LOEV: A Cinematographer’s Take
- April 23, 2016
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Introduction by Shane Hurlbut, ASC.
Sherri Kauk is an exceptional Cinematographer who has been a part of the Hurlbut Visuals family for years. Sherri and I go way back to her days working with me as a Camera Assistant on many of my commercials and feature films. Like all great Camera Assistants they eventually move on to their calling and Sherri has done exactly that. She has worked as an accomplished Gaffer and Camera Operator on many projects and she has been hitting her career hard as a Cinematographer for some time.
Some of you may remember meeting Sherri last spring when she spoke at our educational event here in Los Angeles. Sheri’s presentation can be found in multiple parts here: The Shooter’s Playbook in the Digital Age of Shooting Television (this is a multiple video part series to watch).
Sherri and Lydia were speaking recently, catching up while I am on the road and Sherri began to tell Lydia about her latest project “Loev.” As the story started to unfold Lydia asked Sherri if she would be willing to share her experience with all of you here on the Hurlblog. Of course Sherri said yes! Lydia and I are both delighted to help promote Sherri’s latest work, which will be shown in Los Angeles on Monday April 25th at the Asian Pacific Film Festival at 7:00pm at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles. Come and meet Sherri and support the filmmaking process!
About the Film – “Loev”
Protests greeted Deep Mehta’s lesbian themed fire after it opened in 1998 in India, where same-sex activity remains criminalized as officially “against the order of nature.” No wonder Sudhanshu Saria shot his debut film, the English-language LOEV, in complete secrecy. While its very existence is something of a bold political statement, Saria smartly doesn’t dwell on the novelty of the LGBT content. LOEV simply tells a tender, often hilarious road movie capturing a knotty love affair between two Indians who just happen to be gay. Arriving in Mumbai for a short business trip, Jai (Shiv Pandit), a handsome Wall Street banker, meets up with his old pal Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh), a young music-producer. The excitable Sahil leaves his volatile boyfriend Alex behind and earnestly plans out the road trip to the canyons of Western Ghats, after Jai proposes to take a short pleasure trip. As these old friends drive and hike the trails, their fascinating dynamic — sometimes easy and jokey, at other times thorny and awkward — emerges. Leaving many things unsaid, the pair engages in a feverish tryst. Outwardly confident but actually confused and struggling with his sexuality, Jai unleashes his frustration on Sahil in a brutal scene. Things come to a head at dinner, between the would-be lovers as well as Alex and his new boy toy, when Sahil — who turns out to be the more self-aware of the two — puts all his cards on the table. Thoroughly engaging, LOEV is told in an assured, shorthand style that evokes Richard Linklater. Director Saria has a light touch, and he’s not afraid of ambiguity. Eliding standard exposition, he lets his actors play out their complicated relationship through silences and gestures. Pandit wears the alpha dog mask well, and Ganesh is absolutely dynamite — his Sahil is at once brash, funny, insecure, and all too human. Tragically, Ganesh died of tuberculosis at the age 29 shortly after making LOEV, and the film is dedicated to his memory.
1. Booking the gig
The more I grow in this industry, I find the rewarding shoots are the ones where I say yes to the person and secondly the script. Director Sudhanshu Saria — Suds, as I call him — and our conversations over the years connect on a core level where we let down our guards, share similar visions, and push each other to get our story to the big screen.
I’ve known Suds since undergrad at Ithaca College. I was the student with the 24-hour access code to the building and he was the student who shot a feature film for his thesis project. Our professional film pursuits led us both to Los Angeles where he embarked on a path through producing and I through production. When he’d write a film, he’d call and we’d discuss the story, the tone and the reason for bringing this story into the world. He’d call again to invite me to the screening and we’d discuss how the film turned out compared to what was originally imagined. Suds and I connect on the level of these conversations. I look forward to them. But it is impossible to know what’s going on in another person’s mind unless you ask questions, and I wondered if we could connect on the level of production. Turns out, we both wondered. After his third short film, I brought it up and we floated the possibility of working together. Suds called a year later, wanting to talk about a film he’d written called LOEV, and he wanted to know if I would shoot it.
