I had the pleasure of meeting phenomenally talented artist Fletcher Crossman back in 2009, when I photographed him in his backyard studio for a now-defunct magazine. At the time, Fletcher was focused on painting: his large-scale, figurative paintings – often incorporating text and political/philosophical overtones – made a big impression on me.
I found Fletcher himself to be a very affable British expatriate with a dry sense of humor, and the kind of vivid imagination rarely found in anyone over the age of three. We kept in touch after the shoot, and in 2010, we collaborated on a short documentary called “The Apple Thief.” The film followed Fletcher as he worked on a huge, controversial painting of a woman in a Christ-like crucifixion pose, while having challenging conversations with religious leaders about the role of women as defined by different faiths.
Fletcher caught the filmmaking bug, and started making green-screened music videos in his apartment, by himself, with a consumer camcorder and virtually no technical knowledge … And they’re ridiculously good. Oh, and did I mention that Fletcher is also an accomplished musician? Here he is, singing over a backing track he recorded himself, as quasi-Victorian chanteur “Berlin Dreggs.”
A few months ago, Fletcher told me that he was going to make a movie. Not the 8 to 12 minute short film that most aspiring auteurs modestly aim for, but a full-fledged theatrical feature. With no budget. And he was going to write, direct, edit and score it himself. I answered a few of his technical questions, and wished him luck. Several months of radio silence followed.
Only somewhat to my surprise, I got an email a couple of weeks ago from Fletcher telling me that the project was done. In typical Fletcher fashion, he had not only finished the film, he had done exactly what he set out to do, and done it all on the schedule he set for himself. And, he did it all while staying humble and being a genuinely nice guy to everyone around him.
Also, of course, it’s fantastic. It’s called “Heavy Objects,” and here’s the trailer.
Anyone who’s been around the filmmaking world for any amount of time knows what an accomplishment this is. For a first-time director to complete a project this ambitious, and to make it this beautiful, is truly spectacular.
If you’re burning with curiosity about exactly how he did it, you’re in the right place. Fletcher was kind enough to answer an indecent number of questions for me, so here, without further ado, is a very entertaining and illuminating Q&A with the one and only Fletcher Crossman.
Fletcher, before last year, your background was almost exclusively in the fine arts – particularly painting. You have now branched out into filmmaking. Tell us a bit about this new project of yours, “Heavy Objects.”
I’d wanted to move into film for a long time, because it seems a more vibrant art form than painting, but I didn’t think I had enough technical knowledge to start in that direction. I guess Heavy Objects was really just my way of taking the bull by the horns and deciding I’d figure out how film works.
The normal process for new filmmakers is to start off with very short, simple projects, and gradually work their way up to longer ones. You jumped into the deep end by writing and directing an hour-long, psychological thriller. In retrospect, what were the pros and cons for you of taking on such an ambitious project?
The pros were that I got to see how the whole process of making a movie works, from beginning to end. It was interesting that most of the people I knew told me to start by making a short, but most of the actual directors I listened to online said to just go out there and make a movie. I’m glad I did. It taught me a lot about the whole trajectory of film-making, not just the technical aspects but also the flow of the story, the need for drama points and so on.
The cons were that every part of the process was a sharp learning curve, and instead of learning on a five minute short I was learning on a whole hour’s worth of movie! So that makes everything considerably more frustrating when you make a mistake. And of course that’s all right there on the screen. On a personal level, it was exhausting, physically and emotionally. It strained every part of my being – my interpersonal skills, organizational skills, being creative under pressure, staying calm when everyone around me was stressed. In a sense it strengthened me and I’d be a lot better prepared if I was going to do this again, but I just wish I’d known then what I know now!
With a pencil or paintbrush, you can create absolutely anything you can imagine. With video production, there are seemingly innumerable obstacles to capturing even a basic dialogue sequence. Can you explain what attracted you to the daunting challenge of digital media?
a. It seems more contemporary – I’ve always had this slight feeling that painting is a medium from a bygone age.
b. So many filmmakers are doing fantastic imagery that have the added advantage over paintings in that they move.
c. You can tell a story in film, and I love story-telling.
d. I was ready for a change of direction. In fact, that probably more than any of the other reasons.
Were some aspects of the filmmaking process more (or less) like painting than you expected? What was it like facing the unfamiliar constraints of budget, schedule, locations, actors, etc.?
I wouldn’t say there were many aspects that were very similar to painting, apart from occasionally in composition of shots and color correcting in the editing process. Some film makers told me they hate color correction – I loved it!
It actually felt more like teaching in school, which is what I do for a living. There was a lot of organization, a lot of people skills, a lot of making lists and being professional with people. More than anything there was a lot of initiative involved – making things happen when it felt like the universe was conspiring to stop them happening. That was an overwhelming takeaway: the need for sheer will power to drive events forward when taking on something like a movie project.
Your paintings tend to use a very limited, earth-toned palette, and dramatic, low-key lighting. It seems that you’ve incorporated a similar aesthetic into your film. Indeed, some of the shots look like they could easily be reference images for future paintings. To what extent were you able to “art direct” the mise en scene? Did using digital media inspire you to use visual elements that you might not put in your paintings?
