Speaking to the allure of the unknown, David Lynch once said, “Secrets and mysteries provide a beautiful little corridor where you can float out and many, many wonderful things can happen.” Yes, it’s that delicious mix of fear and desire, those beautiful facades teeming with anxiety, that both passionately attract us and leave our blood running cold. And if you’ve ever seen even one of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs, it’s evident that his pictures possess a mystifying, haunting beauty. Fueled by his own obsession with what’s lurking “beneath the roses,” Crewdson takes on small-town life with grand expansion. He doesn’t simply take a photograph; rather, he creates an entire world with the complexity of movie-like images that transport you to a place that’s both “wonderful and strange.” Lush with light and color, his pictures are shot through the haze of magic hour, a time when the world takes on a wondrous and fantastic glow, showing us a moment in time where the ever-looming sense of isolation and alienation in everyday life is always present.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Crewdson always had an attraction to the otherworldly quality that the country and suburbia provides, where the cracks in life are more like concealed wounds—as opposed to the city where everything boils to the surface. Taken in vacant streets, desolate woods, and sound stages in southern Massachusetts, for almost a decade he worked on Beneath the Roses, a project now immortalized in Ben Shaprio’s documentary, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters. The film serves as a introduction to Crewdson’s work for those unfamiliar while giving an immersive view into his process for those already enamored. We get a sprawling look at a ten-year process that shows some of his most brilliant photographs—from the inception of an idea, to the building of a moment, and the final stunning result as Crewdson reflects on his life and work, his fears and desires, and the things that tickle his creative fancy.
Ben, how did you begin to make a documentary on Gregory? And why did you choose him as a subject?
Ben Shapiro: I knew of Gregory’s work up to that point, which it was like 2000-2001. And I was doing a lot of work for a PBS show about the arts called Egg, and they assigned me the job of making a short film about him and his process. So I went to film a shoot, which is actually in the movie—that early work in Lee with the guy climbing the beanstalk.
Gregory Crewdson: When I didn’t have grey hair.
Gregory, were you worried at all about someone coming and showing your whole process and that exposure?
GC: The process began, for me, just organically. It started almost imperseptively because he had shot for PBS and then I got used to him being around. So then when he asked if he could back, I said of course. There’s so much going on in the shoots anyways, and it’s such a big production that I wasn’t truly aware; it wasn’t intrusive in any way. And then it became just habitual. I wasn’t ever fully conscious that there would be a movie at the end of the process. And I didn’t ask to see any footage ever over a ten year period. It was a big surprise when he called me one day and said there was a final version and it was going to premiere at SXSW.
And what did you think the first time you saw it?
GC: Well, the first time I saw it was at Ben’s apartment. It was mid-afternoon and we watched it on a small TV set. It was…hard to watch. I knew immediately that he captured it all well, but it was just hard. I got to watch myself aging, and I was going through all these things in my personal life. So the first time I saw it I was shell-shocked.
BS: I empathized! Because there is so much history rolling by packed into this hour and a half.
GC: I was physically sick to my stomach. But it should be clear that I didn’t have any say in the movie, and I think that’s really important. He had complete independent control of the film.
In watching the film, I loved learning more about your childhood. Your photographs, to me, feel like these beautiful depictions of what’s asleep in our subconscious, like a haunting and heartbreaking dream that’s part nightmare and part emotional revelation. So in learning that your father was a psychiatrist, and that was being a sort of mystery world to you, was interesting.
GC: The first and foremost thing I’m interested in doing is creating a beautiful image that feels complex and that uses light and color. So that’s what I’m more conscious of in terms of making pictures, but then, of course, there’s the underneath stuff which is more murky, which maybe I’m a little more removed from. But that’s the real core of the work, that sense of isolation or sadness or anxiety. To me, that’s the reason to make the pictures: to comes to terms with all that stuff.
And David Lynch is someone that’s a huge inspiration for you and you’ve said that he changed your life; I feel the same way about his work. I guess that’s something that attracted me to you originally, as well: you both share that juxtaposition between dreams and reality, imperfection and perfection, beauiful and grotesque, etc. Also, your photographs are so narrative even though it’s just one moment in time. Are you not thinking about what’s outside of the image?
GC: Never. And I think that’s pretty apparent in the movie. I’m completely invested in this one image, and I don’t even like to talk about exactly what it means. I’m just interested in preserving that one moment. It starts from location scouting, and then an image comes out. And so then I write these descriptions. And once that description’s written, it’s locked in. I’m always relieved because then I don’t have to talk about the picture anymore. I can just hand the little description to the actor or the director of photography.
Originally, you conceived Beneath the Roses as a film. Do you think that you would want to try envisioning something in that way again?
GC: I don’t think it’s in the movie, but around that time there was a lot of interest around Hollywood. So I wrote a treatment. I had a meeting with a big Hollywood producer, and it was one of the most awkward moments of my life. He read the treatment and I could just see his face falling, and he was like, “Nothing happens in this. It’s just descriptions.” And it was! It was like: “a guy gets out of the car and it’s raining and he has a car full of so sod. Cut. A woman walks across the lawn nude, pregnant.” He’s said, “It’s not connected in any way.”
