In the opening shot of the short Hux, a white pickup truck turns the corner of a zigzagging, desolate dirt road and proceeds to wind past the camera. Inside the truck, the atmosphere is no less lonely: A woman called Hux (Mageina Tovah) sits behind the wheel, breathlessly rehearsing the pleasantries uttered in everyday life — “Hi, how are you? Fine, thank you” — and reminding herself to check the rearview and side mirrors. Her German shepherd mix sits stoically by her side.
The story unfolds during the time of an unnamed pandemic that has resulted in scores of deaths, but Hux would be anxious even were it not for such a calamity. The character — created by Tovah, who also wrote, directed, edited and produced the short — is on the autism spectrum and is apprehensive of any human contact.
“Sometimes you can see something that’s universal in a very specific story,” says Tovah, who appeared in the second and third installments of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, as well as in the series American Horror Story, You’re the Worst, Scandal and The Magicians. “Unless we’re just the most perfectly adjusted, at times we all feel out of place. We don’t really know what to say. We don’t know how to interact.”
Despite Hux’s focus on the difficulty of forming attachments, cinematographer Charlie Lieberman, ASC was brought aboard the project thanks to a connection with Tovah. The two had worked together on episodes of Joan of Arcadia and the Fox series Standoff, and had remained friends. “She’s a lovely human being, and she called and asked me if I would be interested in doing it,” recalls Lieberman, whose credits as a director of photography also include the series My So-Called Life, Party of Five, Once and Again and Heroes. “I’m at a stage in life where I’m trying to give back to the career that I’ve had.”
As Tovah saw it, Lieberman was especially well-suited for Hux because of his recent work as a landscape photographer. The short, meant to take place in New Mexico, was shot in Kern County, Calif. “I really liked where it was situated,” Lieberman says. “I’m a big fan of New Mexico, so I thought, ‘This could have a very sweet flavor.’”
Tovah, who also works as an artist, arrived with clear ideas about the look of Hux. “I had sent Charlie a bunch of color palettes and visual references that I had pulled, and photographed storyboards I’d taken,” says the director, who also shared that material with gaffer Bruce Sharp.
Apart from flashbacks, which were completed in advance of principal photography, the bulk of the production was shot over the course of three and a half days in September 2014. “There was a heat wave during that time,” Tovah notes. “It was intense.” Panavision Woodland Hills provided a Sony CineAlta PMW-F55 camera, which suited the location shooting. “I wanted a camera that I could pretty much ‘neutralize,’ so that I could work with a very simple look and make it be realistic,” Lieberman says. “I didn’t want ultra-contrast, because I knew I was going to be outside in very warm weather and very harsh light.” The crew recorded 4K files to SSD cards.
Panavision also contributed 17.5-75mm (T2.3) and 24-275mm (T2.8) Primo Zooms, which Lieberman has favored on a number of projects. “They’ve been my go-to lenses from the time they came out,” he reflects. “They’re very sharp and have very little distortion. I find them very pretty.” Since the film was shot digitally, Lieberman opted to add Schneider Classic Soft filters in front of the lens. “They combine a part of the filter that keeps the picture sharp with a part of the filter that lets it go soft,” he comments. “Any time there’s a human in the scene, there would be a Schneider on the lens.”
One of the cinematographer’s first priorities was to settle on consistent times to shoot interiors and exteriors. “It had to be shot out of sequence,” Lieberman says. “In order to make all the shots work, everything had to be timed out to where the sun was going to be.”
Mornings were set aside for the interiors of a diner/general store, where Hux recites the list of items she needs to get — “fruit, Band-Aids, dog treats” — like a mantra. “I needed the light coming into the diner in the morning,” Lieberman says. “All those windows face east, so when she’s at the cash register, we were looking out into a backlit world.” Here, as in other passages in the short, Lieberman made use of a minimal lighting order. “A lot of things in the diner were hidden under tables,” he says. “There were a lot of smallish lights, but it was pretty much [a low-budget] film.” The cinematographer adds that the lighting package included two 4Bank Kino Flo units, two Kino Flo Diva-Lites, one 1,200-watt HMI Par, two 575-watt Pars and two K 5600 Joker-Bug 400s.
While at the diner and store, Hux experiences sensory overload. Close-ups of overhead fluorescent lights and the diners’ plates are harshly intercut with wide angles of Hux. In fact, these close-ups were shot by Tovah, who is credited as an additional photographer. “She’s sort of assaulted by the stimuli,” Tovah says. “I went back and shot all those little inserts of things.”
For these inserts, Tovah worked with a Canon EOS 40D DSLR camera; she used a Canon EOS 5D Mark III for additional footage sprinkled throughout the short. “Except for adjustments I made myself to the material I shot, the color timing was done by Bruce Goodman,” Tovah notes.
Lieberman — who receives a co-director credit on the film — further chipped in with finessing the performance of the cashier (Ben Messmer), who is puzzled by, but not cruel about, Hux’s nervousness. “My first time I’ve ever directed was the scene with the clerk,” Lieberman says. “I didn’t feel [the character’s] sympathy at first, only annoyance, and I wanted those two things to temper each other.” Apart from this scene, Lieberman’s co-directing contributions amounted to offering Tovah minor suggestions. “She knew who the character was, and it was all under her control,” Lieberman says. “All I would do is maybe think about elements of continuity, how something might work based on something we’d shot earlier.”
Exteriors were shot during afternoons. For traveling shots of the truck, Lieberman utilized his own 300mm Nikon Nikkor Prime Lens. “All of those long, long shots — which I thought really set the tone of the area — were all shot with the 300mm with a 1.4 extender,” he says, “so it was really being used as a 420mm lens.” As with the short’s interiors, lighting units were kept to a minimum when shooting outdoors. “We had 6-bys that were either bounces or a very thin quarter silk,” Lieberman says.
Tovah’s screenplay indicated that certain shots would be repeated — Hux getting out of bed, scrunching her toes on carpeting, and marking off days on a calendar — to emphasize the character’s reliance on routine. “Things are very rigid with her,” Tovah says. “We see her crossing out what she does every day, and having to have lists, and going through the same sort of things over and over. With filmmaking you can enforce that idea in so many ways.”