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THE OSCARS

How Did We Get Here?

Kenneth Lonergan was thinking angles, not awards, when he began filming 'You Can Count on Me.'

March 25, 2001|KENNETH LONERGAN

Editor's note: It was a small domestic drama with no major stars and no special effects. Then "You Can Count on Me" wowed audiences and critics at Sundance, Toronto and other festivals, and the film was on its way to becoming one of the year's art house sensations. The saga brings him to the Academy Awards tonight, when the film is up for two Oscars: best actress (Laura Linney) and best original screenplay (Kenneth Lonergan). We asked Lonergan, who is also the film's director, to write about his Oscar experience.

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We shot "You Can Count on Me" over 28 days in New York's Catskill Mountains during June-July of 1999. I was very nervous going into the first day. I had never directed a film before; I had done my pre-production work as conscientiously as I could, cast the film as well as I could and prepared for the first day of shooting as well as I could. But I was very apprehensive in a rather unpleasant way. I had never dreamed of being a movie director, so there was no sense of being in the middle of a dream come true.

That first day, we shot two scenes at a cemetery on top of a hill before lunch, and then after lunch we shot a scene in which Mark Ruffalo's character, Terry, teaches his young nephew (Rory Culkin) how to hammer nails. The cemetery scenes consisted of the following: an early scene in which Laura Linney's character, Sammy, puts flowers on her parents' grave, prays briefly, then stands up, looks out over the countryside and goes down the hill; and a late scene in which Terry--Sammy's brother--walks up the hill, looks at the graves, falls to his knees and puts his hand on his mother's tombstone, turns around to sit with his back resting on his father's tombstone, lights a cigarette, smokes, looks out at the scenery and shakes his head a number of times.

If I remember correctly, Laura's scene required two angles, or setups: first, a shot of distant hills, pulling back to reveal the cemetery with Laura at the graves, after which she goes through the entire action of the scene to the end; second, a reverse close-up of Laura as she looks over the countryside (which was not actually used in the film, although it appears in some publicity stills).

I believe Mark's scene required six setups: two different Steadicam shots of him walking up the hill, one from ahead and one from the side; a shot of his feet walking along in the grass, a shot of him from behind the graves as he ascends the hilltop and goes through the rest of the action in the scene; a close-up of him as he smokes, looks at the scenery and shakes his head; and a longer shot of him sitting there, framed between the trunk of a tree and a large tombstone.

I thought of the shot starting on the distant mountains and pulling back to reveal Laura in the cemetery, and I thought of the shot of Mark's feet and the shot leading him up the hill with the tombstones entering the frame from behind as we move backward through them. Steve Kazmierski, our cinematographer, thought of the longer shot of Mark framed between the tree trunk and the tombstone, the sideways Steadicam shot, and generally determined the framing of all the shots--with my input and consultation.

Then he had the crew build, off-camera, a large white canopy to soften the sunlight, and some leafy boughs to break up the light even more and cast leafy shadows on the patch of ground occupied by the tombstones. The shadows of leaves you see on Mark and Laura when they're at the graves come from boughs being held in place by some clamps off-camera.

The location was found by my location manager, Jon Zeidman--I loved it. I never dreamed we would find a cemetery on top of a hill with a view of a succession of green mountains, just like I wrote in the script. This one had a big road down at the bottom of it that I didn't want to show, but all we had to do was frame the shot so the road was out of the picture. Our tombstones were designed by Mike Shaw, the production designer (with some input from me) and carved by a local tombstone manufacturer. After the movie, we gave them back, and the surfaces were re-sanded so they could be sold again. Mike and Steve and I picked the spot on the hill for the tombstones.

What does any of this have to do with the Oscars? I have no idea. It doesn't feel like it has anything to do with the Oscars, and yet here we are about to go to the Oscars partly because of what happened that day.

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We weren't thinking about the Oscars that day, or any other day on the set that I can recall. The time pressure on a small movie is very intense and completely dominates the atmosphere on the shoot. We had less than a month to shoot more than 200 scenes--some short and some long. Most scenes have to be covered from a variety of angles.

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