Interview: Peter Dreimanis (Cinematographer, Co-Producer)

Interview: Peter Dreimanis (Cinematographer, Co-Producer)

The following interview was conducted by Kevin Scott (Exclaim, Torontoist) for the purposes of this press kit. Please free to re-publish excerpts from this interview, but we please ask that the entire text not be re-published elsewhere.

Peter is a cinematographer and lead singer of the band July Talk. His band-mate, Leah Fay/Leah Goldstein, is the lead actress of Diamond Tongues.

Kevin Scott:
How did you become involved with Diamond Tongues?

Peter Dreimanis:
Leah and I are in a band together and we played a TIFF party for Mongrel Media at Brickworks, and Pavan and Brian were there. We had some mutual friends, I worked on a film called The Dirties, which my good friend Jared Raab worked on as well, he shot that film – so Pavan and Brian approached me at that party and had heard of me through Matt Johnson (director of The Dirties) and Jared, and talked to me about this film they were going to make.

I had shot films throughout my teenage years, and going into my early 20’s, and because of the band I had never really had time to shoot anything long format. Everything I was doing was music videos or commercials – things that I could turn around in three weeks or so while we were home from touring. They approached us and said to Leah and I that they could work around our schedule and that they could work with July Talk’s schedule, which sort of allowed me to get back into the feature world, which is something I had really missed.

They approached me and wanted me to shoot it, and so we started working on the look, and what we wanted to do with it and it was a lot of fun. I guess that’s how it started. Then they sent me their other work and I saw a place that I could contribute and I kind of started conversations from there.

So then film was sort of a first love before music then?

Oh yeah far before. I wasn’t a musician at all until my 20’s really. Like I knew how to play but I started in film when I was about 14 in Edmonton, Alberta, and started working on features as a grip and electric. I started shooting my own stuff, started travelling to Toronto and working for production companies here and then moved to Toronto directly after high-school and was working for an editor for a while. The music came in randomly and took over my life, and so it was really nice to have an opportunity to be back into this world where you can work on a project together in a big group.

Feature films are kind of the most fun because you have a community. It’s like going on tour with other bands or whatever you want to call it. You start out on the first day and you don’t know anybody there for the most part. By the end you’re like, brothers and sisters and you can’t picture your life without these people because you spend every living hour together for that month, or whatever it is, and so that is something that I had really missed and you don’t get that with short format cinematography.

And so, going into it I think I got really excited about committing to it. Also I think its worth mentioning that like, I think in Canadian film when you’re a cinematographer, often you find yourself at an arms distance from the content. You are there to make it look a certain way and you’re helping out the director in achieving their vision and things, but the fact that Leah was in this film made me much more invested in the content because we worked so closely together, our lives are completely intertwined, and so seeing her and knowing that the band was also representing the film in some way, it really did kind of change the way I worked, and made me a lot more personally invested in the film.

And I was quite vocal about that in the early meetings with Pavan and Brian, was that I wasn’t going to sit back and shoot – I was going to be as involved as much I possibly could be and I think we really enjoyed working together in that way. We probably pissed each other off at times, but they’re so driven – Pavan and Brian are like the guys that are doing it. You can talk to a million people at film festivals, run into them at bars, these filmmakers that have these films in the works for years and years and years, and Pavan and Brian are the guys that don’t ask all the questions, and it’s not all talk, they actually just go out and do it. They have the drive to go out and just do it. And I think that I was really excited because although, they had a system that was working where they were constantly shooting and making this content constantly, I did feel visually I could contribute something to that system that they had in place. And so yeah, it was a really fun process.

When you met them, when they gave you the script what attracted you to the project?

What attracted me to the script at the beginning was that I had always really felt strange about the profession of acting. I think that acting is a really hard system. I think that any other kind of creative form you can create your own content, create your own ideas and go out and do it. And I think with acting you’re much more dependent on directors and writers to create content that’s amazing. And then actually want you to be a part of it.

And even if you’re the best actor, you might just not be right for the part. That’s no slag on your craft. You’re just totally dependent on these other people. And that creates a system in which you then, let’s say you get the role of your life, you get a huge series and you’re on it for a while and you have a good character, well then two weeks after that show ends you might get another great role, or you could sit and not work again for years. There’s just no justice in the profession, and I think that the script delved into that world and wasn’t afraid to show how unhealthily and fucked up that profession can be. And where that competitive spirit comes from.

