Writer-actor-editor-we-lost-count-because-he-did-so-many-things-on-set Adam Bradley comes to Austin this week for our June Orbiter screening, YESTERDAY LAST YEAR. In preparation for the event, OWA Associate Artistic Director Jordan Brown tossed a few questions at Adam to learn more about him and the film. He more than delivered on answering her questions: he is not a man of few words... Read on!!
Brown: What’s the writing process like for a time-travel piece like this? There are so many narrative strands to keep in place! I picture your writing area with post-its all over the place, like those murder suspect boards that police detectives use.
Bradley: When I began writing YLY, I had no “writing process”, other than to come up with a premise and to start writing. These days I flesh things out from the major plot points to the minor ones, then go scene by scene, gradually building up the skeleton of the piece before putting flesh on the bones. So my writing area (which is usually just our eating table) gets covered with 30-50 index cards that, in theory, each represent a scene, and I fill them in until the whole thing looks like it makes sense and I can “see” the entire story in my head.
But when I started writing this, it was a play, and plays tend to have a slightly looser narrative structure - so I wasn’t thinking about “Act 1 turn”, “Inciting Incident”, “denouement”, or any of that important nonsense. What I started with was a single setting (a messy garage), a premise (“Wouldn’t it be neat to see time travel on-stage, because the audience experience is necessarily chronologically consistent and linear, but the characters would be moving in & out of time?”), an emotional core (betrayals and forgiveness), and the knowledge that I wanted to end on a happy-ish note of reconciliation.
And with that, I started writing. I did fairly deep character descriptions, then threw my characters into the room and “listened” to what they said. I got about 3/4 of the way through the story, right up to the point where James leaves for the last time, and … got stuck. I knew Michael wanted Sandra to leave, I knew Sandra refused to leave, and I had no idea how to proceed from there.
So I did what I always do in that situation: put it in a drawer and move on.
Every month or so I’d dip my toe back into the waters, realize I had no idea how to move forward, and put it back in the drawer. A couple of years went by like this. Eventually I got frustrated by its incompletion, took the notepad, went to a bar, bought a drink, and refused to leave until I had finished it. I had no idea what to do next, so I made that the very next line: SANDRA: “I have no idea what to say to that.” To which the obvious response is: MIKE “Why do you assume I want to hear anything you have to say.” To which Sandra’s naturally going to reply “Because you love me.” And the rest of the scene started to take shape.
I finished it, but having no outlet to produce a play, it again sat in my drawer until about March of 2012. Ingrid Veninger, a Canadian filmmaker, put out a Call for Submissions, challenging Canadian filmmakers to make a feature film for $1,000. She put up 5 prizes of $1,000 each and got some donations in-kind from post-houses, and the contest was one: she’d pick 5 teams, they had to shoot in July 2012, finish post by September, and screen at a local theatre in October.
We were not one of the 5 films picked. But since I had already assembled my team, I thought “Shit, I’ve got $1,000 in the bank, let’s do this anyway.” So we did.
Then everything fell apart. I’d go into more detail, but it’s already fairly well spelled-out on the film’s website, so if you want to know more, go to http://yesterdaylastyear.com/behind-the-scenes.html
I will, however, say this: there were many points during filming when Amy (who plays Sandra) or Scott (James) or Jeff (director) would come up to me and say ‘Hey, I’m confused about X, because it seems to contradict Y. Can you explain?” And I would think about it and say “I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote that. I’m going to have to assume that it made sense when I wrote it five years ago, so let’s just go with it.”
And often Scott or Amy would come up and say “What time am I coming from when I enter this scene? And what do I know? Do I know X, Y, or Z?” Those were the narrative strands that were toughest to track, and I give tremendous kudos to the actors for being able to handle them (or if they couldn’t, to hide it well.) It’s because of them that the script actually lists the characters as JAMES, JAMES + 6 HOURS, JAMES + 6 HOURS AND 7 YEARS - so that they had a better indication of where the character was coming from (temporally speaking) to help them track the narrative strands.
