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“Digital Cinematography is Mostly Mired in a Sort of Default Realism”: Brandon Colvin on A Dim Valley

Zach Weintraub in A Dim Valley

Fifteen minutes into Brandon Colvin’s third feature, A Dim Valley, Albert (Whitmer Thomas) presents Ian (Zach Weintraub) with a generously packed bowl of marijuana, which the two proceed to light up. Shortly thereafter, they witness a surreal vision in the forest near the field research camp where they’re spending the summer, but to call this a drug-induced departure from realism would be inaccurate. From the very beginning of this whimsical backwoods tone poem, Colvin establishes something like a stoner ambiance: pacing is lethargic, odd bits of behavior are lingered on, glassy-eyed stares into the middle distance proliferate. There’s a sense of unmooring before the narrative terms have even been set, but never a feeling of aimlessness, because Colvin’s perceptive feel for actors fills the air with a charged emotionality whose source isn’t easily identified. Ever-so-gradually, by entertaining narrative digression after digression, the director clears the emotional fog, and unties the interpersonal knots. He calls the process “sand into glass.”  

Colvin’s follow-up to Sabbatical (2014) trades its predecessor’s Bressonian severity for a slippery form reminiscent of both Jacques Rivette and Hayao Miyazaki, but shares with it a certain reductivist ethos. The eastern Kentucky woodlands where the film was shot—the region around Colvin’s hometown—comes into focus not through fawning landscape shots but through a series of partial views and offscreen soundscapes, and the same approach is taken with regard to narrative and character psychology. The film opens on a syncopated montage of field guide sketches of animals and other natural phenomena, and the theme of harnessing nature extends to the idea of the three main characters— Albert, Ian, and their older taskmaster, Clarence (Robert Longstreet)—confronting their own. A modest cabin serves as the base camp for the group’s studies, and inside the mood is hushed, even tense. Clarence issues butterfly collection quotas in the morning and gruffly assesses his undergraduate associates’ lackluster work by night. To the extent that there’s tenderness among the three men, it’s bottled up, but Colvin makes sure to capture the fleeting glances that suggest a deeper affection. 

This muggy atmosphere of repression is turned on its head with the arrival of Iris (Rosalie Lowe), Rose (Rachel Mckeon) and Reed (Feathers Wise), a trio of nymphs who at first seem to promise a National Lampoon-style bacchanalia—an impression aided by bits of juvenilia like a boner-under-the-sheets sight gag and the appearance of “FARTS” on a Scrabble board—but whose presence quickly becomes more pacifying and mysterious. With the potential for orgiastic release abated, A Dim Valley goes about cultivating a subtler, more fluid eroticism embodied in the increasingly comfortable rapport amongst the ensemble. It all leads to a sequence of confessional vulnerability that climaxes with a musical performance from Clarence that obliquely illuminates his own heartache. 

All moves sinuously and unpredictably in A Dim Valley, ushered along by the hum of cicadas and a fairy tale-like sense of the woods as a place for enchantment and self-discovery. The confident eccentricity with which the film carves out, per Colvin, “a new myth of divinity and grace” signals the arrival of an independent voice who, three films deep, shows little signs of calcifying his approach. I spoke to Colvin on the eve of A Dim Valley’s in-person theatrical run—a turn of fate that surely comes as a blessing after a year of virtual festival appearances. 

Filmmaker: I can imagine there was a lingering fear of never getting the chance to play in front of people. How did the loosening of COVID protocols around theatrical exhibition affect you and the film?

Colvin: It’s been touch-and-go. We started negotiating our deal with Altered Innocence in November 2020. At that time, we had no idea when theaters would be open, but everyone involved wanted to pursue theatrical screenings if at all possible. That was especially important to me, since the film had never screened in a theater. There was a certain amount of flexibility built into our plans, since we didn’t want to do anything in-person until a substantial number of people were vaccinated and commercial theaters were open. So, we watched and waited until mid-May, when it seemed like the right time to lay the groundwork for summer engagements. That’s still a work in progress as we try to line up more screenings beyond NYC and LA. Like many distributors, independent exhibitors are managing a tricky re-entry period. For me, though, playing in theaters will bring a long-delayed sense of completion to the filmmaking process. It’s hard to feel like your movie is done until it’s been projected for an audience.

