Writer/director/producer/editor Sean Baker recalled that his latest film was born out of necessity. When the pandemic lockdown first hit, a planned feature for Baker fell by the wayside. So he “pivoted to something more feasible to make with a skeleton crew.”
From that pivot Red Rocket (A24) was launched, adding to a lauded Baker filmography that includes The Florida Project (2017) which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival--earning a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe; Tangerine (2015) which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and won an Independent Spirit Award as well as two Gotham Awards; Starlet (2012), recipient of the Robert Altman Film Independent Spirit Award; and Prince of Broadway (2008) and Take Out (2004) which were both nominated for the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award.
Red Rocket centers on a washed up porn star, Mikey Saber (portrayed by Simon Rex), who keeps on selfishly hustling and scamming when he returns to his small Texas hometown, weaseling his way into the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Mikey starts selling marijuana to make a living when he encounters Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old girl whom he sees as a ticket back to porn industry prominence in L.A.
Rex’s performance as Mikey entails a delicate balance. While he exploits people, somehow he retains a charm and a semblance of likability--in part due to the comedy of the situation and his disarming manner as someone who has never fully grown up emotionally. It all adds up to a darkly funny, humane portrait of a uniquely American hustler and a hometown that barely tolerates him. Baker teamed with Chris Bergoch on the screenplay.
At an AFI Fest actors’ roundtable a couple of months ago, Rex shared that Baker called him out of the blue about Red Rocket. At the time Rex said his Hollywood career was at a low ebb, describing himself as “halfway out the door in this business.” Instead Baker helped Rex to knock that proverbial door wide open, casting him as Saber.
Rex recollected auditioning via an iPhone video, getting the gig and then having to drive three days to reach the shoot location--while memorizing dialogue along the way. Explaining that he couldn’t fly to the filming destination because that would have required his being quarantined upon arrival, Rex embarked on the film based on complete trust in Baker, whom he had never met.
While that story suggests a bit of eleventh-hour whimsy led Baker to Rex, the writer-director puts it in a different context, noting that the casting of Rex had rather been simmering for some time--well before Red Rocket. Baker said that he and Rex are about the same age, noting that he had been watching Rex’s career from the beginning. This dated back to when Rex was a MTV VJ whose interviews included a memorable session with Tupac Shakur. “I watched Simon’s career come and go, the peaks and valleys. He consistently entertained me,” related Baker who added that he was drawn in from afar by Rex’s stick-to-itiveness. “I felt a perseverance even though I didn’t know his personal journey,” observed Baker. “I felt it strange that the industry hadn’t offered him bigger, meatier (film) roles.” (Rex’s acting credits included three films in the Scary Movie franchise.)
Baker was also drawn to Rex’s deft use of social media platforms, reflected in an early presence on Vine and YouTube. “His six-second videos made me laugh,” said Baker who remembered doing research on the adult film world for Red Rocket and at that point texting one of his producers that if this film ever got made, Rex would be the guy to cast. Baker texted his producer a link to one of Rex’s Vine videos. “Rex had been on my mind for years,” affirmed Baker.
The director had also done some independent checking on Rex, again underscoring that casting him in Red Rocket was a very informed decision. Baker talked to his sister, Stephonik (production designer on Red Rocket), who’s knows one of Rex’s good friends, to find out more about the actor, how he was to work with. With a shoestring budget--time and money being precious--Baker realized he couldn’t afford “any divas” on Red Rocket. The feedback Stephonik received on Rex was that he was sweet, loyal and anything but diva-esque.
“I got on the phone with Simon and felt like I already knew him,” said Baker. “The trust seemed to be there from the beginning.” Rex was then sent what Baker described as “half a script, half a treatment” that still needed to be fleshed out. “Within 20 minutes, he sent back a self-made tape,” recalled Baker who first wondered if Rex was taking the project seriously. But upon viewing the tape, Baker found that Rex was already “90 percent there, that he had a handle on the character of Saber.
