“November,” the new film by Greg Harrison (“Groove”), is on the surface a mystery in which a young woman, a photography teacher played by Courteney Cox, tries to track down the wacked-out holdup man who killed her fiancé while simultaneously trying to come to terms with her grief over his death. But it’s not structured or shot in conventional terms. For one thing Harrison and writer Benjamin Brand have structured the picture in a very fractured way, with shards of the narrative repeating and overlapping and many weird twists–particularly one involving a slide that might hold the key to her quest showing up in her class. For another, in was shot on digital video, one of the projects funded by the enterprising InDigEnt production firm. Harrison discussed making the picture in a recent Dallas interview.
“[Ben’s] initial draft was this fractured narrative told in three movements,” he said, “and then what I was interested in doing was rooting that fractured narrative in some kind of emotional truth, and for me the justification of the fracture was the traumatized, unreliable narrator–the POV is of the lead character. So we worked a lot on kind of pulling that theme out, and applying it to the visual ideas that I had that could express the displacement she was going through. Like a lot of writing, you start from one idea, and it becomes something else–you kind of let it become something else. I think Ben came more from that place of exercise, almost like ‘Let’s fracture the narrative and play with it, just for the fun of it.’ But I was hoping to find something–and for me it was trauma, and how might trauma affect how you remember, and somehow the process of selective memory seems integral to processing trauma–so it felt like there was some emotional rock at the bottom of this fractured approach [and] hopefully there’s some justification coming from the character. We talked about ‘Incident at Owl Creek’–that was an inspiration for him. I think when I came on board the kinds of influences for me were like Nicolas Roeg, particularly his use of fractured editing and kind of non-sequitur visual elements. Particularly a touchstone moment in ‘Don’t Look Now’–for me that was kind of a visual, tonal touchstone–in the beginning, with Donald Sutherland intercut with his daughter playing by that small pond, with him looking at a slide through the loop, and then inexplicably that drop of blood just comes over the slide, and he gets up in a panic and goes out and sees his daughter has drowned in the pond. There was something just so odd and abstract but emotionally right about that choice. I was hoping to take that same spirit and bring it into the visual side of ‘November.’ [My influences were] Nicolas Roeg and, I think, Alain Resnais and his work–the sixties films. We talked about that as well when developing the script–his boldness with abstraction and fractured narrative and somewhat experimental in the editorial [aspect].”
Harrison continued: “‘November’ had all these challenges regarding narrative, visual style, tone. It had more dramatic weight to it, and I just felt really challenged by the material in all respects. So it was something I was really drawn to. But the big challenge for me…was how to balance between confusion and ambiguity. I love the right kind of ambiguity in a film, that creates a space for the audience to step into the movie and interpret the movie. And because the movie is about perception, particularly the way Ben wrote this photographer, the notion of framing [in photographs] seemed parallel to memory, and how you might select out and frame memories, and create your own world out of selective memories. It just seemed very rich thematically, and yet there’s the difficulty–how do you make the good kind of ambiguity in a film?”
Working out the structural issues was only half of the challenge posed by “November,” though; the mode of production was a second. “Then when you layer on top how we made the movie,” Harrison said, “it was incredibly challenging, because we only had fifteen days to shoot the movie, and a lot of it was about figuring out ahead of time what the movie would be, because we only had time to execute on the set, not explore. So [we had] $150,000 for production, fifteen days for shooting, and [we] had to shoot on mini-DV because of the company that we shot it for.” All InDigEnt projects, he explained, “have that model, where they give you $150,000, fifteen days. So you’re burning ten grand a day, mini-DV, desk-top editing technology. It’s really, really taxing. But video worked great, because once I knew it was on video, I kind of used that as a creative limitation and said okay, what out of video can I get aesthetically that maybe hasn’t been seen before? Because a lot of times when you have that limit, you’re looking at natural light, shaky cam [and] hand-held takes. And I still wanted to think thematically, editorially–all the control that goes into cinematic language.” Perhaps the most challenging elements of this process, he added, were “color control, lighting control and production design control–and trying to find reasons to control and progress those throughout the movie that had some narrative point or emotional point, like the central progression from [the section called] ‘Denial’ to [that titled] ‘Acceptance.’ We shot the first section in this kind of murky, noir blue shadow–we called it the eternal night of chapter one, because no one goes to bed, no one wakes up, there are no clocks, it’s always night even though it feels like days are passing. Then chapter two…where the emotional revelations of the event start to come out, that had a more woody, orange tone. And then when she moves to acceptance, we just white-balanced the camera straight up, so it was more of a white light, more neutral, more natural-looking. And all those [changes] could be accomplished primarily through white-balancing the video camera. Doing as much as possible in camera was very important, because our post-budget was very limited, and the format of digital video isn’t very robust [in allowing later manipulation] without degrading the image.” He added: “I guess it all comes under the idea of control. Many DV movies aren’t controlled aesthetically because you’re shooting on DV to save money, and normally it’s about a performance and doing long takes and using natural light. So we tried to go the opposite.”
The InDigEnt paradigm might have meant challenges, but it also brought benefits. “They also give you ownership of the movie,” Harrison said, “because creatively I get final cut, and they give us as producers forty gross points of the movie to distribute to the crew. So it really was a very interesting way to make a movie, very communal in that way, and everybody was going the extra mile because they thought they owned the movie.” One of the people who certainly went that extra mile was Cox, and Harrison couldn’t be more complimentary about the former “Friends” star. “It was really from day one a kind of testing the waters with her,” he said, “saying I really want just to transform you. And her response was immediately, ‘Yes, let’s.’ And I was sneaking up on it, saying, ‘Would you be willing to cut your hair?’ and ‘I have this idea where you don’t really wear makeup in the movie.’ But then she ran with it, and the next day she called to say she got, like, four piercings in her ear…and got seven inches cut off her hair. Another brilliant addition that came directly from Courteney was that shock of grey [in her hair], which not only transformed her aesthetically–you never see Courteney Cox with a streak of grey–but she did research on traumatized people, and people who suffer shock trauma often develop grey hair, which is fascinating to me and, I thought, was a great call on her part. It worked for the character and transformed Courteney Cox.”
And, Harrison added, since the picture’s budget didn’t allow for a wrap party, Cox also arranged one at an exclusive club as a surprise–and picked up the tab. An extra mile, indeed.