'The Living': Achieving a Stylish Noir Look on a (Very) Low Budget

The filmmakers knew that to make this noir-ish thriller for the less-than-$500,000 budget they planned, they’d have to very carefully map out every facet of the production.
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The founders of New York-based production company Shooting Films—John Snyder, Laura DuBois and Jack Bryan—set out to make an indie film for under half a million dollars that would both satisfy the filmmakers’ artistic desires and find a place in the crowded cinema marketplace. Their first feature, The Living, is a thriller that opens with Teddy (Fran Kranz) waking from a drunken blackout to find he’s brutally attacked his wife Molly (Jocelin Donahue), though he has no memory of the incident. While Teddy tries to reconcile with his now-estranged wife, Molly’s brother Gordon (Kenny Wormald) sets in motion a dangerous plan involving a backwoods hit man (Chris Mulkey).

The filmmakers knew that to make this noir-ish thriller for the less-than-$500,000 budget they planned, they’d have to very carefully map out every facet of the production with an eye toward the company’s artistic and financial goals. “We wanted to be able to get the most production value possible for the project and end up with something we could sell,” says DuBois.

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Writer/director Bryan had two prospective scripts for Shooting Films’ first outing. DuBois asked an associate with experience on the distribution end of the business which one had the most chance of success. In the friend’s estimation, it was The Living, which fit more comfortably into a recognizable genre, that had the better shot.

The team agreed, reasoning that The Living’s world could be better represented with their minimal budget than could Bryan’s other script, which was set in a more upscale environment. Here, lower-end locations and costumes were all appropriate to the setting.

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One of the film’s most difficult scenes to shoot takes place in a car at night.

DuBois explains, “The story is set in a working class world, so wardrobe could come from the Salvation Army and thrift shops. We could design sets with sofas and chairs from secondhand furniture shops. We didn’t need stylists and expensive clothing.”

The production team shot The Living in rural Pennsylvania, two hours from Shooting Films’ New York City base of operations. In these former mining towns, they were able to rent houses inexpensively that served both as shooting locations and as housing for cast and crew.

The filmmakers planned carefully to avoid the complications common to projects in this budget range. With respect to the script, Ryan made sure to develop both storylines: the couple trying to work through their problems on the one hand, and the brother and the hit man on the other. By doing so, he gave himself flexibility to reshape the story in post in a way that indies with a single through line can’t.

“The original cut of the film was 2 hours 10 minutes,” says Bryan. “I knew going in that I had very little control over the elements. We were lucky that all the actors did a great job and we were able to shoot everything in the script, but I didn’t have a guarantee it would be like that. We didn’t even have the lead actor signed until three days into the shoot. So I built the script so that when it came time to edit, if one of the stories didn’t work as well as I hoped, I would still have a film. Sometimes you have to hedge your bets.”

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Ex con/hitman Howard (Chris Mulkey)

The length of the shooting schedule (relatively long for this budget level) was also something the Shooting Films team had built in from the start. “I think most independent films go wrong sacrificing length of schedule for everything else,” says Bryan. “The cast feels it when everything’s rushed. The crew feels it. The audience feels it. We certainly didn’t have a crazy amount of time—we went through six to eight pages and roughly 15 setups a day—but we did have enough time to do it right.”

Cinematographer Aleksandar Kosutic brought in the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (its first iteration), which made The Living among the very first feature-length movies shot with it. He shot 2.5K resolution with the smaller-than-Super 35 sensor available at the time using Canon EF mount zooms and an 85mm prime.

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Cinematographer Aleksandar Kosutic

Despite the Cinema Camera’s tiny footprint, Kosutic and Bryan treated it as they would a more traditionally sized camera. It was mounted in a cage from Wooden Camera and fitted with a Redrock Micro mattebox and ARRI follow focus unit. It was almost always on sticks or a substantial dolly—sometimes it was even mounted on a Steadicam. “That’s the style of film we were making,” the DP explains.

Kosutic sent the camera’s HD-SDI signal to a SmallHD 7-inch OLED monitor, as well as to a Bon Electronics monitor he used as a waveform display. “There was no director’s monitor,” he says. “We shot a lot like they shot film [in the pre-video village days].”

The footage was captured directly as CinemaDNG files, which preserved virtually all the latitude the sensor was capable of. The downside is that raw files are quite large. “I hate blown out skies,” says Bryan. “Had it not been for the ability to capture so much dynamic range to the files, we’d probably have needed more time to light.”

The cinematographer concurs, but adds, “We didn’t realize what a nightmare it would be working in CinemaDNG. We burned through card after card after card very quickly! We’d need to go back to the first card and the crew was still backing it up.”

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The entire 91-minute film was shot in raw and was stored on three 240 GB SSD cards.

With a few caveats, Kosutic says he was very happy with the performance of the camera. “There was really nothing we wanted to do with it that we couldn’t,” he offers. “There’s some rolling shutter, but we didn’t do any quick pans where that might have been an issue. It was solid throughout and I was very happy with the dynamic range.”

And so was Juan Salvo, who did the color grading at his shop, theColourSpace in New York. Salvo was interested in working on a film captured to CinemaDNG files. He wanted to see what kind of range the Blackmagic Cinema Camera images really had and he wanted to run through the practical issues of handling such large files.

When creative editorial (done in ProRes HD) was completed, Salvo uploaded the more than 12 TB of CinemaDNG files. “We took the edited ProRes files and the drives with CinemaDNG files and conformed so that we had access to the full latitude and all the raw adjustments of the larger files. A lot of it linked back but some had to be matched by eye.”

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Aleksandar Kosutic with the full camera/cage/focus gear and mounted on sticks.

Salvo graded in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 11 and recalls being surprised by the amount of information he had to work with. “There were very few times when there was not enough shadow or highlight detail that it compromised image,” he says. “That’s rare at that budget level. It’s a real testament to the camera and to Aleksandar.”

As with any indie, the “real” work only began once post was complete. The producers submitted The Living to more than 50 festivals—the usual suspects of Sundance, Toronto and Tribeca, but also plenty of lesser known fests such as the Manhattan Film Festival, Las Vegas Film Festival and Tallgrass Film Festival. And they pushed it out individually and as a company over social media. “The trailer has 1.2 million hits and we didn’t spend anything on that,” says Snyder.

The filmmakers are quite pleased with The Living. They pulled off everything they set out to do from an artistic and business perspective. But none of it happened by accident. As DuBois stresses, the team was very clear about its goals from the start. “Make sure to keep in mind that you’re also making a product,” she says. “Be true to your art form but also keep the business in mind so you can keep making movies.”

You can check out The Living for yourself here

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