NEW YORK, NY -- Consider the title Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, and imagine why filmmaker Ben Shapiro couched his documentary about the photographer's "Beneath the Roses" series in terms of momentary confrontations. You'll be busy for days. The cinematic reference--which appears on a movie house marquee in the climatic photo of the film shoot--echoes the production-within-a-production optic of this riveting chronicle.
As we see, Crewdson takes a page from the filmmaking handbook, using lighting crews (of as many as 60) together with actors, painstakingly scouted locations and constructed sets and props (as seen in photo 1 - 2). Months of prep can go into the making of a single Crewdson image. Shapiro follows the artist at work over the insight-packed span of a decade.
To help dissect his "making of," thalo reached Ben Shapiro, the Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker, for a chat.
thalo: What made Crewdson think you'd get him?
Ben Shapiro: He'd seen how I represented him on film and carried myself on his sets from the piece I did on him for PBS's "Egg." It's always tricky establishing trust with a subject. I had the perfect calling card and it allowed Gregory to feel comfortable inviting me back.
th: Why "Brief Encounters" (beyond its marquee reference)?
BS: The title suggests the viewer's engagement with the photograph, Gregory's relationship to creating his fleeting moments and his encounter with that world he's creating in a momentary and finite way before it all disperses.
th: "Encounters" also carries a whiff of the divine. Is Crewdson playing God by creating a world of perfect "order and stillness"?
BS: Is searching for form what God does? You can focus on Gregory's photography in a way that you can't in a movie, where the frame is in a constant state of change (as seen in photo 3 - 4). In that sense his work offers an omniscient perspective more than in cinema. And he's surely going for a heightened spiritual sensibility. Russell Banks considers his work operatic, with the camera as his audience.
th: How did Crewdson's aesthetic affect your work?
BS: It gave me a great visual palette to draw from. I'd go during the day and see an ordinary street, and then all this apparatus would show up--and lights and fog--and I'd film that transformation (as seen in photo 5). Essentially the movie is about the process of his work. I tried to evoke some of the same qualities of the places that he photographs.
th: For example?
BS: There's a shot of a gas station in Pittsfield, Massachusetts with this old painted sign, a single car driving by and a lot of sky. It has similar attributes to his work: sparseness, openness, loneliness and decay, but also the magic hour.
th: How did that landscape resonate with you?
BS: I have my own connection to the area. I was born in Stockbridge and returned during summers and holidays. So Gregory and I share an experience which imbues a place with that thing you only get when you live it through eyes and mind of a child.
th: Yet another level of brief encounters.
Photo 1: Gregory Crewdson at work (on left). Photo from "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters" courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
Photo 2: Gregory Crewdson at work (standing on ladder) on the set of "Untitled (Ophelia)." Photo from "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters" courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
Photo 3: Setting up the shot for "Untitled (Birth)" from the Beneath the Roses series. Photo from "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters" by Cosi Theodoli-Braschi courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
Photo 4: "Untitled (Birth)." Photo © from "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters" by Gregory Crewdson courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
Photo 5: "Untitled (Brief Encounter)" from the Beneath the Roses series. Photo © from "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters" by Gregory Crewdson courtesy of Zeitgeist Films