“What’s Happening in the Vertical Version?” Mark Pellington on Quibi Series/Film Survive
Director Mark Pellington has spent a great deal of his career addressing the complexities of grief, memory and reconciliation, but with his new film Survive he explores these themes on a larger canvas than ever before, placing his preoccupations in the context of an adventure tale that is sweeping in its physical scale yet every bit as emotionally penetrating as more intimate Pellington character studies like Nostalgia and I Melt with You. Richard Abate and Jeremy Ungar’s script tells the story of Jane (Sophie Turner), a traumatized young woman who plans to commit suicide in the bathroom of a plane while she’s on a flight home after her release from a psychiatric institution. The plane crashes in the mountains and Jane discovers that, ironically, she is one of only two survivors; the other, Paul (Corey Hawkins), has to fight against the elements and Jane’s own self-destructive impulses to keep them both alive until they can reach civilization or find help. Thus begins an impeccably calibrated combination of viscerally charged spectacle and delicate human drama as Pellington and his actors chart both the developing relationship and Jane’s complicated internal transformation as the survivors respond to the physical challenges around them.
Pellington has an unerring instinct for knowing how to convey character through composition; he uses the Italian mountain landscapes brilliantly to externalize the various struggles the characters are undergoing. What makes his achievement all the more intriguing is the platform for which Survive was created: Quibi, the app spearheaded by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman in which movies are presented in short chapters of just under ten minutes or so and watchable only on phones. Under Quibi’s business model, the rights to the movies eventually revert to the producers, who can then release the projects as feature films elsewhere; for now, however, the only way to watch Survive or any of Quibi’s other projects is via the episodes on the app (Survive is split into 12 parts). One interesting thing about this is that the film can be viewed in two completely different aspect ratios, depending on whether you’re holding your phone vertically or horizontally, and each version is a slightly different viewing experience. Viewed horizontally, Survive’s contextualization of the characters in their environment is more striking than in the vertical format, which strips the image to the bone and becomes a Bergmanesque study in faces and gestures. Splitting the movie into chapters creates its own sort of distinct viewing experience, as the viewer is led to stop and reflect on individual passages in a way that’s different from watching a feature-length film go rushing by. Ironically, an app that seems designed for short attention spans in some ways encourages a greater engagement with the material, at least for this viewer. Fascinated by the way Survive’s classical narrative merges with the new technology, I got on the phone with Pellington to ask him about the experience. I started by asking how the dual aspect ratio issue affected his storytelling.
Mark Pellington: You can’t shoot two things at once, so how does it play if you’re looking at the same image vertically and horizontally? I knew there would be a movie version, albeit 18 months to two years later, so I said “Wait a second, what am I shooting for?” I’m used to the old days of commercials and music videos, where the mandate was usually to shoot 16:9 but protect for 4:3, which was always a terrible compromise. The aspect ratio of an iPhone if you’re watching it is really 2:1, so if you compose for that what’s happening in the vertical version? In the early conversations I had with the DP, Dave Devlin, and the folks at Quibi, they said that in the vertical stuff they wanted to explore split screens and play with that – putting the horizontal version in the middle of the screen so it’s like a master in the center and then you have cutaways or other shots on either side of that. If you’re shooting with two cameras you can use different shots of two people talking at once, or include a different angle on an action sequence—it opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities. The key was just that you had to remain consistent in the soundtrack.
In the early stages of shooting the editor and assistant editor did some tests with this split screen idea that were cool and we edited the first couple episodes headed that way—sometimes splitting the vertical frame into triptychs, sometimes panning and scanning the horizontal image to fill the frame, depending on whatever helped tell the story. It was very complex and challenging and made the single screen horizontal version look almost “traditional.” It was really pushing the envelope and creating a completely different experience from the standard “movie” version, very arty. When Quibi looked at it they thought perhaps it was too radical and decided against us continuing that approach. The bottom line is they were super supportive and cool, and I realized that they are still figuring out what works in this new platform. And “works” is obviously a subjective term. I argued aesthetically a little because that’s my job as the filmmaker, and me and the producers thought what we were doing was really pushing the edge, but we lost the argument. It hurts for a bit, but you have to be mature and understand the big picture and business, and that this is the new medium, this is the platform – it’s no different than a record company saying you can’t use a quad split because the information is going to be lost the way it’s being delivered. Things will change as the app grows and the process unfolds. They have some innovative ways to show dual screen material so I think it might be best to write a story specific for those features.
