“Style is the Culmination of Your Mistakes”: Cinematographer Sean Porter on Green Room
Early in Green Room – before the carnage ramps its way toward a violent, chaotic crescendo – there’s a close-up of a record player spinning haplessly in the foreground while the out-of-focus shape of Anton Yelchin’s punk bassist stirs in the background’s dawn light. The opening act of Green Room is replete with these moments of lyricism, the culmination of which amplify the tragedy when the machetes are unsheathed and the dogs unleashed. When the lives of Yelchin’s bandmates are extinguished, we feel the weight of it because we’ve glimpsed the poetry, the slivers of grace, within them.
Set largely at a remote skinhead compound, Green Room finds a troupe of punk rockers called The Ain’t Rights trapped in the venue’s titular space when they attempt to report a murder. The film marks the follow-up to writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s 2013 breakthrough Blue Ruin. Saulnier shot that movie himself. Here he turns over the eyepiece to Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter cinematographer Sean Porter, who spoke to Filmmaker about his preference for creating looks in-camera, seeing lighting from the actor’s point of view, and how style is the accumulation of the rules you break.
Filmmaker: An image in Green Room that really struck me was this shot of a record player silently spinning in the foreground early in the film. I love how the movie spends some time with these characters rather than just pushing the momentum forward toward the siege.
Porter: There were certain things from Jeremy’s past experiences — he was in a band and he’s been in the punk scene for a long time — that really stuck with him and that shot was totally one of them. It actually took a little bit of finessing to get it to look exactly like what was in Jeremy’s brain. We didn’t need to see that shot necessarily [to advance the plot] and the same argument can be made for the scene in the van [as the band travels to its fateful gig], where it’s just the group on the road and the wind is blowing in their hair and there’s a lightness to it. I think it’s actually the only moment we shot handheld in the entire film. Arguably that [information] could’ve been conveyed with one shot from the side of the road of the van going by, but I think it was important to enter the band’s world and see what their lives have been like for the last six months on the road. We shot [the film’s early scenes at the beginning of the schedule] and I think that was the right call. If we had started in the green room it would’ve put a lot of stress on both Jeremy and the actors to show up and automatically be in this emotional space, which I think they needed some time to work up to.
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot the film? Was the interior of the venue a build?
Porter: It wasn’t a proper soundstage by any means, but production designer Ryan Warren Smith and his team built the entire [interior of the venue] from top to bottom inside this oversized warehouse. We shot all the exteriors within an hour or an hour-and-a-half drive of the city center of Portland, Oregon. Our production office was actually in Clackamas County, which is just southeast of Portland, and that’s where the warehouse [stage] was.
Once we knew it was going to be a build we didn’t want to treat it like a conventional studio set. What that meant was even though Ryan built us a lot of flyaway components to the set we rarely if ever used them. We didn’t cheat. So if we were shooting in the van, then the camera had to fit in the van with all the actors. If all of a sudden we had moved to a studio and clearly the camera was 25 feet back in order to get a three shot, there’s a falseness to that and I think that even though it might not be something that an audience consciously picks out, I think subconsciously it affects them. They feel the unreality of the environment.
Filmmaker: How were the warehouse sets laid out? Were there multiple contained sets or did the rooms connect?
Porter: At any moment the actors could’ve run out the green room door and I could’ve followed them with a camera through the entire space. For us it was all about authenticity and naturalism. There could’ve definitely been pushback to that. Producers could’ve said, “It’s going to cost us so much more [to construct the sets this way]. Let’s just build the green room and maybe we can find a practical venue and marry it all together later.” I give Jeremy a lot of props for sticking to his guns. Jeremy had all this blocking that had been in his head for so long and when we started looking at practical locations those pieces just didn’t fit in any of those spaces. I remember one particular location that was going to kind of work if we flipped everything and even then Jeremy was like, “I can’t totally rationalize it, but I know somewhere in the script that is going to bite me and I just can’t do it.” So we just built the thing.
Filmmaker: A significant portion of the movie is spent within the confines of the club’s green room. How do keep that space from feeling visually redundant?
