It takes a brave filmmaker to completely change their entire process of working and do something completely different after three movies, but that’s exactly what Scott McGehee (right in photo) and David Siegel (on the left) did when they set about making their new movie Uncertainty. The New York based film is essentially two movies in one, following a couple played by Joseph Gordon Levitt and Lynn Collins who can’t decide what to do on the 4th of July, so they flip a coin, run to opposite sides of the Brooklyn Bridge and end up experiencing two distinctly different stories. On the Manhattan side of the bridge, the couple find a cell phone in Chinatown, which puts them on the run from those who want it back, and in Brooklyn, they spend a quieter day with her family, trying to decide how to break the news of her pregnancy.
Some may remember McGehee and Siegel from the critical attention Tilda Swinton got from starring in their 2001 adaptation of Elisabeth Holding’s The Deep End; their 2005 follow-up based on the novel Bee Season didn’t have quite the same impact. What makes Uncertainty so different is that McGehee and Siegel developed the characters and the dialogue with the actors, allowing most of the scenes to develop from rehearsals and improvisations. It’s an interesting technique, similar to the one used by Soderbergh for The Girlfriend Experience and Lynn Shelton for her movie Humpday.
ComingSoon.net met with the duo at the City Bakery in Chelsea to talk more about the process they used to make their new film.
ComingSoon.net: Last time I spoke to you guys was for “Bee Season,” and this seems like a very different movie–it’s improvised and all shot on location–so what got you started down the road to do something that’s so different from your previous movies?
David Siegel: We were trying to make another film, just before we wrote this. It’s called “Baby Baby,” it’s a much bigger budgeted funny baby heist film set in Turkey, and we couldn’t get it off the ground. There were different casting configurations that came together and money came together and didn’t come together and we couldn’t get it off the ground. We were pretty frustrated by it, and we decided to put it on the shelf and give it a rest and we started thinking about trying to write something that we were confident we could raise the money for, a very small film. We started playing around with ideas about indecision and uncertainties and things that caused roadblocks for us in a way or maybe caused diversions, and that’s sort of what gave rise to the idea of “Uncertainty.” Part of that also was wanting to make something in a way that we’ve never made before, wanting to make something kind of looser and freer in a way that we’ve never made something. We wrote the script, and it’s a fully fleshed-out script but without the dialogue, and that’s what we workshopped with the actors for about a month before we shot. What we did with Joe and Lynn principally was rehearsed scenes from their life that would never be in the movie just to create a history for them.
CS: You had some idea what the general story would be, though.
Siegel: The script was fully worked out. It was beat-to-beat, scene-to-scene…
Scott McGehee: Plot-wise.
Siegel: It was only the dialogue that wasn’t there, but even within the scenes, what the nature of the conversation was in the script but the specific dialogue wasn’t in the script.
CS: When you see this movie, you’d assume that you guys had two different ideas and couldn’t decide which one to pursue. Is that at all the case or was the idea to always have two stories going at once there from the get-go?
McGehee: It was always a matter of wanting to do a movie that was in two parts. The idea of making a movie around the theme of uncertainty and that the movie would start with the flip of a coin on a bridge and our two characters would run in two opposite directions into two versions of a story that was from the beginning. That was the agenda we had set out for ourselves when we first started working on this particular story.
CS: Was it important to make them very different types of stories?
Siegel: That was sort of the idea is that they would be kind of opposing kinds of days for the two characters.
McGehee: Days where completely different things would happen, where you’d get a really different rhythm and a different sense of who the people are. That those two versions of these character would reflect on each other.
CS: I wondered about the casting. I think Joe is kind of a given because he’s done a lot of really great independent films, but how did you come up with him and Lynn to do this together. I read that you found them at the same time?
McGehee: It’s true. We started a very open-ended casting process here in New York, working with Terry Barden. We had never made a film in an improvisational style, and we knew that we needed a special kind of actor who would be good at that kind of work, so we had an improvisational audition where the actors were given an idea of a scene and we brought them in pairs and worked things out with them in the room, just to see how it was working without a script. We started that process fairly early on, and it was a real learning experience for David and I, because we really started understanding what the process of working this way was going to be like in the audition process. We got to know a lot of great actors, but we weren’t seeing exactly what we felt we needed I think, and we took a quick trip to L.A. just to see who we’d meet out there. I think Terry sort of had an idea that Joe and Lynn would be perfect for us, and I think he worked it out and set it up so that we’d see them together maybe. He expected that they both were going to be strong. So we saw them together and really liked them both, weren’t sure they worked together exactly.
