I was so pleased that during her busy Tribeca Film Festival debut with Below Dreams, fellow New Yorker, Garrett Bradley, took the time to sit with me and discuss her first feature film. Stemming from a New York Times article that Garrett read years back, Below Dreams is a poetic portrayal of lost, yet fighting, souls trapped in the deficiencies of today’s society. Garrett took audio recordings on trips she made between New York and New Orleans, meeting young men and women who opened up to her about their life experiences, and used those recordings as a blueprint to write her script. Casting her entire film on Craigslist and shooting with a tiny, seven person crew, Garrett has proven that with talent, perseverance, passion, love, and lots of hard work, one can make a film if one truly desires it. Garrett approached her film prepared in research and application, yet remained completely spontaneous in realization. She kept an open discourse with her cast and crew, and was able to create a beautiful work of art.
Below Dreams is a contemporary return to a somewhat lost independent film movement that was so prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. Garrett Bradley presents a film that is grounded in poetry, yet socially relevant, and full of compassion. The story cuts between three main characters and their surrounding friends and family, on individual missions and journeys in their lives to reach their dreams, whether finite, immense, immediate, or in the distant future. Elliott (Elliott Ehlers), Jamaine (Jamaine Johnson), and Leanne (Leanne Miller) carry us through their search for a better life for themselves and their loved ones. As the film progresses, we will see their growth and witness the changes that they have made to try and reach their goals. Bradley places the spectator right in the middle of the action, revealing a true part of these people’s lives.
My compliments go to Garrett for having the courage to make the film she wanted, despite the difficulties she faced in all stages of production, and for creating a harmonious mix between art and social commentary. I hope that filmgoers see this film, as I believe it to be vital in returning to a cinema that matters, a cinema that takes responsibility for its characters, for honesty in its emotion. In our contemporary business and result- driven society, Below Dreams is crucial in understanding, and at the least confronting, the problems today’s youth face.
Agnolucci: When and why did you realize that you had to tell THIS story?
Bradley: When the New York Times article came out, which was called “What is it about these Twenty Somethings?” It spoke about these gorgeous people that had great educations who weren’t able to get jobs. At that point I realized that there could be a more diversified image of what this meant. Like my generation, the subjectivity of history, and the way we see the past, is just based on the iconography that is presented. As an artist, I felt that I had the responsibility to insert some imagery that I felt was a more diversified and honest view of that.
Agnolucci: We have similar tastes in filmmakers and film. I know you love neorealism, 1970s’ filmmaking, as well filmmakers such as Cassavetes, Agnes Varda, Antonioni, and Schlesinger, to name a few. What attracted you to these artists? What did they leave you with, personally?
Bradley: Each of them left me something different. I think Cassavetes is somebody who has a real fierceness in his work. But I think they, if I were to give you a more global answer in terms of what I take from all of them, have a real fingerprint in their work. The work they create stands individually. There is a real fingerprint there. Whether it’s the same kind of work that I do, it’s inspiring, because it’s unique in and of itself.
Agnolucci: It seems to me that you have undergone some of the journeys that your characters have. What visuals, storytelling, and stylistic ways, did you find to convey your personal touch in your film?
Bradley: I had trained myself. I started shooting, when I was sixteen years old, and I made a film at that age that got a little award. It was at that point that I realized that filmmaking was a tool that I could really use to express myself with. So I was self-taught until I went to graduate school, when I was twenty-two. That’s when I learned the real traditions of cinema, and I think that what is in Below Dreams is a real balance of that tradition and formality, but also a more impressionistic expression of how I feel.
Agnolucci: You used several long takes that observed the action and adapted to the characters’ movements. Was this intentional and planned? Did you use this technique in the many shorts you’ve made previously, or was it a consequence of this story?
Bradley: No, I think that it’s really important, and something that I would like to get across with that, is that the length of a scene or the technique of doing a single shot and not cutting is just technique. I’m interested in focusing on what is the message of the scene, what is being said in the scene, what is the emotion that we want to get across, and then how does the technique fit into that. As opposed to it being the other way around. So when we have these really long takes, it isn’t just for the sake of having a really long take. I mean, it’s important that that’s clear, because a lot of people ask that. The reason why those scenes are so long is because I’m waiting till they (the characters/actors) stop talking.
Agnolucci: It seems to me that unity amongst family and friends, as well as their respective separation, are important themes in this film. Traveling can be a solitary activity, yet in this film it is done in the presence of companions. Can you please talk about that?
