How director/writer/camera operator Gavin Michael Booth made two simultaneous feature-length single-shot takes, and why.
Shot in two 80-minute single takes, filmed simultaneously in two different parts of a city, and presented in split screen, Last Call is groundbreaking. It has pushed realtime filmmaking to new levels.
Directed and co-written by Canadian filmmaker Gavin Michael Booth on a micro-budget, the technical feat is all the more remarkable for sustaining a genuinely potent narrative about shared humanity.
Last Call follows a suicidal alcoholic (played by the film’s co-writer Daved Wilkins) on the anniversary of his son’s death. When he attempts to call a crisis hotline, a mis-dial connects him with Beth, a single mother working as the night janitor (Sarah Booth) at a local community college. The split screen feature showcases both characters in real-time as they navigate a life-changing conversation.
“Anyone can do it single takes as a gimmick,” says Booth, who previously made short film Fifteen for Blumhouse, which was broadcast live on Periscope. “It’s got to serve the story.”
Booth met Wilkins through a filmmakers' coffee morning group in LA where membership was only allowed if no one complained about the business.
“You had to be positive,” says Booth with a smile. “David came up to me and said he had a friend who had just completed training as a crisis worker, and would I be interested in a project about a guy calling a crisis hotline in realtime?
“That’s the outline of the film, but it changed significantly because most crisis hotline calls are done in 20 minutes—they either get the caller to agree to be safe or they send someone for a wellness check out to take care of them. In our film, Daved’s character misdials and instead interacts with a random stranger. This instantly puts the audience in the shoes of the person taking Daved’s call at that same time as ratcheting up tension because you also have this viewpoint—which she doesn’t share—of the caller’s actions.”
British director Mike Figgis pioneered real-time split-screen cinema at the advent of digital photography with Timecode in 2000. While that film was a largely improvised project, Last Call has a tightly scripted narrative. It’s a two-hander with each actor’s storyline taking place at the same time, but in separate locations, as they talk on the phone.
It would have been easier perhaps to shoot one single take and then record the other, but this would have been unfair to the actor going second.
“They would have to perfectly memorize the timing of each line in order to synchronize with the other take," Booth says. "It just felt much more organic even though it was difficult to get both sides at the same time.”
They scripted over the course of a year, basing locations on Booth’s home city of Windsor, Ontario.
“Since we knew the locations as we were writing we were able to custom write and prep things knowing how things were laid out," he says. "That was a huge bonus. Otherwise, we’d have to rewrite the script to match the practical locations. Two weeks before we arrived in Windsor to film, David was in LA and Sarah was in Montreal on projects so we did rehearsals over the phone which worked out perfect for them as actors.”
Once on the ground in Windsor the budget only allowed for 10 days of rehearsal and four shooting days.
“We were either going to get it or not,” he says. “We filmed every rehearsal and watched it back to see if a particular section was getting boring and therefore to try something visually to spice it up. I was like an NFL coach being able to watch the game plays back to perfect the technical aspects of the performance.”
Not content with shooting both takes simultaneously in realtime, they shot in locations several blocks away from each other. The crew for each was a camera operator and a sound operator. Cinematographer Seth Wessel-Estes was in charge of Daved’s storyline, while Booth took charge of the other storyline featuring his wife.
“We didn’t have radio or comms with each other. It was like a stealth mission. As soon as we yelled action then unless a runner from one side of the city ran over to us and said the camera op had slipped down stairs we just rolled. If the actors fumbled a line or the camera shook a little bit we accepted that as part of the process of doing realtime. It’s all about getting to the end. We had eight tries over four nights and managed to get five complete takes of the movie.”
They shot using a pair of RED Helium cameras in 8K.
“Since nobody had attempted to shoot this long a format in 8K before, we were able to develop a low-level partnership with RED to test it out,” Booth explains. “The RED has a fan that kicks in once every two minutes or so that can ruin a take by interfering with the audio, so we were also testing how low you could run the fan without compromising the sensor that the fan has to cool down.”
To minimize environmental heat, they cranked up the air conditioning in both locations and turned it off the second before filming. They tried wrapping the cameras in ice packs but ended up with a watery mess.
“We did find a compromise where we could run the fan in constant speed just very low that wouldn’t affect the audio,” Booth says. “The only thing it prevented us from doing was getting an extreme close-up on an actor but that was okay because the closer you get to an actor the harder your focus challenge becomes, and in a realtime movie you don’t want that to be the thing that messes it up.”
8K cropping and reframing
Shooting in 8K gave Booth the latitude for potentially cropping and reframing later. Even though there is no editing in the film, there are keyframes along the timeline that are constantly shifting both images. The film also has two perspectives of horizontal and a vertical split.
