The Many Muses of Asiel Norton
By Jennifer Kushner / Director of Artist Development
The relationship between filmmakers and cameras is a little like that between lungs and air: you really need the latter for the former to work. Which is why we’re so excited to announce the first winner of our Canon Filmmaker Award: writer/director Asiel Norton with his mythical, post-apocalyptic film Orion.
Asiel received a complimentary package that included two Canon EOS C300s and an assortment of lenses for the duration of his production. One week into Orion‘s Detroit shoot, Artist Development Director Jennifer Kushner had the opportunity to chat with Asiel and his DP, Lyn Moncrief, about the film. Here’s what the two had to say:
How is production going?
Really good. One week down. We’re excited.
Asiel, what inspired you to tell this story of Orion?
I’ve always been very interested in mythology. I’m really interested in magic and astrology and tarot and all this kind of thing. When I was a kid, my mom was interested in different religions, particularly primitive religions. So, as a kid, I used to go to rain dances and sun dances on Indian reservations. I’ve always been fascinated with the occult and shamanism.
With this particular film, I was driving to Northern California through the grapevine from Los Angeles and I noticed the mountains. Everything was very dry. It looked like the surface on Mars or something. And I thought, ‘Wow, I’d be really interested in doing a post-apocalyptic film, and put it in the grapevine.’ That was a few years ago. Then about a year ago I was reading a book about the legend of Percival, breaking down Percival in terms of psychoanalysis. All this stuff goes into a cauldron in my mind.
Film ideas generally come to me in images. I had an image in my mind at some point about a year ago, or more than a year ago, of a hunter/scavenger character playing cards with Death. But the cards they were playing weren’t normal cards, they were almost like tarot cards, but they weren’t doing tarot readings, they were gambling. And so I had that image, and once I have an image I ask myself questions about it:
Who is this guy and why is he gambling with Death? Who is this death-like shamanistic character? I started thinking about virgin births and I had this image in my mind about this virgin giving birth, but the midwife was a shaman. All this kind of stuff just started coming out and I started connecting these images.
What was involved in the decision to shoot in Detroit?
Before I even had this story in mind, I had the idea of a post-apocalyptic landscape that was more like the dry desert of southern California. Then I started thinking about the Salton Sea area, I thought it would be very interesting to shoot there because of all the dilapidation and all the burned down and weird structures and the dead fish everywhere. I wrote a script with that environment in mind and then we started to think about Utah, which is also a pretty good place to go because of tax incentives.
But on my first script I had a large cityscape at the end and I had just heard about Detroit having a lot of empty buildings and a lot of dilapidation and ruined structures. I had seen amazing photographs of Detroit, so I said, well okay, I’ll just shoot that final scene in Detroit, because I don’t like to go on soundstages. I don’t like to create stuff; I like to go out on location and find that the environment itself becomes a major character, which I did on my first film. So I flew out to Detroit to scout for that final scene and the city just blew me away to such an extent that I said forget it, I’ll just rewrite the film and set the whole thing here. So that’s what I did.
How has it been shooting there?
It’s a little cold here but the actual shooting has been great, incredible locations and the crew has been great, the actors have been great. I think everyone has a really positive attitude and we’re doing it, it’s super exciting.
Is there a certain visual style you’re trying to achieve?
I’m trying to create a look that is mythical, that feels organic and timeless, and that has a certain roughness or grittiness. The city itself is very decomposed and the world in the film is very decomposed. It’s a world of death and rebirth and so the visual style should mirror that. It’s an organic death, but a beautiful death.
With your last film Redland you shot on 35mm. How is the shooting style of Orion similar or different, and how are you using the digital format to support your vision of the film?
Digital is completely different than 35mm. With 35mm, you build your look through filtration and chemical processes so your look is pre-built in, whereas with digital you’re pretty much shooting raw to a large extent and you build your look more in post. I personally still love 35mm but it’s a digital world now; they’re projecting digitally, everything’s digital. It’s where Fuji’s going, Kodak’s going; that’s the future and you have to embrace it. At this point everybody is projecting digital so it becomes almost pointless to shoot on 35mm. You have to find the beauty in digital and make digital beautiful the way film is beautiful.