Yes, the visual look was the easy part for me, and I had pretty clear ideas about how I wanted scenes to look. It was really nice getting responses from the cast when they saw the footage saying they didn’t understand what I was doing with the lighting at the time but now they see the footage they loved it. There were huge areas of production that I knew nothing about and would totally acquiesce to the crew for guidance, but the look of the thing was my territory and I was quite prepared to steamroller through on that one: I’ve spent many years learning about tone, color, composition, so there were a number of times when I just insisted on how I wanted it and said, “Trust me on this one!”
At several points in your career, you’ve chosen artistic integrity over commercial success. Does filmmaking – with all of its associated costs and stakeholders – feel like more of a business endeavor to you, or is it just as “pure” as painting?
I wouldn’t say that money considerations ever played a part in making this movie. In fact, because it costs more money to make than a painting it was certainly going to lose money. So there were no more commercial considerations for this than there is in painting, from my perspective.
The only takeaway concerning money for me has been that having a budget to work with would make everything so much easier. If I make another movie I want to move heaven and earth to get some financial backing. I was constantly having to cut corners and ‘make do’ because of severe financial constrictions, and I’d want to really try and raise money before doing it again. On this one I figured I could either spend a year trying to raise money or spend the year actually making the thing but without a budget, so I opted for the second. And I think it was the right thing to do – for a first movie. I doubt I’ll ever make money from making movies, but to make a good movie just does cost money in a way that isn’t true for a painting. So there have to be financial considerations in following this path.
Many projects far less complex than yours languish for years in post-production, or never see the light of day at all. You’ve managed to shepherd “Heavy Objects” from concept to finished picture in just a few months. What advice do you have for other aspiring filmmakers?
Yes, I found the same thing. I talked to a number of filmmakers and was surprised how many couldn’t actually show me their finished movie because it was still sitting in limbo from years back. I made a conscious decision that that wasn’t going to happen with Heavy Objects – for better or worse it was going to be finished and shown. But now I can totally see how it happens – there are so many obstacles between concept and completion. So many things that can go wrong and stall everything.
I wouldn’t want to put myself in the position of giving advice – having only just completed my first movie – but I would say there were two things that helped me get around that problem. The first was that I wanted to do as many things as possible myself, because I wanted to learn all aspects of movie making. That meant that script-writing, storyboarding, directing, editing, color-correcting, music-composing – in fact, pretty much everything possible – was done my me. The downside with that is that each of those jobs was being done my a total neophyte, where I could have got someone who’s dedicated to that one skill. The upside – and this is huge – was that I could keep things moving along, and I kept hearing stories from other filmmakers where everything stalled because the editor got sidetracked into other projects or something. And in the course of doing each of those jobs, I got better at it. Not fantastically brilliant, but competent.
The other thing was that I started to take pride in overcoming obstacles. Almost every day during production things went wrong – sometimes big things. And there’s a temptation to let the schedule get de-railed, which is fatal. So I tried to think of myself as a general on a battlefield: defeat is not an option. Something has just gone badly wrong, but how can we win anyway? What can we use? How can we find a way around it? Things went wrong in editing – at one point I lost the whole project and had to start again from raw footage. At almost every stage there were huge obstacles that had to be overcome, but I kind of trained myself to see it as a matter of pride that nothing would stop this train moving, and I think that’s the only way to get a movie completed. From what I’ve read that’s as true for big budget Hollywood movies as it is for a no-budget indie like mine.
You mentioned storyboarding. As an accomplished visual artist, how did storyboarding figure into your creative process?
I probably did them wrong. I’m not sure how they’re usually formatted, so I just went through the movie drawing little pictures of how I saw each scene looking. These pages are from the opening when the camera is just going around a dinner table discovering the main characters.
It was actually very strange looking at the storyboards again, because I hadn’t looked at them for ages. What was odd was that if you’d asked me I’d have said that I’d wandered a long way from my original vision of the movie, and yet when I look at the storyboard again there are whole stretches where the finished movie is almost identical to the storyboard images. It clearly made a bigger impression in the back of my mind than I’d realized.
Many of your paintings address socio-political themes. Some of that spirit seems to be present in “Heavy Objects” as well. How does presenting a concept in the static medium of a painting differ from discussing the same concept in a time-based medium of film?
Film allows a whole host of levels that are beyond what is possible in painting. A painting is a single, static image – one frame, if you like. The movie is moving, it includes a context, a story, dialogue, music – and all of that adds enormously to the meaning and emotional impact for the viewer. One of the things I wish I’d thought about more was the meaning, in that sense. I thought more about the story and character development, and although the movie is essentially about taking responsibility for our actions, that rather gets lost in the final mix. I wish I’d made that theme more central.
What’s next for Fletcher Crossman? Do you see yourself pursuing both fine art and digital media, or focusing exclusively on one or the other?
Right now I’m taking my bearings. The Heavy Objects project has taken about a year but has dominated everything in my life for most of that time. I want to give myself a bit of space to think about what I’ve taken away from it all, while getting the movie out to a couple of festivals and letting it be seen. I want to consider whether this is what I want to pursue in the future, and I’m a little too close right now to see it clearly.
Having said that, I’m already getting some ideas together for another script, so perhaps I’ve made up my mind more than I’m pretending. And incidentally, this next one is going to have a big budget, a perfect script, flawless directing – in short, this next one’s going to be mega…!