Following the wild success of The Blair Witch Project, Artisan Entertainment's subsequent release handpicked from Sundance strays even farther off the beaten path. Written by Michael White, supervising producer of TV's Freaks and Geeks, Chuck & Buck is about 27-going-on-seven-year-old Buck (played by White) and his obsession to recapture a more-than-friendly friendship with his childhood buddy Chuck (played by American Pie producer Chris Weitz). Think Peter Pan meets Fatal Attraction.
To direct the quirky dark comedy, the writer called on Miguel Arteta, who had directed him in a small role in Star Maps, a 1997 indie film about a Mexican immigrant's dreams of Hollywood stardom. Also pulled from the Star Maps ranks was DP Chuy Chavez, who along with Arteta decided that digital video (DV) was the format to capture the too-close-for-comfort relationship of Chuck & Buck.
Although budget would seem to be a factor in going digital, the choice was related more to a particular style of visual storytelling. "Actually, we shot Star Maps in 35mm for less money than Chuck & Buck, so it was not simply a financial decision," says the director. "When we saw Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration [a Dogma 95 film shot on DV with the Sony PC7], we noticed the close-ups had a very intimate feel. They looked kind of silky. Also, the transfer of video to film has progressed to the point where it has an effect that is immediate and intimate, and we liked that for the story."
The reality digital video evokes was also effective in telling the story, according to Chavez. "Most audiences don't know if you shoot on video or 35," he says. "But they understand, probably because they see a lot of TV, that the quality and texture of the video image is very real, like home video; 35mm looks so perfect, but the audience knows it is like theatre, it is a scene for them. In a way, with video there is a feeling that maybe it really happened."
To create that quasi-real feel, the DP shot with the Sony VX1000, the same camera Hal Hartley and DP Jim Denault used to shoot The Book of Life. "In pre-production, we talked with them and they shared information with us," says Arteta. One major difference in filming the two movies, he says, is that The Book of Life was shot on NTSC, which has 30 frames per second (fps), while Chuck & Buck was shot on PAL format, which has 25 fps and is closer to the film speed of 24 fps. The higher resolution of PAL makes for a higher quality image when the video is transferred to film.
When selecting cameras, Chavez and Arteta investigated Sony's newer DV model, the PD100, which wasn't available to them at the time. They also considered the Canon XL1, which unlike the VX1000 has changeable lenses. "But we heard the focus was difficult," says Arteta of the Canon. "We were told the VX1000 has the best focus for this kind of consumer camera."
Further preparing for the variables of DV, Arteta and Chavez performed two tests for cameras, tape stock, and transfers. They decided on two Sony VX1000s from Plus-8 Video, using mini-DV tape stock. The mini-DV held up well, according to Arteta, who says 90 hours were shot with only two instances of drop-out, a common problem with consumer stock. Most scenes were shot with a Junior Steadicam and tripod; only a few shots were hand-held.
When it came to lighting, Chavez was inspired by The Celebration, photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle. "They didn't use a lot of light so they needed to think in another way," says the Mexican-born cinematographer. "My father is also a DP--all of my family works in film--and I know when you don't get a perfect image, you say it is because you don't have enough light or enough time. With this movie, I tried to erase this thinking, because with the audience you can't make those excuses."
Lighting with a simple package of equipment was a tricky proposition for the DP, considering that digital video is much less effective in rendering details than film: It often looks muddy when lighting is too dark and doesn't read when lighting is too bright. "Even if they gave me more budget for the lighting, on this kind of project I wouldn't use a lot of lights," says Chavez. "I just tried to use natural light and a bit of bounce because Miguel and I talked about making it look like real life. But shooting with natural light on video is difficult because the contrasts are so high and it's hard to control light. If you shoot on 35mm and you don't have a lot of lights, it looks great because even in the shadows you can see details."
Chavez added to the natural lighting with a small equipment package supplied by Leonetti Company. ProMist filters also came in handy to diffuse the sharpness of the video image.
