'Notes on an Appearance': Ricky D'Ambrose on How to Cheat Locations and Why He Shot 4:3
Set in the world of Brooklyn intelligentsia, Ricky D'Ambrose's 'Notes on an Appearance' manages to narrowly sidestep satire.
Notes on an Appearance revels in absence. For one, Ricky D'Ambrose's film never actually shows Stephen Taubes, the fictional philosopher on which the film is based. We meet him, and his controversial anarchistic writings, through a series of news articles that appear onscreen (including a New Yorker profile that could fool even the magazine's most avid reader). An intern for a man working on Taubes's biography, David (Bingham Bryant), is tasked with archiving much of the author's work. But then David, too, goes missing.
This preoccupation with absence doesn't end with the plot. With limited resources and himself a full-time job, D'Ambrose filmed his debut in a cleverly economical manner that required very few locations, despite the fact that the film takes place across the entire borough of Brooklyn. The writer-director manages to evoke an entire subculture—that of erudite hipster Brooklynites—with a simple shot of a coffee cup on a table, over which we hear snippets of a brunch conversation. Other times, he does it with a simple portrait of a character against a highly stylized, one-dimensional backdrop.
D'Ambrose worked out his exacting aesthetic over a series of short films that played at the New York Film Festival. These caught the eye of, yes, The New Yorker's Richard Brody, who went on to champion Notes on an Appearance when it played recently at the 2018 New Directors/New Films festival at Lincoln Center in New York. "I'm very grateful to him," D'Ambrose told No Film School. "I think his New Yorker piece, the day before my film played at New Directors/New Films, is largely responsible for the fact that it sold out. The place was packed!"
No Film School caught up with D'Ambrose to discuss how his shorts evolved into a feature, how he kept costs down by cheating multiple locations, why VHS inspired the film's 4:3 aspect ratio, and more.
No Film School: Do you want to start by telling me about how your shorts, Six Cents in the Pocket and Spiral Jetty, propelled this feature?
Ricky D'Ambrose: I made Spiral Jetty after Six Cents in the Pocket. It is a kind of draft of Notes on Appearance. But they were both made with this feature in mind. Although it was titled The Millennials originally, many years ago when I started writing it.
The shorts were opportunities for me to try out techniques, storytelling strategies, and performance styles. I started to treat the performances of the actors as formal elements and I decided to structure my movies in a way that was almost diagrammatic—very carefully composed. The shorts allowed me to figure these things out. So all of the thinking that went on, I was able to deploy in the shorts.
"Making the shorts was like going to film school. I didn't graduate from film school. The shorts taught me to make movies very economically."
NFS: How much of Notes on an Appearance emerged organically from the process of making the shorts?
D'Ambrose: Well, I can tell you there was originally a very different script for a very different type of movie. It did evolve. My original idea for the feature was a kind of talky literary film, very different in tone than the end result. As I rewrote the script, the shorts changed as well. So there was this feedback loop between the writing of the feature, which kept going on through 2016, and the short films, which I kept making until 2016.
Making the shorts was like going to film school. I didn't graduate from film school. The shorts taught me to make movies very economically and that I think I adhered to with the feature, making it very inexpensively for 11 days.
NFS: For Notes on an Appearance, what are some ways in which you made the most of your limited resources, making it as economical as possible?
D'Ambrose: The economy of the movie, or its efficiency, was really dictated by certain limitations I had put on myself from the get-go. I knew that I couldn't shoot the film for longer than 14 days. Because to earn a living, I have a full-time, salaried job that isn't related to filmmaking at all, and there's only so much time that I can take off from my job, unfortunately, before I'm losing money. That was the principal reason for making this such a limited shoot—and therefore, a less expensive shoot.
"The film is set in a handful of locations, but shot in two or three."
Making a movie this way, it's almost like you're creating an inventory of three or four different rooms in a couple of apartments that you know very well. You know you're going to shoot in those rooms, and you know where the camera will be placed beforehand, because you've shot in those rooms before for a short film. So, the economy is also informed by having a limited repertoire of rooms or spaces where you can put the camera. If you go outside of that venue, you have to start paying location fees. That is something we ran into with the film for the house we shot in—we had to pay the owners a little bit of money to use it. But by and large, the film is set in a handful of locations, but shot in two or three.
All of these things had to be kept in mind during the writing, in terms of how the movie was visualized and conceived and structured. But I really don't know any other way of making movies. I've never had the luxury of someone giving me a half million dollars to make an hour-and-a-half-long film. So, I don't feel like I'm putting myself at a disadvantage by making movies that way.
NFS: From an audience perspective, some of the choices that you made feel very intentional. For example, coverage of a conversation over a shot of a coffee cup, or the ways in which you used subways, business cards, newspaper clippings, and other elements from the environment to tell the story across locations.
D'Ambrose: Yeah, the newspaper clippings accomplish something. They short-circuit something. How do you convey backstory? How do you present a personal history—a menacing personal history of this guy, Steven Taubes, without expository dialogue? Without any kind of dialogue at all? No one in the movie talks about Taubes. You never hear David and Todd discuss him. I don't think he ever comes up in the film except through David's voiceover narration.
