Director Luigi Campi and DP Giacomo Belletti are not afraid of dated filmmaking technology. Here's how they made a poetic, visually-stunning film using MiniDV.
Quick disclaimer: I’m not a film critic. Like many readers of this publication, I’m a film and television maker. And so, having been scorched and liquified in the crucible of physical production many times before, I don’t take for granted that films end up the way they are intended. They almost never do. The process is inherently industrial and technical.
The workplace, like any other, is irreverent, chaotic, fraught with petty grievances, inundated with unexpected events and complications. Schedules go up in flames. It rains. People drop out. Cameras break. More people drop out. There are emotional crises, spiritual crises, and none more acute than for writer-directors in the breach.
In short, when you attempt to bring forth that fragile artistic germ incubating in the soil and sanctuary of your mind, you’re in for an awakening that gives “coming-of-age” the true substance of its sub-genre. There are a thousand reasons why you’ll doubt yourself and fail.
Schooled in these quotidian hard knocks, I sat down to watch My First Kiss and the People Involved, the debut feature of writer-director (and former Columbia classmate) Luigi Campi, and I was surprised; because Campi, I believe, did that improbable thing. He succeeded.
At the start of the film, there’s a ghostly hand that beckons us in. It traces the world in the round. Upstate New York in the summer, bursting and bleeding greens. Washing lines. A school bus. An old farmhouse with a teenage boy in the window. The hand pauses here, encircles the boy’s face in a caress. The hand is our hand, the soft purring is our voice. We’re seeing all this from the inside, from behind the eyes of our flame-haired protagonist (who we soon meet).
In Luigi Campi’s poised, careful, and hugely accomplished first feature, we’re beckoned in right from the start and held there with a tremulous, humming tension up until the very end.
The film is set in a communal home for developmentally challenged adults, in which resident teenager Sam (played by Bobbi Salvör Menuez) witnesses a crime of passion committed against her free-spirited friend and carer Lydia (played by Liza Thorn). Sam goes on a journey to discover Lydia’s fate, and in so doing, awakens something in herself. She steps through a doorway, and in ways subtle and great, she changes.
The film is many things: a murder mystery with lashings of noir, a raw and intimate coming-of-age, a tender sexual awakening, a bold impressionist painting come to life. The story, delicately wrought with few words and intimate performances, all in a digital haze of fresh vivid colors, is precise. The images are evocative and tactile without being twee. There’s a masked ball, and a lot of hands doing what lips do. There’s an entanglement of earthworms on a broken mirror—perhaps the yin and yang of sex and death. There’s a blood sacrifice, and a girl adrift in the reeds, buoyed and set free.
Watching i—and knowing the writer/director’s bold early work (such as his wayward, stifling, and darkly funny meditation on loss in the short film Escape From Planet Tar)—I felt that Campi had achieved something great and made the film he’d intended to. And so, inspired and a little annoyed at his accomplishment, I caught up with the filmmaker and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Giacomo Belletti, to press them for answers, and to find out how.
NFS: You made a film shot on MiniDV with a main character who doesn’t speak more than a dozen words throughout. These choices seem to defy commercial common sense.
Luigi Campi: And that’s why we’re releasing it quite a while after making it. Festivals and festival-goers really connected to it, but it was a challenge to find distribution.
NFS: The film is very beautiful.
Campi: I blame Giacomo for that. He embraced my lo-fi fetish and made it look like the love child of a 70s film and an expressionist painting.
NFS: Why did you choose to shoot on MiniDV?
Campi: Giacomo and I did some early tests that went in a completely different direction. Anamorphic Cooke lenses, shallow focus imagery, very beautiful. But we weren’t feeling it. Our main character has a very unique experience of the world: simplified and ecstatic. We were asking ourselves: how can we feel the world like she does? We had shot various projects on lo-fi cameras, and we both love what MiniDV can do if you use it in a certain way. It can pare the world down to its essentials. Essential colors, essential elements. Like some paintings do. And when one of our main investors backed out one month before the shoot, effectively halving our budget, any doubt vanished. It’s like the world was telling us what to do.
NFS: And you listened.
Campi: It spoke very loudly.
Giacomo Belletti: Gigi and I don’t go after beauty for beauty’s sake. We like to put some thought behind our choices… or maybe it’s more of a gut feeling. We never accept the “reality” of recorded images and how the current technology is translating it, we are always asking each other, “Okay, what have we used so far? What can we use? What’s the best reproduction and distortion tool for this particular project?” I think you can do that when the foundations are solid, when there is reciprocal trust. But this way of working also requires some extra testing, workflows have to be re-discovered or invented, and sometimes it just doesn’t work.
NFS: When I think of MiniDV I think shaky, desaturated home videos. Your film is composed and bursting with color. Which films or visual artworks inspired you? How did you use the technology to your advantage?
