Down With Film Interviews “Web Of Lies” Directors Kathryn Gould and Nelson Goforth
Nelson - I’ve been doing lighting for film for almost 25 years, and that distinctive noir style is a touchstone to any gaffer or director of photography. I was tempted to go for a neo-noir look, adding some muted color, etc., but Kathryn won me over to the very traditional look. About our only compromise was the 16:9 aspect ratio, and I probably did more adding foley during the sound edit than was done in noir’s heyday.
(As yours is a British site, the gaffer is the Chief Lighting Technician, the Director of Photography or Cinematographer is the Lighting Cameraman; the 1st Assistant Cameraman (1st AC) is the Focus Puller. I think I have that translation right, but please correct me. I don’t know if you all use the term foley, too – for sounds added in post that are what the characters would be making in the picture, if we weren’t trying to just record voices – footsteps, blows, cloth rustles)
DWF - (Both) How difficult was it to secure funding for this film? Were you able to stick to your budget?
Kathryn – The piece was self-funded. We owe a great deal of thanks to all of the incredibly helpful and generous members of the Colorado film community who saw that we had something interesting and unique and volunteered to help and loaned us equipment. The film commission stepped up and spoke to the people in charge of one of the locations, who then agreed to give us a much better price, since we weren’t a commercial venture. Nelson and I both really did even more work than we put in the credits just to pull things together and make it look like we spent much more money than we did.
Nelson – I own the Red One camera (and now an Epic), and because of my years of working in Denver I was able to call upon friends and contacts for favors. I was able to call on someone like Doug O’Kane, a veteran camera assistant, to operate for me (I couldn’t very well act and operate the camera). My gaffer, Kyle Steinbrinck, showed up with a van’s worth of grip and electric gear. Kathryn’s circle of actor friends provided enormous amounts of support in wardrobe, makeup, production and even catering. Without all of our friends pulling with us, and for us, this would have been a ten-thousand-dollar short.
DWF - For both of you, this was your first film as director. What approach did you take to directing ‘Web of Lies’? How did you feel stepping behind the camera for the first time?
Nelson – One of my big reasons for doing Web of Lies was to see if, given all my on-set experience, that experience would translate into being able to actually pull it off. Just shooting and acting (“actor-cinematographer” is not one of the more common hyphenates in Hollywood) was daunting enough, but with the added producing and directing duties I knew it would be a real test. I don’t think I’d try that on a longer production (Web of Lies was shot in two days), but on the whole I satisfied my question — yes, I can do this. I’ve “known” for years that I could step behind the camera, and do it well, but it was nice to actually know it in practice.
We went into production having worked out a lot of the story and characterization in rehearsals. Kathryn took the lead in molding the performances to fit the story she had in mind, while I offered some suggestions. In particular, it’s difficult for an actor to judge their own performance, so she relied on me to watch her – one of the reasons she asked me to co-direct. On set I just tried to keep things moving and to give myself good coverage while still getting all the shots done. In directing Kathryn and Jason I made sure that they were giving the performances that they are capable of. Since we’d rehearsed several times, we basically knew where the performances were to go – it was just a matter of keeping them on the track that Kathryn had suggested. Early on I cut two quick shots in one scene, but they’d always been ‘it would be nice’ options, and, pressed for time, I had to drop one piece of coverage that I really needed (the angle on Kathryn during the last scene), but on the whole everything worked out really well. No harsh words were spoken, it all ended in smiles, and most of the crew are still speaking to me, which on this kind of no-budget film I consider a victory.
Kathryn – For me it was just really dipping my toe in the water. I approached it as a learning experience, and I knew I had Nelson there with this mother lode of technical know-how and experience, so I didn’t have to feel like I was out of my element. Luckily, Nelson and I get along and communicate really well, so we were able to set a shared vision for the project and see it through.
DWF - Kathryn, you wrote, starred and co produced and directed this film. You have said you would prefer to concentrate on just one or two positions in the future. Which direction do you see your future going?
I don’t plan on picking any one of those things and doing it exclusively, I only mean that I plan to do fewer of them at a time. I’m writing screenplays and trying to sell them, I’m auditioning for films and TV, and Nelson and I are talking about our next project as a directing team. I think I’ll be able to do a better job at each of those things if it’s the only thing I’m doing–although being a writer/ director isn’t a bad combo since the writing should be mostly done before the directing part gets going. But film is so collaborative, that if you have the right people working on a project, the synthesis of all those minds coming together really can elevate the project to new heights. That creative partnership is really exciting to me and a huge part of why I love this art form.
