Kenneth Bi, writer/director, and Sam Koa, the cinematographer.
As the writer, I create the arc and flow of the story, while as the director, my job is to visualize the film and break the script down to filmable elements. These elements will be the film’s own language.
For me, the most important part of directing is the word “direction,” i.e. where the film is going and what is the approach to telling the story. It is setting up the world the film inhabits. The word the “world” may be too conceptual. Does it mean the world the characters inhabit or the world the director creates through his/her fantasies? If the film takes place in a middle class household in the U.S., isn’t the “world” already taken care of? Yes and no. The world of the middle-class can be light and warm (as in The Holiday), underneath the niceties lurk dark secrets and thoughts (The Ice Storm, Blue Velvet), or even encompass a “world” perspective such as Babel.
The Drummer in particular is a film about worlds. These different worlds are part of the unspoken elements of the story. My film begins in the city and then moves into an austere mountain setting and I had to determine how to maneuver between these two worlds. It was not just a matter of aesthetics but also a matter of how to tell the story. The way I chose to do it was to focus on the main character, Sid. We (the camera) move according to how he feels. At the beginning, with turmoil in the city, Sid’s rebelliousness, betrayals, violence, etc., the camera is handheld, documentary like…
Then Sid enters the beautiful and extraordinary mountain world of the Zen drummers. The conventional way of shooting this mountain setting would be beautiful and composed framing with stylish track shots. But as I had decided that the camera would reflect the protagonist’s emotions, handheld was again used to follow this emotionally unstable young man from his gangster world into his initial contact with the mystical drummers. It allows a greater sense of reality and gives the drummers authenticity. They were allowed to be themselves and behave naturally. This technique borders on a documentary feel where we almost seem to be peering into their world. Since we do not often encounter people like them in real life I wanted the audience to feel, through the use of this technique, that these are credible people and not fantasies of some ancient Chinese culture.
With passing time and story development, the camera emotes Sid’s shifting internal state and imperceptibly becomes stable. The framing becomes more and more composed as the character matures and sees the world with a wider and a more sober perspective.
This proved to be a great challenge during the shoot. For the first two weeks of the shoot in Taiwan we could only get our hands on an Arri 535A. The camera is very heavy, weighing around 45 lbs (20.5 Kg). Later we did get hold of a slightly lighter Arri 535B (35 lbs, 15.8 kg).
The cinematographer, Sam Koa, who doubled as the camera operator (common in Asia) always had to wear a back brace. Even without movement, just standing in place with the camera on his shoulder was a tiring and trying undertaking. With movement added to it, his back had to endure even more work. Early on in the shoot, we had a shot where the camera followed the feet of an actor down a corridor and as he opens the door, the camera rises up to his hip level and continues to follow him into the room with pans and tilts. Everyone on the set could sense the cinematographer’s pain as we repeated this long and laborious shot over and over again. Sam had to bend his back to hold the camera and walk backwards with it, then pick it up to the hip level and change angles steadily. In the midst of all this movement he also had to look into the viewfinder to see the shot.
Sam Koa, the cinematographer, doubles as the camera operator while his focus puller and 2nd assistant camera stay close.
I chipped in to help when Sam needed a break from operating the camera.
Before the shoot began Sam had prepared a contraption that became very useful. The rig was specifically designed to take the weight off of the operator while maintaining the handheld effect. It proved to be most valuable when the camera was loaded with heavy long lenses. The rubber bands attached to the camera allowed the camera to move and bounce as if it were being handheld. It would have been nearly impossible to carry the camera and the long lenses on one’s shoulder. This way we were able to achieve our documentary look relatively easily and painlessly.
We had specific designs on when the camera would be handheld and when it would be set on a tripod. I was very happy that the concept worked. The life of the camera changed gradually and imperceptibly from tumultuous and unsettling to calm and composed.
Aside from the visual language, another important aspect to direction is directing the actors who will bring the characters to life. Next, I will be talking about the rehearsal process with our actors.