That has since been proven to be a very firm handle as Rex’s portrayal of Saber in Red Rocket has won him Best Actor distinction from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, as well as Independent Spirit and Gotham Award nominations.
Another key first-time collaborator for Baker on Red Rocket was cinematographer Drew Daniels. Baker knew of the DP’s work with writer-director Trey Edwards Shults spanning such films as Waves, It Comes at Night, and the 2015 SXSW Grand Jury and Audience Award-winning Krisha. Baker was also drawn to Daniels’ life experiences in Texas as that is where Red Rocket is set (primarily in Texas City, an oil refinery town on the Gulf Coast). Daniels, whose family is from Texas, grew up in proximity to the area where the film was shot near Galveston and went to college in Austin. Daniels’ intuitive feel for Texas attracted Baker, particularly as the backdrop itself was a slice-of-Americana character in the film.
Baker and Daniels exchanged cinematic references to help define what the mood and tone should be for Red Rocket. Baker credited Daniels with coming up with the definitive cinematic language suggestion for creative inspiration, Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express shot by the late Vilmos Zsigmond. Taking place outside of Houston just like Red Rocket, The Sugarland Express also captured the 1974 vibe that Baker envisioned.
Baker stressed that he had a simpatico feel and sense of purpose with cast and crew, reflected for example in his working relationships with Rex and Daniels. This helped Red Rocket weather the storm, sometimes literally, of being a production with limited time and budget during a time of uncertainty due to COVID. “There were little disasters all the time,” said Baker. “Hurricanes were coming our way. There were problems every few hours. We didn’t have the money or time to throw at any problems, We couldn’t tackle problems head-on. We had to instead pivot and go into other directions. This led to serendipity, happy accidents. At first you can be defeatist, a ‘this had to happen now’ attitude. ‘Fuck me.’ But out of that came happy accidents, little miracles, like the movie a roller coaster of emotions. I never felt like this before when making a film.”
The tenor of the times too had an impact, continued Baker. “There was a very intense energy going on. Everybody was living in fear because of COVID, before the vaccine. The murder of George Floyd was on everyone’s mind. There was the upcoming (presidential) election. The country was divided...All that energy was somehow caught on the celluloid, We were living it every day. There was a constant adrenaline rush.”
Baker observed that there was a valuable lesson learned from the brand of guerrilla filmmaking he engaged in for Red Rocket. “You can’t live in the moment. In the moment I’m full of self-pity and kicking myself for taking a film a quarter of the budget of my last film. But then you realize all the great things that did for us. Those imposed limitations led to a lot of great things going on. The size of the crew--producers doing four positions on the film, wearing so many hats. There’s something really special about it, very freeing and liberating about the whole experience. We were an intimate little family with one goal in mind--to make this film and do it safely. I want to do it again, which is crazy. I never thought I’d say that while actually making this film. I want to make another film along the lines of Red Rocket--though hopefully with a little more money. I want to do that before I take on another ‘big’ film. This crazy filmmaking family shooting guerrilla style in the middle of nowhere reignited my love for guerrilla filmmaking.”
Red Rocket debuted at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. In addition to the aforementioned awards recognition for Rex, Red Rocket has scored assorted accolades including being named one of the year’s best films by the National Board of Review, Gotham nominations for Best Screenplay and Breakthrough Performer (Suzanna Son), and an Independent Spirit nod for Best Supporting Actress (Son).
Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Flee (Neon) is going long on the Oscar shortlists, making the cut not just for Best Documentary Feature but also Best International Feature (Denmark’s official entry). Additionally, Flee is widely considered to be in the running for Best Animated Feature, making the film directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen a contender across three Academy Award categories.
Flee made its first major splash as a Cannes 2020 selection and the next year earned the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema-Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival. Furthermore, Flee recently won the Gotham Award for Best Documentary, the British Independent Film Award as Best International Indie Film, the National Board of Review’s Freedom of Expression Award (and inclusion in NBR’s Top Five Documentaries of the Year lineup), a New York Film Critics Circle Award, a Los Angeles Film Critics Award, the Annecy International Animated Film Festival’s Best Feature designation and three European Film Awards (Best European Documentary, Animated Feature Film and the European University Film Award).
