Through a Glass, Darkly: Film Goes Behind the Scenes of Gregory Crewdson’s ‘Perfect, Frozen Moments’

Gregory Crewdson at work (standing on ladder) on the set of “Untitled (Ophelia).” A scene from Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, playing through November 13 at Film Forum.

Like the love child of Edward Hopper and Diane Arbus (raised, perhaps, amidst saturated Egglestonian hues, by a spooky yet decisive family of cinematographers), Gregory Crewdson is synonymous with images that are at once magnetic and repelling, haunting and familiar, thrilling and disturbing. His large-scale photographs pack a gorgeous punch. It’s only after the viewer stops reeling that he or she thinks to ask: How he’d do that? The answer, which does not involve Photoshop, is revealed in Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, a new documentary by Ben Shapiro that is now playing at New York’s Film Forum.

“I was immediately struck by the beauty and power of his images, and also by the care, vision, and complexity of the productions,” says Shapiro of his first encounter with Crewdson’s work, in 2000. A few months later, the New York-based director was on the set of a Crewdson shoot in Lee, Massachusetts filming the meticulous preparations that went into a photograph of a man, fresh from the office, who has jettisoned his suit to scale the flower-covered beanstalk that bursts through his lawn. Shapiro observed members of Crewdson’s team spend a day sifting through boxes of fresh flowers–and then stapling selected blooms to the telephone pole-cum-beanstalk. “It was an introduction to the kind of detail that contributes so much to the richness of his work.” Following Saturday’s NYC debut of Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters in New York, Shapiro answered our questions about the documentary (filmed over ten years), its subject, and the challenges of making a film about the making of movie-like images.

What compelled you to make a film about Gregory Crewdson?
It was a combination of things–I admired and appreciated his pictures, certainly, but I was also struck by the scale and elaborateness of his productions–crews of up to 60, dozens or even hundreds of lights, 90 foot-long custom-built sets–all marshaled by a man creating real-world versions of imagined moments. Key to this project was that Gregory was very open and encouraging, and offered complete access of a kind that’s rare. He told me, and his crew, that I could shoot anywhere, any time, and only asked me to back off when there was nudity on-set. Or if I got in their shot, which did happen a couple of times.

What surprised you the most about Crewdson as a person?
In a way what was surprising about Crewdson was that he wasn’t surprising. That is to say, he’s not what you might expect from the photographs which tend to be dark and have a sense of sadness and mystery about them; Gregory’s a very friendly and sociable guy, who likes to laugh. But at the same time he is extremely focused on his work, very dedicated to getting everything as close to the way he imagines it as he possibly can.

What did you find most striking/unusual about Crewdson’s approach to/process of making a photograph?
The scale or his productions is extraordinary, from the use of major Hollywood-style lighting, to the extreme attention to detail right down to the exact patterns of the wallpaper or the very particular color of a bedspread. It all adds up to a level of control and sophistication of the lighting and the overall imagery that is really stunning to watch. When it works, which it usually always does, the result is, as he puts it the film “one perfect moment where everything comes together.” Then the camera clicks.

Finally, what was the most challenging aspect of making this film?
Making any independent documentary is a challenge partly just because there’s no one to keep moving it along but you. Over a period of years. And you never know exactly what you’re going to end up with. Which leads me to the other challenge: figuring out how to structure the footage you’ve collected into a film that has a shape and structure, that keeps people involved, is entertaining, and, one hopes, has some meaning that resonates with viewers. It’s a fascinating puzzle, where all the stakes come to play.