“When we rotate between the perspectives both images are slowly cropping and moving in in order to not show any edge of the frame,” Booth says. “Honestly, 8K is overkill but we are future-proofed. We have an 8K master, so when 8K TV or streaming comes in we are ready.”
Naturally, they only required a single identical lens for each camera. Approaching rental houses with that request wasn’t popular—as it would mean them being unable to rent the rest of the lens kit. Luckily, online shop lensrental.com came to their rescue with a pair of Canon 24mm primes.
“The lens was great in low light, the iris opened up very well,” says Booth. “We used the tilt handle system for focus pulling. The focus wheel on the rig was wireless connected to the lens, which was awesome because it eliminated needing another crew person who might risk casting a shadow or having radio frequency problems if they’re trying to pull focus from a distance.
“There are times, particularly on Daved’s side of the story when he leaves the bar and goes out onto the street, and there is a massive exposure difference. So, in realtime we’re very, very carefully closing and opening the iris between these scenes. We did adjust this further in Resolve.”
What was his major fear?
“Our biggest fear was that any slip on that focus wheel and it would break the whole take and nobody wanted to be at that 70-minute mark and be the one to do that!"
Booth pulled some favors to get access to key locations, including a college whose students were willing to help out.
“The college was incredibly generous to hand us the keys at 6 p.m. each day," he says. "We shot over 14 days and had our base there. That’s a huge ask if you don’t have money to pay them.”
Filming on the fly
For Daved’s side of the story, they used Booth’s favorite local watering hole, owned by a friend who plays the bartender in the movie. They also needed a high tower within walking distance, “because if you’re going to walk somewhere 40 minutes away it’s going to be a very long boring movie!”
In the college, they dimmed the lighting by removing a number of overhead fluorescent tubes and hiding small magnetic LEDs. The bar’s lighting is barely changed, but in the small apartment, they were challenged to hide fixtures, given that the camera has a 360-degree viewpoint.
They had no permits, just run and gun, which meant they were always at risk of unintended extras breaking the frame.
“We started shooting at 2 a.m., which is when the bars close, so we tended to frame away from the strip and look into the street. We’re dodging real people, real traffic, and anything can happen. I like the energy and the franticness of not being able to cut and trying to get everything together.”
They planned alternative routes out of the bar via the kitchen and into the alley out back, which had less chance of running into people.
In the take used in the movie, a van pulls by and someone leans their whole head out of the window and shouts something derogatory, just as Daved was walking into an apartment.
“Luckily we used the 8K to crop that out,” Booth says. “If we had the money, we would have had fancy wireless systems so I’d be able to monitor everything, but Seth and I were monitoring on our own. It’s a bit like theater. Once the curtain’s up, the director can’t do anything."
They could, however, get a cut of the movie prepped almost instantly.
“What is great about the Helium is that you get a 1080p proxy at the same time as the 8K so I was able to take those two proxy takes, quickly throw into Adobe Premiere, line them up and we could watch a rough cut of the movie within half an hour of each take. But as a director, I was blind until we watched it. We’d do one take, have an extended lunch break during which we watched the whole movie, made notes and went again.”
No ADR required
Recording audio is just as tricky, if not more so, when shooting long single takes. The biggest fear was getting a boom shadow in shot. Instead, they used wireless lav mics.
“We figured out a way to put two mics on both actors, so if one became loose we had a backup," he says. "We played with what fabrics to use and how loose the clothing could be so we didn’t get ruffled sound. Daved is ankle-strapped with transmitters, and the cords run up his legs to his chest. We had Sarah wear janitor’s overalls mostly to hide the two mic packs strapped to her back. We managed to get every single word clean.”
There is no ADR in the movie, though there is one moment where Beth screams, and it spiked the microphone, so they had to patch one second of audio from a previous take to correct it. Props to the sound team of George Flores, Joey Lavoie, and Fernando Henna.
“I didn’t want to do this movie and have to do 50% of it in ADR, because why do it real-time if you’re just going to replace it in post?” Booth says.
In keeping with the raw production values, composer Adrian Ellis recorded the music live to picture.
Shot almost exactly two years ago, the film picked up 25 awards on the festival circuit including the Founders Award at Napa Valley and Best Feature at Hamilton, eventually landing a theatrical release with Mutiny Pictures and a streaming distribution deal with Apple TV+ with more to follow.
“In indie film the slog is finding a distributor,” Booth says. “That side of the business is not the friendliest to filmmakers. There’s a lot of people who don’t have the interests of the filmmaker at heart. We bided our time to get the right deal."
He adds, “When I feel most alive as a filmmaker [is] when things are on-the-fly. That’s been my whole upbringing since high school which has been, let’s go pick up a camera with your friends and go make something. This film retains a lot of that mentality.”