The latter honor credits Flee with untangling a young man’s real memories of “fleeing Afghanistan as a child to growing up openly gay in Denmark. The blend of different animation styles layered with the real voice of the protagonist (named Amin) and archival footage brings a surprising sense of realism to the film. The emotional connection to Amin’s story calls attention to the first-world ignorance of the stark reality for refugees and makes audiences reflect on their own position in society. Flee is a unique artistic exploration of how trauma affects one’s sense of self while also bringing us to the conundrum of the universal sense of belonging and home.”
Flee has also earned numerous nominations--four from the Annie Awards (including for Best Animated Feature Film), a Critics Choice Documentary Award nod, an Independent Spirit Award nom for Best Documentary, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Motion Picture, Best Feature and Director from the International Documentary Association Awards, Documentary of the Year and Technical Achievement of the Year (animation from Kenneth Ladekjaer) from the London Critics Circle Film Awards, and a Producers Guild Award nomination in the documentary theatrical motion picture category.
The origin of this awards trail was situated at an unlikely site--a bus stop in a small Danish town many moons ago. It was there that Rasmussen, then 15 years old, met another youngster as they went on the daily weekday morning commute to high school. They became good friends and Rasmussen was curious how and why his buddy wound up in the village. But the lad didn’t want to talk about it.
Fast forward many years to when Rasmussen was working in radio and asked his friend about possibly making an audio documentary about his journey to Denmark. Rasmussen’s buddy, though, remained reticent. Then eight years ago, Rasmussen was in a program pairing documentarians with animators. Rasmussen thought that by deploying animation, he could protect his friend’s anonymity and make him more willing to tell his story. The friend, preserving his privacy by assuming the name Amin, consented to share the real-life experience of his family fleeing war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, in the 1980s.
What we see and hear in Flee marks the first time Amin has shared his story. Still, it was difficult for Amin to personally open up--even with his real identity protected. His five-year journey spanning Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and Scandinavia reflects the harrowing plight of migrants and their fight for survival. While he is in no way ashamed of his past, Amin doesn’t want it to define him as he’s come out of the ordeal with a successful career in academia and in a loving relationship with his fiance Jasper. However Amin felt the compelling need to tell his story to raise awareness of and empathy for what the flight to freedom means, which is more relevant than ever given today’s politically charged climate where immigrants are at times vilified.
Rasmussen collaborated with animation studios Sun Creature in Denmark and Train Train in France on Flee, taking on a steep learning curve in the process. “I had to learn how animation works and the craft behind it,” he related. “As a director, I had to be part of the process, understanding how things get put together. You can’t change things once you start animating. I was used to doing things myself--to go out and shoot something, then go to an editor and work together. By contrast, you can’t animate 80 hours of material. It has to be precise in terms of what you need. You have to animate before you shoot, edit rough storyboards. If you are doing a specific scene in a film and you need a closeup or a mood shot, you ask the storyboarder to make it for you. You can ask for anything--the exact shot you want. The precision is amazing.”
Perhaps helpful in some respects to Rasmussen was his aforementioned background in radio. Though it sounds contradictory on the surface, radio is a visual medium. The magic of radio is that the listener can visualize things based on what’s being said. For Flee, Rasmussen visualized what Amin said, trying to best do justice to his story.
While Rasmussen’s first foray into animation was initially motivated as a means to preserve his friend’s anonymity, the director said that the experience has him open to again deploying animation for other creative reasons. In working with Amin, for instance, Rasmussen learned that animation provided the creative option of being more expressive, to dive into the emotion of what’s being said. While it might have been hard at times for Amin to talk about his trauma and recall certain details, he did vividly remember what he was feeling. And animation could delve into that emotion inside of him rather than being precise in terms of a scene. For example, when talking about his two sisters being confined in a container as they were being smuggled from Russia to Sweden, Amin didn’t know the specifics. He wasn’t there with his sisters. But the emotions that Amin felt knowing what his sisters had to endure was real--and animation could reflect that as he told their story. Animation thus can be a valuable, viable tool for a documentary filmmaker. It can give generously shared testimonies the platform they deserve.
