Shot in the Dark

Director Michael McNamara spotlights the nocturnal world—and why it should be preserved—in “Acquainted with the Night”

21 mins read

Night is different things to different people. For some it is scary and wild. For others, it’s serene and delicate. It can hold passion and mystery. It can be unforgiving. It reminds us that we are mere specks on this earth. And it is a hell of a thing to shoot. Director Michael McNamara has been on a mission to capture the night, both literally and figuratively, for several years. He and his crew have travelled the world and shot on an entirely upside-down schedule to create a grand and sweeping evocation of nocturnal pleasure—and occasional chaos. The result is Acquainted with the Night, Markham Street Films’ new feature-length documentary about exploring, embracing and protecting the night.

Considering the night fears McNamara, the writer and director of the doc, suffered as a child, it’s surprising he’d want to take on this topic. But those childhood issues actually propelled him to find ways to learn to love the night. A high school gig as a radio station night operator definitely helped. During those beloved days of vinyl, McNamara would put on a long record and sneak up to the rooftop to stare out over the city. “It makes you feel kind of powerful to be awake when the rest of the world is asleep,” he says.

The thrill and magic of those rooftop ruminations stuck with McNamara through adulthood. Perhaps that’s why he was so enthralled by Christopher Dewdney’s book Acquainted with the Night: Excursions through the World after Dark. A finalist for the 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction, the book pays homage to nighttime culture and its intriguing history. McNamara and his partner Judy Holm, who are the co-founders of Markham Street, loved the book’s mix of science, myth and poetry. As soon as they read it, they knew they wanted to try and capture a similar balance on the screen. They quickly contacted Harper Collins Canada and optioned the book in early 2005. It was a busy time at their Toronto-based production company as they also had a doc called 100 Films & A Funeral on the go for The Documentary Channel.

McNamara and Holm, who is executive producer on Acquainted, set to work on a treatment for the project inspired by Dewdney’s book. The original approach was to make a 13-hour series with a budget McNamara estimates would’ve been roughly $7 or $8 million. They pitched a few deep-pocketed broadcasters, but McNamara admits, “At the time, I think it was a little too rich for everybody.”

Enter serendipity, stage right. CBC rebranded The Documentary Channel to documentary and Bruce Cowley, the digital station’s creative head, immediately liked Markham Street’s idea for a project about the night. The pitch was made in early 2008 and McNamara remembers talking about the universality of the night, and how most people hide from it. (A character in the ensuing film, a New Yorker who monitors how the September 11 Tribute in Light impacts bird flight patterns, makes an apt observation: “Most people go to bed at 10 o’clock and they think the world stops existing.”) McNamara wanted the film to make a gentle argument for embracing the night.

After cementing a development deal with Cowley, Markham Street brought in a researcher and did some preliminary test shooting in Toronto and New York. Along the way, the decision was made to make a feature film rather than a limited series. Christine Reisen at ARTE France came onboard and the film was pitched at Hot Docs’ Toronto Documentary Forum in April 2009. Finland’s YLE Teema and Ontario’s TFO joined the project as well.

As things moved forward, McNamara looked to Dewdney’s book for ideas on mapping out the film’s themes. The book ties a theme to each of the 12 hours of the night, such as ‘The Children’s Hour’ and ‘Insomnia.’ McNamara wanted the film to reflect how different parts of the night have a unique feel.

To achieve this, he chose to use characters rather than a narrator. “I wanted to find characters that saw the night in their own unique way,” explains McNamara. Mission accomplished: the diverse roster includes a bat conservationist, researchers at a sleep clinic, and police in a club district. “These are all people that love their work; they love being most active when the rest of the world goes to sleep—it becomes part of their makeup,” says McNamara.

“I think [in the film] you get a sense of the colour, the taste, the smell of the night evolving from dusk to midnight to dawn,” he continues. Each part of the night has a distinct sonic quality that McNamara wanted to have reflected in the soundscape and soundtrack, which is composed by Kurt Swinghammer. If there had been room in the budget, there are some songs McNamara says he would’ve liked to have used (Van Morrison sang about the night, for example). The sole song licensed for the film is a soft tune about heroes and New York by the American band The Roches.

