Strengthen Your Short Film with the Power of Understatement

Why you should practice restraint in your filmmaking.

“After all of the expanding I did to the script, I think the film is stronger for what it doesn’t show.”

Lights Online Film School caught up with filmmaker Connor Hurley to break down his short scifi film, The Naturalist.

It premiered at The Seattle International Film Festival and went on to play at many other festivals, including Palm Springs International Shortfest and The Brooklyn Film Festival, where it won The Spirit Award for Short Narrative.

Before Connor takes us behind-the-scenes, let’s give the film a watch:

What a beautiful film, Connor! I’m struck by the intimacy of the performances. There’s so much nuance, tenderness, and vulnerability onscreen – I’m thinking especially of the opening, as well as Simon’s attempt to cheer up his partner at 06:33.

Can you describe how you worked with your actors? How did you build trust? Did the presence of your production crew ever compromise performance?

The two guys in the film, Walker Hare and Stephen Sheffer, are real pros, and they took the roles really seriously – hanging out offset, doing acting intimacy exercises with each other. That opening scene was actually the first scene of the film that we shot – so I can’t say that they were camera or crew shy. There were moments of them just hanging out on set when everyone was breaking for lunch or setting up where I’d whisper to my DoP to grab the camera and roll on them – and even when they realized that the whole attention of the set had turned to them, it didn’t phase them.

Some of the nuanced tics between them came from my life – Simon’s acting like a dog trick is one I’ve often resorted to in order to convince someone not to be mad at me anymore (it works, clearly). One of the hardest scenes to film was the final fight between them. It involved many takes, and at one point got so heated that the lead actor’s head actually collided with the camera and drew blood. That said, after a quick break, we went right back in and went for more takes.

For the character of Eden, our biggest obstacle was resisting impulses to act, particularly overact – her character is pretty loud, and Alena sought inspiration from an unlikely source: Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II – whose restraint is haunting.

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

Interesting! Did your actors improvise any of the action or dialogue? If so, can you describe how you directed them to ensure that their improvisation was in line with your vision?

Most improv we did in rehearsals and then incorporated into the script.

The dreamy sequence that is intercut with Simon and Eden’s reunion was staged improv – I just let them roll around on the bed, calling out things for them to do, while we just rolled the camera and followed them around. I’m really big on the editing front, so during production, as time allows, I let the actors play, and allow room for all of us to experiment and make mistakes, and then just try to get as much of everything as possible in the can so I can make sense of it in post, which lends to a fun sort of experimentation to the post process.

Any tips for aspiring directors when it comes to working with actors?

A professor gave me this advice: if you can earn the trust of an actor on your project, you have succeeded as a director.

Especially if you’re putting actors into uncomfortable, intimate situations: sex, fights, nudity – they need to trust that they’re in good hands. If they trust you, they will want your approval – and they will go in for take 17 and keep giving their all until you say cut. And, on the approval note, let them know when they have it.

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

I really appreciate how quiet and enigmatic the story is; it reminds me a bit of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. What drew you to such a subdued narrative presentation? I can imagine a version of this film that is much more obvious with its plot points and commentary. Why did you write and direct The Naturalist in the way that you did?

I appreciate the comparison! I had long since shot The Naturalist when I saw Upstream Color, but I felt those tonal similarities as well.

I suppose I wanted to see all of the diverse styles that I’m drawn to – from the more graphic novel-esque, psychosexual, noir-y world of Paul Verhoeven to the sparsely populated, dialogue-driven world of mumblecores. Looking back, I think it was the diversity of the influences that probably resulted in the abstraction of the storytelling. As this was my thesis film for NYU, there was room to experiment and explore and see if something like this could work—so partly I viewed this primarily as an experiment in tone and aesthetics rather than another exercise in traditional storytelling.

