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“If You Can Do a Scene in One or Two Shots, What’s Better than That?”: DP Conor Murphy on Shooting Mickey and the Bear

DP Conor Murphy on the set of Mickey and the Bear

Director of photography Conor Murphy flew directly from Kazakhstan, where he was finishing a project, to Anaconda, Montana, the location for Mickey and the Bear, currently in release from Utopia. He had four weeks prep with writer and director Annabelle Attanasio before shooting her debut feature. 

Based on Attanasio’s research into the residents of Anaconda, a mining town fallen on hard times, Mickey and the Bear follows high school senior Mickey Peck (played by newcomer Camila Morrone) as she tries to figure out her future. Caring for her father Hank (James Badge Dale), an armed forces veteran suffering from drug dependency, could thwart her dreams of leaving town for college on the West Coast.

Filmmaker spoke with Murphy in New York prior to his appearance at Camerimage in Toruń, Poland.

Filmmaker: Did you know Annabelle Attanasio before taking on this project?

Conor Murphy: No, I had never met her. I knew Lizzie Shapiro, her producer, and she put us in touch. It was kind of a last-minute thing, we talked on the phone and really connected. We met in Montana for prep. We had planned for five weeks, but I had to finish in Kazakhstan, so we had just under four weeks. 

We scouted locations and storyboarded the entire film, hundreds and hundreds of storyboards crossed out, redrawn, illegible to anyone except Annie and me. We tried to live out the film before we staffed.

Filmmaker: Was Montana a big shift from Kazakhstan?

Murphy: Not as much as you might expect. They both have beautiful, rolling hills. I was in Kazakhstan during the summer, so it was warm. It was the end of the summer in Montana, and by the end of the shoot it was freezing, bitter cold. I grew up in the Northeast, so I was fine, but the actors from Los Angeles were blown away that it was in the 30s.

Annie is a photographer, and she’d send stills to Kazakhstan. In them I saw this warm mist, a yellowish haze that settled over the mountains, so the Montana landscape sort of faded away. They looked like Northern Renaissance art, Dutch paintings from the golden age. It was caused by smoke from the fires in California. When I got to Montana I said it was so beautiful they should keep the fires going a little longer. Everybody looked at me like I was a monster. By the time we were shooting the haze had dissipated, so we ended up with direct sunlight.

Filmmaker: How did you and Attanasio reach a vision for the film?

Murphy: Annie is an actor, and that helps inform her decision-making process as a director. She wants to design a setting for the actors in which they can perform. Nothing good is going to happen if the actors feel trapped, or they’re stuck in a box.

It’s very much “find the film,” not make the film. For her, the film is bigger than any one person. No one is intelligent enough to conceive the film in its entirety. We just play our roles.

With that being said, she also loves beautiful and diverse imagery, striking frames and compositions, saturated light. One of the things I’m proud of about the film is that we let the actors do basically whatever they wanted, and we were still able to find frames that we both loved. 

As I said before, we did a ton of storyboarding. In the beginning we had these really detailed drawings because we’re trying to impress ourselves, and by the end they were very rushed and crude. We spent so much time building a language that we could understand the storyboards, but when other people saw them, they were like, “I can’t show this to the production designer.”

But that’s what I feel about storyboarding. You do all this work, and then even if you throw it all in the trash, even if you don’t shoot anything that was on them, that work was time well spent. You build a visual language, a platform on which to film, a bridge between your brains. And then you don’t need to talk about it as much on set because a lot of the work was done beforehand.

Filmmaker: What influences did you draw from?

Murphy: Martha, Marcy, May Marlene came up a lot in our discussion. I don’t think the movie looks like Mickey and the Bear, but that was one of our starting points. A lot of the same filmmakers occurred to us. I love Robby Müller, so I pulled stills from Paris Texas and things like that. Some of the stills I assembled had already occurred to Annie, or else they were images she loved. That helped get our conversation going. 

Filmmaker: How did the Montana locations affect how you approached the story?

Murphy: I had never been in Montana before, but Annabelle spent a ton of time there while she wrote this film. 

For me location is everything. I’m not interested in shooting in locations where I don’t want to spend time. That’s why I like going to the movies. If it’s in an interesting place, it’s usually an interesting film, and vice versa. 

