By Matthew Sorrento.
Finding the right locations was even more important than usual on this film, because the city life within each location would have to tell the story as much as would the dialogue.”
Roger Spottiswoode has had a journeyman’s career. After editing for Sam Peckinpah and others, Spottiswoode co-wrote 48 Hours (1982) in the late 70s before debuting as a director with a slasher film (like Oliver Stone), the Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle Terror Train (1980). Not satisfied with one genre, he soon made action films and thrillers (Under Fire, 1983; Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997), social dramas (And the Band Played On, HBO, 1993), and comedies, including a certain ’90s Sly Stallone vehicle that the actor seemingly can’t get over.
Now, Spottiswoode has returned with the indie Either Side of Midnight, shot completely on location in Manhattan during the quarantine (just after Governor Cuomo lifted the production ban) and now on the festival circuit (Cinequest and Garden State). Film International caught up with Spottiswoode to discuss his new film.
You famously began your career as an editor for Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). In what ways did being an editor help shape your decisions as a director?
For me, editing had been a wonderful place to start learning about telling stories. I was incredibly fortunate to have three very different teachers, Sam Peckinpah, Karel Reisz, and John Bloom.
Sam often told very structured narratives, like Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, and many others, of course, although on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid he worked from Rudy Wurlitzer’s lyrical screenplay about avoiding or confronting one’s fate. Karel, whether it was Isadora or French Lieutenant’s Woman, was immersed in the life of his characters and allowed the stories to follow their needs.
John Bloom was immensely creative and edited a wide variety of films, from Tony Harvey’s Lion in Winter to several of Mike Nichol’s films including Angels in America, Wit, and Charlie’s Wilson’s War.
The editing room is where the final re-write of a script takes place and where one discovers any flaws in the structure of story and characters. What was uncertain while the script was being written is now glaringly clear. Errors can sometimes be corrected by excisions, others must remain or be re-shot. The editing process gives ample time to review and learn about script, direction, and performances, and the perfect place for celluloid education. I learnt the value of extending scenes to help actors become immersed in their characters, while ensuring I would only need small moments, and also the importance of knowing and keeping to the rhythm of the film. A film shot as a three-hour movie may never work at two hours and be too slow at three.
Manhattan and its landscapes and unique features are prominent in your new film. Many scenes appear to be built around the city’s features, like your opening scene in Central Park. Did you have these scenes blocked out prior, during preproduction, or did you decide on framing just before shooting?
Finding the right locations was even more important than usual on this film, because the city life within each location would have to tell the story as much as would the dialogue. I had some help from a very talented friend, Frank Stiefel, who directed the Oscar-winning documentary, Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, and used to live and work in the city. Frank found some magic filming additional material throughout the nights of our first week.
Would you say you had to be flexible with the script, with so many moving parts, on this location shoot? I’d loved to hear about specific scenes.
Either Side is character driven and depends on sustaining and interweaving several sets of tones and moods, in an almost musical fashion. The composer Nick Marks was writing alongside Julie Buckland, the editor, sending us rough drafts of the score as she edited.
I wanted the location for the opening scene to suggest a link to a European past, such as my characters parents’ might have had. That took us to Central Park, and where better to have a picnic, if not in front of the Statue of Alice in Wonderland, the creation of one of the great story tellers, Lewis Carroll?
For future reference, I would strongly suggest not shooting during Covid times if possible. We filmed in the first week Governor Cuomo allowed films crews to start working again. Anyone walking into our shots now wore a face mask.
This film features a number of lesser known actors. Did you find yourself directing them in a different manner than on other productions? Were any especially surprising to you on set?
Before embarking on the film I did wonder whether we would find a really good cast and crew with a limited budget…not a problem at all in Manhattan, as it turned out. We found a very gifted cast from theater and television. The bigger risk was, could one shoot film from one very small white van? Only just.
What’s next after this experience?
I’m hoping to take some of things I’ve learnt recently, about filming with new ultra light equipment with miniature cameras and almost no light, and tell a story set in 17th century Italy.
Matthew Sorrento is Co-editor of Film International and teaches film studies at Rutgers University-Camden.