But other than that, I think we just winged it.
BROWN: Your film is all talk, and I mean that in the absolute best way. If you don’t have tons to spend on visual effects, the flip side is that you’re also not relying on fancy tricks to tell your story, which means your narrative has to be strong enough to stand on its own. OWA’s mission is to show films like yours that have substance behind the spectacle. That said, can you talk about some of the ways you had to get creative during production in order to get your story across on a small budget and single location?
BRADLEY: I give all of the credit here to Jeff Hanley. He started his career as a cinematographer, so he’s intimately aware of how the images tell the story. Most filmmaking is done in a typical Master-Coverage-Coverage kind of way, and very little of our film was shot that way. The scenes where there are closeups, there’s often no mater shot; the scenes with a master often have no coverage. (There are a couple of places where we shot a master and then went in for coverage, but they’re definitely the exception.)
Jef shot this film knowing how he wanted it to be edited, and it’s a testament to the strength of those aesthetic decisions that, when I was editing it, he didn’t share any of them with me, preferring to see if I’d be able to pick up on his directorial intentions. And 90% of the time, I could - even though I was edited it a couple of years after we had shot it.
If you watch the film closely, there are countless occasions where the framing tells us everything we need to know. Like during the James & Sandra reconnection scene (around the 52:00 mark) - if you watch closely, his coverage is all over her shoulder, so she’s in his world; but for the first half of the scene, her coverage is clean, because she hasn’t decided whether to allow him back into her life. But as soon as she sees that his ‘brain’ works, her coverage switches to OTS because she IS letting him into her life.
Another example: at 27:38, when Sandra and Michael are staring into the box. This shot was originally much wider, but we decided to punch in (thank god for shooting in 4K) to show that these character were in it up to their necks - “over their heads”, so to speak.
And then sometimes Jeff decided to shoot the scene in a single shot to allow the actors to have the floor and carry the drama.
We lit and dressed the space, rather than the actors and the frame, and then allowed the camera to see whatever it could see and allowed the actors to move around fairly freely. Obviously, in some of the shots we had specific marks, but a good portion of the film was shot with a tremendous amount of freedom on the part of the actors to move about as they saw fit. You have to have a kick-ass focus puller to do this, and again, I give tremendous credit to our crew to be able to follow us around and nail the focus.
As for the tiny budget (which ended up being about $3,500 USD for production, and another $3,000 for post (sound and music)) - favors. The money went to camera, G&L, and food. Everyone worked for free, the locations were free. It helped that Jeff used to be a teacher at the Toronto Film School, so he was able to contact his favorite students from the past few years (several of whom were now working professionally) and ask them to do a favor. And since it was his first feature, many of them said a happy Yes.
BROWN: Ok, so comparisons to PRIMER are pretty much unavoidable with a film like yours. Did you have certain things in mind that you wanted to avoid (or embrace) about the general similarities of these garage-time-machine films?
BRADLEY: Yeah, we knew going in that we were going to get this comparison. It’s not a bad comparison to get, frankly. But whereas Primer created a real Rubik’s Cube of a logic puzzle of a movie, we knew we wanted something with more of an emotional heart. I really like Primer, but at the end of the day, I like it because it’s confusing. I don’t know that I particularly care about those characters or the betrayal that lies at the heart of the story.
We wanted to make a love story. The time machine’s simply there as a narrative device to complicate things. So a couple of months before production, there were significant rewrites to the script to flesh out more of that emotional arc. I tend to be a fairly cerebral writer, and Amy (who’s also my wife) pushed me to make things more emotional.
That’s about the long & short of it. We knew we didn’t want to get bogged down in the sci-fi of it all, or the explanations for how the machine works - obviously, there are certain things that have to be there (the formula, the machine itself) but for the most part we wanted to focus on the human drama, because that’s more important.