Pushing color at the tape-to-tape transfer at Company 3 was also important for enriching the DV look. Buck's scenes--in the toy-filled boyhood room of his mother's home and in the room at The Little Prince Motel in LA, where he moves, with toys in tow, to find Chuck after his mother dies--are characterized by warm primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. In contrast, the groovy home and office digs of Chuck, now a happening record exec engaged to be married, are cool colors and white.
To revisit their childhood past, Chavez also played with color correction and overexposure for stylized flashbacks of young Chuck and Buck playing in a backyard. "We overexposed five or six stops on video," he explains. "On 35mm it would be more or less like a 10-stop overexposure. Then we color-corrected a little more like a tungsten at a 2000K rate. That's why the grass is a strange blue-green and their skin is so white."
Much of the movie comprises Buck's desperate attempts to bring that childhood past into the present, culminating in Hank & Frank, a play he wrote about his relationship with Chuck. Hoping it will rekindle his buddy's affections, Buck presents his play at a children's theatre across the street from Chuck's office, and invites his reluctant friend to opening night. Accompanying Chuck is his well-meaning fiancee, who Buck writes as a fairy tale witch in his play. "Behind them, we had the backdrop of the Emerald City from the theatre's production of The Wizard of Oz, which Chuy lit with a green light in front and back, so it looked like it was shining through," says Arteta. "We loved the theatricality of it and wanted to convey that small production feeling. It is a movie about a person who solves his problems by writing--he pours his heart into that play."
Buck's attempts, theatrical and otherwise, fail to reconnect with Chuck and only alienate him further. After one last meeting, where the two replay a childhood game that as adults is overtly sexual, Buck agrees never to contact Chuck again and is left on his own to grow up. He moves across the hall from Sam, the dimwitted actor (played by Paul Weitz, brother of Chris and director of American Pie) who portrayed Chuck onstage, and gradually builds his own life apart from Chuck.
For a film that relies heavily on character, the unobtrusive nature of shooting DV proved to be very actor-friendly. "It helped the performances because we were able to shoot with two cameras and we were able to shoot a lot," explains Arteta. "The smaller size of the [DV] cameras makes it more intimate. When you are running film through a camera, every time you say action it is $150, whereas when you do it on video it is like 10 cents. On a low budget you can run a lot and let the performances be great and not worry about time."
The film was shot over four six-day weeks. Mini-DV was dubbed to DigiBeta for editing and then transferred to 35mm film at a rate of five frames per second at Swiss Effects, under technical director Patrick Lindenmaier.
In the end, Chuck's wedding brings the friends together again, seemingly freed from their state of arrested development. "The movie is about therapy," says Arteta of Chuck & Buck, scheduled for release on July 14. "And how you can help yourself, even if your childhood messes you up."
Director Miguel Arteta
Director of photography Chuy Chavez
Production designer Renee Davenport
Editor Jeff Betancourt
Costume designer Elaine Montalvo
Gaffer John Capron
Key grip Douglas Kieffer
Grip/electric Plume Buigues, Eden Shapiro
Assistant camera Matthew McNeil
Videotape transfers Vidfilm Services
On-Line editing Doug Moldowsky/Digital Revolution
Tape-to-tape color correction John Zaik/Company 3
Tape-to-film transfer Swiss Effects
Camera equipment Plus-8 Video
Lighting/Grip supplier Leonetti Company
Lighting equipment (2) Sunray 1,200W HMI PARs (2) Kino Flo100 4' 4Banks (2) Kino Flo 4' 2Banks (1) Kino Flo 2' 2Bank (2) Kino Flo 2' singles (1) Kino Flo Mini-Flo kit (2) 575W HMI fresnels (2) Mole-Richardson 1kW baby babys (2) Mole-Richardson 600W tweenies (2) LTM 200W peppers (2) Mole-Richardson 1kW Zip soft lights (2) Mole-Richardson 1kW nook lights (1) 200W tungsten sun gun