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Artisans Discuss Craft Behind Five Movies Picked Up at Sundance Film Festival

Hungry distributors did their annual dance around the offerings at the Sundance Film Festival, then pounced for rights to the films they believe they can exploit in the marketplace. Publicity machines swung into action, promoting the directors and casts of these pick-ups. Less in the limelight, but no less critical to the success of the pictures, are the artisans who helped put them together. Here are five stories.

“Call Me by Your Name”

Sony Pictures Classics snagged the worldwide rights to the Luca Guadagnino-directed gay love story, set in Italyin 1983, staring Timothée Chalamet as 17-year-old Elio, whose life is changed one summer when he meets his father’s research assistant, Oliver, played by Armie Hammer.

Costumes help create the atmosphere. “We wanted them to be suggestive and subtle, yet definite,” says costume designer Giulia Piersanti. “I can relate to Elio and his cosmopolitan family, and wanted to convey this sense of non-belonging.”

For Oliver, she played with the European perception of the carefree, handsome blond American and the way he contrasts with his Italian countryside surroundings. “We wanted to emphasize the general sense of summer heat and carefree sexiness,” she explains, “and to show skin and the abandon we had in the Italian summer vacations of our youth.”

“A Ghost Story” 

Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, who has a knack for lensing spooky tales, teamed with director David Lowery for the A24 pick-up starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. “The 30-page script really spoke to me,” says Palermo. “I really liked Casey’s character as he witnesses time in a way people, in general, cannot.”

Having died prematurely, Affleck is a ghost who returns home to observe his grieving lover, played by Mara. The film was shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio, and lighting and composition were challenging. “It was a learning process,” Palermo notes. “The costume Casey wore [a white sheet] can look silly fast. We couldn’t get away with mundane wide shots of him walking into a scene. Everything had to be planned to be impactful.”

In shaping the tone, white, yellows, and browns created a warm color palette, with the cinematographer introducing cool → blues for night scenes to play to a more refined horror look. Palermo illustrated the passing of time between the characters by subtly changing the camera’s shooting style to open the house up and give it energy.

“Berlin Syndrome”

Vertical Entertainment and Netflix both acquired the rights to director Cate Shortland’s psychological thriller, which reunited her with production designer Melinda Doring. The two have been working together since the late ’90s, but this was their first bi-continental project.

While traveling through Germany, Clare (Teresa Palmer) meets Andi (Max Riemelt), who ends up imprisoning her in his apartment. Shooting took place at locations in Berlin to provide scope and authenticity. Meanwhile, sets, like Andi’s apartment, were built in Docklands Studios in Melbourne.

“The biggest challenge was making Cate feel comfortable that the studio sets were going to feel real,” explains Doring. What helped the design was an early visit to Berlin. “We talked about color palettes and lighting styles, and it got us into the feel of what we were looking for prior to construction,” she says.

“Cries From Syria” 

In Evgeny Afineevsky’s compelling documentary, nabbed by HBO, the director details the bloody Syrian civil war since 2011. Inspired by the Arab Spring, Syrians looked to end the 40-year dictatorship that gripped their country, but the government’s reaction was swift: Nearly 500,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced.

When Swiss composer Martin Tillman, a renowned cellist, came on board, he wrote 107 minutes of music in 10 days. “We initially needed to find the tone of the film. It’s very raw, without a single actor in it, with very difficult stuff to watch and comprehend,” says Tillman. “For me, it was about finding the musical feeling and perhaps connecting the viewer to the story in a different way than being overwhelmed by what’s happening on screen.”

The composer went on to write a three-note theme that reflected the three-star Syrian flag used by the rebel National Coalition — and symbolically represents every man, woman, and child in the war.

“Long Strange Trip” 

Amazon swooped in to pick up the four-hour Grateful Dead documentary by director Amir Bar-Lev and executive producer Martin Scorsese. The film chronicles the psychedelic journey of the band, beginning in the 1960s and leading up to Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. It incorporates photos, foot-age, interviews, and rare tracks — some of which have never been seen or heard before.

Picture editor Keith Fraase broke up the film chronologically into four different acts, each one representing the four eras of the band, with its hiatus in the ’70s being an integral moment. With the help of footage archivists and additional editor John Walter, they had more than 2,000 audio recordings and three or four visual performances for every year at their disposal.

“We had a ton of material to work with,” says Fraase. “Ultimately, it boiled down to what best served the story, and Amir really had a handle on the story he wanted to tell.”

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