A Conversation With Adam Bhala Lough (WEAPONS)
Last month Lionsgate Films, a company that has, in its pursuit of horror and niche thriller breakouts, let more than a few recent genre gems whimper out into the obscurity as DVD only releases (JT Petty’s apocalyptic Western The Burrowers immediately springs to mind), finally put out Weapons, the long shelved second feature from director Adam Bhala Lough. Although the film, which I reviewed last month, demands in its formal rigor—in which a constantly moving camera is used gracefully and with purpose instead of as an empty signifier of reality—to be both savored with a boisterous sound system and large canvas, your living room 19″ or your second generation MacBook glossy screen will most likely have to do.
Not that you’ll be seeing the film the director intended, the one that shocked and stirred audiences at Sundance (itself altered) before dropping off the face of the earth for a couple of years. As the very young and prolific Bhala Lough has learned the hard way, having helmed three features in his 20s that have all been suppressed in one way or another, it can be as hard to be uncompromising on a low(ish) budget as on a studio film. I caught up with him recently, and while he was not at liberty to discuss the controversy or legal proceeding surrounding his Lil’ Wayne doc The Carter, now the subject of a lawsuit, he was more than happy to discuss the long, bumpy road Weapons took to become available.
H2N: You made a film that is unlike any other treatment of urban working class violence and its consequences that I’ve come across. What were some of your aesthetic influences? There are times when the film feels like Bela Tarr directing Boyz n the Hood. How did you go about conceiving the look and style of the movie and is that married to what the film is about?
ABL: When we first started out, the idea was that we would shoot most of the film without doing any traditional coverage. The idea was like, “Can we cover it like a documentary,” where we’re shooting at all angles and we don’t have to light for close ups, we can light a scene with practical lighting only and be able to move entirely around the room. Even though we had a normal size crew, when we were actually shooting there would only be like three people in the room and me so that we could move and run around, chasing the camera and trying to stay out of the shot. That’s what gave it that feel you’re talking about.
The first and last scenes were shot on 35mm, but most of the film was shot on 16mm. The scenes Paul Dano shot are on a PD150. So initially that was how we wanted to cover it for a number of reasons. We were on a super low budget. It was around $500,000. We were shooting in 18 days and practically speaking there wasn’t going to be time to do traditional coverage. I was more interested in doing something aesthetically that lent itself to this type of run-and-gun style. The cinematographer Manuel Claro had done a film called Reconstruction and much of that movie was shot in the same way. I had seen his movie and met his agent and once I realized she rep’d him, I was like, “I want this guy.” It’s a Danish film, he’s from Denmark, so the financier flew him out to LA to meet with me. A lot of the aesthetic is based on his style as a cinematographer blending with my style as a director and the practical nature of how to shoot a feature film in 18 days.
H2N: One thing that the style is able to capture in this specific environment is the boredom and tedium of these characters’ lives and their routines, which are glimpsed in an offhand manner, routines that the violence breaks up. What made you pick this specific environment of exurban, working class suburbs that could be many places in America. What was the impetus for that?
ABL: The environment, the locale, where it was based, that is all specifically linked to where I grew up in Virginia. I wanted it to have that feel. Where I grew up there wasn’t much going on, there wasn’t much to do. So a lot of times, with my friends in high school, the interesting thing that would break up the day, that would just be something to do, would be to go get into a fight or go jump somebody, some act of violence, generally not as serious as portrayed in the movie. However, sometimes in high school these events could go from being something stupid to something super serious. They could escalate.
We weren’t intending to shoot in that area of Los Angeles. I never wanted this movie to be an LA movie. We were originally going to shoot it in New Orleans, Louisiana, in this outer area called St. Bernard Parish that reminded me of certain areas I had lived in Virginia. Katrina happened when we were in pre-production. Quickly, we had to change our plans. When we moved to California, and specifically Los Angeles, I was looking for a part of town that didn’t look too specifically LA. I didn’t want to shoot in Compton or East LA or any of those places, I wanted to shoot in a off the beaten path sort of place. That’s how we ended up in Irwindale, which is about one hour away from of the city. What I needed were certain things to be in the environment such as a sprawling eight-lane highway, 7/11s, Wal-Mart, various run down strip malls and industrial zones. There were a lot of shots in the original cut of the movie that played into the environment more. There were more long, lingering scenes of the environment. There were tracking shots of 7/11s, Wal-Marts and strip malls. There were longer shots of the highway. When Mark Webber is biking over the highway, that sort of bookends the film.
