Meek’s Cutoff is a great film to use for the question, ‘how would you direct this sequence.’ I’ll do that in a few paragraphs. First some other things:
The film is directed by Kelly Reichardt, who is really gaining some steam after directing Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. I had a blog post about this film a while back after seeing its trailer. The film is shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio. If you don’t know what that means, it means that it appears to be more of a square – that it’s taller and thinner than most of the theatrical films we see. It’s a really strange choice. I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone – other than Godard and some experimental filmmakers – who are currently shooting in this aspect ratio (and I haven’t seen Godard’s latest).
I’m going to take a guess as to why she made this decision, but some plot will be helpful first. Stephen Meek (a very grizzled Bruce Greenwood) is leading a group of settlers through the Oregon desert to find living conditions. Doubt starts to work its way through his followers as to whether Meek actually knows where he’s going. Michelle Williams plays Emily Tetherow, one of the settlers/followers. She proves to be strong-willed, particularly in her interaction with an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) whom Meek wants to kill, but Emily’s husband Solomon (Will Patton) insists they keep alive to help find water. It’s a film about madness, desperation, and endurance.
So back to 4:3. The aspect ratio is at odds with the surroundings. I think of the wide open desert I think of 2:35 – very wide, Lawrence of Arabia-type shots (though I think that was actually on 70mm and 2:20). I think of long horizon lines and long treks across frame. Basically, I think of ‘long’ and not ‘tall.’ Reichardt does use some of these strategies. There’s a shot from a high angle where we watch the company slowly move across frame, though it’s not composed as to put them against the sky, as in a traditional Western. Instead, the camera looks down on them, framing the harsh ground behind. This is emblematic of her decision to use 4:3. Her idea is to squeeze the actors in. To overwhelm them by making by ground and sky push them into an uncomfortable middle space, and also to eliminate the freedom of the edges. Her usage of 4:3 is therefore ironic in that she shoots a very open, endlessly open in fact, space in a not-so-open way. It’d be almost like going to do a photo shoot in a gorgeous, wide open field and only taking close-ups.
One thing Reichardt has been accused of here is making a film that is essentially boring and that lacks drama. While I don’t see Meek’s Cutoff as as successful as Wendy and Lucy, I disagree. There’s definite drama in here, some of it purely camera related, as when the wanderers move past frame and the camera focuses on a sign scrawled on a rock face. Is this the same sign the Indian scrawled before (have they been walking in circles)? Is it the sign of one of his companions (are they in trouble)? Or is it something else entirely?
There’s one particularly obvious dramatic moment in here, and while I don’t think I can really spoil this film even if I tell everything that happens, I’ll warn you that there are slight SPOILERS in here:
Here’s the question: how would you direct this scene from a shot-by-shot perspective? I hand you a short script, which says, “Meek walks angrily up the hill towards the Indian yelling at him. The Indian ignores Meek and continues to examine the bowl he’s found. Meek yells again and draws his gun, aiming it at the Indian. The Indian slowly stands. Meek cocks his pistol…but is shocked to find Emily pointing a gun at him! The entire group stares at the showdown with bated breath…”
That’s not directly from the script, but I’m sure it’s close enough. I’m in the advantage of already knowing how Reichardt shot this, but try to imagine how you would do it before reading on.
I would have shot it something like this. Shot 1) Medium shot (MS) of Meek. Camera moves back with him revealing the Indian and the bowl. 2) Medium shot on Emily as she looks on. 3) Close-up (CU) on Meek as he pulls his pistol and cocks it. 4) Close-up on Emily, coolly examining the action. 5) Close-up on Indian staring down death. 6) Reaction shots of the other settlers. 7) Medium-wide-shot (MWS) from behind Emily as she reaches for the gun and aims.
Then I’d continue with a variation of shot-reverse-shots, etc.
You’ll see what’s telling about the difference between my version and Reichardt’s in this description of her shot selection.
1) Wide-shot/3-shot – from above. Emily is screen right, Indian is screen left, Meek is in the middle as he walks up, yelling at the Indian. 2)Reaction Medium-wide-shot to Solomon. 3) MS to Emily as she turns away 4) MS Indian as he looks up and stands 5)MS Meek pointing the gun at the Indian – he looks screen right. 6) MS Emily pointing gun at Meek 7)Back to original WS/3-shot 8-13) 6 straight reaction shots in MS/MCU of the other settlers.
The major difference? Reichardt starts on Emily by showing her look away, entirely skips her decision to grab and point the gun, and only returns to her when the gun is already trained on Meek. There’s also an early reaction shot of Solomon. Most of this is therefore structured around Emily. The early reaction to Solomon (her husband) indicates worry and helplessness. It also, along with the first shot of the sequence, shows his distance from the action. When Reichardt skips the moment – the dramatic, Spaghetti Western, hands twitching at guns moment – and goes directly to Emily already with gun-in-hand, she adds a layer of mystery and power to this woman. The edit hides her emotion and makes her action feel more spontaneous and fast. It takes us by surprise just as much as it takes Meek by surprise. There’s no telegraphing of action (as there is in my example). It makes the scene purely and entirely Emily’s, and strangely enough, does so by skipping some of her screen-time.
Another difference is how I propose to start the scene versus how Reichardt does. My shot moves the camera, and makes the scene more about the very present danger (Meek) than Reichardt’s. Her beginning immediately makes it about the relationship between the three, and gives little preference via the composition.
Lastly, Reichardt throws six consecutive reaction shots in the midst of the tense showdown. That’s a lot. There’s a rhythm to the edits, but the goal isn’t to ratchet the suspense, as it is to remind that the interests of many are at play here. In short, I went for more straightforward tension, Reichardt goes for the characters.