Sundance's 'The Wolf Hour': Why You Shouldn’t Write the Script You Think Hollywood Wants
Alistair Banks Griffin's 'The Wolf Hour' stars Naomi Watts as a paranoid writer in this single-location psychodrama.
When Alistair Banks Griffin brought his sophomore feature script to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, he was prepared to give Hollywood what he thought it wanted. Griffin had written a single-actor, single-location film, set in a murky walk-up apartment building in the Bronx during the summer of 1977, when the brutal serial killer known as the Son of Sam kept the entirety of New York City on edge. Griffin's film had tension in its DNA. He knew genre films sold well, and he knew he needed an A-list actor to carry the movie. Wouldn't conforming his vision to more standard genre fare help the movie get made?
But that wasn't his original intention. Once at the Labs, Griffin's peers quickly picked up on the discrepancy, and encouraged him to make the film he wanted to make. Emboldened, Griffin polished The Wolf Hour. Within a day of reading the script, Naomi Watts was attached to the project.
Watts plays June, a writer suffering from an acute case of agoraphobia. Her psychological state is fragile; the outside world feels to her (and us, in the sound mix) like an assault on the senses. Indeed, just outside June's window, the Bronx is on fire; a thick stew of discontent is brewing. (It will culminate in the film's impressive final scene, depicting the citywide blackout and ensuing riots.) Someone is buzzing June's intercom through all hours of the night, but when she looks out the window, no one is there. It's as if June holds the entire city's fears inside her lonely apartment. Her raw nerves, so interconnected with her environment, evoke the anxieties of the world today.
No Film School sat down with Griffin to discuss shooting within the constraints of SAG's Tier Zero, building a complex set for his film's single interior location, shooting nontraditional coverage on T-series anamorphics, and more.
"The Sundance Screenwriting Lab really helped me pull the script back to my original vision, rather than writing it for bigger budgets or bigger actors."
No Film School: It was an interesting—and I'm sure difficult—choice to set the story in one apartment. That's a big storytelling challenge, not to mention production challenge, which we'll get to later. But first, why write the film almost entirely set in one location?
Griffin: After my first film, I kind of ended up pretty broke and down and out. I found myself living in this five-story walk-up tenement building in Chinatown for like $800 a month, in an apartment so small that my mattress didn't fit in the room. But living in this building was like magic. On the street, it's really vibrant Chinatown, and the building was all Chinese people. I was the only Caucasian living there. There was no A/C. Funny enough, I didn't have a door buzzer. So people would call me, and I'd drop a sock with a key in it down like five flights of stairs. It was a real New York experience.
That was really the moment that I knew that was the kind of story I wanted to tell. I knew I wanted to be doing a story in New York, because my first film was very much about my memories of growing up in the South—in Louisiana, Mississippi—and this second half of my life has really been in New York.
I was so in love with New York in the '70s and that aesthetic, and the culture, and the movies, and the music. Just that world, and how decrepit it was, and how scary it was. It became a great mirror for June's mental state collapsing—the city literally burning down around her.
NFS: Did you always know you were going to direct the script you wrote? As you were shopping it around, did you ever encounter someone who would say, "Someone else should direct this"?
Griffin: I came really close to directing some other people's scripts at one point, and I just kind of turned away from it. Now that I've seen those films all come out from other directors, I was so grateful [that I had passed]. It gets really tough, and you want to work, but you don't want to just work. That's the thing. It's not just a film. It's got to be really personal.
When I handed my team the first draft of The Wolf Hour, they believed in it from day one—my agent, Jay Baker, especially. In the midst of us starting to put it together, I got a phone call from Sundance. They were like, "Where's your script this year?" Because I'd been sending a script to them every year since forever. I just kind of was like, "Meh, maybe I'm not going to send it this year." They're like, "No, where's your script? We heard about it. Submit it." I was like, "Okay, okay." I sent it in.
"Someone once said filmmaking was like trying to do a Rubik's Cube on a rollercoaster."
I got into the Writer's Lab, and that was a really crucial moment for the story. I think the script was in a great place at that point, but it was probably heading towards a commercial genre story. The [Sundance Screenwriting Lab] experience really helped me pull the script back to the place I originally had intended for it to be, and it gave me a lot more validation for my original thought process rather than writing it for bigger budgets or bigger actors. The Lab really helped convince me that I'll the get the movie going as it should be, not as I thought it should be in order to make it happen.
NFS: It's really important to have that validation, because I think a lot of people write to what they think will do well, or what they think would be attractive for big-name talent. To that point, I'm sure casting Naomi Watts was the big turning point where you said, "Okay, now we can get this made."
Griffin: Yeah, of course. Again, because of the support of my agency, who was pretty singularly backing it, they got the script to Naomi. She did a quick read, which was shocking. I couldn't believe it. Within the time I think I knew it was going to her and the time I got an email to go have coffee with her...it was ridiculously short. I went downtown, we had a coffee, and within about 30 seconds, I knew she got it. Meeting with her, I was so relaxed. I usually get nervous around actors, and she just put me completely at ease. She's one of the most wonderful people you'll ever meet. There was no convincing needed on either side. It was just like, "We should do this immediately."
