In an attempt to find out how passion projects can influence, invigorate and inspire creative’s in the commercial sphere, Crossing The Line goes behind the scenes with Jungle director (and writer) Scott Pickett on his recent film, The Doppel Chain, a supernatural thriller set to make its festival debut at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
A director of primarily comedy commercials, the dark genre film was a radical stylistic departure for Pickett, which forced him out of his comfort zone in an enlightening way.
The film follows a couple who set out on a romantic trip away only to end up sharing their night with a mysterious and disorientated girl that they pick up on a remote wilderness road. Tingling with a darkly nervous tension, the short film stars Australian actors Josh Lawson (House of Lies, The Little Death, Anchorman 2) and Hayley Magnus (The Dressmaker, Mental), and also features American rising star Trieste Kelly Dunn (Blindspot, Banshee).
Q) What made you want to make this film? What was your experience in pulling the whole thing together?
SP: I love making commercials. There’s often a decent budget, there’s a schedule, there’s structure in the process, it’s an insanely fun way to make a living. It’s also very much a business, with clients and objectives that are commercial. The time was right for me to work on a project that was mine, with less stakeholders, which was more nimble. So I teamed up with a copywriter to write a genre film that was completely different to my commercial work.
On a practical side, I worked on The Doppel Chain while on the road squeezing it in between doing commercials. This made it a very worldwide affair. Written while I was in Paris with my co-writer in the UK. Shot in Utah with local crew, cast from Australia and NY, cut in Berlin and LA, visual effects and grade in Paris, composed in NY, sound designed in Melbourne with Foley from the Ukraine and finally mixed in Sydney! Being on the road meant this was the only way it could come together.
Q) Where was the film shot and how long did the shoot take?
Scott Pickett: It was a three-day shoot in Utah. Just near the Sundance Ski resort. I scouted the place while I was at the Film Festival there. I was shooting in Florida until about a day before the shoot and we flew in and pulled it together very quickly. We used all local crew and there was a big mix of experience levels, which you can expect with a short film. It was only myself and the actors who flew in.
Q) What emotional triggers were you hoping to explore in the film?
SP: On the first level my main aim for the film was to evoke fundamental, primal terror. Fear is fun in that it bypasses the intellect and so it’s only your subconscious judging that part of the experience. On another level though I was looking at the idea of self-sabotage, which is something I think about a lot actually. I like the idea that this “monster” picks out a particular frailty or flaw in the other person and uses that to get “its” way. It creates a set of circumstances so that the character does the monster’s bidding. To me it’s somewhat of a reflection of our day to day whereby it’s our weak spots, our vulnerabilities or even our fear of showing these weak spots that’s our undoing.
Q) What was the inspiration behind the film’s idea?
SP: Well, without giving too much away the inspiration was based on a bad omen. It’s a mix of folk law from Germany, Ireland and the USA. So it’s probably real! I can talk more about it, but it might diminish the experience.
Q) Can you explain your approach to cinematography?
SP: The cinematography was really tricky because we were working a lot with degrees of darkness as an essential part of the story. As time passes it gets so dark that the actors are not meant to be able to see. So how do we tell the story when there’s no light? It came down to an open fire, matches, a phone light, and a tiny bit of light coming from the moon. It was a very tricky balance and it meant the lighting became more precise and integral to the story than anything else I’ve worked on. As you can imagine, you don’t shoot too many comedic commercials in near total darkness, so it was a refreshing experience for me.
For the actors, it was also challenging because they weren’t supposed to be able to actually see anything, but in reality they could. It’s a difficult thing to fake so I commend them for that.
It was also tricky that when looking through the camera or when viewing the director’s monitors I could hardly see a thing. I was flying blind a little bit. This darkness complication followed us into the editing. The exported rushes were so dark I could barely judge a performance or whether a shot was sharp or not. We had to re-export and even then I kept pushing the brightness up just so I could see. I was a bit terrified that it would be too dark but was reassured by my DP Sean Bagley that it would be ok in the grade. He was right.
Q) How do you work with actors to get the best out of their performance?
SP: There wasn’t anything specific about the approach to performance. We didn’t have lot of time to play too much with it unfortunately. Generally, I put a lot of trust in the actors and just try to support them as much as I can. I try and keep things simple and free flowing and give them room to explore. We did workshop the script a little and I gave them a chance to ad-lib but we mostly ended up coming back to the words on the page. More or less.
Q) Did you have any specific challenges or revelations in post-production?
SP: Having worked mostly in comedy and drama, horror was something I was excited to try. Pinpointing the tone was one of the challenges, especially in post production. I didn’t want to go straight for the conventional cheap scare tactics, yet there is a tried and true formula to that. Initially we went in hard with big sound design and bigger music. But little by little we came to strip it all back, it became less about forcing the story (or the fear) and letting it breathe. Well as much as a 12-minute film can breathe.
Q) What lessons did you learn that can be applied to you commercial work?
I’ve done quite a bit of long form work, mostly comedy TV and it’s always a good reminder about how much work needs to be done in terms of character development. You have to dig deeper to get under their skin to bring them to full realisation. This approach can also enrich a shorter scene like a commercial. The other thing is it’s also a reminder that under the right conditions it’s possible to work quickly. Not that that’s always appropriate in commercials, but just gives you that added confidence in case the work requires it.
Q) What skills from advertising were most useful when making your film?
I mean, you learn so much from every job. That’s the joy of it. Whether it’s nailing down a new comedic tone, discovering a new lens, a design style, a colour combination, how to work with kids or dogs or the way light bounces off the contours of a car. It’s such an excellent discipline. It’s the discipline of deeply investigating, interrogating every aspect and detail of the world and what goes into the frame. Also, on an interpersonal level you have to quickly learn to find a common creative language with complete strangers and work out how to achieve the best possible result. The one other thing you learn over time is that having fun along the way, and making it a pleasurable experience for those you work with often reaps the best results. All this built knowledge can be applied directly to any kind of set you walk onto.
Q) What’s next on the horizon, any new project/s you are looking forward to?
I’ve got a 360-degrees black comedy in post-production, and I’m pulling together a feature film (or series) version of the short. The idea itself has had a few fairly solid nibbles but the script needs a lot of work. Well, needs to be written. Other than that I’m just continuing to balance long form with directing really funny, well crafted commercials with talented creatives. Also trying to get back into tennis. You probably don’t need to know that.