Belletti: I can’t recall any specific visual reference, apart from some paintings, random found photographs and the memories of watching 70s movies on a VHS player. The movie I Start Counting was mentioned a few times at the very beginning of the production, I think it was a movie we both really liked.
Campi: Yes, I Start Counting for the camera storytelling, Julien Donkey Boy for the textures and Her Name is Sabine for the world. Other image-makers we looked at were Andrew Kodama, Andrew Lyman, Sam Hodge, Dorota Wo, Chung Heeseung and Donigan Cumming.
"MiniDV is radical, it doesn’t give you many options, it synthesizes the visual experience combining the extremes. What’s too dark is almost not visible and what’s bright is really bright. There’s no hidden information."
Belletti: Personally, I have always been a fan of Danny Boyle and Anthony Dod Mantle. 28 Days Later is one of my favorites, it was also shot on an XL camera. We had picture books in mind, fairy tales, pastel colors and gentle moves. From the very beginning, we were committed to a very economical use of camera moves and cuts. Sam couldn’t be in different places at once and her gaze had to be narrated with stubborn observation. We definitely wanted to step away from the typical MiniDV look, or more precisely the Dogma ‘95 look. MiniDV is radical, it doesn’t give you many options, it synthesizes the visual experience combining the extremes. What’s too dark is almost not visible and what’s bright is really bright. There’s no hidden information. Also, I think Luigi watches a lot of YouTube, so he’s not used to high resolution! More importantly, the footprint is small, which helps keep the crew to a minimum, and that can help talent. Both crew and talent can benefit from participating in something intimate. Shooting “My First Kiss” was definitely one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had on set.
NFS: Did you rely on available light or did you supplement?
Belletti: We relied mostly on natural light, two work lights, and some commercial grade color LEDs I bought on e-Bay. That’s how we got the blue scenes.
NFS: I saw a behind the scenes photo where you’re using big mirrors.
Belletti: Yes! Two 4’x4’ mirrors to move the sun where we needed it.
NFS: What camera did you use?
Campi: The Canon XL2 from 2001.
Belletti: We obsessed over MiniDV cameras for so long that I decided to forget why for my own sanity. But I believe the frame rate had something to do with the choice. If you are trying to replicate 24fps, your options narrow down to the Panasonic DVX-100 and the Canon XL2, and we just liked the Canon better. Soon after that, the technology moved on to HDV... bummer.
"We had to find a tape deck, research the best available tapes, tape cleaner, protect the tapes and digitize in real-time. We seriously traveled back 15 technology years."
NFS: Which lenses?
Campi: The zoom lens that came with the camera. We shot through different types of refracting materials, we smeared it with hand sanitizer...
Belletti: We even shot through the gas from a camping stove.
NFS: Do you approach a film shot on MiniDV differently from one shot with the latest technology?
Belletti: I didn’t have to hire any professionals! We had to find a tape deck, research the best available tapes, tape cleaner, protect the tapes and digitize in real-time. We seriously traveled back 15 technology years. Luigi’s former classmate Willem Lee (Camera Assistant) was sitting at a desk for the better part of the day doing that. We quickly realized that the image that we committed to on set was basically going to be the final version of it, you can’t push the image too much. But when we nailed it, it was really beautiful and appropriate. Andy Nguyen, the 1st AD, was really my gaffer. He was the one that helped me arrange the day’s schedule according to the weather and the sun position. He really pulled some small miracles.
NFS: Can you talk about the music? The score is such an important character in the film.
Campi: There’s two musical voices in the film. One is Liza Thorn, who plays Lydia, the woman who goes missing. Liza is the real deal—100% rock star—and she came up with this beautiful song that she plays live in the film. She plays it for Sam, the main character, and you realize that these two people are connected because they don’t use words as a primary language. Sam uses gestures and sounds, and Lydia uses music and action. The other musical voice is Bonnie McAlvin. A New York-based flutist and composer. It was her first time scoring a film and she was amazing.
"The music walks the line between being an external soundtrack and Sam’s inner music. It’s her inner Debussy!"
NFS: How did you come across her work?
Campi: I had a different musical direction in mind—more of a droning music, a sonic landscape. Until the editor Konstantinos Antonopoulos started laying some classical music over certain scenes, mainly Debussy. Flutes were the perfect match. So, I went on this hunt for a flutist and I found a guy in Seattle—god bless him!— who had compiled a list of every composer, dead or alive, who had ever composed for flute. I went through the alive ones, and finally I found Bonnie and contacted her. Bonnie plays the flute, which is traditionally a monophonic instrument, as a multiphonic instrument. She coaxes multiple notes at a time out of an instrument that’s not meant to do it.
