“The Method” used to refer to one thing: acting. But there are more methods than meet the eye in current filmmaking, and technology has made it possible.
In Drake Doremus’ lovely, bittersweet “Like Crazy”—likely the only movie to draw its title from the name of a chair—his contemporary post-collegiate lovers, designer Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and British aspiring writer Anna (Felicity Jones) make a choice, deliberate and reckless, that will wind up keeping them apart. Technology, from a remove of nine hours or so, keeps them together, but life, and international law, keeps them apart.
Yelchin and Jones’ performances are improvised from an outline and a few weeks of rehearsal, and the story seems almost eavesdropped upon. It’s a strong contrast from older “methods.” “My Week With Marilyn” (opening November 23) draws its dramatic conflict from how Marilyn Monroe had to be coaxed into a performance by immersion in the Stanislavski Method. And Mike Leigh’s decades-tested method, like peeling an onion, is to start with an idea as small as a sentence—”Life is Sweet”: how do we primally conflate food and love?—and then spend months accruing detail with his actors. Chicago’s Second City has been a fount of performers over the decades, but local filmmakers, like Joe Swanberg, are just discovering devised improvisation as a method.
Los Angeles improv group The Groundlings has nurtured the comedy chops of dozens of performers including Jennifer Coolidge, Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, Melissa McCarthy and Conan O’Brien. But performance and technology meet in the hands of a literal offspring of the Groundlings approach. “Like Crazy” director Doremus’ mother, Cherie Kerr, is a founding member of the group. As the press kit puts it, “Doremus has been directing and performing improv since he was 12.”
There’s a gift. But technology is also a key component. Now that shooting on high definition is the norm, more and more directors take advantage in different ways. Mega-disaster man Roland Emmerich brags on how many millions he saved on “Anonymous,” a studio production, using digital equipment in all stages of the process. (He says he’ll never shoot film again.) Even while shooting “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” on location in Sweden at specific locations that author Stieg Larsson had haunted and described (and haunts again after his death), David Fincher creates atmosphere on soundstages to his imagination’s specifications, creating locations in front of green screens that do not exist at all, except in a photorealistic flow of megapixels.
That’s still old school. The format-happy directing duo Neveldine/Taylor, who made the “Crank” movies and the upcoming “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” have put junk cameras on rocket sleds, and have joked that they want to make the first 3D feature for theatrical release shot on two iPhones held together with gaffer’s tape. But on “Like Crazy,” cinematographer-camera operator John Guleserian shot on even smaller scale, handheld, with a modified Canon 7D DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera (about $1,500 each). What does this offer the actors and a young practitioner of the dark arts of romantic drama, working with a camera the size and shape that speaks “camera,” light enough to always carry around (like many photographers do)?
Speaking informally to Yelchin recently about the ease of performance and the intimacy caught for the editing room afforded by the small cameras, he added, “Mike Figgis,” noting one of the earliest digital-adopters, from whom Guleserian had copped a trick, placing the smaller camera inside a rig built from a steering wheel for added stability. (Technology + Innovation = Profit!)
“Like Crazy” doesn’t feel tossed off, but instead edited from a thousand fleeting thoughts, of fleeing sensations of desire that come from both the first romantic flushes of love but also from the darker sensations of disappointment. It’s a winning method: The camera’s long takes, the director’s working from an outline and several weeks of rehearsal about subject and intent and dramatic thrust, but not specific words, gave Doremus hundreds of hours in the editing room, and the story builds from there. From their first date, where a pillar divides the table and the camera looks at one, then the other, less like a voyeur or a spy, but rather one of their better angels seeking out a better angle. It’s Jones’ overbite peeking out just so, or their bare feet curling against one another once more. It’s a flicker of want on her face or a sudden transformation into confusion by Yelchin. They’re building blocks of uncommon intimacy. What it is, in essence, is technology allowing technology to get out of the way, so the actors forget about them, a method like what we all go through in a given day. Surrounded by cell-phone cameras, surveillance cameras and that one person, if you’re lucky, who loves you and captures that one sweet ineffable moment in flight that is somehow the essence of happiness and all you can do is smile when you’re handed the camera to look at the image on the screen. That’s part of the bittersweet beauty of “Like Crazy,” feeling timeless yet also of the moment, of moments like that.
“Like Crazy” opens Friday at Landmark Century.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.