By Oakley Anderson-Moore
By welding cameras and microphones to hundreds of engine-revving stock cars, director Michael Dweck challenged the structure of a traditional documentary.
First-time filmmaker Michael Dweck comes from a background in photography, where some of his work deals with fleeting worlds. After attempting to photograph one such disappearing world over the course of five years—the last stock car racetrack in Long Island—he realized the feeling of being at the track could only be captured on film.
Dweck then started the process of making the feature documentary, The Last Race, where he adhered to an observational technique that included attaching over 20 Canon 5Ds to cars speeding around the track. (And he often used No Film School boards to source a crew to help him do it!) There's no trailer for the film yet, but you can see a few clips of the resulting style here.
After the film's world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Dweck sat down with NFS to talk about editing intuitively, using long lenses to observe people, and creating a half-music, half-machine sound design from over 4,000 sounds captured at the track.
NFS: In the way of the film's style and storytelling methods, The Last Race doesn't follow traditional storytelling conventions. There’s a surreal, expressionistic feeling throughout. What was your strategy for capturing this story?
Dweck: I was filming moments. I'd see something beautiful, and I'd say, "okay, this car, I want to see what it would look like to be mounted on a bumper of a car going around the racetrack." From a distance, I'd see this thing and I'd say, "that's cool, I need to capture that." So, I'd put a camera here and put a camera there. By the end of production, I had shot 340 hours of moments. There were so many beautiful, magical moments. What I didn't have was a traditional story. I had a three-act structure, but I didn't have a main character. I didn't have a conflict. I didn't have an antagonist. I had an inanimate object. A place.
At first, I was listening to everybody I could [for feedback]. I was very inexperienced and had never made a film before. I had friends that would tell me, “no, you have to have conflict at least ten minutes in, twenty minutes in." I originally had a very confident editor and, because of my inexperience, let him drive the bus. It forced the film in all these different directions, and while it created a good film, it just wasn't the film I wanted. That was three years ago.
So I went back and I looked at all my footage again. I'd say most of everything I loved wasn't in there because it didn't fit that story. I then met Charlotte Munch Bengtsen and she became my editor. Charlotte said, "put on the wall the scenes you love, that you want to keep." And so I did, and there were 1,600 scenes! Each of the walls were completely full! I said, "these are all them, I love them all." From there, I narrowed it down.
NFS: What were the rules for the new edit?
Dweck: We were editing intuitively. Charlotte was a contemporary dancer until she was 38. And I said, "in contemporary dance, unlike ballet, it's not structured. It's intuitive." That's what I liked about her. She had also edited The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer, and I had a long conversation with Josh about what I had in mind and how risky it was. He said, “Charlotte is probably the person that could do it. She's tough, and you need tough in this because you want everything. You also need someone who understands how to be free and takes risks.” And that was Charlotte.
We started off with the goal to get the first 20 minutes done. We worked together for months in Copenhagen. We agreed this was going to be a cinematic portrait of a specific place, and the shots had to be either magical or mysterious. If they didn't meet that prerequisite, they didn't make the film. Another requirement was that there could be no repetition. We'd need to have moments of silence to breath, to stay, and to not cut a lot. If we had cuts, you wouldn't have time to observe this very particular world.
NFS: What were the actual logistics of how you captured the footage?
Dweck: It was horrible. You work at a racetrack where the people are working around you, and you don't understand what they do and they don't care what you do. They want to win [the race]. During the week, they were fine, i.e. "no problem, come by my car and you can even weld the camera to it!” I was drilling holes in the hood of their cars! But once you got on the track, they don't know who you are and they don't want to deal with you. It’s a loud, dangerous racetrack. It's 200 cars reving up at the same time. Was the car started when you were there last night [at the premiere]?
NFS: Yes, the stock car was in front of the theater and someone would occasionally rev it up every few minutes to big effect.
Dweck: So imagine 200 hundred of those in one parking lot.
Dweck: It's deafening. You're trying to talk to [the crew] and everything has to be done in sign language. My DP Gregory Kershaw and I were talking in sign language all the time. We would occasionally weld 20 cameras atop the cars, not GoPros, but 5Ds mounted on cars. You have to turn them on at the same time to synchronize 20 cameras at once, and it requires two guys. The drivers would line up, and all of a sudden you would see the officials signal the race start. You're about to turn the camera and they'd say they changed their mind and the cars going to the track to race. But I’d turn on the camera anyway. Noise always presented a challenge, as did the waste heat. It was 95 degrees out almost every day. Oh, and also: the drivers didn't want to be filmed.
Another big challenge was that we only wanted to shoot observational footage. We just wanted to observe. The problem was that this group of people are so used to reality television that they think they're on a reality TV series. Out of the 345 hours that we shot, I'd say 150 were of characters we couldn't use. They were always performing for the camera. You wouldn’t normally start looking at something and describe it like, [Dweck picks up a brush from a bowl on the table in front of us], "look at this brush, it’s really red.” You wouldn't normally, naturally do that, you know?
We dealt with the issue by using long lenses. I’d put five or six microphones on different people each morning, leaving the mics and batteries on for the entirety of the day. There’s an early scene in the film where two drivers are sitting on a car and chatting. I'd be way across from them with a long lens and start picking places to shoot from afar. That's how we got conversations to feel more natural. It's a really rough environment to work in. I have hearing loss now. My hearing’s horrible.
NFS: A big part of the film is the effect of the sound design. How did you create it?
Dweck: Over the course of production, I thought to collect the sound library. Take the announcer, for instance. I recorded a feed directly from his microphone in his booth, and I recorded in the old speakers and the new speakers. That's why you hear him talking in and outside the booth. You hear what it sounds like on the track, as I wanted it to sound like he was talking to somebody on the outside. At one point, I mounted 15 microphones on different parts of the cars. We had some on the engine and some along the tailpipe. The moment it hits the tailpipe, the sound changes, and by the time it gets to the end, it's loud, and if you get two people behind it, then it's really loud because of the amount of combustion. We then have an accelerator clipping, the hotdog stand, and I had it on [the driver's] foods and in their helmets. You can hear them breathing. You can hear the guy breathing, and it’s intense because we had microphones in their helmet that even they weren’t aware of.
We had microphones on the front bumper, back bumpers, and all the side panels. I wanted you to feel what it would be like to be in a racecar and how it would feel to be in a car accident. I wanted you to feel that. We filled in the rest of the sound while in Finland to fill in the footsteps and some interesting little things that I couldn't get. We had about 4,260 sounds.
NFS: The final effect in the film is very out-of-this-world.
Dweck: It's another language. Peter Albrechtsen was our sound artist, and he's just great. I told the composer, Roger Goula, "we're going to take your musical stem and give it to Peter.” He was like, “Why?” Peter and I noticed that an engine sounds like a guitar, or a certain engine sound is like a violin or cello string. A big part of the sound side is me pushing stems. If you listen carefully you can't really tell what's coming from a musical instrument or what's coming from a machine. We paid an extreme attention-to-detail so that it wouldn't sound too obvious. In the end, I think it sounds simultaneously realistic and detailed. I like as much detail as possible. I wanted you to feel like you were there. That's why I turned the volume up yesterday during the screening. I was trying to get it high because that's how loud the racetrack is. Where were you sitting for the screening?
NFS: I was sitting in the back, but it was still quite loud.
Dweck: Well, if you were in the front, you'd have gone half-deaf!