Director Laura Dunn's Aesthetic Matches Her Documentary Message

Many recent American documentaries have downplayed cinema’s aesthetic possibilities, but Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen – which just won the Truer Than Fiction prize at the 2008 Spirit Awards – plays out its environmentalist politics by honoring the beauty of the nature threatened by unchecked land development in Austin. Focusing on developer Gary Bradley and the threat his plans pose to Barton Springs, a natural spring-fed pool, Dunn combines a variety of textures, from new footage shot with the Sony F900 HDCAM and Super-16 to TV news footage dating back to the ’70s. The offline edit was done in Final Cut Pro on a G4 Power Mac, and the online was handled on the Avid DS Nitris. Executive produced by Terrence Malick, The Unforeseen shows his influence everywhere. Not content merely to luxuriate in gorgeous imagery, The Unforeseen describes the battle between liberal and conservative activists in Texas and offers a surprisingly sympathetic character study of Bradley. It opens this week at Cinema Village in New York City and will premiere on the Sundance Channel later this year.
F&V: What kind of HD camera did you use to shoot The Unforeseen?
Dunn: A Sony F900 [HDCAM].

Did the mixture of HD and 16mm cause any challenges in post-production?
Yes! We didn’t just have HD and Super-16. We also had a lot of archival sources. We actually shot 23.98, in terms of the frame rate. When we got all of our film transferred to HD, we weren’t really dealing with a change of frame rate, but when we had to integrate Beta or even 3/4-inch stuff, that was a real challenge. In terms of Super-16 and HD, it would have become much more of a challenge if we shot at a video frame rate. We took all over our film selects, transferred them to HD and mastered onto HD.

How did editing the film yourself affect the post-production?
I don’t know, because I’ve never done it any other way. I did all the assembly and editing myself, with some help, in a sun room off my kitchen. I don’t make film with a script and then go out and shoot the script. I find the story in the editing process. I’m sure that in some ways, I don ¹t have the level of expertise that someone who focuses totally on the technical aspects has. Once we get the picture locked, we have to make sure that everything matches in terms of ins and outs of the tapes and timecodes. Getting the online ready took some work. We didn ¹t actually do the online ourselves. We went to Fast Cuts, a post house in Dallas. There was a month of discussion between them and us about deliverables.

Which portions did you shoot on Super-16?
It’s interwoven throughout. A general pattern is that we shot the interviews on HD and a lot of the nature imagery on film. But we did shoot some nature imagery on HD. For example, the opening shot, when you ¹re hanging in a crane over a skyscraper under construction, is HD. Some of the Barton Springs images are film and some are HD. We really liked the way HD looked and ended up using it more than we planned to. What’s cool is that when you see the film, it’s hard for people to distinguish what’s film and HD. If you go shot by shot, I could tell you, obviously, but there are many shots which look like film but are HD. All the underwater stuff is actually 35mm. That was shot by someone else who then gave us the footage. All the aerial images are film.

Are there certain textures you think HD captures particularly well?
Low light. In really bright light,. it all washes out. When we had to shoot at high noon, we used film, because it’s still a lot better at managing brightness. When the sun was just setting or rising, the HD got a lot of striking detail. It does well at getting saturated color in indoor locations too.

Was the use of HD for interviews an economic choice as well?
Exactly. My interview style is to let people talk quite a bit and create a space for them. For example, we have 15 hours of interviews with Gary Bradley. It ¹s expensive on HD, but it would have been 4 times that on film.

Did your attitude to Bradley change during the making of the film?
Certainly, my impression of him changed as I got to know him better and as his circumstances become more challenging fro him. Anyone is sympathetic when their dreams are falling apart. Even if I still disagree with him on certain key points, I definitely felt for him. To me, it was important as an environmentalist to see the story through the proverbial enemy’s eyes. I didn’t approach him to make fun of him. You need some compassion or empathy to find a way to relate to them. After many hours of talking to him and meeting his family, I saw that he wasn ¹t just a developer trying to destroy creeks. He was a person with a complex story and his own struggle.