Of course, the quietness of the science fiction elements goes hand-in-hand with the quietness of the story. The visual effects, the sets, the costumes… all of these pieces are understated, working together to suggest a larger – and perhaps less understated? – world. I’m curious to know if budget was a determining factor in keeping the scifi elements so quiet. How aware were you of financial limitations during the writing process?

Though I had always intended to make a low-budget thesis film, it wasn’t just budget conscientiousness that kept the world understated – I was really interested in creating an “alternate” future with a timeless aesthetic.

That said, at our first production meeting, as I got up to speak to a room full of our crew so large it took up the entire Tisch Common Lounge, I realized somewhere along the way things had gotten out of hand. It’s hard when you’re close to a script to not get carried away, and my initial vision for a modest, character driven sci-fi did for a time swell a bit out of control – so it’s funny to me that I get complimented for it being so contained.

What really threw us budget-wise was my lead actress coming down with tonsillitis the week before the shoot. With a lot of tea and Vicodin she was able to make it through a grueling day and a half on set, but at a certain point she had to be rushed to the ER (in full hair and makeup, no less). We had to cancel the duration of the shoot at that point.

I had already invested all my money along with donations from friends and family into the production, and when we couldn’t finish everything in one go, I was devastated. My team and I turned to Kickstarter to finish the film. We had shot enough footage to put together a compelling trailer, and I used the hand-drawn storyboards I’d made in pre-production to give a glimpse of what was to come.

Kickstarter not only gave us an avenue to finish the film, but it also gave us our first real exposure. More than all that, it showed me that other people want to see this movie finished, too – and not just my friends and family, but complete strangers. That’s what really gave me the ability to finish the film.

Awesome! Also inspiring is how The Naturalist proves a scifi film does not need in-your-face visual dazzle to soar. Was it difficult to fit so much “world” into so short a running time? During the writing process, did you ever find yourself wanting to expand the story into a feature? If so, can you discuss how you went about containing the story so that it would feel at home in its 11 minute running time?

There’s actually quite a lot of footage that was shot that didn’t end up in the film – special effects, gorgeous shots – really tough things for me to cut.

During the writing phase, there was a lot of pressure to expand the world and show more, which is partly why I think the project got much bigger than I’d intended. The year we spent in post was actually spent paring it back down closer to its original vision. I finally had to accept that the world is too expansive to fully explore in the short form, so a lot of it was cut to focus the story. But even the script was written like this, where we’re dropping in on intimate and important moments in the life of a couple, sort of like vignettes—it’s a style that I like and feels natural to me and something I want to explore in my future projects.

I’m also a serial re-editor, so even the cut that is online now is different from the 15 minute cut that screened over the past year at festivals. Somehow, after all of the expanding I did to the script, I think the film is stronger for what it doesn’t show.

My initial intention was for this to serve as a precursor to a larger piece, and there’s a lot written in addition to all the extra footage sitting on a hard drive somewhere. But over the two plus years I’ve spent making this, I think my vision and aim as an artist is more mature and I’m itching to articulate that with new projects.

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

I was very impressed by your opening title sequence. How did you source the documentary-esque footage? The audio clips? How did you create the “bad television” effect? Can you talk a bit about the editing, here? It conveys a lot of important exposition. How did you decide to order the pieces? More specifically, how much of this opening was written in the script, and how much of it was discovered during the edit?

The title sequence was something I devised entirely in post.

People were wanting some sort of expositional device to set up the world, but I didn’t want to go the title card route, as that felt too literal for this film. VHS and old electrode-ray TVs are a recurring motif in the film, so I riffed on that.

As far as the ordering, it was really a lot of experimentation and intuition – my background is as a painter, and I’ve always been drawn to editing because it does feel like a canvas, where you’re constantly reordering and overlaying elements to create an entirely new image. I wish I could say that I recorded the whole sequence to VHS and scrambled it in some analog fashion, but I actually used Final Cut 7’s “Bad TV” filter. That probably seems pretty crude, but if you play around with it long enough it can have pretty exciting effects, and with this latest cut I employed the technique at various points throughout the film – the randomness of the filter even inspired a lot of the graphic design for the film’s poster and promotional materials as well.

