It’s a testament to the programming staff at the Sundance Film Festival that first-time feature filmmaker Frazer Bradshaw’s low-key, Oakland-shot domestic drama was chosen to debut there last January. It makes a bold impression without brand names or buzzwords—working instead with solid performances and an inventive score to convey a dissonance between the inner and outer lives of a working-class man. Bradshaw appeared with other outliers and innovators, including Laurel Nakadate, Scott Sanders and David Russo, on a panel I moderated at that festival last year. (The film premiered locally at the SF International in the spring.) I recently got the chance to catch up with Bradshaw over email. His film opens at the Roxie December 4 with a weekend benefit for costar Luis Saguar, who passed away this past summer.
SF360: How does the excitement of going into general release for the wider public this coming month compare with learning, last year, that you were selected for the Sundance Film Festival?
Frazer Bradshaw: When you get into Sundance, especially your first time, you have the feeling that the sky is the limit and that you’re on a radically upward trajectory. Turns out that’s not necessarily true, but getting into Sundance is a very good high, and it does open a lot of doors. It’s kinda hard to compare any exhibition experience to a Sundance premier. Playing at the Roxie is exciting, for sure, but since Everything Strange and New played at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where the majority of my friends saw it, it’s not quite as exciting as it might have been if it were the San Francisco premier.
SF360: What were some of the challenges and benefits of shooting in the East Bay? What neighborhood, by the way, did you shoot in?
Bradshaw: I wrote my film around my neighborhood (North Oakland), and there weren’t really many challenges. Since I work as a DP and have to deal with lots of filmmaking challenges in my day job (a fantastic day job, I might add), I wanted to save myself the headaches of filmmaking and I guarded against potential problems in writing, except when they were important to the story. The only real problem we experienced was trying to get a permit to shoot on BART. The fellow at BART that my producer dealt with (I’ll not include his name for the sake of politics) was rude and uncooperative, even when we were doing everything we could to make it easy on BART (crew of just me and the actor, shooting away from commute hours).
The benefits are that it’s really easy to steal street shots in the part of Oakland we shot in ;-) and a lot of my crew and cast lived nearby. I don’t think there are any inherent benefits, but for me and my film, the landscape, architecture and personality of the neighborhoods I shot in are indispensable to the film’s sensibility.
SF360: Where did this story of alienation come from? From the looks of it, you seem a fairly untroubled, well-balanced person, yourself.
Bradshaw: It’s hard to impossible to write something that is completely divorced from one’s experience, but it’s easy to write from experience, even when it’s only a vague second- or third-hand experience. Many of the issues I deal with are true for me, in a small and inconsequential way, and I think they are issues that I observe in the lives of people I know and in our culture, at large. I could have made a movie about a perfectly functional couple relationship and well-adjusted friends (I have great and decidedly functional relationships with my wife and my friends), but it’s hard to tell that story in a way that speaks to the human psyche, and that’s kinda the point.
SF360: How did you work with the actors, some of whom were fairly new to the big screen? If you can remember the kinds of direction you gave them, please share.
Bradshaw: I’m not one of those directors who’s obsessed with getting the "perfect" performance. To me a great performance is in its naturalism and authenticity, and that’s what I strove for with my actors. I didn’t spend time trying to get them to play it just like it was in my head, I just made sure that they were good, when I cast them, and that they had a deep understanding of the characters they played. From there, I could let them do their thing, instead of trying to make them be something artificial.
It’s quite true that Jerry McDaniel (the lead) and Rigo Chacon Jr. had relatively limited acting experience (they were experienced, but not seasoned), and that Beth Lisick’s experience is primarily in comedy and performance art, but these guys were just born to do it. I knew, when I cast them, that I wouldn’t have to ride them, that I could just let them go, and that they’d give me pitch-perfect performances because they have an innate ability to be on camera. Half of directing is really just about knowing what you want. I figured out what I wanted during the audition process, instead of in rehearsals or on the set.
SF360: Was this your first feature? How long did it take from the inception of this story idea to its delivery. What were the biggest stumbling blocks along the way. Budget?