BROWN: Making an indie film usually requires people to wear multiple hats on set/in pre-&-post-production. Can you talk a bit about balancing your multiple roles in this production? You wrote/acted/produced/edited… Do you enjoy, or perhaps find it helpful, having your hands in a lot of departments, or next time would you rather have less to juggle?
BRADLEY: Here’s a list of the things I was:
- line producer
- sound designer
Some of these are easy to combine - writing, acting, and editing take place at very different times, so doing them all isn’t a challenge from a time-management point of view. Acting and producing at the same time is dumb, in my opinion. At least for me. As an actor, I’m at my best when I don’t give a shit about production, when I get to focus simply on playing my part to the best of my ability. Camera breaks down? Cool, I’ll be over here reading a book. Weather ruins our plans for the day? No problem, I’m going home and you let me know when you want to reschedule. if I’m also trying to produce, my focus gets split between solving the production’s problems, and being deeply present in the scene. There were a few times during production when Jeff said to me “Hey - Hey! Let the production managers solve this. I need you here in this room.”
I like sound designing and coloring, but only when it’s creative - and only about 25% of it is creative. The other 75% is the tedious figuring out of which frame should the sound begin and end on, and how can I match the colors of these two different cameras so that the audience doesn’t realize that we shot this part of the scene 2 years later in a totally different place on a totally different camera. That shit’s boring. To me. I mean, it’s an interesting puzzle, but it quickly becomes really fucking tedious because I don’t actually know what I’m doing (like, I can’t look at the screen and say “Oh, we need 2% more magenta” - it’s all trial-and-error for me, which takes a REALLY long time.)
The benefits of doing everything yourself are threefold: first, it’s a lot cheaper. Second, you learn a metric fuckton of stuff. Like, almost everything I know about the Adobe ecosystem (After Effects, Audition, Speedgrade) I learned by doing this film, and that kind of knowledge is rarely a bad thing because you learn what you can fake and what you can’t. Now that I have a pretty good sense of what the software can do, I can make smarter decisions on current projects. Third, you come to know the footage INCREDIBLY well. I’ve probably watched every single take of this film at least three times, and our favorite takes I’ve probably seen four or five times - and the takes we chose, I’ve probably watched a dozen times. I know every line, every inflection, almost every edit point. So when someone gives feedback and says “It would be great if this moment had more X”, I immediately know whether that’s possible given the footage we have. And when we have to steal a shot from another scene because we didn’t get the coverage we need (like, when James leaves for the last time, we didn’t get Sandra’s reaction. Why the fuck not, you ask? Why wouldn’t you get a reaction shot from the most important character at that moment, you ask? Beats the fuck out of me. We were probably just tired and forgot.) But because I know every other shot, I know that we’ve got a reaction shot of Sandra from another scene, a scene which got cut in its entirety, so we can use it without worrying that we’re duplicating anything. And I know where that scene is what what number it is, so I can find it quickly.
The downsides are that you never really gain objectivity about the film. It’s hard to see it any other way than what you’ve imagined, so it can be challenging to solve some problems (and sometimes you don’t even realize there IS a problem because it’s always made sense to you.) This is particularly true if you’ve written it - this project has existed in some way, shape, or form, in my head for the last ten years. So if i had to re-think and re-structure the narrative, I don’t think I could.
I like having my hand in a lot of departments, but I don’t like doing the grunt work of those departments. I would happily have let someone else color and do sound design (we tried to, actually, but they booked other paying gigs and had to bow out.) What I like best is sharing my overall vision with someone and then letting them loose to do their thing. That’s what happened with the score and the music editing, and I think that worked out crackingly well.
BROWN: What are some of your own favorite single-location films, either of SciFi and other genres?
BRADLEY: Ex Machina (I know it’s not quite one location, but it’s almost one location, and I’m sure it started its life that way.)
Reservoir Dogs (same as ex Machina)