A Conversation With Frazer Bradshaw (EVERYTHING STRANGE AND NEW)
Trained as an editor before earning his position as a trusted cinematographer (most recently, he lensed the 2011 Sundance Film Festival entry These Amazing Shadows), Frazer Bradshaw knows what it takes to make a feature film. His debut as a writer/director, Everything Strange And New, proves that a well-rounded filmmaking background is an immensely helpful thing, as Bradshaw uses every technical element at his disposal to bring his story to richer, wiser life. Everything Strange And New tells the superficially generic story of Wayne (Jerry McDaniel), a young husband and father who struggles outwardly to pay the bills working construction while struggling inwardly to assure himself that this life he’s living is the right one. In Bradshaw’s hands, this age-old early-life crisis premise becomes a boldly unique exploration of what it means to be a responsible, mature adult at this complicated moment in time. Everything Strange And New is one of the most inventive portraits of life in early 21st century Recession-era America. [Note: This conversation took place when the film world premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, but in light of the film being nominated for Best First Feature at the 2011 Spirit Awards, and in light of its NYC theatrical run at the reRun Gastropub Theater—February 25th-March 3rd, 2011—we are posting it again.]
H2N: You wrote, directed, co-edited, and, most importantly, shot this film. Did you start your career as a cinematographer?
FB: Actually, I started my career in filmmaking as an editor. It’s harder to get in the door as a DP, so I worked as an editor and then transitioned into making my living as a DP, and I’ve been doing that for about ten years. At this point, I just think so visually that I couldn’t imagine trusting any other DP. Plus, I would drive them nuts. [H2N laughs]
FB: I wasn’t my own camera operator for anything that involved a performance. I have a good friend who’s a fellow DP and camera operator, and I brought him in to sort of run the nuts-and-bolts of the camera department and to operate. I still operated the stuff that was people walking down the street and things like that.
H2N: How about that amazing 360-degree pan?
FB: I did that myself.
H2N: How many times did you try that?
FB: We rehearsed it once, shot it twice.
FB: We nailed it the first time, but I thought I should shoot a safety. I can’t remember if we used the first or second take.
H2N: And did you have him run around?
FB: He walks past a car just before we move off of him, and I had a bike hidden behind the car. So as soon as I was off of him I gave him a yell and he rode the bike back to where he had started from and hid it behind another car and started walking again.
H2N: How does the idea for that kind of shot come about? It says so much about the repetitious, mundane life he’s living—or at least as he feels it. That’s such a creative way to show that without veering into pretension or showiness. Did that come in the writing or on set?
FB: It came in the writing. When I write I tend to write visceral visual moments and then try to figure out how they fit together narratively. And then, you know, build in a little extra narrative glue. But mostly I’m writing in visual moments that appeared in my head as this sort of cinematic epiphany. I have no idea where it came from.
H2N: Another complete standout—for everyone reading this, I just literally got out of watching the movie so it hasn’t even had time to sink in—a climactic moment, without giving it away, but there’s some clever background as you play with the character in the foreground. Was that another idea that came to you in writing?
FB: Yeah, very similar. A lot of moments in the film like those, oddball moments, are things that I feel as they pop into my head, and I have a sense that there’s gonna be a visceral response. And I don’t know, for the most part, what they mean in any kind of intellectual way, but I know that they speak to the character’s condition.
H2N: Early, right away, we see this. He comes home, it’s one of the first few shots, and then you start pushing away from him and into the window. That says a lot for me. Is that another gut thing? I take that to be a direct commentary on how trapped he feels, that the free world awaits him outside but he’s trapped in here with his family. Or was that another visceral one without too much thought?
FB: Usually they come as visceral cinematic moments and then I investigate them intellectually to see if they are gonna support the film and if they’re gonna support the character development, or whatever. In that case, what you just said about it is intellectually where I came to but it’s not where I started.
H2N: Reading the film’s description, it seems like it could veer into dangerously familiar terrain, the “early mid-life crisis” genre, if you will. I admit to being skeptical about it just based on the one-line synopsis. Was this something you ever stopped to consider or were you simply concentrating on telling this particular tale from the inside-out?
FB: I didn’t actually think much about that. I try not to think too much about what audience reactions might be. I just try to make a really honest film. I do think it’s an interesting question because in the broader sense of the subject matter, it’s something that’s been tackled a lot. But in the particular ways that I deal with the subject matter, I think that has been underrepresented. People who are struggling in the real way that these people are struggling is not something you see very often.
H2N: In scanning your director’s statement, it seems that you’re also very aware of judging your characters. When it started, I found myself judging this guy, as he was saying some things about the relationship he was in. But as it unfolded, you realized that he was trying to figure things out and there’s no malice in anything he’s doing. Was this something you were conscious of?
FB: If there’s one thing that’s really, really important to me in my filmmaking, it’s not having good guys and bad guys. People are incredibly complicated. And I’ve met some people that I love and there are things I hate about them, and I’ve met people that I hate and there are things that are genuinely good about them. And I don’t think there’s such a thing as somebody who is bad. Or someone who is completely good. I want my characters to be that. I want them to be complicated and real. The kinds of people that we know in our own lives.
H2N: There’s always some measure of autobiography in a writer-director’s work—or, should I say there’s some personal connection. How do you balance that issue when you write?
