Filmmaking is voyeurism.
“Look down,” he said, slowly walking around her, stretching plastic wrap taut across her skin, around her legs, hands and chest. A single overhead light shone down, shading her pale skin pink and her long, curling hair hues of gold. She kept her eyes lowered, sitting in a wooden chair of peeling black paint. The tall man shadowed over.
“Okay, stop.” Another man, further back, stopped recording. “Let’s do it again.”
Michael Berrier loomed large over his camera, an intense figure with a hawkish face (imagine Liam Neeson with a crew cut). He paced around his actors, Rachel Ann Dealy and Chris Collins, giving directions with a stuttering energy as if his mind was often too fast for his lips.
It was an integral scene, a climactic moment in Berrier’s third feature-length film, “Prisoner of the Collective.” The film, directed and produced by Berrier, premieres this Friday evening, Jan. 11 at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center.
“Wrap it around this way and leave her legs exposed.” He motioned around Dealy’s almost naked body.
“How does it look?” she asked, “Is there anything else I should be doing?”
Berrier, in a rare occurrence, rewound the tape to let her watch the footage. “Can you see too much?”
“Turn around,” she told me, before getting up.
I listened to her walk over to the camera. “No, it looks great!” Dealy stared into the viewfinder.
“You’re comfortable with the angle?” She was in her underwear for the scene and Berrier was careful, almost protective, to not expose too much.
“It’s beautiful and creepy,” she said, returning to her chair. “I love the black and white.”
Collins and Dealy then prepared to repeat the scene, making adjustments according to Berrier’s directions. Both actors had appeared in his previous films, “S.A. Nudes“ and “Lucy and Jake,” and were accustomed to his directorial needs.
“Okay, Chris. Keep going and wrap her all the way up to her chin,” Berrier said.
For this film, about the physical and emotional trials of a woman afflicted by acute juvenile rheumatoid arthritis who becomes a photographer’s muse, Berrier used many elements from Dealy’s life. Shot entirely at The Collective – a clothing store, art gallery, and retail space c0-founded by Dealy – the store itself stars as a character in the film as it’s run by Dealy’s fictional character as well.
With filming wrapped for the night, Berrier and I sat in the store’s office. He mentioned “My Dinner with Andre” and Sartre’s “No Exit“ as inspirations. There is no set design, instead he filmed the store as it was – perhaps moving an item or two for a better composition – but he maintained the San Antonio spirit of rasquache, making do with the resources available. He used friends and family for actors, and their homes, businesses, and galleries for his sets.
“I decided I wanted to do a sub-emphasis of the novel I had written after my father died,” Berrier said. “I enjoy the intensity of it. Film is the creative process in total.”
His films are mostly unscripted, leaving the actors to improvise, he said, “Typically, I set up a scene, set up a dialogue, and set up a mood. But people are literally playing themselves.”
He sipped on a beer, while Dealy, now clothed, walked past.
“The idea for this film originated from the real Rachel (Dealy). She was in my second film and she was photogenic and energetic,” he said. “For the third, I wanted to make her the center.”
Why black and white?
He recounted a story of walking in Paris with his family: “My wife took a lot of photographs, all of them in black and white. There was one particular shot of us walking from the back and it occurred to me that this photograph could’ve been taken in 1920 or even 1890. There was a timeless quality to it. I wanted this story to feel lost in time.”
What are your plans for this film?
“We’ve previously set up showings with Bill Fitzgibbons at Blue Star Contemporary Arts Center, so we’re doing that again. After that I’d like to enter it into some film festivals.”
A few days later I met Dealy at Blue Box Bar at The Pearl Brewery. She sat demurely at the long bar, dressed in black. I sat down next to her and ordered a Pearl.
How did you get involved with this project?
“I’ve known Michael (Berrier) since I was a little girl. He and my father opened a small deli together, the City Bar and Deli, when I was about five or six,” she told me. “Then Michael went on to open La Tuna with Mike Looney. My parents sometimes shared a few beers while I ran around and played with other kids.”
She took a small drink of red wine.
“I ran into Michael at La Tuna a couple of years ago. He had a video camera and took some footage of me talking about my memories of La Tuna for a documentary he was making. Next time I saw him, he told me he’d finished the movie, screened it at Blue Star, and was shooting another one.” She laughed. “That’s what’s funny about him. It seems like he just says to himself, ‘I think I want to open a cool little ice house.’ Then he does it. ‘I want to make electrical cars.’ Then he makes one. ‘Now I think I’ll make films.’ And here he is on his third.”
What’s it like working with Berrier?
“Michael works really fast. It can be scary. This stuff definitely taps into a lot of my insecurities, so after a take, I always felt like I could do a better job and wanted to keep trying. Mike had a clear idea of what he wanted and once he had it, we moved on.”
“Also, I tend to try to take over, and (Berrier) knows that, so he usually didn’t let me watch as he filmed. That was difficult because I wanted to watch my performance in the interest of improving it. I had to trust him.” She finished her wine.
Return to the chair scene.
Collins continued to wrap Dealy up to her neck while Berrier filmed its entirety. It took several minutes. Collins was slow, meticulous. There was a sense of tension and danger.
“Great,” said Michael, stopping the scene.
“That’s the longest I’ve ever been quiet,” Rachel said.
They burst out laughing.
Feeling trapped, however, she started to panic.
“I’m feeling really claustrophobic,” she said.
Berrier and Collins worked quickly to free her.
I left the scene uncertain of Dealy’s character’s fate. I wanted to know. We want our answers. We want to know why traffic is bad, so we crane our necks at the mechanical carnage. We stare at tabloids in the checkout line. We watch fake reality unfold weekly on television. We must know the ending, what happens.
Filmmaking is voyeurism. We are the watchers at the windows. We are the hiders in the closets. We are the voyeurs of voyeurs.
Prisoner of the Collective
Blue Star Contemporary Art Center
Friday, January 11
Cocktails will begin at 6:30 and the movie will begin at 7:00
RSVP via email to Elizabeth Lyons at email@example.com
Freelance writer Jacob Coltrane Burris comes from a line of Texas rebels and bootleggers. Attempts to settle a restless spirit included stints traveled along the westernmost states, from the Pacific fogs of the Bay Area to the frozen mountains of Montana. Somehow San Antonio always pulls him back.