Zack Winestine Talks About an Independent State of Mind
by Stephanie Argy
For Zack Winestine, working in the camera department has always been a means to an end. "I got into this business 20 years ago because I wanted to tell stories," he says. "I spent ten years as a camera assistant and another eight as a director of photography, trying to learn the skills that would enable me to tell stories." Now, he has taken all the experience and knowledge accumulated over those years in the business and applied them to his first feature film as a writer/director, a drama called States of Control.
In the movie, a woman in New York searches for a way to transcend the materialism and superficiality of her everyday life. Ultimately she finds an answer in violence, and she bombs an adult video store. "I was very interested in working with a character who has strong principles, and who feels compelled to carry them all the way to their logical conclusion," says Winestine. "The story started with that character."
Winestine was also influenced by the case of the Vancouver Five, a group of Canadian anarchists convicted of fire-bombing video porn stores in the early 1980s. "I had tremendous respect for these people's ideas, and yet the way in which they acted on them was very destructive," says Winestine. "Something similar happened at the tail end of the 1960s with certain radical groups, who turned to violence. The more I started reading about this, it became clear that many of these people were functioning not out of a need to change the world, but to transform themselves. The only possible way they saw to transform themselves was to completely destroy their old identity. It was that overwhelming desire that I was struck by and wanted to explore. The lead character, Lisa, shares some of those needs and desires."
Winestine wrote the screenplay for States of Control in between shooting features as a director of photography. "It was a nice way to alternate between two different ways of working, and two different parts of myself," he says. He was also able to tailor the script to his own specifications as a director. "I was trying to keep the cast small. I knew it would greatly simplify things if scenes just involved just one or two people."
This meant the script would break down very neatly. "Lisa, of course, is in every scene, but the other characters are tied to specific locations," says Winestine. "I think we had only one company move." This, in turn, facilitated the shooting process, making the production more manageable. "It could be made for the money I could realistically put together," says Winestine.
He will say only that the budget on States of Control was "painfully low." On the other hand, he adds, "one of the things that helped make it possible was that I was able to call in favors accumulated over 20 years of work." In particular, Panavision (New York) and DuArt were extremely helpful, he says.
For his cinematographer, Winestine chose Susan Starr, a long-time friend and colleague. "I knew Susan from way back-we came up together as assistants," says Winestine. "I have tremendous respect for her as a person. I knew we could work well together. I think the most important quality in all of our jobs is judgment, and I really respected her judgment and taste."
Starr learned her craft working as an assistant, most notably for Michael Ballhaus, ASC, with whom she did After Hours, Quiz Show, and Sleepers, among other movies. She says that when she first heard that Winestine was looking for a cinematographer for States of Control, she wasn't convinced she wanted to get involved. "I had already shot a couple of low-budget movies and wasn't sure I wanted to do another, because they're so difficult. On low-budget movies, a lot of it is about compromises. Making it work with the least amount of time, people, money." On the two other low-budget films that she had shot, Starr says, she'd had trouble finding crew willing to brave the long hours and extremely low pay. On States of Control, though, she says, Winestine managed to find a group of producers who pulled together a fine crew. "It was a very pleasurable experience, almost like a big-budget movie," she says.
Her camera crew included first assistants Andrea Dorman and Heather Norton, and second assistant Maria Calvaruso. "Andrea and Heather were both my second assistants on feature films, so it was a way for them to bump up," says Starr. Calvaruso, meanwhile, had worked at Panavision. "They were all great," says Starr.
The shoot lasted 22 days, with another four days of second unit. Starr shot mostly on Kodak 5293, but because of the budgetary constraints, had to use short ends. "You get the longest short ends you can, and you have to kind of keep your fingers crossed that it's okay." She said that they had no problems with the recanned film, though it did mean a lot more loading work for Calvaruso.
The camera was a Panaflex Gold with Ultraspeeds. "They had no Primos left in the house," recalls Winestine. He also chose not to have a zoom in the package at all. "I hate zooms," he says. "And the surest way to not have any zooms in the final picture was to leave that lens out of the package!"
Starr's filtration was quite simple, just a standard 85, with Mitchell filters for diffusion. "I normally used a Mitchell B, with a C for extreme close-ups."
Because the film had a lot of day interiors, she supplemented her basic Tungsten lighting package with a small HMI package, mostly 1200 PARs. "They're very, very versatile. It's amazing what you can do with them," she adds.
