Adam Newport-Berra's 'Greenwood' Will Make Your Eyes & Ears Happy
In the hustle and bustle of today's film world, it's rare to find a piece that so rigorously carves out space for quiet contemplation. This beautiful short Greenwood is a 20-minute favor to yourself.
Filmmaker Adam Newport-Berra, (DP of Creative Control, First Winter) follows two men into the forest of upstate New York as we watch a slow, patient process unfold before our eyes. I got to chat with Adam about narrative vs. documentary coverage, the pros and cons of directing and DPing simultaneously and the dangers of feeling comfortable on set.
I think the hardest thing for our generation to do is find some sort of stillness.
NFS: This piece is really calming and graceful and just made my whole day better when I watched it. I definitely appreciate the pacing of it. Where was this shot?
Adam: It was shot in this place called Beaver Book, which is 2½ hours outside the city. It's a really beautiful piece of property. They have 20 or so residents that stay up there pretty often, and I go up there often. We had done something similar a month before and I watched the whole process and then I ended up suggesting we do a little short film. So we got a camera and went up and just did it all over again.
NFS: In a documentary style setting where you can only do things once, how did you decide what to cover? How did you design the images for Greenwood and make sure you had everything you need as you're watching this real time process.
Adam: I've never been into making documentaries because there's this stigma that's running around with a handheld camera shooting thousands of hours of footage, sitting in a dark room and figuring out how to make your movie. I like the process of shooting something much more than sitting in a dark room, so I wanted to design the movie before I shot it. For me it was helpful to know the process ahead of time, because I had witnessed it before and I did research on it so I knew what to expect. A big part of it is just committing to shots and letting them evolve. You might set up a shot and it doesn't seem right at first, but if you let things play out long enough something interesting will happen and it will gain meaning through that.
NFS: There's a lot of moments where it feels like a 2-camera set up because of the way that you're able to get the other angles on the same action. It's very economical.
Adam: I was thinking a lot about the coverage. I think having a narrative background informed how I was going to edit a lot of it together. Blending that world of narrative and documentary. I tried not to impede the process because we shot only in a day and a half. We couldn't afford to set up every shot and have them wait for me. So we had one camera and a zoom lens and a tripod and I hustled around with my camera assistant and sound guy and just let it play out.
Some of the best work of done is when I'm put myself in situations where I've had to take risks or do something that I wasn't sure was going to work.
NFS: How does your process for designing images change when you're DPing for another director and when you're doing it for yourself?
Adam: I like working with directors because two brains is always better than one, in my opinion. Especially if you're working with someone that you believe in and you trust and you're excited by. With Greenwood it made sense to do everything myself because it was as much about the craft of the piece as the storytelling, and I like working with a small crew. But when I'm working with directors I have much more freedom to think on things. I don't have as many people I have to deal with, I have a lot of responsibility but it's a different kind of responsibility. I get to focus on my craft, whereas as a director you're always thinking about the bigger picture and you're dealing with the subjects, the producers, everybody. [Being a DP] is being a specialist in something, whereas a director has to be a jack of all trades. I think being a director/DP can be fun but it's also lonely and terrifying at times because it's all up to you to figure it out.
NFS: For you, what are the challenges of being the director and the DP?
Adam: I think the hardest part of shooting and directing is just that you have less time to do everything. When I was doing Thanksgiving, I was dealing with people who were lighting the scene and also the actors, and at times I felt like I wasn't able to give everyone the attention they deserve. And for me that's frustrating part because, for me, communication and that dialogue and spontaneous energy is what makes a movie great. So it's frustrating but at the same time what I really loved was being behind the camera a couple feet away from the actors, really breathing the scene and feeling the scene. We shot that whole movie handheld, so I could really make conscious decisions within the scene and react immediately as opposed to watching a scene and then relaying it.
With something like Greenwood I really couldn't imagine having a DP shoot that because I didn't want to be talking at all. I think having another person there would be really cumbersome and distracting. With just my camera and a zoom lens it let me fade into the background. That helped the process and made everyone comfortable because these guys weren't used to being on camera. The nice thing about being a DP and a director is just the intimacy you get out of it and people really trust you and put a lot of faith in you because they know you're the arbiter of everything that's going to happen. At the same time, it's stressful and I'm not a very experienced director so it's intimidating.
NFS: Did you have a specific turning point for you where you felt you had found your groove as a DP? How long did it take you to find that?
Adam: I often feel very comfortable on set, but for me I'm very wary of that feeling. I realize that sometimes I'm not challenging myself. Some of the best work of done is when I've put myself in situations where I've had to take risks or do something that I wasn't sure was going to work. I started feeling comfortable a couple years out of school when I started shooting commercials and I had made somewhat of a name for myself and people trusted me to be on set. Not just a word of mouth thing, but people had worked with me several times and there was some sense of rapport. But I think for me a gratifying moment was when I had my first feature film in a festival, which was a film called First Winter directed by Ben [Dickinson], who also directed Creative Control. It was a tiny movie that we shot on Super16 with no lights and basically no crew. It was amazing to sit in the theater and have people not walk out on it. That was when I felt I hit a stride and had my own voice. I wasn't stressed out about if I was doing the right thing or if I was fulfilling some sort of expectation. It was more about feeling that I had something important to say to people. That was the first moment I felt validated in what I was doing.
The nice thing about being a DP and a director is just the intimacy you get out of it and people really trust you and put a lot of faith in you because they know you're the arbiter of everything that's going to happen.
NFS: Greenwood just sounds so nice. How did you go about the process of capturing sound and directing the sound design in post?
Adam: I funded this whole thing myself and made it with very little. I just wanted to make something and this was really fascinating to me. I was trying to cut as many corners as possible while still trying to make something good. So I almost didn't bring a sound man on, and then at the last minute I realized that would've been a huge mistake. So I had my friend JR Skola come up and get some nice stereo recordings of the forest and really get beautiful recordings of what was happening. Fortunately it's a long process so he had a lot of time to really get in there and get some rich sound.
From there I had my friend Mark Phillips, who's super talented, just do the sound design himself. I think the cinematography and the editing informs the sound design in a lot of ways — it was just this meditation. I didn't want anything super aggressive, I wanted to it feel really rich and dense but not obnoxious or overly present. I think sound design is really tough because sometimes it can try to upstage things too much, and I think it needs to have that level of subtlety. We talked about music and I had all these classical songs that I wanted to incorporate into it, then I realized that would be way too heavy handed. So I just had him make it more ambient to the point where you can barely recognize it as an instrument.
NFS: I'm excited to share this. I think it will give people a chance to chill out for 20 minutes.
Adam: I think the hardest thing for our generation to do is find some sort of stillness. For me this was a moment to do that, because that will be our generation's biggest challenge: to sit with something for more than a few minutes. This is an exploration in trying to do that. I'm so guilty of it; it's impossible for me to sit still and pay attention. I was really nervous about this movie because it's 20 minutes long. I got to a point where I couldn't cut it down anymore and if people wanted to watch it they would. It's not for everybody, but if you're able to sit with it for a while then it pays off.