Article from American Cinematographer,
The Trials of Room 103By Holly Willis
In recent years, Czech Republic has been touted as a haven for high-end feature films in search of a low cost European setting. The recently balkanised locale proved equally receptive and inspiring, however, to Los Angeles-based independent moviemaker Stephen Berkman, who set his most recent short in the city of Prague. The film, titled Room 103, follows the travails of a novel writer who has retreated to Prague, where he becomes increasingly disturbed while reading Franz Kafka's The Trial. With the book in hand, the rather paranoid fellow strides through the labyrinthine streets of the Old World city, only to discover that his life has begun to mirror that of Kafka's ill-fated protagonist. Though this nine-minute work offers an archetype for producing a high quality short film in a foreign country on a limited schedule and tight budget, Berkman never intended to set an example. Indeed, when the director travelled to Prague in the spring of 1996, his resources were limited to his short script, a Bolex camera, and the three weeks he had to experience the city. Room 103 gradually evolved into a 35mm project as Berkman encountered the beauty of Prague and realized that his story and the city were a perfect match. "When you're in Prague, you feel like the ghost of Kafka is walking the streets. The buildings and architecture have this nightmarish quality that really captures you." Mindful of the limitations presented by the language barrier and his budget, Berkman began checking out crew and equipment options. After looking at several cinematographers’ reels, he selected Miro Gabor (Mnaga Happy End, Buttoners), a graduate of Prague's respected FAMU film school whose delicate use of light and tone seemed perfect for the project. "I reacted on an emotional level to Miro's work," says Berkman. "I found it subtle and evocative of painters I admire, such as the 15th century Spanish artist Velasquez. It also didn't hurt that he spoke English."Berkman found that almost all the equipment he needed could be obtained from Barrandov Studios, a massive studio just outside of Prague, which offered sets, props, costumes, stages, and equipment rentals. The filmmakers shot Room 103 with an Arri BL-3 outfitted with a set of Zeiss prime lenses. "The Arri was chosen partly for economic reasons, and partly because of its compact configuration," says Berkman. "The film magazine's placement allowed us to shoot handheld in tight spaces, such as the interior of a taxi cab."Berkman also made the key decision to rent a Steadicam from Czech TV, rather than trying to use a dolly. The director explains, "The Steadicam seemed more appropriate because of the nature of the streets, with all their cobblestones and uneven surfaces; it also freed the camera and helped create a sense of shamelessness which mirrors the character's point of view as he's walking through all these spaces."Berkman incorporated nearly 30 different locations in Room 103, and used his scouting trips to have one-on-one conferences with Gabor. "Through the process of working together and roving through the city," says Berkman, "we came to an understanding of what we were looking for namely, a very raw style with bold lights and darks, and strong, graphic compositions."
One of the duo's prime visual influences was Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko, whose work is filled with extreme angles. "I also created scenes to work with the locations I discovered," the director continues. "For example, while scouting the hotel location that opens and closes the film, I found a phenomenal bathroom at the Hotel Europa." He exploited the bathroom for an attention-grabbing transitional shot: as the main character leaves his room to visit the restroom, he finds it occupied by the hotel manager and a nude chambermaid. "This scene motivates the character to leave the hotel, and sets up a feeling of tension and intimidation that will follow the character through the city," Berkman submits.Production took place with a very small crew over four days, during Berkman's final week in Prague. "We had about 170 set-ups," he recounts. "That's about twice as many shots as you would normally have for a nine-minute film, but I wanted a quick editorial style that would create the sensation of being lost in a labyrinth."Exteriors were shot solely with Prague's typically overcast light a nice bit of cinematographic luck. Berkman eschewed lighting and grip equipment in order to maintain a quick shooting pace and easy mobility. Although he had permits for all of his locations, the director found that filming early in the morning avoided the potential hassles of crowded streets and too much commotion from locals.The opening sequence, which Berkman shot with cameraman Tim Glass after returning to Los Angeles, uses a voice-over and a series of extreme close-ups to explain why the frustrated writer finds himself in Prague. These close-ups were also shot with an Arri BL 3 (borrowed from cinematographer Guillermo Navarro) through a 100mm macro lens lent to Berkman by Otto Nemenz. The lens nicely captures a short focal plane, leaving the rest of the shots in blurred obscurity: a pen scratching letters onto paper is rendered huge on the screen, while an equally immense beetle scuttles past a pair of spectacles.Using mostly short ends donated from music video director Tarsem, Berkman shot the film on Kodak colour negative stock: 5293 for exteriors and 5298 for interiors. "Even though the film was always intended to be black-and-white, I shot on the colour negative which had been given to me. In video, it is quite simple to transfer the film without colour and create a convincing black-and-white quality, but for film festivals, I needed to have a 35mm print. I did some initial tests on various print stocks at Cinema Research Corporation, and I was knocked out by 5269, a high-contrast print stock used for titles and optical shots. Since it is a pan stock, it didn't add grain to the image, and although the stock provided the high-contrast quality I like, it still maintained enough detail in the mid-range. I found that the print had an actual tactile quality, and it communicated the texture of Prague."
The final shot of Room 103 offers a jolting shot of a huge beetle writhing in the writer's bed. Berkman created the effect by using a blue-screen to composite two shots. "I felt the film would hinge on this shot feeling realistic, since it is the final punch line. The shot was composited on the Flame at Pacific Ocean Post (POP), where they were able to drop in a shadow which added a degree of realism to the image." The director adds, "POP was extremely supportive of the project, and worked with my minimal budget to accomplish maximum results."
Room 103 has played in various festivals, including the Seattle International Film Festival, and will screen this month at L.A.'s American Cinematheque, Seattle's One Reel Festival and at the Athens International Film Festival in Greece.