Can You Direct and Shoot Your Film at the Same Time?

Directing instinctually from behind the camera.

“The moment I stopped pressuring myself to have all of the right answers was the moment I started making better choices. And directing is about making good choices.”

Lights Film School recently had the opportunity to chat with director-cinematographer Alex Lehmann about making his latest feature film, Blue Jay, a character-driven, “tender and wise chamber drama about finding yourself adrift in mid-life, longing for something essential that you fear has been lost.”

Written by indie film legend Mark Duplass and starring Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson, Blue Jay premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It was distributed by The Orchard theatrically and will live on Netflix, having met with universal critical acclaim.

Simply put, Alex’s film has realized considerable success, and we’re excited to break it down here.

Let’s watch the trailer for some context:

Hello, Alex! Thanks for taking the time to discuss Blue Jay at length. You’ve created a heart-achingly beautiful film, here – and within some considerable production constraints, as we’ll discuss!

First, we’d love to hear a bit about your background. What has been your path through the film industry? How have you built your career to date? How did you eventually become involved in Blue Jay, and what drew you to the material?

I’ve worked really hard for over ten years, finding some stability as a camera operator.

My niche as a Director of Photography (DoP) has been helping less-experienced directors early in their careers. Working as a “DoP plus” involved me in more aspects of the storytelling, but it also limited what kind of career I could have as a shooter. I’ve wanted to step into directing for quite some time.

Blue Jay was a situation where I’d proven myself to Mark as a storyteller with Asperger’s Are Us, and we’d enjoyed working together on that documentary. He shared the Blue Jay treatment with me, asking if I could direct and DP. Thematically, I felt very comfortable with the story, and I knew I could help carry it on a visual level.

Nice. As you mentioned, not only did you direct the film – you shot it, too, using the low-light beast that is the Canon ME20F-SH. Why did you agree to take on both roles? What do you find to be the pros and cons of being your own DoP? Any words of advice for a filmmaker considering shooting a film they’re also directing?

Part of it was that Mark wanted someone directing instinctually from behind the camera. That’s how he and Jay made a lot of their early movies.

I also felt like the camerawork needed to be reactive, and filmed by someone who was really invested in the characters. The only time it proved to be a con was when cross-shooting improv-heavy dialogue scenes… I needed to see both sides from the monitor. More importantly, the actors needed to know that I was seeing everything they were doing. I quickly learned that lesson and stopped operating on those setups.

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Alex shooting Blue Jay | Photo Credit Xan Aranda

Adapting as you go along! Speaking of which, how did you prepare to shoot such an improvisation-heavy movie? Do you feel that your documentary background informed the process, and if so, how? Any tips or tricks for filmmakers shooting improvised dialogue?

Shooting cross coverage is safe, but sometimes it isn’t right for a scene.

I love shooting roaming oners – it’s like playing jazz; for those, you just have to go with your gut and never second guess a decision. It’s less about perfection and more about fluidity and instinct. That being said, I highly recommend having a second camera shooting any sort of safety cutaway if possible.

Totally – I imagine that frees you up to take risks in those oners.

On a different note, there are some really great specific details about the characters’ backstories throughout. Some of my favorite moments are the pink and purple jellybeans; Jim remembering a letter Amanda wrote him quoting Wuthering Heights; and the greyhound dialogue. How much of the film was discovered during rehearsals or conversations prior to the shoot, and how much was invented on camera?

More generally, we’d love to hear a bit about how you approached working with your actors. Where’s the line between guidance and giving them space to improvise?

That stuff mostly came out of our group writing sessions. It was Mark and Sarah just throwing out ideas for their characters, personal stuff or stealing from their friends’ lives. I would sit in on those sessions with our creative producers (Mel Eslyn, Xan Aranda, Syd Fleischman), and we’d give feedback on where we felt the story and characters were going.

I’ve never experienced anything like it – so honest and so collaborative. I didn’t feel the need to guide Mark and Sarah; my relationship was much more reactive. We were chasing story and character beats, so we would talk about what resonated and what we thought we should continue to explore.

So cool. And to think you shot Blue Jay in just 7 days…! Did you shoot in order? Were you ever worried about producing the film in so few days?

We shot almost completely in chronological order, which is a luxury most shoots can’t afford.

Part of the reason we could do it was how the story was engineered. It was a realistic schedule, we knew we could shoot it in 7 days, but we were nervous about what we were gonna get moving so quickly.

Understandably! So we first meet Jim in the grocery store and spend time alone with him, establishing him as our protagonist. As the film unfolds, however – and as we learn so many intimate details about both Jim and Amanda – the camera seems to float between their different perspectives.

One of my favorite moments is near the end of the film when Amanda comforts Jim, and we can really see her in her role of “instamom”. This is such a wonderful window into where both of them are in their lives. Whose story do you want the audience to connect with or sympathize with in the end?

