The Long Shot

Making Films with Tellef Johnson

By Neil Hurley

Tellef Johnson is a a writer, director, cinephile, Scandinavian. He's had premieres at New York's Lincoln Center. He writes the music to his films, conducts it with an orchestra, and cuts it to the picture.

I'd seen Tellef's first film, an ambitious but low budget short called Solfege, in which a famous young opera singer tears her vocal cords out. Tellef said that he shot it in Manhattan and snuck into the Plaza Hotel with the lead actress, who filmed a scene of herself in the ladies' powder room. The footage all ended up in the final film and all sorts of people from director James Ivory to film composer Angelo Badalamenti praised Solfege for its energy and originality.

But now Tellef was about to burn up some recently acquired grant money and shoot some more short narrative films. He quickly put together a crew which included myself as grip, his wife Reka as actress (and focus puller!), his brother Tor as sound mixer and some other folks. The strategy was to film three different short films all at once using the same cast and crew, Rainer Werner Fassbinder-style. Tellef enlisted friend, Anthony Lis to play a tortured Frenchman searching for his wife's killer. We secured a beautiful mansion and a hospital. Over the next four weeks we shot on hallowed ground, through snowstorms, hailstorms, and beautiful weather. Tellef got three excellent and diverse shorts (all totaling forty minutes) out of the deal and was pleased.

But then there was the big challenge, the final achievement to Tellef's aims. What I didn't realize was that Tellef meant it when he was going to pull off one of the wildest and impossible shots ever done. He immediately went and nearly shut down an entire grocery store.

The scene in question was a tracking shot of epic proportions. Russian Ark may be thirty times longer, but Tellef promised to get in three minutes what that film did in ninety. Plus we were shooting on 35mm with focus pulls and no video assist in sight. Tellef joked that the shot would be "Boogie Nights in reverse," meaning that the shot would begin inside, then eventually track out into the night. The grocery store setting meant that Tellef could use a wheel-driven dolly because the floor would be naturally smooth and thusly we could move faster than an operator could run with a Steadicam. Tellef went to work rigging up a setup that accommodated a wood plank leveled out to support a 35mm Arriflex camera. The Arriflex went on a high hat, the high hat connected to the plank with a 3/8 screw. The camera was able to rotate, or pan, from side to side as well. So far so good.

The shot that Tellef was staging involves the following of a young woman in an enormous, brightly-lit grocery store. The shot would play with the audience's expectations, in the sense that they, or the camera, would be the stalker, but then from time to time, the P.O.V. would change as the woman runs into different people in the store as she gradually realizes that she's being pursued. So it becomes even unclear to the audience who is really following her or not until the woman runs pell-mell out of the store, out into the night, out to her car parked in the parking lot, where she gets in and the punchline of the scene occurs.

"Every long tracking sequence should have a punch-line at the end," says Tellef. "Otherwise it's hard to hold an audience's attention for such an unbroken length of time without some kind of payoff. That may be a subtle one, such as the sea at the end of 'Russian Ark,' or an obvious one, like the bomb exploding in 'Touch of Evil.'"

There was one piece missing up to this point - with the writer/director/cinematographer in the rig filming his leading lady, who would be pushing him? The answer was inevitable: Me.

To backtrack briefly, this whole tracking shot madness began when Tellef was filming one of the other shorts in a hospital wing that was shut down for the winter, and he'd gotten access to it for a weekend. He had designed a Scorsese-type tracking shot in which the camera goes by in a complete 360 around a nurse's station, and before completing the roundabout, cuts the diameter of the circle by magically slipping through the middle of the station. I pushed the western dolly to make the shot happen, and the people who developed and telecined the shot raved so much about it that Tellef decided to up the ante and hit the grocery store - and enlist me as the ultimate grip.

