Thursday, January 9, 2014

Sarah Knight on "Vino Veritas"

What was your filmmaking background before making Vino Veritas?

SARAH:  Vino Veritas is my narrative feature debut.  My last two films were documentaries -- Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, a portrait of Nicole Sherry, Head Groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards and one of only two women in that position in Major League Baseball; and Hot Flash about Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women.  I have also directed theatre and narrative shorts. 

Prior to that, I assisted directors Taylor Hackford & Mikael Salomon and producers Robert Shapiro & Peter MacGregor-Scott.

How did you work with writer David MacGregor on the adaptation of his play?

SARAH:  David wrote the screenplay and much of his original stage play was kept intact.  The changes mostly involved cutting dialogue which would seem excessive on film (including one long monologue).  We also worked to tweak some of the more wildly divergent theatrical tones of comedy and drama to make them subtle enough to be plausible on screen.

How did you go about casting the movie? 

SARAH: I knew I only wanted actors with theatre backgrounds as this film was going to live and die on the performances.  And I would require the cast to memorize the entire script prior to shooting. 

I had seen Heather Raffo in her extremely successful one woman show, Nine Parts of Desire, about nine Iraqi women, which she also penned. Bernard White first caught my eye as the charismatic lead in an off-Broadway play in 2004. Carrie Preston had just wowed me in Duplicity and That Evening Sun.  A casting director helped me to find Brian Hutchison.

What was your visual plan for the movie (particularly with the very limited number of locations you were working on) and how did you and your DP achieve it?

SARAH:  One of my main goals was to move the actors around the house so there were several different backgrounds.  This helps to provide the illusion our story isn’t really unfolding in just in one space (where the stage play takes place entirely in the living room).

I wanted the beginning of the film - the pre-wine drinking section - to have a slightly muted, de-saturated look and we dressed the actors accordingly.  I also wanted the camera to hang back and only frame the characters from behind, in profile or in ‘dirty’ close-ups (where the subject is partially eclipsed by something in the foreground).

Once the truth serum is imbibed, there is about an eight-minute color bump where the full saturation comes in which reflects the true colors and excitement that is about to come that night.  Nothing as overt as say, Pleasantville, more of a slow seeping but hopefully it affects the audience subconsciously.  The camera also starts to move in closer and closer and head on to each actor.

What was your rehearsal process like and how did that impact the moviemaking process?

SARAH: The two couples needed to be believable as longtime best friends and neighbors, which would be difficult to achieve on a typical film shoot, where the cast often meets for the first time moments before shooting.

To give the actors a chance to bond, I held a cast dinner (Peruvian, of course) and we had two days of table reads, by the end of which they had started to seem very comfortable with one another. A great deal of rehearsal would also be required and I pushed hard for that, ultimately getting six days with the entire cast, four of which were at the actual shooting location. The actors were so prepared by the final rehearsal day we just ran the show in its entirety like a play!

Since our story at its heart is about revelations and reactions, I told the actors during rehearsal I would shoot coverage of each them at all times, so to be aware that non-verbal moments would make up a great deal of their final performances. And while I required the cast to say the dialogue exactly as written, I gave them the freedom to ad lib and improvise in between lines. A great deal of that material made the final cut and really complements David’s original work.

What was the smartest thing you did during production?

SARAH:  Shooting in Lincoln, NE.  It is my hometown and there is a beautiful house which I had driven by almost every day of my childhood.  It turned out to be the perfect location which almost serves as a fifth character in the film.  In addition, the homeowner led us to the man, Mike Murman, who provided roughly three quarters of the funding. 

My folks catered and did craft service so we were fed better than I have been on any big budget studio film, which helped to make up for the cast and crew’s low pay.  And there was a church right across the street, which generously provided a space for our holding and crew meals. 

Finally, graduate students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln served as our production design team and did a spectacular job on the set dressing.

The dumbest?

SARAH: Shooting in Lincoln, NE, in July.  It is always extremely hot in Lincoln at that time but that year there was a freak heat wave which lasted exactly as long as we rehearsed and shot.  It was about 110 degrees in the main location, which had no air conditioning.  So the poor actors huddled around one single silver snake coming from a portable AC unit in between takes.  

To top that off, Carrie was wearing a 30-pound Queen Elizabeth costume and Brian was in a flannel shirt and chaps.  And we had a gas fireplace going much of the time.  I was so focused on making our days I honestly didn’t really notice but the actors and the crew suffered quite a bit but thankfully remained troopers.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

SARAH: Simply by default of time, we shot very long takes, occasionally filming entire fifteen-minute scenes at a clip.  While this is quite an unusual way to film, it is something I will certainly use in my future work, as it created a wonderfully dynamic and real energy for the actors, which you see reflected in their terrific performances.

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