In A Boy. A Girl. A Dream., director Qasim Basir tells the story of two people meeting and changing each other’s lives in real time. The film, a 2018 Sundance selection, spans the night of the 2016 Presidential election in Los Angeles as Cass (Omari Hardwick), a club promoter stalled in his career, meets Frida (Meagan Good), a visiting Midwesterner recovering from a difficult breakup. Cass and Frida grow closer as the night unfolds, challenging each other to pursue the dreams they either abandoned or have yet to discover.
Cinematographer Stephen Holleran captured the story’s slice-of-life emotion and authenticity by shooting it as one continuous 90-minute stabilized take. Shot on location across Los Angeles over the course of one night, this production was an incredibly challenging feat of filmmaking with zero margin for error. Holleran shared his process with us, explaining how he made this daunting technical and creative achievement possible and survived to tell the tale.
S&P: How did you become involved with this project, and what interested you most about shooting it in a single take?
Steven Holleran: Exploring the unknown is what has always drawn me to art and cinematography in particular. A single take, or oner, is perhaps one of the most extreme versions of visual exploration when it comes to narrative filmmaking. In many ways, it’s the least artificial way of telling a story on camera. And it’s certainly the holy grail of cinematic accomplishments with only a few films; Birdman, Russian Ark, and Victoria, coming to mind. So shooting a film as a oner was definitely on my radar. Yet the restrictions of shooting a single take also requires the right type of story, and up until A Boy. A Girl. A Dream., the right one hadn’t come along. So when Qasim [Basir] introduced me to his script, we quickly agreed it was the perfect platform to try a oner. Not only did we have just one night to shoot the movie due to actor and location availability, but the unfolding presidential election provided an ideal backdrop.
Steven Holleran: Our collaboration grew initially out of a shared motivation to do something post-election in early 2017. We met the day of the inauguration in Los Angeles and decided that no matter what, even if we only had one night to shoot the movie, we would pour every ounce of our energy into the project. Our two biggest references were the night streets of Hollywood and Van Gogh’s blue and gold Starry Night painting. In the oner world there is very little to reference, so our look and feel grew exclusively out of those two references.
Steven Holleran: Preparation for the film was akin to a football team running drills. To shoot the film stabilized on a gimbal (which hadn’t been done before), meant using a combination of untested and prototype equipment. That required weeks of camera prep at Panavision and days in the parking lot practicing coordination and communication with my camera crew. Play by play, scene by scene, we practiced all of our moves with our locations in mind (nightclubs, streets, taxis, staircases, balconies, etc.). This allowed us to be physically and mentally prepared for the actual day. As for rehearsals in the actual location with our actors, that proved more difficult. Our actors flew in the day before the shoot and had only practiced over the telephone with Qasim. And our locations were mostly active nightclubs, restaurants, and streets, so our access had been limited up until the day of the shoot. Honestly, we shot the movie blind on the day, knowing that at a minimum we were a well-oiled camera machine.
Steven Holleran: Shooting a movie as a oner and specifically stabilized immediately boxes you into a very tight corner as a cinematographer. Imagine you can’t cut, you can’t change batteries, you can’t rest. Every piece of the rig, camera, and your body must be able to work flat out for 90 minutes—much like a soccer player. There are no rests in between plays. This immediately pushed me into looking at unconventional cameras, in particular the prosumer mirrorless Sony α7S II. It costs less than $3000 online and is a tiny little device, but it shoots 4K full frame and can see in the dark better than most cameras. Knowing I’d only be able to light my interiors and not my exteriors on the street (due to budget restrictions), the Sony proved the perfect choice. It also weighed under a pound and could be powered minimally for an extended period of time.
Lens-wise we didn’t skimp. I tested a variety of Panavision C Series anamorphic lenses from the 1970’s and chose a C Series 35mm that would look good both as a wide-angle lens and in close-up. It’s a real balance choosing only one lens to shoot an entire movie, as you need to have both scope and an intimate look. The C Series lens gave me a romantic and dreamy quality that perfectly matched the idea of a romantic encounter in Tinseltown.
