Buy In: Directing Drama
Despite my being an incredibly dramatic person, drama tends to not be my artistic style. I’m a comedy person, see below.
But then I met Colin Hinckley, who loves drama and, specifically, horror. And we decided to write a horror film together called Buy In, a tense character study about capitalism and power and desperation, so when it came time for me, the director, to make decisions about the look of this project, I was more than a little nervous. And then I had a few ideas and then we shot the film and now it’s available on YouTube!
On this Female Filmmaker Saturday, I wanted to share some of my directing choices, because I think it was a great educational opportunity for me, a person who prefers fast talking comedies, to learn how to slow things down and use the camera more strategically than normally.
A big theme in this film is the power different people wield, and no one is more powerful than Marc, the salesman, played by Marshall Taylor Thurman.
Marshall is 6' 5", which is an inhuman and absurd height, but also worked in our favor. Colin, who plays Roger, is naturally shorter and less broad shouldered, and we wanted to emphasize that as much as we could. To begin with, we tried to shoot Marshall from really low angles to emphasize his height and size. I wanted the audience to feel him towering over Roger and, as a result, us.
Even when he’s sitting, I wanted him to feel big. To take up more space. To get uncomfortably close the the camera as he rattled off his sales pitch.
As a result, we also shot Colin from higher up, and from further away, so he appeared physically smaller and more submissive. It’s not overt (we aren’t pulling a Lord of the Rings visual trick) but good camerawork shouldn’t be overt. It should highlight what the script and performances are already trying to achieve.
Now, notice that in all the screenshots of Marc, his frame is his own. You wouldn’t even know Roger was there based on Marc’s frame. Roger is nothing to Marc, just a mark (eyyyy). But Roger’s frame? It’s nearly a third taken up by Marc, invading his space, invading his frame. Roger is powerless, towered over, and as such, does not deserve his own space. We don’t just feel Marc’s presence even as Roger talks, we see it- we can’t forget that Marc is there, watching, calculating, making his sale.
Roger only gets about half of his own frame to himself! Check out my original storyboard below, where I’d made a note where I wanted the camera to be angled from (and how much of the frame I wanted Marc to take up)
Even our wide shot is a slight Dutch angle to further emphasize who’s in charge.
EVERYTHING BEYOND THIS POINT IS A SPOILER! So please watch the film now at this halfway point, or I’ll be very disappointed in you.
Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed the film! Let’s dip back into our power dynamics, because as you now know, around the 4 minute mark, Roger starts to step out of Marc’s shadow, literally, as he asks the first of many uncomfortable questions.
We’re still framing him from above, but we’re closer, letting his frame be his own as we’re shaken out of our assumption of who’s the boss.
By 5:10, after a glance to a seemingly empty corner of the room, Roger’s frame changes dramatically. As the audience, we’re on even footing with him as he starts to exert more agency over the situation, and Marc’s starting to realize that maybe Roger isn’t the one who’s trapped…
By the time Sam joins the fun, their fates are sealed, and her entrance is shot from above her. Just look at the framing difference between her entrance and Marc’s initial one:
Marc is all we see, partially shadowed, high contrast, and we’re looking up to him as he commands the frame even only taking up about a third of it. Sam doesn’t even get her own frame, and is dwarfed not only by her co-star, Marshall, who’s nearly a foot taller than her, but also by the frame and angle. Her shot is also brighter, with the inclusion of the light just to the right of her, making her a far less sinister presence. Marc may think he’s got backup, but her introductory frame and Roger’s new angle tells a much different story.
Once Sam initiates her own sales pitch, it’s too late, and we know this because of how much space she gets to take up in her first solo frame.
And it only gets worse for everyone from there. Final thing I’ll say, relating not to planned shots but to happy accidents: there was a big ass mirror in the hotel room we rented, right next to the door where truly so much of the film takes place. Not ideal when you weren’t planning for it and have limited space in a tiny area to place a sound recordist, DP, and director.
However, silver lining! Once the final confrontation begins, you can see Roger floating like the devil on Marc and Sam’s shoulders in the reflection. Unplanned but an exciting opportunity nonetheless. Ya gotta be flexible when indie filmmaking.
I hope you enjoyed this piece at least half as much as I enjoyed directing this film. While I don’t think I’ll direct much drama moving forward, it was a really exciting challenge that I’m grateful to have been able to tackle.