Bradley: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Companionship is a really important part of this film. I think, it’s because we’re so lost in the world. There is a very small support network; there is nothing that is built into the lives of these characters, with the exception of Elliott. So friendship, and even advice from strangers, is something that happens in the real world, and I think it’s something that lost souls attract.
Agnolucci: We touched upon this a bit, but please tell me about your camera choices in this film, and why you chose to use a handheld camera at times?
Bradley: I wanted to use a handheld camera, because the characters are moving, and we needed to be able to move with them. That was kind of the first real justification for that. It was also that it was more practical: we didn’t really have any money, so we used two handheld cameras, you know. We shot on two cameras, but not in every scene. For me it was a way to feel like the camera was just another person in the room, which was an important part of it. It wasn’t about observing, it was about really being in it, being a part of it.
Agnolucci: I love the jazz and dance scene that’s all cooled out by the creamy blue colors. It reminded me of Cassavetes’ Shadows; of course, that was in black and white, though. The next scene that you cut to had a more tribal and angelic sound with hotter color tones. Was this an editing/post-production choice? Tell us about the editing process.
Bradley: The editing process was difficult; I spent about two years in my bedroom cutting the film. I had a lot of different options; we had so much content, and I had a lot of different directions that I could go with it. I really wanted to experiment with new visual aesthetics, new ways of engaging with film, and the best way that I could do that, I thought, was to use things that were traditionally mistakes. For instance, when the camera drops down for a minute, or when the camera pans to the left when the shot’s over. I made a conscious choice to leave those things in, because I felt that it showed this interconnectedness of space. I could have cut that stuff out and kept a really slick film, but I wanted to see what it was like to not do that.
Agnolucci: I loved the way you showed people, animals, and objects in your film, especially how you shot certain short takes from above. Did you work with the cameramen to set up the shots, or did you let them do their thing? Did you storyboard?
Bradley: Yeah, we did storyboard a little bit. I come from a photography background. Concert photography is what I did to make money for a really long time. So I actually work on developing the script in the same way that I work with the cinematographer in developing the visual landscape. That was extremely important to me. I shot a lot of stuff on my own, and then showed it to both of the cinematographers, so that we had a real understanding of the approach, of what it’s going to look like, and how the camera is going to function. We did a lot of rehearsals. We shot about one month of rehearsals with the camera. We also rehearsed for six months with the actors but without the camera. We shot the film in fourteen days.
Agnolucci: Your film has many slices- and beautiful moments of life in it, and it actually looks like a documentary, which is a compliment in my eyes. How do you work with actors? How do you make them feel so comfortable with you?
Bradley: I think that every story and collaboration is going to be different. In this particular case, I think that I was able to relate to each of those three characters in a special way that was connected to my own background. I grew up with a single mom, and I’m also a woman, obviously, so connecting with Leanne was something that felt very natural to me, and I think that she could sense that and trusted me. I think that working with Jamaine, also being a person of color, was something that he kind of inherently trusted as well. It was also because we talked a lot about that. That was a part of our dialogue: what does it mean to be a person of color in the South? Having those candid discussions set up a tone of there’s going to be justice in this, or there’s going to be some kind of advocacy for what it is that we talk about in the work. With Elliott, as well: I come from New York City, I got a good education, and I went to good schools. I have the luxury of taking taxis sometimes, if I need to. You know what I mean? I don’t have tons of money, but I have that option more so than the other two characters. So he and I were also able to speak in a really realistic way, of how does class play a role in our lives? I think that that’s important for any director, and think that it’s vital for entities that support filmmakers to support different kinds of filmmakers, because that means that we’re going to see different kinds of films. In that case the direction will come in a way that feels more interesting and not just the same thing over and over again.
Agnolucci: What camera(s) or format(s) did you shoot on?
Bradley: We shot on two Canon 7D cameras. We used CP.2 Zeiss Lenses, which are really expensive and made of fancy glass.
Agnolucci: The funeral home director was terrific in your film. Where did you find him?
Bradley: I used to work for him in a funeral home in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
Agnolucci: Leanne, played by Leanne Miller, told us what she cared about. What do you, Garrett Bradley, care about?
Bradley: I care about other people. I care about the direction that the field I’m in is going. I care about making work that is going to push the medium that I’m in.
Agnolucci: Please list five films that have influenced you as a filmmaker, and in life, and changed the way you perceived a film to be made?
Bradley: Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Zabriskie Point, Nashville, and Shadows.
Agnolucci: Did you mic the actors individually for the scooter scene, and just roll beside them in a moving car to capture the fluid footage?
Bradley: Yeah, we just had a van with the door open. They were riding, and we were as well, with the van door open, while we were tied up with rope around us, so we didn’t move about. We just drove with them.