CS: Did they know each other beforehand?
McGehee: No, they met on the day. We weren’t sure they were going to be perfect together so we tried them again with other people, just to see what that was like, but ended up coming back to the idea that we first saw them, that they were going to be really good together, and they just got better and better as they got more comfortable with each other and got to know each other and started establishing… in a way, the character they worked on hardest was the character of their relationship, both of them as individuals came together to this middle point where they built a relationship that was really an entity in itself.
CS: I assume for the actors, it must have been a big leap of faith and confidence to go into something that doesn’t really have a script that’s just plotted out and spend that much coming up with the characters and the relationship. Was that part of the appeal or did you have to convince them?
Siegel: Just to say again that it was a very detailed script (laughs)… it wasn’t like they were working without a net. The script was written just like a normal script, but instead of dialogue, there would be a description of what the dialogue was. We were looking to create a life for them that was their own in the words that they would say in those moments, but what would happen within those scenes was very much worked out in the script.
CS: I think a lot of people consider dialogue the part of a screenplay that makes it sink or swim in some ways.
Siegel: I hope that people would realize that’s only one part. (laughs)
CS: Unfortunately, that’s what most people think of scripting because that’s the one part that’s not just displayed visually.
Siegel: You’d be shocked how many agents and film executives won’t even read the scene description in a script, they’ll just read the dialogue. We’ve heard this and it’s horrifying. I’m sure it was to some degree a leap of faith for Joe and Lynn…
McGehee: In a strange way, the confidence they needed the most of was confidence in themselves. They had to feel secure enough that they were willing to walk in this situation without knowing exactly what was going to be said and believe in their own ability to generate interesting conversation. Some really good actors aren’t good at that. It’s kind of a separate skill, like retraining emotion in something that’s been written for you versus thinking of good things to say that will move a scene forward. It’s a different kind of skill set.
CS: I was amazed by Lynn especially, because I’ve only seen her in two things, the Shakespeare movie…
McGehee: But that dialogue was all written.
CS: Improvised Shakespeare, that would be an interesting movie.
Siegel: You know that it’s been done…
CS: Yeah, I guess if you make your words sound like Shakespeare, the audience will believe it. Had you guys seen any of her previous work?
Siegel: Yeah, we saw all her previous work. We knew Joe because we’d seen “Brick” and “Mysterious Skin” – Greg Araki is a friend of ours, so he had been talking to us about Joe also, but like Scott said, we auditioned a lot of people and our audition process was improvisational, so they were given a scenario and they had to improvise from that. A lot of actors just fell on their faces and a lot of actors didn’t come in actually or cancelled because they became afraid of the process. But both Joe and Lynn were super eager. I mean, Lynn is a very technically-trained actor. She went to Julliard and has done a lot of Shakespeare and when she got out of school she did a lot of what she refers to as “heightened text” – a term I’d never heard before. But Joe comes from a scrappier world but equally eager about the improvisational process.
McGehee: He’s been acting for 20 years.
CS: I think people forget that about Joe. They see him in these movies and see how good he is in them and they forget that he’s been acting for so long.
Siegel: Yeah, he’s been acting since he was nine.
CS: Going into the rehearsal aspect of it. I understand you did some in a traditional space but you also went out to locations with them, so did you take notes about what was working and flesh out where you wanted to go once you started filming?
Siegel: Like I was saying, most of the rehearsal, probably 75% of rehearsal were scenes that were never going to be in the film, so that wasn’t about holding to that for shooting, but when we would rehearse the scenes that were going to be in the film, we would stop and note the things that were working and weren’t working and Scott and I created what we referred to as a “beat sheet” for each scene, so on the day, they would get the beat sheet and they’d see that this and this and this point needed to be hit for sure in the scene. Once they did it two or three times on camera, they got into it and set themselves into a scene that was sort of fixed so it would go like that.