For Rasmussen, Amin’s story resonated--not just for its implications for the issue of immigration today but also relative to the director’s own family history. In his director’s statement, Rasmussen shared, “Coming from a Jewish family, the theme of flight and dislocation is especially important to me. My ancestors fled Russia in the early 20th century to escape persecution and pogroms. Like Amin, the protagonist of Flee, they sailed across the Baltic to Denmark. This was where my grandmother was born, in a hotel close to the central train station in my current hometown of Copenhagen. Her family--my family--applied for asylum, but they were denied so they were forced to move again, this time to Germany. As a primary school student in Berlin, my grandmother was forced to stand before her classmates with a yellow star displayed prominently on her chest. Soon she had to flee again, this time to England. It happened almost a century ago, but the story of her forced displacement and dislocation still hangs over my family.”
Rasmussen further stated, “Making Flee gave me new insights into the drastic consequences of fleeing home, especially as a child like Amin, like my grandmother. I began to understand the difficulties that children like them face when their past and present are so disconnected. I understood why they tended to look ahead to the future, while keeping a safe distance from the people around them. I understood what it’s like to have a deep secret that you cannot share with anyone, but which will always be a silent presence in that person’s relationships and in life in general. As for Amin, I realized that this feeling of displacement still was very present in him, even after all these years. I believe it is because he never had the chance to confront the past and share his story, the story of Flee.”
A Danish/French film director, Rasmussen debuted in 2006 with the TV documentary Something about Halfdan, followed by a series of radio documentaries from around the world. He graduated from the Danish film school Super16 in 2010. His first feature film, Searching for Bill, a mix of documentary and fiction, won the Nordic Dox award at CPH:DOX, and the international competition prize at DocAviv. In November 2015 he premiered his documentary What He Did, which won the prestigious Fipresci (International Federation of Film Critics) honor at the 2016 Thessaloniki Film Festival.
Alice Brooks, ASC
On the last day of lensing In The Heights, the Jon M. Chu-directed film adaptation based on the stage musical of the same name by Quiara Alegria Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda, cinematographer Alice Brooks, ASC got a call from her agent that Miranda was going to direct his first movie and that he’d like the DP to read the script and then they could talk.
The script was for tick...tick...Boom! (Netflix), an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical one-man musical show (that eventually became a three-man show plus a band) of the same title dealing with the pressures of being an artist, in this case sacrificing much of one’s personal life to craft a successful musical. A musical about creating a musical, the film pays tribute to Larson (played in the film by Andrew Garfield) whose artistic struggles ultimately yielded the Broadway hit Rent, a success he never lived to see. Miranda enlisted screenwriter Steven Levenson to turn Larson’s show into a moving film that dives deeply into the life of the composer.
At first read, Brooks saw parallels to her own life, scenes from her childhood growing up in the 1980s with two artist parents--an aspiring playwright father and an actress/singer mother--in a 300 square foot apartment in New York, akin in many respects to where Larson lived with a bathtub in the kitchen. Like Larson, Brooks’ tiny family apartment was frequently filled with artist friends who became a sort of community/family. Some of those friends, as also experienced by Larson, were lost to AIDS. Brooks too had artistic ambitions and her childhood memories of NYC are indelible. She initially thought that perhaps tick...tick...Boom! was “too close to home” for her to take on as a project. But she ultimately decided that this was a movie she needed to help make.
In fact for her alluded to initial meeting with Miranda to discuss tick..tick...Boom!, Brooks prepared a lookbook filled with photos from her childhood. “A few minutes into our meeting Lin stopped me and said, ‘wait, these are your personal photos?’ My photos could be something right out of the movie. And he said to me, ‘so this is a personal story to you?’ From that moment--the moment where I shared my childhood photos--we just started exploring how we were going to make the movie together.”
