Arts and Entertainment | Film

Directing the Columbia Dilemma

“Rolling! Speed! Action!” What precedes is the changing of a film lens. The adjustment of a boom mic. The placement of a prop. The set-up is meticulous, the hundreds of shot angles tedious, the hours tiresome, but the end product—worth it.

Pier (Tracy) Shen, CC ’17, took on the role as director of her own screenplay, “Descartes.” Shot in the first two days of October in crisp Riverside Park, Shen employs a range of cinematic techniques that display the continuous Columbia dilemma. It’s a conflict many Columbia students face while sitting in Butler staring at a half-written report paper: Is academic happiness worth more than social satisfaction?

Shen directed cinematographer Adam Bernstein, CC ’17, to shoot takes from different angles in order to give the viewer a whole perspective of Descartes, our neurotic lead. Without hesitation, Bernstein positioned the camera on Descartes’ shoulder for that oh-so-personal touch. This gave a point of view that transcended the median between Descartes and the viewer. It almost felt like you were sitting there, right in front of the bench, watching his life unfold. 

While cinematography might be a critical film technique to “Descartes,” Shen’s direction with the actors and actresses pushed the plot of the Columbia dilemma to its final stages. The greatest of all great film directors have each had their own individual techniques for working with actors. Stanley Kubrick strived for perfection and made his actors spend unusually long hours on set. Lars Von Trier described working with actors like working with potatoes. And then there’s Paul Thomas Anderson, who allows actors to have complete freedom in their performance. Shen’s directorial technique in “Descartes” mixes these three directorial styles to advance both her cast and the film.

Shen treats her actors as friends, sitting on the bench with them in between takes to go over lines. All the while, Shen is open to new ideas. She chose her cast based on campus connections. “There are two parts: the first is the actors, who are usually people you know and trust. With the crew, it’s mostly friends, and I got some help through [Columbia Undergraduate Film Productions] by sending out some emails.” The chemistry is palpable as Shen sits on the bench with Talal Toukan, CC ‘17, for whom she wrote the part of Descartes; as she goes over the script before each take; and as she communicates with the cinematographer to communicate the shot she wants.

“That’s a wrap!” Shen calls, as the cast cheers after a long day of work. The final scene of Shen’s work ends on a note of hope, leading to a conversation about the future of the characters, and the future of Columbia, which inspired the characters. “Since it’s allegorical, and there are way too many intellectuals on campus, I wanted [“Descartes”] to resonate with the Columbia community. I have to show people that they have a chance to be happy instead of living in their heads, and some things just can’t be controlled.” | @IAmNotMrDarcy


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