CS: There’ve been two really good movies this year of filmmakers exploring this sort of process with their actors, and it seems like more filmmakers are experimenting with this sort of thing. Doing this for the first time, was it a matter of finding your way and figuring out how you were going to do it as you went along? Did the process evolve as you went along or did you know very early on how it would work?
McGehee: It did kind of evolve as we went along.
McGehee: We learned a lot from our actors as well. What worked for them, what made them comfortable.
Siegel: They’d never done it either, not for an entire film. I don’t think Joe had done much improvisation period except for in the projects he does. I mean, he’s a super-creative guy, he’s got a website called HitRecord.Org and he’s made a lot of things and he’s really enamored of these Eastern European clowns, I can’t remember their name, but he likes that kind of seat of the pants reactive acting. All four of us together were flying blind a little bit, but that was what was so rewarding about it. It only worked because they’re so talented as actors and so in the moment with each other always that we were able to find a rhythm together, the four of us, but whatever good there is, it’s really a testament to their talent.
CS: Did the way you two work together, did that change at all during this process about how you normally might do stuff together or is it generally just collaborative?
Siegel: I don’t think it changed.
McGehee: No, it didn’t change much. I hadn’t thought about that, but no, it was really nice to have this much rehearsal time. We’ve always rehearsed a little bit before we started shooting our other films, but we never had the luxury of a month of fairly intensive time with our actors, and that’s a really relaxed, collaborative atmosphere for all of us to get on the same page.
Siegel: I loved this process. We’d modify it probably but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Even on a fully-scripted film, the idea of having a sustained period of rehearsal of non-scenes in the film. It’s very hard to get actors to do this, especially stars, unless they’re serious about it. Joe and Lynn were so serious about it, and I just mean that in terms of being serious-minded about what we were doing.
McGehee: They really believed in the process we were involved with.
Siegel: If you don’t give yourself over to it, it’s not going to reveal the results. A lot of film actors don’t like to rehearse that much. Sometimes, you have to prod actors to rehearse more than I think they want to rehearse.
McGehee: Sometimes I think it’s a waste of time. They’re going to be away from their home, on location for a length of time and they want to minimize the intrusion on their life and don’t feel they need to rehearse to do what they do. And some of them don’t, I think. Some people are just really good working cold.
CS: Once you’ve done rehearsing and it’s time to film, did all six of you just go on the streets with a camera and shoot where you could? Was there any closing down of streets?
Siegel: It was made primarily like a regular movie. It is a lot of locations and it might look natural… but what we did do is we did shoot live in a lot of places. We were a much smaller crew than a normal crew but even if you think about wardrobe and sound and props, and all the things that need to happen for the movie, you can only be so small unless you really really do it a different way and that’s not what we were doing.
McGehee: Occasionally, we’d have a situation, like when we shot in the subways, we reduced it to just David and I, the actors, the camera, one camera assistant and an AD. That was really fun working that way but you can’t do it over an extended period because you need the support. You need hair and makeup…
Siegel: But it was really fun that way, and doing the stuff by permitting but not locking off streets and areas, that was a revelation for us, because we feel like we got production value that would have cost more than the budget of our movie just by not doing that. Shooting in Union Square the way we did, shooting on the streets and roofs of Chinatown the way we did, a regular Hollywood movie wouldn’t do it that way. They’d lock it all off, bring everybody in…
CS: They shoot a lot of Hollywood movies down there and you can’t get anywhere they do.
McGehee: We had a light footprint that way.
CS: Apparently. I was there and I never saw you guys.
Siegel: I would maintain that our scenes look much more real and in the world than a lot of movies there.
CS: As far as shooting the big action scene that ended up the movie, what kind of preparation were you able to do for that? Were you able to figure out the shots and how they were going to run across the rooftops?
Siegel: The reason the rooftop thing happened in the first place is because Scott and I had scouted a lot of the movie on our bicycles – we’re big bike riders and we got our A.D. and our D.P. on bikes also. I don’t know why any location scout uses a car in Manhattan, but they do. We don’t know any other location people who ride bicycles. Scott and I would sneak up onto rooftops to get a better overview of what the chase might be, because we wrote a relatively chase in the script, and on one of those sneaks up to the roof, we came upon those 8 roofs that were joined like that and that’s what inspired the idea to do the chase over the rooftops, and then we went through a process of getting permits for those roofs. But we didn’t get all the permits we needed, so there was a little bit of guerilla going on.