I didn’t have the larger context of the variety of shows that were on the app – I wasn’t seeing what the other shows were like and what was working or not. All I had heard was that Antoine Fuqua was shooting his normally, for the movie. It was learning on the fly. So ultimately the split screen was put aside and now the vertical version is essentially close-ups extracted from that, with the wider shots of the mountains and things like that getting a little compromised. When we made the feature version of it, we added a few frames here and there to the montages and big wide shots. So maybe a two-second shot becomes three, or a three-second shot becomes four.
Interestingly, though, the editor Arndt Wulf-Peemoller did a great job and he and I felt pacing it for the small screen really helped with the feature version. When we watched it big, the pacing was perfect. If anything, you could let it breathe a little more, making it a few minutes longer—maybe 109 minutes from 106. So I would do that again in the movies, break it into 10-minute chunks and do what’s best for each movement. That was a good process.
Filmmaker: Was this a movie you had been developing independently that you adapted to Quibi’s mandate, or was it something they brought to you?
Pellington: It came to me through the producer, Cary Granat, who said he had this script by Richard Abate that was going to be done for Quibi, and that I might be right for it. I read it as a film script three times before I read the Quibi version, which basically just split it into episodes with episode names where there were little cliffhangers – basically, something dramatic had to happen every eight or nine minutes, and sometimes there was a little overlap at the beginning of the episodes. It worked well in that format, so I met with Quibi and talked about the themes of the script and showed them some images – my normal process, nothing too crazy. Then I waited a couple weeks, probably because I think they were looking for more of a “name,” but thankfully the producers fought for me and I got the job. For me it was less about Quibi than it was about the material; I just liked the story and its themes. I liked the visual challenges, that it was bigger and a little more commercial in terms of set pieces than Nostalgia or The Last Word. It had a bigger budget and scale, and I wanted to play in that world and show people that I could still tell stories in that world. I also liked that it was going to be over in six months thanks to a really insane post-schedule.
Filmmaker: Did that post schedule give you the time you needed to experiment and try things out? You mentioned the split screen stuff, but you’re also doing some audacious things in the early chapters with point of view, getting the audience inside Jane’s head with unconventional editing and coverage.
Pellington: Yeah, the initial cuts of those scenes were faster, weirder and a lot more challenging. Sometimes in TV you give them extreme versions of things so that when it all gets filtered and narratively honed down it’s still got your expressionistic subjective stamp on it. We wanted that to be dynamic and powerful in the first two episodes. We had a bizarre two-minute dream sequence at the beginning that was fucking bananas, right? The producers said, “Oh my God, it sets the wrong tone,” and I said, “You are so right….I agree.” I threw it away because it set the wrong tone for the series. I can do that weird stuff in my sleep, but if it’s not emotionally giving you a way into the show, then you lose it. You lose scenes, sequences all the time. The question we had to figure out was how “subjective” to make that inner world of Jane; as the story progresses, that subjectivity disappears but comes back in later scenes with flashbacks and memories, odd moments that were never questioned. Those scenes were never touched because they were deeper into the story, where they were earned. There were a lot more stakes and input and conversation about the first episode, which to me would have been like a great prologue or opening title sequence to a two-hour film. But because of the short episodic chapter form, people were like, “That’s the pilot episode.” I said, “That’s not a pilot. It’s not a TV show. It’s only eight minutes. It’s a chapter, a movement of something larger “
Filmmaker: That reminds me of something you said before about editing it as episodes before editing the feature version. So just to clarify, you cut these separately as chapters, rather than cutting it all together as a movie and then putting it into episodes?