Tellef johnson's hospital traking shot 1

Tellef johnson's hospital traking shot 2

The grocery store knew we were filming, and they said it would be better to come in around 10 P.M. than after hours because they would be stocking then. Of course the challenge is that at 10, people were going to be in shopping. We decided to accept that possible dilemma of folks staring into the shot. When we came to shoot a test on video at a similar time three days prior to the shooting date, the place was quite packed. We saw quickly that the film would have to be M.O.S. with the dialogue dubbed later.

Then came the night of the shoot. The lens was a vintage Cooke Series II, 18mm. The lights inside the store, all fluorescent, would have to be color-corrected later in post, otherwise coming out green on film. The available lighting was decent, giving the light meter a T stop of 3.5. Tellef's trusty depth of field calculator said that Reka, the actress, could never come towards the camera closer than 5.5 feet or she'd be out of focus. Otherwise the focus point was set at infinity, so she could be anywhere from 6 to 200 feet away and she'd be clear. It was my job to make sure Tellef's lens didn't get too close, and Reka had to also steer clear of the camera, keeping it in her peripheral vision as she acted out the scene, which involved a combination of standing, walking, running over vast spaces and doing dialogue with other "customers."

Below is a graph that shows how much surface area we'd actually cover.

Click to enlarge

Tellef's map for the shot

I don't know how much that is in feet, but it's a lot. The supporting cast would be waiting for us within the shot, do their thing, then walk behind the moving camera until they had to pop into the frame again to meet Reka when indicated in the script. This is of course is all during the same shot! Outside the grocery store, we unplugged a Coke machine to accommodate a single tungsten light that was held by Bruce, another grip. The extension cord on that light was 200 feet long, so as Reka came out of the store, Bruce would be able to "chase" her to the car, in other words, illuminate her path. We used walkie-talkies with Bruce and the actor hiding in Reka's car.

Tellef estimated that the shot would last 4 minutes, about the entire 400' length of roll of 35mm that he had in the camera. We knew that the last minute or so of the shot would be entirely visceral, as Reka starts running super fast to get out of the store, being chased by the pursuant camera all the way out to the car. But we didn't know how fast Reka and the cart would end up going. Tellef also said we only had one roll of film so whatever we got we got. There would be no retakes.

And the shot began! The walkie talkies were prepared, and Tellef flipped the Arriflex power switch and the film began running through the gate. Reka began walking towards the camera (stationary for at least a few seconds), and on cue I moved Tellef back around another aisle corner to wait for Reka to walk by before we pushed in on her. The trouble was, as I pulled Tellef back, there were two patrons of the grocery store standing watching us! They had been apparently behind us and we didn't notice, having been so focused on setting up the shot's beginning. We just acted as if everything was normal and kept going. Reka moved past the people and so did we, whipping around another aisle, moving quickly as the shot continued. Afer that, the shot continued perfectly, as if we were in a unique dance where all the choreography timed perfectly. Shopping patrons appeared in various parts of the shots as unsuspecting extras, falling in perfect place. Finally we were getting to the crazy part. Tellef panned the camera so he would get Reka in profile, running, and I had to push as fast as Reka was going. Keep in mind I had no video assist, and both Reka and I, though equidistant by 30 feet, had to move in perfect sync. Reka ended up moving extremely fast, and by the time we were keeping up with her as she was exiting the store, I suspect we must have been going about 5 miles an hour. The rig actually made skid marks on the floor. Had we accidentally bumped into something, Tellef and the camera would have gone flying and been broken to bits.

As Reka moved out of the store into the night, Bruce leapt after her with the light and we flew over the curb - bump - and out to the parked car. After Reka got in, and the punch line of the shot took place, we realized that we had just accomplished - almost effortlessly - something we had no clue just several hours before how we were going to really pull off.

Tellef Johnson 3 min traking shot 1

Tellef Johnson 3 min traking shot 2

The shot ended up being 3 minutes, so we were moving really fast - and received universal kudos from everyone who saw it. It propelled Tellef to get the financing to his dream feature film debut, so it goes to show you how three minutes can make a whole world of difference.





Follow this link to Tellef Johnson's site to see an extended high res trailer of some of our other work


Some images from the Tellef Johnson films I have worked on.