Arts & Events

Too Late: A Wild Who-Dunnit Filmed in Just Five Scenes

Gar Smith
Friday April 08, 2016 - 03:33:00 PM

Opens at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in San Francisco, April 8

Eat your heart out, Quentin Tarantino!

Put a bird on it, Alejandro González Iñárritu!

There's a new film on the horizon that combines the Tarantino's crazed character studies with Iñárritu's sweeping cinematic bravado. It's a film like no other.

Too Late is a film noir set in Los Angeles. But given that it's a blood-garnished detective tale shot in Technicolor rather than black-and-white, let's agree to call it a film rouge.

Too Late, director/screenwriter Dennis Hauck's debut film makes movie history.

Hauck admits the film began as a stunt; a directing challenge. Even before the script was written, Hauck had a "what if?" moment. What if you shot a complete feature length film without a single edit? Could it be done? (The average feature has 5,000 edits.)




There are a number of famous "long takes" in movie history. There is the eight-minute opening scene in The Player, the six-minute "car attack" in Children of Men and the dinner scene in 4 Months 3 Weeks And 2 Days. But none are as long as what director Hauck has managed to pull off. 

The effect of a long take is special. Most films portray a "mediated reality" composed of edits, close-ups and long shots. With Too Late, the audience actually shares five unblinking 20-minute "extended realities" with the actors, spending serious "social time" with the people on screen. You can easily wind up feeling you experienced exactly what the actors experienced (minus the bruises). It's as close to real life as reel life gets. 

While Iñárritu's Birdman appeared to be a single-take narrative unfolding in real time, there were, of necessity, some "hidden" cuts that bound the film together. Even Hitchcock's Rope was a clever composite of five- and ten-minute scenes. 

But there are no convenient short cuts in Too Late. The publicity packet underscores this with the following boldfaced statement: "No hidden cuts were used in the making of this movie." 

Hauck decided to shoot the film in 35mm Techniscope, a format that provides reels capable of filming up to 22 minutes of action at a time. (The standard 35mm format only accommodates an 11-minute reel.) For Hauck's feature-length film, that translates into five reels. 

So Hauck's challenge was two-fold. First, to write a script that was divided into five chapters of equal length and then, he had to shoot a feature film that had only five "scenes." 

He could have taken an easy path and—like Hitchcock in Rope—staged most of his story indoors, in a single dwelling. Instead, Hauck took the story outside—bigtime. Too Late's chapters each begin in wildly different settings: the overgrowth of Hollywood's Radio Hill; in the kitchen, bedrooms and open-air patio of a high-rise condo; in an outdoor drive-in-turned-live-boxing-arena; in streets and alleyways leading from a seedy bar to a late-night music club. 

At the center of the story is a scrawny private investigator named Mel Sampson (the estimable John Hawkes). In the first 20-minute chapter, there is a murder but we only barely glimpse Sampson when he arrives at the scene, literally "too late." The case will haunt him as he rummages through LA's underground haunts (and his own broke-hard life) hunting for clues. 

The five chapters slip back and forth in time, hiding clues that will bring surprises and shocks later in the proceedings. 

The script is a rich one for the actors. The characters approach one another warily, but with a challenging confidence. The exchanges are sly, coy, conniving, and emotionally hyper. In another history-making turn, one of the actors (Vail Bloom) plays most of her role undressed from the waist down. 

While actors playing the two low-rent drug-dealers always manage to sound like actors, most of the performances are alive with raw emotions and laser-like nuance in the many tense, one-on-one encounters. The conversations are so land-mined and "tactical" that you might find yourself wondering: "Would I be glib enough to survive in this parallel universe?" 

Among the notable performances we have Crustal Reed (known to many as the lead in MTV's "Teen Wolf") as Dorothy. In this film, Dorothy is the ingénue—but she's an ingénue who also is a stripper. A waif who can down a fist-full of ecstasy as if they were Gummy Bears. 