DWF – Kathryn, Is it more difficult being a female director in such a male dominated field? Had the success of someone like Kathryn Bigelow helped to make female directors be taken more seriously?
Kathryn: You know, I think that’s a question you’ll have to ask me a little further along in my career. It’s certainly less daunting knowing that someone like Bigelow is out there doing great work and getting respect, but I don’t have enough experience yet to even have felt like there was anyone out there discouraging me.
Nelson: [butting in here] I’ve worked with both male and female directors (though not on features. yet) and find no difference between them, in that there are angels and demons amongst them all. Kathryn, of course, would be on the “angel” end of the spectrum. I’m contractually obligated to say that.
Kathryn: Your check is in the mail.
Nelson: There have been a number of talented and successful female directors (actress Ida Lupino, mostly early TV; Lena Wertmüller; Martha Coolidge, the director of one of my favorite odd films, Real Genius; Penny Marshall; Elaine May; and, of course, Ms. Bigelow). One of the most influential film directors of all time, truly affecting events that changed the world, was the controversial Leni Riefenstahl. I don’t understand why film direction has been a man’s game – there seems to be no reason for it, not even the “boy’s club” rationale. Okay, yes, there was Ishtar.
DWF - (For both Kathryn & Nelson) How did you go about casting the film?
Kathryn - I had Nelson in mind for the cop character from the beginning, and that was what I first approached him about in terms of his involvement in the film. The only character we held auditions for was Joe, and I think we had around 20 guys read for that part. This was my first time on that side of the audition process, and it was such a hard decision! We had some really great actors read for the part, and most of them were good friends whom I’d worked with before, so it was tough. But Jason had just the right mixture of tough exterior and vulnerable underbelly that I felt really worked for the Joe character. Henry, who played the police chief, was helping me out a great deal behind the scenes, and I thought he just had the perfect look, so that was an easy choice. Joey, who played the thug, was a friend of Jason’s and didn’t have a lot of acting experience, but when I met him he just seemed born to play that part, so that was a no-brainer as well. And then our “extra”, LeighAnn, is an actor friend who loves the time period and had been helping me with costumes and hair and make-up. At the last-minute when we realized we’d need someone to make the train station look populated, I knew I could count on her to put together her own perfect period look and show up ready to go.
Nelson - It came down to balancing our characters, and Jason Coviello just fit perfectly; from a cinematographer’s perspective he just has a great face for that period.
I think I may be stuck as a cop now, specifically a grumpy, grouchy cop. Or maybe that’s just me.
Kathryn – I don’t think you’re grumpy, Nelson. Except when you’ve seen a bad film.
DWF - (For both Kathryn & Nelson) How do you plan to distribute the film?
Kathryn - The film is available online on both Vimeo and youtube, and that’s the extent of our distribution plans. Making this film was never about trying to squeeze a few cents out of some distribution deal; it was about getting our work seen by as many people as possible.
Nelson – We’d just like the film to be seen. It’s online for all the world to see (and hopefully like, and comment on).
DWF - ‘Web of Lies’ has been screened at a few film festivals, winning prizes at Visionfest and The Film Festival of Colorado. How important are film festivals for films like ‘Web of Lies’ and are there plans to show it at any more festivals?
Nelson – Festivals are crucial to getting visibility for films, especially shorts and independent films that otherwise might never find an audience. I was comfortable with just putting Web of Lies up on Vimeo or YouTube and having it seen, as I’d always approached it as an exercise, but having it in festivals was a great deal of fun.
Kathryn – For a film like this, I think it really helps to have those laurels on your webpage, and especially to be able to say it’s an award-winning film. Whether it’s potential viewers, possible industry contacts, or member of the press who might review the film, showing that there were other people who enjoyed the film and recommend it encourages people to watch. There are so many short films out there, and unfortunately many of them are, let’s just say it, bad, that getting that recognition goes a long way in getting people to take the ten minutes out of their day to watch the film.
DWF - Nelson, can you tell me a bit about shooting the film? The film was shot on a Red camera and converted to black and white. Could you give some detail on this process? And why did you opt to do this instead of shooting in black and white?
Nelson - Shooting on film (all modern digital cameras shoot in color) was prohibitively expensive, and black-and-white stock is difficult to come by. And…I owned the camera. I shot black and white stills for many years, and knew the look. Converting from color to black and white is not so simple as ‘turning off the color’ (reducing the saturation), though that’s what some YouTube tutorials would tell you. I, on the other hand, will tell you that looks like crap; specifically muddy, grey crap with no snap at all.
