Reaching for the Moon

September 12, 2019
Kiwi filmmaker Stef Harris continutes to ride the wave with his full length feature Blue Moon, shot on an iPhone for $12,000, starring two of New Zealand’s great character actors, selected for the prestigious New Zealand Film Festival among many others around the world, and now inaugural winner of the SF3 2019 Best Feature Film Award.

‘Horace Jones (Mark Hadlow), near bankrupt petrol station proprietor, foolishly misappropriates stolen drug money believing no one will ever know. Pretty soon his chaotic but safe existence is under threat when gang enforcer Darren Cates (Jed Brophy) arrives on the scene desperate to reclaim the cash. The only trouble is Horace has locked the money in the time-lock safe and they’ll have to wait until 6am to open it. As the two men wait it out Horace realises there’s something horribly familiar about Darren. They both sang in the choir at Christ College forty years ago.’

That’s the official synopsis for Blue Moon,  a new film from New Zealand written and directed by Stef Harris, who we spoke to about the making of this micro-budget feature on an iPhone, ingenuity and a great deal of generosity of spirit from his collaborators.

Why shoot the film on a phone?

Like a lot of would be filmmakers we had been talking about making a feature for a long time. Whenever you get in a discussion with filmmakers, the talk inevitably focuses on money and how difficult it is to get a film financed and green lit for production. Over the years, like everyone else, I’d heard a lot of talk about features shot on iPhones. Mostly when someone would be really frustrated and say, ‘Why don’t we just shoot it on a phone dammit!’ Gradually, I started turning the idea over in my mind and mentioned it to Cinematographer friend Ryan O’Rourke. Ryan did a little research and came up with the plan to use the Moondog Anamorphic lens and Filmic Pro app. He assured me it would look like we shot on Super 16mm, very cinematic. What I said next scared the hell out of Ryan. I said ‘Cool, let’s do that’. Having talked me into it, Ryan felt the full weight of expectation resting on his shoulders. For my part I was very confident he would achieve the result we needed.

Ryan O’Rourke

Can you discuss the advantages and disadvantages of shooting on a phone?

The biggest advantage of shooting iPhone was the cost. That meant as soon as I raised the initial $10,000, I could start saying our new film Blue Moon has a green light and is officially in pre-production. I approached directing the film as a writer first and last. I had a story to tell and in many ways the limitations of the camera were ultimately advantageous. The fact that we were shooting iPhone set the tone and everyone knew we were in a micro-budget production.

We set out to shoot a feature length film in 30 hours over six nights, so we had to move fast. My idea was to keep the camera constantly moving, which was easy to do mounted on a hand-held gimbal which worked as well as any steady-cam. I like to have a dirty frame constantly moving so you have a sense, as an audience, of being a bystander in amongst the action.

We used all the challenges to our advantage. There was no time to light shot by shot, so we simply shrugged and accepted the stark bright neon look of the gas station [location]. Even the exteriors were a single lighting set up. Although we hid eight lights in the clock tower park area disguising them as security and architectural uplights, they were all wired to a single switch. Flick the switch and the park is lit. Simple.

Because we shot in the single location of the gas station, I tried to mix it up, staging scenes in the shop, forecourt, store room, toilet, and office. The iPhone was excellent for jamming into tight corners where a conventional camera just wouldn’t fit.

I really enjoyed the portability of the camera. I hate the traditional pace of filmmaking where everyone’s slouched in chairs in a video village waiting listlessly for an hour while a set of tracks gets laid out. I don’t like the way actors tend to get bored in the long wait between shots and start skylarking and getting out of character. With iPhone, Ryan and I were on our feet the whole time. I could show Ryan my idea to chase an actor down the aisle, and no sooner did I suggest it, he would be doing it. We were shooting as fast as I could read out the next scene. Some of the takes were as long as eight minutes.

Because the camera was so fast, and a lot of that is down to the expertise of Cinematographer Ryan O’Rourke, the actors were fully engaged throughout. No waiting around time. The time pressure on set to finish the film was intense and that duress translated directly into their onscreen performances.  Mark Hadlow and Jed Brophy are two actors at the height of their powers as performers. They needed to carry the majority of the film with an intense ongoing dialogue and their genius is making it sound as if that dialogue is occurring to them as they deliver it. Many people have asked if the dialogue is ad-libbed and I take that as an indication that the performances are coming across fresh and believable.

If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

The biggest thing that would have added value to the film would be more time on set. Long before seeking to up spec any equipment, I would desire more time. Maybe a two week shoot with full days! Wow, imagine that!

What are your influences as a filmmaker, and on this film in particular?

I’ve always been a fan of the Dogme 95 movement of Lars Von Trier, who had a filmmakers manifesto that basically prohibited set construction, props, extraneous sound recording, tripods, lighting, filters, opticals, superficial action and time lapses, and even genres. The upshot of The Dogme movement is that they sought to make the most simple production possible, relying heavily on story and actors’ ability to tell the story.

With any micro budget film, that’s a level playing field because while we can’t compete with Hollywood Studios for stunts, scenery and budget, a well performed emotional story will always captivate an audience.

What inspired this particular film in terms of the story?

Quentin Tarantino said, ‘If you want to make a start in the film business make Reservoir Dogs.’ So that was first and foremost in mind. Blue Moon is my attempt to write a story as captivating as Reservoir Dogs.

Once I got that crime thriller Noir scenario underway in broad terms, I asked myself a more interesting question, ‘what if these two guys were best friends at school’. Then the floodgate opened, and I started unpacking all kinds of stuff that happened between me and my best friend at school – the hormone fuelled love hate rivalry between best mates who envy and admire each other just a little.

Stef framing Jed Brophy

You attracted a great cast for the film, how did they respond to you shooting the film on a phone, and how do you think that their performances may have been influenced by this mode of production?

Writing the story, I was aware of two things: primarily I needed to deliver a story that would beguile an audience onscreen for 90 minutes, and secondly it had to be about two characters the actors could not resist playing. After all, I was going to ask them to work for free. My thinking is that anyone can take a week out of their life to do something dear to their heart. I wanted Mark and Jed to play the roles and I just needed to present them a screenplay that would tempt them to come for the ride.

We all experienced some trepidation about the iPhone, and for this reason we pencilled in a three hour test shoot three months before the production date. I shot a collection of scenes sufficient to cut a promo trailer, and once we saw how good that trailer looked on a big screen, we had proof we were on the right track.

You seem to be making waves with the film overseas, but has it been received at home?

I’m delighted with the reception Blue Moon is having overseas with festivals but I’m still on the lookout for a distributor for our home territory of Australia and New Zealand.

Blue Moon is screening at the SF3, SmartFone Flick Fest in Sydney on Saturday, September 14, 2019. For more information on SF3, head to the website.

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