Filmmaker: Part of what really struck me about A Dim Valley the first time I saw it was how refreshingly unconcerned it is with being topical or having an easily definable raisin d’être. It’s just a peculiar slice of life in a part of the country we don’t normally see on screen. What inspired this story?

Colvin: I’m really glad to hear that. I often find myself bristling at the idea that art should necessarily have any use value beyond the ways it engages us aesthetically and emotionally. Those functions are immensely important to me, independent of any more rationalized purpose. I basically always start the creative process from a very interior/inward-looking position, so what comes out of me can feel received in a certain way. I don’t even always understand why I want to make something until it’s basically finished, which might be years after I first latch onto an idea. 

For A Dim Valley, I started with some initial images and characters that I found funny, so I thought it was going to be sort of a Buster Keaton/Jacques Tati deadpan physical comedy. But that direction was a dead end. It wasn’t involving me enough emotionally. I let time do its work, and eventually that initial kernel attracted other elements. I tried to be very open to different tonal and genre components. I was watching a lot of Miyazaki at the time and used his work as a model for how to let feeling or mood lead and unite really disparate materials. I had decided to shoot the project in and around my hometown in eastern Kentucky, which got me thinking a lot about the place I was from—what I loved about it, what I hated, what made me sad, how it lived in my dreams. It took a few years of thinking about all of that to really arrive at what you see in the film. Ultimately, I figured out that I wanted to tell a story and create a little world that might serve as an alternative version of my home. Even if it only did that for me.

Filmmaker: The film is tinged with homoeroticism and even flirts with pansexual fluidity at times in the free exchange of affection between the characters. This feels potentially subversive in a state like Kentucky. 

Colvin: The film is about tenderness, really. Hard lines getting blurred. Boundaries dissolving. I think, to me, that’s a kind of love that can be romantic and sexual, but also spiritual or fraternal. You don’t always know what form the love will take, but it starts with that moment when you stop seeing yourself as fundamentally separate from someone, but rather as fundamentally enmeshed with them. Fear and insecurity encourage people to put limits on that love. There are self-imposed limits and limits imposed by others, which take the form of systematic discrimination and ostracization. That’s a form of cruelty that many Kentuckians, Americans, and earthlings endure all the time. If the film is subversive in that regard, it’s because it takes for granted that this openness to love in any form is fundamental to every person’s spiritual health. Unfortunately, that is not something that is widely accepted where I’m from. My hope is that the film could be healing in some way for viewers who have had to endure those limits on their love.

Filmmaker: Characters in this film often feel timid, inarticulate and unsure of themselves on the path to their eventual comfort with their own bodies and desires. That expresses itself in an unusual reliance on medium shot singles. Can you discuss the relative lack of establishing shots in the film, and to what extent that was dictated by the material vs. the limitations of the budget?

Colvin: I think that’s a perceptive observation! Many of the most important interactions in the film take the form of looks, reactions, glances. Those are the kinds of things that feel most emotionally complex to me as a filmmaker. They are ways for characters to interact without popping the balloon of ambiguity between them. They can coexist and behave within the mystery of do-they or don’t-they. Even in concert with dialogue, those details can countervail and complicate the precision of verbal expression. That’s just how it feels to me when things are emotionally charged in my real life. I’m hyper-attuned to those nonverbal details. So, the averted glances and hesitant smiles are really what’s driving the movie for me as I write. And, the medium single captures those aspects of performance in a scale that invites the viewer’s attention—without being too emphatic—and also preserves the sense of interiority or privacy since the character is visually isolated. It definitely happens most frequently with Ian (Zach Weintraub), who is the most cautious character. 

