Credit: Alex Neher
by Caleb Hammond Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

Embracing the Ellipsis: An Interview with Carson Lund

June 4, 2024

Cinematographer and film critic Carson Lund moves to the director’s chair with Eephus, a laid-back comedy following a ragtag group of men as they play out the last baseball game on a field scheduled for demolition the next day. As their baseball game drags on into the dark of night, they slowly come to terms with what they’re losing once their recreational league ceases to exist. It’s a beautiful ode to third spaces and what we lose culturally when they aren’t prioritized. Never overwrought nor too saccharine, this intentional withholding allows the film’s emotional resonance to linger and build in a viewer in the days and weeks after viewing.

Lund was also at the festival supporting a feature he lensed, Tyler Taormina’s Christmas Eve at Miller’s Point, another indie with a giant cast. (Both artists hail from the pair’s Omnes Films collective.) Indie stalwarts Keith Poulson (Between the Temples) and Theodore Bouloukos (Jobe’z World) co-star in Eephus alongside Uncut Gems actors Keith William Richards and Wayne Diamond. If Director’s Fortnight 2023 had a distinctly “New York City Takes Cannes” energy with Joanna Arnow’s The Feeling That The Time For Doing Something Has Passed and Sean Price Williams’ The Sweet East, this year carried a “Los Angeles on the Croissette” vibe with these two excellent Omnes Films projects. After its world premiere at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, I spoke with Lund over sandwiches at a buzzy focaccia joint.

Caleb Hammond: What have you learned as a film critic that helped you as a director?

Carson Lund: I’ve always seen all of these different disciplines as being part of the same passion: writing films, making films, shooting them, editing them — it’s all cinephilia. Part of being a critic for a long time was one way for me to hone my taste and understand what I wanted out of this medium. Over the years  I started writing less value judgments, and it became more about trying to roll the film around in my head and tap into what it was trying to do and why it was using certain formal decisions. In doing so, it allowed me to zero in on what I wanted to do with my own film, eventually.

When I’m writing criticism, I enter a different creative realm. I find myself arriving at conclusions about a film that I never would have just at a bar talking on the fly. It is a creative act, and it helps me crystallize what I want to make myself. It’s all a conversation — all the disciplines are conversing with each other.

CH: There’s three writers on this film: Mike Basta, Nate Fisher and yourself. What was the breakdown with what each of you did?

CL: A lot of the beginning stages were all three of us together on a Zoom, writing an outline, just generating ideas based around this box score that we created. We were trying to figure out what the lineup was, where the position players are. All of those decisions created rules that we had to follow. It’s good when you have rules. It’s good when you have a box to think within.

We would go through the course of a game and figure out what happens on every play for every batter. What is the outcome of an inning? Do we even focus on the inning? We knew we wanted to balance the gameplay, the sideline activity and the dugout activity pretty evenly. If we’re going to watch the game, what is important about this moment in the game to zero in on? Asking ourselves these questions allowed us to narrow down where the cameras should be at any given moment.

I brought some anecdotes of my own from my experiences playing recreational baseball. I asked Nate and Mike to come to a game or two to watch and get their own sense of what happens on the field in this kind of league. Once we had a strong outline, oftentimes we’d go and write separate scenes on our own. I would delegate: “This is a Nate scene. You’re going to handle the dialogue here perfectly.” Or this is a Mike scene. They’re both very funny people, but they’re funny in different ways. Nate understands what’s absurd and funny about baseball, whereas Mike comes at it with more of a love of small town eccentrics and shared history growing up in the same town in New Hampshire. I would often write the descriptive action to get us from moment to moment. The verisimilitude of the baseball playing, the minutiae of the game — I brought that to bear on the script.

CH: So if all of the action follows a full game, the film is consistent in that if you follow the lineup — while you might not show every at bat — everything still aligns?

CL: Yes, once we wrote the script, I kept my own agenda of where each runner would be on the base paths at any given moment. Ultimately, these are really specific moments of continuity that the audience wouldn’t pick up on maybe. But it was very important to me that the game had its own logic, and it was exact and kind of perfect — so that it would create that feeling of offscreen space, that things were happening outside of your awareness. And that the game wasn’t an afterthought. Most baseball movies are half-assed about giving the minutiae of the game any seriousness.