2. LOEV is:
LOEV is a complicated love story between two men living in India, where their relationship is illegal. Because of the subject matter, we have to shoot under several guises, using alternative pitch scripts, hiring for a “buddy road trip film” and working on a constricted budget. I would call it a shoestring budget, but I have to take my shoes off when entering interior sets, so I don’t have a shoestring left by the time we start rolling 🙂
3. Putting aside Ego and the Reel
Not every shot is a Nike commercial or beauty campaign. True cinematography is shooting for the story, not the poster. In this case, LOEV is a simple, raw, acoustic-guitar-backed cry for what sounds like but doesn’t look like love.
When Suds called and narrated LOEV to me, he depicted a nonstop journey film pivoting off soaring hikes and business deals through the Mumbai streets and into the romantic escape that is Mahabaleshwar. Motion. Blurred emotion. The blanket of night thrown off to the blinding day.
He also wants to capture essence without an obstructive shooting apparatus. He wants to be there without intruding there — like a third friend along for the ride.
We reference Blue is the Warmest Color and Y Tu Mamá También.
We romance how Cuaron and Chivo returned to “true filmmaking” for Y Tu Mamá. We argue the deceptively simple Blue as an appearance of “in the moment” documenting compared to Kechiche and El Fani’s actual twenty take, four month control fest of gazes, lips, and Angénieux glass.
I had fallen in love with the spirit of the Blackmagic Pocket and its myriad lensing options. We could tell the story of LOEV with the pocket, c mount lenses, and a PL mount adapter in case a rental house blessed us with cinema lenses. The pocket posed major technical support challenges for robust film production but gave us the intimacy and unguarded nature we were after. The pocket is literally a third friend along for the ride. And it fit the no-shoe budget. Years prior, I witnessed 1st A.C. Mark Margulies snap a Starbucks stir stick and tape the “L” bend to a Canon still lens on a Shane Hurlbut, ASC Terminator promo shoot —one of the first 5D big-cinema shoots. I know down and dirty is possible, even if it isn’t ideal.
What is ideal? During prep, LOEV’s producing team, led by Katharina Suckale and Arfi Lamba of Bombay-Berlin Film Productions, connected with Arri. Arri wants independent filmmakers to associate Alexa, Amira and Mini with indie filmmaking. Arri put their sensor where their pitch was and we got an Alexa, enabling us to negotiate for a Zeiss High Speed lens set in 35mm and super16mm formats.
Even with an Alexa, loev is still messy. As an aspiring cinematographer, it’s hard to not push to make every frame hyper-flawless. The ego of cinematography wants every frame to be sensually under control. But in LOEV the main character, Sahil, trying to play it cool with his boyfriend about an old flame visiting is anything but the beginning of a consequence-free under-control weekend. If I expose the visual world of LOEV as a flash of visual sizzle pop and gloss, the stakes will not be there — the boys’ tension will not affect because the pictures will communicate that everything is great! with no threat of falling apart.
So I go all in with heart and camera on my shoulder. A am Alexa, B Cam Pocket. Crawling into the backseat — the third friend. I vow not to intrude into what this third-wheel tag-along can see is an impending crash and burn weekend.
4. Safety on set
We are on location at the edge of a rocky ravine that gashes into plummeting drops and skyscraping mountains. It is epic. Where we are shooting, an eroded slit in the rock forms a secluded overlook. Suds wants to shoot “over there” on the secluded overlook. The gap across is only two feet, but it is a quarter-mile deep. There is a dead coyote carcass on the dry bed below.
None of our safety or rigging gear discussed during prep arrived this morning. We are seven hours outside of Mumbai. If something happens to anyone, there is a canyon community of four huts, a light bulb each, and a wheelbarrow to aide us.
