In the vein of many traditional folk tunes, the lyrics of murder ballad Pretty Polly travel a clear narrative road, which may have tempted many a filmmaker to directly translate that to the screen, but wasn’t something Jared Varava was interested in doing in his music promo for Vandaveer’s version of the old tune. With what he didn’t want to do set firmly in mind, Jared was left with the niggling question of what direction to take for a track with such defining lyrics and historical significance?
“It seemed obvious to me that Polly, Willie, and the murderous storyline HAD to play some part in the narrative of the video. One day while on a jog, listening to the song on repeat, I started to think about an old movie that was adapted from the Ray Bradbury story Something Wicked This Way Comes. There’s a scene in that movie where this traveling carnival is marching down the street, sort of announcing their presence in this new town. Jason Robards’ character is skeptical, has a confrontation with the main bad guy, and the parade suddenly switches gears and becomes more like a funeral procession. I thought that the idea of a funeral procession might be just enough of a self-contained narrative backbone to sustain the video. And the more that I thought about it — having the video be the aftermath of the song’s narrative while still having parts of the song’s lyrics connect with specific filmic moments, having Polly in ghost form enacting her revenge — the more sophisticated the interplay between the song and the video became. That’s my favorite part about it, two different (but related) storylines playing out simultaneously that accentuate each other in certain moments and actually serve to extend the original tale into a single, more rounded narrative.”
The concept locked, Jared reached out to actor Tricia Vessey, who he’d long wanted to work with, and musician David Yow – “I’d never though of him as an actor but couldn’t get the dude’s face out of my brain.” – to fill the roles of Polly and Willie at the centre of the murderous revenge narrative. The performances were shot by DP Alex Naufel on a Red Epic with vintage anamorphic lenses against a fogscreen, one of only two in Southern California and the perfect visual element to connect the ghost town and abstract performance worlds. During his time scouting locations for previous film Tumbleweed, Jared discovered the Silver City Ghost town just outside of LA. J. Corlew who runs it was on hand to help the production secure the townsfolk extras, crew lodgings, a horse and several other elements which helped throughout the shoot.
With it’s mixture of old west and ghostly motifs, hair and make along with costume were key elements needed to sell the narrative. Stacey Hummell made Jared’s ‘Bob Dylan white face paint’ reference an otherworldly reality on set, while Rachel Weir set his worries about period costumes at ease; sourcing outfits from a gigantic warehouse of western clothing which apparently also kitted out the cast of True Grit. Then, all that was left was the simple matter of the actual shoot:
“Everyone drove three hours North of LA, crashed in two rented cabins near the location (though, truth be told, only one cabin got any sleep. The other one stayed up much too late drinking beers and talking about stuff other than the video). The shoot was freezing. It rained, hailed, and snowed, sometimes simultaneously. The band showed up late morning, having had to drive five hours after a long night of performing, but everyone was very professional and worked as diligently as they could until we got what we needed. Afterward, as we were cleaning up, a small impromtu campfire sing-along got underway. We stayed at Silver City until well after the sun went down, singing cover songs and listening to ghost stories. Pretty perfect ending to the day, I thought.”
The next day was comparatively much easier. We only had to shoot the band and our crew was smaller by about half. We filmed those scenes in a Burbank warehouse that stores all the art department for the Nickelodeon network. The fogscreen is a contraption that turns regular water into a thin layer of smoke, shot straight downwards by a whole bunch of computer fans. We projected video of Tricia and David on to the fog and then re-filmed it while Vandaveer performed.
MarBelle has a strange compulsion to watch as many films as he can get his hands on and find jobs that give him a legitimate excuse to drill filmmakers about their work. Directors Notes is the latest incarnation of this disorder and so much cheaper than film school. Twitter: @MarBelle