That’s a trick question! I think it varies from scene to scene, but big picture, we weren’t trying to favor one character over the other. Here our job was only to tell an honest story with interesting characters.

I imagine most audiences bring a part of themselves to a story like this. To make a really bad pun, it’s like “create your own tearventure.”

In a moment both beautiful and chilling, Jim and Amanda listen to a tape they made in high school in which they fantasize about their 20th wedding anniversary. Was this also improvised, or was the dialogue part of the outline for the film?

Mark wrote out the dialogue for that scene. We could have had a field day improvising this scene for hours on end, but that’s not how you stay on a seven-day schedule.

Fair enough! Did Sarah Paulson (Amanda) know what was written in the note before she read it?

No! Not on the first take. I can’t remember which take we used, though; they were all amazing and honest.

Returning to your cinematography, Alex, what inspired your choice of black-and-white? How did it impact the way you filmed?

That was Mark’s idea, actually. I was excited about it but was afraid we’d get crucified as pretentious filmmakers making a black-and-white two hander. We quickly decided that this movie was for us whether or not it would be well received, and the black-and-white was going to give it a natural, nostalgic quality.

In prep, I developed our specific black-and-white LUT with our editor/DIT Chris Donlon. If you’re gonna shoot black-and-white, I highly recommend you monitor/compose/light with the look on set.

Blue Jay | Netflix and Duplass Brothers Productions, 2016

Blue Jay | Netflix and Duplass Brothers Productions, 2016

I really love the dance sequence. Can you share a bit about how you captured that? How much time was spent filming this particular part of the film?

We shot about six takes of this, some with the Lennox song playing and some with no music. It was just the three of us dancing around, and I’d chase specific moments with the camera. It was important to me in post that we limited the number of cuts in this scene, so it could feel really natural and in the moment.

I can feel your documentary experience there. What was your personal favorite scene to shoot, Alex? Which was the most challenging?

I loved shooting in the liquor store. Clu Gulager is a fantastic actor, but he truly embodies Waynie, our lovable timeless romantic. He brings so much heart to a movie that up until this scene has felt uncomfortable and tense. His heart and naïveté cut through the tension in the room, which allows Jim and Amanda to start having fun again.

Beautiful. Speaking of characters, the house where most of the film unfolds feels like its own character. How did you find this location? What, specifically, drew you to it? How much of it was set-dressed to create the atmosphere?

It was a vacation spot available for rental on VRBO. It felt like Jim’s mom’s house the second we stepped foot inside. That being said, our Production Designer, Margaret Box, did a great job making it feel “lived in”. That’s the drawback of using a vacation rental as a set… it’s mostly empty. Margaret really brought that place to life.

Goes to show the importance of production design!

Zooming out, what do you want audiences to take away from Blue Jay? How did you make sure to keep that at the heart of your shoot, as well as on into post?

We just wanted to tell an honest story with interesting characters. So many choices felt understated. We were making the movie for ourselves, not for impact. The hope is that viewers enjoy the honest portrayals of two lovable characters, and maybe also bring a part of themselves to the experience. It’s a meditative film at times.

That really comes through. How much time did you spend in the edit with the film? We’d love to hear what it was like to cut such heavily-improvised scenes. What were the challenges; the benefits?

I have to start by saying I had an amazing editor in Chris Donlon. He’s experienced with cutting improv, having edited Togetherness and a few other Duplass films. He was on set often, and we’d talk about which takes we liked and why.

He turned in an amazing first cut. Usually, first cuts are the hardest thing to watch. This was such a great start that we weren’t needing to fix the movie, it was just a matter of making a lot of small edits and choices to tighten and improve. Post is a game of inches. Thousands and thousands of inches.

That should be on a plaque above every editor’s workstation! Also interesting to hear that your editor was on set for a lot of the shoot.

What do you feel you learned from making this film, Alex? Do you feel that you grew as a filmmaker during the process? Any unconventional advice for beginning filmmakers derived from your feature experience? We know we should watch films and go out and make our own, but what’re some thoughts and insights you wish you could go back and tell yourself in your early days of filmmaking?

This was the first movie I’ve worked on where everyone was a seasoned pro, from producers to cast and crew. Top to bottom, everyone was smart and veteran. It can be intimidating when you don’t feel like the most experienced or (gasp!) smartest person in the room.

Celebrate the talent that surrounds you, and put it to good use. The moment I stopped pressuring myself to have all of the right answers was the moment I started making better choices. And directing is about making good choices…

…And being over-prepared, and having a vision and being able to communicate it, and generating endless enthusiasm and energy on set, and 97% of the time still having a good enough answer until you or someone else can come up with something better!

Haha. A wonderful reminder, Alex! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience with us and our readers. Congratulations on such a quietly beautiful film!

 Courtney Hope Thérond, with

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