Anaconda is unique, so rich with inspiration. Everywhere you looked there were mountains and cottages and lakes and dilapidated infrastructure. It used to process copper for all the ore coming out of Butte. They built a smelting factory and had tremendous growth in the 1960s. When they ran out of copper everything closed down. They have half the population they did 20 years ago. It makes for an interesting social climate.

Annabelle would talk about Anaconda like it was a human being. I didn’t get it at first. I felt the whole time we were making the movie I was playing catch up. You arrive and immediately make assumptions about what kind of place it is and what the people are like because of how they vote or how they live or what their jobs are or what their pasts are. It’s easy to be condescending towards a place, but you’re not going to make a good movie that way. I spent a lot of time trying to erase those preconceived notions and trying to understand what the place really was.

It’s the real Anaconda in the movie, not a fictional town. And the film doesn’t start with us saying we’re going to teach you about Anaconda. You’re already there, and you’ve got to catch up with the characters the same way we did when we went to shoot the movie. 

Filmmaker: Did you shoot everything on location, or did you build sets?

Murphy: No sets. I like sets, it’s a fun way to work, to have a lot of control. But that was so not what this film was going to be. We had a lot of options too. We would lose an apartment or a gas station and others would open up. We could shoot locations based on where the sun would come up, whether or not you could see a slag pile or smokestack in the background.

Filmmaker: A lot of the movie takes place in a trailer Hank and Mickey share.

Murphy: It was not easy shooting in that trailer. Some of those rooms were like four feet by five feet. We were using an Alexa Classic with these old Panavision lenses from the 1970s, and the camera felt like it was four feet long when everything’s built on. The camera’s taking up half the room. We were shooting as wide as we possibly could.

Also this is our hero location, there must be a 100 set-ups in that trailer, during all times of day. Sometimes it was hard to keep progressing. Annie and I would storyboard a scene and do an overhead diagram and realize that’s exactly the way we shot a scene that takes place 20 minutes earlier in the movie.

We ended up doing a lot less coverage than we originally planned. We got bold pretty quickly. We would get to a scene, and the AD would pull up a shot list with six shots on it, and we’d go, “Okay, we don’t need six, we can do it in two.”

Filmmaker: Not shooting coverage adds pressure on you to get everything right.

Murphy: It’s fun shooting a lot of shots, really covering a scene, and it’s scary to go without them. But that’s the best. If you can do a scene in one or two shots, what’s better than that?

Filmmaker: Mickey and the Bear feels very spontaneous. Was there a lot of improvising?

Murphy: The way Annie works, we would block out a scene with the actors and see whether it’s working or not and change it as necessary. So by the time we’re shooting, they’re usually not running out of the frame or moving somewhere we didn’t think about. So a lot of improvising on the day, but maybe not as much during the take. 

Of course there were times the camera was running and I didn’t know what to expect. We planned these tight, locked-off shots, we shot a lot of rehearsals so I can tell you right now there are a lot of shots on the editing room floor where someone’s eyes are out of frame, or the profile’s wrong.

The way the film looks is diverse, there’s handheld, there’s dolly, static, wide angle, really tight shots, scenes that have a lot of coverage and scenes that are oners. You end up with some inconsistencies when you shoot a movie like this. 

Filmmaker: There’s an important scene that takes place at night by a campfire. How did you light that?

Murphy: With lighter fluid and a match. That was just fire. There’s a shot where they’re making out in a car, and in that I’m projecting some red light onto the background to suggest tail lights, and there’s a bulb hidden in the car somewhere neatly wrapped in bleached muslin.

But the fire is just fire. Some of the shots that made it into the film are brutally overexposed because you’re never sure how bright the fire’s going to be. It’s pitch black, the actors are freezing cold, the crew says, “Okay we’re going to light the fire, are you ready?” and I don’t know how big it’s going to be, I’m fiddling with the T stop with frigid fingers trying to dial it in.

Filmmaker: Fire never stops changing.

Murphy: You light it and it’s huge, ten minutes later when the actors are smoking cigarettes and talking, it’s down to embers, no light left, you’re bringing in silver bounces trying to capitalize on what exposure does exist. That’s always the case with fire unless you have perfectly controlled situations. But that’s not what this scene was, this was a bunch of kids out in the woods.

