Writer/director Dennis Hauck’s debut feature-length film is a cinematic marvel. Filmed entirely on 35mm, Too Late unfolds in five acts, each a 20+ minute take with no hidden cuts or gimmicks. They are the longest 35mm Steadicam shots in cinema history–each using nearly an entire film reel. The reels are presented out of order, and the movie tells the story of a troubled private investigator in Los Angeles and his search for a missing woman from his past. It stars the inimitable John Hawkes and features Crystal Reed, Dichen Lachman, Robert Forster, Jeff Fahey, Rider Strong, and Dash Mihok in supporting roles.
Too Late is screening exclusively in 35mm and is currently playing in select theaters. I highly recommend seeing it on the big screen, the way the director intended. I watched it last year at Fantastic Fest and it ended up being my favorite film of an impressively stacked festival. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dennis and chat about making Too Late, shooting on 35mm, his go-to karaoke song, and more, including the exclusive story of an on-set “miracle.”
But first, champagne samurai chop!
Wednesday, September 30th, 2015 – The Highball, Austin TX
Salty Winters: How did the story for Too Late come about? Where did you get the idea for it?
Dennis Hauck: That’s a good question. It was written five years ago, so some of it is, “hmm, where did I come up with this idea?” I just wanted to do a riff on the detective genre, and I knew I only wanted to do five scenes and kind of laid that challenge for myself. I kind of came up with what I thought were interesting set pieces that would all come together to tell one guy’s story and hopefully add up to a portrait.
SW: When did the long takes come about and why long takes?
DH: Because I’d never done a long take before, and again I just wanted to challenge myself. I had just done two short films before this, and each of them were very carefully composed static shots and maybe the occasional dolly move but pretty much locked off framing, and I just thought it would be a fun challenge. In my last short film, we shot in Techniscope format.
SW: Was that Al’s Beef or Sunday Punch?
DH: That was Sunday Punch. Al’s Beef we shot anamorphic 35mm which is beautiful, and I love it, and I want to go back to that. Techniscope is cheaper because the frame size is smaller which allows you to get twice as much footage out of a roll of film, so normally a roll of film will last 11 minutes, but these can last 22 minutes–which I didn’t think much about for Sunday Punch, we were just using it to save money. Afterwards, I realized, wow, you could do up to a 22-minute take on 35. I don’t know if anyone’s ever done that before on 35, so I thought it’d be fun, maybe I’ll try and write a short film that’s all one take. Then I said, wow, you string 4 or 5 of those together, you got yourself a feature film. So it actually seemed like a very cheap and quick way to make a feature. It didn’t turn out to be quick because we started shooting in 2012. It took us several years. It’s definitely a low budget movie. I thought it would be a micro-budget movie, that would be about 5 days of shooting, but it got a little bigger. There was a lot I didn’t anticipate, naively, just with the lighting, and I kept, not arguing but challenging the DP (cinematographer Bill Fernandez), like, “What do we need all these lights for? On Sunday Punch the quote was so much lower.” He was like, “yeah, Sunday Punch was a coverage movie, and we used the same lights for every direction, we just moved them.” Here we had to sometimes light 2 locations across a city block, and we had to have a dimmer board operator, because if we’re going 360 degrees, and there are lights everywhere, we’re going to see our own shadows, so we had like an NFL halftime show guy on the dimmer board, taking lights up and bringing them down as we spun around the characters just so we didn’t see our own shadows. There was a lot I didn’t anticipate. It was a challenge.
SW: What other challenges do you face when doing long takes on 35? Bigger camera?
DH: Yeah, I guess that’s the thing. The cameras are extremely heavy, and I’d strap this thing on, and just, anything gets exponentially heavier over time. We needed a Steadicam operator that could hold this insanely heavy rig for 20 minutes at a time. We found a guy who just did a triathlon. He was adamant that he could do it, and then we got on set for the first one which was the strip club scene, Act 3, and he comes up to me, and he is just like “I can’t do it, we have to start thinking about a cut point.” I’m like, “No, no, no, no cut points.” We had hired two guys, one was almost like an understudy or something, just in case our main guy threw his back out, so instead of having him as the backup, we devised a way for the two of them to hand the camera off between them halfway through the shot while I was still rolling. So actually, that was the real blessing in disguise. We ended up doing that from then on out, and it worked out so much better. Instead of trying to teach two guys every camera move, they were each only learning half of the shots. They were a lot fresher, and it was always exciting doing that hand-off.