McGehee: Our camera positions, we had to secure those, so we had I think three different roofs that we could put cameras on, but the roofs that the actors were on, it was just a matter of, “Climb over there and then run back,” that kind of thing.
Siegel: We planned everything based on what we thought a minimum would be. We knew that we’d probably have two or three takes of our initial shots that we had to have to cut the scene, but we wound up getting much more than that, which is lucky, but that was the risk we were taking, that we would be able to get at least a couple of takes of the wide stuff we needed to cut the scene.
CS: Once you had all that footage, how did you go about going through it all to cut it together. Were most of the transitions between the two stories in that initial script you wrote?
Siegel: Some, but it was larger blocks in the script. That was part of what we thought was going to be exciting, was cutting the movie and seeing how those bits would go together.
CS: But most of it was improvised so you must have had a lot of different takes and versions of scenes. Did someone have to watch and transcribe all of it so you could figure out how to assemble it?
Siegel: We had our script supervisor actually transcribe the entire film for every take, but as I say, but once actors start doing things a couple of times, they kind of do it the same way. They get into patterns, and even in a fully-scripted film, you get variations. Actors will break out or go off the page occasionally… much to our irritation. No.
Siegel: But it wasn’t as inconsistent as you might imagine, especially through this rehearsal process, the beats of the scenes were worked up through the rehearsal process, so it was a little bit more consistent than you might imagine.
McGehee: But one of the things that drove the hand-held style was just knowing that we needed a loose enough style for the film that we could cut freely between takes that didn’t match.
Siegel: Both with the actors and the way we were shooting, it was really an eye-opening filmmaking experience for us. It was really really rewarding creatively and it was very very hard. I’m not sure your versed in film production itself, but we had 30 days to shoot that film, and with that amount of locations and the action, it was crazy hard, like an elephant sitting on your head for two months. And yet, the reason I bring this is up, creatively it was so rewarding, because we felt like we were opening up our process so much and getting so much back from our crew and our actorsreally, especially the actors. I can’t say enough about Joe and Lynn.
CS: What about when you started bringing other actors into the mix? The Brooklyn chapter has a lot of people coming in and out. Did you have time to rehearse with them as well or did Joe and Lynn help drive the direction of those scenes?
McGehee: I wouldn’t have said that Joe and Lynn were the drivers so much, but we ended up with about a week with the familyLynn’s character’s Montero family
Siegel: Less than we should have had.
McGehee: Part of that (was that) Assumpta Serna came in from Spain and we only had so much time with her and rehearsing without hershe’s in so many of the family scenesthere was really no point in getting things going until she arrived. You intuited correctly that we started with the Joe and Lynn stuff. We shot out most of the Manhattan story, so that when we added the family, they all came on at once and suddenly, it was like a whole different movie. It was kind of interesting that way. Joe and Lynn were
Siegel: They even said once on the first day of the film, “Who are these people in my film?”
McGehee: They had gotten so used to this being just the two of them for such a long time.
Siegel: Almost all of the actors who played the supporting roles in the family, they really felt the kind of energy that Joe and Lynn had put into their own relationship. Almost immediately, there was the kind of collective familial spirit amongst the actors and the way we were working improvisationally, it was really special.
McGehee: I have to say. We’ve made four films and I’ve seen this happen a couple of times, but I credit it to Assumpta, there is something about her presence on set. She’s very active working with actors. That’s something she does a lot in Spain, kind of workshops, but her presence on set was I don’t want to say motherly because that’s sort of too obvious because she played the mom. She brought this warmth and collegiality with her presence every day that made a lot of things gel in the bigger set days.
CS: Why did you decided to have the entire movie happen all in one day and on the 4th of July specifically?
McGehee: Throughout the movie, we were looking for things that could register in both stories, so you feel some kind of simultaneity, and 4th of July (fireworks) kind of happens between Manhattan and Brooklyn most years, so it seemed like a nice thing that you could see (the fireworks) in the sky both couples in a strange way could be having the same experience at the same time and you can feel that.