Many of those shots were pulled out by the producers. They felt the film was moving too slow. Their concern was how can we speed this thing up; my concern was that I didn’t really care if it moved slow, because the point was that it should move slow when there wasn’t this extreme violence happening. The violence would break up the slow monotony of the day and I wanted to really linger on those shots and push it even further to another realm. After the head explosion scene, when Mark Webber is biking around his neighborhood, that scene was three to five times longer than it is now, it was really drawn out. I wanted to go from that extreme violence to lulling the viewer into the monotony of this area to the point where you’re starting to question why you’re watching this, what is this that you’re watching.
H2N: Forcing the viewers to confront their spectatorship, alienating them…
ABL: I think that makes you pay attention a little more. When I see a shot that lasts a little longer than it should, it makes me look deeper into the shot. So a lot of that got taken out of the film, but I hope there are at least some remnants left in it so that you get a feel for that environment because that is what it was meant to be, this generic America.
H2N: How did the editing evolve both before and after the Sundance premiere? You said there are these slower scenes that were cut out before Sundance, but the DVD version that Lionsgate recently put out is different than the Sundance version in several ways, correct?
ABL: The original director’s cut of the film was five to seven minutes longer than the version that screened at Sundance. The original version had these scenes and shots that I just spoke of, but it also had other scenes taken out. There was a lot of repetition in the earlier version, scenes would repeat, specifically in the party sequence entire scenes would play out again, but from different angles. That was something that I was really interested in experimenting with, how a moment in time can be seen in different ways, from different vantage points. That was something that the producer(s) felt just wasn’t working for them. Those were some of the first things that got pulled out.
The second thing that got chopped down was the Paul Dano section, where he’s shooting with the video camera. It was actually Paul Dano shooting it at that point—it’s not an assistant camera man and Paul’s just standing there behind the camera man talking, he’s actually operating the camera. I wanted it to feel totally amateurish. They also hated that section so much. They couldn’t believe that I had actually given Paul the camera and had him shoot it. They thought that what we were going to do was have the DP shoot it with the 16mm camera and put a matte over the camera that says record with a red button on it so it would look like it was being shot with a video camera. So when they saw what I had done, it was like a 20 minute sequence with Paul and there was so much more to it, they hated it so much and they thought that people were going to get up and walk out of the theatre because it just went on and on and on with this amateurish footage.
There are scenes where he’s just driving down the road and he turns the video camera on and he starts taping out the window of this horrible environment that he’s living in before pulling to the side of the road and giving this monologue. There were multiple monologues, he has that one that’s still in the film thankfully about how Sean’s coming home tomorrow and he was his best friend and everything is going to be okay tomorrow. There were other monologues where he talks about his relationship with Jason. I had originally stressed to Paul that I wanted it be a homoerotic relationship. The scenes that got cut out make you lose touch with that; it wasn’t as much in the movie anymore. I think some people still got it. So that was the second thing that got cut out before the Sundance screening, this twenty-minute chunk where Paul Dano’s character just takes over the film entirely, which is what I was super excited about experimenting with when I went to make this movie, the idea that the character would just take over the movie from the filmmaker.
The third thing that got chopped off before the premiere of the movie were the car mount scenes, these slow motion shots with some screwed music. Those were trimmed down in half. Those were played out like music videos, where they’d go on for at least another minute. It would be a two-minute scene…
H2N: In a single take.
ABL: In one single take. Once again the producers felt it was unnecessarily long and slowing down the pace of the film. They thought people would be scratching their heads. So all of that came out before the Sundance screening.
H2N: Had you described the sensibility of the film to them? How do you get to a point that late in the game where the producers realize what the filmmaker is after and ultimately the filmmaker isn’t providing them with what they want?