SW: Sort of like relay running.
DH: Yeah, with a baton. An insanely cumbersome baton.
SW: What is the make and model of that awesome bright green car in Too Late?
DH: That is a 1972/1959 Mercedellac. It’s a ’72 Mercedes with ’59 Cadillac fins welded onto it. That is my former next door neighbor in Laurel Canyon, Michael Rogers’ car. He’s a character. He built his whole house, and it’s a crazy house. Do you remember the song at the end of the movie in the last scene, “Sex All Day”? Kind of like a novelty 90s sex song?
DH: He wrote and performed that with his band, Jus Luv. He has another one of those hybrid cars. He has the Jagallac that appears in Sunday Punch. That’s a 1999 purple Jaguar convertible with white leather seats. It also has the ’59 Cadillac fins welded onto it.
SW: Nice. Is there is any significance to Dorothy’s name, or the red hoodie that she wears?
DH: I don’t know what came first. It’s kind of a chicken or egg thing. I think I just liked the name Dorothy and then realized The Wizard of Oz and was happy to play that up a little bit. I tried to give Act 1 a bit of a fairy tale feel to it. She’s a bit lost like Little Red Riding Hood. Even with the score, I talked to the composer (Robert Allaire) about giving it a bizarre, kind of fairy tale feel, like an Alice in Wonderland kind of idea. And then her last name I think I just got from Gustav Mahler.
SW: I love that first sequence. It looks very technical. Was it the most difficult to pull off?
DH: I think they all had their own unique things that made them challenging. That one was definitely difficult because it was taking about 10 people to get the camera into each position because it was on 100 feet of track on a gigantic Technocrane. There was a guy operating the remote head. There was a gigantic zoom lens, so each person was doing one little part just to get the shot, so that was difficult. But I think from a purely physical standpoint, for the Steadicam guys, Act 4 at the drive-in was probably the toughest because they were going up stairs and everything with that heavy rig multiple times.
SW: Are there any movies or specific shots from movies that you studied in preparation for the long takes?
DH: No, at the very beginning when I got the idea, I kind of went back and re-watched Rope. There might have been a couple of the old long takes. I didn’t study them. I just re-watched them, and then I realized pretty quickly, you know what, I’m not even paying attention to the camera movement, and that’s a very good thing, I’m getting caught up in the story. That’s what I wanted to do with Too Late. I know people will sit and talk about it, and that’s cool, but hopefully that’s not the only thing they’re thinking of. So it was like, let’s just figure this out on our own without looking at too much other stuff.
SW: What was it like working with the great John Hawkes?
DH: He’s amazing, and he took his time deciding whether to do this or not, but that’s why he’s always in good movies or great movies, because he really hand picks his roles. It was kind of agonizing waiting to hear from him, is he going to do this or is he not? But once he came on board, he was fully committed. At my house everyday with the other actors just rehearsing on their own time. Yeah, he was fully committed and really amazing to work with.
DH: No, because he’s just the nicest. I mean, it was, because I was a first-time director, but you just forget that very quickly, and Robert is just the nicest guy on earth. He shows up to set with a lot of wrapped presents to give to actors he’s working with and producers. He has these little… I won’t say what’s in it, but it was very nice, and I still use the gift everyday.
SW: Very cool. How did you choose the songs for the movie?
DH: I think they just… through the writing process I would listen to a lot of music, and sometimes a song would just strike me, and that feels like this scene, or that feels like this character, so I need to put that in this scene. Some of them I knew right away while writing it, like Janet’s song that she sings, the Nick Cave song. That was the whole scene right there. Some of it came about organically. Some of it was while I was writing or even while we were shooting or while we were in post-production or you know, just like everyday like you listen to music, and all of a sudden maybe you’ve heard the song a hundred times, and it hits you at that moment. You listen a little more carefully to the lyrics and the vibe, and wow, that really feels like this character, and I want to put that in the movie.
SW: Do you have any exciting set stories that you would like to share?
