Interview: David Henri (Director ‘Finding Focus’) – Gotham Screen International Film Festival

Ryan, a mid-level fashion photographer who has crafted a comfortable career shooting beautiful models, has ambitions for a more ambitious fine art project, but fears no one will take him seriously.

Olivia is a last-minute substitute makeup artist on one of his shoots. At the end of a long shooting day he tells her his art concept and she offers to help, both as a model and as a makeup artist.

The two agree to partner on the project and soon develop a personal relationship along with their professional work, which they document in ‘behind the scenes’ footage as the creative process and their personal lives simultaneously evolve.

We talked with Director David Henri about his film ‘FINDING FOCUS‘, which screens on FRIDAY, OCTOBER 5 @ 8:55pm & MONDAY, OCTOBER 8 @ 1:00pm (both screenings taking place @ QUAD CINEMA).

How did your film ‘FINDING FOCUS’ find itself at the GOTHAM SCREEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL? What were your experiences with the festival (if any)? Will you be attending personally?
We found Gotham Screen through, which is a really amazing resource for independent filmmakers.  After we found the listing on withoutabox, we did a little research and thought we might be a good fit.  Luckily, they thought so, too!  Working with the team at Gotham Screen has been terrific — they’re really attentive to our needs as filmmakers, while also doing everything they can to ensure a great program for their audience.

I fly to NY on Thursday, and will be attending both of our screenings (Friday night and Monday afternoon).  I’m hoping to catch several of the other films as well.

Can you tell us a little about the development process of the film? How did the idea come about? How long was production? Do you have a background in glamour photography?
Going all the way back to Blair Witch Project and, later, the Paranormal Activity series; I’ve been really intrigued by what I thought was the genius conceit of their production, which is to make the utter lack of financing an integral part of the film.  I don’t personally enjoy horror films, though, and had been looking for a concept which I could apply that aesthetic to a pure drama or comedy.  With the rise of video shooting on DSLR (still) cameras, the idea of building a story around a photographer seemed natural.

Then the issue became describing what that aesthetic really was.  The common nomenclature for the horror films is that it’s “found footage,” which is to say that the characters created the footage, then someone else found it.  In our film, the characters not only shoot everything, but there are even scenes of one of the characters editing the film — we see scenes being cut that we’ve watched unfold earlier.  So we prefer to say that the film’s style is “character created,” which is to say that the characters, though fictional, could have conceivably shot, edited, and released the film themselves.

The film is entirely improvised, but based on a very detailed outline of each scene.  We rehearsed for about 3 weeks, then shot for 4 weeks.  Post production took a long time, because our first editor had to drop out due to a paying gig, and it took us a while to find someone we really liked.  Alex Miskei, who cut the whole picture, is really an amazingly gifted guy.  We found him straight out of USC film school.

Though the characters appear to be shooting most of the movie themselves, I was actually behind the camera probably 70%-80% of the time.  I also shot all of the still photos used in the film.  I have some experience in that world (glamour photography), and enjoy it, but it’s more of a hobby than anything else.  One of the galleries that’s featured prominently in the film actually loved what we were doing so much that they asked me to come back and mount a full show with them.  So I got my first solo gallery exhibit out of making the film, and that was fun.  We plan to sell prints from the film on our website.

What was the most difficult part of getting ‘FINDING FOCUS’ done?
Without a doubt, it was the post-production.  We lost our original editor immediately after wrapping principal photography (he had a full-time paying gig).  It took us a couple of months to find someone we really liked, but once we met with Alex Miskei, he hit the ball out of the park.  We also found an excellent sound team in South Africa (the marvels of the internet age!), who were able to do an amazing job cleaning up our audio (we shot dual-system, but the production audio was mediocre at best).

What is your experience like with the New York City film scene? How would you describe the general sentiment towards independent filmmaking where you are?
I haven’t had much experience with the NY film scene — yet.  But everything I hear is wonderful.  From a production view point, I know the city (and the state) are extremely filmmaker friendly, and I hope to be able to tap into that in a future project.  As for the audiences, you’ve clearly got incredibly well-informed film-goers who are very sophisticated about the types and breadth of films they find interesting.  New York’s such a great city in pretty much every aspect.

In Los Angeles, we obviously have a tremendous pool of talent to draw from — great actors and actresses, terrific crew, and access to equipment, gear, and production services that are hard to beat.  At the same time, it seems everyone is trying to make an indie, so you definitely meet a bit of cynicism when you first launch a project.  Once things get underway, though, and it’s clear that “this thing is going to get made”, people jump on board to help.  It’s a lot of fun.

Who are some of your creative influences? How have these influences found their way into your own creative work?
I have been extremely fortunate in my career as a video supervisor to work with some amazing directors — Steven Soderbergh, Kenneth Branagh, Ron Howard, Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, and more —  and that has become my film school.  Of all of them, I’m most fascinated with Steven Soderbergh’s work.  He works like no one else in the business.  I don’t feel comfortable talking about someone else’s methods, but I’ll say that he’s incredibly fast-paced on set — he knows exactly what he wants and he knows when he’s got it.  He’s also unflappable — I’ve never seen any issue on set cause any problem for him, and I’ve done four movies with him.

Watching Steven make Contagion was a huge impetus for how I was able to make Finding Focus.  For example, on Contagion, we shot an element for a scene in which Marion Cotillard’s character was viewing casino surveillance footage which featured Gwyneth Patlrow’s character.  The surveillance footage was shot with a cheap consumer-grade camera.  Once we got that shot, I was ready for Steven to then shoot the scene again with the production Reds, but he didn’t.  He got what he needed and moved on.  I was floored.  But he knows exactly what he needs, and once he gets it, he doesn’t waste time shooting anything else.  It was a real eye opener about what could be done with modern cameras, and how there’s no need to hide poor camera quality when it’s authentic to the scene.

According to the film’s official synopsis ‘FINDING FOCUS’ seems to include a hybrid of aesthetic filmmaking techniques including “behind the scenes” footage. Can you tell us a little about the visual choices of a film so rich in visual possibilities?
The whole movie actually stems from the photographer character’s (“Ryan,” played by Chris Alvarado) desire to record behind-the-scenes footage of a fine art project is about to start.  That’s why he’s got cameras set up in his studio from the very beginning.  When he flirts with a new makeup artist (“Olivia,” played by Carole Weyers), she sort of turns the tables on him and shoots video of him with her iPhone.  From the get-go, we’re intercutting really nice black-and-white DSLR footage with cruddy, stepped-on iPhone video; but it works.

I approached the color grading of the film with the different cameras in mind — they already look completely different, but I wanted to really push that.  Most of the DSLR footage is in black-and-white.  iPhone and Flip footage tends to have extra scan lines and some color shift added to it.

We used 6 different types of cameras in FINDING FOCUS, and none of them were traditional cinema cameras.  (We used Canon 5D, Nikon D7000, Canon t2i, iPhone, Flip, and iPad).  There’s no doubt that other cameras would look much better, but these cameras were all fundamental to the story we were telling.

Purchase Tickets for ‘FINDING FOCUS’ (Friday) – HERE
Purchase Tickets for ‘FINDING FOCUS’ (Saturday) – HERE

October 4 – 14, 2012
@ Quad Cinema & Tribeca Grand


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