ABL: I’m not sure what happened there. I put specific notes in the script saying, “This scene is to be shot in one take with no edits.” There was some concern definitely, they were like, “How are you going to do this in one take?” Or, “Why would you want to do this like this?” They were definitely concerned that I wasn’t covering the movie traditionally. Maybe there was some confusion over what was going on. Maybe they thought it could all be fixed in the editing room. I think that’s a lot of producers’ process.
H2N: But you deny them that choice to a certain extent by relying on these winding single take masters.
ABL: Shooting this type of documentary-style coverage lended itself to realism and it helped generate better performances out of the actors, especially Nick Cannon. The funny thing is, he’d never shot that way before and he had to make a specific effort to not be aware of where the camera was all the time. Every director he’d worked with in television and film was always trying to tell him to play to the camera. We were like, “You’re not going to know where the camera is,” and it caused him to change his whole style up and I think it helped us get some authenticity. If an actor has to go from the beginning of a scene to the end and really encounter the breaks in the dialogue, sometimes their performances improve.
In terms of the editing, we had two different ideas of the movie that was going to be made. If I hadn’t gotten into Sundance, this movie would have been a completely different movie. The movie that was screened for Sundance that they accepted was the original director’s cut. So there was no choice to continue on that path and with that vision. If it hadn’t gone to Sundance, then this movie would have been chopped the fuck up completely. We wouldn’t be even having this conversation. Sundance kind of saved it in a way. Once we got into Sundance, there was no more question of whose vision the film was going to be, the question then became, “Adam, you realize we have to sell this movie for a lot of money and make our money back, so you have to cave in and make some edits because no distributor is going to want to buy this long, slow, boring movie.” So that’s when things had to be chopped up even more, which resulted in the version that played at Sundance, which is different than the version Lionsgate just released on DVD.
H2N: What were the responses like from distributors at Sundance? How did the producers’ assumption about the reception of the film hold up?
ABL: I don’t know. I can’t say because who knows how the distributors would have reacted to the director’s cut of the film. They could’ve hated it. People could’ve walked out. The original version might have been the type of film that only a super small indie distributor like Zeitgeist would have picked up. Who knows.
H2N: After Dark picked up the film but ultimately chose not to release it?
ABL: After Dark purchased the film at the festival for a reported 1.1 million dollars with the idea that it would be released in theaters. I was told that the release would be at least seven or eight cities and could approach 200 theaters. That was the plan. They do their DVDs through Lionsgate. There were some issues with certain things behind the scenes that I wasn’t privy to, money-wise. Still, I was excited about the sale. I was living in New York at the time and After Dark people were coming to meet with me the week after the Sundance Film Festival. Then mysteriously, the meeting was cancelled at the last second. This was in January. I didn’t hear from them again until November of that year. I had been told it was going to open wide in September. Of course, everybody’s asking me when’s the movie dropping, when’s it coming out, what’s the deal, because everyone had heard about it, but I had no clue, no one would talk to me.
So finally, I met with the head of the company, Courtney Solomon, and he seemed psyched about the movie and said to me that he wanted to shoot more scenes. He was going to give me a budget of $100,000 to go and shoot more. He wanted more hardcore violence and gory scenes. I was like, “Well, okay, if you’re excited about it and this will help you open the movie wider, put more of your sweat equity and hard cash behind the movie, then I’m more than happy to do that,” so I went home and I wrote a couple scenes to enhance the film. I sent them in and I never heard anything back from him.
Then I got a call. I can equate it to getting jumped by eleven dudes. (he laughs) You’re in high school and you get jumped ten-on-one. It was ten people from their company and the producers all on the same call. They said in the most polite way possible that we’re totally re-cutting your film, you will have nothing to do with it, we’ve already rented an editing room in Los Angeles, it’s set up and there is a new editor hired, you will not be allowed in the room, don’t bother coming to LA. Thank you for your time. That was it. That was the call.
Obviously, I’m just like, “What can I do?” There is nothing I can do. Maybe time will tell. I still have the original director’s cut of the film and maybe time is on my side and that’s the best I can hope for. This is in December, over the holidays, and the idea now was that the movie would be released in the springtime.