These actors are these competitive people that are against each other. I think that genuinely exists in any art – bands are competitive with each other, of course – but I think the world of acting is what really makes that competitive spirit come out. And I hadn’t really seen any films about that, which addressed how unhealthy competitive art can be.

I thought that was a really cool thing and again obviously the fact that Leah was involved provided me with another reason to say maybe this would be a fun thing to work on together, that’s so different from writing songs together or touring together or any of those things. It was just a new way to work together, and we really enjoyed that because we’re very committed to each other and we trust each other a lot in everything we do artistically, and so it was fun to take that to a different medium.

You’re right I’ve never seen this sort of precise kind of way of articulating the competitiveness of acting either.

I don’t know if, now that the film is done that it addresses those exact spirits directly. It’s more subtle now, and I think that the film actually became more of a personal character story. It doesn’t shove it down your throat like “this is about acting and how shitty acting is”, but I’m glad it still addresses that, and it was fun to watch actors playing “actors who are being competitive”, and that was a huge part of the shooting which became really fun, because every day, especially working with Pavan and Brian who work with a lot of non actors, you have people who have never acted before like Leah or just their friends, acting with people who have acted their entire lives, and that dynamic, when the film is about competitive actors, becomes very strange, and a lot of scenes especially because we were working with a lot of improv, you can get a lot of very interesting things that come out of that.

There’s a scene with a character named Suzanne in the film that I think is really fantastic –she is just a great actress (playing a bad actress), and I think Leah played off her really well. It was just fun to see those dynamics play out in a real way.

When you sat down and talked with Brian and Pavan, what did you talk about in terms of the look of the film.

I think that a lot of the fiction stuff I’d shot in the past was heavily shot listed prior to the shoot – and was highly cinematic for being cinematic-sake. And I think that this film we really wanted to stay out of the way.

The first conversation was basically that we wanted to do two cameras. I think that was the most important thing to me was that I wanted a lot of the scenes to be able to play out fully improvised and they could go fully off the script if we had to and we had the coverage to make that scene work if every take was different. Right off the get-go we decided to shoot two cameras, we tried to light everything from outside windows, we really didn’t have a lot of lights in the rooms with the actors, and as much as we could, we had them moving.

Pavan was really worried about, because in some of his past work, he was really worried about scenes feeling really stagnant, and sitcom-y in terms of like, shooting people in front of a wall, and so he wanted a lot of movement – which sometimes as a cinematographer can be really annoying but at the same time when you watch it cut together there’s just so much kinetic energy.

And I think the biggest thing with this film, we wanted it to film dark. We wanted it to feel realistically dark. There’s a lot of shots in the film that feel under-exposed, and in an intentional way – and didn’t want it to feel “lit”, or some-what pedestrian. And letting the film be dark, and letting the film be gutsy in that way.

For the most part letting the actors have their space in a somewhat natural environment was the biggest priority. Abe Sandjakdar is the other shooter on the film and one of Leah and my best friends, and he worked with me closely – shooting second camera the whole time. He was instrumental, just fantastic at providing that space and staying out of the actors way. It’s hard because we’re trying not to see each other, and all that stuff. But it really provided the film with a candid feeling in those moments that we were scared we weren’t going to get, and we got with two angles, and that allows it to exist in a less constructed kind of way.

I like the way the film looks and I’m really happy with it and I hope its kind of a new beginning of a new method that I can use on another film down the road. Its so much fun shooting that way too because you’re constantly changing, you’re not stuck to laying out track for an hour and a half, and then you don’t use that shot in the cut and everyone’s mad. It’s not about that, it’s about being able to constantly re-invent the scene

Did you talk about any other films or references when you were talking about the look?

Yeah for sure, I think we talked a lot about Louie, we talked about Husbands and Wives. The feeling was, like one day in, we shot the first day and they came to me the second day after watching all the rushes, and they felt it was too polished – and it was too not hand-held enough, and not active enough. And so we watched a bunch of references, we kind of took the morning off and sat and watched references because we weren’t really on the same page. And it was really useful because all of a sudden, instead of being hand-held for the sake of being mobile, we were being handheld for the sake of being shaky, and being really like, an observer or a pedestrian, like I said.

We wanted to feel like we were just a character following the scene. I think that as soon as we made that decision, the film just started to flow much more. It was ok to see imperfections and it was more of a live character. Like the POV was much more alive instead of just a stagnant observer watching in a chair, and that helped a huge amount. Lots of Louie, Curb, that kind of material – we really wanted to go that way and I think that it worked.

