Could you give us a general overview of your working relationship with Joel (Writer/Director)?
Joel and I are first and foremost friends…he’s always been one of my closest. We’ve made music, watched films and made little movies together starting in high school. He and I were really the only two buddies in our tight group that pursued visual arts of any sort through college and beyond, so it made sense that one day we could ultimately work together on a professional level, too. There’s a trust that I can’t really put into words, but we know that it’s there. The Alchemist Cookbook was a new endeavor into a different filmmaking experience for both of us, and his trust in me as an image maker was clear from the beginning. As far as collaborative art goes, I’ve never been more aligned with anyone, so I consider myself incredibly fortunate to work and grow alongside Joel.
Did you and Joel ever set up rules for yourselves for the sake of developing a language? Like, we’ll only shoot a close up if this happens, or we’ll do this to get this across/stay true to the character etc? Were there any films you and Joel specifically referenced as inspiration for the look of Alchemist?
The visual rules Joel and I set up are specific to each film, and are amongst the first things we discuss when developing a project. For The Alchemist Cookbook, we talked a lot about moving the camera only when motivated to do so, and about photographing the woods as a presence — a character really — and not so much just a setting.
I wanted a departure from the sort of “in your face” handheld visuals that we used with Buzzard, our last project together. Joel and I were pretty much on the same page here. Since for this film we placed importance on slowing down a bit and creating something a bit more poetic and solitary, the approach to camera became one of stillness and movement out of necessity. One of my all-time cinematographer heroes is Robby Müller, and Joel and I grew up kind of idolizing Jim Jarmusch. I treated as many of the woods exteriors as I could with films like Down By Law and Paris, Texas in mind. This inspired several shots that are really still photographs in which the action (or non-action) can unfold. When I watch a film with a camera moving just for the sake of moving, I become distracted. I ask myself, “Why is the camera moving right now?” I do it all the time, out loud. Ask my wife, Jenny. It drives her crazy.
Sticking with the same idea of stillness and only giving the viewer what is necessary, Joel and I also talked about Michael Haneke films. The Seventh Continent (Director of Photography, Anton Peschke) is one of my favorite all-time films cinematographically. Cache and Funny Games also came up during the shoot. The direct influence is that there are several shots in Cookbook, especially interiors, that treat the edges of the frame as a way to separate what the viewer needs to see from the more traditional approach of seeing the characters’ whole bodies or surroundings all of the time.
It seems like Joel likes to stay away from wider lenses, was The Alchemist Cookbook shot on entirely on normal/telephoto lenses
I would guess that 80% of Cookbook was actually shot on telephoto lenses. Our go-to glass was the Cooke S4/i 50mm Cine Prime, which really is equivalent to an 80mm lens in the 35mm full-frame world. We attempted to even play up the tight quarters of the trailer interiors by shooting a bit tighter than we needed. Once in awhile, I’d throw on the 32mm (which would be considered about “normal” focal length for the Alexa 2K sensor), and sometimes it’d stick. But more often, Joel and I would look at each other and say something like, “Let’s go 50.” He loves that damn focal length. I’m with him. We also shot most of the handheld chemistry and the bonfire night scenes with the 100mm. It brought all of those ominous dark trees right to Sean’s back like they were creeping in on him.
Were you trying to maintain a single F-Stop? And if so why that F-Stop? Did you maintain that F-Stop for daylight exteriors/What stop did you shoot exteriors?
I generally try to stick with a single stop when in the same scene or room, but not for the entire film. Sure, there are exceptions to this. It’s not a hard rule. But working with Joel means shooting little to no coverage, and we often plan very long takes that require us to light 360 degrees. In these cases, it usually makes sense to stick with a specific stop. That way he can have the freedom to either keep the entire take or chop it up as he feels appropriate in the edit. Either way, the depth remains the same throughout the scene. There are a couple examples of both of these approaches in Cookbook. For the interiors, since the trailer was a naturally dark space, I asked for T4 at night and T5.6 during the day. Often I’d actually open up a bit more than that to grab some of that hard-to-get shadow detail, too.
