I interviewed Sean Porter for the first time early last year about his work on Jeremy Saulnier's slasher/thriller Green Room. The second time around was a bit brighter, a beach-side domestic dramedy: Mike Mill’s coming of age epic 20th Century Women. And here we are at interview three with his most expensive film, the Sony funded studio comedy Rough Night starring Scarlett Johansson, Kate Mckinnon, Zoe Kravitz, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer and which was directed by Broad City’s Lucia Aniello & cowritten by Paul W. Downs. In the gamut of the three, I’ve no clue where to place it.
On a technical, on-set structure spectrum I’ve got a better idea. Rough Night moved the fastest. Sean opens up about his first experience on a big budget studio film, how he managed to light at a breakneck multi-camera TV-style pace with bare minimum prep, and the perks of industry veteran reinforcements. Outside the indie/studio comparisons, we talk form: how to photograph a comedy, and how the 2.39 Aspect Ratio can elevate the genre.
- Sean originally planned for Alexa Mini Bodies but swapped them for the Alexa XR/XT Studios after experiencing their rotating mirror shutter that mimics film motion and eradicates rolling shutter artifacts (They also boast true optical viewfinders over the Mini's EVF)
- Chose Cooke S4’s for something updated but not as clinical as newer lenses like the Zeiss Master Primes.
- No diffusion in front of the lens.
- Output in 2.8K ArriRaw.
- Utilized a custom film emulation LUT designed by his DIT Nicholas Kay (Passengers, Doctor Strange, Bourne: Ultimatum) and rated the Alexa at EI 400 (Instead of its native 800) to shift the range towards denser blacks -- ArriRaw allowed them to do this while still maintaining a nice highlight rolloff.
- Chose Arri SkyPanels for their soft beam and versatille color range (2,800k-10,000k), which were rigged and bounced off Muslin Teasers rigged all around the house.
- All the SkyPanels ran through a lightboard so Sean could tweak efficiently between takes.
So let’s start out, again, with the camera/lighting package. What’d you stick with and what new tools/gadgets did this bigger budget allow you to play around with?
This project was different from the get go, and as you’ve maybe been able to piece together looking at my IMDB: I’m trying to play the field. And we probably talked about this when we talked about 20th Century Women, but there’s this risk as a D.P that if you do a couple Rom-Coms back to back because they were offered to you, you kinda become that guy. If you put yourself into the filmmaking consciousness as someone who can do one thing pretty well, there’s little reason for people not to pigeonhole you.
So to break the mould I like to put myself in the line of fire; put myself on new projects where I don’t know how to handle the material, and then get myself out of that hole that I dug. This movie could not have been more different than Green Room, or Kumiko, or 20th Century. It doesn’t matter what film I worked on before, nothing was going to prepare me for it. Which is why I thought it was something worth considering.
Outside of a philosophical standpoint that all boils down to the gear. Rough Night was so different in that — you know on 20th Century Mike refused to use two cameras! He really likes this small, tight-knit, family crew. We’re doing one thing at a time, we’re doing it well. We’re not just spraying down tons of coverage. And then the tools all follow suit with that process, the way the director wants to work.
Whereas Lucia comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. She’s been doing Broad City for several years now where there’s at least two cameras all the time, shooting like 7 pages a day while running around New York City… This is the world she’s coming from. Almost no time’s put into lighting, a lot of it is all available. And it’s all about getting more moments, getting more beats, getting alternative ideas, throwing out new jokes... Just trying to ramp up the comedy as best they can.
So her agenda was so different than the other films than I’ve been on, and I think that dictates the gear. In this case we did get to play with some new stuff. For starters — Mike’s film was not necessarily period but it had this nostalgia to it, so we used vintage lenses, softer contrast, just an overall Santa Barbara sunbathed late afternoon vibe.
For this movie my internal references were the older comedies that I grew up with like Mel Brooks, Chevy Chase, & Dan Akroyd movies -- this 90’s sorta flatter contrast, muted tones, with random spikes in saturation look. But this is a new studio film, it had to feel updated, it had to feel current. I couldn’t get away with shooting on 1950’s lenses on a movie like this. But I love Cooke, and I’ve been using them for a long time. When I’m on a commercial and want to stay in my comfort zone, but want to step up, I won’t say the quality, but the resolution and the contrast, then I’ll default to the S4’s.
