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Lensing the Real Unreal: DP Adam J. Minnick on Shooting Actor Martinez

On the set of Actor Martinez (Photo by James Dimagiba)

“It’s a job.” –Arthur Martinez

I had two features as a cinematographer under my belt by late June of 2015, both close and comfortable collaborations with a single director: Joel Potrykus (Buzzard, The Alchemist Cookbook). It seems fitting that he made the phone call I received only a week and a half before Actor Martinez began principal photography. Joel eagerly informed me that two directors, Nathan Silver (Stinking Heaven, Uncertain Terms) and Mike Ott (Lake Los Angeles, Littlerock), had contacted him asking about my nearly immediate availability. I didn’t know them personally, but I certainly had been aware of their respective prolific catalogues.

The next day these strangers and I held a two-hour three-way phone conversation discussing Robert Altman, Abbas Kiarostami, Vilmos Zsigmond, hybrid cinema, the structure of a story versus lack thereof, process as a narrative statement, zoom lenses, long, sweeping takes and even specifically photographing human faces at a T4/5.6 split at telephoto focal lengths. It was the kind of call one could only hope for in this line of work. It was also a chance to take a giant step out of my normal circle of contentment, and I felt beyond fortunate to have landed in the middle of the conversation.

I was hired. And it happened that quickly.

“I’d have to prep. But none of this film is about prep.” –Arthur Martinez

Though most inquisitors simply want to know “what’s real, and what’s not?” after viewing the movie, we have also fielded an abundance of questions regarding the production process of Actor Martinez. The improvisational photographing of a narrative film under the guise of a documentary required a willingness to constantly adapt. Additionally, it called for a great deal of trust on behalf of the directors in my team’s ability to put this wild sequence of events on the screen with one camera and little to no traditional coverage.

I was introduced to Silver and Ott on a location scout at a local marijuana dispensary less than an hour after my plane landed in Denver. Not unlike a conventional scout, I met the producers and production designer; took light readings; noted available practicals; made lists of what we would need to supplement lighting; photographed potential angles; talked story ideas in relation to location; and started to build a relationship with the directors. In other words, we got straight to work, and that set the tone for the next month of our lives. However, that’s pretty much where filmmaking in the customary sense ended.

The scouted locations were to simply serve as a contextual backdrop for whatever would organically reveal itself in front of the camera. I’m not speaking facetiously at all when I say we had little idea what this movie was. Our lead actress, the brilliant Lindsay Burdge, even stated in the final cut, “I wasn’t sure if you’re aware of what movie you’re making.” In fairness, the directors had written a basic, clear outline of how certain interactions may ideally transpire, and the edit does actually somehow slightly resemble it. But we found so much of this movie in the shoot.

Almost every night Nathan, Mike and I met to discuss what, if anything, we got that was usable or interesting that day on set. Throughout the evening we’d formulate a next-day plan on how to build on these ideas; how to push Arthur to open up; how to bring in another character to shake up the narrative; how to shoot something to bridge two otherwise separate story beats. Some of these plans were outlandish and never came to fruition, including one where we schemed to shoot Arthur from a surveillance van as the directors surprised and bombarded him with questions in a public coffee shop. One that made the cut involved Lindsay pretending she was unaware of a topless scene, and was something that she actually came up with during one of these “night before” sessions. It’s one of the strongest scenes in the movie, and it also helped justify her character’s eventual path, which wasn’t happening naturally.

We originally constructed a two-fold approach to camera on Actor Martinez, but if you want to do some crazy math with me, I may convince you it was actually four-fold. The movie is supposed to blend documentary-style captured moment imagery and a staged, classically narrative look with proper blocking, choreographed camera and more traditional lighting. Part of the puzzle we have built with this film is that sometimes we shoot the off-the-cuff, real-life events within the narrative frame, and vice versa. So, if you will, the possible visual/story combinations are:

  1. narrative for narrative
  2. documentary for documentary
  3. narrative for documentary
  4. documentary for narrative           

Kiarostami’s masterful hybrid, Close-Up, was the first film the directors and I discussed, and it served as the inspiration for these kinds of crossover story and visual structures. Once I grasped both the confines and freedoms of our overall methodology, the challenge of the job became the constant attempt to match the complexity of narrative layers with the imagery I was creating.

Photo by James Dimagiba

“There’s something wrong with the very end of it. It doesn’t end right.” –Arthur Martinez

The final six minutes of Actor Martinez are one continuous camera take. This shot has undisputedly served as the basis for the most questions and random approaches I’ve received by festival-goers and viewers of the film. Due to the nature of the unscripted, unrehearsed shoot, I had no way of knowing that we were actually capturing the ending to our movie at the time. This production, more than any other I have had the privilege to shoot, has supported the ideas that persistent rolling, sticking to aesthetic integrity and learning how to anticipate actors’ habitual mannerisms can pay off.

