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Michael Clayton “I’m not the Enemy” Scene Re-Creation

In Dennis Lisonbee’s Directing class at UVU, each student was required to make a short film from our own script or shoot a scene from another movie by the end of the semester. What he wanted was for each of us to utilize the techniques in staging and camera placement that had been explored throughout his course.

Dennis’s techniques were fully illustrated in a Film Directing textbook which was filled with different approaches to pre-visualizing and plotting out the movement and pacing of a given scene. It mostly focused (from what I remember) on a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock film “Notorious”–which is fantastic, by the way–in which Cary Grant has to convince Ingrid Bergman to go back to the big baddie, under cover.

This is an emotionally complex scene which is staged masterfully by the great director (if I could find the clip, I would), every emotional beat is clear and very little dialogue is needed to get the point across. Basically, we studied that scene for a month and then watched Home Alone and Amadeus and broke those movies down as well, and overall it was a very good class.

A little note on Dennis, he’s been an educator for years now and most of his directing experience has been in television. At UVU he acts as the Digital Cinema Production head and pretty much spends his entire waking life with students and their various productions. Something I have joked about with other students is that Dennis probably still wishes he was directing. Often when a more timid student was up to direct a scene under Dennis’s watchful eye, it wouldn’t take long for Dennis to completely take over and blissfully direct without the input of the student director. Now, he never did that to me. Like I said, more timid students.

Not being one to take the difficult path, I decided that the scene I was to shoot would be a scene involving two male actors. In case I wasn’t satisfied by the performances of whomever auditioned for the role, I would easily be able to call upon my friends to fill it.

However, there were no auditions. Instead I had multiple people flake out on me (I believe flakes were discussed in an episode of “Getting PHAT…”), and I had to turn down a handful of women from even auditioning because of some very male-centered lines in the scene I was using from the film “Michael Clayton“. After a couple weeks of immense frustration with Utah actors, I turned to my trusty friends Kaleb Schweiss and Cameron Wilson to fill the rolls.

We blocked the scene near Schweiss’s house a week before I was to take what I had to to get Dennis’s approval. I wanted the set-ups to be simple and for the performances to lead the way. When two people are really confronting each-other, I think close-ups can be very useful. Close-ups and traditional coverage have been overused (especially in TV), but I thought that it was more than perfect for a scene like this. One subtle difference was that I wanted whomever was winning the argument in the moment to have a camera on a tri-pod, and the other shaken-up person, as it were, to be shot with his singles hand-held.

To make the scene pop and move even more, I wanted to re-create the frenetic walk-and-talk sequences in “The West Wing” to add tension in the stop-and-go movement I had staged with my actors.

When we presented this to Dennis, he seemed to be pleased with my staging. He noted that the car that slides into the frame may not be all that interesting, and that I should try to think of another way of shooting the car driving up when the scene begins. I knew, however, that I was going to be shooting the car with a particularly long lens and that the movement of the car would be enough, so I ignored him. At the end of the semester I asked Dennis if he had any particular advice for me, “be more flexible,” he said.

Crew turned out to also be hard to come by, but at the last minute, armed with my own equipment, I finally got a small group together to film the short.

Something we didn’t quite expect that day was that it was going to be sprinkling rain on-and-off, and also that the bags of the baguettes I had grabbed in the morning would be sad, squished carbs by the end of shooting. Numerous sound issues, some camera issues we didn’t know about (note the flickering exposure in the video), filming around squished bread, and weather aside, I was finally able to pull something together that I was okay with.

In the end, the class seemed to like the performances a lot (way to go Cameron and Kaleb, I can’t say they didn’t have to work for them), and if I were to compare myself to my fellow students… Well… It was probably 2nd best dramatically and–camera issues aside–maybe the 4th best visually. There was a pretty sick horror short–I believe Ben-ji Allred made?–, and a couple of the other shorts were shot beautifully on the RED (I’m thinking of a short directed by Parker Peterson).

Anyway, this scene was a fun experiment. Frankly, it was the first time I’d ever shot anything that wasn’t supposed to be funny/stupid for my friends.

Here’s the video:

Also, if you want it, here’s some incomplete “making-of” materials you can sift through: DirectorsBook



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