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Things DPs Don't Talk About

by Sean Porter

Because Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Students getting “hands-on” during the University of Washington’s DXARTS summer filmmaking program (Photo courtesy of Al'n Duong)

As a cinematographer, I’m always looking for the perfect marriage: the director I can lock eyes with to communicate volumes without uttering a word. Someone who knows how to use my work to its best potential, who can challenge my ideas about filmmaking and push me to reach places I didn’t think I could — and then keep going. In my dreams, it never starts and ends with one film. It’s a lifelong journey to seek out something greater. All my heroes have these sorts of relationships: the Coens and Deakins, Allen and Willis, Iñárritu and Prieto (maybe now Lubezki?!).

When meeting with directors, this innate desire comes up frequently. I use the analogy of trying to build a beautiful house. In prep, you’re just learning how to interpret blueprints in the same way and deciding on materials. You want the time to source those handmade tiles from Spain, but you somehow seem to end up at Home Depot every other day. The house will get finished in the four weeks you had, but it will be missing many of the flourishes and accents that would make it truly timeless. How do we as filmmakers get to that place where we get to sail through the framing and have time to cut the custom crown molding? When do we develop such a shorthand that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time but instead pick up where we left off and truly hone our craft?

And what happens when you finally find that person, and life or career circumstances pull you apart?

My first breakup story happened back in my days in the DXARTS program at the University of Washington. My teaching assistant Noel and I quickly hit it off, and I shot a couple projects for him over the course of two years. The following year, after I graduated, he invited me to embark with him on a wild plan to assemble a summer program for UW where we’d take a bunch of students and, in a crash course sort of way, submerge them in the making of a feature film. They’d divide up and learn production design, camera, lighting, production, sound, etc. I headed up the group of students who learned about grip, lighting, camera and cinematography, while another good friend taught production design and Noel took on production and directing.

I spent long, long hours at Noel’s house planning not only a film, but also an educational experience. We knew that what came out of the program was less important than the experience the kids got, but we aimed high. The film had all sorts of ambition: storms on the high seas, hand-build hand-cranking cameras and very young actors to boot. Noel and I became pretty close over that summer, and it felt like we had been through something that didn’t exist on your typical set. And it seemed like the kids got a lot out of the experience.

Subsequently I shot a few more projects for Noel. We always pushed each other’s limits and held ourselves to a high bar. He had a great sense of whimsy and wonder that made his work visually appealing and always opened the door for experimentation, and he never shied away from the crazy ideas I brought to the table. It felt like one of those marriages was beginning to bloom.

In the coming months, however, we spent less and less time together. I got wrapped up in some other projects, and one day heard that Noel had shot a video that ultimately launched his career — with another DP. The replacement was newer to the game but came with one of the first RED ONEs. It was hard to compete with that; my DVX100 was cut in half sitting on my table (more on that another time). The video exploded, and both Noel and the new DP gained lots of attention, resulting in signing with agents, booking high-profile projects, etc. Yeah, I was a little bitter, and disappointed. Someone shows up with a new fancy camera and suddenly a couple of years invested in a relationship means nothing? I put so much into the projects I sign on to do, and Noel’s were no exception. Was my work just not good enough? Was I not enjoyable to work with? Or was I too difficult or pushy when we didn’t see eye to eye on something? Your ego-bruised head spins, and you try to search for answers that either aren’t there or are no longer applicable. He moved on, and we’ve rarely spoken since then. For a while I resented the notion of inexperienced DPs owning gear that landed them jobs that resulted in meaningful experiences, which resulted in them becoming better DPs. It took me many more years to get over that resentment, and eventually I caved and bought a RED ONE myself.

The next story is particularly painful because the relationship failed before it really began. Through mutual friends, Todd and I had become aware of each other’s work and, at least for me, it was love at first sight. His stuff was somehow simultaneously absurd, inventive, funny and poignant all at the same time. No one is making work like his. We had been flirting for a while, and a few years ago he came to me with a project that grabbed me by the core and wouldn’t let go. Full of imagination, the project asked to be not only shot in B&W 35mm (which I hadn’t shot in years) but wanted to be crafted using only tools that would have been available circa 1940. The child inside me, which spent many summers watching Movie Magic, was teeming with excitement. The script called for forced perspective, miniatures, rear projection, front projection, split diopter — just about every old-school trick you could imagine. Not to mention the opportunity to delve into a completely unknown world of lighting for me — hard, bright lights and deep f-stops. It was the ultimate challenge with a hellaciously funny and smart script behind it — a dream come true. Todd and I joined forces to shoot a proof of concept, as nothing existed to demonstrate the tone and style to the financiers. Todd assembled an amazing cast, and we got to work hashing out how on earth we’d pull this off. We uncovered many hidden or otherwise dust-covered tools of the old trade buried deep within forgotten garages, spoke with veteran effects folks and even found one of them, retired and camped out in the Northwest, that we pulled in to help. I spent a lot of time poring over my own dust-collected ASC manual, studying charts and tables. How do you get a hand two feet in front of you in focus with an actor surrounded in oversized set pieces 20 feet away?! (Answer: light. Lots of it.) I remember inviting Todd to spend an afternoon storyboarding up in Ojai where my family and I had been staying in our trailer for the last few months. It was a perfect SoCal spring day; my wife, Laurie, made a feast of Indian food, and we dreamed up wild ideas at a beautiful farm table, squarely set in the middle of a garden surrounded by the valley. It was the perfect date.