[Putting the movie together] was a really breakneck fast situation, and that's how it happens. I feel like earlier in your career you feel like, "How is that ever going to work out?" and then it just kind of does. Someone once said filmmaking was like trying to do a Rubik's Cube on a rollercoaster—you have to solve it before the thing stops, and then the second time you go around, you put your parents in the backseat behind you, and then the third time you go around, you got Tarantino two seats behind you, who's made three films in the time it's taken you to do this one. You know what it's like. Filmmaking is a mind-fuck.
NFS: When everything did come together, how did the one-location deal affect production?
Griffin: Throughout writing the script, I'd been tooling around the city everywhere looking for a great block that looked like New York in the '70s. Sadly, they really don't exist. I was going all over the Bronx and it wasn't there, and I was getting a little discouraged. I'd seen a little bit of what they'd pulled off for Baz Luhrmann's show about the '70s, and I wasn't that impressed. I just felt like he just didn't capture it in the way I really felt like was right. So, I went back to my old neighborhood in Chinatown, and was able to [get a permit for] like a block away from my old apartment.
"That was my dream: to block off a city street in New York City and turn it into a war zone."
That was really lucky. There are moratorium blackouts for filming all over Manhattan. You can't shoot in most of the city anymore. You can't shoot in Tribeca, you can't shoot in the Financial District. So we were in the one three-block zone that was allowable. It was luck, luck, luck. And that was my dream: to block off a city street in New York City and turn it into a war zone. I always wanted to do that. I was very obsessed with Godfather II, and how Coppola pulled that off in the East Village, and I'd studied that very carefully. That block we used for our exterior window shots.
For the interior, we were lucky to find this kind of scrappy film stage out in Bushwick that would work with our budget. We thought it might be easy [to build the set], but we quickly realized that to create the illusion of the city outside, you need to have a good amount of space below the stage for the translights to be effective, because you have to put them really far back. That meant hopping up the stage almost six feet off the ground.
So we built a giant steel deck, and then that put the set within several inches of the ceiling. There was no room to light. It was like, "Oh shit." The set is built, and we're like, "Oh, no. We have no room to light it!" It was just a miscalculation of a couple of numbers. Probably all my fault. We were in real trouble.
Khalid [Mohtaseb], my cinematographer, came up with this brilliant idea of just putting Kinos into the walls, and running them so they never moved. So he lit the entire set, had it on a board, and could change the time of day in a very easy way, then use the big lights outside the windows to craft the sun a little more. It was this brilliant way of working, and it saved the shoot.
We had an 18-day shoot, but three days of that was on this location, which is only about four pages of the script. So then you're looking at almost 110 pages in 15 days, and that was bananas. There were days where we were shooting 10 pages a day and flying through this. I mean, we had such a tight budget. We were so lucky, though, because we went Tier Zero in New York City, which is not that common. Tier Zero is the smallest production you can have as a Union film. The Union was so helpful to us to make that happen. Since Tier Zero is the bottom rung of the Union, it dictates rates. Tier One is pretty much the most normal thing, where people are being paid proper rates, and it's kind of where you really want to be if you can. But it's all based on your budget. For Tier Zero, I'm not going to throw numbers out, but you can imagine.
"When you have a big star, it doesn't matter what your budget is. At that point, the Union's going to want you to really play ball and not go flying under the radar."
When you have a big star, it doesn't matter what your budget is. At that point, the Union's going to want you to really play ball and not go flying under the radar. When you're doing a smaller-budget film [without a big star], you should be non-union. But I think we knew it was just too risky to even attempt that. So, they work with you, and one of the big saving graces of Tier Zero is you can work with the Teamsters to negotiate so that you don't have to have all the tractor trailers and those things. Naomi was so gracious to not to have to have a trailer. All those things would've killed us completely. We had an insanely great crew, and I think what happens at that budget level and at that tier level, you get the people who are really hungry to prove themselves. It was a much smaller crew as a result, too. We kept it really tiny, and it was very helpful.
NFS: How did you work with your cinematographer to keep the visuals fresh while you were shooting on the apartment set?
Griffin: I think the way to begin that conversation is to talk about how the exteriors were done, because I knew from the get-go that this film really had to be a hyper-singular perspective in a way that isn't often seen. It's shot with a very particular type of coverage—eschewing traditional coverage, in a way.
Rear Window is obviously an example, but the real model I used was Polanski's The Pianist in the sequence where the lead character's stuck and watching the uprising in the Polish Ghetto. I'd actually been able to visit that set and kind of figured out how he did it. It is so simple. I was like, "Oh, we can pull this off." I worked it backwards from there. Once I figured that out, I was like, "Okay, so this camera is only going to be this hyper-narrow perspective. You're not going to see all the way up the block. You're only seeing choice moments."
That decision informed the camera placement. I knew I wanted to build several types of camera movement into the film. I knew we'd be on very static shots in the beginning, never really dollying, and having the camera movement only motivated by the necessity of the actor moving. Also, it'd be very important to use the edge of the frame to build tension. So, the fact that the camera's not moving is what's driving the tension, rather than the camera movement itself.
