Sundance wouldnâ€™t be Sundance without firmly keeping its foot in independent cinema. When the festival is literally overrun by Hollywood each January, and mainstream fare such as a Barry Levinson film has its premiere there, it is gratifying to see a film shot on video with no actors (save a 10-year-old) and edited in a garage competing in the Dramatic Competition.
Such is the case with Anthony (Chusy) Haney-Jardineâ€™s Anywhere, USA, co-written with his wife, Jennifer MacDonald, starring their daughter, and shot in their hometown. Chusy, who is Venezuelan-American (his name rhymes with juicy), set out to make a subjective portrait of what he saw as his America.
â€œThe presumption was that that take on America would somehow hold water, or at least other people would find entertainment in that portraiture,â€? Chusy says. â€œItâ€™s not to me an all-encompassing portrait, itâ€™s just a very personal portrait.â€?
Chusy and Macdonald formed a company called Found Films, and Anywhere, USA is very much a part of their gestalt. â€œOur strategy in making this film was to use what was available to us â€“ what we found. What we found was on the streets. The cast was all from the streets, so to speak, in Ashville, N.C., where we made the film. Locations were found. We used friends. Whatever we could find, we used to make the film.â€?
The film is a triptych, three stories with interlacing themes, with the titles â€œPenance,â€? â€œLoss,â€? and â€œIgnorance.â€? Chusy and MacDonald wrote out different scenarios, then hit the street looking for their cast. Theyâ€™d scour the Wal-Mart Super Store or the local Subway Sub Shop. â€œIf we found someone particularly interesting, the cadence of their walk or their voice, or they seemed interesting to us–it was purely a visceral inner reaction–weâ€™d say, â€˜Hey, thatâ€™s an interesting person. Maybe weâ€™ll call on them later.â€™ Weâ€™d fashion these stories, then approach people and say, â€˜Hey, youâ€™d be perfect for this.â€™ Sometimes weâ€™d cast it the night before.
â€œA lot of the film was created in situ,â€? Chusy says. â€œSo, the scenarios were fleshed out, but because we were using non-professionals of the most part, 98 percent–my daughter was the only professional in the whole cast–these people had other lives, other jobs, other situations, so sometimes somebody wouldnâ€™t show up so weâ€™d have to refashion the story. But we used a discipline of waiting for hours before shooting–sometimes minutes or seconds before shooting to write the film. And so there was no rehearsal, but there was no improvisation either. Every word in the film is scripted. Itâ€™s kind of an unusual modus operandi.â€?
Perla Haney-Jardine, the filmmakersâ€™ daughter, was cast by her father in a commercial a few years back when he couldnâ€™t find an unstudied child actor. She has since acted in Kill Bill, Volume 2, Spiderman 3, and just wrapped Michael Winterbottomâ€™s Genova, with Hope Davis and Catherine Keener in Italy.
To capture these unusual acted moments, Chusy decided to shoot on Panasonicâ€™s AG-HVX200 at 720. They had tried the Varicam, but it was too bulky for their run-and-gun style. When they heard the HVX was coming out, they actually delayed production to give it a try.
â€œWe chose that camera because it was unobtrusive to actors,â€? Chusy says. â€œThese are non-actors. So, it was a small camera, yet it delivered a pretty extraordinary punch. I also love the fact that it had–because you couldnâ€™t put prime lenses on it, the close-ups have this incredibly strange deep focus, so it creates its own aesthetic, this plasticity that Iâ€™d never seen before. I kind of fell in love with that look. Thereâ€™s something very odd about it. That oddness is a great combination for this film that was very personal–and odd, in a good way. By odd, Iâ€™m saying itâ€™s peculiar in the sense that itâ€™s perfectly personal. … I was just astounded by its results, and I said, â€˜Yeah! Letâ€™s go with this.â€™â€?
The DP was Patrick Rousseau, who helped give each of the three stories a decidedly different palette and look.
â€œIn the first story, when you see the film, you never see the camera move–ever,” Chusy says. “And itâ€™s shot from the perspective of if a 12-year-old were standing in front of me, and they could only move their head one way or the other. How would you frame it? In essence, the first piece is the sophomoric, puerile person in me–that pays penance! The visual obligation we set for ourselves was, How would a 12-year-old look at this and frame it–literally, if they had a still camera? Also, the first story is a little more lurid, the colors are more lurid, and it had that visual aesthetic.
â€œThe second story is the story of my daughter. I call it the heart of the film. The camera moves a lot, itâ€™s very visceral, thereâ€™s a great deal of hand-held photography. It veers over toward a blue palette.
â€œThe third story, I like calling it Masterpiece Theatre gone awry. Itâ€™s shot in a long master sequences with no edits–wide shots with some subtle camera movements. Again, the visual vocabulary just fit each milieu. All three are in different socio-economic settings. The third one is more posh, and is reminiscent of a bad BBC production–though entirely American.â€?
When I asked Chusy for any touchstones that might have inspired his eccentric approach, I expected to hear Harmony Korine or, perhaps, Werner Herzog. Instead, Chusy mentioned a sculptor who works in molten gold in the minute while itâ€™s cooling, and a chair made from found wood, named for shantytowns in Brazil. â€œI ran into this chair, called the â€˜favela chair,â€™ done by these Brazilians called the Campana Brothers. Theyâ€™d fashioned this chair, that looked just like a chair, but theyâ€™d given it a skin, and the skin was made out of discarded pieces of all shards of wood. It was a remarkable thing to look at, and I found that really interesting–that my films could be a chair.â€?
Chair or no, Chusyâ€™s film interested the jury at Sundance.
â€œItâ€™s a shock to us that weâ€™re in the festival,â€? Chusy says. â€œThe shock is even exacerbated by the fact that weâ€™re in the Dramatic Competition, a little film like ours. On a personal level, it ranks behind kissing my wife for the first time or seeing my children born–but close! Itâ€™s amazing! What it means for our film is itâ€™s a validation for the idea that you can make a film thatâ€™s pretty polished, but done in a way thatâ€™s completely homemade. Because of the democratization of the equipment, the relative low cost of entry, you can pull off a film like this, and the film can also make it into Sundance with films that, though I havenâ€™t seen them, I suppose they have considerable budgets behind them and stars and all that stuff. And, itâ€™s kind of neat that a film like ours would get validation. When you make a film intimately with a small crew and then you spend time editing yourself, you start thinking, â€˜Are these suppositions as presumptuous as you think they are?â€™ And, â€˜What am I doing? Whoâ€™s going to find this entertaining or moving?â€™ And I guess Sundance, who are ultimately arbiters of taste in a way, have said, â€˜You know what? We suspect you may be right in that little cave of yours in the garage where youâ€™ve been editing.â€™ Maybe, in essence, the film is more than just chewing gum for the eyes and ears.â€?