05/14/2013 09:47 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Brief Encounters

"Untitled (Ophelia)" by Gregory Crewdson from the Twilight series. As featured in Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, a film by Ben Shapiro. A Zeitgeist Films release. Photo © Gregory Crewdson

“My pictures are about search for a moment. A perfect moment. To me, the most powerful moment in the whole process is when everything comes together and for that instant, my life makes sense. “
(Gregory Crewdson)

Brief Encounters, a 2012 documentary directed by Ben Shapiro,  follows acclaimed photographer Gregory Crewdson’s decade-long quest to create a series of haunting, surreal and stunningly elaborate portraits of small-town American life — a depiction of a disturbing and imperfect world.  Crewdson’s fascinating photographs are elaborately staged, well-designed narratives compressed into a single image. Many of them taken at twilight, set in small towns of Western Massachusetts or meticulously recreated interior spaces, built on the kind of sound stages associated with big-budget movies.

The images of contemporary American photographer Gregory Crewdson suggest cinematic narratives packed with despair and mystery, all compressed into a single picture. Ben Shapiro’s fascinating profile of the acclaimed artist includes stories of the inspiration he got from the work of photographer Diane Arbus, as well as film makers Hitchcock and Lynch, which can explain why his practice closely related to filmmaking. Each picture calls for a director of photography, lighting, special effects, huge crews and careful staging, in addition to digital post-production touch-ups.

Filmmaker Ben Shapiro provides a complete depiction of Crewdson’s process through his film. The project began in 2000 while Shapiro was working for a TV program about the arts and was asked to do a short film about Crewdson. He spent a few days with him and made a short film. Shortly after, Shapiro decided he wants to keep filming Crewdson. He presented Crewdson the idea that they’ll make a longer project and Crewdson agreed. It was not until 2004 that Shapiro started filming again.

Asked about the process of filming Crewdson, Shapiro said: “Often when I film, I work as a one-man-band. I’m a documentary cinematographer as well as a director, so many of the films I make and the projects I work on I will shoot myself. Of course that’s in contrast of Gregory’s crews which can have 30 to 50 people.”  
Shapiro reveals that in many respects, Crewdson takes photos using the apparatus of commercial film making. He first gets a conceptual idea for a photograph and then starts working on staging his idea. If it is of an interior image he will work towards building a set. If his idea is exterior, it will usually be in the mill towns and small industrial towns he visits in western Massachusetts. That is where all the photographs take place. (Image: Gregory Crewdson at work, on left)

The next step is working with art director and a cinematographer, planning the lighting, the set for the shots and the composition. At the day of the shoot, Crewdson will arrive with his crew of 40-50 people and they’ll set up lights and position cars or build a set - a very similar process as making a feature film.

The preparations can go on for months on and off and Shapiro says that Crewdson will prepare for a number of photographs to be taken at one time. Similarly as shooting a feature film, the only way to do execute these shoots economically is to shoot a number of photographs within 2-3 weeks period. Crewdson spends around 3-5 months preparing for one shooting period, which then takes a few weeks, where he might take 10-15 photographs.  
(Images: Setting up the shot for "Untitled (Birth)". A scene from Gregory Crewdson:
Brief Encounters, a film by Ben Shapiro. A Zeitgeist Films release. Photo: Cosi Theodoli-Braschi). 

Asked about the challenges of filming on a movie-set, Shapiro says that although he shot on other films sets before, one of the advantages he had working with Crewdson was unlimited access. He could film anywhere anytime on set which is very unusual according to him, but that also presented challenges because as Shapiro says, “There is so much going-on on Crewdson’s sets”. As the sets being physically big and Shapiro had to try and be strategic about where the camera should be and what should be the focus of attention at any given moment. (Image: "Untitled (Birth)" by Gregory Crewdson). 

When he first started filming, Shapiro admits he had no idea it will become such a long-term project. He wasn’t working continuously on the film and was busy working on other projects as well and once every couple of months he would go and spent time with Crewdson. “In a way it was really surprising when there was an ending because I really wasn’t sure how it’s going to end,” says Shapiro.” The way it ended was during an interview with Gregory, when he told me he was done taking his photographs. At that point I knew that this body of work is complete and that my film had an ending." 


Brief Encounters is distributed by Zeitgeist Films & will be available in Europe on demand and on DVD in September this year, as well as upcoming European screenings. To get updates on US and international screenings, visit the film website.