CS: Actually, I also wanted to ask about the scenes you shot on the Brooklyn Bridge because those obviously had higher production values, they weren’t done handheld, and there was this one amazing shot of it that I have no idea how you could have done it even if you were making a huge budget movie. How did you go about creating those?
Siegel: We had one hour in a helicopter, literally, and that’s how we did the running shot in the beginning and that’s also how we did the final spin-up from the bridge.
CS: So you just knew what you wanted to do and just filmed that a couple times?
Siegel: We had to know exactly what we wanted to do because we really had one hour to do it all.
McGehee: Those guys are really good, those helicopter camera teams. They’re really sharp and can really deliver what you ask for, which is nice.
Siegel: There is only one company that makes the really, really good pod for helicopters, it’s called Space Cam, and they have an operation both on the East and West Coast, and we tonally for three movies now have needed it, but have only needed it a little bit and couldn’t really afford it in any of the films, and they’ve really been good to us. As Scott said, you have to buy their operators. It’s not like you could buy or rent their pod and bring in your own operator.
McGehee: It’s a real skill.
Siegel: And those guys are really, really good, and we happened to also have the two best helicopter pilots in the business, so without that, I don’t think we could have pulled it off.
CS: Did you have a storyboard or a schematic of how you wanted that spin out to look? You watch this and you think, “They must have done that using computers because there’s no possible way to film that in a helicopter.”
Siegel: No, we just knew what the shots needed to be. Yeah, we had a shot list and what it was but the spinning shot at the end, that was a little bit theoretical. We had it figured out but even the helicopter guys weren’t positive we could pull it off, but a lot of that was really the skill of the pilot. He broke some rules to get a little bit closer to the bridge at the start than he was supposed to, but also his ability to bring the helicopter straight up, it was really great.
CS: I also wanted to ask about working with composer Peter Nashel, because he’s one of the constants from your other movies, so I was curious how you worked with him differently on this movie. Did he just get sections of each separate story?
McGehee: That was kind of an interesting process because when we started talking to him about this, the initial idea was that we would have two different bands with different sounds and he would be like the leader of this process with two very different bands. We thought that matched the spirit of the film, but as we started cutting it, we realized we needed from the score that we thought that was going to deliver.
Siegel: We realized that the Manhattan side wanted music and the Brooklyn side didn’t want very much music, which really surprised us, and as soon as heard a drum kit sound on any of it, we were like, “That’s not right” so it kind of shifted things up a bit.
McGehee: Yeah, it really evolved, and he ended up scoring the film in a much more traditional way, scoring the film after it was all cut together and working on it.
CS: The transitions between the two stories, especially at the end, must have been really difficult.
Siegel: That was a big concentration with him, not just with Pete but with the sound designer Warren Shaw as well, how do you make the sound and music really accentuate the relationship between the two stories, and we wanted it to be a more electric and airy sound and Pete was really interested in doing something like that. We really loved the score, he really did a great job.
McGehee: He’s a really talented guy. The score with this was done really tightly, beat to beat, exactly on the cuts in a way that’s just so different from what I thought we were going to be doing.
CS: See, I thought he would just give you the music and then you’d chop it up as you needed in the editing room.
Siegel: No, the transitions were too precise to do it like that, and frankly, most composer, Pete included, don’t like to be so locked in but he really got into the spirit of it. It had to be really super tightly written to the picture.
CS: So what do you guys do next? This movie has obviously been done for a while since it was at Toronto last year. Have you gone back to the other movie or are you moving onto other things?
Siegel: We actually are trying to cast that other film. We’re writing a script for the Weinstein Company, an adaptation of “The Alchemist,” I don’t know if you know that book. We’re trying to cast “Baby Baby” again and we’re writing another original script.
CS: Do you think you’ll try to incorporate some of what you did on this movie into whatever you do next?
Siegel: I’d like to. I don’t think the next movie would be fully improvised like this.
McGehee: I’m quite sure it won’t be, but we’ve definitely gained some tools in our toolbox I think, a new way of thinking about collaborating with actors and a new trust in actors. We’ve had really good fun.