The camera and lens then rode on a Freefly MōVI Pro gimbal which I carried on a Cinema Devices AntigravityCam rig, a crazy-looking contraption that allowed me to carry the rig on my back and create a weightless and stabilized-looking image. The AntigravityCam rig had never been used like this before. In fact, it had just come out at NAB so it was untested over such a long and arduous shoot. All of this required power and wireless transmitters, so Qasim, producers, AD’s, and AC’s could all see what was happening. I think we had a total of seven wireless monitors walking with us all over the various sets. Quite frankly, it was the most complicated and uncharted cinematography project I’ve ever undertaken.
Steven Holleran: The lighting for the film was a combination of pre-lighting and natural light. We had a two-color palette of blue and gold. The streets of Los Angeles are generally lit with sodium vapor, so they have a gold tone if pushed the right way in color correction. So I mostly left them alone aside from the opening scene, which I lit. Inside our locations I went for a combination of both blue and gold. Our nightclub originally was a very dark red color, so I spent hours dropping in lights and practicals to get it to a point where it matched our color tone. The same was true of the house party. It was mostly a bright white box, so we used a variety of light sources to shape it into a moody and dreamlike location that matched our palette.
Steven Holleran: Our actual shoot was only one day. We had a full twelve hours to pre-light a nightclub, a house, a balcony, driveway, diner, taxi, and three streets while also shooting what we hoped would be two to three takes in total with over a hundred extras. It proved an immense challenge in terms of coordination and timing. Ultimately, we only shot one take of the entire film, literally finishing the shot at 2:15 in the morning at Mel’s Diner on Sunset Boulevard. I think they locked down the restaurant to new patrons literally as I walked out the door. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever tried or heard of in the film industry. Perhaps it’s as much a performance piece as it is a movie.
Steven Holleran: Our biggest challenge was time. We had so little time that the shooting of the film was quite frankly a Hail Mary toss. We didn’t have enough time to cut and do various angles, sizes, and takes. We also didn’t have enough time to do various versions of the film over multiple nights like Victoria or Russian Ark. So we went for it half out of planning and half out of desperation, and that meant we ran into a lot of obstacles that we would have fixed on a second or third or fourth night. Things like doors being closed that should be open, blocking, crew getting lost in shot, etc. What you’re watching on screen is our first attempt at this film and our last.
Steven Holleran: Tips for surviving a oner…stretch, meditate, and hydrate because it’s going to be a long and sleepless night! Preparation is absolutely paramount. If I hadn’t had months in advance to mentally prepare for the performance, I don’t think either Qasim, our actors, or I would have been able to achieve what we did under such immense time constraints. You also need trust. Trust in your crew, your gear, your concept, and yourself. Without that trust, which comes from continued practice, it’s all too easy to get lost halfway through a 90-minute shot.
Steven Holleran: A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. gave me the chance to walk completely off the cinematography map. The approach we used was experimental and took us to a place where we had no one to look to for advice. There were no films shots in a single night with zero rehearsals on the gear that we were using. It was terrifying, but at the same time, it was invigorating and liberating. There were so many moments during the process where I would suit up in my rig and people would just stare and take pictures. I knew when that started happening that we were in uncharted territory. And that’s ultimately where I want to be as an artist.
A Boy a Girl a Dream will be available on demand December 14, 2018
Pre-Order on iTunes: https://apple.co/2weCYeU
Learn more: http://www.samuelgoldwynfilms.com/a-boy-a-girl-a-dream
About Steven Holleran
Best known for the films The Land (2016), Fire Chasers (2017), and A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. (2018), Steve’s first two feature films have garnered back to back Sundance nominations.
Selected to Variety’s 2018 Artisan’s Elite, Steve is one of only a handful of cinematographers in history to shoot an entire feature film as a oner. He has also gained wide acclaim for his dramatic cinematography on the Netflix series Fire Chasers where he embedded with CalFire for fifteen weeks on the frontline during the devastating 2016 SoCal wildfires.
He has an MFA in Film Production from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, is an American Film Showcase Media Expert, and a 2008 Thomas J. Watson Fellow. Steve is a passionate environmentalist and outdoorsman, surfing and traveling extensively through six of the seven continents. He owns and operates an aerial cinematography drone company, Tank Aerial, and is a member of IATSE Local 600.
Images courtesy of Steven Holleran & Samuel Goldwyn Films