Sunday Shorts #15: The Scarlett Sapphire (Exclusive)

Written by Luke Griffiths (director):

 

Scarlett, is an assassin turned rogue when her son is kidnapped by an enigmatic organisation who wish to control her for a unique talent she possesses. For years she has walked a violent and bloody path in search of her son, but now the path ends as she is brought face to face with the man responsible. In a small bar, at the end of the world, Scarlett’s mysterious assailants play their hand in a bid to manipulate her into completing one last job, but find they have grossly underestimated the lengths this mother will go.

Mixing Tarantino-esque dialogue and stylish action The Scarlett Sapphire is a tense and explosive thriller that examines the lengths one woman, Scarlett, will go to get her son back from an illuminati-like organisation who have taken him.  With a mix of brains, action and heart the film is gripping and entertaining in a way that respects the viewer’s intelligence while remaining satisfying on every level.

The Journey of a Film

Right now, I am sitting here, watching a fifteen minute film that represents over two years of my life. Now, to be honest, it wasn’t a consistent two years of work. As with most things, especially unpaid things, life tends to pop up and assert itself as the highest priority. But it was something constantly sitting at the edge of my mind, whispering to me, asking me to bring it to life, like the haunting of a phantom. The Scarlett Sapphire was a major undertaking for me, it is the biggest project I have worked on to date, and was something that grew so big, so fast, that I nearly lost my handle on it at various points through the production process. But I persevered and pulled the vast team of incredibly passionate and talented creative individuals through the birthing process so that this film may become realised. And now I sit here, near the end of the process, thinking of the last two years – the thousands of hours of work I have personally put into it, and the scores more man hours put in from all others involved – and I reflect. Here is the product of my reflection:

The Beginnings of a Concept

I find it a fascinating thing; the gestation of ideas. The incalculable route that small spark of inspiration makes on its journey to becoming a fully realised product. The Scarlett Sapphire is a short film based off an idea from humble, almost mundane, beginnings and across its development has grown into something much larger than the sum of its parts. This film grew from an idea that occurred to me one time when I was going for my bi-yearly jog. At the time I was contemplating a camera technique I wanted to experiment with, and in that moment I envisioned a shot: an extreme close up on a woman’s eye as she looks past the camera, behind her a figure appears in silhouette against the overexposed background. She turns to look at the figure and as she does so the camera simultaneously pulls focus and iris to reveal a burly man holding a young child. Ironically this shot never actually appears in the film, however I was intrigued by the drama of the shot, and the untold story it spoke of. So during the remainder of my jog I followed this story to its logical route and completion. And over the next two and a half years The Scarlett Sapphire grew from this initial seed of inspiration and became enriched through the perspective of every individual that worked on it.

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After the initial flash of inspiration I set down to write the project. Using the Celtx app on my iPhone I wrote the film over the next four days during my hour long commute to work via Perth’s wonderfully cramped Public Transport Network. During these writing sessions I just ran with the idea of throwing a rather disparate array of influences and stolen ideas – ranging from my love of super talky Tarantino-esque dialogue, to my appreciation for David Lynch’s more impressionistic style of storytelling, my fondness for noir tinged drama, as well as sprinkling of Japanese influenced whackiness – into a melting pot that was seasoned with only one laziness-imposed restriction: include only one location in the script. As it turns out the finished film actually included a number of different locations, but at the time I stuck to this restriction and completed the script. Feeling very chuffed I then showed the script to a good friend of mine which garnered the response: “what the f*** is this s***!?” Needless to say I was a little discouraged, but I persevered, made a few minor alterations to the script, and subsequently put it in the proverbial drawer, not to be fished out until over a year later.