They ended up being a great fit for Rough Night. We shot spherically and cropped to a 2.39. And people might wonder why I’d shoot a comedy widescreen like it’s some sort of epic thing. It was kind of a format by and large made for big huge epic landscapes or for keeping a lot of people in the frame in medium shots. Comedies are a great place to use widescreen. If you’re trying to do a 5 shot in 16:9 you have way too much headroom. You don’t need to see everything all the time top and bottom. You wanna keep the audience's eyes focused on the faces, the reactions, and the jokes. So it’s a great way of zeroing in on what everyone’s looking at.
And the Cooke S4’s were great for this. I think they have a lot of character relative to the master primes and all these super clinical lenses that are out there. So that wasn’t necessarily new, that’s been in my grab bag for a while.
Something we might get into a little bit more later is this tricky glass-walled location. We’re shooting with 2 if not 3 cameras and have to be able to look in every direction. We had to design lighting that was appropriate. We’re also moving way too fast. We had way too much stuff to cover everyday. There was no concept [laughs] of “we’re turning around it’s time for a relight” No. It’s you turn around and you keep shooting. Or one camera’s already looking that direction and you just keep shooting.
So one of the things my Gaffer and I came up with is: really relying on LED’s more than I have in the past. And Mike’s movie was sort of a gateway drug for all encompassing LED work. It was almost the only tools we used on that. We rigged a couple of LiteMats to the ceiling and used that as a global base. Well I took that same idea and brought it up to more of a studio comedy level. We ended up building these 20 x 20 ft rings and hung ARRI Skypanels from them and then I bounced those into Muslin Teasers that were rigged all around the house. Then everything ran through a board which gave me the level of control I needed, that fine tune color temp that we needed. Because there was never going to be time to gel a light or any of that. So I had to be able to control everything from the ground. And it was really expensive, and it took a lot of negotiating back and forth -- but at the end of the day this was really the only way I could see this set working.
I’m really glad we did. It gave us just the sort of flexibility we needed. So that was a lot of fun to really get into using SkyPanels, I used them before but not that extensively. Man are they such great tools. Slowly but surely it’s going to get harder and harder to go back to conventional lighting as these LED’s get better and better.
Did you bring your meter underexposed a stop to set each day like you did Green Room and 20th Century Women? On this set, could you have?
[Laughs] Well, no. And it was actually ultimately not what I wanted to do. But similarly it’s really about catching as much headroom as you can. It’s really about those roll offs. If you’re looking at a bright exterior window that’s the thing that always gets me. That’s where you want a pretty rolloff. And I don’t need tons of detail out there, I just don’t want it to — It can never clip, it can’t have a hard, sharp, knee, it has to be soft and pretty. Usually the older lenses cann help that cause a little.
On this movie I got to work with a really great DIT named Nicholas Kay. He was super overqualified for us, he works on super big movies (Passengers, Doctor Strange, Bourne Ultimatum). In a way I wish I was able to utilize him more, but once we set our way we just ran with it.
He was instrumental in figuring out the best way to get what I wanted out of the material. We talked a lot about how we could — that’s the thing about film is that it has such nice thick blacks and it’s harder to do that in digital and still protect all your highlights. In a weird way you’re kind of fighting both of those things. If you underexpose too much you don’t have the detail to push those blacks in a nice place; they end up muddier, grainier, and they lose a little flavor.
So Nick encouraged me to go the other direction. And a couple things helped make that look. For one we were shooting ArriRaw, and this is the first time I’ve shot a movie ArriRaw — which is an interesting conversation. I expected the studio to be pushing 4K, to push a RED or something else because they wanted a higher resolution. But they didn’t really care. They were happy with 2.8K, they just wanted to shoot it ArriRaw. And I thought for a comedy that was really surprising. We’re not in these high contrast scenarios, we’re not out in the jungle... But that was one of their mandates. So I started to talk to Nick about these film emulation LUT’s that he’d built that rate the camera at 400 instead. You’re kind of cramming the sensor full of light because the RAW has just that extra bit of headroom, and you can still get those beautiful roll offs.