Bradshaw: This is my first feature. I started writing in January of ’07. We shot it in September-October of ’07. I cut it on and off until spring of ’08, mixed it in fall of ’08 and premiered it at Sundance in January of ’09. Almost exactly two years.
Budget was the stumbling block. I didn’t actually start writing until I had the seed money, and having the one big hurdle of money in place (partly), I just started working, and the rest was easy (actually, it was incredibly hard, but way easier than trying to find a bunch of money).
SF360: Your bread-and-butter work up until now has been cinematography. How does directing your own film compare to working on someone else’s?
Bradshaw: I prefer to shoot for others than to direct. Directing is an inherently self-important, egomaniacal job, and I’m not really either of those things. I don’t get off on being The Director; instead, it makes me self-conscious. And when you’re responsible for the content and the film flying or not, it’s nerve wracking. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been a DP for 15 years, and I’m completely confident and in my skin in that job, whereas directing, my experience is limited, so it’s harder and scarier. But the payoff for directing is much larger than with shooting, unless the film fails, and then the heartbreak is so much worse. Directing is a much more dangerous game, so inherently more exciting and intense.
SF360: The dissonant sound and score in this film are terrific. Can you talk about the process of creating them and why you choose the path you did?
Bradshaw: The musical score played in my head at the film’s inception; a cinematic moment where the chaos and drive of the music juxtaposed against passivity of someone internally absorbed. That became the film’s opening shot.
I worked with East Bay composer Dan Plonsey on the musical composition (Dan did the actual composition, and I directed his work). We recorded it at New-Improved Recordings in Oakland, which is owned by Eli Crews, who just happens to be married to Beth Lisick (though that didn’t have anything to do with Dan’s reasons for recording there). Kent Sparling mixed the film at Skywalker, including mixing Dan’s composition in Dolby Surround (which is awesome). Kent also contributed the more ambient parts of the sound track, which, amazingly, he made from heavily treating the recording we made of Dan’s composition. I’m particularly lucky to have a friend in Kent, because he brought things to the project that money just couldn’t have bought me (even if I’d had money to spend on it).
SF360: Did the script for the film in its final incarnation differ significantly from your original version?
Bradshaw: Not radically. I shot almost no coverage, so the extent to which the film could be different from the script was inherently limited. We moved some scenes around a little, and cut a few things, but I think the film resembles the script pretty accurately.
SF360: Since you are a cinematographer, I have to ask: What’s your favorite piece of equipment?
Bradshaw: Well, I own a RED, and I shoot a lot with that, these days; it’s great in a lot of ways, but I most definitely prefer film. I’d take 35mm any day, and Super 16 over RED on many projects. But the RED offers so much bang for the buck, that it’s hard not for it to be the camera of choice for low budget projects.
SF360: What project are you working on now/next?
Bradshaw: Beth Lisick and I are finishing up a short about California sinking into the ocean with strippers symoblizing death, oddly enough. And I’m writing a new feature that will be at once very similar and very different from Everything Strange and New.
Note from the publicist: Costar Luis Saguar, a much beloved force on the local theater and acting scene, passed away suddenly this past summer leaving behind his wife Nancy and three-year-old daughter Carmela. Lucky Hat Entertainment will honor Luis by contributing the proceeds of the 7:00 pm and 9:15 pm screenings on both Friday and Saturday of the opening weekend to his family. Please remember Luis and help ease the futures of Nancy and Carmela by attending one of these screenings. Each screening will be preceded by a short tribute to Luis. Advance tickets are available for $15-$10 will go directly to Nancy and Carmela. Go to www.brownpapertickets.com/event/89797.
Since its first event in 1998, Midnight Mass has become an SF institution, and Peaches Christ, well, she's its peerless warden and cult leader.
Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.
Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’
Can three film school grads from San Francisco break out without the help of Hollywood or New York connections?
A film on Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller bucks biopic formula and concentrates on a pivotal moment in the leader's life.
Goldman Prize-winning environmentalists' work highlighted in short-form pieces by Parrinello, Antonelli and Dusenbery.
Mill Valley amps up the star wattage in its annual mix of local, international titles.
The path to authentic storytelling lies in research.