I would estimate that we shot around eight to ten of the end-of-day table meeting scenes throughout the three-week shoot. Nathan, Mike and I knew that we wanted to catch several of these to recap daily events, bring up any uncomfortable issues with Arthur and hopefully find a way to move the story forward. These scenes represent the truest raw documentary pieces in the film, so that alone justified shooting so many of them and rolling for hours on end. As these discussions unfolded, also did our narrative. “Let’s do a table tonight” became a common expression on the set if something controversial, confusing or questionable came up during the day.

On the technical side, we decided before day one that we wanted to handle these shots with lighting we could recreate on demand, day or night. My talented gaffer, Eric Zeilenga, took a cylindrical directional cutting approach with overhead high-wattage tungsten practicals on wall dimmers to give us exactly the Cassavetes Husbands-influenced bar scene lighting I wanted. We always kept Arthur between ½ stop and ¾ stop hotter than the other subjects at the table to visually remind the viewer that it was solely on him to either move the story forward or shut down the conversation altogether. My first AC, Chris Barron, and I discussed the loose-tripod-headed/zooming-in-and-out/floating-between-faces approach (on the Angenieux HR 25-250mm T3.5), and we absolutely stuck with it. So, the camera’s placement, height, exposure, focal distance and overall execution were consistent each time we set up.

I looked at the repetition of this process as a way to create day-to-day unity and regularity between these scenes. But this approach also forced me to react in real time during entire conversations between three to four people without cutting. I knew anything we got on this single-camera shoot was fair game in the edit, so I had to make the most of my chance to create a smooth, quiet and usable visual in these moments.

The idea of zooming close in to Arthur’s face, then pulling back to the wide master repeatedly served a few functions in my mind. Firstly, this technique was the most prominent aesthetic choice the directors and I made during our first phone conversation. We wanted the camera to float, sweep, zoom and pass through space in the same manner Zsigmond’s camera does in Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Secondly, there is a recurring argument between the directors and Arthur throughout the film that touches on acting vs. non-acting and truth vs. selective information. This repeated conflict helps define the structure of the story as a blurred line between reality and fiction. So naturally, my thought was that the camera should also certainly play heavily to that idea. The slow in-and-out motion of the zoom attempted to visually support the feeling of getting intimately close to Arthur, only then to be pushed away as he would put up his emotional wall. Thirdly, we shot an expectedly high amount of footage (around 200 hours for a 75-minute film), so we knew in advance that zooming and panning in a restrained manner would be a great help in the edit. This sort of controlled movement can sometimes serve as a pleasant and fluid breathing mechanism when cutting scenes together, but it doesn’t work for every film. In our case the intent and commitment were there from the beginning and continued throughout production. We found ourselves left with a mix of rhythmic and jarring movements that helped in defining the visual language of the piece as both fiction and documentary.

The question I’ve personally been asked the most about the film is one of timing the camera zooms and movements for this last shot. My answer is always the same: I learned my subject. Knowing an actor’s walk, quirks, movements, mannerisms, speech patterns and facial expressions has proven invaluable for the projects I have shot. I spent a lot of time with Arthur’s face filling my frame. Eventually, I learned his repetitions and subtle forehead and eye movements just before he would tilt his head to start a thought. I knew Arthur was about to say something, so I utilized these signals as a vehicle to justify my dynamic movements and zooms in and out.

My dissection of how this shot came to be usually goes as follows. During the final scene’s first minute or so, we were pretty close in on Arthur. But when he became upset and grew silent, I knew that the best possible thing to see would be the still, soundless reactions of the other three people at the table. As I slowly zoomed out, I hoped for the very thing that happened: that no one would say a word. And as the wide frame settled, I awaited Arthur’s restart habits and began my zoom in. However, he hesitated, and for a moment I thought I had jumped the gun, but he ultimately saved the motion by starting to talk again before we got all the way in. As he quieted once more, I thought to myself that there was no way I’d get another full pull out in silence. But I did. And just before Arthur delivered the final line of the film, the camera began its last journey slightly inward. Then, cut to color bars and credits.

A couple of thoughts came to mind as I recently rewatched this final sequence and mentally revisited the process of making this movie as a whole. One is that we actually finished a highly improvised and ambitious film that slithers the line between fiction and non-fiction. In that sense, I feel like we delivered the story we sought to tell. Another notion is that I can understand people leaving our screenings confused as to what is truth, and what is unreal. I can only speak for myself as the one who photographed this project. Actor Martinez is the realest film I’ve ever shot.

Adam J. Minnick is an American cinematographer who resides in Austin, Texas and is known for his work on Buzzard (2014), The Alchemist Cookbook (2016) and Actor Martinez (2016). He has also completed production on two more features, The Pervert (directed by Jack Dunphy & Nathan Silver) and The Carnivores (directed by Caleb Johnson), both due for festival releases within the next year.

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