NFS: In a couple of scenes, Sam hums some of the notes from the main theme.
Campi: The music walks the line between being an external soundtrack and Sam’s inner music. It’s her inner Debussy!
NFS: You mentioned casting Liza Thorn. Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
Campi: Liza is great. Smart and funny and larger than life. When she enters a room you will notice her. One review described her as ‘a bolt of bluesy lightning’. She stands out so much in the beginning of the film that when she goes missing you really want her back, and you understand why Sam wants to find her so badly.
NFS: Tell us about Bobbi Salvör Menuez.
LC: I auditioned many good actors, but when Bobbi stepped into the room there was no doubt about it. Bobbi understood Sam better than I did. And just like the image veered towards MiniDV and the music veered towards flute, the film veered towards Bobbi. They are magical, both live and on-screen, and the film became a fable. When Bobbi agreed to be in the film, I knew that I could allow myself to create the expressionistic world that I had in mind, because their presence would sustain it.
NFS: And Sam’s love interest, Junior?
Campi: Josh Caras plays Junior. It’s a word-less role, so I was looking for someone who could say a lot without saying anything. Josh is a sensitive actor, very sincere and charming. I remember that whenever we had a close-up on him, as soon as we called "cut", the people behind the monitor would go "Awww!" all together. Josh and Bobbi don’t speak, but it turns out they don’t need to. On set they connected in a natural way, through glances and secret messages. It’s an old-fashioned playground love, and you’re rooting for them to be together. They’re both redheads.
"Michael spoke for an hour non-stop about his backstory. He was so convincing and detailed that I wasn’t sure if he was talking about his own story! After an hour he said “And that’s my story”, and stopped talking. I cast him on the spot and never gave him any direction after that."
NFS: There are quite a few ensemble scenes.
Campi: The whole cast was great. Everyone’s favorite was Michael Donaldson, the actor playing Morgan. He steals the show. I’d love to make a whole film with him one day. I kept coming up with little improvised scenes for Michael to play, just because I enjoyed his performance so much. During the casting process, I organized callbacks in which I asked actors to come up with a backstory for their character. Michael spoke for an hour non-stop about his backstory. He was so convincing and detailed that I wasn’t sure if he was talking about his own story! After an hour he said “And that’s my story”, and stopped talking. I cast him on the spot and never gave him any direction after that.
NFS: Was there a lot of improvisation?
Campi: When Sam focuses on a specific detail or object, we perceive her surroundings and the people around her as background texture. In those moments, I asked the actors to freestyle a bit. But a lot of the improvisation had to do with what we chose to shoot. The location gave us ideas.
NFS: It was Upstate New York.
Campi: Yes, a farmhouse near Roxbury. The production office was in the shed. At night, we would often have to go for another take because coyotes were howling in the distance. We all slept at a motel nearby, except Bobbi, who slept on location to get into the mood.
NFS: Sounds magical.
Campi: It was. Deer showed up. Ticks too. We rewrote quite a few moments based on the place. Halfway through the film, there’s a tense, intimate scene between Sam and Junior. In the script, it was set in a wooden shed, but when we got to the location we discovered this beautiful grain silo, tall and domed. We shot the scene in there, and the natural reverb of the structure amplified every tiny movement, every whisper.
"When that investor backed out there was a moment of shock, but then the dust cleared and I looked around and everyone still standing there was ready to go with what we had."
NFS: Any other scenes influenced by the location?
Campi: The ending. No spoilers, but the very last moment of the film used to be a more literal scene in the script. The location told us to scrap that and go for a more site-specific and emotional ending. We were a light production and we were able to listen.
NFS: And the crew went with the flow?
Campi: I was surrounded by people who trusted me, trusted each other, and really came together around this delicate project. Everyone worked hard to protect the work, to protect the creative atmosphere. And at some point everyone got into it, suggesting things, pointing out natural phenomena. “Hey Luigi, you gotta come check out this spider web I found!” And the spider web made it into the film, it’s the second shot! It’s funny how things work out. When that investor backed out there was a moment of shock, but then the dust cleared and I looked around and everyone still standing there was ready to go with what we had. So, we played the game with more gusto because we had less to lose.
NFS: Were they long term collaborators?
Campi: Many of them were. Giacomo, some of the crew and most of the production team. It was my first feature, fresh out of Columbia film school, and most of the repeat-collaborators were classmates. I guess that contributed to the summer camp atmosphere.
NFS: Could you tell us about how you’re releasing the film and where we can see it?
Campi: Starting on November 8th, the film will be available to stream for free, without sign-up or sign-in, for a limited time on the Filmatique.com homepage and also on the Filmatique app for AppleTV and Roku. Then on November 17th, it’ll be on Amazon Prime for US and Canada, with other VOD platforms to follow soon after that.