Gregory Crewdson is a photographer whose work reworks the American suburb into a stage set for the inexplicable, disconcerting and often disturbing. In creating what he calls ‘frozen moments’, he has developed a process akin to the making of a feature film. Operating on an epic scale, he uses a large crew to shoot and then develop the images during post-production. Every detail of his images is meticulously planned and staged. Ben Shapiro is a filmmaker, producer and director whose projects and collaborations have received many awards – including the Peabody, duPont-Columbia, American Film Institute, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights – and three Emmys. He has worked on documentary projects for TV networks and broadcasters including HBO, PBS and Channel 4. His film, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, follows Crewdson over a 10-year period while he photographed his iconic project, Beneath the Roses.
Ben Shapiro: The first shoot I did with Gregory was back in 2000, when I was working for the Public Broadcast Service (PBS) series, EGG. It was an arts programme, and PBS had commissioned me to make a number of short films on a number of artists. One of them turned out to be Gregory, but I didn’t really know about him before that. So I went to one of his sets and filmed him. Then in 2003 I was commissioned to make a half-hour film about him for another television channel. It was at that point, when he was shooting his Twilight series, that we got to know each other and he understood how I represented his work. So I suggested that we just keep on filming and he was really open and supportive of the idea. I wasn’t sure where it would take us, but I knew that he was interesting and that his process was interesting also, and very visual. His process is a visual thinking process writ large. Because he is physically constructing everything, you get to see him making decisions in real time. That interested me right away.
Grant: Was his cinematic vision also part of the allure of the project?
Ben: Absolutely. The way he worked was unique and on such a scale; no one else was working in the way he was. I started filming early on in the Beneath the Roses series, and he had just started working on a very large scale. You have to go on a Crewdson set to see how amazing they are. I remember going on my first Beneath the Roses shoot and they had erected scaffolding all around the second floor of this house, just so that they could light the second floor from outside, and they were using big HMIs. Inside the house they had removed part of one floor and partly deconstructed the house. It was amazing.
Grant: As a filmmaker, how did it feel going into an environment more appropriate for a Hollywood movie production than the production of a single still image?
Ben: It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen and, like you say, it does resemble a film set. On a film, during the course of a day, you’ll run through a number of different set-ups. However, with Gregory there’s usually one day of setup and one full day of shooting: so it’s even more particular and focused on this one shot he wants to achieve.
Grant: What were you hoping to achieve with the Crewdson project?
Ben: That’s a good question. Well, I was hoping to make a film [laughs]. I hoped that a film would come out of it.
Grant: But what kind of a film?
Ben: That’s another good question. I have always been interested in process: how things get done and how creative people do things. So I knew right away that I was going to be focusing on Gregory’s process in as detailed a way as I could; that was part of the challenge for me. I produced, directed and shot all of this movie. I work as a one-man band most of the time.
Grant: Sometimes there can be an interaction between the filmmaker and the subject when working with fellow creatives; other times the film can be more observatory and created at arm’s length.
Ben: I think this film was in-between those two approaches. I think that one of the strengths of the film is that there is a certain kind of intimacy to my interaction with Gregory: both in terms of proximity and access. The movie contains interviews with him and extended sequences on set as he’s creating a picture, and in those sequences he gave me total access. So I wasn’t like a traditional film crew. It was more a case of: “There’s Ben with his video camera again.” So I think you become part of the scenery of the set; the camera is very close to him.
Grant: I can imagine that he is someone who is very obsessed with controlling detail. Did he try or want to add his own art direction to your film?
Ben: He is, but he had enough on his plate creating his own pictures to get too art involved in how my film looked or came together. The logistical and creative challenges involved in creating his images are substantial, and I don’t think he had any energy left to try and control situations for me to film. He was aware of me, but he wasn’t changing anything on my behalf.
Grant: Did Gregory’s process of working and seeing inform your process of filmmaking as the project progressed?
Ben: Certainly the visual style of his work had an impact on me. As a documentary filmmaker I’m always thinking about the things that documentary filmmakers are thinking about. You know: are you getting the elements you need to allow you to tell the story later on in the editing room? You’re thinking first of all: “How can I get the strongest image that is going to tell the story?” “What is the story that’s unfolding in front of me?” “Where should the camera be to tell that story?” Also, in my case, I’m thinking: “Is this a good time to engage with Gregory?” There are a number of times in the film where he will just turn to me and we just start talking. I’m interacting with him on set while he’s working and you have to get that right. Those are always your concerns as a documentary filmmaker but, although I always want a film to look good, working around Gregory raised the beauty bar for me. His pictures are beautiful, luscious and painterly; meticulously composed and lit. I wanted my images to achieve a little bit of that quality; or at least as much as I could.
