The stories of five audacious directors who pushed the limits of cinema this year.
Risks are the lifeblood of cinema. Without venturesome directors (and the producers and companies that back them), we wouldn't enjoy the diverse array of filmmaking techniques and creative visions that abound in theaters today. Through risk-taking, directors challenge the very way we experience movies, pushing technology and artistry to its limits to deliver a cinematic experience that surpasses our wildest imaginations.
Below, we've highlighted a few major risks directors took in cinema this year. Whether pertaining to casting decisions, narrative structure, or technical innovation, the risks these directors took embody the value of cinematic bravado.
Personal Shopper — A silent 20-minute texting scene
2017 brought many surprises, not least of them Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper. The beguiling ghost story seems to defy cinematic conventions at every turn—and there are many—but for all its risk-taking, a single scene emerges as one of the most daring in recent memory. It's a 20-minute texting scene that unfolds in complete silence, and unidentified texter on the other end of the conversation may or may not be a ghost.
In the film, Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a spiritual medium who has recently lost her twin brother. Motivated by grief, she looks for signs of contact with him everywhere. Then, while traveling on the Eurostar train from Paris to London, Maureen receives an onslaught of text messages from an unknown number. The first: "I know you." The second: "And you know me." Is it her brother, communicating from the dead? It's an alluring idea, but one that Maureen is forced to reconsider as the text messages become ever more lewd and menacing. "Tell me something you find unsettling," the mysterious texter writes. Maureen, who has thus far maintained a veneer of detachment, is prompted by the stranger's quick-and-dirty intimacy to reveal some vulnerability for the first time in the film. She writes and rewrites texts before she sends an answer. When the anonymous texter writes, "I want you and I will have you," she flirts back.
Assayas, ingeniously, has constructed what many critics have called a modern Hitchcockian scene—one that is filmed in our own imaginations.
As the scene cuts back and forth between Maureen's ever-changing countenance and her iPhone screen, a sense of growing dread emerges. Assayas, ingeniously, has constructed what many critics have called a modern Hitchcockian scene—one that plays out in our own imaginations. It's a familiar drama for anyone who has experienced the anxiety and suspense inherent in the experience of texting. In the absence of context or information, Maureen projects her own thoughts, fantasies, desires, and insecurities onto the person at the other end, whose responses are often maddeningly ambiguous in tone. The unknown sender's "typing ellipses" are Hitchcock's ticking bomb under the table.
Who knew a ghost movie could deliver a singularly resonant treatise on the psychology of modern communication?
A Ghost Story — A 40-page script that transcends space and time
David Lowery's A Ghost Story has no definitive plot. Its script is only 40 sparse pages. It was inspired by a simple image—a sheet-wearing ghost with eyeholes, much like a lo-fi Halloween costume—and its production was driven largely by intuition. Yet the film manages to evoke one of the most complex feelings in the human spectrum: That particular brand of melancholy that comes from realizing time and space belong to no one.
In the first act, C (Casey Affleck) dies in a car accident and returns to haunt his young wife, M (Rooney Mara), in their Texas fixer-upper. Then, life goes on. (There is at once nothing sadder or more hopeful than that.) In the spellbinding second and third acts, A Ghost Story sucks us into its metaphysical world, where time melts into itself and restless souls can only hope for eternal return. It reminds us that we are simply passing through.
From the beginning, Lowery was cognizant of the risky nature of the project. He self-financed it so there "wasn’t any need to go pitch it to anyone or to knock on doors asking for money," Lowery told us in an interview. "We were going to make this movie small enough that we could afford to make it ourselves." Lowery kept the crew small and tightly-knit, mostly comprised of previous collaborators, because "knew this was going to be that type of movie that needed that type of support and structure to succeed."
"I wonder now, looking back," Lowery said, "if we'd had more prep time, if I would have lost my nerve and pulled the plug on it. Because there were plenty of times while shooting that I wanted to do that, but we were already too deep into it. There was a point in production where I lost all my confidence, and every day I was convinced it wasn't working. I thought it was too high-concept to succeed. I was prepared for it to fail."
