The Devil’s Knot Diaries: Day Three
The first sentence I hear this morning is an unusual one in crew parking. “I saw you catchin’ some z’s by the barracks, son!” Welcome to the South.
I skip catering and arrive on location.
The first scene of the day involves Jessie Miskelley, Jr. outside his trailer. Phillip Baker, the production designer, inspects the area and wants the tow truck outside of the trailer aged. In a matter of minutes, the door is rusted.
Paul Sarossy arrives and the crew gets to work on the first shot of the day.
Atom Egoyan arrives and exclaims, “Okay! Let’s make a movie!” I notice he is wearing a black 1993 San Francisco Film Festival T-shirt.
Atom Egoyan approaches me and says he saw a 25-minute cut of the film yesterday. “It’s different than anything else I’ve ever shot, for sure.”
It’s time for rehearsals of the first scene in which Jessie punches a glass bottle and cuts his hand. In video village, where the producers watch what is being filmed, I am shown dailies by Greg Morse, the video assistant. It’s from a very significant scene in the film, which everybody on the crew has been talking about. It’s a haunting scene, beautifully filmed.
I formally introduce myself to the Director of Photography, Paul Sarossy, who naturally, discusses the weather.
The first shot of the day goes up.
Jessie punches the glass bottle with his bare hand and actually cuts himself.
Clark Peterson, one of the producers of the film, points out that this was something Jessie was known for doing in real life.
Kari Perkins (costume designer) and Phillip Bake (production designer) discuss color schemes regarding the scene that we will be shooting tomorrow. It’s interesting hearing them speak to each other because it’s an interesting look into the world of designers. Their conversation consists of details about colors and textures of a specific scene.
In the meantime, blood is applied on Jessie’s hand as Atom Egoyan calls for a close-up.
The shot goes well and he is pleased because he was afraid the shot would have to be digitally created. In keeping up with his fascination with nature for this film, he also points out the sun behind Jessie’s trailer and discusses its texture. The film, from what he has shared with me, is concerned with nature; one of the reasons why the film is being filmed in Georgia is because of how green the state is and how that theme plays well alongside the major themes of the film itself and natural laws.
In regards to this film, he says it’s the most amount of material he has shot in the least amount of time with the most amount of coverage. I find that to be amazing.
There are several points-of-views and there is a “morass of information” that Ron Lax and Pam Hobbs go through in this film, and therefore, he says, editing will be a challenge.
The first scene of the day is finished.
Atom Egoyan tells me about his T-shirt and says the 1993 San Francisco Film Festival was one of the first screenings of Calendar. “It’s hard getting people to see a film about Armenia.” The film had great reviews, but no one went to see the film, even Armenians.
The crew begins rigging Ron’s Mercedes. There is a lot of sitting and waiting around on film sets and he is consciously aware of all of this. I’m starting to get the feeling that he misses the spontanienty of his earlier films, primarily because of his constant references to his older films, such as Calendar. There is something about making a more traditional film like this, however, that fascinates him even more. In a film like this, he says, grabbing a camera and shooting isn’t really possible like it would have been with his previous films.
Atom Egoyan and Paul Sarossy ride in the backseat of the Mercedes as Colin Firth arrives and drives around the trailer park. There are people outside their trailers, watching us work. Atom Egoyan allows them to stay in frame and says he will later decide whether it’s beneficial for the scene.
The shot deals with textures of the trailer park, especially because it’s being filmed in an actual trailer park in Georgia. If people in the small neighbor yesterday were surprised with us filming in their town, the people in these trailer parks are speechless. Colin Firth shooting a film in their part of the town seems confusing for them.
The crew begins preparing for the next scene, which takes place outside Damien Echols’ trailer. I ask Atom Egoyan if he needs anything and he replies, “Inspiration.”
The shot goes up and it’s of Colin Firth driving past Damien’s trailer. The shot wraps and Colin Firth is done for the day.