CH: Does someone need to have a knowledge of baseball to enjoy this movie?

CL: That was kind of the big question coming in here to Cannes. I had no idea what would happen. But the proof is in the pudding. European journalists oftentimes enter an interview and say they know nothing about baseball but loved this movie.

With that said, you might get more out of it knowing how the game works, understanding the unique coded language that baseball players speak to each other. There’s a lot of background dialogue that won’t make sense otherwise. It might come across as just sort of random and funny to the viewer who’s uninitiated, but it’s carefully placed there for a reason. I don’t know if the viewer uninitiated with baseball would know what “turn two” means. But if you’re keyed into that as someone who understands baseball, you’ll understand on a deeper level the individual predicaments of each character as they go through this whole day.

It doesn’t matter ultimately; it’s the emotion that’s coming across in the film, the subtext that these men are saying goodbye to a version of themselves that they have with each other, that they probably don’t allow outside of this little realm. That could apply to any enthusiast community where people get together over a shared passion and a shared language. The fact that the film is as thorough as it is with the details makes it more universal. If it were broad, it wouldn’t feel real.

CH: All of the language in Primer is specific to engineering, and it’s really hard to follow but that doesn’t take away from the narrative.

CL: It’s the opposite, you feel more pulled in because you don’t quite understand and you want to understand. You’re curious. They were showing those Miklós Jancsó films at American Cinematheque just before we shot actually. There’s one about like a student demonstration in Hungary. It’s a world I don’t know at all. There’s no effort to give you a strong footing. But it’s so mesmerizing, the way the camera moves, the way that the people move, and you understand based on their spatial relationships what’s happening without understanding what’s coming out of their mouth. I love that.

CH: On my flight over here, we were landing soon, so I put on Born on the Fourth of July with no sound. And I knew exactly what’s happening in every scene narratively and emotionally based on where the camera was, how everything is staged and what the actor was conveying. It was completely visually driven.

CL: That’s cinema. That is a beautiful movie, just formally. He’s a very good director.

CH: I like him more the older I get. His lack of subtlety. He’s just puts it out there.

CL: That’s sort of the knock on him. That he beats you over the head.

CH: But he has so much style when he does it.

CL: So much style, and he’s so precise. I think there’s too much ambiguity in filmmaking. There should be visual clarity, but thematic ambiguity is great. Sometimes there’s too much visual ambiguity in cinema.

CH: I’m curious with Cannes specifically, how it worked with all of your off-screen jokes being on screen, since every film here has English subtitles. That probably helps with laughter.

CL: The subtitling process was very intricate and made me aware of how critical that is in the artistic process. I had to provide my own English transcripts for every line that I felt I wanted to make sure that the audience would hear if they didn’t understand English. The subtitlers in Paris argued that I had too much still. They said it’s going to be too hard to follow this much, too much to comprehend. So I had to cut out even more.

CH: I didn’t see it with the subtitles and enjoyed that on a second watch I heard off-screen lines that I didn’t catch the first time, or understood a joke better within the context of what’s happening at that moment in the game.

CL: It was a hard thing to think about. Ultimately, there were certain lines that I found so funny, I didn’t want to lose them. I had to put it there even if it’s very quiet in one speaker, in the left back speaker. There were lines that I’d never heard that much of a laugh for before, but because it was right up there on screen… I’m learning what I would want to do with them in the future.

CH: What was the vibe off-set with such a big cast of guys. Were you all socializing on the shoot nights or the weekend?

CL: Christmas Eve at Miller’s Point and Eephus were very different in that regard. Christmas Eve shoot was mostly overnights, so it was hard to get together after the shoot. By the time you’re done, the sun is rising and you just want to go to bed. On Eephus, as much work as it was, they were actually relaxing shoots in a way because it was October in New England and the sun goes down a little early. So you couldn’t really shoot more than 10 hours. We weren’t doing extremely long days.