There’s also a beautiful softness to much of the film’s look. McNamara credits the three cinematographers—Mark Ellam, James Griffith and David Bradshaw—for giving the film its rich, lush visuals. One scene that exemplifies that look takes place in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. During this annual event, families visit cemeteries to spend time near their deceased loved ones and share memories of them in a joyful nighttime homage. In this case, the crew visited Santa Maria cemetery in Atzompa. Ellam, the film’s primary cinematographer, was using a Sony EX3 camera. It’s an HD camera that’s extremely light sensitive and the scene in the cemetery showcases its capabilities especially well.

Ellam recalls a poignant moment in which one of the cemetery’s visitors, Ignatia Vásquez, speaks about her deceased son. The background is lit with twinkling candles and, as a viewer, you can almost feel their warmth. Ellam says it would have been impossible to capture that gradation in colour even five years ago. As Vásquez tells the emotional story of her young son’s death, her husband gently helps her continue the tale. Ellam had subtly added one light on the woman to warm her face, but no additional light was added to her hus- band. When the shot pulls out and you see the pair sitting together, says Ellam, “It was the ability of the camera to be able to pick up enough just from the firelight of the candles to have that story come across and hit the way that it does in the film.”

Shooting was filled with thrills and chills. Literally. McNamara wanted to film a place where the nights are extremely long and there’s a view of the Northern Lights. No need to leave the country to find that combination—it exists in Yellowknife. During the filming there, not only did the crew have to bundle themselves up in multiple layers of clothing, they also had to keep a close eye on how the cold was affecting the equipment. “The liquid crystal screen started to have blur, then you could see one or two pixels changing along the edge of what started to look like a Jackson Pollock painting,” says Ellam. “I couldn’t tell anymore if what I was seeing in the viewfinder was in focus or not; so I was framing by the edges of colour smear and focusing by guessing distance off the barrel.” Now that the Yellowknife shoot is long over, Ellam can laugh (albeit nervously) about its frostbite-inducing, heart-slowing weather: “It was cold in a very special way.”

Mindful of not being too North America-centric (and keeping their European broadcasters happy), the team also looked into stories abroad. McNamara says he wanted some of them to be more exotic. That led him to brilliant locations, including a dazzling night market in Marrakech, Morocco.

McNamara knew the film’s 8 p.m. segment would be about storytelling, so part of it features parents reading to their children. (The book is Robert Munsch’s classic Love You Forever, an especially fitting choice as it’s about a mother that always tells her sleeping child how much she loves him.) But McNamara wanted to go deeper into the concept of storytelling.

Cowley suggested shooting at the Djemaa el Fna square, a massive night market in Marrakech, and after reading about it, McNamara knew it was a fit for the film. “I thought, ‘We can kill two birds with one stone: we’re going to a place that is the most magical at night, but also has this tradition of oral storytelling that goes back centuries where people come every night to hear stories and there’s one man there that is one of the last in this profession.’”

Ellam filmed a series of shots in the market using the Canon 7D camera. While he says it has maddening limitations, such as randomly turning off in the middle of a shot and overheating, it also has excellent potential. “In the 7D, with full-frame technology, you have a greater exposure ability that you didn’t have before,” he says, but warns that comes with a limit of focus. “If you’ve used the widest aperture available, you’ve now limited your depth of field to a matter of centimetres, so it can be very tricky to maintain focus, especially on moving subjects.”

Ellam did, though, use the Canon 7D on a moving subject in a shot of which he’s especially proud. A tea merchant in the night market was reaching into bags of sage and mint, then putting the herbs into a teapot as part of his tea preparation routine. “It was a beautiful, tiny moment inside this massive, busy market and it used that depth of field to its best advantage. There were all these confusing things going on in the background, but I was able to isolate just what he was doing.”