I left the footage in color up until the last stage, though I was experimenting with the color grade all along. We didn’t even monitor with reduced saturation on set, because I felt we’d be distracted by the mushy, muted grays of zero saturation, instead of the crisp, dark blacks I wanted to end up with. So I just depended on my eye and my knowledge of what real black and white film looks like. The color correction (grade) was done in Apple’s Color application (the edit was in Final Cut 7), though now I’d probably use Davinci Resolve. I did an overall color grade to make the shots all look similar, then used Color’s system of building blocks (the FX ‘room’) to make the colors go to grays in the way I wanted, to get some glow in the highlights, to keep the sparkle in Kathryn’s eyes, but otherwise give her face a soft glow, etc. On Plus-X (Kodak film), for instance, the red of Kathryn’s dress at the station would have gone nearly black; with Color’s tools I could make the reds do that – if I’d just desaturated the dress would have just been a blah middle gray.
DWF - Nelson, how did your background in lighting for film help you when shooting and lighting ‘Web of Lies’?
Nelson – Since I’ve watched a lot of movies with care, I have seen how lighting, composition, camera work and editing can affect the feel of a film, and as I’ve worked for a number of really good directors and cinematographers (and because I’ve paid attention), I have seen how those effects can be achieved.
When I watched the original films noir I looked carefully at how they used light. We couldn’t work in the same way (requiring generators, arc lights and substantial crews) but we didn’t need to. The trick was to emulate the style to get the same feel, and with modern equipment and faster ‘stock’ that was relatively easy. A cinematographer, at least one who knows noir, would spot the difference quickly, but I think the casual fan would not. It would be interesting to light a small set in the old way, as an exercise, but I think we’d melt the actors.
Kathryn – And I just want to say that the lighting is something that has gotten positive comments from just about everyone who’s seen it, so I think Nelson really has something to be proud of there.
DWF - (Both) How was it sharing the directing duties? Did you find the collaboration easy?
Kathryn – We get along well and enjoy working together. Since I had written it, Nelson always approached it as “my baby”, and never tried to make huge changes to the vision that I had laid out at the beginning. And on the other hand, since he has so much experience on set, I stepped back in the technical areas and really just watched and learned. He did more on the actual day of shooting, since we were on a tight schedule and he really knew what he wanted in terms of the shot list and lighting, etc. But as he always reminds me, a director’s job is much bigger than just calling on the shots on the day of filming, so it really was a collaborative effort.
Nelson - We were already in early planning stages when Kathryn asked me to co-direct. There are several elements to film directing, and she was very comfortable working with actors and in telling the story, but there is a more technical side to directing that involves camera angles, eyelines and framing, and that’s where I was able to help. On a practical level, she directed before we shot (we had several rehearsals), getting the story and the actors where she wanted them, and I directed on set.
Kathryn and I make a good team, we each complement the other’s skills, and we communicate well…though I do think she was exhausted, if not exasperated, by the volume of my e-mails during pre-production.
Kathryn – I think I still have some deleting to do, now that you’ve reminded me.
DWF – (Both) What are your hopes for this film?
Kathryn – That it will get us lots of attention and lead to paid work in the future for everyone involved.
Nelson: Making Web of Lies serves three purposes for me:
With little feature work in Colorado in the past several years, I wanted to stretch and exercise all of what I’ve spent the last 25 years learning. Doing narrative film production is not like riding a bicycle, the skills are volatile and need to be practiced lest they fade away.
After working in film for a long time, and paying close attention to every aspect of the business, I wanted to see if I’d learned as much as I thought I had — sometimes you just don’t really know until you try. I knew I was biting off a huge chunk of work for a first-time filmmaker (something I would normally discourage, in a loud voice), but figured my level of crew experience – around 40 features, TV movies and TV series – would go a long way towards allowing me to pull it off.
Finally, short films serve more often as a calling card, or demo. Actors, cinematographers, directors, art directors, editors, they can all have something to show off for future work — assuming that the short is well done. I hope that Web of Lies, together with some other short work that I’ve done lately, will get me in the door on some bigger projects. Or at least projects with money.
DWF – What are your future plans? Do you plan to continue to work together or are you planning separate projects?
Kathryn – We are talking about our next collaboration and have some exciting ideas we’re discussing. And we both have separate projects we’re working on as well, so we’ll just see what gets done first!
Nelson: Our roles may vary, but I’m happy to be involved in whatever she’d like to do.
Thanks again to Nelson and Kathryn for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer our questions. Support the film and its makers by checking out the links below