After seeing this unconventional yet charming trailer for Lost in London by Woody Harrelson, I was instantly intrigued. My friend showed it to me on Reddit, where people were furiously debating about the film’s legitimacy. “It’s like Woody Harrelson got high and forgot what a play was” one Redditor wrote. Like Woody says in the trailer, it could be brilliant, or a bomb.
But despite the skepticism, the film’s format did have precedents. Long-shot cinema had recently spiked in popularity with Birdman pushing the boundaries of pacing to give us a breathless film that felt like a one shot, and of course, the success of the indie hit Victoria which took up the challenge literally and showed us the pros and cons of a film at the mercy of flawless execution.
In New York City, the 7pm Union Square showing was sold out, and Times Square was quickly filling up. But we decided that the cab fare was worth it to witness history in the making, so we grabbed tickets online and managed to arrive just as the theater lights dimmed down.
As we settled in and the first scene emerged on screen, it felt like this was a kind of sporting event for film makers. As industry folk, we were acutely aware of everything that could go wrong in such a difficult production– the cameraman could trip, the actor could forget his lines or blocking, the mics could malfunction– these things were only a handful of possible pitfalls, without considering any potential broadcast failures on top of that. We sat on the edge of our seats like fans in bleachers, rooting for the film’s success, but knowing all to well the stakes.
Either this massive experiment was going to be a “disaster” as the trailer put it, or a miracle of ingenuity.
Fortunately, it was the latter.
In the beginning, it was difficult to get into the world of the film, probably because I was so hyper-aware of the context. I had to forget the novelty of the event, forget the stakes and the sense of wonder that we were exclusive members of a massive global audience… and start getting into a movie mindset– to focus on watching the film as a film. The first shot was out of focus, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “Was this supposed to be blurry? Or was this the first of many mistakes?”
But as the camera moved to dialogues in an impressive indoor scene that bounced from character to character backstage of a theater, following a film-actor-turned-theater-actor a lå Birdman, we quickly entered the world of the film and were introduced to the production’s soundscape, style of humor, and pace.
As the film progressed, the most impressive element to me was not the camera work, (although the camera operator’s resilience was incredible), but the audio acrobatics that astounded me the most.
For example– at one point, it sounded like the body/lav mic malfunctioned on one of the actors. The actor’s voice was muffled through one scene, but after he disappeared off camera briefly, his mic was restored upon return. I wondered how many mics each actor was laced with, and how many mics must have been planted in the cars, in the club, and every where else just in case one mic died. Sound is arguably more important than video in film making. It’s what dictates the production value of a film, and a soundscape can determine whether a movie becomes a tear jerker or a comedy at the end of the day.
There were massive world tone and room tone obstacles. The biggest was traffic– one scene is set in a noisy vehicle, where the revving of the car competed furiously with the dialogue– a sound recordist’s worst nightmare. Would it have been possible to replace the engine of that car? Perhaps they could have pulled up another car once the camera was turned away from the windows, latched the set car onto it and pulled it through the streets? On a typical film project, you could just “ADR” the scene and replace the actor’s muffled voices with clear ones recorded later on.
I’m not sure how much they were able to close down streets for this film, but street traffic was quite noisy at times, especially in one scene located on a bridge, where traffic audio seemed to stream from both above (airplane?), below, and to the side of all mics. I had a flashback to a recent film I shot near an airport, where every ten minutes, the shoot was halted due to the rumble of jet engines overhead.
At times, the camera work slipped from the filmic to a more documentary style, as one might expect of a literal run-and-gun style shoot. Some dialogue scenes that included movement had to be shot following the characters, echoing “Enter the Void” style conversations. Tight locations and a height difference between the actors and Camera Op made some of these shots feel a bit awkward, but they did the job. Though most of the dialogue scenes were perfectly composed to include all participating actors, single camera, without a sense of visual limitation. The pictures were just close or wide enough to include the important action, nothing less or more, which worked brilliantly for the film.
With a regular film, you’ll go through three, six, at times, twenty takes or more to get the perfect shot. Then you can go by the age old adage “fix it in post” when all else fails. But this film had no safety nets.
Overall, “Lost in London” was an impressive feat of film making, and I hope that this isn’t the last time we get to witness a live project like it. Every day, film makers are working with new technology to tell stories and develop narratives– it can be easy to forget that going to the movies used to be an event in and of itself… before everyone was bombarded with animated, moving images and before video replaced photographs as a way to capture memories. As we move forward with technology, it’s interesting to think about how we can further explore the experiential aspect of film, in a way that doesn’t require big explosions and flashy, heroic imagery. There are other ways to thrill an audience, and Woody Harrelson proved it.