Film

From Stage to Screen: Play-turned-film taps into our distrust of government

When Nathan Suher calls the timing of The Assassination of Western Civilization a “curious thing,” he isn’t simply being glib about the state of the world. He’s referring to the release date of his latest directed film, a 1970s-inspired political suspense thriller, filmed entirely in one take. 

The movie will premiere online on Sunday, November 1, days before the election.

“The final cut of the film wrapped up around February 2020 and (I chose) to sit on it for a while and pick my moment,” Suher says. “Watching how the world reacted to the political landscape, the way our government has handled the pandemic and the escalation of tensions that have risen from the murders of George Floyd, and several victims, has reinforced the notion that this film has something important to add to the conversation.”

The Assassination of Western Civilization is the story of a tabloid writer, besieged by personal pressures, who finds himself in the crosshairs of an FBI investigation of the assassination of a senator at a nearby hotel. The film doesn’t “directly voice an opinion about this current administration nor the tensions that are currently relevant,” Suher says, but “it definitely is tapping into the delirium and paranoia that is surrounding the distrust in our government.”

It’s a plot that lends itself well to the ambitious task of capturing a full-length film entirely in one shot. Not just because of its contained setting, but because before The Assassination of Western Civilization was a feature, it was a play called Newcastle, written by Lenny Schwartz.

Schwartz and Suher have collaborated on several projects and recently produced a socially distanced anthology Far From Perfect: Life Inside a Global Pandemic. In 2014, Suher recalls the duo were “relatively early on” in their friendship, but always met up to spitball ideas. “One of those early meetings was at the Belle Street Chapel, the location where his theater company Daydream Theatre Company was operating out of,” Suher recalls. “I arrived early and Lenny was in the middle of rehearsals for the original stage version of The Assassination of Western Civilization … I sat in the back of the room, watching him direct the actors, and I was awestruck by the process. I had never actually witnessed this side of a stage production before.” When Suher finally saw the finished play, he was “blown away by it” – but didn’t approach Schwartz about adapting the script until four years later.

“Because of the style of the script with it unfolding in ‘real-time,’ and the fact that all of the story takes place in a single location, I naturally jumped to the idea of making this a single-take feature,” Suher says. “For the most part, the film adaptation follows exactly the same plot, beat by beat. What I felt was essential was to make sure the movie felt dynamic; that you weren’t just watching a three-dimensional play. One of those ways was to constantly give the viewer different perspectives of the characters and the room by making decisions throughout when to go wide and when to get right into the actors’ faces. As the movie progresses, and the tension keeps ratcheting, the camera takes more opportunities to get closeups… Keep in mind that this is all done in a single take. Normally on a stage the audience is able to pick and choose what they want to look at. I had to choose sometimes to instruct my director of photography, Ben Heald, to stay on an actor who wasn’t talking because I hoped their reaction would be stronger in the moment.”

While Suher had previously directed a 6-minute short single-take film, the task of filming a feature under the same constraints left him initially anxious. “When we were getting close to the end of rehearsals, I started getting cold feet about the entire process. The actors were doing very well, but I didn’t have full confidence that we were going to be able to run through the entire script and be 100% perfect. Which means, we can’t see the boom pole in the shot. We can’t have someone break character. We can’t have an egregious line flub. We can’t have someone accidentally forget where they left an essential prop.” 

Because Suher only had his full crew for one weekend, he worried whether they would be able to execute the single take. As a back-up, the crew spent nearly the entire time filming a version of the movie in 10 different parts. Yet with only four hours left in the weekend’s shooting schedule, Suher yearned to try the single take – a time crunch that meant the shot had to be nailed in only one or two tries. “The first take, we made it 22 minutes in and then the boom pole crossed right through the shot,” Suher says. “And of course, it takes about 25 minutes, at least, to reset everything! So it was really our last chance to nail it. With no time to spare, I called action on a ‘make it or go home’ final shot at the single-take version and, by some miracle, everything fell perfectly into place and as a result, we got our single take version in the can.”

The Assassination of Western Civilization premieres online Sunday, November 1, at 8pm. Register through Eventbrite at www.assassinatemovie.com 

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