When the shoot came, we kicked its ass. Despite limited time and resources, the effects worked, but more importantly we somehow encapsulated the spirit of the film. Beyond the sum of its parts, the short expressed the tone in all its greatness and proved it could be done on a modest budget. And the folks backing the project loved it. Flash forward a year, and my life was completely turned around. Our little soirée in Ojai transpired into Laurie and I seeking out our own slice of earth in Ashland, Oregon, where we settled our trailer on raw land with the intent to start a homestead (a senseless ambition you’d only find in people from the filmmaking world). No running water, no power, just 67 acres of wilderness and our four-year-old child.

I had also recently signed with an agent and was gathering steam on bigger projects. The landscape for my work was rapidly changing, and I was trying to keep up while holding on to what I loved about indie film to begin with. When the time came for prep to begin, my agent started negotiating with Todd’s producer. As I began hearing where numbers were falling, I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. Not doing the film hadn’t really been a consideration. To be honest, historically, as long as I could meet the meager needs of our little family living in a one-bedroom in Brooklyn, money wasn’t much of a consideration either. Now, however, I was faced with a difficult situation: either leave my family in the sticks without water and without sending home enough money to pay someone else to do the work, or pull out of a relationship that had brought so much meaning and joy to my work. I think part of the job, for any of us on set, is being present — and often we’re so present and committed that we aren’t really thinking about our livelihoods. Not until you have a family or a commitment outside of yourself do you have to pause and think about those things. I ended up having a pretty heartbreaking call with Todd and told him I was fearful it wasn’t going to work out. After us both putting so much into the relationship, I knew he was disappointed. Todd eventually found a replacement (someone I knew and loved, thankfully), and our communication all but ceased. While I don’t regret the decision I made, I feel a deep sense of loss that we don’t work together anymore.

I still have a tender bruise from my last breakup story. Only a few weeks ago I had to have a similar phone call with another director I love. David brought me into his world of imaginative and crafted films only a few short weeks before his next film was set to start. While the film was quite ambitious in its own way, there was a deep sense of trust right from the beginning; he quickly and assuredly put his faith in me to help realize his film based only on a handful of personal referrals (Todd being one of them). We proceeded to make a film that means a great deal to me, and more importantly represents a way of filmmaking and storytelling I’ve found to be so rare in this day and age. Of course, as with all projects, we had our share of struggles, but we came out feeling like we had moved well beyond the aisles of Home Depot and developed a shorthand that would allow us to pursue more complicated and challenging work together.

Nearing the end of production, David approached me about his next film. I was overwhelmed at the prospect of digging into something new with him. Over the next two and a half years we kept in touch frequently, shared ideas and started making some creative decisions. It felt really good to finally (!) be able to build on a past relationship and take the work to another level. The new script presented many new challenges and was set in some of the most beautiful places in the country — another dream-come-true scenario. I remember speaking with my agent early on, wanting to make sure we wouldn’t have a repeat of the experience with Todd’s film. I wanted everyone to be on the same page. But life doesn’t always play by the rules.

Laurie and I had made some serious headway on the homestead (running water and solar power!), but it still was not the easiest place to leave your partner, particularly with a newborn. No longer were the carefree days in Brooklyn, where I could take a $30,000 film just because I love the script. And as Laurie moved to becoming a full-time wife, mom and homesteader, we had agreed I would be the financial provider for the foreseeable future. Now choosing projects comes with a different weight. New parameters and new expectations. We’ve made life choices I can’t, nor want to, undo. Since Stella’s birth, Laurie wasn’t having the easiest recovery, and these new father-husband responsibilities started really kicking in. Since my last experience with David, part of growing up meant joining a union, and I’ve depended on the healthcare IA600 provides my family. If I don’t get my union hours, those benefits become costly liabilities.

While negotiations were going well, and David and his producer had really stepped up to meet our financial needs, as we got closer to the shoot Laurie’s recovery hadn’t improved much and the non-union status of the film became a real roadblock. Taking a non-union film now meant I’d have to take a union film later. Doing the math, that added up to about six months of work I’d have to take this year — away from my family. And it was already June. No matter how much I loved the project or the folks involved, or how much it meant to me to finally carry a relationship to a second film, the pieces just didn’t fit.

“You’re breaking up with me!” another director once told me, after we’d been talking about life and work and what the future might hold for us over drinks in a small little bar in Brooklyn. I assured her it wasn’t the case, but she saw through me. Ultimately my requirements — the boxes that have to be checked for me to take a project — have changed drastically over the last few years. And while my life has been challenging and rewarding in many new ways, there has undeniably been collateral damage. I sincerely hope it’s not the end of my relationship with any of these amazing people, plus the others I didn’t have room to write about (maybe this is an open love letter?). It makes me recall what I know about my relationships with my close family and friends — it’s about being able to support and celebrate each other through and beyond change, even if you’re on a different path. So often those paths cross again in unexpected ways. I look at those heroes of mine and their paths change, too, and circumstances frequently drive incredible creative teams apart. If and when we come back together again we all bring something new to the table, something that wasn’t there before. And even if we don’t, I will always remain a fan.

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.” — Carl Sandburg

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