Filmmaker: You have an extended shot of Mickey and Hank driving into town, you’re shooting through the windshield, it’s right after sunset.

Murphy: The day in which that scene takes place we shot over many days as is usually the case. I was stressed making sure the scene flows temporally in terms of the light. When we shot it, it was still light outside. We got it, but I said no, this needs to be done later. This is the hill I’m going to die on. We need to do this again in four or five minutes when the streetlights are shining. 

I had drawn a map of the town and I knew the exact streets that had the lights I wanted. So I was, no, we have to go and do this shot over here, get this house, then switch over to this other street and drive north because that’s where you see the lights. 

That shot occupied a tremendous amount of space in my brain.

Filmmaker: When you’re facing budget pressure, how hard is it to win those fights?

Murphy: It’s a matter of how flexible you are. If you say it’s gotta be this way, you’re never going to win those fights. If you are sitting down and spending a lot of time with the schedule and saying okay I figured out a way for us to do it in a way I want to do it. Here’s my plan. If we move this page over here and we fit this page over there, it will be perfect. Sometimes they’re, “No, that doesn’t work,” but sometimes they’ll think it’s a good idea, we’ll rearrange the schedule and this risky maneuver will work out. And that’s the best, when it’s the perfect time of day, you’re in the perfect spot, and you’re like I thought about this for weeks. In fact having a heart attack those weeks trying to make it happen.

Filmmaker: The lesson is you can’t say you want to do it, you have to find a solution first?

Murphy: I guess if you’re like Storaro, you can say it’s gotta be this way and everyone will be like, “It’s gotta be this way.” I’m not Storaro, so I have to work really hard to produce solutions to the problems that I identify. Because other people may not see them as problems. The producer and director are saying, “Who cares about the street lights, the actors are in the car acting.” But I’m like but the street lights are important too! 

If you want those problems to be solved, you design the solutions. You need to make them work and you need to pitch them, get everyone else on board. You need to fight a ton of little battles and some big ones. It’s all about these little rewards that are given to you in the form of lighting or blocking.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the three shot with Hank, Mickey and Wyatt (Calvin Demba)? It’s a long take in the middle of a crowded fair, with Hank confronting Mickey over her new friend.

Murphy: When I read the scene, the shot occurred to me right away. When I brought it up, I called it the Bad Boys shot, and I shouldn’t have pitched it that way, it made it sound like a Michael Bay thing. But I wanted to do it in one take, and we talked about it a lot. Annabelle and I had looked at some of the circular dolly shots in The Knick, which we both love, and we were looking for an opportunity to use one. It makes viewers nervous watching something like that. It’s not voyeuristic, it’s not cathartic, but it is slightly terrifying. Both to shoot it and to watch it.

I said if we don’t get it in one you can chop it up, jump cutting it will be fine. But everyone was really thrilled when it worked out. It was tricky because the light was changing very rapidly, and there was a lot of pie continuity. Every time we were doing it we had to re-dress Hank with all this cherry pie filling from the contest he was in.

Just getting a circular track out in Montana was a nightmare. But it worked out. It was a dance among a lot of different people who were doing their jobs really well for that shot. 

Every take was different because the performers were doing different things and the dolly’s going different speeds and sometimes I’m wanting to be on one face but we aren’t, they delivered the line early or Hank got behind someone’s head and I’m missing him so I have to play it by ear, the AC [Christie Leitzell] is pulling focus, we’re on a wide-open 100 mm lens, the dolly grip [Michael Jezak] is counting a metronome in his head, and the actors are blowing everyone out of the water. It was thrilling but my heart was beating very fast the entire time we were doing it.

Filmmaker: That shot had so many variables, it must have been hard to reach the end point you wanted.

Murphy: We did about 12 takes. Not all of them were full takes, sometimes somebody leaves their sweater on the dolly track and you bump over it and decide, let’s not kid ourselves and try to play this out.

The take we used, we missed Hank kissing Mickey on the cheek. I’m sad about that. When he walked away, we all kind of knew it was the take, so no one called “cut.” And Dale kept going down the street, no one moving a muscle, until he’s like a quarter mile away. These actors do not cut themselves, Dale especially.

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