Brooks added, “Lin wanted to make the movie to look like New York when he was 10,” related Brooks. “We both had the same memory of New York at the same exact time when as a child, life, dreams and reality sometimes get blurred.”
Tick...tick...Boom! also coincided with Brooks lifelong love for musicals and artists, reflected in her filmography as a cinematographer which began at USC cinema school when she shot Chu’s thesis film, a musical short. She and Chu later teamed on The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (The LXD), a breakthrough web reality series in which dance becomes a battleground between good and evil. Brooks likened the experience on The LXD to being in “a lab which focused on telling different stories through dance and music. Each episode was a different length or style, a place to experiment with the narrative power of dance.”
Brooks’ next project with Chu also had a rich undercurrent of music as they adapted the 1980s’ animated series Jem and the Holograms for the big screen. The live-action feature centered on a small town singer/songwriter who makes it big but at a personal cost.
Later Brooks again teamed with Chu on the musical feature In The Heights. This got her together with Miranda, setting the stage for her involvement in tick...tick...Boom! That involvement was unlike any other that Brooks had experienced in movies. “I think it was because Lin has been in the theater world for 20 years. My dad directed shows and wrote in theater. I grew up around theater. The collaborative experience there is you work on a show over and over again before you ever have a performance. It can be years. There’s a discovery process. You discover a show as you rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it.”
Though the timetable was more compressed for the feature film tick...tick...Boom!, there were similarities to the theater process with Miranda adopting that same workshop approach. He, Brooks, Levenson, production designer Alex DiGerlando, first assistant director Mariela Comitini and storyboard artist Grant Schaffer brainstormed in an ongoing discovery process with, for example, models of sets inspiring script changes, cinematography transition ideas being incorporated into the script and so on. With all this work up front, particularly for the musical numbers, much was deliberated over and set by the time shooting began--always, though, with room for surprises, happy accidents and improvisation.
Invaluable to Brooks were videos of Larson from the late 1980s right up to the week of his unexpected death in 1996, shot by a friend who had a camera on Larson regularly. The tapes became a wealth of information spanning everything from set design and costume design to objects in Larson’s life that were important to him, and scenes from the stage show on which the movie is based.
“The thing I learned the most from these tapes was who Jonathan was and the enormous heart and joy for life that he had,” shared Brooks. “The more I watched the tapes and got to know an intimate side of Jonathan, the more real he became--and the more real he became, the more I identified with his struggle as an artist and the more of an inspiration he became to me.”
Inspiration came in handy when COVID hit and the production was shut down after just eight days of shooting tick...tick...Boom! The pause was planned originally to last two weeks--however, two weeks became six months. “But the bond we had formed during the first eight days was enough to carry us through,” said Brooks. “We would have weekly tick...tick...Zooms! The entire cast and crew were invited. And we would have hundreds of people attend--every department.”
Filming resumed in September 2020 and lasted for an additional 42 days without a shutdown. While PPE made normal interaction impossible, the original esprit de corps remained, observed Brooks. It was a loving, determined cast and crew with a profound sense of purpose.
Brooks deployed the Panavision DXL camera with Anamorphic G Series lenses, adapted by Panavision lens guru Dan Sasaki. When returning after the COVID hiatus, Sasaki had to further detune the lenses, taking off more of the front coating because Brooks could no longer use atmospheric smoke due to pandemic restrictions. Sasaki’s retooling was needed in that Brooks wanted the lenses to feel a bit more aged and to respond to light on the edges of the frame in a stronger way.
