Is Shooting in B&W the Dumbest Thing You Can Do? 'Go Down Death' Director Says Yes & I'd Do It Again!
There are safe films that we enjoy and forget, and then there are risky films that make some filmgoers happy and others quite mad. Go Down Death is one of those films. A black-and-white, darkly comedic drama based on folktales of Jonathan Mallory Sinus (an author one can only presume was invented by the director), it earns loving champions while at the same time inciting "extreme revulsion" in say, potential distributors, according to director Aaron Schimberg. From building elaborate sets in an abandoned paint factory, mixing in mono, to how shooting on B&W film stock may just be the dumbest thing you can do, Aaron Schimberg sat down with No Film School to talk about the creative adventures and unexpected success of his breakout underground feature Go Down Death.
I first met Aaron Schimberg during the 2012 IFP Lab in New York. Disheartened by a series of rejections, Aaron and his producer/editor Vanessa McDonnell gave a PowerPoint presentation on their distribution options that included plan B as "murder/suicide." Appreciating their sense of humor and unpretentious disposition -- as well as the fantastic uniqueness of their film -- I hoped to see Go Down Death get its due. Two years later, the film has gotten reviews the likes of "a captivating excursion into surreality Americana" and "amidst all the cookie-cutter indies, Aaron Schimberg’s Go Down Death casts a mysterious spell." And it's finally available on iTunes and Amazon. Before you delve into our interview, take a glance at Go Down Death in the trailer, or rent it for yourself:
NFS: Tell us about shooting on black-and-white 16mm, or shall I say, "monochromaniacal eye-straining 2-D."
Aaron Schimberg: I was talking to some producer guy about my film and when I told him it was in black-and-white, he said “Well, let me watch it before you desaturate it.” Meaning, he assumed I shot it in color and was planning to digitally convert it to black-and-white, which is common now, and that it was something I could be talked out of later. I said, “No, no. I shot it on black-and-white film,” and his face just -- he gave me this really disturbing look, kind of a mix of pity, loathing and extreme revulsion. He said in this kind of funereal tone, “Man, I’m so sorry to hear that.” Then his assistant came over and the producer pointed to me and said, “This little dude here just shot his feature on black-and-white film stock,” and they both started chuckling and they walked away and started talking to James Franco.
Shooting in black-and-white is really the dumbest thing you can do -- I mean, in a sense, they were absolutely right. There are a lot of ways to repel producers and distributors, but the worst crime in the world is shooting in black-and-white.
People warn you beforehand, but you don’t believe them because what difference should it make? Black-and-white is wonderful. I love it, I’m sure other people love it; I don’t think it’s a problem for most people. But it’s irrevocable, and some foreign territories refuse to buy black-and-white films, so you’ve lost that market by default and that’s a quantifiable liability. It’s a concrete shortcoming in a business where people are usually just guessing. Other potential flaws -- a film is too long, the ending is too depressing, anything like that -- can theoretically be remedied through threats and scheming. Even if the filmmaker is adamant that he or she is not going to change his or her film, a distributor can nod, buy the film, and destroy that filmmaker’s life. But black-and-white, it’s just a disaster for these people. It’s like a pacifist politician -- doomed to fail. Not long for this world.
But, I don’t have any regrets. It’s just that distributors and producers consider me unbelievably stupid and naïve. I shot in black-and-white because I thought it was appropriate for the film, because I like it, because it’s cheaper than color film, and because I think color is more difficult to work with, and I’m not ready for it. There are a lot of valid reasons to shoot in black-and-white, as long as you don’t mind certain people thinking you’re a completely worthless piece of shit.
NFS: What did you shoot on as far as film stock, camera?
AS: We shot on Panavision cameras. The film stock was Kodak 7222. It’s a beautiful stock, but it’s as grainy as film gets. Some people have suggested that the graininess is some kind of aesthetic affectation on my part, but I had nothing to do with it. It’s just the film stock we could afford, it’s one of the last black-and-white stocks available.