That’s very of Malick of you. Also, it would be difficult for you to make a movie if you want to shoot in the same style that you do now.
GC: It would be the most expensive, hugest-budgeted movie where nothing happened. Like Terrence Malick is famous for shooting just during magic hour—it would be like that. But unlike Terrence Malick—who I’m a huge fan of—I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost. So I would never make a movie like that. If I were to make a movie, it would have to be a real story.
What’s the role that nudity or nakedness plays in a lot of your work? It’s more an emotionally bareness than anything remotely sexual.
GC: It’s a kind of nakedness. I relate it to like Edward Hopper; it almost increases the sense of vulnerability or loneliness or separation, but also having a desire. Never does anyone actually physically touch in my pictures. There are exceptions to that, but when there is nudity, it’s meant to reinforce the idea of being alone in your own body.
I was thinking, specifically, about the photograph with the woman coming out of the car with the shopping bag and the woman standing in front of her with her head down. That one always kills me.
GC: That was a student of mine from Yale in that picture. That was funny.
When I first saw your photos I thought they looked like how I always imagined Raymond Carver stories.
GC: Well…well, that’s my favorite—he’s my favorite.
And Ben, was it interesting for you to film a movie about someone else capturing a moment?
BS: The process is just as interesting as the photos are. And watching that kind of progression is one of the reasons I wanted to make the film and one of the reasons why I thought there could be a film or a process film about it. I always feel like those photographs, Beneath the Roses especially, are this personal expression written large onto the biggest possible scale where the germs of these thoughts just grow and you see that growth because of the process. I knew that was cinematic.
GC: No one ever shot the soundstage stuff, so I’m really grateful that’s on film: the making of those pictures. Working on location is one thing and I thrive on that. I think that’s my favorite way of working, but no one has any conception of the process of making those soundstage pictures starting from nothing and building these sets from the ground up. I think it’s great that the film captures not only that, but the very beginning of an idea. Like when we were looking at Psycho in the studio and I said I wanted to make a picture using that motel; that’s really great to have the whole step-by-step process in making that—down to the baby that wouldn’t go to sleep.
Gregory, do you have any specific films that are like your touchstones of inspiration? Besides David Lynch and Blue Velvet, of course.
GC: Hitchcock is obviously a big one. Night of the Hunter. In a general way, Orson Welles—just the use of deep space, which is such an important aspect to my work: the idea that everything has absolute focus.
BS: You know what’s interesting about that? That stuff in Citizen Kane that was just multiple exposure.
GC: Which is what I’m doing. But I think, to me, the easy answer to that is just: movies. Just bringing cinematic light into a still photograph is the big revelation in my own work—to bring in light and color in a way that was never used before in terms of creating a photographic language.
The suburban landscape and the terror that’s creeping beneath the surface and hiding between the trees is something that’s there in all of your work. My family lives in suburban New Jersey and, after living in the city, I’m more afraid there at night than I would be on a street in the middle of New York because it’s such a different feeling—there’s a quiet and stillness and the light is different. And there’s these big, nice houses, but that’s not what’s inside them.
GC: Yes, exactly. For me, it’s like that feeling of being slightly alien, being there but not there kind of thing. But I would never consider making a picture in New York ever. That just wouldn’t even occur to me. There are artists, writers, filmmakers, who are drawn to a particular place and spend their entire career as an artist just working there for inexplicable reasons, really.
People I know who have seem the film have loved it as much as I do, but I was talking with someone who said there was so much mystery to your work and by seeing this, some of that mystery was gone. It didn’t take anything away, but it was just a feeling.
BS: When you read an interview or see behind-the-scenes with a director, I think it always changes your relationship to the work in some way. I guess all I would hope is that more information deepens your understanding of the whole thing, and even if your relationship is different, it’s enriched in some sense.
GC: The director’s cut is always great, or the behind-the-scenes features on the DVD. To me, it honestly increases the mystery. I look back on it now and I honestly say to myself, “Did we really do that? How the fuck did we do that?” And then also my favorite parts of the movie are when it goes from shooting to the transition of the actual picture. To me, no matter what, there’s a big shift there. It goes from the making of something, to the thing itself and that feels—even knowing how we made the picture—even more mysterious to me.
BS: I really love those moments; there’s something mysterious about how an aritst goes through this process. All this thinking, all this work, and then at some point the work emerges and has this kind of world of it’s own and if the film can capture that in some way; that’s the subtext or even the subject in the film: how the work emerges from that thinking process.
GC: These pictures have been out in the world so long and have become part of the public consciousness, so I think that—and I never really thought about this til now—if the movie had come out then, I might have been more resistant. Let’s say it came out just as they’ve come but they’ve had a life and people understand them, so it’s interesting to come back now, many years later, and unpack them in a different way.