The connection Brooks feels to Larson goes deep and well beyond her childhood. “Jonathan is a dreamer,” she said. “This movie is about a man who doesn’t give up his dreams no matter what. He sticks to his integrity, his dreams, his passion. He gets up, dusts himself off and starts all over again. For me, there were so many times that I wanted to give up. Making movies is not an easy business. Six months before Jon (Chu) called me to shoot In The Heights, I felt like I was done. It felt like a moment in the movie (tick...tick...Boom!) where Jonathan goes to his friend Michael and asks that he get him a job in advertising. I remember my husband saying wait six months and if you feel the same, we’ll seek something else out. But there are lessons to be learned from Jonathan’s life. This is a movie for anyone who has a dream and it constantly feels there is no way forward. You endure no matter what. You take punches and keep getting up. You start your day all over again. This story is so personal. It feels universally personal.”
Jeff Cronenweth, ASC
The late Hollywood columnist and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne referred to Lucille Ball in her heyday as likely being “the most famous woman in the world.” And writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s new film, Being the Ricardos (Amazon Studios), brings us a most challenging week during that heyday--with I Love Lucy at the height of its popularity, and Ball (portrayed by Nicole Kidman) well established for a long reign as the queen of TV comedy. It’s a week--with some flashback context provided--when Ball and her husband, I Love Lucy co-star and behind-the-scenes genius Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), are in the throes of much uncertainty and anxiety.
For one, Ball has doubts about her husband’s fidelity. Then there’s the matter of her pregnancy with Ball and Arnaz trying to convince CBS and skittish sponsors to let her be expectant on the show. And looming even larger is the emerging accusation that Ball is a communist, which could be the death knell for I Love Lucy during the dark McCarthyism chapter in our history.
Supporting characters in Being the Ricardos include I Love Lucy writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy), showrunner Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), and of course Vivian Vance who played Ethel Mertz in the show (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley a.k.a. Fred Mertz (J.K. Simmons).
Sorkin turned to cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC to lens Being the Ricardos. The two are hardly strangers as Cronenweth shot The Social Network, written by Sorkin and directed by David Fincher. Technically on that film, Cronenweth also collaborated with Sorkin as a director--albeit briefly. Fincher gave Sorkin the opportunity to direct the last shot of The Social Network.
Being the Ricardos, though, marks the first full Sorkin-directed feature shot by Cronenweth, a two-time Best Cinematography Oscar nominee, both coming for Fincher films The Social Network in 2011 and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2012.
Cronenweth was drawn to the prospect of working with writer-director Sorkin. Being the Ricardos is Sorkin’s third feature as a director, the first two being Molly’s Game and The Trial of the Chicago 7. Cronenweth related that Sorkin pitched him on lensing Being the Ricardos to help continue what’s been a successful, enlightening run in the director’s chair. Cronenweth said he couldn’t resist such an invitation from a consummate storyteller. Also alluring was the chance to delve into the 1950s’ I Love Lucy era which was of significance to Cronenweth because of his family lineage. His grandfather, Edward Cronenweth, was a Hollywood portrait photographer at the time--and the last shooter to receive an Oscar for his still photography. And Jeff Cronenweth’s father, Jordan Cronenweth, ASC was a camera assistant during that stretch, going on to become a revered cinematographer, winning an ASC Award and nominated for an Oscar for Peggy Sue Got Married, and getting a Best Cinematography BAFTA Award for Bladerunner. Both Jordan and Edward at one time or another crossed paths professionally with the Desilu studio headed by Arnaz and Ball.
Further appealing to Cronenweth was the chance to explore the lives of Ball and Arnaz. Most telling to the DP was Sorkin’s structuring of Being the Ricardos as a color feature but with select black-and-white scenes--not recreating I Love Lucy but rather bringing to life what Ball would envision for the series as she explored comedic and staging options. Cronenweth observed that this use of black-and-white cinematography definitively told him that this movie wasn’t about I Love Lucy but rather Ball and Arnaz, peeling back layers of the couple to reveal their relationship, their creative and business mettle, and their genius.
Sorkin and Cronenweth went the black-and-white route when, for example, Ball is at a table read for an episode. Her imagination is sparked and she instantly recognizes what the necessary beats and pacing should be in order for a particular scene to realize its full potential. What Ball sees in her mind plays out in black and white as if brought to a planned scene for I Love Lucy. In another instance there is no script but merely cards on a wall outlining a premise, prompting Ball to hash out what became a classic scene in which she stomps grapes in an Italian vineyard.