It was a lot of fun to experiment with, and when he showed me the results it was clearly the way to go. If I were shooting in ProRes I maybe would not have gone that route because I don’t think it would have been able to handle it. But with ArriRaw we had all the information we needed.
Did the video village set up differ from the sets of your other films?
Yes and no. What’s interesting is that — being on a commercial there'll be me, a producer, the director, and then this whole other scene behind us where critical decisions are being made & they’re signing off on the content. And a movie like this is similar in that you kind of are working for a client. Granted, first and foremost I’m making Lucia’s movie, but I’m also having to be a buffer between her and the studio and make sure everybody’s happy. Because certainly I don’t want to displease Sony who's put a ton of money into this film, and into us, and into the talent, and who want their vision represented on screen.
But on set there really wasn’t that sort of presence. There wasn’t a Sony client there keeping eyes on everything. We had Matt Hirsch who’s an amazing line and exec. Producer, he was there, but he really represented the best interests of the movie. He was very supportive of Lucia and I. And the video village I wouldn’t say was much bigger than many of my other movies. The village only existed for the other keys.
The difference is… On a movie like Mike’s maybe someone’s watching dailies, maybe someone from Anna Purna’s checking in once in a while… But, on a Sony movie, people are watching dailies. Everyone. There’re several people who have eyes on all the material spot checking things. A day after I shoot something I can get a phone call from somebody saying “Hey, I’ve got some notes for you” [laughs]. But luckily that was super rare and maybe happened once or twice, and it was all super fair and ultimately supportive of the work.
But that’s the difference. We did lighting tests early on, and without me even knowing or being privy - I only found out afterwards - Sony books out a theater in NYC and puts those things on screens for so many people to see. It’s no joke and they’re really evaluating, not just how it looks, but the costumes, the makeup, the hair… You know, if you’re going to dump 20 some odd million into a movie people gotta be on board with it, and that was the difference from a smaller indie movie.
If Mike told us we were good to go we were good to go. Here there’s someone else that we’re not necessarily answering to but that we have to involve and make sure are on board with the ideas.
What’s the pre-production dialogue like? Was there a significant difference?
Yeah, to be honest it was a little tough. It was tough in the sense that it was my biggest movie by far and my shortest prep by far, which I don’t think traditionally go hand in the hand. It’s typically the opposite. I don’t really know why I came in so late. I think part of it was that it’s a new director for a studio. I’m sure there was pushback from the studio. Even my initial conversations with Lucia were late in the game, maybe 5-6 weeks out. Which is probably when I really should’ve started. I think they met and interviewed a lot of people.I also wasn’t local. There’s tons of New York D.P’s. So I’m sure there was a lot of pushback from Sony where they were like "there’s gotta be someone in New York, someone with more credits, someone with more comedy" Everything was stacked against me doing that movie. Even my own idea of film. Me doing a comedy is not my first instinct.
I think I was, not super resistant, but thinking I’d be super surprised if I got another call. This was a super long shot. And [laughs] I think Sony probably thought that too. So I think they kept talking and didn’t find a guy that was the right fit, and then Lucia ultimately was like “this is the guy I want to use”.
So when they finally made that decision I had 3 weeks. It was at a time that their line producer had to bow out for health reasons, so Matt (exec producer) and I showed up to the PO the same day and were both like “this is not enough time.” You basically land and you start tech scouting. It’s fine to do that on a commercial or something but on a movie it’s like putting out fires. It’s hiring crew, it’s seeing locations, it’s steering away from locations that’re going to be a nightmare, but you’re not in a super creative place. You’re in a logistical one. So my interactions with Paul and Lucia were in a scouting van, we’re figuring out how we’re going do things practically, like breaking down how we're going to pull off a stunt.
And that was really hard. I found the only creative discussions we had were after some of these excruciatingly long prep days of van rides, and meetings, and scouts. You might have an hour window when everyone else is fried. It’s 8:30 at night and Paul and Lucia and I can just hang out in the office and chat. That’s really where the meat of the work, the artistic side anyways, that’s where all that stuff happened. Being able to brainstorm ideas, talk about other movies, pitch to them some references…
On Mike’s movie I got to do all of that stuff because I had 6 weeks. I had all this extra time just to be with him. And sometimes you’re not even talking about the movie. You’re in each others presence and just developing a shorthand and a relationship that you can push on later when we need it.