So the newspapers are a way of economizing. They are a way of presenting information so that the film doesn't have to rely on traditional narrative filmmaking strategies—expository dialogue being one. I don't find it very interesting or well-suited to this particular movie I was making. The overheard dialogue is another way of solving a problem of: How do you situate the characters in a time and place without necessarily relying on an establishing shot?
These things aren't expensive to do or to achieve. It's just a matter of editing, of keeping something onscreen for a certain amount of time. Having some people, shoot a table top with some coffee on it—that's something you can do in a living room, which is what we did. I went to a restaurant supply store in Chinatown in New York and bought some restaurant supplies.
"The characters in the film deliver their lines in a very deliberate way. They're all speaking the same tone."
NFS: I personally loved the scene depicting the panel about the failure of late capitalism. I thought that was genius, the way that you shot it, almost like a horror film. But a scene like that isn't necessarily serving the story of Notes on an Appearance, per se. It's more in service to the world that you're trying to convey or represent. Actually, in many ways, I saw this film as a series of non-sequiturs that add up to something—that create a world.
D'Ambrose: Interestingly, the translation panel scene was the only scene in the film that survived successive drafts. I think it was in the first draft. [I wrote the film] originally as a very broad satire, which is something that I moved farther and farther away from with each new draft.
D'Ambrose: The stuff about establishing an environment with certain types of people... that's something I couldn't quite avoid or sidestep. Todd and his cohorts, whatever you want to call them, are part of a segment of people that isn't representative of most people their age in this country. They are academics. They are very well educated. They are the types of people who would attend a literary translation panel. How do you express or illustrate that world or group of people without overstating it? Without turning it into caricature? That was an important thing for me to try to figure out—these ways of setting the table, so to speak. It became a really delicate balancing act.
"The characters in the film deliver their lines in a very deliberate way. They're all speaking the same tone."
NFS: On that note, let's talk about the performances. They had this stoic, kind of flattened quality that is commonly seen in academic circles like this.
D'Ambrose: This kind of underplayed performance style is something that, as I was saying earlier, was an important part of the short films. There's a tone that's adopted, especially by Todd's girlfriend, Karen, who's played by Madelyn James. That tone is modeled after a person—an existing academic young woman, about Karen's age, who has written for some of the places that the character Karen has written for. One of the things I did with Madelyn James to prepare was to show her a video of a panel discussion with this particular academic on it.
The characters in the film deliver their lines in a very deliberate way. They're all speaking the same tone. The way they deliver their lines isn't too dissimilar to the way that people like that in life may deliver their lines—here in New York, say, if you go to a translation panel.
NFS: Can talk a little about the decision to use the boxy aspect ratio, 4:3?
D'Ambrose: The 4:3 is dictated by two things, the first being the VHS recordings. They're meant to be Taubes's videos. David was asked to inventory them as part of his work as a research assistant for Todd. The fact that the VHS recordings were shot in 4:3... I didn't want to make a movie that switched aspect ratios, and I certainly didn't want to enlarge the 4:3 VHS recording to a 16:9 frame. It just seemed inevitable that what I shot would conform to the aspect ratio of what this fictitious philosopher, demagogic character would have shot on his travels on a camcorder.
Also, all of the all of the props I designed—the newspaper clippings, the boarding passes, the book covers—I made myself. The newspaper clippings are more attractively presented in a square than in a rectangle. So I designed them in a 4:3 canvas in Photoshop and then printed out on newsprint and taped to a wall and shot that way. Presenting the newspaper columns in a more narrow frame is just more attractive visually, I think.
NFS: What are some challenges that you maybe didn't foresee going into your first full-length feature film?
D'Ambrose: It was the first time that I worked with a proper crew. In my short films, I was my own cinematographer, using my own camera. I was my own, for the most part, sound recordist. And my own location manager. I was shooting films on weekends for four to five days, rather than for 11 days spread out over 2.5 weeks. It was a challenge having to delegate responsibilities that I ordinarily assumed myself. And establishing trust with those people, most of whom are strangers.
It was a challenge articulating what I wanted. What seems to intuitive on the short films is not intuitive to anyone else, when you're working on a feature with a small crew. They can't get inside your head, obviously. It becomes an issue of: How do you put this through to people in a way that is intelligible to them? And how do you entrust them with it? It sounds very simple and stupid, but these were things that I hadn't been habituated to.
NFS: So how did you transmute what was in your brain into the brains of the crewmembers?
D'Ambrose: Even though the shorts did not have a crew, I created very detailed instructions for myself and for the other people. I did that for Notes on an Appearance. The film was very carefully storyboarded. The scripts existed as charts. There were visual references, a visual taxonomy of stills from existing films that I had been watching and putting together, organized by shot type and shot size. Everything was there for the people working on the film. It was very, very carefully thought out and planned out.
The movie doesn't depart very much from what was written and what was expected. I don't think the film would have come out the way it did had I not taken these precautions prior to shooting. Some people think, "Oh, we'll just set up and figure things out." But I don't make movies that way. I wouldn't know how to do it any other way.