Interview with Greg Harrison


June 6, 2005

Question: What inspired this movie?

Greg: It came from my friend, Ben Brand, who's a screenwriter. My producing partner, Danielle Renfrew, [and I are] friends with Ben and we all lived in San Francisco. Some of the more practical elements of the characters and locations came from his San Francisco experience - he taught photography at the Academy of Art, he used to go to this corner store all the time that the story is based on, so the first draft came from him.

Then he and I worked on the script heavily for about 4 to 6 months. His initial draft was this fractured narrative told in three movements. I was interested in rooting that fractured narrative in some kind of emotional truth and for me the justification was this traumatized unreliable narrator, the lead character. So we worked a lot on pulling that theme out and applying it to these visual ideas that I had that could express the displacement she was going through.

Question: The press notes said something about Ben being involved in a mugging or something?

Greg: He had read this little blurb about a guy who shot somebody in a store robbery, but customers started coming in right after the murder, so he pretended to be the proprietor; he got behind the counter and started selling as if nothing had happened, but the dead body was right behind the counter. It was such a bizarre jumping off point, but he thought about identity and he just liked that strange, horrific story that took place in a store. He said it was just the inspiration to get started, but then the movie took on a life of its own - with a lot of writing you start with one idea and it becomes something else.

Question: Did you find any unique challenges to telling your story using the fractured element?

Greg: It was incredibly challenging. November had all these challenges regarding narrative, visual style, tone, it had more dramatic weight to it - I felt really challenged by the material in all respects and that was something that I really was drawn to.

The key challenge, for me, was how to balance between confusion and ambiguity. I love the right kind of ambiguity in a film that creates a space for the audience to step into the movie and interpret the movie. And because the movie is about perception and particularly the way Ben wrote this photographer, this notion of framing seemed parallel to memory - how you might create your own world out of selective memories. This seemed very rich thematically and yet that's the difficulty - how you make the good kind of ambiguity in a film.

Then when you layer on how we made the movie, it was incredibly challenging because we only had 15 days to shoot the movie and a lot of it was figuring out ahead of time what the movie would be because we only had time to execute on the set, not explore very much. So $150,000 production, 15 days for shooting, and had to shoot on mini-DV. That all combined - I don't recommend shooting a movie that way and I don't want to do it again to be honest. It's really, really taxing.

Question: Was all that a requirement of InDigEnt Productions?

Greg: Yeah, all their movies: Tadpole, Pieces of April, Personal Velocity, have that model. But they also give you ownership of the movie, both creatively, I get final cut, and they give us as producers 40 gross points in the movie to distribute to the crew - so the grip has a piece of the movie. When we sold the movie to Sony, he gets a check 3 months later off of that sale. It really was an interesting way to make a movie - it was very communal and everybody was going the extra mile because they felt they owned the movie.

Question: What would this have cost to shoot on film?

Greg: A lot more. We shot Groove on film; we were at the lowest end to still survive on film, and we put that in the can for $250,000 to $275,000. For me, that's the bottom-barrel to shoot film. Cutting that in half is not even a question.

Video worked great. You use that as a creative limitation, what out of video can I get aesthetically that maybe hasn't been seen before. When you have that limit, you're looking at natural light, shaky-cam, hand-held, long takes, but I still wanted to think about all the control that goes into cinematic language - color control, lighting control, and production design control.

And trying to find reasons to control that had some narrative point or emotional point - like the color progression. The denial section in this murky, noir blue, shadowy, we called it the eternal night of chapter 1 because no one goes to bed, no one wakes up, there are no clocks, it's always night even though it feels like days are passing. Chapter 2 is a little more aware, the emotional revelations of the event start to come out and that has more of a woody, orange tone. Then when she moves closer to acceptance, we white-balance the camera straight up so there's more of a white light, more natural looking. All those [visual effects] could be accomplished through the video camera, which was really important because our post budget was very limited.

Then there was the notion of framing. That one line was really a thematic touchstone in the script about "Photography is as much about what's outside the frame as in". Trying to find visual equivalents to that - for example, the moment where it looks like she's standing outside, looking across the street at the store and then we cut wide, and she's actually looking at a slide.

Question: There was a long gap between the time this film was at Sundance and when it's finally out in theatres, was that a frustrating time or was that just the process of trying to get the right distribution deal for your movie?

Greg: No, we actually sold it pretty soon after Sundance to Sony. It came down this - Courtney Cox's baby. She was having her baby at this time last year; she wanted to support the movie, but there was no way she could do press. We felt that late summer, outside of the holidays and the award season was the right time to release it, so we were patient and waited a year.

Question: Speaking of Courtney, how do you decide on the look for her for this film?