At least once or twice a week, I was able to go out with the team after. It was all right there in this small town of Douglas. We’d have strategic meetings at dinner together. We went to the same bar 100 times. There wasn’t this sense of manic rushing around. We were all right there in that town. There was a casual sense to it. Going up to the bar, meeting all the townies — it was a fun shoot. The townies knew about the film, they’d come by and watch. Oftentimes, I wouldn’t be there, but the whole team would be out anyway. I knew by setting this film up in one location, and putting everyone in the same place to live together, there were going to be upsides to that. There was going to be bonds growing without me needing to be present for it.

Credit: Tim Brothers

CH: The lighting is a striking component of the film. You have all of these distinct moments throughout the day and each one has a unique lighting palette.

CL: We sort of broke it out into all these different sections: High Noon, we want the light as high as it can be. Afternoon is where it starts to slant a little bit and you get slightly longer shadows. Golden Hour, the sun is as close to the horizon as we could get it before it’s behind trees. That was a challenge with this field because, unfortunately, the sun did not set at a point where it would be right over the horizon. So we never quite got that Malick effect. We had about an hour where it looked right with our golden hour, before it was behind the trees. Then when it’s behind the trees, the whole field is in shade and you can shoot Dusk. We played with our camera settings to make it look perfect for dusk. That’s a very fleeting moment too. Most days we’re wrapping at that point — we’d shoot a little bit in a shaded field and then be done.

Then there’s the Twilight look. It’s a short section when the players decide that they can’t see anymore and they decide to bring the cars on the field. We did a day-for-twilight effect where we shot during overcast days. We didn’t think we’d get many overcast days, and then we ended up having too many overcast days. We couldn’t do much with them beyond these scenes. We’re shooting a flat gray day with an in-camera LUT and so it looks like deep dark blue. We did all our Night stuff in one straight week, all overnights at the end of the month when the leaves had mostly fallen off the trees. Of course, that was the coldest week. It was 25 degrees on the field and everything was frosted over and frigid. Everyone’s wearing thermals under their jerseys, and that’s barely enough because the jerseys are not very warm. We relied heavily on that app Sun Seeker to determine where the sun would be over the field and developed our schedule based around where it could slot into that progression in those different times of day

CH: So you’re making pretty big jumps each day: “okay everyone, we’re switching to the third inning now.”

CL: We’re making big jumps. There’s no logic to the shoot days. Because of that, it’s impossible to try and schedule it out so you have just these actors coming for this or that scene. You just need everyone there. If you miss a scene, you might pivot to something else entirely and you want to make sure those people are there to capture it without losing time. It’s why I wanted to have everyone around living nearby and able to come to set and be a part of it. Even if they weren’t in a scene, the chemistry is building by hanging out on the sidelines.

CH: There’s the anecdote from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, where Willem Dafoe had wrapped his scenes but stayed on set to hang out. And there’s an amazing shot where two characters put their hands in together in the hallway and Dafoe’s in the background out of focus, doing the hand gesture too. And that only happened because he stayed on set.  

CL: That’s what you can do on an independent film if you’re transparent with your cast with your demands for their time and everyone’s fully bought into it and loves the project. You have that flexibility to capture things on the fly. We captured a lot of scenes that were not written.

CH: As a director, did you have to create that energy or did the project itself get people excited about it?

CL: They came in with the enthusiasm right away. Even before they read the script, I did a lot of casting over Zoom. I would start describing the project and people would be nodding. A lot of American men played baseball at some point, or they’ve been around baseball. Or someone in their family liked baseball. There’s this intimacy with this sport and it feels like going back to something. I remember sending Keith Poulson the pitch, and he was like “Well, yeah. Hanging out with a bunch of guys, playing baseball in the most beautiful place? Of course I’m in. You don’t have to tell me more.”

And then getting them all together for rehearsals finally in person was so critical. When is the last time you put on a glove and cleats? It just feels good. It felt like that for a lot of the people. Playing catch feels familiar. Once you sync into those gestures, those mannerisms, I didn’t have to direct very much. I had to direct the physical action of where to be, but the characters emerged naturally from the scenario. They were all on board for the scenario because it felt familiar, like reenacting a memory.