All of that had to be fast tracked with Paul and Lucia and that was hard. I would have expected long leisurely meetings with the storyboard artists with ideas to pitch to them, or time consider doing it other ways. [laughs] There was none of that. It was like "we have some sort of storyboards for this?"
Great! let’s move on!
In ways it was great training. It becomes all about priorities. What is most critical to get this show off the ground. What are things that’re going to be potential trainwrecks on set? Let’s find ways to steer clear of those things. My goal was to give Paul and Lucia as much time as possible. One of the differences with big budgets is you have big stars, and it’s not like you’re on an indie movie with some up and coming actors that are totally down to be on set for 12 hours and get it done.
On a movie like this: Scarlett’s in the chair [laughs]. On a 12 hour work day you’re lucky to have her in front of the camera for 7 or 8 hours. What they’re used to on Broad City couldn’t be further from the reality of the movie making machine that is a studio film. And I knew that going in. I knew that whatever I did in prep had to be designed to maximize those 8 hours I had, and that was the directive there.
Most comedies in this budget range have that harsh, videoy, overlit look that I’m repelled by. Rough Night doesn’t, and you mentioned you drew from the aesthetic of older comedies. How aware were Paul and Lucia of this different look you were going for?
They’re aware. And to be fair, that’s probably why they didn’t end up with a studio D.P. Someone who's like this is what I do, I know how to set up the lights, I know how to make everyone look pretty -- and it’s got this super commercial look to it. I think to their credit that’s what they didn’t want and were seeking out other people. I mean I don’t even know if they’d seen 20th Century Women. They came to me basically on the pretenses of Green Room saying “We like what you did with a cast of characters stuck in a room” and that’s really the world they were coming from. So they were thinking if Sean can make it work in this setting he can make it work for this movie that largely takes place in one house.
In a way I applaud them for that, that takes a lot of vision. We talked about lighting. I tried to give them a lot of visual references. Being character and performance driven they really lean on the D.P for lighting choices and lens choices. So they’re not going to say my choices are too this or too that. I’d bring the material to them. I’d show them frames and ask if it were too dark, or too bright, or too commercial. And that was the way we were able to explore different looks and talk about them in really plain terms.
That really helped me a get a sense of what they wanted. We’ve probably talked about this previously, but in a lot of cases your style is going to be dictated by the way you decide to make that movie. I might’ve come up with some cool film noir thing I wanted to do, but the reality is there’d never be a second for me to set a light, or set a flag to get the right cut, that would just never happen on this movie. So I was having these meetings with Paul and Lucia, meetings with the A.D, and meetings with the Line producer; And you’re constantly aggregating that information and assembling it into something, building it a block at a time from these different groups. Internally you can start to see where it’s headed.
Part of your job as a cinematographer is that you eventually get really good at predicting where that ball is gonna land. Then you can set standards for the look, set standards for the budget, set standards for the crew, and ideally all of those things marry at the look that you’re after. Obviously if I had all the time in the world I would’ve made slightly different choices. But in a way it was the right thing for the movie. It wanted to be kind of broad and lit, but like you’re saying it didn’t want to be overly done and overcooked. So in a way it was a good thing for the film’s style, and the film’s budget/schedule. Paul and Lucia wanted something with a lower base of ambience, softer & flatter lighting — You could even point at some French New Wave films when they were starting to hang muslins across the whole ceiling and just get these soft base ambient looks. I don’t think we’re too far from that idea, and I could probably pick out some frames from some early French New Wave cinema and find similar lighting.
It’s cool that our roots were more in that direction than in contemporary comedy. But you have to find something that’s going to work all together, and that can be tricky sometimes.
What’s your approach to shooting comedy? Is the idea, in this case, to bring the cinematography to the backseat and let the comedy flow?