Grant: It’s an aesthetic balancing act though isn’t it, between being informed by Crewdson’s photography and the final film looking like a Gregory Crewdson film?
Ben: Yeah, but I was always aware that it was going to be echoing and never achieving, because I don’t have the means to achieve what he does. Someone asked me about this the other day, because there are a number of images in the film in which I deliberately tried to evoke the quality of his images. Having thought about it, I tried to evoke the world of his pictures. There are certain settings of his pictures and emotional tones and compositional devices he uses and in my film I tried to echo those.
Grant: I often feel a sense of suspended narrative in Gregory’s images and, having seen your film, I feel that on a number of occasions you were able to take that narrative and evolve and expand upon it through the nature of the moving image.
Ben: That’s interesting. I’ve thought a lot about the difference between cinema and photography during the course of this project, and I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things unique about Gregory’s pictures is that, visually, they obviously contain aspects of both photography and cinema: and he and I have spoken about this. When you look at a photograph from 1932, you look at it and realise that it’s from the past. Photography is, in that sense, about remembering the past and something that happened in a particular moment in time. Whereas, if you look at a film that was made in 1932, because you engage in this willing suspension of disbelief as a viewer, you forget that it is old and just get involved with the narrative. I feel that it’s the same with Gregory’s pictures. You do engage with a willing suspension of disbelief in the same way that you do when you look at a movie.
Grant: Isn’t that the link between photography and filmmaking? That both of them require a strong sense of narrative.
Ben: Right, right. There is also something else which is interesting that happens in the movie, which I have only just become aware of watching it for the first time with an audience. When you go from my shots of a setting to his stills of the same scene, his stills are so different from what I show. When you see his stills you enter his world. My movie is so much about the process, but when you see his stills you forget about that process.
Grant: He’s kind of creating stills from movies that will never be made.
Ben: He doesn’t think about it that way. He sees himself as a photographer. He doesn’t see them [his stills] as being part of a story. He doesn’t think about the before or after: where the characters have been or are going. He is only interested in this one particular moment. He’s not interested in creating stills from a movie that will never be made, because he wouldn’t even know what that movie would be. He’s not interested in being a filmmaker. He’s had many people come to him over the years asking him and encouraging him to work on movies, and he’s very clear in stating that he is a photographer who’s interested in photography; he doesn’t want to work with the concerns filmmakers have to work with.
Grant: That’s very interesting, because his images would suggest that he is only a small step away from being a filmmaker and yet, from what you say, he is the furthest step away.
Ben: That’s very true, and I think that’s what’s very curious about his work and what makes him so very interesting. The work is betwixt and between so many modes that people are familiar with. People know photography; they know cinema. Yet he combines elements of both in a way which is both, yet neither. I think that is intriguing and interesting. He’s trying a third way of looking.
Grant: What was his response to the film when he saw it?
Ben: His first take was that he was shocked to sit and watch someone tell the story of his life in such close detail for an hour and a half: and I totally understand that. The film does tell his life story. It was funny watching it with him and his assistant. They had forgotten things that had happened on shoots – some of which had happened up to 10 years ago – which they really responded to.
Grant: After 10 years of filming, how did you reach a point when you knew that the filming was complete and should end?
Ben: I can tell you exactly when it finished: when Gregory decided that he wasn’t going to make any more Beneath the Roses photographs. I’d done a series of big sit-down interviews with him over the years. One of these took place after he finished Beneath the Roses, and he talked about being done with those pictures during the interview. After the interview was over my cameraman turned to me, we looked at each other, and I said: “I guess now we have an ending to the movie.” I was getting to the point where I thought I was done, but I wasn’t sure, so when that happened I knew that was the end. I edited the film on and off between other work: in total, I guess, for a couple of years. Now that it’s finished and being seen, I have been a little startled, but pleased, at the large amount of attention and interest it’s been getting. I completely self-funded the project, but because I did everything myself and I owned the kit, that was not too much of an issue: although, I had some European television presales which helped fund the post-production. It premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW), and I only finished the colour correct two weeks before that, so it’s really new; but I appreciate the buzz around it and hope it will have a good life. There was something very special about this project. A lot of documentaries about creatives are made after they have created a major body of work. But my experience with Gregory was that I was there while the major body of work was being created, and that’s what you see in the film. I am, of course, interested in making other films, but I do kind of wonder if that was a ‘lightning strikes’ kind of situation.
Grant: Thanks for sparing the time to talk.
Ben: Happy to. It’s been interesting.
© Grant Scott 2012
Beneath The Roses: Gregory Crewdson and Russell Banks.