From Shooting in sign language to Shooting a wilderness epic
The Boldest Cinematic Risks Directors Took in 2015
Art and Experience: Risk-taking is the lifeblood of cinema. Without enterprising directors who balk at conventional limits, movies might be stuck in the merry-go-round of lucrative but staid blockbusters. Of course, there is such a thing as too far. Some avid risk-takers, most notably “The Revenant’s” Alejandro González Iñárritu (see below), have faced criticism for placing the cast and crew in tenuous conditions in the service of their vision. But whether you view their actions as foolhardy or valiant, risk-taking directors are the very reason cinema continues to reinvent itself.
1. Shooting in sign language — without subtitles.
On paper, it’s an impossible pitch. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s “The Tribe” is set in a bleak Ukranian boarding school for the deaf. It’s told in sign language, without voiceover or subtitles. Were it not for strong performances enhanced by nuanced body language, the silent film might be an unbearable watch, but as the circumstances unfold and the stakes begin to rise, the characters each take on complex dimensions.
Their interactions are riveting; you’re tasked with inferring meaning and substance from events you cannot understand, save for their overarching emotional currents, ranging from desperation to horror to passionate love. It’s a challenging exercise in semiology that pushes the cinematic medium to its utter limits.
2. Shooting a 140-minute single long-take.
If a life-altering bad decision is the product of many smaller ones, “Victoria” is the riveting journey through that chain of events.
Sebastian Schipper shot this adrenaline-fueled experience of a night in Berlin that culminates in a bank robbery in one single 140-minute take. To get investors on board, he promised to deliver a plan B comprised of jump-cut takes, but after three 4:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. one-take shoots, Schipper knew he had the movie. The strong naturalistic performances, particularly from leads Laia Costa and Federick Lau, are even more impressive considering they were working off a twelve-page script; while improvising, they had to remain cognizant of the camera’s movements across 22 locations, all the while aware that one lapse in judgment could cost the production an entire night’s work.
However formidable the technical prowess, it disappears from the conscious experience of watching “Victoria” almost immediately. What remains is what can only be described as the uncanny experience of a bad trip that reveals itself as reality in the light of day. As the decisions fold into each other in real-time, a sense of disturbing fatalism emerges. It’s the kind feeling that could only have risen from an immersive, nightmarish 140-minute long-take.
3. Shooting entirely in close-up.
To watch “Son of Saul” is to spend nearly two hours in hell. As such, it’s unlike any Holocaust film in existence. Absent are the melancholic sweeping wide shots of “The Pianist” or the more bearable omniscient narrative of “Schindler’s List.” Instead, László Nemes has created the singular claustrophobic experience of life in Auschwitz by shooting entirely in close-up.
Like the prisoners’ experience, many sequences in the film are devoid of apparent meaning. Like the prisoners’ experience, there is no moment of reprieve. Like the prisoners’ experience, “Son of Saul” is an unflinching series of rote chores punctuated by chaotic and indiscriminate acts of violence and murder. Like the prisoners’ experience, the will to survive is the film’s ammunition. The absence of wide shots is disorienting, especially during scenes such as inside the gas chambers and fire pits full of burning bodies, where being able to see the surroundings would provide some relief from the myopic perspective. But Nemes refuses to deliver, instead building out the sound design to fill in the horrific scenes. With “Son of Saul,” Nemes has created an unparalleled testament to the experience of Auschwitz that should be required viewing for every human being.
4. Unleashing 250 stray dogs onto the streets of Budapest.
“Take risks. Try to find not chosen ways…If you just make a product, then it’s senseless. You need soul and you need risk. You need to find your way.” That’s what “White God” director Kornél Mundruczó told Indiewire earlier this year when we spoke to him about his bold decision to unleash 250 stray and rescue dogs onto Budapest — without the help of CGI.
When Mundruczó set out to make the film, everyone thought the breathtaking sequence of hundreds of dogs running through the streets would be impossible to accomplish without the help of a computer, but Mundruczó is as dogged as they come. He enlisted one of the most accomplished dog trainers in the world, Teresa Miller, to spend half a year training his two lead dogs to act. He insisted on orchestrating the incredible street sequence, which plays like a childhood fever dream. Mundruczó’s commitment to verisimilitude augments the film’s allegorical structure: The dogs represent a disenfranchised population in conflict with an authoritarian society.
5.Shooting a wilderness epic using only natural light.
Alejandro González Iñárritu may be known for pushing boundaries, but “The Revenant” marks his most intrepid venture yet. The cast and crew endured what can only be described as an insane production at the behest of its visionary director, who maintained that the entire film, shot in the most remote locations of British Columbia, be filmed using only natural light.
Because of the brutal conditions and inaccessible nature of the locations, the crew had to stay more than an hour’s drive from the set. Compound that with the lean days of the Canadian winter and you’re left with an hour and a half of viable shooting time per day. In these brief periods, the team performed feats of incredible resilience and precision. They pulled off long-take battle scenes with hundreds of extras, crossed ice-cold rivers, braved ferocious snowstorms, and adapted to dozens of obstacles, any one of which threatened to nullify their efforts. Thankfully, Iñárritu’s quest was not in vain. Each frame of Emmanuel Lubezski’s stunning cinematography is a wonder, and each minute of the film feels like a veritable struggle to survive in the face of awe-inspiring mother earth.