“It’s that new girl in #13, says she’s got a problem…She white, she got her youth, her whole privileged life ahead of her. Oh, I am looking forward to hearing about her problems!”
Evette in Pieces of April script written by Peter Hedges
One of the things I love about Pieces of April is it was one of the first (maybe the first) feature films that I ever saw that was shot exclusively with a small video camera. I believe it was a Sony PD-150. (A standard def camera you can pick up these days on eBay for under $500.)
Prices of April came out 2003, just four years after The Blair Witch Project hit theaters—a film shot on multiple formats including standard def video and film. For decades before that independent low budget feature films had a long running tradition of being shot on 16mm, including the somewhat contemporary sub-$25,000 films The Brothers McMullen (1995) and Clerks (1994).
My favorite scenes/sequences in Pieces of April show where solid writing and acting were enhanced by the camera technology, and I’ll explain why after the clip. They start after April (Katie Holmes) discovers her oven not working the morning she starts preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family. As she begins seeking out another apartments in her building where she can cook her turkey it leads her to meeting Evette (Lillias White) and Eugene (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).
The scene does what you want a scene to do (fulfilling the What’s changed? question) and moves the story forward. The scene starts and it appears that it’s going to be another dead end for April with characters not interested in helping her. But by the end of the scene she has hope. It starts out negative and ends positive.
According to Hedges on the director’s commentary White and Whitlock only had one day to shoot all their scenes—five or six total—and they had never worked together. Most of the scenes take place in a small kitchen where the small camera (which recorded to mini DV tapes) helped improve the scene two-fold:
1) Because it was tape verses film being used it allowed cinematographer Tami Reiker to shoot the day of rehearsals/blocking. This allowed the editor Mark Livolsi to steal reaction shots. Back in the film only days, to keep film costs down, many measures were used by low budget filmmakers to keep film usage down, including limiting shooting coverage (wide, medium, close, reversal shots, etc.) and hiring actors who could nail each set-up in one or two takes. (Time is still money, so one of the dangers of shooting digitally these days is thinking that because you’re not shooting film—or even tape— you can do as many takes as needed.)
2) Because they were shooting in a real life small apartment the small size of the cameras (sometimes they used two) allowed them to shoot in tight spaces where a larger cameras wouldn’t have fit, and flying the walls out wasn’t an option.
Of course, though the technical quality of digital cameras 15+ years ago (with 1/3 sensors) lacked image quality, Pieces of April is a great example of doing what you can with what you have. It’s a movie that on the strength of the talent involved holds its own against movies today using state of the art equipment with budgets of 20, 50 or even over 100 million dollars.
P.S. Other movies reported to be shot on the PD-150 were David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me (2004), and Open Water. I remember renting a PD-150 for a shoot back in 2000 for a project because it was a big money saver verses hiring a 2-man Beta SP crew. On the flight for the shoot in the Pittsburgh/Ligonier Valley area I remember reading the PD-150 manual since I was going to be operating as well as directing. My first thought was that there sure were a lot of menu options. There were other differences from it an shooting 16mm— being very light and quiet were two big differences.
I went to film shoot back when students only used film and so I felt the PD-150 still looked too TV/video-like. But I saw the possibilities and in 2004 ended up buying the Panasonic DVX 100 (also a standard def camera, but had a nice 24p look) which eventually replaced the PD-150 as the darling of indie filmmakers for a season.
Small HD cameras started hitting the scene a couple years later and had a good run until the Canon 5D came out, and since then there has been an explosion of relatively low-priced/high quality cameras. But despite the onslaught of 4K and 6K technology, it’s still about the story—Pieces of April proves that.
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