I think that’s exactly the right way to put it. I mean, when you have people like Scarlett Johansson, and it’s a comedy, and so much weight is put on the words they say, we’re really there for the performances. Not to say that isn’t true of all films. You want the look and music to elevate that but we’re really here to watch these people go through some sort of event or an anti-event [laughs], whatever it is!
In comedy there’s some traditional tropes you’re playing with. Broad comedy in particular tends to be kind of bright and flat, and you want to see everything, and you want to get the joke, and see the physicality. They tend to be wider shots, they tend to be group shots, you don’t want to edit out a laugh and the joke. You want to keep it all in there. So we tended to work in wide shots, or two shots or three shots as much as we can because there’s just so much in there, and if you have five ladies in a scene — granted we used a lot of oners, but you typically don’t want to miss out on those four other reactions.
Those reactions always check each other. If you have Zoey and Ilana reacting to something Jillian says you’re getting two very different reactions -- but they’re both great. You’re missing out on a lot of potential by telling the audience to look at this one thing in this one moment. That’s all part of it, being able to see everything without it being a play. So walking into the movie I wasn’t going to be like: “My last movie was Green Room! [laughs] We underexposed it a stop and a half, used green lights, and did all this stuff!” You know, my job’s to be a chameleon and figure out how to make it successful.
Everyone wants the girls to look beautiful, and they are beautiful, let's represent that on camera. So softer lighting in general is a win for that. So again all of these things sort of guide themselves to their natural conclusion without you needing to step in and say “This is how we need to do it!”
I didn’t want to negate comedy, by doing a comedy. I didn’t think that’d be the intention. The intention was more how would I do a comedy? And how would I do one with Paul and Lucia -- who’re also not coming from twenty years of studio experience? That would have been a very different thing if they were like “We have this machine and this is how it works.” They are in a really beautiful early stage of their career, and really who knows where they can and will go. But there is a real freedom of creativity there that’s so exciting and they don’t wanna shy away from trying things differently. We’re also respecting the fact that we’re doing a comedy, and we’re doing it for Sony. It’s a huge company and they have their expectations too.
Was there an instance where the joke or humor wasn’t landing because the composition or another visual logistic was preventing it?
Yeah. Yeah, of course. The physicality is such a big thing. If we’re doing a wide shot in a Mike Mills movie, it’s for a concept, for depth, or because you want to see and feel Annette alone in the house. On a movie like Rough Night it’s all about physicality. Jillian is so funny in the way she uses her body. Kate’s the same way. They’re all in this zone. And that can be at odds with each other. That may be the only place where the widescreen format is a potential disservice because you kind of want to see what they’re doing with their face, their torso, and their arms, and that’s hard to do in widescreen. It’s also just hard to do period and I think that’s where good cutting, good scene work, and good understanding of the pace of the scene is important, because there’ll be moments where you’ll be like “We need to be close for this emotional moment” but then you’ve got to be wide for this gag to play. And sometimes the cool shot wasn’t the right shot.
It’d be hard to come up with a specific example of this, but there’s a lot of gimmicks around the physicality. We’re dealing with [laughs] dead strippers, people with hardly any clothes on, so you’re always trying to find shots that are finding the comedy but also not revealing too much. There was actually one shot, that was funny enough in the trailer but not enough for the movie, where they’re carrying the dead body to the garage and Jillian stumbles and falls into his crotch.
That was a really hard shot. It was a hard stunt to do in that she could have really easily hurt herself, and she could have easily hurt him. So we had to make a padded floor that elevated her, but now she’s too high, so we have to get him at the right height. But you kind of want to see all of that in the shot. It’s not funny if you’re just on her face falling -- you gotta see his legs and his crotch and her in a widescreen shot while they’re close to camera. So how do you do that without using a 12mm lens and having it look ridiculous. It took a lot of planning and trial and error. If you can’t get the shot to work you lose the joke, and no one wants to do that. So you always have to come in super flexible with your shotmaking so that you can accommodate the comedy.
When the climactic death occurs the camera steps outside the perspective of the girls and views their plight through the estate’s giant windows. This elicits the film’s first strong sense of danger. Are there other techniques you employed to juggle the film’s changing tonalities?
