Using an Objective Camera to Create Metaphysical Noir 'The Driftless Area'
When translating a script to screen, one of the biggest considerations for the director is deciding the perspective or point-of-view of the film. In a film with multiple protagonists, you can switch between their perspectives, or, as in The Driftless Area you can pick something else like the indifferent landscape of the eponymous Midwest location to create an objective view.
No Film School caught up with director Zachary Sluser at the film's Tribeca 2015 premiere to talk to him about anything from adapting a novel, stylized dialogue, and creating an objective perspective in his first feature length film.
NFS: The Driftless Area seems to take place in a different state of reality. Would you say it’s surreal? Could you describe the world of the story you created?
Zachary Sluser: It’s based on Tom Drury's novel [of the same name]. There are a lot of surreal, metaphysical, and mysterious things going on in the romance part of the story and in Pierre's own life. I hope we maintain in our adaptation how that tone is grounded in a very matter of fact way, whether it's through humor or in the drama or in the connection with people. It's not a fantasy. It's very matter-of-fact; there are things in the universe that are happening that we try to understand, and may be out of our ability to understand.
All the themes of fate, time, the after life, and possibly reincarnation and multiple universes, all these themes are dealt with in this very matter of fact and palatable way, with a very spare, minimalist and dry humor sensibility.
NFS: Is that what you saw in the novel that you thought would translate well to the screen?
Zachary: The novel appealed to me mainly both for this rich and spare approach, and in the funny, original characters and dialogue. His novels are in the Midwest, with a feeling that’s both grounded in reality, and yet in its own world entirely. To me, growing up in the Midwest myself, I felt a connection but at the same time a great intrigue. He never looks down on his characters. The humor doesn't come from laughing at what part of the country these people are from, but more the instances they find themselves in. All the themes of fate, time, the after life, and possibly reincarnation and multiple universes, all these themes are dealt with in this very matter of fact and palatable way, with a very spare, minimalist and dry humor sensibility. That checks all the boxes for me as a filmgoer. I just felt incredibly connected and passionate about this book and thought I need to find this author and I did. I sent him an email and he responded, and I showed him some of my short films.
While we adapted The Driftless Area, we made a short film from one of his New Yorker short stories called Path Lights. We met John Hawkes that way. He was the lead in that film and that was the beginning of the process of the cast and the production for this film.
We wanted a very objective and more settled camera, not an active constantly moving, but almost inspired by the landscape of the Driftless Area itself.
NFS: When you talk about the particular world of this story that's very stylized, and has a very specific style of dialogue, how did you work with your principal actors, Anton Yelchin, Zooey Deschanel, and John Hawkes, to achieve that?
Zachary: What you're getting at is something that isn't just achieved with the cast but is also in the conversations I had with Daniel Voldheim, the cinematographer. Conversations where we decided how the camera would work. We wanted a very objective and more settled camera, not an active constantly moving, but almost inspired by the landscape of the Driftless Area itself. The nature around them is patiently indifferent to the struggle of these people because it's been there a long time and will continue to be there. That inspired the way we shot it, which worked with the actors.
For the actors, it comes out of casting the right people and making sure we were on the same page with our understanding of the story, the character and the material. It just evolved naturally as we started reading it aloud for the first time, in my living room or on set in rehearsal. I feel the music and the editor is very much a part of helping set that tone. It's really important for me, as a filmmaker, to seek out these wonderful specialists and tools at your disposal that you get to work with. Every single decision I make, and who might want to work with me and join our team, is really important because they really help construct a world with me.
We looked at a lot of still photographs too. We developed a really great short hand in terms of color palette.
NFS: When you talk about working with your DP to get this objective feeling that mirrors the landscape, did you decide on a set of tools to achieve that shooting style?
Zachary: We shot on a Panavision package, the Arri Alexa, and we shot with Panavision C Series Anamorphic lenses. Daniel and I really wanted it to be wide screen and we wanted to have the whole film to have a timeless look. That goes to Daniel, but also to my production designer Tony Devenyi and our costume designer Maria Livingstone. We wanted everything to feel not specific to now. It's not a period piece though. We wanted a timeless contemporary look and feel to it.
That is provided by music for me as well. That goes down to the music that Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi the composers created. Daniel and I watched a number of movies, and that's where inspiration starts. We watched films we thought might speak to this film, and talked about each in terms of the lighting, the camera movements, the lens choice, all that.
We looked at a lot of still photographs, too. We developed a really great short hand in terms of color palette. Daniel is a wonderful cinematographer. I feel he likes to be both stylish but very natural. That appealed to me greatly. He works very, very quickly and he's very calm. On these independent films, there are a lot of challenges, and time is always limited. Daniel made the most of it and he made working very easy.
NFS: What would you say was the biggest challenge in making The Driftless Area?
Zachary: I don't know if this is going to be the most satisfying answer, but I just feel like the challenge is always making sure you have the right collaborators. There's always going to be many, many challenges every day and every moment of the film set. It's critical that you are thoughtful of choosing and meeting with the right DP, the right production designer, the right costume designer, the right actors, and the right sound people. You need to make sure that when challenges arise, you all trust each other and you can do what's best for the film in the moment. Especially when maybe what's best for the film that you planned isn't working, and you need to pivot to what's best in the moment. Sometimes you find things that are wonderfully better, and other times they're equally as good. They're just different and you have to let go of what you originally thought it should be, and recognize when something is just as good if not better. I think it's important when you're adapting a novel to be very open to things changing in the moment, on set, in the editing, in all those points.
NFS: You just gave us some useful advice, but do you have any advice to give to other filmmakers, especially now that you’ve finished your first feature and had it premiere at Tribeca?
Zachary: I think what's most important, whether you make the film with pennies in your pocket or you make a film that people are investing in, is that it's something you really believe in. It needs to be something you feel is going to challenge you at every phase. If you believe in it so much, even though it's challenging you, it's exciting and not going to make you feel like giving it up.
I think for me moving from shorts and finally getting this feature made, knowing that I had the source text of Tom's novel and the script that we wrote and the themes that were in it, I always just went back to that. That was the most important thing. Working with the right people and doing something that matters to you, and that's all you can really control.
Thank you, Zachary!
Stay tuned for the release of The Driftless Area to check out the objective perspective for yourself. In the meantime, what types of films have you seen that play with the perspective in an interesting way? Have you experimented with the point-of-view on a film that you felt was successful?