DP John Behrens Shares His Pre-Production Approach on Sundance Film Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir

We’re taking it back to Sundance Film Festival with an exclusive interview with DP John Behrens, on the film Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, the biopic of well-known, best-selling author Amy Tan. The film was also directed by the late Robert Redford and explores the evolution of Tan’s relationship with her mother.

Behrens describes his approach to pre-production, lighting choices and film techniques with ProductionHUB. 

PH: How did you get involved with this project?

John Behrens: About 10 years ago I worked with a director, Mark Decena, on a series of activist films for The Redford Center. I shot short films for The Redford Center’s excellence in activism awards that developed into Watershed, a documentary directed by Mark Decena and produced by James Redford developed through the Sundance Lab. Then I worked on Toxic Hot Seat, directed and produced by James, and have been shooting with James Redford since then. We began shooting Amy Tan as a chapter for Playing for Keeps, a KPJR Films documentary that Jamie directed. During the shoots, Jamie realized that Amy’s story was a goldmine and he got her to agree to be in a feature documentary film about her life. We then transitioned from shooting Amy for Playing for Keeps and began shooting Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir.

PH: Can you describe your approach to pre-production? What lighting choices did you make and why?

John Behrens: We went for a naturalistic approach primarily using natural daylight. We began shooting at Amy’s house which has so much beautiful natural light that we only used one light and we approached the rest of the interviews in the same way using daylight balanced light. For additional lighting, we also used the Arri Sky Panels and K5600 Joker 800 with Chimera’s 5 foot Octa light soft boxes.

PH: What film techniques did you use to bring this project to life?

John Behrens: I used narrative cinema storytelling in my approach to framing the interviews and verité sequences. I also used prime lenses, full frame and super 35 cameras and added tracking cameras whenever we could follow the action.

PH: How has your professional experience in the industry shaped your work on this project (and in general)?

John Behrens: Over the years, I’ve worked in a variety of different styles from narrative, scripted, concert films, commercials to music videos. I use all of those styles in my documentaries because we are competing with all of those styles. I used elements from all styles in Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir as we really wanted to keep our audience visually engaged in the storytelling and giving them rich imagery that is beautiful to look at.

PH: What did you shoot on? And why?

John Behrens: We shot on the Sony Venice as “A” camera and the Sony F5 as “B” camera with Canon CN-E primes on the interviews. For B-Roll we used the Sony Venice as “A” camera with Canon CN-E primes and the Sony F5 with a Canon 17-120mm Cine Zoom as “B” camera as well as a Sony A7 III with Zeiss ZF primes and the Sony 16-35mm f2.8 G master series zoom on a DJI Ronin-S. We made these camera choices because of the light sensitivity of these cameras and the robustness of how these cameras operate lend itself to our visual style. They are also super reliable and would not require us to spend time on technical details which enabled us to focus on the storytelling.

PH: Do you have a favorite/memorable scene that you can discuss?

John Behrens: I loved the wildlife drawing and painting sequence at the end of the film. It was almost like
taking a departure into a wildlife documentary. Amy was with naturalists who knew how to
draw and paint nature and we were outside in nature in beautiful places. We had several
cameras and we were able to capture her joy and playfulness as she was painting.

PH: Did you face any challenges while working on this project? What were they and how did you approach them?

John Behrens: We lost our director, who passed away, near the tail end of finishing the film. The biggest challenge was to get over the heartbreak of losing our director and friend. We all wanted to just stop everything and grieve, however, we knew that he would not want us to stop. We owed it to him and Amy and everyone who would see the film to carry out his wishes. He did a great job of preparing us, setting us on a path and giving us our visual assignments so that we could carry out his vision and finish the film.

PH: Now that Sundance is virtual, how do you think the experience has changed? What are some of the ways you, along with other production professionals, can still socialize and collaborate?

John Behrens: My background is in theater and I began doing live theater when I was 13 years old. A live audience is a powerful experience and you know when your creativity is having an effect on the audience. A film festival has that same amazing power as it gives you the ability to experience the point of view of the audience as you sit with them watching your film through their eyes. You cannot do that with virtual festivals watching films online. As a dyslexic filmmaker, I do everything that I can to reduce the time spent in front of my computer because it is very taxing for me. However, I really enjoyed the drive-in experience. Although it still lacked the feeling of seeing a film with an audience, there was an element of community.

PH: How was this experience different from past Sundance festivals (aside from just being virtual?)

John Behrens: The best part about this Sundance was the purchasing of tickets to see films. This year’s
ticket purchasing was the most manageable in my history of Sundance. I’ve had six films at
the festival and attended with each.

PH: How do you think the filmmaking community reacted? 

John Behrens: I could not tell how the film community reacted.

PH: Were there any challenges?

John Behrens: Different kinds of experiences are for different people. I don’t know that the virtual experiences are the best for filmmakers. I think the gaming community would love the avatar interactions, however the virtual engagement was a challenge for me. I was hesitant about getting on a group Zoom with people that I hadn’t met or could not see. However, I love all of the interaction of a live in-person festival.

PH: Do you think this might be the future of film festivals? How could it improve?

John Behrens: I think that the future of film festivals lies in the ability for films to be shown to those who can’t make it to the festivals. Making films available to audiences who can’t attend festivals is a great thing. I also think the drive-in is pretty awesome and for films to be made available in various cities is great. I am in favor of having Q&A discussions partnered with films in various cities to extend the reach of the films and exposure for the panelists, the topic and the filmmakers. Remote Q &A’s could be improved by using high quality video of the subjects, actors and filmmakers.

The Canon EOS C300 Mark II was one of the popular pieces of equipment at Sundance. Elizabeth Pratt, Director, Canon ISB Marketing

PH: Can you tell us what Canon did at Sundance this year? 

Elizabeth Pratt: Canon has been a proud sponsor of Sundance since 2012, and we first debuted our dedicated space for the creative community — the Canon Creative Studio — in 2014. Our sponsorship at Sundance has always centered on connecting with and celebrating the below-the-line community, particularly cinematographers, even in the completely different and virtual setting that we saw this year.

An incredible upside to virtual events is that geographic barriers are all but erased. Through our virtual programming with Sundance, we were able to reach people that we might not in Park City and give folks a peek behind the curtain of how select Sundance projects were crafted with Canon gear.  We hosted a trio of online filmmaker discussions this year with our media sponsor American Cinematographer Magazine featuring the DPs and filmmakers behind three Canon-shot Sundance films: How It Ends (featuring Cinematographer, Producer and Director Daryl Wein), Searchers (featuring Cinematographers Martin DiCicco and Daniel Claridge), and My Name Is Pauli Murray (featuring director Julie Cohen, cinematographer Claudia Raschke and editor Cinque Northern). In previous years, we’ve featured filmmakers including directors Amy Berg and Matthew Heineman and DPs including Rachel Morrison, ASC, Quyen Tran, and David Klein, ASC. 

Again this year we saw that documentary filmmakers chose the Canon EOS C300 Mark II to tell their stories, including My Name Is Pauli Murray cinematographer Claudia Raschke and Philly D.A. cinematographer Yoni Brook. In fact, 50% of all documentaries at Sundance this year were shot on Canon cameras and lenses.

Lastly, the connection with our customers and potential customers is one of the best parts of our Sundance experience every year. We work closely with the Festival to identify the camera gear that was used on Sundance projects so we can deepen our relationships with the below-the-line community and better understand their needs and challenges in the field. Sundance is an invaluable experience for Canon and we look forward to whatever is in store for 2022. 

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