It’s the first ’70s film with un-ironic
moustaches,” said my friend Bill after seeing a rough cut of Diggers.
It’s always a challenge to make a period movie on a low budget,
not to mention one with multiple scenes shot on old boats with ancient
engines that sputter and die mid-take in the middle of a bay during
a heat wave. But our greater dilemma was how to make a movie set in
1976 look and feel authentic with minimal means.
As both a director and a moviegoer, I’m a ferocious stickler for
period accuracy. Nothing takes me out of a scene faster than a fleet
of shiny, too-perfect vintage cars with no rust or scratches. A crisp,
clean shirt that all too obviously was purchased from some cold stock
warehouse makes me question whether a character ever eats, spills or
does laundry. In movies set in the 1970s, these problems are compounded
by bell bottoms, mutton chops, Farrah Fawcett-style hair feathering,
and the trailing influence of Peter Max—all elements that don’t
exactly lend themselves to stylistic subtlety.
When I first read Ken Marino’s script, which was based on his
father’s experiences as a clamdigger on Long Island, I saw not
just the opportunity to engage with extremely well-written characters
and dialogue (and eventually a stellar group of actors, including Paul
Rudd, Maura Tierney, Ron Eldard, Sarah Paulson, Josh Hamilton, Lauren
Ambrose and Ken himself), but also to create a largely working-class
world of the time, with a dash of stoner-dude décor on the side.
I was a teenager in the ’70s, and in a pivotal act of rebellion
for a professor’s daughter, took up with an acid-dropping plumber
several years my senior. I based a lot of the look of Diggers
on what I remember from the bars and dwellings I frequented with him.
Real interiors are always a layering of old and new, and apart from
one minor décor glitch (a contemporary burglar alarm is only
half-hidden by an oven mitt behind Sarah Paulson’s head), we managed
to create a remarkably consistent and believable world for our actors—which
I’m convinced in turn informed the verisimilitude of their performances.
The key to actualizing a movie’s look is the relationship between
the director of photography, production designer and costume designer.
On Diggers, I was fortunate enough to find three like-minded
souls who shared my vision and fought as hard as they could to support
it. “But we can’t abandon the palette!,” was the fierce
cry of Roshelle Berliner, my production designer. We’d collectively
agreed on certain blues, browns, greens and oranges, and they were not
to be defiled. Roshelle worked closely with costume designer Catherine
George, who found period clothing that looked lived in. (And if it didn’t,
she’d pound it with rocks, drag it through the dirt or crumple
it into a little ball.) Catherine came up with very specific looks for
each character and argued for them to the bitter end—even if I
sometimes disagreed. The actors loved her for her sense of what was
right for their characters, and her dedication to seeking it out.
The streets, rooms, objects and garments were then lit and framed to
support a specific image of the 1970s. Cinematographer Michael McDonough
and I both were huge fans of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore photographs
from that time, and referenced them frequently. We looked at Fat
City for down-and-out interiors, The Deer Hunter for shooting
grimy bars, and Breaking Away for compositions of four buddies
interacting in open spaces. Since we didn’t have a lot of money
for period cars, we’d created more limited frames with a block
of color (a bright red Chrysler on a dull-toned street). If a building
had vinyl siding, we’d figure out a creative way to obscure it.
Sometimes limitation is the key to ingenuity, and Michael found powerful
ways of shooting by working around what couldn’t be shown.
A director always has to find co-workers as obsessive as him or herself,
and in all the right ways. More than once on a location scout on Staten
Island—where we primarily shot Diggers, since the ’70s
are more in evidence there than on Long Island—Roshelle and I
would sneak off to a thrift store to score the perfect avocado rotary
dial phone for a buck or two. Basically, we all embraced the low-cost
inventiveness required to make our movie as authentic as possible. A
low-budget indie graced by un-ironic moustaches, and so much else that
rings true, is the result of precisely that kind of collective commitment.