Art of the Long Take: Episode 8, Quan Thang Massacre

Quarry — Episode 8, “Nuoc Cha Da Mon” (Flowing Water Wears Away Stone)

Following each episode of Quarry director Greg Yaitanes breaks down elements of a key scene.

I was born in 1970, so I didn’t truly experience the Vietnam War. Every great film on the subject has been created by people who lived through that time or served in the military: Platoon, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, to name a few. Now with Quarry, tackling Vietnam and Post Traumatic Stress head on, I’m building on the shoulders of giants. I’m the first filmmaker of my generation to engage with Vietnam. Intimidating doesn’t begin to describe it.

In re-watching those films (Deer Hunter and Coming Home are especially influential on Quarry), I felt the best and most defining approach to the Quan Thang massacre scene would be to fully experience the madness and terror of war side-by-side with Mac. Executing that idea opened us up to phenomenal technical challenges.

Designing a route that hit the story beats while staying with Mac’s point of view was an ongoing negotiation. Each moment of the scripted story had to be fit into the larger concept of the one-er. Take the moment when Mac shoots the fisherman. Traditionally, you cut to a close up of someone getting shot. However, I felt it was important to stay at a distance because you, like Mac, had to be confused whether that was a gun or a fishing pole in the man’s hand. Mac (and the viewer) is led to believe they are walking into a hostile situation. They’re coming in with that mental anchor and I needed the viewer to feel the true and horrible reality is not something Mac could have known. Quan Thang has loomed over the show and informed Mac’s behavior, and in this scene we learn why.

The Quan Thang shot required us, from the very beginning of production, to plan. I have a knack for putting good people in a room together and letting them do their jobs and embracing their artistry. Every department’s shining moment comes together at the nine-and-a-half-minute mark of this shot. If you love this sequence, you are celebrating their craft.

I took a cue from the military. To prepare for the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, the U.S. military built a full-scale replica of his compound to run drills. I thought that was a brilliant strategy to help insure success, so we built a rudimentary version of Quan Thang in the field across from our soundstage. We would walk it and discuss the early planning of the shot, including the size of the village, the placement of the huts and the route Mac would take.

As there are no Vietnamese villages standing in New Orleans, the village was built from the ground up. Although, an interesting bit of trivia, the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam happens to be in New Orleans. We engaged the community and found a Vietnamese contractor who knew how to build the huts for our set. Production designer Roshelle Berliner created the layout of the village on the computer in 3-D models. Then we tracked the story events that needed to happen and where they needed to happen.

The first challenge while shooting was getting the dialogue. Often in shots like this, the camera spins around or pans back and forth while people are talking, calling attention to it, which does not fit with the visual dogma of Quarry. Quarry is “witnessed but not anticipated.” To achieve this effect during the Quan Thang sequence, we chose to stay a bit wider and force you, as an audience, to lean in and listen to what is being said.

The thing about this long sequence is that it is all practical effects. “Practical,” meaning we actually lit the huts on fire and set off the mortars that blow up. For reasons of safety, this scene is actually three shots that have been invisibly stitched together. The only CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is the plane that flies overhead and some mild enhancements around the “stitching.” The first shot “cuts” when the plane flies overhead. The second shot “cuts” as Mac throws the grenade into the foxhole.

Stunt coordinator, Richard Burden, choreographed the action. His job was especially complex because every time we adjusted the shot, he needed to change the background action accordingly. Everyone in the frame is having a Mac-like experience, so when we pivot, we need to have all the action of the platoon and village follow suit.

As the day of production neared, we went out on a Sunday with Bud (camera operator), Pepe (DP), Richard Burden (stunts), Matt (special effects), Logan Marshall-Green, and myself, plus an iPhone, to practice. Step-by-step we went through each action and moment, evaluating and scrutinizing. If something didn’t work, we would tweak or reconceive it. Before we shot the version you see in the show, we dedicated a day of production to a dress rehearsal, complete with effects. We left nothing to chance. If something wasn’t going to work — a costume, a prop, or a move — we didn’t want to be surprised.

The day of shooting started at first light, and the shot that made it into the episode was the last take we did, just as we were losing the light. Each time we rolled, we held our breath hoping it would be “the one.” I should add, the cast performed in 105-degree heat and viscous Louisiana humidity. When we nailed it, we knew. We collected around the monitor to congratulate each other that four months of planning paid off, that we achieved success.

The technical aspect of the one-er can overshadow what the scene is about: the power of Mac’s decent into post-traumatic stress, the moment where it locks in, where Mac is broken. Craft aside, the scene devastates me to watch. I have a very visceral memory of shooting this. This is the crowning achievement of the work of our cast and crew and this production.

Thank you for reading these pieces and for watching Quarry.

Watch the entire season of Quarry with your Cinemax subscription on MAX GO.