Sunday, August 23, 2009

Night Train (1999) part 2

Guy Savage interview with Night Train director Les Bernstien:

GS: Please describe your background for our readers.

LB: I’ve been in the film business for over 30 years working as a Visual Effects Director of Photography and Supervisor. My background is in photography and cinematography. I began in New York, where I grew up and went to school, but moved to Los Angeles and worked on films dating back to Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice. More recently, I’ve worked on films like Apocalypto and The Unborn.

GS: What sort of budget did you have for Night Train and how did you get funding for the film?

LB: Night Train’s budget, I’ll just say, was way less than a million. It would easily be a “Poverty Row” picture if this were the ‘40’s. I think even Edgar Ulmer would be proud. Funding was by way of private investors and out-of-pocket.

GS: How long did it take you to make the film? What were the biggest hurdles?

LB: It took 5 years to make the film, the same length of time it took Lynch to make Eraserhead. Biggest hurdle was getting it finished. Always easy to start a film, near impossible to finish one on my budget.

GS: Did you use any unprofessional actors for the film and if so how did you find them?

LB: Except for the leads (the parts of Joe, Bobby, Sam and MaryLou), all the parts were locals found around Tijuana. We even hired a prostitute for one scene, who wanted to do porn. We had to tell her this was not porn. Another “actress” we saw when we were walking from one location to another - she stopped an ambulance in the middle of the road by holding onto its radiator and proceeded to pee in the middle of the street. I just had to turn on a camera and film her, it was so precious. I think she was a little drunk.

GS: Did any films act as an inspiration for Night Train?

LB: I could go on for hours citing films that inspired Night Train, beginning, of course, with the great German Expressionist films like Der Golem, Metropolis, Spione, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, all the way through the many obscure noirs that I could get my hands on, from Strangers on the Third Floor, Detour, He Walked By Night, Kiss Me Deadly, etc, etc. There are also the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Sergio Leone, Russ Meyer and Michael Powell’s great Peeping Tom (obvious influence). From the noir canon, I must say that Kiss Me Deadly in particular, is one of my favorites and became a model for our sound design. Due to the budget restrictions, the “gun and run” method of shooting with a small, guerilla crew and lack of control over production sound, George Lockwood - a frequent collaborator and the editor/optical effects man/sound designer - wanted to experiment by completely looping EVERYTHING in the film. The surrealistic quality of Kiss Me Deadly’s bizarre sound design offered up the cacophonous answer and voila! Night Train was born. The result is very much like Tijuana: an aural assault on the senses. Not for everybody, though. I’ve gotten complaints.

GS: Night Train is an incredible looking film. How did you create the German Expressionist look but updated with clear, deep inky blacks?

LB: The look of Night Train took some experimenting. I found an (what was then) East German film stock from a company called ORWO, the parent of AGFA. I found out they were using a lot more silver in their B+W stock than anyone else (since 1917!) and my tests looked like no other stock. Also, it was cheap. I ordered a shitload of the stuff and pulled the trigger on starting the film. Later, I personally timed the film at DuArt Labs in New York and got incredible results. I kept pushing the timer to “go deeper” and richer with the blacks without clipping the highlights.

GS: What special challenge does neo noir present for a director and a director of photography?

LB: If you’re going to really do “noir” (I hate the term “neo” noir), you have to shoot B+W 35mm film stock and use hard light. There is no other way to do this. It is borne of the look and soul. Also, the term “Film Noir” as invented by the French does not really classify a genre. It is a feeling, like the “Feeling” movement in music. In film this is extended into the photography. The look of the film MUST have equal footing alongside the actors and screenplay. Not one element can overshadow the other. My experiment with Night Train failed because the look overshadowed my direction of the actors and the script, but hey, that’s part of a learning curve. If I were to do it again, I would keep everything the same; just work the actors harder, much harder. At the same time, I make no apologies any more than Ulmer would for Detour or Kubrick would for Killer's Kiss (although he disowned Fear and Desire). It’s all part of a curve and there’s no sense repeating yourself.

GS: In your experience how has the use of mechanical effects in film impacted optical effects?

LB: Optical Effects no longer exist; they are now all digital (Night Train used all Optical and “in-camera” effects). Mechanical effects work on the set and digital effects go hand-in-hand with these techniques for post-production. As we say in the film business, if you can “get it real” then do it real. I think Mechanical effects will never go away, and in fact, get more sophisticated.

GS: In the hallucination scenes, sequences appear to be layered on top of each other. How is this achieved?

LB: George Lockwood did all of the post Optical composite effects. The hallucination sequences, in particular, required many long hours of shooting one layer, backwinding the film on the printer and shooting another layer on top of the previous. Some of the shots I created with glass paintings, matte paintings, swirling water effects, and what we call “elements,” which are individual pieces of an effect shot against black, then exposed later on top of a scene. I did a lot of this shooting in a rented warehouse and in my garage. George then later took these pieces and after hours of the two of us sitting around and discussing in front of the film on a flatbed editor, composited the pieces on an optical printer. A lot of work.

GS: Would you explain the role of the lyrically beautiful Torch Song sequence?

LB: In Mexican cinema (even in Hong Kong cinema), the role of a “reflective song” creates a breathing space for the pacing of the film. The Torch Song sequence allows the main character to look back on his life up to that point and reflect on how he got there. It ends with him sitting in the pile of money everyone is looking for. Also, it helps bring the length of the film up to 80 minutes.

GS: How did it feel to make a film in which you had so much project control?

LB: Because the film was so low-budget and largely self-financed, I, like Mel Gibson (the only true independent filmmaker left), had to answer to no one. It felt great and frustrating at the same time because money was such a factor (unlike, say, Mel Gibson).

GS: How do you feel about noir and German Expressionism? How much do you think these genres have added to filmmaking?

LB: German Expressionism helped fuel what became film noir. If not for the economic/ post-war trauma of the time and the European émigrés in Hollywood, noir would not have had its “bite” and would probably be just like any other stupid period in American cinema (like right now). Its influence goes all the way to guys like Martin Scorcese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), Francis Ford Coppola (Godfather, The Conversation), Paul Schrader, and writers like James Ellroy. Noir was the true period of originality in American cinema. Except maybe for MGM musicals. Just ask the French.

GS: What are you working on at the moment?

LB: Right now I am working on a couple of documentaries, one about jazz and urbanism in Tijuana and another about the collision of the US Mafia and the rebel forces during the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban film will also, hopefully, later be made into a narrative about the 2 men whose stories I am telling in the documentary, representing both sides of the conflict. I’m quite excited about that project because it shows a really ugly side of US crime and complicity in Cuban affairs. It’s never been done before. It was alluded to in Godfather II, however. Also, I’m working on some noir scripts, of course…


moremiles said...

Interesting, I haven't seen the film but I seem to be picking up a bit of Orson Welles & 'Touch Of Evil' in this. Do you see it?

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