The Production

Edward Gorey and German Expressionism

Nathaniel Chapman’s visual style for the film was largely influenced by the works of Edward Gorey and the German Expressionist movement. This was one of the main reasons he chose to shoot the film in black and white: to play with contrasts and textures rather than color.

During storyboarding, Nate kept a copy of Edward Gorey’s Alphabet Book nearby, basing some frames directly off a particular drawing. Like the film, Edward Gorey’s work can be unsettling in a peculiar way. The picture below is typical of Edward Gorey’s work. It is gothic and dark but also filled with sardonic humor. It’s a dark and foreboding image with the textured lines, ornate curtains and chair, the feet poking out of a cloth covering the body, the skeleton of a cherubim and the tall brooding man with the top hat and black coat. But there are also the childish blocks and the girl holding the T block. She has an extremely dry expression that seems to neutralize the entire image. Her expression is the inspiration for Gideon’s demeanor.

Nate also sought to apply the ethos of German Expressionism to the film. One of Expressionism’s main principles was to externalize a character’s emotions using the set, lighting and the actor’s physical movements to create a unified feeling. In the shot below, Danny is starting to suffer from a heart attack. The dim lighting captures his loneliness and rising awareness and fear of his mortality. Compositionally, the rigid lines of the door frame, dresser and the low diagonal ceiling are very prominent. These large and imposing shapes push Danny to the leftmost part of the frame, isolating him there.

Slow-motion sequences and fluid tracking shots augment the visual cues from Edward Gorey and German Expressionism, eliciting a sense of weary restlessness, as the camera hovers through the action. “The film has a humorous surface,” Nate says, “but I wanted to maintain an ominous and gothic atmosphere, which foregrounds the film’s sardonic spirit.”

Cape Cod

“In a conversation I had with Craig Brewer, he told me I needed to make a film about the place I came from.” This only partly explains why Nate Chapman decided to shoot in his hometown, the Provincetown area of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

For starters, Provincetown is a mecca for the gay community. What better place than this for a character like Danny Ziegfeld to reside? But aesthetically, Cape Cod completely sets the tone of the film. Nate opted to shoot in early spring, the off-season on Cape Cod, a time when the numerous vacation homes are empty and businesses are closed. The beaches—one of the main locations of the film—are cold and desolate, great for sparse compositions and a melancholic mood. This contrasts the freewheeling moments of the film with a pervading sense of depravity.

In contrast to the stark and sprawling landscapes, Provinceown is a famously quaint place. The cramped, cobblestone streets and weathered shingles create an old-world look. A place well-known for its counterculture and John Waters; the locals add priceless character to the mise-en-scène. The producers asked extras to wear outfits representative of Provincetown.  Some showed up in elaborate drag, colorful wigs and various other indescribable outfits, beyond what the producers had ever imagined. While shooting, an anti-war rally took place, in which Ellie, a 70-year-old man dressed in glamorous drag, sang show tunes to promote peace. This is featured in the Provincetown montage early on in the film. “Shooting in P-town was great,” said production designer Will Hopper. “It would have been tremendously difficult to recreate all of its charm.” Indeed, Provincetown’s charm, set against sparse beaches and dunes, establishes a vocabulary in the vein of the works of Edward Gorey, Tim Burton and Edgar Allen Poe.

The cold and unpredictable weather also yielded tremendous effects. The second day of production took place in the imposing dunes just outside of Provincetown. It was a horrendous day for shooting—freezing cold, icy rain, and so windy on the top of the dunes, that it was difficult to stand. Nate and the producers considered wrapping for the day, but the crew and actors agreed to rough it out. And just as Werner Herzog believed the stressful shooting conditions in the Amazon would translate well onto film, the nightmarish weather was crucial in establishing the mood. In the scene, Gideon has run away from Danny and into the dunes. Danny chases after him in vain. He stands alone on the snowcapped dunes and looks around, furious and despondent. Roaring wind practically knocks him down, while bits of snow and rain fly around everywhere like apocalyptic debris—the perfect visualization of Danny’s state of mind.

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