Israeli director Danny Lerner is conducting a masterclass for filmmakers, supported by the AFC's IndiVision, while visiting Australia for the Sydney Film Festival. His feature Frozen Days is part of the Festival's Indie Screen 06 - a program of new Australian and international feature films, produced in guerilla style on indie budgets. Shot entirely at night on a DV Cam 570, for a budget of US$25,000, Frozen Days is a striking black and white film that has a strong and consistent visual style, and a pervasive tone of unease. The film has made such an impression that Lerner is already set to direct his first US production, Kirot, a Femme Nikita-style thriller with Bleiberg Entertainment.
Lerner talks here to IndiVision Project Lab Director Megan Simpson Huberman about how he achieved such a great result for the money.
What was your rehearsal process and period?
Well, first of all I must mention that I had auditioned about 15 actresses for the lead part. Almost all were well-known Israeli actresses [who] loved the script and were willing to do the part for free. Two were unknowns, and Anat Klausner, the actress I chose almost immediately, was one of the unknowns. She completely amazed me the moment she walked in. She looked just like I imagined the part. My brother and I storyboarded the whole movie and drew a portrait of our lead character. Anat looked as if she walked out of the drawing; the same haircut, the same coat. She spoke the part convincingly and effortlessly. It was very freeing, and almost everything she did elevated the script and got me to bring out fresh new ideas that were not on the page. I'm stressing this point because what I learned is that the right cast and crew is everything.
The first thing we did was read together the entire script. I taped it on my walkman so I could listen to her speaking my lines, and alter them if necessary. We then started rehearsing a lot. The scenes where she is alone we mainly talked about in our favorite university coffee spot. We talked about those scenes for hours, trying to find small interesting things to do and come up with new scenes that were not scripted, which was fascinating. The scenes that had interaction with other actors we rehearsed separately in the university studio. There were no scenes in the script that we did not go over in rehearsal. I allowed the actors to improvise after they understood the scene and it made the process a lot more interesting. Some scenes were also rehearsed in the actual locations, like the scene in the darkened apartment when there's a blackout. The piano, which came with the location, was never part of the script. It was just there so we used it, and the actor playing Alex came up with the music they played.
I understand that you shot the film in 27 days over four months. How did you maintain a consistent look and performance tone with the shoot broken up like that?
Since I work during the day I planned to shoot the entire film at night so I wouldn't lose any work time. I took vacation time only when absolutely necessary. Because I love film noir and psychological drama, I planned to do a movie in this genre which I could make on my own. That's why we shot it over a period of four months. The most we shot in a row was four days. Everybody volunteered to work on the film, and did it because they loved the script. Because they have jobs too, we had to break it up a lot and leave room for our bread and butter work.
The performance tone was kept because of the many, many rehearsals we did. Anat understood the pace I was aiming at, and completely lived the part for much of the four months. Also, the fact that Alan and I storyboarded the entire film, shot by shot, before we even chose a cameraman, let us prepare the look and feel that we were aiming at. Breaking it up let us prepare more. It was like making a lot of short films - the one where Miao is chasing a motorcycle, the one where Miao is taking a bath, the one where Miao goes to a club - all with the same character. It was easy to maintain a consistent look and performance.
Did the unusual shooting schedule make it harder or did it make some things better?
Well, I'm an optimist by nature so I mostly focused on the good things it provided, which was a larger opportunity for rehearsals and planning. The second thing we did was cut everything we shot immediately. This way, myself and Alan could edit them and see if anything was forgotten or had to be reshot. This way, we did not have to go back after the rough cut was completed because we could reshoot and reschedule. We only reshot one scene we did not like, and changed it scriptwise completely. We edited all this on our home computer. Only after we had a complete rough cut did we bring in an editor to start work on the fine cut.
How experienced were your crew and cast?
I made 25 short films during film school at Tel Aviv University before making Frozen Days as my thesis for my MA studies. I was not required to make a feature film, but I decided to do one anyway to prove a point. All members of the crew and almost all members of the cast did not have any feature film experience, whether it was Anat who never acted in a feature, or Ram who never shot a feature, or Tal who never edited a feature, or Assaf and Alan who never produced a feature… All were very enthusiastic to make one, so I gathered together talented people who wanted to do a feature [to] go out and prove that we can do a good film on an almost no-budget scale. The crew was very small. We never had more then 10 people on the set. We also had many first and second year film students from a lot of different schools who came to assist us.
Did you pay anyone? If not, what kind of a deal did you do with your crew and cast?
I did not pay anyone to make the film. We did say that they will work on a 'deferred' basis (which means that if the movie is successful and makes money then we'll pay them). When we won the first prize at the Haifa Film Festival, which was ironically US$25,000 (the exact cost of the production) we immediately decided to divide the entire sum between everyone who worked on the movie. So I'm happy to say that everyone got paid.
The film looks beautiful. How did you get such a good look out of the DV Cam?
Well, black and white looks much better than colour, and it is a better way of hiding the fact that we shot on video. Also you light it differently than colour. And besides, the most important thing was that in post-production we put a filter on the completed film, which softens the picture and downgrades the sharpness quality of the video, and makes it look closer to film. Downgrading the picture quality is the key to giving it a better look.
Did you use any lights, or only available light?
We sure did use lights in a lot of the scenes. But there were a lot of exterior scenes where we used minimum lighting…or [the] only available light, due to our guerrilla style of shooting…[such as] the scenes where Anat roams the empty streets alone, or many of the shots of her chasing the motorcycle. The shot in the stairway was lighted only by Anat's lighter.
What format did you look at rushes on?
I watched all the rushes, and Alan immediately edited the scenes we shot. I watched the rushes on VHS, and we edited the rough cut from the VHS material.
What were the advantages and disadvantages of the way you worked?
There are a lot of advantages in working slowly and checking and rechecking what you're doing by editing it while shooting. Also there's the advantage of more rehearsal and preparation time. Disadvantages were that you cannot pay anyone, so you need to be patient and wait until your crew becomes available.
Would you make a film this way again?
Yes I would, but I would like to have the budget to pay my cast and crew, and not have them wait till we win a prize or something.
Frozen Days will screen at the Sydney Film Festival on Tuesday 20 June at 6.05pm and Thursday 22 June at 8pm, at Dendy Opera Quays. Tickets are $17/$13. See www.sydneyfilmfestival.org
Danny Lerner's masterclass will be conducted at the AFC's Theatrette in Sydney, on Wednesday 21 June at 2pm. Tickets for this masterclass and the other class conducted by US director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) are FREE, but places are strictly limited. To request a place email firstname.lastname@example.org