As far as the footage, I took a lot from the Bosnian War as that’s a modern warzone in a more Western setting. There’s some holocaust imagery in there, as well as Japanese internment, Ellis Island immigrant procedures, videos of genetic diseases, and various mid-century educational biology videos, as well as various nature documentaries. One of the voices you hear is lifted from an old BBC documentary on evolution, and the other voice is a speech I recorded with an actor who nailed that sort of mid-century politician’s affect, which has an almost British-quality to it.

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

Love the range of sources. On a different note, I’m intrigued by your decision to shoot so much of the film handheld in Closeups. Why did you decide to approach your coverage in this way?

I was really interested in clashing stylization to an almost camp degree with documentary-style verite. I wanted to present an alternative future, not unlike Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which drew from familiar elements of everyday life but was set in a totally distinctive time and space. Similarly, I wanted there to be recognizable elements to this world, and I decided to create that with interpersonal relationships, so I drew inspiration from Sofia Copolla and other directors skilled in that realm.

Did you enter production with a shot list and storyboards? Why?

I actually storyboarded the entire film, which was a really great way to communicate with my DoP and also ensure that we got all of the coverage we needed in the can.

There were certain shots that were so ingrained in my mind that I knew I had to get, and I just didn’t see how to organize that with a shot list (and still don’t for that matter). That said, the doc-style nature of how we were shooting lent an unpredictability to our coverage, and there are always differences that arise between your vision and what is feasible to capture.

For example, the “syringe” Eden offers Simon was originally conceived as a pill with one worm inside it (which you can see in the storyboard below). It wasn’t feasible to build, but led us to create the syringe teeming with worms, which I definitely prefer.

More generally, can you discuss your collaboration with your Director of Photography? How did you guys work together on set?

Michael and I worked for many months in pre-production, and he read every draft of the script (of which there were probably close to 20, at a certain point we stopped counting).

With all of the work in pre-production and given our past collaborations, our rapport on set was very in sync. Our decision to shoot day scenes exclusively with natural light meant we were racing against the clock with God as our gaffer. On a tight schedule like that, with so many variables in the production, the stress level is high.

What did you shoot on?

We shot on the Red One MX with Cooke S2 lenses, they were popular in the 90’s so we felt we could counter the very modern digital realism-style of the RED to evoke a more nostalgic, cinematic, epic feel reminiscent of a lot of the high-concept 90s films that inspired me growing up.

How many production days did you have? Generally, how long were your shooting days?

Our first phase of production was 4 days in November. We then had two more phases, 2 days down in the DC area where I’m from, and then 1 day back in New York.

Although we were mostly shooting with natural light, our days were long – we started before sunrise, and then usually went for about 14 hours. And when you factor in clean up and returns – I wasn’t sleeping much.

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

On a related note, where did you shoot the ending by the lake? It’s such a striking contrast with the quarantined apartment!

That’s the phase that was shot outside of DC in a neighborhood in Northern Virginia where I partly grew up. That particular neighborhood has a lot of modernist homes, and we took a lot of design cues from the modernists as an homage to those optimistic, retro-futuristic visions of the future to counter all of the dystopia. It also helps that it’s old and lush, which was definitely meant to contrast the urban apartment – conceptually, we wanted to question what was really “natural.”

“Unnatural” is a term often thrown around in regards to homosexuality. I wanted the union of man and woman in such a lush setting to be undermined by the fact that this union was in many ways entirely unnatural.

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

Interesting! Again, I love the depth of thought behind your creative decisions.

There’s a soft, milky look to much of The Naturalist. For me, its impressionistic imagery brings to mind, again, Upstream Color, as well as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Were your visual references?

Tree of Life was a definitely a huge influence – visually, tonally, and the abstract, emotional/intuitive storytelling. Margaret Atwood’s writing (seeing beautifully handled feminist sci-fi, why not gay-themed sci-fi?), and, of course, the work of Philip K Dick, were huge influences as well.

