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Art as Acts of Subversion and Immersion

Ben Shapiro captures the motion behind the method

Fri., March 9, 2012

Art as Acts of Subversion and Immersion

A Life in Stills

Ben Shapiro captures the motion behind the method

Gregory Crewdson is not a filmmaker. He's an artist who works, often for months, at a filmmaker's level of production – with actors, locations, set designs, props, and (especially) lighting – for just one still shot. No narrative leading to the shot, no narrative leading away, just the singular image itself.

Ben Shapiro is a filmmaker. His work has appeared in television, film, and new media; he's won awards for that work: a Peabody, an Emmy, others. This year's South by Southwest sees the debut of Shapiro's first full-length feature, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, which covers Crewdson's "Beneath the Roses" series of photos and was crafted from ten years of original footage. We recently spoke with the director – a Los Angeles native and a graduate of the University of Texas' Radio-Television-Film program – about his artful debut.

AC: You started out filming Gregory Crewdson for PBS, but when did you decide, OK, you want to make a full-length feature out of the footage?

BS: I'd been working a lot for this PBS show called Egg, which was around in the late Nineties, early 2000s. And they'd send filmmakers out to make shorts about artists – it was all about the arts – and they sent me to the Berkshires to film Crewdson taking one of his photographs. I hadn't met him before; I don't think I even knew much about him, but that was the first time, and that footage is in the film. ... And a few years later, I was commissioned by another arts channel that's not around anymore to do another piece about him. And at that point, I decided to go ahead and follow him – and that was in 2004. And since then, I've kept in touch with him. Gregory and his team would be getting ready for a shoot and they'd send me the production schedule, and I'd go up and do some shooting.

AC: So there's Crewdson directing all these people and circumstances in what's basically a single-frame film shoot, and there's you, filming a making-of on the process. Did you ever feel a kind of hall-of-mirrors effect?

BS: In a lot of ways, it was like any other documentary shoot. The things you're thinking about as a filmmaker – How do I cover this? Where should I be? What should I be shooting? At what point should I talk to the artist, engage with him? – those are the things that are occupying you, regardless of the subject, so it didn't really feel like a hall of mirrors. ... In a way, though, I had certain advantages. Because the sets were all lit, which benefits the films. And the same thing for the exterior shots, because the climax of the scenes, where he's taking the photograph, they planned to do that at "magic hour." So from my perspective of a filmmaker shooting them, it's nice, aesthetically, that there's a lot of magic-hour scenes in my movie just because that's how he schedules his shoots. There are definite visual advantages.

AC: What kind of crew do you use for these shoots?

BS: For almost all that stuff, it was just me. I work a lot as a kind of one-man band, and that's the way it was for most of those shoots: Just me and a camera and some sound gear and that was it. ... The advantage to that is that there's a much smaller impact on the whole scene. You go onto a set and you're even just two or three people? It's a very different presence. When you're just one guy with a camera, you can get away with a lot. ... And Gregory was always very accommodating and welcoming on the sets, told his crew I could go anywhere. There were a couple of times when I was physically on the set, hiding behind a car or something while they were shooting. Wayne Alan Brenner

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

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