"It was very important to use the edge of the frame..the fact that the camera's not moving is what's driving the tension, rather than the camera movement itself."
And then as the film evolves, it moves into these very choice handheld moments. Occasionally, we'll get a dolly, but they're so slow and creepy that you almost can't tell. They're just there to heighten the dread a little bit. Then when you get to the end, we're almost completely on Steadicam. The cinematography turns into this very fluid thing.
We were always trying to use the camera to mimic the mind state of June's character.
NFS: The exterior scene was so surreal. It was such a powerful decision to only take us outside at the very end. Can you talk about shooting the exterior?
Griffin: We ended up shooting it first, which was a bit terrifying because it was so technically challenging.
The location we picked became an issue. We had no vantage point looking down on the street. So, immediately we had to sort that out, and the best solution for that was a Technocrane, and I'd never used one before. My DP, Khalid, was dying to use one because he shoots a lot of commercials and he's very up on high tech gear. Luckily, he had a very great friend who happened to own one. We never would've been able to afford something like that. It was awesome. That really opened it up, because we could get up really high. The beauty of the Technocrane is it can actually telescope, so you can get these elegant moves.
Griffin: When we get in the street, some of that stuff is actually not Steadicam. It's telescoping backward. It's a shot you could never do on Steadicam, because it's going over garbage bags and debris, and the Steadicam operator would be stumbling into all that stuff. So we were up high with the camera about 40 feet, but then we brought it down with the full length and were able to retract backwards to pull off these elegant shots. You don't see it in the film, but I love knowing that that's such a difficult technical shot even though it feels like it could just be a Steadicam shot. We dressed that whole street, and we chose to shoot anamorphic widescreen, so that created a challenge with the exteriors, but not so much for the interiors. We could only see about 30 yards in each direction before the illusion was gone.
We tried every anamorphic lens under the sun, and finally, in one of the last moments of our lens tests, Khalid had managed to get Panavision to let us take a look at these T-series anamorphics. I didn't think we were going to have a prayer of being able to afford them. But Panavision so graciously gave us a massive discount. There was no question. We had to work with these. These are close focus anamorphics, which are really rare, so you can shoot an intimate scene with them—you know, a 50-millimeter lens, up close, and still have enough light, because anamorphics really cut down on your light.
I'm a huge fan of Darius Khondji's work, and Naomi had worked with him a lot, too. So that was a lot of our discussions early on—him capturing greasy, moody, inky blacks, and having a hyper-specific color palette where you never introduce a bright color.
I mentioned before that I'm into non-traditional coverage. I got Naomi on board with that really quickly because I knew I'd freak her out if I didn't do reverse coverage on her for shots. And what that meant was that we would shoot shots that would be her over the shoulder on, let's say, someone at the door. But then you don't turn around and get the over the shoulder of that person on June. That's where it got real weird. You're like, "Well, what is that shot, then?" And we discovered it was in profile.
I was worried those shots weren't really going to cut because I'd never seen that done in a movie before. I felt like I should probably talk to my editor. It worked beautifully. That was the one trick that heightened the claustrophobia of the film, because it put every other character kind of out at the peripheral. It created another sense of separation and alienation throughout the film.
NFS: Speaking of alienation, can you talk a little bit about working with Naomi to bring the entire film to life? It rests on her shoulders alone.
Griffin: I've seen all of Naomi's work, and you know how powerful of an actress she is. I didn't know how nice she was, and I didn't know how open she would be. She was shooting a movie while we were in prep, so I had to basically go work with her when she came off of that set, and then we would try to get in as much time as possible. We knew we weren't going to have any rehearsal period, so it was really just me and her workshopping the script together in this very intimate way. We would just kind of pick apart things—what is this about, where's this coming from. I would talk about my personal experiences. She would open up about hers, and we'd kind of find the right emotional tempo.
We had to identify what is going on in each scene, and how that scene arcs into the next moment. That's because so many of the minor arcs, from the writing and from the performance, don't have traditional narrative elements. So you're cutting from one quiet moment with no exposition to another quiet moment with no exposition. You're driving the passage of time. And you can't just make that static shots. To do it, there has to be something going on in the mind. So you start building narratives around these moments that would normally be kind of throwaway. Then it starts coming to life.
Fortunately, the apartment was so populated with stuff that it really allowed her to marinate. It was a 360-degree set. You could spin the camera around. There was no artifice. The set was so gorgeous and so immersive that I think once she was in costume, she was just in character. I mean, there was very little we had to talk about.
I think I'm kind of a quiet director. I really like to step back until there's a need to step in on set. There were very few people on set. Even so, we would just do everything in the tiniest whispers together. If there was an adjustment that needed to be made, we would just kind of quietly talk about it. It would never be more than three words. Then, just off to the races. I've never seen anyone take directing adjustments like her. It's an instantaneous thing for her. There's no thinking.
NFS: That's incredible.
Griffin: It's insane. I feel like I'm never going to get to have that experience again [with an actor]. It's just too good. Naomi's ruined me.
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