Because we were creating an alternate vision for the future, we wanted to go timeless with the aesthetic. I took a lot of cues from classical painters who inspired me growing up—the impressionists, John Singer Sargeant – which reinforced our decision to shoot exclusively with natural light.

I also discovered Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville while researching and I was really inspired by the blend of new-wave realism and that distinctly mid-century fascination with the future. Alphaville also reinforced my decision to shoot the film handheld, blending realism and high-concept.

Did you put the film through color? If so, can you describe the process? How did color affect your dailies?

We did a really quick color pass in DaVinci before our first screening, but really it was just about staying continuous and true to the results we got on set. Shooting with natural light meant there were sometimes variation in the tone and hue of the light, but we embraced that and went with it.

I love the melancholy ambient music throughout The Naturalist… It’s simple and haunting. How did you settle on this musical direction? Can you tell me a bit about your collaboration with your composer? At what point did you loop Elana into the process – were you picture locked when you brought her on-board?

Elana was one of the first friends that I met at school, and we have since worked together on all of my student films, so she was on from the beginning. As I was writing I was putting together playlists and sharing them with her. Clint Mansell’s score for Drive was a large influence. We also took cues from Gustav Mahler, and there are some faint hints of operatic choruses to lend that ominous, religious feel. The tone of the film is so heavy that mostly we were riffing on that – it’s hard to ignore. For example, in the scene where Eden bursts in and hugs Simon, Elana told me she took her cues for the “turns” in the music from the light bouncing off their faces.

Unfortunately due to my compulsive re-editing, cues she had written and labored over revising were tweaked, trimmed or cut altogether – but Elana’s an incredible collaborator, there’s no ego involved, she always assured me as I apologized profusely that she understood where I was coming from.

Much of your sound is rich and intimate, and as mentioned, the performances are convincing throughout. Did you have to do any ADR work? If so, was it difficult to (1) match the production sound, and (2) recreate your actors’ performances? How did you address these challenges?

Shooting in an apartment on the Bowery in the Lower East Side does pose its challenges, particularly when your lead actress is in such excruciating tonsillitis-induced pain that she has to whisper all of her lines. Although we did have to ADR her lines, we actually embraced the whisper – there was such a chilling emptiness to all of her lines that we really just mimicked them faithfully, we just needed a clean recording devoid of background noise. Alena is incredibly self-aware and nailed the ADR, so it was a really painless procedure.

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

From The Naturalist | Connor Hurley

What’s next for the film? Any advice for aspiring filmmakers eyeing the festival circuit?

We’ve been on the festival circuit for about a year now, and we recently premiered online on Short of the Week and on Vimeo as a Staff Pick, so I’m satisfied with our run and ready to put the piece to rest. It’s been a 2+ year effort bringing the film to completion, an experience from which I’ve learned a lot – so I’m really, really ready to move on to new things.

For anyone about to begin their first festival run, I’d say focus on forging genuine relationships with other filmmakers above all else. Somebody told me at my first festival that if I walked away from here with 1-2 lasting connections, I had been successful at this festival – be they programmers, filmmakers, or audience members.

My greatest feeling of accomplishment came after the circuit when I was selected for Short of the Week and as a Vimeo Staff Pick – especially for short content, the future is online, not at festivals. At a certain point, festivals become a test of how good you are at holding your own in a room full of strangers. This is important, no doubt, but it’s more important that your work is getting seen by as many people as possible, and more than that, that you’re putting your time, energy and money into making a full body of work.

All of that, and beware of festivals with open bars when it’s also your birthday.

Haha. Wise words indeed! Thanks so much for sharing your time and insights into filmmaking, Connor. Congratulations again on such a sharp piece, and keep us abreast of your future projects!

For more from Connor, check out our interview around his short film “The Going Away Party” and then head on over to his website.

 Michael Koehler, with


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