FB: It’s hard to say something that is affecting and honest and vulnerable without being autobiographical. And I think it’s important for artists of all sorts to be able to be vulnerable and honest about where they’re at. So, of course there’s autobiography in the piece. I tried not to make it too explicit and tried to deal with the complications I see in people other than myself. And I think I do that. The film isn’t explicitly autobiographical. But things like how the main character has troubles in his marriage and has complications with how he feels about having children and has a house he can’t really afford. I have all those things, but I have them to a much, much, much smaller degree than this guy does. Particularly my marriage. I have a super functional marriage. But every now and then I get a glimpse of what it must be like. I’ll have a small fight with my wife and realize that there are people who have major fights on a daily basis. And it seems so painful that I want to try to reflect my fear of what the worst case scenario for me would be if I was in a relationship where I was fighting with my wife all the time.
H2N: The pop cut from “Good night,” in which she expresses her love for him, and then he’s on the bed in a clown suit. Did you have a specific aim there, or do you prefer to let a viewer’s mind wander?
FB: People always ask: what about the clown? My executive producer has instructed me from now on to say, “What clown?” [H2N laughs]
H2N: Or even specifically that cut, more than the clown as a metaphor or symbol.
FB: Going back to autobiography, when people say, “Wow, I loved your film, it was so great,” it’s hard for me to take that compliment. It’s hard for me to think, “Oh, yeah, I’m a great filmmaker! Thanks! Of course!” It’s just not in me to be that guy, and I think the main character is that way, where his wife has paid him a really kind and generous compliment and he’s having a very hard time accepting that. So instead of feeling great he feels stupid. I think a lot of people have that. A lot of people tend to be obsessed with getting those compliments, or are deeply afraid of getting them. I tend to fall into the latter camp.
H2N: As do I! [both laugh] A more general question about your creative process, it’s something that really intrigues me, is the balance between cinematic inspiration and personal inspiration. Like when you come up with a shot like that amazing 360-degree pan. Do you watch films as research for specific projects or do you try to avoid watching while in pre-production?
FB: Again, I work as a DP, and one of the charms of working as a DP is I’m working with other directors all the time and I get to see what they’re doing right and wrong. And so I kinda pick things up as I go. I don’t tend to go searching for specific inspirations. I don’t decide, “Okay, I’m gonna make a film,” and then sit down with all my favorite films and try to get inspired. I think it’s much more organic for me. And honestly? I have a two-and-a-half year old so I don’t watch movies anymore. [both laugh] I don’t know how the hell I had time to make one!
H2N: What was your schedule like? Long, cramped days in a short period of time or did you let the production breathe as much as possible?
FB: One of the charms of being my own DP is that I didn’t have to communicate anything to my DP. [both laugh] It was already communicated ahead of time. And also, being my own editor and my own DP, I knew exactly what I wanted. As a DP, if I’m shooting for somebody, I’m gonna convince them to want to shoot a certain amount of coverage because it’s my job to protect them from being stuck in the editing room. But on my own film, I shot almost no coverage. 75% of the scenes in the film only had one shot. And I just knew exactly what I wanted that shot to be and only shot that. And the things that have cuts, I pretty much knew—if there’s a scene where there are two people talking to each other in two singles, there was no master for that scene.
H2N: And is that also a similar gut feeling to leave shots long?
FB: It just unfolds very naturally in my head, so I know what I need. There are a couple times in the editing room where I wished I’d shot a little more coverage here or there, but not very often.
Going back to the schedule thing, because I went into it knowing exactly what I wanted and wasn’t shooting a lot of coverage, we had very light, very streamlined days. Most of our days were around nine hours. We hit eleven hours once. Never more than eleven hours. Mostly nine and ten hour days. And I work as a DP, so I called in all my favorite crew people and I was asking them to work for less than their rates. And I wanted to be as generous with them as I could, because I couldn’t pay them what they’re used to making, so I tried to keep the days light and feed them really well and things like that. It was a 15-day schedule, which we finished quite comfortably. We ended up shooting two more pick-up days in the end, and they just kinda folded right into the footage. The pick-ups were only for character development. There were no new narrative elements introduced or supported.
H2N: How many versions did you go through in getting from a fine cut to picture lock?
FB: I did the first cut myself, showed it to a couple people, tuned it up to a second cut and then again to a third cut. At that point I brought in a friend who’s a very seasoned features editor, and he did a couple of cuts with me, and then I did one more cut after that, and then I did a little tune-up to finish it.
H2N: And was there a lot of reassembling or was it a matter of fine-tuning to the structure that was already in place?
FB: There was actually quite a bit of moving around, because the pieces, the individual scenes, for the most part don’t fit anywhere specific. There are a few moments that are explicitly narrative and you need to be at a certain point, but I really ended up moving things around quite dramatically. In fact, the whole beginning of the film originally was fifteen minutes in. I simply picked it up and moved it to the beginning.
H2N: How many eyes did you get on it along the way?
FB: The only reason it’s done now is…
H2N: …because you got into a festival!
FB: Actually, it was done with a sound mix before we ever heard from Sundance. But it’s done now because I can’t afford to do a new online. [both laugh] At a certain point you just decide that it’s done, because you can’t really ever finish something as complex as a film. There’s always room to change things.
— Michael Tully