Pellington: Right, we were doing an episode at a time. For the first six or so the editor was ahead of us because he was cutting while we shot in Europe. Then we started shooting out of sequence because of the weather, but the post schedule was still supposed to be in a linear fashion. You’re like, “Wait, guys we can’t do episode six. We don’t have any of the visual effects, there’s going to be nothing in it.” That kind of thing basically cut in half the amount of time you would have for a movie. It drove the producer, Ed Jones, crazy with these insane deliverables and schedule. It wasn’t one of those situations where you have 10 weeks to deliver your cut and then you get everybody’s notes. There was an incredibly intense and creative 10-day period where we really conquered the first three episodes; my poor editor Arndt and the assistants Gibran and Nils were working 18-hour days. Because we were showing it to Quibi so early in the process I wanted to have all my ducks in a row, so that we’d be showing something aesthetically pretty close to what I wanted it to be. To my producers’ credit, they wisely let me bring on my composer and music editor and music supervisor much, much earlier than normal to make that happen. We got those first three episodes right with songs we cleared and Mr. Katzenberg and company dug it, and that made the rest go easier – the language had been established, the trust, and coherence and rhythm had been established and we were able to breathe a little bit.
Filmmaker: How challenging was the actual shoot? The scale of the movie seemed pretty daunting to me.
Pellington: Well, the first challenge was getting snow in Italy, in the Dolemites. You’ve got those first two scenes where they come out of the crashed plane in the morning; that’s a real destroyed plane we shot in a warehouse in Latvia. The tail part, two of the cabins and all the wreckage had been shot on a big indoor soccer stadium. All of that material was then shipped from Latvia to Italy and helicoptered to the top of the mountain where it was braced down through windstorms. Up until two days before shooting, we didn’t have snow. Then finally when snow comes, you have to dig out a path for the cameras to get there and undo the brackets at the braces so the plane looks like it just crashed there the night before. That was massively challenging for Knut Loewe, our designer. If you don’t get snow and you’ve locked these places, you’re not waiting it out and saying, “Oh, we’ll come back in a week.” These are ski places where gondolas are being shut down for you, and it’s Italy, with all of its pitfalls of logistics and crazy politics. The one good thing about the weather is that we were shooting in sort of sequence, so you’re building in that it’s foggy and that the snow is stopping and all that. Thank God it wasn’t snowing the whole time, it would have been impossible – we’d still be there.
Filmmaker: I was really struck by how well acclimated you kept the viewer to the geography and the time frame given that all those exteriors could easily just blur into each other. Part of that, I think, is how well the adventure story expresses the internal tensions of the characters, who are really well played by Sophie Turner and Corey Hawkins.
Pellington: It felt almost like a fairy tale to me, her descent from the top of a mountain down to the bottom through levels of bridges and tunnels and caves and even through the woods. It was designed very much like a girl’s descent through stages of grief, realization, gaining strength. Sophie and Corey didn’t require a lot of direction from me to get them where they needed to be; they both had an innate understanding of these characters’ love for each other and of the pain and truth that they both had within them, and I could feel when to push or pull a little to get them to that spot. We got to the state where the line between the cameras and actors and director all blurred, and I love that. I love getting to that state. There were other times when Sophie didn’t need anything, she’d just do it – she could really access those emotions immediately without having to be method about it. She would know the truth and it was spot on. She was Jane. The first time I spoke to her, she said, “I don’t want to wear any makeup. I don’t want to have any hairstylist.” We literally saved a boatload of money. She had maybe one girl who did her special effects makeup, other than that she just took care of her look. Both of the actors were always ready to go and very vanity free. That was a dream. It reminded me a lot of when I did Arlington Road with Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins, where you’ve got something strong on the page and two good actors come in and give their notes and tweaks. You kind of customize it; you minimize the dialogue and you shoot it as much in sequence as possible and trust the process as much as you can.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.