Winestine didn't use storyboards, because he can't draw and doesn't find them helpful. Instead, he wrote out a detailed shot list for each scene. "It allowed us to move more quickly," he says. And even though things might change, the shot lists enabled the crew to start off with a detailed blueprint, and a minimum of confusion.
For the look of States of Control, Winestine wanted a European feel, like that in the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski, especially Blue and The Double Life of Veronique. "I don't think that those are perfect films, but I admired his ability to create emotionally charged images," says Winestine. "It was a direction that I very much wanted to go in."
He and Starr watched Kieslowski movies together, talking about the general style of the lighting. Starr remembers that Winestine wanted strong side lighting - which can be difficult when the subject is a woman - and wanted to push things to the edge of frame as much as possible. "What was wonderful is that he was a director of photography, and we could really discuss these things," she says.
She explains that directors who haven't come up through camera aren't always sure what they're looking for visually, because they're not used to looking at film in the same way as a cinematographer. "They're looking for performance, they're looking for other things." But Winestine, she says, knew exactly what he wanted for the look of the movie. "Zack had very strong ideas, which created the style," says Starr.
Winestine says his years of on-set experience gave him other advantages as well. "You have an intuitive understanding of the pressures, and which are the important decisions, and which are the unimportant decisions." Unlike many first-time directors, for example, he knew how to maximize the setups. "If you block the scene so that the camera keeps looking in roughly the same direction, the lighting will stay relatively the same, and you can still have the freedom to design complicated moves," he points out.
Even more importantly, he says, being a cinematographer enabled him to choose his locations well. "I think one of the most important things is having the right location. Certain locations not only look right, but also suggest their own lighting." He couldn't afford to pay his department heads to scout potential locations with him, and they weren't able to put in the time for free, but he knew what to look for, and he did the work well ahead of time. "I was scouting for locations long before we started."
One of the key locations was Lisa's apartment, where the crew spent seven days - nearly a third of the shoot. "I desperately wanted an apartment where we could control the windows, put light through the windows," says Winestine. "We certainly didn't have the money to start renting man-lifts or Condors." He also wanted to be able to compose for depth, and not get locked into one square box of a room.
Winestine remembered a family friend, who lived in a brownstone in Chelsea. The more he thought about it, the more perfect her place seemed. Located on a low second floor, the apartment had an external patio, as well as fire escapes where lights could be placed. The floor plan lent itself to the compositions that Winestine wanted to create. "I knew it was the right place," he says.
Because the woman was an old family friend, Winestine didn't want to take advantage of her, but the lure of her apartment proved irresistible. "It was a baptism of sorts for me," he says. "To get a film like this off the ground, you have to act in ways you may not be proud of." He forced himself to call the woman and ask if she would consider letting a film crew into her home. "It's a tribute to the kind of person she is, that she said, 'Of course, why wouldn't I?'" It turned out that she was going away for a week, and the film crew could use her apartment in her absence. "In fact, everything worked out fine and no damage was done," says Winestine. "They were out of town, and thank God, they never saw what their apartment looked like during the week."
Another important location was the theater. While the space they used was very small, says Winestine, it too had a number of well-placed windows, and it opened on to some interesting spaces. For dining sequences, Winestine found a few restaurants that also had windows and would allow the crew to shoot in the morning. The restaurants often catered lunch afterward, too.
Winestine's years on set also helped him when it came to working with the actors. "I had been a camera assistant on over 20 features and lensed others. I had an opportunity to watch good directors and bad directors, working with good actors and bad actors," he says. "There's a certain kind of director who can work with non-professional actors. That's an art, and it's certainly something I cannot do. The alternative is to work with actors who are already very skilled."
To find his performers, Winestine turned to casting director Matthew Messinger. "I knew that this was a film that was going to stand or fall on its performances, especially Lisa's," says Winestine. "We did have a SAG contract, so that opened up a pool of very strong, professional actors."
Initially, Winestine remembers, they did the standard thing and approached name actors. "Had we gotten someone with a name, we would have tried to get more money," says Winestine. But the process threatened to drag on indefinitely so they decided to go ahead with the budget they had, and they reached into New York's rich supply of theater actors.
The most critical role, of course, was that of the lead character, Lisa, ultimately played by Jennifer van Dyck. "When Matt read the script, he thought immediately of Jennifer," says Winestine. Winestine himself knew she was right, too, within the first five minutes of her audition. Though he and Messinger went through the motions of interviewing other people, van Dyck had won the role - she was not only an extraordinary actress, according to Winestine, but also connected with material exactly the way he wanted.
