There are certain films you catch that you know within the first 10 seconds of watching that you're in for a good one. We got that feeling when coming across 'Making Weight', a spot directed by James Dayton. The film is so well orchestrated, methodical in its approach but not in the least bit contrived. Like all great work, the technical attributes fall to the background and allow the story to take center stage. We chatted with James about his approach to the project and how his experience as an editor is helping him in his shift towards taking the role of a director on set.
How and when did the concept for this film first strike you, and who were the team members that you first pulled into the project?
I’d been talking with my DP Gabriel Connelly about doing something together, specifically a sports related project. We were both big fans of Foxcatcher, so the idea of a wrestling project felt like an exciting prospect. And from the beginning we talked about keeping things simple and restrained; taking the less-is-more approach. Obviously when you strip things down, the blemishes of your film can become very apparent, so I give so much credit to people like Gabe, our gaffer, our cast, and truly the whole team for doing their jobs at such a high level and allowing me to lean on them as much as I did.
I understand this was a spec ad, though you would never know it unless you did some digging. It can feel scary to invest so much of yourself, both time and money, into a project that has an unknown outcome. Why did you take that leap? What was your intention with the film?
It is a big investment for sure. I think when you do these types of projects, you have to think a lot about your ROI (return on investment). What do you hope to gain by doing this? For me it had a lot to do with the types of projects I wanted to do in the future, namely sports related pieces that can be deeply cinematic but also deeply emotional. I’m deeply inspired by the work of directors like Miles Jay & Savanah Leaf, who manage to bridge commercial and narrative worlds together, and so I tried to make something that I felt could fit into that avenue.
Your experience as an editor must be invaluable as you continue to build your portfolio as a director. Are there any particular learnings on the post side that you’ve found to be particularly helpful while on set?
I’d say it’s taught me how to be economical when I shoot. Knowing what you need, and knowing when you have it. That’s not exactly a trait exclusive to editors, but in post you often have that moment where you go “man, I wish we’d gotten that shot” or “Why did we shoot this one scene so much?” The more you’re in those rooms when that’s happening, the more you see the same mistakes, the same patterns, and hopefully you take it with you when you shoot. I’m still not impervious to those mistakes, but I’m reminded of them more often from my experience in post.
"My experience as an editor has taught me how to be economical when I shoot. Knowing what you need, and knowing when you have it."
And yet you chose not to edit this film yourself. Why did you make that decision? What did you find that collaboration brought to the table?
Shout out to Brian Chalmers man. He was our editor on this, and he absolutely killed it. Up until now, I’ve edited everything I’ve directed (from necessity more than preference). It’s always really hard to edit your own work because you’re losing that “fresh eyes” perspective. It’s hard not to be influenced by your experiences prepping and shooting, so inevitably you end up missing things. I wanted to avoid that for this project.
Brian and I talked over our intentions and ideas for the edit, and then he went off to do his thing. When he sent me the first cut I was stunned. There were choices that he had made that I NEVER would have done, and it was incredible. We did some tweaking here and there but the final edit is still very closely related to the first one he sent me.
What is it about the genre of sport that intrigues you?
I love the fact that sports films often have very straightforward goals: win the game, make the playoffs, go 12 rounds with the best, etc. I think it’s the simplicity of these narrative structures that allow you to get into the deeper, more idiosyncratic details of the stories and characters. It doesn’t always happen but when it does (thinking of movies like Moneyball, Foxcatcher, The Fighter) it’s absolutely incredible.
It's also inherently a cinematic thing to film. I've always loved the spaces where sport takes place. It's all a version of theater after all, and the locations often reflect that in their lighting and design. It’s a luxury – there’s a lot of aesthetic quality that comes readymade when filming sports.
"I’ll often use three or so words that encapsulate what the project is in my mind –– and use that as a guide to make sure every decision shares those traits."
Why did you choose to shoot on film? How does the medium inform your process?
We knew from the start that we were going to shoot on 35. It felt like a perfect fit for the approach we were taking, but certainly came with a level of risk. We had 5 rolls of 4-perf, so roughly 20 minutes of footage to film. So we had to be very economical with the amount of takes we took. I don’t think we went over 3 takes on any of the shots. It can be scary to be so sparse, but I also find it very liberating. It keeps the pace of your day pretty efficient: we shoot and we move on.
Every department brought their A-game to this film, from the cinematography and production design, to the sound design and score. How do you like to communicate with each collaborator in order to bring your overall vision to life?
A lot of the job to me is making sure we’re all making the same movie. So being super clear in my mind about what the core of the project is, its key elements, is crucial to communicating with every department. I think the term “vision” is a lot more abstract than some concrete version of the film in your head. I’ll often use three or so words that encapsulate what the project is in my mind––such as restrained, sensorial, warm–– and use that as a guide to make sure every decision shares those traits.
I’ve found passion projects to be so rewarding. It feels like the true spirit of filmmaking lives within these types of projects, and you’d be hard pressed to find that same feeling on a commercial gig. What was the emotional ride like now that you’ve released the film out into the world?
The feedback on the film has been incredible. I have so much gratitude for all the people involved. All I can say is that I hope to work on more projects like this one in the near future.
James Dayton is a director based in NYC.