Saad Qureshi told his best friend and cinematographer that he’d kill himself if he didn’t make a movie. So they made A Great Lamp.
In 2017, Qureshi was having a rough year. He was lonely and in the process of losing a close friend. After his conversation with cinematographer Donald R. Monroe, he began to call up his other friends and realized that they were in rough spots too. “We all love each other, so we all just quit our jobs and for ten days we came out to enjoy our company and spread these feelings into this movie,” explained Qureshi to No Film School, who ended the film with a message alluding to this process. “We wanted people to watch and know that, no, this is not some industry thing. It was a bunch of friends trying to enjoy life a little more.”
Saad Qureshi sat down with No Film School a few hours before his premiere at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival to talk about true collaboration, shooting in black&white to conceal a small budget, and why you don’t have to make movies any other way.
NFS: After you reached out to Donald, your cinematographer and producer, with that initial conversation, how did you come up with the idea of what the film would be?
Qureshi: Part of how I wanted to survive the next few months is I would drive every weekend past three and a half hours to Donald’s house just to be with him. And then while we were there, we would talk about the movie. And I would ramble on and on about my ideas, the characters, this rocket launch thing, and how I wanted it to be about friendship and a bunch of separate ideas that I vomited out loud. Then Donald had a laptop, and he was trying to sort out my words. Somehow we’ve always done things like this together. He a said, “You just kind of vomit words at me and over time that became an outline.” We had this outline, and we still had to figure out the rest of the movie, bit it was this first spark.
Later when I brought everyone on board, the first day we all went to this coffee shop, all seven of us. We talked about, okay, you, you and you as these characters. What is something that you want to do on screen? Max was like, “Oh, I’d love to sing a song.” Steven said, “I love to ice skate,” and we just kind of built the movie together in it’s full form, talking about what we would love to see and do. It was very collaborative. There is no single writer, there’s no weird hierarchy. It was like being in high school with your friends making a movie, where everyone does everything and listens to each other. Except now we’re just better at making movies.
“Movies are bad and the way they’re made is kind of bad. It’s like this weird hierarchy system that’s designed to maintain power structures in a weird way.”
NFS: In this collaborative environment, how did you decide the visual style of how it would be shot? The film was shot in black & white, and there’s all kinds of interesting lenses and binocular like viewpoints that permeate the whole story.
Qureshi: The black & white, that was really just based on how little we had to work with. Our movie, not only did we shoot it in ten days but we only had nine thousand dollars, which is nothing for a feature film. And I’m rounding up. With black and white, you don’t worry about lighting as much, you can get away with a lot more, you can fix a lot more in the editing. It’s just way easier to get good images not in color.
We didn’t talk too much about the style, it came down to Donald who really understood the feelings we were talking about. The dreaminess of the camera came through both how little resources we had and also just kind of Donald’s feeling of how to best capture all the characters. A lot of the film is in the moment improv, so you have to follow what they’re doing. That led naturally to the camera becoming this thing. The binoculars and things like that came pretty spontaneously, because we gave one of the characters the binoculars. I like having people hold things in movies so their hands aren’t sitting their awkwardly. And we would look through the binoculars and be like, “Wow, this is cool.” And then Donald looked through his lens bag and found this lens that was like this cool looking scope thing. And we’re like, “If we have this scope thing we should fucking like use it, you know?” And so we just spent the last day running around with that scope.
That’s how this movie happened. We do that every day and see, based on all the stuff we did today, what movie do we have now?
NFS: So how long would you say you spent in production with this experimental way of shooting? What was the production like?
Qureshi: Production? The first thing I want to say is that it felt like we were having a lot of fun, which making movies usually isn’t. It was so much fun because there’s no hierarchy, there’s no investors. It was like being in a clubhouse with friends making movies. Every day we would wake up whenever we wanted to wake up, and then we would drive to this coffee shop that had became our home base because the owner loved us and said, “Oh you can just be here and whatever.” Then we would plan out our day. Donald, every night, would make the schedule for what we needed to capture so that the story works, and then leave enough time for us to do anything else we wanted to end up doing that day.
