CHARLIE: Technically speaking, I had almost zero filmmaking experience before making The Center. I had created an eight-minute short animated film and worked for years as a storyboard artist, but I’d never create my own films or worked with actors.
I did have one huge advantage that really worked for me as a first-time director in that I grew up with a dad who directed TV commercials. So I was around filmmaking my whole life and really absorbed so much from him and the people he worked with. As far back as I can remember, I was sitting in editing rooms, working as a PA on shoots, taking script notes, and attending casting sessions. It was all just part of how I grew up. So when we started shooting The Center it all felt incredibly familiar and natural — and I loved every second of it.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like ?
CHARLIE: I’ve always been fascinated by cults and what leads people to fall into a “group-think” mentality. The idea that our belief systems actually influence how we assimilate and perceive information has been something I’ve been interested in exploring for many years. And a movie about a cult felt like a great vehicle for the topics that I found so intriguing. But at the end of the day, the movie is less about cults as it is about the emotional journey of the main character. My interest in cults just helped create a, hopefully, unique backdrop for the story.
The writing process itself took nearly 5 years. I went through too many drafts to count and at one point the script was 175 pages long! It was a constantly evolving story and I sort of had to just ride through the process for years in order to figure out what exactly I was seeking. During the writing process I did a lot of “table reads” with potential actors, and also shot no-budget test scenes to test out the material. I found both of those processes to be extremely helpful to figure out what was working and what wasn’t.
CHARLIE: The script didn’t change a great deal once the cast was in place but the story did change in the actual film editing process. In the editing room we found the “real” story that I was trying to portray and decided to make large changes to the story arc. In the editing room the story became, at least for me, very vulnerable and authentic.
In retrospect, I feel that the original script was solid, but it used a lot of “trickery” to cover the more vulnerable heart of the story. Once some of the unnecessary intensity was lifted from the story it had the space to come to life and connect more directly with the viewer.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
CHARLIE: We used two RED cameras throughout principal photography. I absolutely love the look of the RED footage — so much so, that I did very little color correction. I ended up using almost exactly what we shot. I also liked shooting in 4K. Our final output was 2K, so I had the ability to re-crop imagery as I saw fit. As an illustrator, composition is everything to me and I’ve learned over the years that often a small adjustment or re-crop of an image can take a so-so composition and make it very beautiful.
The only thing I didn’t like about the RED was the size (I had become very used to the much smaller Canon 7D during our test shoots). There were a few shots that we just couldn’t get because we couldn’t fit the camera where I wanted to. I like having a very precise shot-list but then always having the option of discovering ideas on the fly and quickly moving the camera to accommodate better options. With something like a 7D, you can do just that very easily. But when working with two RED cameras, everything takes more time.
You wore a lot of hats on the production -- writer, director, DP, editor, producer. What's the upside and the downside of doing that?
CHARLIE: I think the upside is that you have a lot of control. If you have a clear vision, that seems to me to be the most direct route to get there. There are a lot of jokes about directors being control freaks, and I’m sure I’m guilty of that at times.
But part of the reason that I took on so many roles was out of sheer necessity. Our budget didn’t allow for a large crew so everyone had to take on as many roles as they could. If you look through our credits you’ll see several people with 4 or 5 listings.
The downsides with that system are numerous though. Simply put, it's exhausting to spread yourself so thin. And you have to know when multiple roles are dividing your attention to the degree that its impacting the quality of the overall work.
When we shot test scenes I would direct, set the lights, run the camera and mics all at once. I learned pretty quickly that it was impossible! I guess that should’ve been obvious, but I had to learn the hard way. I just didn’t have the space in my brain to think in all of those direction at once. So you have to know your limits.
Another thing to consider is that collaborating with others, when it's at its best, creates results that a single person never could achieve on their own. So if you try to control everything and take on every single role, you’re sort of limiting what other people get to do. And where is the fun in that?
So its a big balancing act of not taking on too much nor too little. Hopefully we struck the right balance in our production.
CHARLIE: Jonathan Demme came on board as the presenter in a very organic, unplanned way. I had been working with him to develop an animated feature film project for several years and we formed a great collaborative partnership and friendship. While developing the animation project I had a chance to show him a rough cut of The Center. He really enjoyed what I was doing and soon after set up an artist residency for me in Pleasantville, NY at The Jacob Burns Film Center (JBFC).
In New York, he and I along with JBFC Editor Thom O'Connor created the final edit. During that process he offered to be the executive producer and presenter of the film. It was an incredible experience to be able to learn from him and I feel so lucky that he is involved with my film!
CHARLIE: The smartest thing I did during production was drawing detailed storyboards for every shot in the film. We had limited time in our schedule and being very organized was instrumental in completing the film and maintaining the quality I was seeking.
I’m sure there were a lot of dumb things I managed to do throughout the production--but the worst thing I did was simply not eating enough. I was always so excited about being on set that I would skip meals so I didn’t miss out on anything. I wanted to be involved in every second of the action and by the end I was physically drained. So, next time I will absolutely try to take better care of myself.
CHARLIE: I think the biggest lesson I learned in The Center was to always try to see every obstacle, even a seemingly disastrous obstacle, as an opportunity to make the film better. Whenever I felt like we had come face-to-face with an insurmountable problem, instead of panicking, I tried to ask myself, “What can I create out of this?” I’m probably using this term wrong but it made me think of Judo (or at least my idea of what Judo is). I tried to align myself with the force of the obstacle instead of fighting against it.
When I managed to do that, often a great creative solution would emerge and make the film better then if that obstacle had never arisen in the first place. It's a tough discipline but its something I think about every day and hope to carry with me into future films.