Porter: That was a scary prospect, but the script defines these various stages [that the room goes through]. So rather than me or Jeremy [arbitrarily] saying, “For this scene we’re going to make things a little bit contrastier,” Jeremy built things into the script that allowed changes to happen naturally — lamps get knocked over, the kids pull fluorescent tubes out of their sockets, the power goes out. The room is constantly in a state of flux and that allowed us to have lighting that really never stayed the same.
The color temp was a big deal to nail for the green room. There are some practical (warm) sources — the vanity, the lamp — and all of those we weren’t going to muck with too much. So we had to find the right fluorescent choice that would marry with those practicals. My gaffer and I spent almost an entire day testing fluorescent tubes. I told him to go to the rental store and then go to Home Depot and get every four foot fluorescent tube they make and we went through every single one. We wanted to find that right tube that had the right green spike to give me a skin tone that was usable but also felt a little industrial, a little sickly.
Filmmaker: With Jeremy being a gifted cinematographer in his own right, what was your prep like? Did you storyboard many sequences or shotlist in detail?
Porter: On some of the more detailed action sequences we did board some stuff. I’m a horrific artist but I’ve found that even some rudimentary sketches can speak volumes. Once you get boards up, even if it’s a stick figure, people get the sense of scale, they get the framing, and they get where everyone is in relation to each other. We also did a fair number of overheads and that’s more about camera placement and blocking because you can’t always explain that with storyboards.
My best prep experiences are very intensive and very close to the director and we go through every nut and bolt. Then when I show up to set I try to leave all that stuff in the car. Once I’m on set I want to be completely open to that magic that only happens when you get a bunch of humans in a room together. We’re not robots. We aren’t going to do everything exactly the way that we planned. There’s going to be these moments of synergy and magic.
Every film I do is so different. I’ve worked with directors who don’t really do any prep — or I should say they do a different kind of prep. They do a lot of prep with their actors and with locations, but all the shot decisions are made on the day with everyone there, which can be its own level of stress but also can be very freeing. Jeremy definitely comes from a more meticulous approach. We did shotlist most of the film, but as I go throughout my years of doing this — and I think directors feel the same way — there’s only so many times you can write down “medium two shot.” Sometimes it can feel like an effort in futility to sit there and write out 500 shots, but what we can also do is spend a lot of time thinking about the space and the relationship of the characters in that space and doing lots and lots of tests.
Filmmaker: What types of things did you test for Green Room?
Porter: A good chunk of prep was spent on things like testing out the fire extinguishers and finding the right ratio of chemicals that people could actually stand to be in the room with (laughs) and how fast it dissipates and how to augment that with a fogger. All of these really technical details. Same goes for all of the make-up effects and for dealing with the dogs. We used a combination of human controlled dog puppets, animatronic dogs, VFX, and live dogs. Adding all of those elements together takes a lot of planning, a lot of foresight, and a lot of tests. I did way more tests for Green Room than I’ve done on any other film.
Filmmaker: What are you looking for when you do your camera tests? How much is simply the image making capability and how much is practicality — for example, a Red Dragon is physically smaller than an Alexa and you’re working on a show set in confined spaces.
Porter: I do like to put a lot of time into camera tests. Cameras are subjective in the way they interpret the world. They aren’t all the same sensors or color sciences. They’re all looking at the same thing and rendering it substantially differently. So when I’m starting prep on a film, I want to look at how each of these cameras renders the world that I want to show. Ergonomics are definitely a factor, but image is still number one. There’s a reason [filmmakers] used to shoot with Technicolor cameras — these giant, insane animals that they’d have to deal with on set — and it’s because getting the best image was everything.
I try to have a level playing field when testing, even though at this point I’d say I’m fairly biased toward Arri products. But I’ve owned a Red One. I’ve owned an Epic. And I want to give that technology a shot because in the right time and place it can do good work. Interestingly enough, out of the box the Red footage was probably closer to what I had pictured in my head in terms of the aesthetic quality I wanted for Green Room. The issue was that any time I would do latitude tests or exposure tests in less than ideal situations, the Arri footage just consistently shone. On a perfectly exposed image not only are [Red and Alexa] very similar but sometimes the Red had an advantage, especially if you want this grungy, dirty look to it. But even with the Dragon sensor, if I made any mistakes in the exposure there was just so much stuff that I couldn’t recover. In those situations, it doesn’t matter how small the camera is or the resolution. I need that latitude so we decided to go with the Alexa classic.