We also see in black-and-white splendor what Ball re-imagines for a scene when Fred and Ethel are sitting side by side on a short piano bench, jockeying for position, elbowing each other as they take turns falling off their perch to great comedic effect--far funnier than what the original I Love Lucy script called for. These black-and-white scenes in Being the Ricardos underscored Ball’s comic innovation, her uncanny sense of what makes a scene work--and gives rise to the notion that in a more progressive era she would have been a masterful director, not just of her own show but others of her own choosing. Cronenweth added that Ball and Arnaz were prolific TV producers at Desilu, with Ball giving the green light to the visionary Star Trek series.
Cronenweth continued that Karl Freund, ASC, who photographed I Love Lucy, was an innovator in his own right, coming up with the famed show’s look because it was the best that technology could afford him at that time. Cronenweth took the liberty, though, to shoot the black-and-white sequences in Being the Ricardos with a little more contrast and more highlights. This, he reasoned, would be more relatable to “a modern audience far more evolved than an audience from the 1950s just getting television for the first time.”
Cronenweth was also keenly aware that I Love Lucy presented unique challenges in terms of presenting it in the context of Being the Ricardos. “In general when doing a period piece, there are choices to make along the way. How do you want to present things without making a parody of that era? You want the audience to believe they are in the era that the characters are living in.” But Being the Ricardos went beyond that because so many generations have a measure of familiarity with that specific era given the popularity of I Love Lucy.
Then there was the challenge of scenes flashing back to when Ball and Arnaz first met 10 years earlier. Cronenweth hearkened back to his grandfather’s portrait photography for Columbia Studios as a source of creative inspiration. The younger Cronenweth described that style--with hard isolating light and strong backlight--as “fashion noir.” Adopting that “forced style,” said Cronenweth helped to differentiate that era from that of I Love Lucy in its prime.
Cronenweth added that he also had to deal with the inherent challenge of a Sorkin script. “You’re going to have actors talking nonstop and over each other. It’s the same situation we had on The Social Network,” observed Cronenweth. “There are certain sequences where due to the interaction of the dialogue you have to shoot both sides of the conversation at the same time. Otherwise it’s too editorially challenging to get things lined up. You have to design, structure and block a scene out so you can get the visual style you want. You keep the integrity of that, make it dramatic to serve the story and then shoot in two different directions.”
For the lion’s share of Being the Ricardos, namely the color scenes, Cronenweth went with RED Ranger cameras, paired with ARRI DNA glass for a vintage feel. For the black-and-white scenes, the DP opted for the RED Monochrome camera just as Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC did for Mank.
The dynamic on set proved most memorable for Cronenweth. “Everybody had an experience with I Love Lucy in one way or another. We were all kind of connected by that. The script was so well conceived, the cast so talented and generous. It was one of those rare experiences where every department kind of lined up with a lot of integrity and caring. The third, fourth, fifth grip, whoever, were all invested. Everyday on the set we got to witness this brilliance being made, a creative ball of force that keeps moving forward. It takes a team to make any movie. But somehow the chemistry in this one was extra special.”
Cronenweth also connected with Being the Ricardos star Kidman who wanted to separately do a PSA to get people to return to movie theaters. She partnered with AMC theaters on the project, with Jeff Cronenweth and brother Tim directing. The siblings operate as a commercial/branded content directing team under The Cronenweths moniker via production house Wondros Collective. In the PSA from creative agency Barkley, Kidman talks about her childhood, growing up at cinema houses and what the movie-going experience has meant to her. The spot has gained major exposure, running at the beginning of every movie shown at AMC theaters, as well as on TV and online.