“The plummet represents all that is at risk between these two lovers!” Suds calls. “They are so close yet harbor this deep divide.” He is right. We are standing before the perfect visual backdrop to these boys’ internal struggles. I want to cross over this chasm in scene and play it for exactly what it is, but the consequence of one foot slipping weighs on me.
“Just hop over!” several of the guys, Suds included, showcase. It is literally just a hop to the other side. I know this. I’ve hopped, flown, dove, crawled through so many situations to get the shot in my past. It is literally a hop. I also know that I am walking backwards, with a shouldered camera blindside. And my spotter has to watch himself, me, and the camera. And the actors, in character, hop too. That’s a lot of hopping among a film crew averaging twenty takes. Surely someone — the Producer, the AD, the Key Grip — will say this is not safe. Surely I am not the only one hesitating. It is THE SHOT with the gully below representing the within-reach vastness between these two boys, stirring the anxious, ever-present risk involved in their actions….
When I first heard of a film accident involving a train on a trestle outside of Atlanta, Georgia last year, I admit that my first thought was, “How in the hell does one get caught on a live bridge? Who goes on a live bridge!?”
It starts with the pitch: “It’s just a hop.”
Like that Georgia day started with “just a stolen shot.”
My decisions effect the crew and the film. Rank and file systems, insecurities, experience and the fear of losing a job play into decisive moments. I don’t want to limit the scope of our film, but I also don’t want to be the leader who says nothing and sends us in without support. We are on day twelve. My crew and I have earned each other’s respect. They have my back. This decision is me having their backs.
“This isn’t safe, Suds.” “Can we imagine a different blocking to get to the overlook in a safe way?”
And we did. Sort of. The cast chose to keep with the thrill of the space and make the hop the story. My stomach was in knots the entire time. The blocking we changed to enable me and the focus puller, the spotter, the director, the 2nd AC, and the Key Grip to get the angle without the risk.
The “hop shot” would have delivered a real sensation — but it might have cost us too much. Messy.
The intersection between “getting the shot” and “getting it safely” is something Suds and I faced every day in the streets and in the back world of India. There are times we all failed safety and got out unharmed. There are days we scheduled the time for safe rigging. There were many “hop shot decisions” during our shooting. Standing at that ledge that day up against the unforgiving rocks, I looked at the production crew, mostly under the age of 25. I looked at my focus puller, a hardworking, joyful collaborator who would go wherever I said we needed to go, and I thought about my family at home. I understood what Suds saw. I saw it too. But the right gear to get the right angle in a safe manner didn’t arrive that day.
5. The Mom or the Nanny
As the cinematographer, I am torn with whether I am a creator/mother of the film or the hired nanny who co-raises the kid until he hits high school. Suds and I talk about this frequently. He pushes me to take full ownership. I can see it from both angles. I feel the pang from both sides.
At LOEV’s SXSW first screening this year, I flew in and felt like the aged Nanny the home-for-summer freshman college kid visits for old time sake but will no longer need to when he becomes a junior. It was a distant but loved connection. I grimaced inside, which showed full faced, at the imperfections showing on this bundle of hope once in my arms.
I didn’t know how to fully embrace its creator, Suds, at this … awkward but THERE — very THERE — creation he’d made that I’d been a part of.
It was LOEV’s second screening which brought me full circle, meeting Suds where he has always been. I saw LOEV as big and beautiful, scarred and hopeful as it is and am so proud of the life it has taken. And LOEV is my movie as much as yours. When the audience takes it into their lives it becomes our story together.
Hurlbut Visuals is proud to announce that LOEV is coming to Los Angeles on Monday, April 25. It is screening at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival at 7:00pm at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles, and Sherri will be there herself.
Speaking with Sherri about the stories surrounding the making of this film are endless, and even better will be the stories being shared after the screenings of this film. So come out and enjoy the night with us. There are numerous pho and drinks places next door to catch us all spilling out of the theater and into conversations carrying deep into the night.