For the exteriors, I stopped way down. My 1st AC, the incomparable Brandon Bowman, quickly noticed that T22 on Cooke S4s isn’t sharp, so often my target became T11-T16.3. The audience should feel isolated with Sean…swallowed by the woods. So showing a sharp forest all the way to infinity kind of builds a mental wall that encloses the viewer. I sought out to show clearly that as far as you look, there are always just more trees.
Do you think Digital/The Alexa was the most suitable format for The Alchemist Cookbook?
When first talking about the film, Joel and I highly considered Super 16 for its literal chemical relation to the narrative itself. We even tossed around the idea of Super 8 for a bit. Then, thanks to producer Bryan Reisberg (Uncorked Productions) and DP, Luca Del Puppo, we suddenly had access to an Alexa.
I am beyond happy, because the organic gradients and natural roll off of highlights is unparalleled in the digital realm. And I love the look of the movie.
Joel says that on the shoot he doesn’t follow the script. How do shots like the one where Sean pans a flame back and forth across his face as his shadow follows come to fruition?
Sometimes on the day we feel compelled to toss the shot list aside and raw dog it Sob Noisse style. Some of the best shots in the film come from moments we kind of fell into. These detours sometimes tend to drive the producer-types a bit crazy. They eventually come around.
How did you expose for the lantern correctly in that night shot with Sean wandering the woods?
The lantern shot, more than any other shot in the film, required that Joel trust me to deliver him what he wanted on the screen. We had talked at great lengths about having the sequence take place in the dark, but he also wanted solid detail in the surrounding trees and on the ground. In addition, my biggest concern was not blowing out the old Coleman lantern’s mantles and glass casing. The last thing I wanted distracting the viewer was a giant clipped white cylinder floating around the screen. So I took a lot of care to get my ratios right in camera, and we rolled with it. It’s always nice to have the option to bring overall brightness up and down in post for sure, but if you don’t understand where you want highlights and shadows to fall in relation to one another, then you can certainly create more challenges for yourself in the end. It turns out we are really happy with the way that shot turned out, with just the right amount of reality slipping into the realm of the surreal.
A little piece of trivia: this was the final scene we shot for the film.
What was the impetus behind the lighting choices you and your gaffer Craig Harmer made?
Craig is so good, and he understood both the luxuries and the challenges of shooting in what is essentially a 7-foot by 30-foot tube with windows on all four sides. When it came to lighting, we certainly wanted a natural and practical feel. However, there was something specifically going on in the story that I wanted to support with the way we lit. We attempted to convey the two sides of Sean’s character by using appropriate light to dark ratios. Foremost, I only shoot 2:1 lighting ratios when absolutely necessary because I feel like it’s just too flat and overused. I often prefer a more dynamic contrast, even if it’s slight. As the story progresses and we get to know more of Sean’s darker side, I took the opportunity to really play with the relationship between the amount of light and shadows that fell upon his face and body. Most of this approach applies to the scenes when Sean is alone in the trailer or at the bonfire. The chronological ratio progression was 4:1, 8:1 and ultimately 16:1 as he becomes more and more immersed in his own emotional darkness.
How did you light the tight bathroom scenes?
We used a mixture of daylight and tungsten practicals and overheads on dimmers with some underside bounce to fill out some of the hard-to-get shadow area. It’s very basic, but we dialed in the approach to achieve that warm-cool mix. We let the light shift a bit more toward the greens as the story progresses to add a little surrealism and discomfort.
Can you talk about lighting the ‘Barry Lyndon’ shot, how many takes of that scene did you do?
Our production designer, Michael Lapp, and his team really came through on this one. I informed them that I wanted to abandon the previously intended lighting setup for the scene, and that we would now light the trailer exclusively with candlelight. With some quick photometrics and a rough camera setup to peep the frame, the team lit over 100 candles around the trailer. I think I expected T2.8 and they delivered T5.6, so got a little more depth than I thought possible, and we shot two very quick takes before the wax melted away.
Photos by BTS Photographer Anna Gustafson.
My interview with The Alchemist Cookbook Writer/Director Joel Potrykus (With crossover questions)