The holidays pass and around February, I get a DVD in the mail of the new, new, new cut of the film. They had changed every single scene in the movie. Every shot. They’d gone back to the drawing board. They’d literally gone back to the dailies and re-cut everything. They sped the whole movie up; they tried to make it look like there was coverage and different angles by chopping things up and using, for lack of a better term, an MTV-style editing approach. It was atrocious. It was just so bad that it made me laugh, because I knew no one would ever release this. They just shot themselves in the foot. This is ridiculous. Whoever they hired to edit this thing must have had a good sense of humor. It was hilarious. So that version was squashed, they shut down the edit room and they decided not to release the movie in theaters.
The problem with that is that they have a contract with the producers where they are contractually obligated to release it in theaters, so they’re in breach of contract. So the producers sued them. So then the movie got backed up in lawsuits. If you’re in a lawsuit your movie can sit on the shelf a long time. That’s what ended up happening. After Dark gave up on the movie. They didn’t want to put the amount of money necessary to open the movie wide because they didn’t understand, in my opinion, how to market this movie. I also heard that even if they wanted to put the movie in theaters they couldn’t because the company was going bankrupt. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. I don’t want to slander anybody, I don’t know if their company was going bankrupt, but that was what I was being told.
So then the movie fell into a void, into purgatory, nobody knew what was going to happen to it. At some point Lionsgate finds out that this movie is just sitting on the shelf and that there are some great actors involved in it and maybe they could make a couple bucks on it if they released it on DVD. Someone at Lionsgate was like, “Give us this fucking movie, we’re going to put this thing out.” Thankfully I got a phone call that Lionsgate wants it and that they’re going to put it out ASAP and they did. From the time I got a call that they were intending to release it to the time that they did was just a matter of four months. One caveat was that they wanted to edit a couple scenes in order to get an R rating. They wanted to trim some stuff off of the rape scene. They wanted to cut the scene out where Paul Dano’s character Chris pisses on the kid’s face in the bathroom. You might not have even noticed that it was missing on the DVD version, but that scene was gone. They also wanted to do one edit that was really touchy to me and to everyone who was behind the movie, like the original editor Jay Rabinowitz.
Originally in the Sundance version of the film, the rape scene in which you learn that the character who perpetrates this is Chris and not Jason was in Chris’ sequence. In the original cut his sequence was meant to come across as this descent into hell. It starts at one point, he’s sort of fucking around with people, he’s getting high, you see him at the party, things are sort of escalating and it just gets worse and worse and worse until you’re saying to yourself, “What else can this kid possibly do?” All in one twenty-minute chunk and all photographed by the Dano character.
H2N: And the rape was at the end of that sequence. Only later did we see how she ended up in that car with Dano and why she was convinced to lie about it.
ABL: Exactly. That was original vision. That’s what it was meant to be. Their idea was, well, we want to save it and reveal it later, maybe it will be a third act reveal that the Chris character perpetrated this crime against this girl and set all these things in motion. When I say it’s touchy, I say that because now you’re trying to manipulate the audience in a way I had never intended to. It was not my style. Ultimately I had no choice over it. They thought that it could help carry the movie. They wanted some type of big reveal in the third act. Some people just expect that, but that was not the intent.
It was the biggest change that was made between the two versions, with the exception of the stuff I just mentioned that got cut out for ratings purposes. That’s why I was shocked when the movie came out and it was unrated. I thought if we’re cutting this shit out, why not try to get the R rating, so we can get the movie in Wal-Mart. You can’t put the movie on the shelf in Wal-Mart because it’s unrated. So I don’t know what happened there. I don’t know why it ended up being unrated when the made the changes to get an R rating.
H2N: What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve taken from this experience?
ABL: I’d like to say that the lesson here is to always demand final cut, but if you’re at the point I was at, a 25-year-old filmmaker with one picture under his belt who was trying to get a movie made and financed over the course of several years, you’re not really in the position to do that. Not every young independent filmmaker is Jim Jarmusch. Not everyone can walk into a room and say, “This is my script and if you want to get down with me that’s great, but I have to have final cut of the film and there’s really nothing you can say about that.” So I don’t know what the lesson is. You have to get your movies made somehow.
— Brandon Harris