"She could somehow allow you to see the thoughts moving behind her face," he says of van Dyck. Lisa is someone who's constantly, almost obsessively trying to work through things, and van Dyck was able to make thought processes visible. "Her reactions were extremely natural," Winestine adds. "It transcended acting."
The rest of the cast included John Cunningham, Ellen Greene and Stephen Bogardus. In working with the actors, Winestine tried to do two things. First of all, he went over with them in detail who their characters were and the different possible emotions which could be brought to each scene. Second, he tried to create a space where they could be as comfortable as possible, and where there weren't distractions, so they would be safe taking chances.
As a first-time feature director, he also had to push himself to ground the actors in the story, telling them exactly where they were and what was happening. "For me, the cutting continuity was so clear, that I would forget that no one else knew. It was a lesson for me as a director. Communication is so important - you have to make sure that everybody knows everything they need to know." Van Dyck found it particularly challenging to react to things that weren't there, especially in exterior scenes. "That's something that drove her a little nuts," remembers Winestine. "Someone in theater is used to having everything present. In film, you have to sometimes act in a vacuum."
The movie's editor was Jim Villone, who had been an associate editor on Heavy. "I just can't say how fortunate I was," says Winestine. "He was not only an extremely fine editor, he also had a really strong understanding of the dramatics of a story. He was willing to work and work and work until he had the cut exactly right. It was a very collaborative process. By the time we were both happy, it was pretty good. It was a really creative process.
Winestine chose to edit the movie on film, for a variety of reasons. "The time was much cheaper, and I wanted to really take the time with the editor," he says. "We did a significant amount of restructuring during the editing - it was like a continuation of the writing process." And while non-linear editing systems may enable a filmmaker to make cuts very quickly, he says, they don't speed up the mental process behind the editing.
Furthermore, he adds, as a cinematographer, most of the features that he has shot have been cut electronically and he has not had film workprints. "I know how paralyzing that is, because I get very cautious. I don't trust the video to give me feedback - the subtleties are gone. Because I felt the look of the film was so important, I just felt it was essential to have film as a basis to work with." With a film copy of the movie, he continues, they were able to screen a number of times at DuArt. "There's a huge difference between projecting on a big screen and pulling people around a video monitor," he says.
After he finished the movie, the next hurdle was the marketplace. States of Control received extensive festival exposure, and was picked up for domestic distribution by Los Angeles-based Phaedra Cinema.
"For whatever reason, making independent films is hot - it's what forming a rock band was when I was getting out of college," he says. "There's an extraordinary glut of films. Festivals can't sift through it, reviewers can't sift through it. It's hard for a film to get the attention that it deserves. It's hard for a film to be evaluated on its merits. Indie films are being evaluated the same way commercial films are - people look at the first five minutes. There's increasing pressure for lowest common denominator films in the independent world, as in the studio."
He fears that true independent filmmaking may simply not be economically viable right now. "Ten years ago, if you made an independent film, and you made it decently, people would notice." But today, he says, it's a crap shoot. "The unfortunate reality is that you really have to get accepted to Sundance or one of the three major international festivals, and win a prize. Only three or four Indie American films will get that. It's very unhealthy."
The personal sacrifices can also be intense, both emotionally and financially. "My wife, Joanne Pawlowski, helped produce the film, and was extremely supportive. But it can be very rough," he says.
Nevertheless, the process can be worthwhile, for those who are truly motivated by their love for the medium, and he is thrilled to have made States of Control. "This is the reason that I got into film in the first place," he says.
"What I'm kind of amazed by is that the final film is very close to the film that I saw running through my head before we started. If it doesn't work, I have nothing to hide behind," says Winestine. "The final result is very much the film I had hoped to create."
BOXOFFICE MAGAZINE review of States of Control
filmcritic.com review of States of Control
DVD Verdict review of States of Control
ARTS TODAY (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) interview with Zack Winestine
FILM THREAT interview with Zack Winestine
FILM FORECAST interview with Zack Winestine
PRINCETON Magazine review of States of Control
INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER article about States of Control
WIRED Magazine review of States of Control
FILMRUTAN (Sweden) Ron Holloway's review of States of Control at the Mannheim International Film Festival