Juggling the schedule for Acquainted ’s border-hopping shoots was largely handled by the film’s co-producer, Jen Recknagel. She spent a lot of time on Skype and the phone working with the crews and local fixers to set things up. In one case, the crew was shooting in Marrakech and Recknagel was on Skype during the day negotiating with fixers in Nepal. “It was funny, she could never quite get a straight answer out of them,” recalls McNamara. “We’d heard all these rumours of how corrupt it was there, so we figured there would be problems when we got there but it turns out it was fantastic and they were lovely.”

Still, shooting in seven countries and eight languages is bound to present challenges. Some language issues did come up along the way since English wasn’t always the first language of the various fixers. “In some ways, this is the scope of a National Geographic, Walt Disney kind of nature movie,” says McNamara. But it didn’t have the breadth of resources or budget to match. The budget for this film, says McNamara, was just under $1 million.

He gives credit to the talents of his small but strong team. The shooting crew faced unusual circumstances. “There were weird things you wouldn’t even have to consider in a nine-to-five shooting situation, like paying attention to people’s sleep patterns,” says McNamara. He also felt an unexplainable sense of urgency during the numerous night shoots. “During day shoots you say ‘We’re losing light.’ We’d joke, ‘Better get this before the sun comes up.’” Ellam adds, “We didn’t care if our hotels had a pool or a good restaurant. What we really cared about was if they had thick curtains so we could sleep during the day and be ready to work at night.”

During one overnight shoot that involved Ellam doing time-lapse videos in Arches National Park in Utah, McNamara had to leave to drive their camera assistant back to the hotel. When McNamara returned and was nearing where he thought Ellam had set up the camera, he tried to get in touch with his cinematographer. “I pushed the button on my walkie talkie and said ‘Mark, are you there?’ I didn’t hear anything for a moment so I called again. Then Mark said ‘Yeah, it’s just me and the coyotes,’” laughs McNamara. Other times in the park, Chad Moore, a national parks employee and night sky expert featured in the film, would ask the team, “Did you hear that? That was a cougar.” Extreme shooting conditions indeed.

Even while filming was still underway, editor Roderick Deogrades was back in Toronto assembling stories. The film was edited using Final Cut Pro, which has a handy function with which the editor can share the Final Cut Pro screen in an iChat window. “So when I was filming in New York, Rod contacted me with a rough cut of a scene from Greece and he could see my face as I was watching it,” says McNamara. “If my expression changed he would pause it and say ‘OK, what’s the matter?’”

The editing process started with Deogrades in August 2009. He moved on to a previous commitment in January and passed the editing torch to Roland Schlimme. There were more scenes to cut and Schlimme also whittled down the first assembly—which clocked in at four hours— to the 80-minute final cut. Editing finished in May and McNamara praises both editors for their ability to find gems in the footage and help give the film coherence. “Initially I thought, ‘OK, 12 stories: line ’em up, set ’em up, knock ’em down and there’s a movie.’ That’s obviously a simple and slightly naïve approach,” the director admits.

Audiences will soon see the results of McNamara’s final approach. The film is slated to air on documentary in late September. It was also entered into the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and Sheffield International Documentary Festival, and will eventually be released on DVD.

Dewdney finds the film inspired by his book to be “extraordinarily entertaining” and thinks it will open people up to the dark. “The night is an intrinsic part of our identities; it’s sort of written into our genes, so to fight the night is fighting nature,” says the Toronto-based author. “There are lots of subtleties in night and you can train yourself to see in darkness, but we ignore that because we shut out the whole thing; this film opens it back up again as a territory that we can reclaim.”

This filmmaking experience definitely strengthened McNamara’s appreciation of the night. “There were times we’d be shooting in the dark, waiting for the moon to rise or something, and we’d look at each other and say, ‘Who’s luckier than we are? This is the best.’” Seems like those long-ago night shifts at the radio station made a lasting impression: once a rooftop gazer, always a rooftop gazer.

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