So usually every day we’d have two or three things that we had to do. For example, today we have to film this character and that character having a story arc moment. And then the rest of the day we be like, “Well what else can we do now, based on the characters?” Every character in this movie is based on some of our actual lives. Max’s face was actually Max. Steven’s character is based a lot on my personal life, and Howie as well. It was very easy for us to write the movie spontaneously because it’s actually what we had been through. So every day we’d figure out what else we wanted to pull out of our life and capture.
And the reason it worked cohesively is because we weren’t willy nilly and winging the whole thing. We made sure that by the end of the movie there’s an arc, that we end up getting to where we want to go. Because pretty early on we figured out how the movie ends, the other nine or eight days was designed to make sure the movie built to that ending properly.
“‘Dude, I know a lonely guy. You should be this guy based on me who is also lonely.'”
NFS: The acting was very impressive, you just felt like these people were all incredibly convincing, but this film is not set in any kind of realism at all.
Qureshi: No, not at all.
NFS: How were able to work with the main three actors to get these really nuanced, realistic performances in spite of the world of the film?
Qureshi: One of the key things about working this the way, friends having fun or whatever, the important thing is that everyone in the project is actually extremely good at what they do. Otherwise that wouldn’t work because there’d be no time to fix anything. We never rehearsed anything. Even when I directed, it wasn’t like the way you usually direct actors. We just talked about our life and shit and how we feel and how this character feels. And over time everyone became so understanding of who they were that they didn’t have to figure out, okay how do you perform this scene? They just knew who they were and so they knew exactly how to perform a scene.
I know exactly who I am as Gene this insurance guy, so in this moment I know exactly what Gene would do. And it was always on point. Every now and then we would have to change some dialogue and things happen, but it was actually extremely easy. I’m kind of convinced that maybe this is like how you should always do this. One of my goals here at Slamdance is for this movie is to show that this is a good way to make movies. Instead of all the weird stress of pre-production and all this money and this stuff, maybe it’s better to work with your friends and just be good to people. Somehow it comes through.
For example, the reason we cast Max is because I knew who Max was in real life, and I knew that Max would always be genuine no matter what. Max is incapable of being disingenuous. So his performances would never come across as fake. They are who they are. Steven who plays Gene the insurance guy, the reason he came to the project was because my friend who knew Steven was like, “Hey Steven’s in New York right now and is super fucking lonely.” And I’m like, “Awesome! I know just who you should be in this movie.” And so I called him and said, “Dude, I know a lonely guy. You should be this guy based on me who is also lonely.” So it’s less about performing and more about wanting to show the world how you’re feeling. It does help that they’re all trained actors. Except for Max, he’s just cool.
“Get outside, get a friend, tell them what you’re doing and just fucking go. “
One other thing that I should mention is with these questions, this movie, a lot of the answers are going to be casual because with this movie we really wanted to sell the idea of making movies can be a very casual, chill experience. And the end product can be a cohesive, whole film. It can be a full decent movie this way. This is a way that people can make movies, and especially for young filmmakers who are graduating film school, which we all just did a few years ago, this is probably a way you’ll want to make movies at first. Instead of waiting ten years to one day get permission to write the script and do this thing and whatever.
NFS: I’m inspired. This is making me think “Damn it! I need to light that kind of fire!”
Qureshi: That’s exactly what the goal is yes. Get outside, get a friend, tell them what you’re doing and just fucking go. We made a zine called We Stole a Movie or Why We Made A Great Lamp the Way We Did, or Film Treason: A Handy Little Guide Book. It’s a manifesto kind of thing about the way we made this movie and how wrong movies are made. Movies are bad and the way they’re made is kind of bad. It’s like this weird hierarchy system that’s designed to maintain power structures in a weird way. It’s not as hard as people try to make it out to be. Find your friends, you don’t need any money really, and just have fun. And if you have enough fun and if you’re good at what you do, it’ll turn into something. Hopefully people see that with this film.