Don't trip, don't trip, don't trip...
These were the words vibrating though my brain as I followed Bono of U2 down a set of stairs outside the home of Eugene Peterson (The Message) for the very first shot of the day (see the film here). I probably should have been filling my headspace with something more helpful, something like, is the shot in focus? battery levels ok? how's my exposure? am I actually recording right now??? But instead I had this overwhelming sensation that I was going to trip on one of the steps, collapse into Bono, break his other arm, and probably (definitely) ruin the entire film.
From conversations I've had with other DPs and filmmakers of all types, it's a common fear: I'm just one step away from disaster. Usually, this is meant in a more figurative, less literal sense: we wrestle with doubts about our own competence, with the idea that people will discover that we don't have all the answers, and we will be revealed as frauds. "I thought you were a DP!"
Early in my career, whenever I felt this fear rising up inside me--maybe because a shot wasn't working, or we were running way behind schedule, or I'd made my crew move a light back and forth one too many times--my instinct was to act as if nothing was wrong, to never admit that I needed some help. To fake it. To do whatever was necessary to convince everyone that I had it under control.
As I continued in my career, however, I began to find myself attracted more and more to the filmmakers who did admit when they needed help, who weren't afraid to say (on set, no less!) "actually, I'm not sure what to do right now." These filmmakers were not only more pleasant to work with, but their attitude created an environment where people felt safe to participate in the process, and to engage creatively in the task at hand without fear. There was a base of gentleness and humility that permeated their sets, unaffected by the ever-present anxiety and excitement of a film shoot, and these qualities often went hand-in-hand with truly excellent work.
As the DP for this project, I was part of a small team of people tasked with the challenge of creating a quiet space that would foster an intimate conversation between a globally respected theologian and a transcendent pop icon, with cameras rolling. Easy, right? Since this would be the first time I'd ever filmed such a conversation (hah!), I didn't know where to begin; and as the shoot approached, it became clear that the complex calculus of schedules, access, and budget wouldn't allow us to scout the location ahead of time or bring much in the way of grip and lighting equipment. We'd need to make a lot of last-minute decisions with some very tight limitations and little margin for error. In other words, it was the perfect opportunity to practice the same gentleness and humility that I'd grown to appreciate in other filmmakers (right??).
...don't trip, don't trip, don't trip...
A few hundred feet from the shore of Flathead Lake, and maybe three feet behind Bono, we reached the landing at the bottom of the steps. I moved around to Bono's right to capture a wide shot of him greeting Jan and Eugene at the front door, a move I'd choreographed ahead of time with the other camera operators, Zach Whiteside and Tim Grant, and the sound engineer, Michael McQueen. It was our first stab at working together as a team, and our only shot at capturing the long-awaited reunion between these three friends. And it worked. It wasn't perfect, but we got it.
Now, over a year later, it's encouraging to watch the film and see that our work resulted in something honest. I've had a number of people ask me, "what was it like to be in the same room as Bono and Eugene??" The best answer I can give is, "just watch the film." Nathan Clarke, the director and editor, together with David Taylor, the producer, ignored the pressure to exploit Bono's celebrity or overemphasize Eugene's renown. Instead, they allowed the film to be something quiet, close, and genuine.
As a crew, we certainly felt the pressure of the moment, but the calm nature of the interaction between Bono and Eugene would also describe the way we--the crew--interacted with each other on set. I'm happy to watch the film now and know that we were able to approach the gentleness and humility I've admired in other filmmakers, and to see how this way of making films had such a positive influence on the final product. Because what you see in the film is what we experienced together in Montana: a quiet, intimate reunion of friends.
The film's director, Nathan Clarke, has written more about the production of the film here
The film's producer, David Taylor, has shared his thoughts on the friendship between Bono and Eugene Peterson here