Hank Corwin, ACE
Like Jeff Cronenweth, editor Hank Corwin is a two-time Oscar nominee whose experience also encompasses commercialmaking. Both of Corwin’s Academy Award nods for Best Editing have come for films from writer/director Adam McKay--The Big Short in 2016 and Vice in 2019. Corwin is now again in the awards conversation for another McKay feature, Don’t Look Up (Netflix), a satire with plenty of laughs and an underlying seriousness in which a planet-destroying comet is on a collision course with Earth--yet the perilous problem doesn’t seem to rank as a top priority for the political powers that be or the public at large. The parallels to global warming and the COVID-19 pandemic, in which science isn’t being heeded, are all too real. Yet the satirical McKay manages to keep us entertained somehow in the face of impending doom.
Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio star as astronomers who discover the comet, try to sound the alert but to no avail. Not even the President of the United States, played by Meryl Streep, and her chief of staff (Jonah Hill) seems all that concerned. And the media too detour into audience-building diversions as, for example, morning talk show hosts (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett) can’t see the forest from the trees with Blanchett’s character more concerned with DiCaprio being a smoking hot astronomer. He becomes a social media sensation while Lawrence is reduced in the public view to being a hysterical alarmist. The stellar cast also includes Timothee Chalamet, Mark Rylance, Rob Morgan, Ariana Grande and Michael Chiklis.
Satire can be a delicate balance but helping to make it doable, said Corwin, is McKay’s nature as a collaborator which makes an editor “feel safe.” Corwin added, “If you try things, you’re not going to get in trouble. That sounds so elemental but if you’re a composer, an editor, a writer, you’re always exposing yourself. Adam is very kind and very generous even when he doesn’t agree with you. He’s willing to get rid of his own sacred cows as well.” Corwin described McKay as “very fair, very impartial. His opinions don’t necessarily matter more than ours if what we’re doing is working.”
Corwin said that the editing process entails at times a working triumvirate--himself, McKay and composer Nicholas Britell. Corwin likens their coming together to a riff among jazz musicians, with Britell at the keyboard offering a musical element that, for instance, underscores an emotion that Corwin might like to bring to a certain scene. They go back and forth, grappling with how to best do justice to the story and characters.
Corwin shared that he and Britell didn’t at first see Don’t Look Up as a comedy, McKay was willing to let them experiment along those lines but Corwin then realized that the film “almost demanded comedic elements.” The editor explained that the last 20 minutes are ultimately where the film goes. “In searching for the right tone, we found that if we were too serious initially, then the last 20 minutes didn’t land the way we wanted.”
Helping to reach that destination, though, was Corwin adroitly incorporating footage of nature--whales, hippos, other members of the animal kingdom, reflecting the need of species to breed, to propagate, to protect their young. We also see such scenes as an ocean wave breaking against the rocks. This nature footage juxtaposes with the absurdity and insanity at times of human behavior as we get glimpses of wildlife reality, creatures who will be impacted adversely by that absurdity, bringing an eye-opening perspective to what’s happening in the story. “We wanted to show what was at stake,” related Corwin who found speaking to a number of scientists enlightening--informing his edit to an extent. Scientists feel like their own cries have been cast into the wilderness, said Corwin who in that context felt it was “very important to show very basic elemental physical nature” which represents the truth and reality that hang in the balance.
As for his biggest takeaway from working on Don’t Look Up, Corwin described it as “a very spiritual experience. I dealt out of necessity with the human comedy. Your mind stretches when you work on something like this. I felt ultimately much closer to the way the physical universe works. And that merged with some kind of concept of divinity and humility. This is maybe the most spiritual movie I’ve ever worked on.”
Corwin’s alluded to pedigree in commercials via his Lost Planet studio has impacted his approach to features. “I come from commercials, done like a gazillion music videos. In commercials I always thought symbolically you have to create a great piece of communication like a haiku, almost like a fragment of a poem. When I got into feature films, I found I looked at every shot that way. It means something to me, a subtext for almost everything I do. When bringing two shots together with a piece of music, hopefully the sum total is much bigger than the parts. I got this from commercials.”
This is the seventh installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022.