I personally love the grain, but it has made digitizing the film extremely difficult, because these digital algorithms aren’t designed to handle so much frame-by-frame variation -- digital compression utilizes consistency, so we had to experiment endlessly to get a decent-looking digital version. I really wanted a 35mm print, but -- maybe if Tarantino promises to screen it at the New Beverly, I’ll start a Kickstarter to get one made. Do you know that guy?
NFS: Since B&W processing for 16mm isn't all that common anymore, where did you send your film to be processed? How did the whole thing affect the production?
AS: As we started filming, DuArt in New York was winding down their film-developing department, so they wouldn’t do it. So we ended up sending the footage to FotoKem in Los Angeles. At the end of each day, we’d FedEx the footage to Los Angeles and I’d get back dailies a week later. There was a 7-day lag, but we had to knock down all our sets, which took two weeks to build, on our last day of shooting and move out of the space immediately. So, if something had happened to that last week’s worth of footage, if it got lost or ruined or the exposure or focus had been off, basically half of the film would have been lost and reshoots would not have been a possibility for us. I always tell this story, but everything came back just fine, so I don’t know what the point of this story is. It’s like saying, “Last year, I went to the doctor and got tested for a brain tumor, and he told me I was fine. The end.”
NFS: How did you record sound?
AS: We recorded the sound digitally, which my wife never forgave me for. She was insistent that recording on a Nagra, on analogue tape, would be a hundred times better. I don’t disagree with her. It was a moral failing on my part. I’m the one who has to learn to live with myself.
Because we shot the whole thing in a paint factory, there was no atmospheric sound, except the sounds of semi-trucks backing up, the sound of psychotic neighbors screaming at each other and, most of all, the Mr. Softee Ice Cream truck jingle -- “Do You Ears Hang Low” which is really just “Turkey In the Straw.”
If you listen in headphones, you can hear the jingle over at least half of the film. I believe that people watching the film will start to get a craving for ice cream. Since there was no sound -- you’d see two characters in the forest, but you wouldn’t hear wind or leaves or birds or crickets, you’d just hear “Do Your Ears Hang Low” -- Vanessa, the editor, and I would just steal sounds from other movies and put them in just to make the rough-cut watchable when we screened it to friends. And we became obsessive about it. And all that stuff made it into the final cut -- because all that stuff was recorded on a Nagra and sounds great! The wind, crickets, footsteps, explosions, all that stuff, is stolen outright -- with some exceptions. There’s no foley in the film, and there’s no ADR. But our sound mixer, Chris Foster, worked magic and fleshed it out with his own effects and other sounds, and the mix is beautiful. The sound recording by Doug Choi was great, considering we were shooting in a giant echoey warehouse next to a Mr. Softee convention. But it would have sounded better with a Nagra. Don’t blame Doug though; it’s my own fault.
And then we mixed the film in mono, which I was adamant about -- this is also considered an affectation on my part, and maybe it is. I know I sound like I’m 90 years old, but I don’t like stereo and I really hate surround sound. You’ll never convince me otherwise. Maybe it’s because I’m deaf in one ear. But mono is another thing -- a sound mixer actually said to me, “Do you realize how revolutionary this is, mixing it in mono?” I mean, I’m not saying I agree with him, I think “revolutionary” is probably a tad hyperbolic, although I appreciated what I assume to be a compliment, but maybe was a vicious insult.
But mixing in mono really was another stupid decision, because no one knows how to mix in mono or how to play it back in mono or what the specs are for mono output -- does mono mean one center channel, or two identical stereo channels, or some other combination? Do you have to make it louder to compensate for the lack of other channels? How can you mix it so that it will play correctly on a 2-channel home theater, on an iPad or in an IMAX megaplex with sub-woofers under every seat?
No one could figure it out, even though it seems like mono would be the simplest way to mix sound in the world, the default. But Chris Foster was the only guy who could figure it out, and the only person who didn’t try to dissuade me.
NFS: You shot in an old paint factory or something? Was this like, an ideal location? Was everything shot in there?
