There is no guaranteed road to Sundance. Generally speaking, it’s not necessarily a goal that filmmakers start out with anyway. Films mostly begin with the same ingredients and underpinnings, so there is no telling what films will capture the interest of the Sundance programmers in a particular year.
While Sundance wasn’t on the minds of the people behind “The Overnight,” the film did receive its premiere in the U.S. Dramatic category at what is still considered one of the most important film festivals in the world. Written and directed by Patrick Brice, “The Overnight” is a small comedy that stars Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman, Adam Scott and Judith Godrèche, and was executive produced by Mark Duplass and Scott. It follows the story of a chance meeting between two couples whose evening together takes a few unexpected and quirky turns.
While Brice’s story and direction are at the heart of this movie, it took a talented crew, including cinematographer John Guleserian, to bring his vision into being. The movie is an intimate affair; mainly four actors and one location, but most filmmakers will tell you that this sort of shooting brings its own challenges compared to a much larger production.
After abandoning a short lived career as an ice cream truck driver, the technical minded Guleserian attended Columbia College in Chicago, and then the American Film Institute (AFI). It had always been his goal to be a DP; he knew that attending Columbia College gave him the best chance at attending AFI, and subsequently, AFI would give him the best chance at a career in the film industry.
“It was super difficult,” Guleserian said of attending AFI. “It’s the most immersive film school, I think. You’re not even allowed to work while you’re there. You just have to be…AFI, every single day. That’s all you do (laughs).”
Guelserian has been working steadily as a cinematographer for several years. His credits include TV series such as “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” as well as the features “Like Crazy,” “About Time,” and “Before We Go.”
It was through Guleserian’s wife Theresa that he came to work with Brice on “The Overnight.” She had been working as a production designer with Mark Duplass on HBO’s “Togetherness” and “The Overnight” was going to be Duplass’ next project (as well as Theresa’s). Duplass asked Guleserian if he wanted to read the script and to meet Brice. Guleserian and Brice then spent the next few weeks hanging out, watching movies, shot listing, and developing a sort of film shorthand together that would serve them well on the shoot. On a set like “The Overnight,” the role of cinematographer takes on an added dimension, as there is more of a chance for not only collaboration but experimentation.
“I think we both came to it with our own ideas and our own tastes and things that we like,” Guleserian said. “And a lot of those cross over a lot and I think we just discussed it for a really long time. We talked about what would be the best way to do it. And for me I think the planning part of making a movie is really the most exciting part of making a movie. I’m really, really prepared whenever I go into anything. I like to make sure that we have references and ideas of how we’re going to do things which then turn into shot lists and always knowing where the camera is going to be. And always knowing what your next step is while you’re making a movie is the best way to do it.”
For Guleserian, the scale of the project doesn’t matter so much as long as you bring the right energy and ideas to the set. And in relation to feeling any added pressure because it’s only the actors and a camera—as opposed to effects and big set pieces to distract an audience on a big budget production—he thinks that shooting a smaller movie can be freeing.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure involved,” he said. “I think it’s liberating in a way. I operated the A camera on this and we also had a B camera most of the time. Especially in a small situation like this it just sort of frees you up to experiment with different things and to be creative and to take risks, to try new things.”
The philosophy of Brice and Guleserian on “The Overnight” was to allow the actors to use whatever space they had without conforming to hitting marks or thinking that they had to nail a series of takes and re-takes the exact same way. And given that two of the stars of the movie are Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman, this completely makes sense.
“What we wanted to do on this was to give them the freedom to move around as much as they wanted,” Guleserian said. “I think that when you’re doing such an intimate movie like this it’s nice to come in and let the actors say, ‘I would be over here for this part and then I’d move over here and probably do this.’ And then it becomes a discussion between all of us. ‘Maybe this would be better for lighting,’ or ‘Maybe this would be better for performance,’ or maybe Patrick would have a specific action that he thought would really be funny, or something that he thought would tell the story better. And then we would sort of let it be kind of free. In most of the work that I do I like to avoid putting marks down for actors unless it’s really, really necessary. Having to tell someone to stand right here on this X isn’t really helping them do their job.
When talk turned to equipment (as it does with most filmmakers), Guleserian felt that his choice of the cameras he used not only gave him and Brice the results they wanted for the film look-wise, but also in the ease of use and setup.
“We used Canon C500s [Canon Cinema EOS C500], as well as a 5D Mk. III and a GoPro for some underwater stuff,” Guleserian said. “They’re [the Canons] very manageable in any situation which is great. A lot of the camera was on our shoulder, hand-held, so you can scale it up for that, so that it’s the right size and configuration. And also if you need to cram yourself into the backseat of a car you can scale it down for that as well.”
When asked if he can sense when something is really working or will turn out a certain way, Guleserian paused. It doesn’t seem that it can be as simple as the cast and crew enjoying what they are doing or that the shoot is going well.
“I think you have to wait and see what happens. I think you know when something is clicking and something has chemistry and it will be good or bad. I don’t think you’d know, ‘Oh, this movie is going to be at Sundance,’ I don’t think you can ever say that.”
In the end, filmmakers are at the mercy of a lot of things. All projects (well, most of them, anyway) start out with the best intentions, even if they don’t all have the same goals. You may not be able to predict if a movie will end up at Sundance, but “The Overnight,” with Brice’s script and direction, a cast with a strong background in comedy, and a cinematographer like Guleserian that gives a damn, it had a better chance than some.
“A lot of movies can have the right ingredients, or at least seem to have the right ingredients for that, but you don’t know what they’re [Sundance programmers] going to be thinking that year,” he said. “And with this one, I don’t think that we really did think that because it is a comedy and it’s a very light hearted fun movie. So we weren’t necessarily thinking it was going to end up at Sundance. I think we knew that it had a magic to it, it had a chemistry to it, but you never really know what’s going to happen.”