on set, maybe three of those days.
Filmmaker: Second days can either be great days or horrible days. People are either getting the rhythm on the first day and then kicking into a groove on the second, or it can be just the opposite. The adrenaline pushes them through the first day and the second day can wind up falling apart. So, which of your first two days was the toughest, the first or the second?
Clark: Well, at the end of the first day, we decorated the entire front of the house for Christmas. The last shot of the first day was the entire front of the house all lit up. We sent the grip and electrics outside three hours before we were supposed to start shooting that scene, [telling them to] “Decorate this house.” And there was some sort of debacle. We didn’t have enough power cords, and we were trying to find the power cords [in the location]. We just barely had enough electricity to run everything, and that pushed us, I think, a little past schedule on the first day. But, that was the only sort of major snag at the end of the first day.
Filmmaker: In general, what kind of lighting were you doing for the film?
Clark: Every scene indoors is lit pretty extensively. Daryl knows more about that stuff than I do, which is why he shoots the movies and I don’t.
Filmmaker: Kino Flos, larger instruments, practicals?
Clark: We had a whole mix. We had Kino Flos, some 1K’s, 2K’s, smaller things, some practicals. Daryl lives in the D.C. area and co-owns a production company with another friend of ours, who also worked on the film. Their company makes music videos, and they own a two-ton grip truck with basically any equipment you would need. Something Daryl got just for the shoot is this thing called a Dana dolly. It’s essentially a skateboard-looking thing that you put the camera on, and then a pipe you set up between two light stands. So, it’s really, really fast to set up and get going. Of all the dolly shots in the movie, maybe five were on a traditional dolly. The [Dana dolly] let us move pretty quickly. Daryl would always be prepping [the next scene while shooting]. He would tell the grip electric guys what to set up next. We were always trying to parallel that sort of work as much as possible so that we could just finish the scene we were shooting and have lights and stuff ready to go in the next room.
Filmmaker: So the Dana dolly is what you used for the dolly shots specified on the call sheet?
Clark: Anything in the bedroom is on the Dana Dolly. I think the dolly [shot] we did in the garage, which we ended up cutting short, was on a traditional dolly, just because it had to be low.
Filmmaker: Almost everything on this call sheet involves your lead actress. Tell me how you worked with her, and at what stage she came into the project? Was there any kind of collaborative approach to character or do you more or less just write the script and send it to her and then direct her?
Clark: Well, this time around, I wrote that character not knowing who would play it. We cast Anna Margaret in late October, I think. We’d read her a few weeks before. And we basically just got together, had dinner and talked about the character in the four weeks or so between when she came on board and when I had to leave to go down to Virginia to start preparing the movie. She is super smart and super talented and did an amazing job. I just needed to have general conversations with her about where certain things were coming from, what some of the reference points were in terms of the world of the film, and that was basically it. She is an amazing person to work with, always present in the scene and always truthful.
Filmmaker: What about the house? The house that you shot in that day, was it a rental or one owned by somebody involved with the production?
Clark: That was the house of the mother of a good friend of mine. When we were looking for houses, we’d looked at a few, and none of them worked. We saw this one, and it was perfect, except the living room was magenta. I was like, “This is a perfect house, but that living room is so far out of our color palette that it doesn’t make any sense.” Daryl said, “You should just ask them if we can paint it.” They said, “Sure.” They were moving out of that house soon anyway, and I think it actually helped. When you move houses you’re supposed to paint the walls neutral colors. I think we made it a more sale-able color.
Filmmaker: I noticed green screen on the call sheet. What’s “Jeff’s Weather”?
Clark: All of the news stuff we shot during production. We shot the scenes with Suzanne’s husband, who’s the weatherman, and an anchorwoman on a green screen set up in the garage.
Filmmaker: The vomiting scenes — how did you do the vomit?
Clark: We had to make puke, which our art director did, and which I drank before Anna Margaret drank, and it was terrible. Really awful.
Filmmaker: What was it made of?
Clark: I think it was creamed corn, oatmeal and then also toothpaste. There were some other weird things to get the color to be sickly. And I don’t know that you can tell at all that there’s toothpaste in it. I don’t know that it did anything in the long run except really make you want to get it out of your mouth right away.