I’m not sure I ever really thought about that kind of shot as it pertains to budget. We didn’t have too many instances where shot scale would have presented us with serious problems in terms of lighting or location control. I do fully draw out storyboards for my movies in advance, though, often before the locations are fully locked. So, I tend to be working from a kind of charted out visual plan for each scene, which is mostly organized around capturing that arc of glances and reactions that forms the emotional and psychological backbone of the film.

Filmmaker: So much digital independent cinema these days suffers from an aesthetic sameness. Your film has a gauzy, halated, low-contrast patina that almost suggests French impressionism. Can you talk about how, and why, you worked to obviate the “digital look” with this story?

Colvin: Digital cinematography is mostly mired in a sort of default realism. Realism inherently confines expressive possibilities. For some projects and some filmmakers, those constraints are helpful and a relatively neutral, contemporary aesthetic makes sense. But that’s not really the kind of filmmaking that excites me. I like when a film has its own visual world, something transportive and emotionally loaded. Those kinds of decisions about contrast, lens diffusion, color and lighting are very intuitive. I’m always trying to channel and externalize the emotional and tonal palette of the story and the fictional world I’m trying to create. In that sense, I very much identify with certain painters, particularly those involved in and adjacent to Symbolism. Their work strikes the right balance between figural representation and expressive elaboration/abstraction, at least to my eye. Of course, we also had cinematic references that most closely approximated what I was aiming for, like Walerian Borowczyk’s Dr. Jekyll et les femmes (1981) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). The story called for something warm, soft and dreamy. It needed to lull the viewer a bit, establish an inviting, but relaxed rhythm. It’s a story in which mysterious things should feel seductive and comforting rather than intimidating. 

The most basic way we achieved that was by stretching nylon stockings over the front of our lenses. We could have achieved a similar effect with variations of Pro Mist glass filtration, but we shot on Zeiss CP.2s and the size of the front element would have required us to purchase a large square of glass diffusion material to put in the matte box. We saved a little money using the nylons, and I liked how extreme they were. I tested them stretched over the back element, as most would prefer, but it felt too subtle. Our cinematographer, Cody Duncum, did an incredible job of helping me achieve that look and managing the complications of shooting with nylon filtration (rips, holes, etc).

Filmmaker: How was your own experience working off the grid? With what I assume was a small crew, you pulled off some lovely nighttime exteriors.

Colvin: Our super small crew slept in the main cabin location in the film, which was quite rural, and had no internet and extremely limited cell service. They had to drive up a gravel road for reception to download the next day’s final call sheets each night. Our production headquarters was my parent’s house, which was about an hour away from the crew and that main location. We shot all around three different counties near where I’m from, which I had scouted for a long time to find the right spots. 

Fortunately, we were able to shoot most of the night exteriors in the woods on the same property as the cabin, which we were renting. That flexibility and accessibility made it a perfect location. We were quite fortunate. It enabled us to do some long cable runs back to the cabin for some complicated scenes and really sped up the process for others. For those night exterior scenes, we used a combination of an Arri M18, a K 5600 Joker 800, a Quasar Science Rainbow LED tube, and some small 1X1 LED sources. We could run the LEDs on batteries, which was really helpful, but the other fixtures required a small generator. Being outside for so much of the July/August shoot was physically grueling, especially transporting equipment deep into the woods and up rock outcroppings, but the shoot was relatively smooth and light (only 15 days) which softened the impact of the sweat and the bugs.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the Robert Longstreet acoustic performance. It called to mind Jim O’Rourke for me. Did he write that piece, and did you intervene on the lyrical front?

Colvin: That’s all Robert! He had recorded a version of that song and sent it to me a couple of years ago. I thought it was very vulnerable and raw and would be perfect for capturing that moment in the film for his character as he opens himself up to the others. A song felt like a way for Clarence to say what he would never actually say in conversation. I didn’t do anything to the lyrics at all. On set was the first time that Robert had ever performed it in front of people, I think. He was probably more nervous about that than I’ve ever seen him, which was extremely endearing. I think he played it 8 or 10 times all the way through, but it took him a few takes to really relax into it. It’s a great song and a perfect example of why I love working with Robert. He’s extremely willing to really give parts of himself to his characters.

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