AS: Everything in the film was shot in this paint factory. It was not an ideal location at all, but it was the one place that let us have it and promised not to kick us out if the Food Network wanted to move in. I mean, I’m sure they would have kicked us out if Anthony Bourdain wanted to do No Reservations: Toxic Paint Factories, but the spot was just terrible enough that nobody would want it. Not even Anthony Bourdain.
There was no air conditioning, and it was during a heat-wave, under bright lights, and Mr. Softee was outside the whole time calling out for everybody, tempting us, mocking us, making us look like assholes who were too cheap to buy ice cream for the crew during a heat-wave.
There was a space in Brooklyn, in Bushwick, that we wanted to shoot in and the guy who owned it read the script and said, “This is exactly why I built this space. This is why I moved to New York. I really want you guys to shoot your film here, but I have to tell you that if Guy Fieri wants to use the space in the middle of your shoot, I won’t say no to him.” I don’t know if he meant Guy Fieri was gonna break his legs or what, but we had to look elsewhere.
I was eating dinner in this restaurant called John’s of 12th Street in the East Village, and I guess Guy Fieri must have done an episode in there, because he, or his people, spray-painted his face on the wall, he desecrated the interior of this historic restaurant that’s been there over a hundred years. It must have been in the contract: I’ll give you publicity; you let me remake this place in my own demonic image. Quid pro quo. You walk in there, it’s still a very magnificent-looking restaurant, but if you look above the bar -- you can’t miss it -- there’s this enormous spray-painted mural of this horrific brutish malevolent creature with bleach-blonde hair and a goatee. It’s really tragic.
NFS: Would you say this is micro budget? How did you manage to get such elaborate sets, shoot on film, and so on under such a tight budget?
AS: I don’t know how to define micro-budget. It’s certainly a relatively small budget, but compared to what? It’s still hovering within five-figures, but if you’re talking about “figures” as a euphemism for money, you’ve probably lost the micro-budget battle. Or won it. I know people who have made films for $200, great films, so it could be considered an insult to call my five-figure film micro-budget. That’s two extra figures, after all.
I had nothing to do with pulling off something so elaborate for such a relatively miniscule budget. Vanessa McDonnell, the producer, was the brains behind the enterprise. The production designers, Kate Rance and Sia Balabanova, are geniuses. They’re like rocket scientists. If I had to make the film without them, I probably would have ended up just shooting the entire thing against a white wall in my bathroom. And Stacey Berman and Kara Feely, the costume designers -- without them, everybody would have been naked. Now, only two characters are naked. We shot that before the costume designers came along. And Lee, the DP -- I had a bunch of geniuses standing next to me. I left a lot of people out, other geniuses. Read the credits, you’ll see genius after genius. I’m not being facetious -- it’s a collaborative effort, and if I deserve any credit, it’s ‘cause I was willing to hold out for the right people. I was patient and I guess I had high expectations, which is very unlike me.
Because we shot the whole thing in this one location, that simplified things -- we just sort of camped out there for a couple weeks. We never had to move equipment from place to place. We didn’t have to set up or tear down new locations every day. Oh, also, we didn’t pay the actors. That helps.
We built this little functioning village in a paint factory, lived off toxic fumes for a few weeks, and the promise of Mister Softee. It became our home, and now that home is in a dumpster, except for the rubber mulch, mixed with broken glass, which, in the film, is used as dirt in the forest -- that’s in NYC playgrounds now.
NFS: There are a lot of unusual faces in the film. How did you decide to cast who you did? Actors, non-actors?
AS: Casting was extremely difficult. First, I cast friends, but I only have -- I think I have one friend. Or -- two. Between one and two friends. A lot of Facebook friends, though. So that left a few dozen roles to cast. Occasionally, I’d see someone in the subway who looked like they’d be a good fit, but I’ve never talked to strangers in my life, and strangers don’t talk to me, except to tell me to get the fuck out of the way, so I’d kind of look at some girl on the subway, and she’d look at me and then turn her back and clutch her purse and quickly get off at the next stop. One guy was really perfect, and I was slightly drunk, so I approached him, and he was like, “A film, huh? I’m sure you’re a real Marty Scorseeeez,” and then he patted me on the cheek. It was really upsetting.