Greg: From day one I was saying, "I really want to transform you" and her immediate response was "Yes, lets." "I was thinking about cutting your hair, and having you not wear make-up." She ran with it. The next day, she got 4 piercings in her ears and she cut 7 inches off her hair. That was step one - thinking of how to put her in different physical form.

The costume idea was to put her in a different silhouette, she's seen in the fashion world as glamorous, a pop icon from "Friends", so how to dress her down, and also make her body feel different. I had her wear those clothes around the house to feel like a different person. And the glasses, I think that came from Courtney, and another brilliant addition that came from Courtney, was that shock of gray, which transformed her aesthetically, to see Courtney Cox with a streak of gray. She did research on traumatized people and they often develop gray hair and I thought that was a great call on her part. It worked for the character and transformed Courtney.

I found her to be so down with the indie approach to the movie - no trailers, eating with the crew, 15 days - that means she's shooting 4 of the emotionally explosive scenes in one 12-hour day. She was very supportive of the crew and set the tone. She was totally class-act the whole way - she was critical in the success of the movie.

Question: The notes talk about how almost every scene was moved around in the editing process. Is that because in the editing room you saw a different story?

Greg: I didn't really change the story. It's odd, because I never thought of this movie as having a linear story; the touchstone was the expression of trauma and her resolution of trauma. So the movie was more organized in emotional importance than it was narrative importance - because it was more about a feeling and a subjective experience, it was lot more pliable.

The basic structure is three movements, so that defined a certain order. But within those, I felt like I was very free to find what worked best once we had the footage. When you read a script that's fragmented, it's so much easier to jump around. When it's 10 seconds or 15 seconds [on screen], that's too fragmented. The process of de-fragmenting the movie was what started rearranging the movie.

To give you one example, the store was probably fragmented eight times in that first chapter and now it's three [segments]. Another great example of an editorial change is the very last scene of the movie - it was the photography scene where she's taking the picture of Hugh when they first meet and she accidentally takes a picture of his hand. We moved that up to when she looks at the photo on the wall - we go into the thought of that photo and we see how that photo was potentially created. It seems like a no-brainer now, by moving that scene up and repeating it just slightly in the end, created a much more emotional connection in their relationship. When you make those discoveries you think why wasn't it written that way, it seems so obvious, but it took all the way to post-production to find that.

Question: Will you always opt to edit your own movies?

Greg: I think I'm always going to want the option to edit, but I no longer want to be the sole editor - it's too brutal. Both physically, it's just exhausting because you're alone in the room for 18 weeks, and for perspective. Having edited other people's movies before, you constantly see people lose perspective.

I'm usually very vigilant and brutal with my own material, you spend the first 5 weeks making your own cut and it's super tight, then you screen it for your editing friend and he's like, "It's a good start - you should cut this scene in half, this scene..."

It's pathological - you've developed the script, you struggled and sweat blood to shoot it, you just can't fully see it without other input. So I bring in 3 core editor friends who always come in and tell me like it is. I think in the future I will hire an editor and work with them, and just have the option to take a scene home and cut it on my Avid and bring it back and collaborate that way.

Question: Don't you lose some ownership not being the editor?

Greg: You do, but ultimately with the right relationship, the director is the author still. It's the ideal place to be because you don't have to spend 12 hours trying out an idea, editing together shot to shot. If you sweat 12 hours to make an idea work, it's hard to tell if it's the idea that it should be. The more you can set yourself up as a director in that position where you're not getting attached, you're better off.

Question: Is it because you come for an editing background that you took on this role in your films?

Greg: It was partly practical because my budgets were so low I couldn't afford to hire anybody that I could trust more than myself and hopefully, my next film, I'll have more money to hire an editor whose work I've seen and respect.

I actually brought in Sarah Flack, she edited The Limey and Lost in Translation, the last week before I locked picture and we went through the dailies and she made small but significant suggestions. She's a great example of someone I think I would love to hire. She was a great person to bring in to just confirm some of my choices and bring in some last minute ideas because she was totally fresh to it.

Question: Do you have the next project that you're working on?

Greg: I'm actually writing a script right now to direct for Warner Independent. It's called The Radioactive Boy Scout. It's based on a true story that happened about 15 minutes from where I grew up in Michigan. It's about a 16-year-old boy scout who in the process of getting his Eagle Scout badge builds a nuclear reactor in his backyard that's shut down by the government. That happened in 1995. I'm adapting that as a dark comedy that we hope to be in pre-production the first of next year. In doing it with Warner Independent, the budget will be 5 to 7 million so it will be a nice step up.

Question: What are you going to do with all that money?

Greg: It's not going to be enough - I can already tell you that right now. It never is enough.