“It’s a complicated coming of age story between a girl, a boy and his drone. Teenager Vivian is visiting her grandparents for summer vacation, when she sees a drone spying on her outside her window. But it’s owner, the boy next door, is about the most interesting thing she’s seen all week. With the drone as a go between, Viv gives the drone a tour of her favorite corners of the lake, until she realizes she may have shared more than she had intended. I say it’s a complicated coming of age story, the complication being how the new tech that surrounds us both brings us together, but also confuses the way we relate to one another.” Director Patrick Brooks on SEEN FROM ABOVE which screens at the 2018 edition of VIFF.
I hear you are back this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favorite aspects of the city.
My short film THE BOY SCOUT played at VIFF in 2013, a story about a couple on a camping trip gone wrong, trapped in their car for days during a massive snowstorm. I was thrilled to share the film with the festival, given Vancouver’s proximity to the mountains- maybe some of the audience had found themselves in the same situation! Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the festival in 2013, though I’m thrilled to be coming this year.
So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.
Honestly, it started with seeing NIGHT ON EARTH by Jim Jarmusch, on cable with my parents , probably way too young to be seeing it, that made me think about film in a totally different way. But more literally, I took an elective course in filmmaking my senior year at the University of Chicago and have been making work ever since. I did graduate work in film directing at UCLA and have directed a number of shorts/ shot projects as a cinematographer, having screened at festivals including Tribeca, Slamdance, Palm Springs and, of course, Vancouver. I also worked as a producer at Little Monster Films in NYC, where I’m now based, and collaborated with directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin on their mountain climbing feature doc MERU, INCORRUPTIBLE and on commercial projects for The North Face and National Geographic. I also teach film production at universities including Northwestern, DePaul and currently at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!
It started with my kids! My wife was pregnant with our second child, a girl, and I started thinking about what it’s going to be like for the two of them growing up. Specifically, what will they be like a teenagers, though that’s far off! I wrote a script exploring those ideas and planned a fast shoot, one and a half days over a weekend, allowing friends with day jobs to come up to a New Hampshire lake house from NYC and Boston to make the film. We cast the film in New York and were lucky to find the incredible Mina Sundwall (Netflix’s LOST IN SPACE) as the very last actor at our casting sessions. She absolutely makes the film. The production included shooting at a small rocky island in the middle of a lake, which posed some production challenges getting, cast, crew and camera/ sound equipment onto set. The result was ten people in three canoes, paddling out with thousands of dollars of equipment, the first AC gripping the camera like a baby. Since the film features footage shot by a drone, the biggest challenge in post was integrating the footage organically, so as not to be distracting from Mina’s performance.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
I think this is fairly typical answer for a director, but I love seeing a performance coming together and collaborating with the actors to make this happen, or stepping out of the way when everything is working well. It’s rare to have the opportunity to direct super talented people and equally rare to see people embody a character. On set, I try to remind myself of this, “hey, you don’t get to do this everyday.” I think I surround myself with a crew that shares this sentiment, so there’s a general excitement that we all get to be creative and share some time together. That, and a little bourbon with the crew after wrap.
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
Leading up to the shoot, there were a lot of questions about how a drone would work as an actor on the screen. Our drone operators had never worked on a project like this and were skeptical that they would be able to control and move the drone around our talent in a consistent way. We crashed two drones at least ten times, breaking a number of propeller blades and putting one unit completely out of commission. In the end, though, we got everything we needed.
I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
We were originally going to shoot with the Alexa, but the DP, a friend of mine for years, Douglas Gordon, suggested the Canon C300 MkII, since it’d allow us more mobility and simplicity. The camera changed the way I viewed film production; I had come off years of using large digital motion picture cameras, with full rigs, and accepted this as normal. But the C300 MkII was nearly all contained and we could run around, shoot off the back of a pickup, jump into a canoe, even see into the dark at dusk. Getting technical, it was the battery life and lightweight video codec that most impressed me; we could shoot all day on physically tiny batteries, not lugging around gigantic cinema batts, and shoot internally on SD cards, which simplified the workflow and allowed for us to focus on performance and composition; meanwhile, the final image holds its own against any other camera. My relationship with the DP was excellent- we were making the same movie. Subtle framing choices, working to enhance the performance and not call attention to itself. I especially love that Doug found an old cinema gyro meant to stabilize gigantic Panavision 35mm cameras while shooting on boats, which we used to shoot off the back of a pickup. He’s an ingenious collaborator who understands story and also the scale of the production- can’t wait to work with him again.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Vancouver?
The film is screening as a part of the Teen program, with one screening populated with a majority of high school students. I can’t thank programmer Sandy Gow enough for featuring the film in this group, since it is an elusive audience and I group for whom I’ve made this film. They’re living the lives of the people on the screen and I can’t wait until after the screening, to hear their thoughts, one way, or the other!
After the film screens at Vancouver, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
The week following the film will screen at the New Hampshire Film Festival.
What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?
I don’t mind leaving halfway, so much. I’ve done that myself! I’m mean, time is valuable and some movies don’t speak to some people. I think the best tactic with people talking and texting is to get the whole section of the theater on your side, use group peer pressure to shame them into shutting it down. Or, just turn on your flashlight and shine it at them until they stop? I’d probably never do that.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
Film production is a collaborative beast and you only get to work if you make and keep friends. Put yourself out there, make your own films, or helping others to get their work out there, get involved in a community and don’t be a jerk.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT with the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne present at the Q&A, New York Film Festival. One of the reasons we go to festivals is to meet, or hear directly from the filmmakers themselves. Just being in the same room as the Dardenne brothers was a big deal for me.
For more information on the film screenings at VIFF, point your browser to www.viff.org!