The Development of a Project

I find it a fascinating thing; the triggers that spur an individual into actually producing a work. The Scarlett Sapphire sat in the drawer for quite a long period, until one day I was speaking to an actress I’d worked with previously called Emily Howard, during this conversation it occurred to me that Emily was perfect for the role of Scarlett and I sent her the script. She loved it and wanted to play the role of Scarlett, however there was one rather large caveat in that Emily was leaving Perth later that year, possibly forever. So we sprung into action; I immediately got in contact with two producers I’d worked with on previous projects, Melinda Tupling and Michelle Bunting, and we got down to the task of planning and funding this thing. After a few failed attempts at government styled funding programs, we ended up going down the crowdfunding route via a campaign on the site: Indiegogo.com. Within the next fortnight we organised a small shoot that would become the first taste anybody would get with the project, The Scarlett Sapphire Indiegogo teaser. Our aim was to raise $1500.00 to cover food and other costs, we ended up making approximately $5000.00, which I guess means we must have done something right.

During the process of fundraising we were also neck deep in pre-production of the film, and during this phase we managed to secure a number of lofty individuals who greatly impacted the success of this film. Firstly: we secured the immensely talented Paul Boucher to portray the character of Alex, Scarlett’s charming and charismatic nemesis, who prefers the art of the silver tongue to that of the gun; Secondly: we managed to snag Greg Knight as the Director of Photography, whose calm and collected attitude on set allowed us to focus on the details that create great results even with an incredibly tight schedule; and Thirdly: after much rigorous location scouting we ended finding and locking in The Ellington Jazz Club as our primary location; a location that, without alteration, oozed the sexy, sophisticated and smokey noir feel that seeped from the script. With these elements in place we were just about ready to go into location and shoot this film.

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The Shooting of a Film

 

Leading up to the shoot I knew we were going to be very short of time. Due to our budget, the cost associated with shooting on location, and the fact that our lead actress was going to be leaving the country directly after the shoot, we really had no margin for error. Was I stressed? Well, there may have been one or two sleepless nights as I crawled up into a ball. However, as a director and producer my approach has always been to prepare down to the minutest detail, so that when it comes time to shoot you’ve always got the planning to fall back on, even if you don’t always (read: ever) follow it on the day. So leading up to the shoot I had rehearsed extensively with Paul and Emily, and workshopped them into performances that satisfied all of us.

My approach to rehearshals, and collaboration in general is to get the other person to give me their interpretation first, without my up-front input. From there I will then mould that performance into one I feel works best for the overall film. It’s not always the most efficient way of working, but I do feel it is one that can be very rewarding and make the film much richer. On top of these rehearsal, my stunt coordinator, Adam Howell, was taking the stunt team through the richly choreographed action sequence that was the emotional climax for the film. As it turns out, this level of preparation saved our butts on the intense one and a half day shoot that was our principal photography.

Another little rule I like to follow when choosing people to work with on set is: personality first; skill second. This seems a bit counter-intuitive at first, but I’ve always rested it on the philosophy that as a director I should be able to push people to produce their best work, and I am most comfortable pushing people who I get on with at a personal level. What this meant was that when push came to shove we had a cheerful and intensely motivated group of people all keeping cool heads whilst we plowed forth through the huge number of setups that were required to get this film in the bag. On day two, which is when we shot our action and climax scenes, we ran through over fourty setups in what amounted to an eight hour day. An incredible task of its own, but made even more incredible by the fact that we didn’t have to drop our standards too far in order to make it happen. The crew, a mixture of old dogs and young blood banded together and, led by my indispensable 1st AD Matthew Buss, pushed through the large number challenging setups and got this film in the bag in one and a half days. Well, mostly.

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I must admit, before the shoot I had made the decision that we were going to have to come back in order to do a day of pickups, especially as our second day had become cut short by four hours due to some extenuating circumstances. With the first two days of shooting my focus was on making absolutely sure we had all the coverage we needed of Emily, in the likelihood we would be losing her forever. Then, when it came time to reinhabit the Ellington, I knew that what we were getting would be the shots that reinforced the core propellant of the story: tension. Lots and lots of tension. This meant capturing a large number of inserts such as extreme close-ups of eyes, of men brandishing guns, of little looks, as well as a few sequences that I hadn’t originally prepared in time for the first shoot, but ones that I realised needed to be included in order to raise the emotional stakes of the film. This pickup shoot was also a good time to let our Special FX Make-Up Artist, Una Blake, into the fray, and get everybody nice and bloody. Which is always a great way to cap off an excellent shoot. Once we had this day in the can it was time to drop the footage off to Cristian Broadhurst to start what I consider the greatest, and most painful part of filmmaking: the edit.