In prep one of the few conversations we got to have was that we wanted the film to start a little bit more polished, a little bit more put together, and you know [laughs], I don’t wanna use “studio” in a derogatory way, but a little more studio, in a good way. Then the film, I wouldn’t say breaks down, but it definitely gets a little rougher and a little seedier. And I think that’s one of those first moments. Lucia had this instinct that when the initial hit happens, there is a little bit of a shock. We’re handheld for the first time in the movie, and we kind of try to throw people and show that it’s going to be different than what they expect. So I think mixing in a little bit of handheld, and a little bit of disarmament like “Oh shit we thought we were in a comedy movie and now we’re not.” Now people are dying! I love that moment in the movie.
And then to pull back — it’s not even a pull back it’s a stark cut where the girls are framed within the house. In a way you can look at that starkness as a prison cell. We’re kind of setting up this world where these girls are trapped and doom is sort of impending. I think that initial frame, and not only that but this extra new sense of vulnerability that we’re no longer with them but that we’re now an other looking at them whose witnessed them make a mistake, helps raise the stakes. That was a lot of fun. Being able to pull from my dramatic experience and put that into a comedy is great. You wouldn’t traditionally see a frame like that in a comedy.
Another fun day for me was when Colton, the real stripper cop, forces his way in and Ilana ends up knocking him out. We came up with this idea that the girls turn the lights off. It’s such a relief in the movie, and it’s such a brief moment, but at that point the audience needs it, and everyone needs to just turn the lights off for a second. And it was fun for me to be able to play in my comfort zone for a second and use some silhouettes and use some hard lights in the background. That was a lot of fun, and that’s probably about as Green Room as the movie’s gonna get [laughs].
To get back to your point about respecting the comedy genre, that was a tough scene for Paul and Lucia, and I give them props for embracing it to an extent. It’s hard to look at your characters in silhouette when things that are potentially funny are happening -- or important. I think in their eyes it’s their script and it’s important all those things get communicated. So when you start playing with these really high ratios and you don’t really know what you’re looking at, and is he groping her? Is he not? What else is he really saying to her? What’s his face look like?
In a drama you’re always playing with that. You want to keep the audience at bay and you don’t want them to always know what’s going on. In a comedy we’re kind of crossing a line there. There were conversations on set like: is it too much? Is it enough? We had to find this balance of it being justifiably a scary moment while respecting the genre at large. They could’ve pushed back and said it needs to be more lit and we need to see everything going on. But we went for it, and I think it helps the movie have more of an up and down rhythm that it really needs rather than being one thing the whole time.
Did you operate on this?
No. Mike’s movie was the first movie that the union was like “You’re done”. I’d kind of been getting away with it I guess. Certainly there’s ways around that idea. You can hire a bench operator and keep him on a truck, and maybe there’ll be a day where that happens. But right now, if I’m going to bring someone on a movie, what a missed opportunity to not utilize them. This person can really bring something to the film if you’re open minded about it. And to be honest, my commercial work’s been a good place for that too. Typically they don’t hire operators on commercials unless there’s multiple cameras, and when there are multiple cameras I typically don’t want to operate either of them, I want to see everything that’s going on. So commercials have been a tricky place for me because they want you to operate a camera, and they want a second one. Most of the time in those scenarios you have two cameras for very key set ups, you’re not using them all the time, and I rely very heavily on my operators.
“Go set up the shot, this is what I want.” And It’s so great to just leave all that, don’t be part of the mechanics of that. I don’t really care if you have to move that bookcase to move the dolly in there, like leave that to the operator. How freeing to me to be able to spend more time with the director, I can think ahead, I can make it look better, I can talk to the gaffer… I love that kind of stuff, and I don’t want to be dealing with like “Oh there’s a stray reflection” it’s so cool that operators have great aesthetics. They have great ideas anyways, so let them do their thing.
On this movie it was a good experience in that I really had to give over all of that. I certainly could have been involved, but it would have been way too much. We had two great operators (Charles Libin, David J. Thompson) both highly highly experienced. It was so fun to work with somebody who’d been operating longer than I’d been in the industry. These were really talented guys and they brought so much to the movie. They freed me up to be right next to Lucia for every take, and sometimes Lucia’s looking at one camera and I’m looking at the other and we can talk about them afterwards. But just being there, and being able to talk through the takes as they were happening saves so much more time than if I were operating and come back to the monitor asking “How did that go? What did B-Camera get?” We don’t have time for that. This way I already know and can immediately make those adjustments before every take.
