What if you could return to a time in your childhood and relive your life from that point knowing what you know now? That’s the fantasy at the core of Universal’s “Little,” released April 12, in which Regina Hall’s Jordan Sanders, a character overwhelmed by the pressures of adulthood, gets the chance to relive the life of her younger self, played by Marsai Martin in an oversize wig.
Writer-director Tina Gordon crafted the fluid look of the fantasy comedy in close collaboration with DP Greg Gardiner and editor David Moritz. Gordon and Gardiner spent their weekends walking through sets and locations, discussing blocking and playing roles including Hall and Martin’s Sanders while acting out the scenes together.
“Greg played everyone in blocking,” says Gordon with a laugh. Among the scenes: a striptease with Luke James’ character, Trevor, and a separate dance atop a bar by Martin.
Gardiner recalls their first day of shooting: a classroom scene with Martin and Justin Hartley, who plays her teacher. In her mind, Martin’s Jordan is still an adult. “She’s like a tigress,” Gardiner says of Martin’s movements. “We brought her forward, we brought her back, she’s kind of prowling. They have a final moment in the back of the room when the kids have their backs to them so it’s a bit more private. That’s blocking. Our goal is to make it natural.”
As he edited, Moritz had to be mindful that young Jordan is actually a 38-year-old woman trapped in a teenager’s body. Some scenes had to be cut down because there’s a point when the visual of a teenager and an adult together crosses the line from comedy into inappropriateness. “You can have too much of a good thing,” he says.
Gordon enjoyed striking a balance between providing the performers with a framework and letting them make their own choices. “I like to have a plan of action, and choreographing with them, while leaving that improvisational moment for the actors,” she says.
Moritz remembers seeing the initial footage of a classroom scene. “I watched those dailies and thought, ‘Holy s–t, this is perfect,’” he says. “My job was to help that process and make it impactful.”
Throughout production, Gardiner wanted the cinematography to reflect the movie’s counterpoint of size differential, leaving nothing off-screen. “The idea was to tell the story through the shots and put everything in the frame,” he says. “It has the feel of a throwback. We didn’t use a Steadicam because that’s a modern shooting language. The compositions have a tremendous amount of information in them to continuously show that Jordan is either little in a big world or little in a little world.”
Gardiner cites a scene in a cafeteria as an example. He used a telephoto lens to make her appear smaller, because cinematically “it means we’re stepping back. We’re not in front of [Martin]; we’re not dollying. It’s shot more vérité style as she crosses the room, and it gives you an uncomfortable feeling until she gets to the ‘safe zone’ table. Those kids are shot with what I call a personal presence that’s more accessible. The lenses are wider, and the camera is sitting right on the table in front of them.”
All of Gordon and Gardiner’s prep was apparent to Moritz. “What makes it work so well,” he says, “is the way the film was blocked. ‘Little’ had so much fluidity in terms of the characters moving around, the camera following them and the way a character entered or exited the scenes. It was easy to realize what they were going for and to serve that as an editor.”