The Construction of a Work

It is an interesting fact that I never explicitly understood the foundations and subtleties of The Scarlett Sapphire, even though I’d written it. Throughout the process of shooting the film I instinctively felt there were elements that needed embellishment, and in some cases, even preservation from the chaos of filmmaking. That is, until we came to edit the film. It was when I sat down with Cris that it became apparent what the core tenants of the story were. There was the heart of the story, which was Scarlett’s reunion with her kidnapped son, but there were layers that fed into and supported this narrative thrust: the political intrigue which acted as a backdrop to the events; the unspoken history and influence of Alex; and the fact that every moment of the film built upon the preceding moments which gave it a real sense of momentum. It was really interesting to see these elements come into play as the film came together.

As an editor by trade I did find the initial process of working with another editor a little bit odd. There were times I felt things were done differently than I’d have done them, but when I sat back and looked at the product that was appearing before my eyes I realised Cris’ was probably better. I was always very aware to try and not be too dictative with my direction. Granted, there were moments I felt things had to be done a very specific way and I’d communicate them, but overall I wanted Cris’ sensibilities to shine through. What I found particularly heartening was that whilst we were editing purely to dialogue without any music or sound effects the film was still working. It was engaging and it was gripping. And it was entirely down to the visuals at that point. After a few months of editing, Cris and I had managed to cobble together eleven minutes of intense noir action, just in time for it to be delivered to our post sound department.

The Enrichment of Sound

 

As a person who has worked on a number of short films in the past as a sound designer there is very little I place more importance on than sound. It is really the element that you can physically move your audience with; by cranking that LFE and blasting those decibels you can pretty much kill the first three rows of your audience. No other element has the ability to effect your audience physically like sound. It is for this reason that I pulled together a whole team of post production sound people together for this film. On board we had Robbie Stevenson as our Dialogue Editor; Christopher Phillips as the Foley Artist; Andy Parnell as Sound Designer, and later, Sound Mixer; and I also stepped in as the Hard Effects designer, so it was my job to design and edit all of the gun, knife, fight and blood effects.

Us four worked together for about eight months getting the various elements of sound captured, designed and edited to fill the soundscape that made up this film. Through the whole process I was very concerned with both the physical diagetic details of the soundscape, but also the emotional underpinnings of the different sounds. In this regard we did a decent amount of ADR recording, not because the on set recording was poor; in fact it was far from it, however in a few places I wanted to alter the actor’s performances just a touch so that they sat better with the emotional flow of the film. I was very glad to have done this because it gave the performances in the film a much more unified feel.

One other element I was particularly concerned with was the sound that was going to be associated with the hypnosis sequences. I was well aware that without the perfect combination of audio visual cues the whole concept would come off as stupendously hokey. So I worked very closely with Andy as he brought me a multitude of concepts, all of which we worked and reworked until he was blue in the face. However eventually we came upon something that I liked, it wasn’t really what I had in my head, but it was a curious deviation, and one that I thought it might be interesting to follow. Once this was nailed down it was simply a matter of inserting all the sounds into the picture, and watch as the film came alive. Really, by this point the only thing that concerned me was the fact the film was still entirely sans music, and that I really didn’t have a composer waiting in the wings.

Sometimes it’s tough having to let someone go from a project. Especially when they’re working for free, but that’s the position I found myself in with the original composer for The Scarlett sapphire. We had discussed some cool concepts, and imagined some great ideas, but when push came to shove the ideas were never formulated into real music. By the two month mark this became worrying, by the three month mark it became a concern, and by the four month mark it became a problem. So it was at that point I had to let a friend go and search for a new composer.

The man we found was Leonard Madden, and boy did he deliver the goods.