The entire crew is sitting in the sun in extremely exhausting weather. There is very little shade and very few chairs. It’s the kind of weather where if you don’t drink a bottle of water an hour, you’ll die. I’m serious.
The actors and crew rehearse their next scene, which is of two cops questioning Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin and their girlfriends. The scene is filmed several times with several different techniques. The scene is blocked and rehearsed and eventually filmed, until Atom Egoyan decides to flip the entire scene around 180 degrees. There is something about the scene that wasn’t working for him and it’s interesting seeing him switch an entire scene around after extensive preparation. It’s a revealing moment because it’s one of the few times where I have seen him unsure about a certain scene.
In speaking with me, he discusses the lack of time he has to prepare this scene. The switch in angle, he says, is because the positioning of the sun.
The scene goes on and the weather is unforgiving. Atom Egoyan says he wore the San Francisco Film Festival t-shirt because he thought it’d be cool to show it to me, because of our conversations about Calendar, but he says he now regrets doing so – wearing black was a poor decision, so he takes off the T-shirt and waits for another one.
The master shot of the scene wraps and we break for lunch – we’ll need to come back to finish the scene.
The crew gathers back at the trailer, but we realize the camera crew has moved up onto a hill. Atom Egoyan pulls up a chair for me and says he is cheating the shot; instead of shooting the shot in the correct location, he has moved up onto a hill because it’s a much more interesting background to shoot against.
The shot earlier, which didn’t work out as planned and was subsequently flipped around, had a long, slow introduction. This, he says, was because of music, something he is always aware of while shooting. In addition, he also says he edits shots and thinks of how it’ll match up in his head.
The conversation comes up about names as I ask him about his sister’s name, which is Eve. Atom Egoyan laughs – Atom and Eve – and shakes his head. I ask if he was made fun of as a child and he says he was.
I begin chatting with the gaffer, Denny Mooradian, as the crew gets closer shots of the previous scene. Atom Egoyan loves the idea that one of his crewmembers is Armenian, so I decide to talk to him a little bit about his life.
Denny’s mother was born in Providence, Rhode Island and grew up in Detroit, Michigan (her side of the family was from Kharpet) and his father was born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada (his side of the family was from Erzurum). Denny’s grandfather on his father’s side came to the United States first. Denny has an older brother, George Mooradian, who works as a cinematographer in television.
Denny’s mother started a successful beauty saloon. In the years following World War II, his parents moved to Atlanta. Denny’s father worked in pulpwood with his two brothers and was in business for 40 years. Denny’s father went to Armenian school in Canada, and although both his mother and father spoke Armenian, Denny says he didn’t grow up around an Armenian community and therefore he and his brother can’t speak Armenian.
George Mooradian studied cinematography in Ohio, graduated in 1970 and backpacked across Europe and Africa for a year and a half before coming back to Atlanta to his family. In 1972, when Denny was in college, his brother invited him on some sets, where he moved around lights. Denny’s first job was a three-day industrial commercial that was filmed in a factory of carpet mills; he was 21-years-old and his pay was $25 a day. In his opinion, life was good.
Denny has worked on hundreds of projects throughout his 40-year career and one of his most notable experiences was working as an electrician for John Huston’s film, Wise Blood. I ask how he was as a filmmaker and he claims he wasn’t much different than Atom Egoyan. John Huston rehearsed for a little while before shooting, never shot more than 2-3 takes and only what he needed. The film was filmed in Macon, Georgia. I asked about him working with Atom Egoyan and he said when he first heard about the project he said he’d do anything to work on the film, “no matter what.” Denny admits though that his dream has been to work for Steven Spielberg, but claims he might never realize that dream, considering he plans on retiring in the next few years.
The crew moves inside Damien’s trailer and begin shooting a scene in the bedroom. These include several inserts and a shot of Damien’s girlfriend kissing his arm. I hang back outside because of the lack of space inside the trailer.