Filmmaker: There is also special effects makeup — when Jeff, the husband, is found dead on the couch with a head wound. How did you do that?
Clark: We had an FX guy come out from Pittsburgh because [Suzanne’s] husband had to die. She comes home and his head is blown off. So, when we wrapped the green screen in the garage, the FX guy started making him look like he’d been shot in the head, which everyone was super, super interested in.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the end of the day, where the police come into the house.
Clark: The day ends with one of my favorite memories from the shoot. From 6:00PM to 8:45, Nate is getting put into make-up. And then at 8:00 we shoot this police light gag, for which Daryl built two spinning boxes made of mirrors. The crew was spinning them, and Daryl just pointed a blue light into one of them and a red into the other. Right after Nate dies, we cut to a wide of the house from behind [Suzanne], and you see out of focus the forensic crew going in and out of the house. The police lights are running across the house, and across the back of [Jeff’s] head.
Filmmaker: Did you bring in extras for the forensics team?
Clark: For $15 I purchased five hazmat suits. All the forensic crew that you see going in and out of the house are the crew members that didn’t have to be spinning lights or pulling focus or holding the camera. It’s basically everyone else on the crew, and me, walking in and out of the house. It was a fun way to wrap the day.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the exteriors of the movie in general. Were you able to use the natural Christmas decorations during your December shoot to your advantage?
Clark: Yeah, 100 percent. That’s one reason why we needed to shoot in December, because there’s just so much of that stuff available. Like, the scene of Suzanne in the Christmas tree lot — the day we shot that, I just drove by a Christmas tree lot and said, “Hey, would it be cool if five people show up, set up some dolly track and shoot something really quick when you’re closed at the end of the day?” They’re like, “Yeah, sure. Can we watch?”
Filmmaker: One of your influences you cited for this film is Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. ASirk is always thought of as kind of an opulent filmmaker. How do you surmount the challenge of achieving that level of stylization, or art direction, on the scale you’re working at?
Clark: I’ve always said that 90 percent of the look of a film is costume design and carefully picking locations. So, if you pick a place where you like the colors of the walls and if you’ve got the characters in colors that make sense for them and the scene, that’s essentially your look.
Filmmaker: With so many young filmmakers making films that aren’t as art-directed, tp what do you attribute your interest in a more stylized approach?
Clark: Daryl and I have always responded to stuff that’s composed well. I’ve always loved the films of the ’50s as well as Sirk’s work, which is all very carefully composed. Really, any Hollywood film up until 1970 or so has carefully composed compositions. I don’t know that there is a larger viewpoint I can articulate as to why those are the best compositions for my movies. They are just what I naturally think of when I think of shooting a movie. I like quite a lot of movies that don’t have carefully composed compositions, but I can get a little anxious watching them sometimes. I get little anxious if close-ups are too close. If a face fills the screen too much for too long, I start getting claustrophobic. It might just be that I have an actual distance I like to remain from human beings in general, in real life. So when I pick a shot, I tend to replicate that. Like, a basic medium shot, to me, is about how close I’d like to be to someone. To me, that’s like a close-up.
Filmmaker: At what point in your life did you see films like Sirk’s? Were they on TV when you were a kid, or much later?
Clark: I started watching that stuff in college. My general progression of getting into filmmaking [begins] when I was about 14 years old. I started going to this alternative video store in Alexandria, Virginia. And then, a couple of years later, I started working at that video store. The thing that got me into moviemaking initially was cult films. I saw Ed Wood in the theater, and that was the first time I’d ever seen something that made the filmmaking process look democratic. Up until that point movies were these mysterious things made in a far away place. And I was like, “Oh, this crazy person can do it poorly and be really famous for it and have a movie made about him years later.” That was also the first time I was aware of the concept of enjoying something for what is wrong about it, and that got me into cult films in general. Right off the bat I got into John Waters. I was really influenced by him as a teenager. And I got into a lot of other things because of his books. In Crackpot, he talks about loving Fassbinder. And I was like, I guess I have to see these Fassbinder movies. He talks about using Douglas Sirk’s lighting as a reference for Polyester, and I was like, I should check out this guy. Once you start getting into some of that stuff, if you like it, it leads to other things.
(Portions of this article’s intro appeared in Filmmaker‘s print magazine SXSW coverage.)