But Lowery plowed ahead, even as the mechanics of the ghost costume threatened to undermine the film itself. "To make [the ghost] costume work in three dimensions was a feat of mechanical engineering," Lowery said. "I was consistently sick to my stomach thinking that it would not work. 'Clunky' is the best way to describe [the early footage of the ghost]. It just felt like someone wearing a sheet stumbling through a frame. It had no elegance, no grace, no sense of the ethereal. It just felt dumb, and it took a while for us to figure out how to make him not dumb. There were little glimpses here and there that kind of gave us hope that we might be able to pull it off, but it still took a lot of refinement. And not just with the costume, but also how we shot it. How he moved. How he existed in the world. The frame rate that we shot him in. All those things were things we figured out as we went along."
All These Sleepless Nights — Building a custom rig to shoot a docu-fiction hybrid
Polish filmmaker Michal Marczak's All These Sleepless Nights captures the intermittent rapture, tedium, and nadirs of adolescence in experiential cinema form. The docu-fiction hybrid, which Marczak filmed in Warsaw using non-actors he found at bars and nightclubs, follows a pair of teenage boys over the course of many sleepless nights in unpredictable and intimate situations that feel too meticulously shot to be unscripted, yet too visceral and spontaneous to be fiction. Marczak achieves this with his sweeping camera, which is a character unto itself.
But devising a rig dexterous enough to do the job was not a simple undertaking. "We looked through all the gimbals that were available on the market and none of them were good enough," Marczak told us in an interview earlier this year. "We started looking at custom stuff and then at the end of the day, we were like, 'Fuck it. We'll build our own.'"
Marczak, who shot the film himself, built a custom rig so he could "shoot documentary in a cinematic way."
Marczak, who shot the film himself, built a custom rig so he could "shoot documentary in a cinematic way." He and some engineers modified a gimbal into a combination of a Steadicam and gyroscope so that it fit into the director's backpack and allowed him to shoot in close quarters. Then, they custom-modified the software on the gimbal control computer and built their own custom follow focus. "I think it's just about pushing whatever technology you have," Marczak said. "We pushed that camera to its fucking maximum."
Marczak also forewent traditional lighting in order to build practical lights into his sets that disguised the presence of the film crew, allowing them to embed seamlessly into live environments. The director spent four months with his characters prior to the shoot. While they hung out, did camera tests, and generally got to know each other, Marczak developed subtle ways of nonverbally communicating with his actors.
"For me, it's super important not to do the whole stop-start filming thing, but just to always be in the moment," Marczak said. "When you take yourself out of the moment, it requires so much energy to get back into it. It really fucks up the atmosphere. So it became a dance between me and the characters. That way, we could always be in the moment when navigating the master shots—which feel like they're very choreographed or have an in and out point, but are actually done on the fly because we're able to maneuver this reality together."
"I really don't like the super-stringent film tradition: you walk onto a set, you've got 25 days, you work 14 hours a day," Marczak continued. "I love this way of filmmaking where it's a group of people that get together, have an adventure, live through these moments, and capture them at the same time. Everybody grows and develops."
The Florida Project — Casting child non-actors as leads
Sean Baker is no stranger to risk-taking: He shot his 2015 microbudget film Tangerine on an iPhone and cast transgender non-actors he found walking the streets of Los Angeles as leads. Although Baker received a $2 million production budget for his next film, The Florida Project, he threw a monkey wrench into his improv-based directing method by deciding to center the film around a group of non-actor children. It was a major gamble, but ultimately Baker's empathetic directing approach and eye for talent elevated the film to one of the best of the year.
The leader of the gang is the headstrong six-year-old Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince, whom Baker found through local auditions in a Florida mall. Moonee lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), at the Magic Kingdom Motel, where many low-income, housing-insecure families lead an itinerant existence. Although Baker's producers were set on casting a professional actress in the demanding role, Baker was taken with Vinaite's charisma when he stumbled across her social media account and managed to convince his team to fly her out to Los Angeles. "[Bria] being a fresh face makes the audience buy into the circumstances much more quickly," Baker told Paper Magazine.
Baker conducted ample research on homeless and poverty-stricken communities on the outskirts of Orlando, ultimately leaning on the details he learned to craft a very loose screenplay with co-writer Chris Bergoch. Because he knew the success of his film hinged upon the authenticity of the kids' performances, Baker encouraged playfulness and experimentation on set. As a result, the film is by turns whimsical and deeply heartbreaking in its verisimilitude.