I speak with production designer, Phillip Baker, who has been working with Atom Egoyan since The Sweet Hereafter. Phillip’s background is in film installations and art films. In one of his art gallery exhibitions, Atom Egoyan apparently signed his name in the guestbook and left his phone number, wanting Phillip to get into touch with him. Phillip didn’t think he was being serious and later saw him during an opening for a show he designed. Atom Egoyan told him he was starting work on The Sweet Hereafter and needed a production designer, and then relationship started from then.
Phillip calls his work on that film “super challenging.” In Ararat, he says he had to think like two different production designers; one for the film within the film and one for the film itself. The film required him to do extensive research and read a lot of material and meet with different Armenian people to become acquainted with their culture. Phillip points out that Van was destroyed and there weren’t always photographs he could find for reference.
In this film, however, he says a lot of his decisions were streamlined. In actuality, Vicki had originally lived in a trailer and later moved into a house, but in the film, in order to make the story less confusing, we only see Vicki in a home. Phillip says this is taking liberty with truth. The amount of information on the internet (including photographs of Damien’s paintings) is also very helpful for his work, although he says it’s also overwhelming.
I ask him what attracts him to a screenplay as a production designer and he says its story. Phillip likes films that are open-ended, non-traditional and that involve some kind of mystery. In addition, he also says if a character doesn’t have a background in the screenplay, he invents one for them as a designer. In the case of this film, he combines that information with reality.
I ask Phillip about space in films, considering my interest with space and architecture in cinema. Phillip brings up the hotel in The Sweet Hereafter, which was designed and built in a studio, based on woodwork structures. Philip describes how he used space within that hotel and his explanation is fascinating. Phillip tells me he built the hallway two inches wider than the actor’s body so audiences can feel a sense of claustrophobia.
In Chloe, he says, space reflects the theme of voyeurism. The glass walls in Julianne Moore’s house reflect her feelings of full disclosure. These spaces are also concerned with passion and glass is used as means of exploring the theme of passion.
I’m still sitting beside Phillip when Elias Koteas drops by the location. Phillip pauses and turns, then looks back and says, “That’s Elias Koteas!”
Atom Egoyan sees Elias Koteas and rushes toward him, hugging him. They embrace each other like the old friends they are. It’s quite touching.
I’m now sitting with the producers of the film as a young kid from the trailer park makes his way onto the production; he asks us what we’re each doing on the film.
The neighborhood kids make their way onto the location in packs – little girls asking for autographs, not because they know who we are, but because they think we’re famous. I know this because they ask me for my autograph. I sign my name. I feel pretty good about myself, then the young kid from earlier appears next to me and exclaims, “Now you’re famous.”
The crew begins setting up the last shots of the evening. In this scene, cops arrive and arrest Damien and Jason.
The wide shot of the cops arriving is a beautiful setup. The camera is raised on the dolly, but it’s high enough to look like a crane shot. The crew adds part of a fence under the camera, to make it look as if we are looking from behind the fence. It’s a great little cheat shot, but it’s a great touch. The slow dolly across as the cops arrive is typical of the Atom Egoyan and Paul Sarossy collaboration.
The crew sets up for a closer shot of the arresting officer knocking on Damien’s door. The actor playing the arresting officer makes a suggestion about rushing in after the door is opened. Atom Egoyan welcomes his suggestions, likes how the scene plays and keeps that in the film.
The next two shots of the film are from inside the trailer, which has now absorbed all the morning and afternoon heat and has become something of an oven. The focus puller tells me it’s probably 110 degrees in there.
The first shot inside the trailer is a shot from behind a counter, as the kids watch Leprechaun on television. The second shot is from their bedroom as Damien and Jason are arrested.
It’s a wrap after 13 exhausting hours in the heat. I don’t think anyone is in the mood to talk right now, everyone wants to go to the hotel and get some rest. It’s 91 degrees during my drive back to the hotel on this late evening.