So we put out ads, and the ads specified nothing, it just said “film audition, this Wednesday at 8am, come to my apartment.” That was probably my first mistake. I didn’t specify gender or race or age or acting experience because I just wanted the entire population of New York to come in and audition; anyone who wanted to come. I had nothing in mind for any of the roles. I mean, I did, but I like surprises. I like to be convinced that this part written for a teenage girl should be played by an elderly, frail man.
But most people who showed up were fresh out of acting school, or recently retired, and some of them were good, many of them were awful, but generally, very few of them were appropriate or were willing to conform to this more stylized approach. So we held maybe 15-day long auditions over the course of a month, we saw hundreds of people -- I’m not exaggerating. And every time, maybe one or two would be right for the film, and for the most part, they were people who had never acted before.
The dialogue in the script is stylized, and in a sense interchangeable, and I had wanted everyone to speak in a uniform manner, but I realized it wasn’t going to be possible to rehearse with anyone at length, so I had to rework my approach. Meanwhile, the sets were being built in the paint factory. So anybody who came in and had a unique interpretation of this similar-sounding dialogue, I would cast them. So the film contains a wide variety of acting styles, sometimes within the same scene. One person is acting like Chico Marx, and he’s talking to someone who thinks she’s Maria Callas. Casting the film became about finding the right admixture, figuring out the most effective combination of all of these styles, how they could play off each other in ways that would create something strange and interesting and beautiful.
Also -- this is not a joke -- I really wanted Mike Tyson in the film. I won’t say which part, but I wrote it for Mike Tyson. And I did everything I could to get to him, and we even hired this really unscrupulous casting director for three days, who claimed that she spoke to him and that he was demanding $100,000 per day. I don’t believe she ever talked to Tyson, and she certainly didn’t cast anyone in the film. Maybe I’m deluded, but I like to think that Mike Tyson would have been moved by the part and he really would have been brilliant in it.
NFS: What was editing process like with your editor, Vanessa McDonnell?
AS: Another genius. She stuck with the film for far too long. She’s the greatest editor in the world; she’s thorough and technically brilliant and full of ideas. For her, every cut needs to contain some kind of joke -- perhaps a subtle joke. But every cut. To her, there’s no use cutting unless there’s something hilarious hidden within that cut. The film is very tightly edited. We would argue over every millisecond. We would watch the entire film with each cut a millisecond later, and then again with each cut a millisecond earlier, just to see how it affected the film. She’s slightly insane, and I’m slightly rational so it worked out.
NFS: So, do you consider this an experimental film?
AS: People who don’t like the film consider it experimental. I love experimental film, and I’ve made experimental films, but I consider this a narrative film -- but some of the narrative information is withheld. I honestly believe that there’s nothing in the film that doesn’t make logical sense, except for one thing in the beginning, which I regret. This was an editing choice we made, and it creates a nice moment, but it doesn’t make logical sense, so I regret it. The film doesn’t provide a lot of context, so you may not know exactly what’s going on -- but there’s nothing in the film, in my opinion, that’s nonsensical. I’m not equating experimental films with nonsense, by the way, I just happen to think of Go Down Death is rooted in some kind of narrative logic. I think you can reconstruct the original narrative around the film, but I also think that it’s not important to do that. But maybe I’m the wrong person to ask.
NFS: What made you decide to make Go Down Death as your first film?
NFS: Go Down Death is finally out for us to see. Where can we go to do that?
AS: Well, I’m hoping that if I were to say, for instance, iTunes, or Amazon, or let’s say, Vudu, whatever the hell that is, or Google -- if I were to say those things, perhaps those things might become active links. That’s what I’m hoping.
NFS: Advice for fellow filmmakers?
AS: Don’t be like me, kids.
Thank you, Aaron!
If you want to support your fellow filmmaker and see Go Down Death in monochromaniacal eye-straining 2D with your very own eyes, check it out on the platforms mentioned above.
Have you seen (or made) any films lately that have taken risks in the face of commercial viability? Any experiences shooting in black-and-white? How did either work out for you in the long run? We'd love to hear your two cents.