I mean yeah, I think that the film, if you look at the script, it’s a lot of conversation – a lot of dialogue. And so you really want to get away from those two-shot reverse shots where you’re just over-the-shoulder/ over-the-shoulder. And there’s a lot of that in the film, but we really tried to find ways of making that feel a little bit more kinetic, because the film is so much about two people comparing themselves to each other in every. It kind of has a Coffee and Cigarettes vibe in that way where the dynamic is always shifting of who’s kind of, who’s “winning” and so it was really important for us to kind of create that active observer than just setting up two cameras and going with it.

What’s it like to be in a band with Leah, then collaborate in a different medium. I don’t know if I’ve heard of that happening before in a way you guys did here (lead actress/cinematographer). How was that different or similar?

Well I mean ever since I met Leah, it was very clear that we work quite well together. I think that we kind of fill in each other’s weaknesses and challenge each other really, really intensely. We also often have kind of a rule that if something scares you, you should probably do it. And so when this film kind of first was brought to us, we really like, I think it kind of scared us. We had like three weeks off, in like 8 months, and we ended up shooting for those three weeks. And so we were beat, but it just made sense.

I mean Leah had never been asked to do some acting before. I remember her saying she didn’t know if that chance was going to arise again. We kind of just felt like this was a good idea. It felt for her, like she had a bit of a, she felt a little bit easier going into it having someone that she trusts so much involved. But it was really fun. There’d be days after when we’d be on our way home, talking about movie ideas that we could shoot down the road. It was really, really fun to share that with her because on the road you don’t – it’s venue, venue, venue, van, van, van – and she was never really a part of my film life, which was a huge part of my life – going into this project, and going into the band. So it was really fun to share that with her and show her how that side of my life worked and stuff.

It just really helps having someone on set that you can look at and not have to say anything, and they can understand what you’re saying. And so we were in constant conversation about whether a scene was working, and Pavan was like super, super open to just constant conversation. If a scene was supposed to be done an hour ago but it wasn’t working, we were going to sit there for another four hours until it was working and Pavan’s really great at knowing what he needs for a scene to work, and so I hope he enjoyed working with both Leah and I at the same time. I think that sometimes we stick together and gang up on people but hopefully it was fun for them.

That’s interesting because Pavan and Brian have been working together for a bit and you and Leah have been working together for a while, you’d think that would be a good balance.

It was, yeah. They are different in the same way that we’re different, you know. Brian’s probably the more realistic one, and Pavan’s the crazy one. [laughs] I don’t know who’s the crazy and realistic one on our side, but yeah, you fill in each other’s blanks when you work together so much. I think that they work together so well, and I don’t know how it would be if I was working with only one of them. It would be a very different process.

It definitely did provide a certain balance, having Pavan and Brian being so close, and Leah and I being so close. It made the whole process really easy. The communication got a lot easier because you knew when you had a problem who to go to and how to work that out. Especially Pavan working as the editor as well, it was really great for me being able to know when we shot for the cut and we knew how we were going to cut a scene, to be able to communicating with him, knowing if we got the scene or we didn’t. The biggest thing that was fun with this film was that we sort of work-shopped scenes, like there wasn’t a rush.

I think that having Pavan, Brian, myself, Leah, the other actors in the scene there and working together, we kind of all would kind of say “ah I don’t know if this line is working” – and there were no egos about it, it was like “ok great let’s try something else”. Or it was like “no this line needs to stay because of this…”. And I think that group atmosphere really made the scenes cut quickly and made it more fun to shoot. It made the dynamic between the characters more fun. It was just a bit more of a fluid way of shooting.

So obviously you’ve worked in film before, but this is Leah’s first time acting. Did you have any doubts in your mind going into this about her ability?

For sure she was nervous, like she didn’t know whether she wanted to go into it or not. No one meets Leah and isn’t sort of spellbound for a while. I think that I didn’t have any doubts that she would like, pull it off and be an interesting character.

The first thing that was really important to me was that I was scared that like, we were approaching Diamond Tongues knowing that there was going to be a lot of improv, we were going to be going off the script a lot, and Leah was going to be allowed to be herself in the movie a little bit – because that was the whole point of them wanting to work with non actors, is that they wanted people’s real personalities to seep in, like with Cassavetes, a lot of Cassavetes references.