DH: Okay yeah, I have one. I haven’t told this story, so there you go. Exciting in that I might have a heart attack! In the drive-in scene, we’re seeing every direction, and there is a ton of ground to light, so basically we had three giant Condors (big ass lights). The two main ones were above and behind the drive-in screens to kind of act like ambience glow bouncing off the screen, and these things go up 100 feet or something like that, and that was our main source of light. We were usually out there three days (to shoot a scene); two days of rehearsal and one day to shoot, so by our shoot day or night we’re all feeling good. We had actually put some film in the camera at the end of day 2 and actually had done 1 or 2 shots. So, alright, we’ve already got a couple shots, we have all day tomorrow to get our shot. So I’m hanging out in a makeup trailer talking with Dichen, and I come out, and I just see the look on Bill Fernandez, our DP, his face. We started going off about some other tiny little setup and arguing about that. He’s like,“well, we’ve got bigger problems.” “What, what is the bigger problem?” And he’s like, “you haven’t heard?” One of the Condors would not go up. It was an electronic thing, and I guess the circuit board was malfunctioning, and they couldn’t get it to go up, so we had no light. There was no plan B, there was nothing. There was darkness. We couldn’t shoot, and you know, we’re panicking, what are we going to do? If we cancel the shoot, will insurance even cover all the money we would be out? We were in the middle of nowhere near Barstow trying to get a Condor to come out in the middle of the night, and no one would come out. It was going to take a long time for them to bring another one out from L.A. The repairman was on his way out, but he wasn’t there.
SW: Everyone was freaking out?
DH: Everyone was freaking out. No one knew what to do. I was having a heart attack. This was my whole career right here. We don’t have the money. It’s all going toward this right now. If we walk away without this shot, I don’t know what we’re going to do. The AD (assistant director) is talking, “what’s our plan B?” There’s no plan B. There’s no other way to light it, and one of the electricians just walked away and said, “let me give this thing one more shot” and started tinkering, and he starts fiddling with it, and then it just starts slowly going up. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone’s just watching this thing, and it’s just agonizing, like taking minutes to go up. It gets about half-way, and it stops. We’re like, “ugh,” and then it starts again. It probably took 15 minutes as it’s slowly, almost imperceptively raising. We got it up there, and we’re like, “oh shit.” It took some time and I still wonder how many takes did we lose? Maybe that magic one, or if we’d had one more… I think the one that’s in the movie is great, but you want as many as you can to choose from because there is no editing. Then later, the technician did come out and he looked at it, and he’s like “there’s no way that should have gone up, I don’t know how you guys got it because the computer chip was malfunctioning. It’s like dead, and if that’s dead, it shouldn’t move at all.”
SW: So you had a set hero.
DH: Yes, it was a miracle I suppose.
SW: That’s crazy. What is a fond memory you have of the experience?
DH: It was probably all the wrap parties afterwards when we were just hanging out, and Barstow was a lot of fun. I always find it so much fun shooting out of town, and nights. I love shooting nights because the whole world’s asleep, and we’re here making a movie. It’s just exciting and magical, and that was so much fun. After that story, we shot all night and then wrapped, and then we had a local bar open up for us at 6 in the morning. Then one of the actors saw a karaoke machine in the corner appropriately enough. “Can you bust that out?” We all started doing drunk karaoke at 6, 7 in the morning and just kept it going all day, and then we went back to the Motel 6 to party at the pool at 1 in the afternoon. People kept dropping like flies, so that was a lot of fun.
SW: Have you had a chance to do karaoke here at Fantastic Fest?
DH: Yes (smiles).
SW: Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
DH: I usually start out with “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” Credence. That’s kind of in my wheelhouse.
SW: Is there a way for people to view your short films, Sunday Punch and Al’s Beef?
DH: I don’t know what I’m doing with Al’s Beef right now, but we’re going to release Sunday Punch in conjunction with the official release of Too Late. Not sure how just yet, but it will be out there when Too Late is out there. (Note- Sunday Punch is screening with Too Late on 35mm.)
SW: Final question, what is next for you?
DH: Well, I’m 20 pages into a script right now that’s all up in my head, but I have a lot of work to do once I get home from this fest and recover.
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