Never Missing the Shot on Keith Miller’s Slamdance-Bound Feature 'Welcome to Pine Hill'
This is a guest post by director/DP Alex Mallis.
Coming from a primarily documentary background, my style and approach are often dictated by what’s happening in front of me. I like to work handheld and shoot on the fly -– following the action as it happens (or doesn’t). I’ve long assumed this antithetical to the more controlled approach of narrative filmmaking. You tell the actors where to go; they go there. You call action and the action starts. You repeat scenes dozens of times until you get that one golden take. And yet, I felt right at home working as a cinematographer on WELCOME TO PINE HILL.
A story of friendship, race, and self-discovery, WELCOME TO PINE HILL was born out of a chance encounter between filmmaker Keith Miller and star Shannon Harper, who found themselves arguing over a lost dog one night in Brooklyn. Straddling the worlds of fact and fiction, documentary and narrative, the film follows Shannon, a recently reformed drug dealer working as a claims adjuster by day and bouncer by night. When Shannon receives earth-shattering news, he’s compelled to make peace with his past and search for freedom beyond the city concrete. Featuring an intimate performance by Harper playing himself, PINE HILL is supported by an eclectic cast of emerging talent and real people. From Brooklyn crack house backyards to Catskill Mountains, the film is a meditative journey about how we choose to live our lives. In collaboration with the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, of which Miller and cinematographers Alex Mallis, Lily Henderson, and Begonia Colomar are a part, the film is a 2011 IFP Lab participant and Miller's debut feature, premiering in the narrative competition at Slamdance Film Festival on January 22nd.
While Keith did call action, takes often ran upwards of 45 minutes and dialogue was improvised. Take for example the backyard scene. In order to capture as much as possible, we had three Sony EX 1’s with Letus adapters, recording ProRes to a nanoFlash running continuously for the duration of the two takes. We three operators worked handheld with three focal lengths and slowly, together rotated around the seated actors for the duration of the scene. Quick glances and some damn fine teamwork kept us aware of each other’s position and focus. Although Keith would occasionally reference our monitors, he mostly trusted us to know where to point the lens, leaving him free to throw out ideas and direction to the actors in real time.
Our goal was to create an opening for real life to spill in to the movie, and often it did. During our second (and last) take, when, near what we thought would be the end of the scene, one resident of the Jamaica, Queens home where we were filming wandered onto our set and started speaking. Our “set” was a circle of mismatched chairs among broken bottles, discarded paraphernalia, dead branches, and cracked pavement, so our Art Director Margaret Ward didn’t have to do too much to dress the scene. It looked real because it was real. This, combined with our actors’ natural, convincing performances might lead a casual passerby to think what we were filming was totally real. And then, before we new it, it was.
Willie, a resident of the house, had been off-camera, listening to our actors’ conversations about drug deals they used to do together and their old lives. As you’ll see in the clip below, Willie disregards our cameras and enters the scene, inspired by what he’s just heard to deliver his own moving sermon about cleaning up his life, mortality, and legacy. All it took was a quick glance at Keith and crew to know: keep rolling. Willie spoke about second chances and mistakes. The reality he saw was powerful enough to inspire him to speak. And what he said proved powerful enough to stir deep, real emotions from our lead actor, Shannon — so much so, he teared up, smashed his bottle, and walked out of the backyard. Keith then whispered to one our cinematographers who quickly and silently followed Shannon as he exited the yard and wandered over a block away.
WELCOME TO PINE HILL is Shannon’s first experience on camera. A lot of the film is influenced by and connected to real events in his life. It’s unclear where the construct ends and where reality begins. And that, I think, is the definition of a good story. Its tricky and perhaps a little vague to say our film is a hybrid of reality and fiction, but I can know for sure, that when that intersection happened, we were ready to capture every minute of it.
Editor's note: WELCOME TO PINE HILL has just a few days left in their Kickstarter campaign to bring the cast and crew to Park City for Slamdance. Check out their campaign and kick in if you found the above scene captivating, as I did!
Alex Mallis is a director and DP living in Brooklyn, NY. His films have played at IFF Boston, DOCNYC, Hot Docs, and on the Documentary Channel and BBC News. He recently completed SPOILS, a short documentary about dumpster diving in New York City, and RIGHT HERE ALL OVER, a widely viewed and shared short documentary exploring the community and culture of Occupy Wall Street.