How long did production and post-production take?
The whole project, from beginning to end, took four years. Production was the first two years. The vast majority of post-production was in the last two years. There was a little bit of overlap there. In the editing room, I realized I was missing a few things and went back and shot a few more interviews. For example, the footage of Gary Bradley ¹s castle was shot 24 hours before we delivered the film to Sundance for consideration. My husband told me about it and said we had to get it, so I worked it in the last minute. I had a little boy who’s now 2, so I took some time off in the middle.

Did you ever consider shooting in standard-definition video?
Terrence Malick, the executive producer, suggested to shoot it on HDCAM. I was fresh out of film school and had done all my projects on DV, with a little bit of film. I had no real experience with HDCAM. This was in 2002 and the beginning of 2003. Sony was just coming up with that camera. I wouldn ¹t have had the insight to shoot it in HD, but because he suggested it, I tried it. Lee Daniel, the cinematographer, really deserves the credit for the film’s imagery. He’s way more experienced than I am. Having shot for a long time with film, he’s much more comfortable with film and wanted to blend the two. I trusted the experts. I have to say, though, that during the first few months of production, I was pretty overwhelmed with how expensive and big the HD camera was and how much work it took to get the shots. It was very challenging from a production standpoint, being used to a Sony VX-1000 or [Canon] XL1 and not having to do much. It was a huge learning curve, but once I got the images back and especially once I saw them on the big screen, I loved it. A lot of documentaries hold up on TV but when they’re projected on the big screen in front of an audience, it comes alive in a new way. There were many times when I was frustrated by it, but if you can afford it, it’s worth it.

Was it your idea to shoot the lobbyist Dick Brown without showing his face, just depicting his hands making model airplanes?
He didn’t want his face shown. At first, he didn’t want to do an interview. I finally got him to do an audio interview. That was so good that I asked him if I could film him building model airplanes. He always talked about them as a metaphor for his work. It was a mosaic approach to the politics of lobbying. I thought I could film him over time and give a sense of progression to the interview.

How did you go about selecting the soundtrack? With artists like Arvo Part and Sigur Ros, did you have any budgetary problems?
Yes, we’re still having budgetary problems in terms of broader distribution. I’ve got to go back and pay for extended licenses for all that music. It’s a lot more expensive than I had thought. I’m having to raise more money to pay the licensing. The way the music came together was the least intuitive thing for me. It was challenging because originally Patty Griffin was going to do the score. We were able to work some with her, but she got busy recording a new album, which took longer than she thought. I didn’t have a clear vision. I’d find things and just plug them in. There’s one song I ¹m trying to replace now. Terrence Malick really pushed me to look at classical music, and Lee Daniel got me to listen to Arvo Part. My husband got Jeff Beck, and his brother got another song on it. In some ways, figuring out what music to use was the most collaborative part of the film.

How has the film been received in Austin?
It’s been interesting. We played at South By Southwest and got our only standing ovation. Subsequently, in the Q & A, I was hammered with a lot of questions like “Why did you portray Gary Bradley so sympathetically?” They thought it was too easy on him. A lot of the people seeing it have been in a fight for 30 years. They have a different story in their mind than the one in the film. I got a little bit of flack from the environmentalist community here. I still think that the overall response was positive. The most positive reactions came from people who don’t necessarily know a lot about the issue but who care about Austin and want to keep it special. At South By Southwest, we had three screenings. A theatrical run will give me a better idea how the community responds. Texas is a very conservative state, and Austin is a liberal city, so there’s a real culture clash here that’s very interesting.

That also comes across when Dick Brown contemptuously rants about hippies drinking cappuccino and smoking weed.
It’s really funny. He plays that stereotype up, because it serves him in some ways. There is a major culture clash here, but also people like the rancher Henry Brooks. To me, he’s the best of Texas. Is he conservative or liberal? Neither, really. I think he’s just independent. He wants autonomy over his life and land, but at the same time, he wants regulation so that big-money interests can’t come in and destroy resources like the water. There are a lot more of that kind of people in Texas than you’d think.

For more information, visit Laura Dunn’s blog: or watch the trailer in HD.