James Vculek shoots "The Quietest Sound"

James Vculek
James Vculek has written and directed plays on local stages. He is now getting acclaim across the country for his films, "Two Harbors," and "The Quietest Sound."
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

James Vculek says the inspiration for "The Quietest Sound" came in part from his first movie, "Two Harbors." That film, made on Lake Superior's North Shore, became very involved.

"With many locations, many actors, many scenes, many schleps of equipment here and there," he says. "It occurred to me that for my next film I would like to have as few locations as possible and as little moving of equipment as possible, and still try and tell a dynamic story."

Vculek (pronounced veh-CHOO-lek) also wanted to write a script for the female star of "Two Harbors," Catherine E. Johnson.

"We started the camera and about two minutes into it, Catherine flubbed a line. I thought,'Oh, boy, this is going to be a long night.'"

So he came up with the idea of a police interrogation.

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"The Quietest Sound" opens with a young woman called Elizabeth sitting on a chair in a non-descript room. She's talking to a couple of detectives, who sit just off camera. We never see their faces.

Elizabeth's 4-year-old daughter Chloe vanished a week ago during a visit to the store. The police haven't found her and everyone is getting frustrated.

The audience sees the action unfold through the camera the detectives use to tape the interview. It focuses on Elizabeth's face, and never moves.

James Vculek says as a result there is often an "Oh, no" moment for the audience.

"I think it comes in every audience that doesn't yet know the set-up," he says. "They suddenly realize, 'Oh no! We're going to be sitting here for the entire duration and nothing's going to move. The camera's not going to move, there will be no edits. This is it.'"

An action film can have dozens of edits in a single minute. In "The Quietest Sound," the camera doesn't blink. It places the audience right in the middle of the interrogation, and there is no escape. It soon reveals that there is something amiss about the young mother's story. It keeps changing.

Vculek says it's a tribute to Catherine Johnson's acting ability that she carries the whole film. By deciding to have just one shot, he says he essentially reversed the filmmaking process.

"Most films are shot in bits and pieces, and also there is a minimum of rehearsal with most films," he says.

Vculek says his cast rehearsed for two and a half months until Johnson was ready. They set up one Saturday, prepared to do a number of takes.

"We started the camera and about two minutes into it, Catherine flubbed a line," he laughs. "I thought,'Oh, boy, this is going to be a long night.' So I said,'OK, let's shake it off. Let's put a new tape in. Let's start again.' We started the second time, and we got it on the second take, the entire thing."

"The Quietest Sound" premiered at the Fargo Film Festival last year, and Catherine Johnson took the award for best actress at the event.

It was also a hit at the Austin Texas Film Festival, where one reviewer wrote: "There are no explosions or fancy tricks, which may bother some, but for those out there that want to be brought near heart failure with only spoken words and a static camera, this film will deliver."

Like many filmmakers, Vculek now faces the conundrum of distribution. His first film, "Two Harbors," screened at 25 festivals around the country.

He's hoping that after a screening at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis, "The Quietest Sound" will make a similar journey. He admits though that given the subject matter of the film, it may be a harder sell.

In the meantime he's already planning his next film, "The Nudelmans of Beaver Bay," which will star local comedian Ari Hoptman.