Ironically, because I was a little bit more in favor of the original color and quality I was getting out of the Red, the goal was actually to make the Alexa a little less perfect and a little more like the Red. We used a pretty extensive filter array, which I don’t typically do. We ended up going through a bunch of tests to find what I eventually called “the Red filter” — which was basically using a light tobacco filter as a way to dumb down the color abilities of the Alexa and find a more muted palette. Once we added that filter all of a sudden we started to see this world the way we wanted to before even getting to the color grading.
Filmmaker: Did you do lens tests as well?
Porter: You wouldn’t catch Jeremy or I dead with an Alexa with Master Primes on it. We’re just not interested in that level of perfect-ness. We want things to be a little beat up around the edges and have some character. I’ve spent a couple of years sourcing the best set of Cooke S2s and S3s that I could find and I had them rehoused by a company called TLS in the UK. It was a huge ordeal and they had them for like a year, but I got them back shortly before we started Green Room and it was pretty exciting to test them up against Leicas and the S4s and all these newer offerings. The early Cookes have the right amount of sharpness, but they also make people look beautiful in an interesting way and not like you just put a diffusion filter in front of the lens.
Filmmaker: Going back to that tobacco filter, did you consider shooting the Alexa in a more neutral way and then dialing that look in during the Digital Intermediate?
Porter: I grew up right on the fringes of the introduction of digital as a serous medium for shooting and right at the sunsetting of film as a viable indie medium. So I was shooting and AC-ing in both starting out. I had the opportunity to shoot this 35mm short film and the director and I talked a lot about the look and I said “We should totally cross process on this film. It would look super beautiful.” Anyone who has shot reversal film cross process knows that, yes, it has an amazing look but it also has about three stops of latitude and if you don’t get your exposure just absolutely dead on you either have something that’s unusable because it’s too bright or unusable because it’s too dark. When we were reviewing the dailies at the DI facility, of course somebody made the comment, “Why didn’t we just [create that look] here?” and my ego was just crushed. And I said, “If anyone ever lets me shoot 35mm again, I promise I’ll shoot it clean and be safe.” And then I never lived up to that promise. (laughs) I’m always pushing boundaries and I think that’s part of the process of finding new ways to look at the world. With the Alexa — or any digital camera — I’m always rating it at totally not what they say you should and I’m always pushing the shoulder or the toe and just trying to get something that’s intriguing and interesting to me.
Those instinctual decisions, whether good or bad, lead to something. I can’t remember where I heard this, but style is the culmination of your mistakes. We all know how you’re supposed to do things, but if you either deliberately or accidentally disregard some of those rules or conventional wisdom about image making – and you repeatedly do so — that becomes your style.
Filmmaker: The Alexa is typically rated at 800 ISO. What did you rate it at?
Porter: 1600. We went to some insanely dark places on Green Room, as dark as I’ve ever gone with that camera. There was one scene that I didn’t even dare to meter, where all the lights are out because the power has been cut off. There’s no light at all in the room except for a lighter and Tiger (played by Callum Turner) discovers a light coming from beneath the floor. I think we ended up doing it using an actual lighter — I’m sure we had the butane all the way up — through a 2’ x 3’ diffusion frame and that was Callum’s key. Yes, I could’ve lit Callum with an Inky bounced into muslin at a totally reasonable stop and we could’ve pulled that all the way down in the DI and gotten maybe something similar. So I can’t give you a good reason why I didn’t do that other than that it’s ultimately about the energy on set and where the actors are emotionally. If the scene calls for the power to be out and for these very scared kids to sit in a dark room, and I come in there with a bunch of light that has an effect on everybody in the room, especially the actors.
I learned this trick where, after I finish lighting a space, I’ll move the stand-in aside and I’ll always go in and look around. We rarely acknowledge what we are putting these actors through. We just say, “Well, this is what’s going to look awesome. Deal with it.” You learn a lot by standing on the actor’s tape mark and looking around. It has changed the way I light and the way I think about shooting.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.