CH: You have so many characters it would be easy to have a selection of well-rounded, central characters and then peripheral characters that function purely as archetypes, filling the space with comedic relief. But here I feel like you really cared about each person being a real person.

CL: After casting we’d have long conversations over Zoom with each person, just talking about the backstory of each person. What do they do outside of the game? What’s their job? What’s their family life like? Do they have a partner? This was to the extent that they wanted it and were comfortable with that backstory. They would bring a lot of it themselves and I would thumbs up or down different proposals, creating goal posts for what that character might be. It’s funny you say archetypes because we started from broad archetypes that we thought were funny, different types of baseball guys that do exist. Even down the naming of each character: what sounds like a baseball name that sounds funny? That’s a niche idea of a joke, but for me, every name you read in the credits is funny.

CH: They have archetype qualities, but they go beyond the archetypes.

CL: They go beyond. But archetypes are real. Especially in a communal situation with a team working toward some goal. People play a character. You’re playing a role within that collective, maybe based in movies even. The class clown, the stern leader — they’re all fulfilling these roles for themselves because the baseball field is providing them this refuge, and they’re all doing something different with it.

Being together for that long, the actors start to develop their own jokes, and by week three or four they’ve integrated some of those jokes into the film, integrating their familiarity with one another. When you’re comfortable with someone and you’ve been sleeping together in a cabin for so long, you have an ease with them, and all of that contributes to the authenticity of each person. It was very important that no one feel extraneous or like dead weight and to make sure that was reflected in the edit, distributing the attention around, giving each character time. They’re all dealing with the same problem: they’re saying goodbye. I wanted to witness each person’s effort to do that, and it all coalesces into this big group farewell.

CH: The length of the film is very important. As a viewer, we feel that this game feels long, but it’s not tortuous for us. If you made an 85-minute film, the effect would be lost. You tweaked the film’s runtime late in the process, cutting 10 minutes out.

CL: We did. It took a long time, tweaking it, with different generations of the same cut. Originally, I wanted to make a film that was in real time. Conceptually, that was the purest way to make this film. This could be a three and half-hour film — and I would like that film. No one else would though.

CH: Like a Corneliu Porumboiu film.

CL: Porumboiu or James Benning. Ultimately, I decided this isn’t some esoteric avant garde film. It’s a warm, tender tribute to these people. I’d do all of these people, these characters, a disservice by trying to make that version of it. So I was like “Let’s cut this down. Let’s keep it focused on the emotion, the warmth, the camaraderie.” By embracing the ellipsis and bringing in the radio and other elements to smudge time a bit, I found the texture of the film became more interesting than it was when it was more linear, and it was: this happens, this happens, and this happens. The radio was a real breakthrough. Another breakthrough was the chapters with the Franny character where we look at his scoresheets, and it marks the different times of day, and he says a quote from a baseball legend. It allows us to jump time in between an inning or maybe a couple outs, without the audience necessarily recognizing that. So it still feels like the full game.

CH: Did your brother, Erik, design those scoresheet chapter cards?

CL: He helped a lot with them. Those are actually photographs. We shot the actual cards, and he printed the words on the scoresheets themselves. We wanted it to be tactile.

The film moves from this boisterous Altman/Linklater energy and segues very gradually into the Tsai Ming-liang, Two-Lane Blacktop energy. At first, it really committed to that idea: slow cinema. We found a balance where I took out enough of that, you can feel the ponderance nature, the desperation of all of these guys, without ever asking the audience to make a real leap in their commitment. It was about going through different stages of grief, regarding having to kill my initial conception of the idea. You do one screening, and there’s rounds of feedback and you question and recoil from all of it. But it keeps turning around in your mind, and you think maybe I actually should explore this. Each round helps you come to terms with what the film should actually be. I was able to boil it down to the essence it’s trying to communicate, rather than needing to belabor anything. Yet it still feels like it is a real-time baseball game. There’s a little bit of a magic trick that we tried to pull off.