And so, I think that, that made me feel a little bit better, was that we could kind of be involved creatively in that way, but obviously then you begin to worry that there’s parts of the films where you really like Leah, and Leah’s this cool person you’re really into, and that’s her, and herself and that’s fun, but then there’s these plot point where she’s just this terrible, terrible human being. And so you worry about those things butting heads a little bit. But no I have absolute trust in Leah that she can pull off anything.

I don’t know, whenever we’ve been pitched like really dramatic music videos for the band where we’re acting in the video we always say no. We’re not actors and we’re not going to pretend to be. But then when this opportunity arose it just felt right. I don’t know, I think it just opened up a working relationship between Leah and I in film and I think that’s something we’re going to continue to do. If we’re going to take a year off from the band down the road and do another movie and be more involved, maybe work on the creative side more, than that’s something that we could totally pull off and have this sort of foundation to draw on.

How did being on set compare to being on other sets you’ve been on in the past?

Being on set for Diamond Tongues was different in the sense that we partied every night after shooting. There was a lot of Grolsch [laughs]. No, I think it was definitely more group oriented. Nobody’s influence was put down. We really tried everything. It was a lot more free and open to change, and for the most part you’re used to an atmosphere that the way everything is done is planned a month or two before you even go to camera, it’s the exact opposite with this.

I mean there was definitely planning on this, they had every set, every location, everything on that side lined up, but when we got there we would really discuss the scene there. Also out of necessity as well. Necessity is the mother of invention as always, but we were on tour until two days before we shot. So we were discussing things on email, we met whenever Leah and I were home, but for the most part we would discuss things the day before and really try and keep it kind of rolling. I think that was quite different, which is feeling like, you’d arrive to a location, you’d revisit the scene, block the scene, and then you’d decide ok, what works for this – and how out of the way can we be.

I mean, you work with all kinds of people as a cinematographer and you kind of adapt to whatever style they want to shoot. For a long time before shooting this project I was working in short format where I was also the producer. So in that sense, you’re working in your own style. You’re totally allowed to create whatever environment and vibe on set that you want. And so coming into this I wanted to contribute a laid back style, and something where everyone could be involved, but I think that Pavan and Brian came in, wanted to shoot it in 12 days, which is nothing. So it was a rush, but I think that we tried and succeeded to retain some sort of a laid back atmosphere and allow everyone to have their say.

What were some of your most memorable moments of the shoot?

The acid sequence was really crazy because it was so cold and the entire west side of Toronto was in a blackout. While we were shooting the power went out. And so the only lights in all of the streets were the headlights of the cars, which was just a really fun environment to shoot in. All the lights in the bars we were planning to shoot in were out, and we were shooting guerilla, two handheld cameras, running around. And there’s kind of a motif of fire trucks in the film, and right as we’re in the middle of this blackout – Leah has this giant clown wig on, and a fire truck just happens to pass with it’s sirens on to try and fix this power problem, which was just a really interesting moment. We caught it and it’s in the film, and that night in general was just really fun. Running around into traffic, and there’s no traffic lights on – just trying to capture that crazy feeling.

It was really fun to shoot the “Diamond Tongues” short film [within the film] with Matt Johnson (The Dirties) and Leah – that shoot was really fun because it happened a couple weeks before we started shooting the feature and Matt’s a really great friend of mine. It was so much fun to work with him and Leah because it was like, a crashing of worlds for me. I’ve worked with Matt on Nirvana the Band the Show and a bunch of stuff, and then having Leah and him who are both such great personalities it was just such a blast.

And then also the scene where they screen that short film – at Cooper Cole Gallery on Dundas Street, and that scene was so much fun because we were trying to capture peoples real reactions to this film, while knowing that they didn’t want Edith to be embarrassed. If they were laughing at the film, they had to pretend that they were really going to offend Leah. So we just didn’t kind of tell anyone that it was supposed to be bad – and all these people knew Leah was in the room, and knew Edith was in the room and they didn’t want to offend her for thinking it was bad, but it was obviously so terrible. That was really fun. It was also an opportunity for us to see all of our friends, because they all came out, and we got to show them what we were up to. It’s probably become one of my favourite scenes in the film.

This house too, where we’re sitting right now, had kind of became home base of the whole film. [Executive Producers] Brendan Canning and Sarah Haywood were always here, and we would come here and eat lunch and shoot a few scenes – there’s a lot of this house in the film, and it was really fun to have this home base. I think the scene where they’re preparing to take the acid, and the scene where they wake-up after the acid sequence here. I think there was a lot of fun had in this house.

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