Dichen Lachman delivers another striking performance as Jill, an exotic dancer who finds herself hustling customers in a strip club in the third reel and, in the forth reel, dressed in a bikini work-outfit while she runs a run-down projection booth at an outdoor gladiator competition. 

Hollywood vet Robert Foster (whose career spans 50 years and more than 100 films) delivers as a gruff man-of-suspicious-means. Brett Jacobson is both cheery and eerie as Skippy Fontaine, exactly the kind of "forest ranger" you don't want to run into in the woods. 

Natalie Zea is initially confusing as Dorothy's too-young mother. Hauck introduces her as a woman with the body language of a teenager. She "grows into" the role once Mel shows up to grill her about her past life and a shared secret. 

But throughout the twists and turns of the plot and the romantic and violent collision of the characters, the award for "best supporting player" goes to the unseen production crew and the camera operators who somehow managed to Stedycam their way through five extremely choreographed 20-minute dances that led them down dirt paths, up allies, through bedrooms, and into bars without missing a camera angle or stumbling into the actors. 

To give just a hint of what Hauck has imagined—and his crew has managed to deliver—consider just the opening minutes of the first 20-minute "take." 

It opens with Dorothy walking alone on Radio Hill and borrowing a phone from two talkative idiots she meets on the trail (our drug dealers). As she starts to dial the phone, the camera glides away from her face to show the city sprawled below and stretching to the horizon. As the phone rings and rings, the camera ever-so-slowly zooms in on the blocks below until zeroes in on one particular building. At this point, the film goes split-screen to show a woman stepping out on the balcony. She picks up the phone, speaks with the young woman miles away on the hill, and hands the call to a man who, in the next reel, turns out to be our detective. Dorothy asks to meet. He agrees. We see him (still in real time) rush downstairs and climb into his car. As the car pulls out, the camera pulls back until we are once more on the hilltop. 

Dorothy's story continues while the detective is making the steep drive from his apartment to the hilltop rendezvous. The camera, meanwhile, is making 360-degree sweeps of the landscape as the plot continues to unfold. A major event occurs but it has to be timed so that, when the camera turns to the right, we have to see the detective's car on the dirt road, about to arrive at the scene. 

Oh, and in the middle of all this activity, Hauck even throws in a crane shot! (Look for signs of a crane crew in this reel. You won't see it.) 

There are lots of remarkable details at work in Too Late. In the third reel (which begins with a perfectly meta voice-over), we see Jill, in her projection booth, expertly switching and hand-winding reels of 35mm film. In one particularly remarkable moment, Mel recovers from a shooting by grabbing a bottle of whiskey. He takes a big swallow and then pours the rest on his wound, producing what appears to be a brief jet of hot steam. 

Hauck, along with his cast and crew (high praise to camera operators Joseph Arena, Michael Alba, Cedric Martin and Sergio De Luca) had to shoot several "takes" of each 20-minute "chapter." Hauck admits that it was hard to get a perfect take. It was even harder to choose from the various renditions. Each version had unplanned "moments of magic" that the others missed. No reel was perfect. (In one of the final reels, there is a camera move that just looks wrong. Several critics at the press screening noticed it.) 

At another point, a conversation takes place between Mel and a member of Dorothy's family. For some reason, Hauck chose to seat them at opposite ends of a living room. As a result, the camera has to take long swoops from one side to the next. This has a distancing effect that reminds viewers that what they are watching is an artifice: there is a hidden cameraman swinging his lens back and forth and we are only watching a movie. 

On the other hand, there is a scene where the camera has to follow an argument that breaks out between four characters on a sun porch that works perfectly—with the camera swiveling feverishly from one face to the next, trying to keep up with the rising emotions—right up to the shocking and bloody conclusion. 

Note: Because of the unusual 35mm format, Too Late can only be projected in a limited number of movie houses. Until we can schedule a screening at the new Pacific Film Archive (one East Bay venue that can project 35mm Techniscope) making a trip to San Francisco would be worth it. And you can stop for a beer at the Alamo Drafthouse at the same time.