It couldn’t have happened any other way. It was a great way to work. At the same time, not doing a Coen’s Bro. movie where the camera movement is so critical to the performance, it’s about capturing it, it’s about being intuitive and having a common aesthetic. Both my guys were able to bring that and really free me up. And it was tough to operate. Lots of handheld, really long takes, a lot of the times we’re looking right into these large glass windows. It’s a lot to workout that dance, especially with a second camera. [Laughs] It’s a movie I wouldn’t have wanted to operate on! I was happy to back off.
I’m surprised to hear you say that because these still look like your compositions, and Rough Night looks like one of your films -- whatever that throughline is.
That’s great. It’s awesome to be able to push genres that far, and try things so differently -- and if someone could find a throughline then awesome. At the same time I love being that chameleon. There is always something about a frame that interests me or a way I want to tell the story, certainly, I’m not able to remove myself or my ideas, my sensibilities, or aesthetic, from that. They’ll always be there. It’s interesting you say that about the compositions because I spent more time interviewing operators more than I did anyone else. Even in that short truncated time frame. It was really about finding who could get what I wanted, and what Paul and Lucia wanted.
We would talk about composition. Obviously you’re in the moment and you’re just reacting, you can’t be running a tape from prepro telling Charlie to do this, do that, and remember these things! You have to trust in them at a certain point. A good operator will look at your other frames or watch some of your other work so they can get it. They get how I like framing things and can carry that through and elevate your work. In both cases they were able to do that. Not that easy though. With two cameras you can’t always frame it the way you want. So it’s good to hear, that’s nice to hear that we held on to something.
Having now wrapped this larger film that initially you were cautious of, has your career perspective or your cinematography philosophy evolved or changed in any way?
It was a good experience in that it confirmed that I want to continue shaking it up. I’m not going to race out and do another comedy. The comedy scripts have been coming, honestly, since people have found out I was on this one. Not that I don’t like doing comedies, I grew up on comedies and totally enjoy them. I will definitely come back to them. And who knows, maybe the next one, if it’s the right one, will be a comedy. I feel like it’s continued to encourage me to take chances and jump on projects that don’t seem like the obvious fit -- or the obvious next choice. I’ve been in a lucky place right now doing ads and being able to stay home with my family. Because of that I’ve been able to become increasingly selective.
This could come back to bite me if I keep turning everything down [laughs]. At a certain point I might stop getting scripts! But at the moment we’re getting them, we’re getting people interested. And the cool thing is about the way filmmaking works, filmmakers work, someone who saw Kumiko may not have seen Green Room, and I want to go as far to say Mike Mill’s might not have saw Green Room before hiring me for 20th Century. Films can have a life beyond release and beyond the festival circuit, and sometimes it’s those movies that leapfrog you in terms of steering career.
Maybe someone who saw 20th Century Women not having seen Green Room, or Rough Night would think I’m a good fit and vice versa. I’m not as afraid of that pigeonholing, and honestly since Rough Night we’ve had a huge range of material coming in. That’s one: relieving, and two: very exciting. I’m hoping that opening the studio door is going to allow me to work on bigger projects, possibly more studio movies -- not that bigger budget means better movies, but just to try and elevate the work. How would I do on a 20-30 million dollar thriller? Or horror film? Or even a kids movie!
When I saw the trailer for Pete’s Dragon, I said “I wanna do that!” All this work out in the forest, there’s a magical dragon, it’s something my kids can actually see! By and large the movie’s I’ve made they can’t see. So that’d be really cool. Unfortunately most kids movies tend to be really really big so I’m probably still a few away from that. But the direction is a very curated directionless. It’s no where in particular, it's just about finding that right project.
See Rough Night in theaters now and keep an eye out for whatever genre/budget thing he manages to shoot next. Will we get a Sean Porter kids movie?
Read his 20th Century Women interview here.
& his Green Room interview here.