How is it using the Canon C300 in particular and how is it helping you achieve the look you’re going for?
The C300 is a very small and light camera and you can move very, very fast with it. So that is extremely helpful because we’re shooting a very ambitious project for a low amount of money and the C300, because of its size, allows us to shoot fast. Also, because you’re not dealing with film reels you can afford extremely long takes and don’t have to worry about roll-outs. So you can do super long tracking shots with a C300; on film the longest you get is about eleven minutes.
That kind of thing is really cool, and just the speed at which you can start shooting. If we were to shoot this project on film, the amount of time it would take, I don’t know, 60 days… the camera just allows us to move really, really fast. And the lightness of the camera allows us to go for handheld much more easily.
Are you shooting with two cameras?
We’re doing both: sometimes two cameras and sometimes second unit going out and nabbing other stuff. Sometimes we have the two cameras side by side with two different lenses so we’re, like, okay, let’s use these old Russian anamorphic lenses for this shot and then right away, let’s switch to the macro lens. The macro lens will be on a different camera so we don’t have to wait to switch lenses. Having two cameras allows us to shoot faster, it allows us to shoot more and get more coverage quickly and it also allows us to go out and have a second unit to shoot.
Can you tell me more about the anamorphic lenses you’re using?
Lyn: Yes. In addition to the Canon lenses, we’re using the Lomo roundfront anamorphics. They’re made by Lomo, they’re from the 60s and 70s. I think Lomo still makes them but we chose these ones in particular because of the flaring qualities of them. They have such a unique quality that kind of harkens back to old Eastern European cinema.
Are there visual references, in terms of European cinema or art, that you’re using to inspire yourself?
Asiel: We talked a lot about Tarkovsky, who is one of both of our favorite filmmakers. Obviously Rembrandt and Caravaggio in terms of light, I’m really into Chiaroscuro lighting. Dark shadows and backlighting, that kind of stuff. There’s just so many, too many to name, a lifetime of building a love of images.
Lyn: So we throw it all in a big pot and stir it around and come up with something!
Tell us a bit about your cast.
David Arquette plays the Hunter, Lily Cole plays a virgin mother and Goran Kostic plays a magician-shaman type character. And for the feral young woman we have a first-time actress by the name of Maren Lord.
Since you guys are moving so quickly, do you have time for rehearsals?
It’s sort of a bummer for me, because with Redland I rehearsed a lot, at least a few weeks. But what’s great about this is everybody is such a good actor, they’re coming in and nailing it. I still think rehearsal is important, it’s good to get to know each other, and you can really build layer upon layer and get some interesting discoveries. With Redland I was discovering as I was shooting, for sure, but with this I think it’s even more so because there were no rehearsals.
With Redland, I was very particular about blocking and this is much freer. The camera did to some extent dictate that as well. Everything is way more planned out and structured [with 35mm]. With digital you’re much freer because of the amount of information you can capture, and the lightness of the camera makes it a much freer process. And that has its good side and its bad side. It’s a super exciting way to work, we’re getting a lot of great images. I think it’s going to be a really beautiful film. I’m excited. Everything is coming together.
Thanks you guys. We’re thrilled to have been able to give you this award and good luck with the rest of the shoot!
Asiel Norton, Writer/Director
Asiel Norton was born in a small cabin on Kneeland Mountain in an isolated section of the American Northwest. With no television, limited electricity and water attained from a nearby stream, his family tended sheep, chickens and rabbits. Having no television, his father would take him to the local university a distance away to watch revivals of classic films, giving birth to a life-long passion for movies.
Norton attended the Brooks Institute of Photography, and has worked as a fine arts photographer; in 2004 he graduated from USC School of Cinematic Arts. His first feature film, Redland, premiered in 2009 and traveled the film festival circuit extensively. In 2009, Norton was included in Filmmaker Magazine as one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” and was a 2010 Independent Spirit Award Nominee. Redland received a limited theatrical release in the spring of 2011.
We’re now accepting submissions for the 2012-2013 Canon Filmmaker Award Program until November 26. For more information: filmindependent.org/CanonFilmmakerAward
November 13th, 2012 • No Comments