As well as being a true talent, Leonard also proved to be an incredibly nice guy and I got on well with him. He seemed to really understand and internalise the angle I wanted the music to come from. Which is: to support the momentum of the plot, to build and develop consistently rising tension, and to support the emotional underpinnings of the film. When I approached him I delivered to him a style that I felt was almost impossible for most composers; I said to him I wanted the score to feel like the perfect intersection of smokey jazz, grand orchestral, and Zimmerian electronica, and that’s exactly what he delivered and more. As a further note, being fan of classical music, I may have excitedly weed myself a little when he mentioned his plan of utilising leitmotif throughout the score and his concept of never having the music ever resolve until right at the very end, which is indicative of the attention to detail and deep intellectual understanding Leonard had of the film’s themes. It was a very exciting experience starting to hear the film with the music laid down, suddenly the film was alive, it was moving, it peaked and dipped, and parts that I had thought were somewhat lacklustre became incredibly emotionally charged as the music took hold and guided those sections. Now it was just a job of making everything fit together in the mix.

I’ll say this now: I think The Scarlett Sapphire may hold the record for the greatest number of final mix stems in a Perth short film. The final track count for the final mix session I believe was over one hundred when all is said and done. Which seems excessive, I admit, but to be honest Andy and I dug so deep in this mix, and were so detailed that I believe we may have automated just about every single one of those tracks. It’s important to me that we make room for the small details, as well letting the big details breath, which really just meant time and precision in the mix. So over the course of approximately ten, very long mixing sessions, Andy and I mixed this beast. We got on remarkably well, there was rarely a fight over the mix, and if there ever was a disagreement we tended to work it out in a diplomatic fashion. The only thing that I really wanted to ensure was the was utilised our dynamic range as much as possible. Like all other elements in this film I felt it was important that each moment built upon the last one, which in audio terms meant that each moment and section of the film became louder than the last, building to a climax that I hope deafens most of our audience. I literally want people to walk out of this movie forever changed by the experience…

The Scarlett Sapphire Article

The Final Touches

While all this audio stuff was happening there were also more visual elements coming together. Firstly Richard Wals was undertaking the gargantuan job of creating and compiling all the VFX for the film. When I say gargantuan I mean it, with the relative level of inexperience of people involved on set we opted to use VFX instead of practical effects for things like gunshots, blood spatter and bullet hits. And there are a lot of all those things in the shootout of this film. However, Richard handled the task admirably and inserted all these elements into the film in an incredibly convincing way.

Once the VFX were added into the film Cris and I were then able to begin grading. Between Greg’s wonderful cinematography and the excellent production design I did not feel we needed to push the grade too far. In fact, I tend to have a bit of aversion to the super contrasty and stylised grading style that has been popular of late, and instead opted for something that was a little more transparent, but successfully pulled the film deeply into that noir space. So we pushed the blacks down, increased the contrast and added a little softness and haziness of the overall image. This approach really allowed for the various colourful elements placed in the frames to really stand out and the result is a visually striking film, that doesn’t feel too far removed from reality. In the end I think Cris developed a really beautiful look for the film. One that was powerful, but also not overtly stylised as to detract from the authenticity of the image; A look that oozes class.

Reflection

Now, two years on from when the project initially started – and much longer for me personally – we have now begun showing this film to people, and the response has been fantastic. Right now, my eyes are looking forward to our big public screening for the film, and honestly I’m not really nervous; I’m excited. The last two years have been ones filled with trials and tribulations and everybody involved has grown greatly as filmmakers due to this experience, but at no point along the way did I ever lose my focus and drive to make sure we produced a product of an incredibly high standard. I was willing to compromise in creative vision when the situation called for it, but I would never allow myself to compromise the project in terms of quality. So now, two years on, and nearing the end of the path I am incredibly excited to take the multitude of lessons learned from this project, move into the future, and produce works of an even higher standard.

The Scarlett Sapphire will be showing at Cinema Paradiso in Northbridge on the 11th of June, from 7:00pm to 8:30.

 

One thought on “Sunday Shorts #15: The Scarlett Sapphire (Exclusive)

  1. Pingback: The first Next Gen program announced | Cinema Australia

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