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“A Love Letter to Moms Everywhere”: DP Sean McElwee on Fun Mom Dinner

Fun Mom Dinner

An innocuous night out among four women turns silly, dark and ultimately touching in Fun Mom Dinner. With a cast that includes Molly Shannon, Toni Collette and Adam Scott, the film marks the feature debut of director Alethea Jones. Jones hired Sean McElwee – who shot last year’s Morris From America, another Sundance premiere – to DP the film. McElwee spoke with Filmmaker ahead of the film’s premiere about the earnest-yet-edgy approach he and Jones took to this story. Fun Mom Dinner makes it world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

McElwee: My agent sent me the script. It was an incredibly funny and touching read and I immediately said I was very interested in the project. Two days later I met with Naomi and Alethea and the three of us instantly hit it off – I think we kind of all knew pretty quickly that we could work very well together and had similar thoughts about the script. I think a week later we were in prep. It all came together very quickly.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

McElwee: Alethea and I had always talked, from the beginning, about this gradual shift in the aesthetic as the film progressed and the women delved further into their Fun Mom night. What starts off as a very bright, colorful and meticulously composed film becomes a bit darker, desaturated and looser, utilizing a lot more handheld camerawork.

Additionally, Alethea and I had always appreciated how the script never strayed from sentiment – it was never afraid to be genuine and earnest when it came to its main characters (which is rare in comedies, I think). This script is a love letter to moms everywhere and we wanted to make sure that showed up on the screen. So visually, through framing, color and shot selection, we made sure to never treat the material cynically, and always come from a place of genuine emotion.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

McElwee: Because there is so much talk in the script about Sixteen Candles, clearly we were influenced by romantic comedies from the ’80s. But we wanted to give this film (especially as it progresses) a bit more of an edge, a bit more bite – not being afraid of giving as much energy to the aesthetics as possible and not being afraid of perhaps going a bit darker exposure-wise as you see in most comedies.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

McElwee: I think overall the most challenging aspect of this film was simply having to shoot all of this material in such a short amount of time. This script not only featured a lot of children, water-work and boats, but almost every scene has at least our four main actresses in it, plus whoever else they are acting with at any given time. That’s a lot of characters to cover, even in the briefest of scenes. Luckily, we shot two cameras at all times, which saved us every day.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

McElwee: We shot Alexa (which, in my opinion, is the still the gold standard in digital acquisition) with two sets of Angenieux Zooms (due to a lot of the cross shooting we were doing, I needed duplicates of several lenses) and a set of Cooke S4 primes. We stuck to the zooms for the most part, mainly for practical purposes – we were moving very fast and being able to stay on those zooms really helped us be as efficient as possible.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

McElwee: Because our four main characters are women in their late 30s/early 40s, a soft, pleasant, but still natural look was very important for us from a lighting perspective. Even as the film progresses into a looser and almost dangerous tone, the key was to maintain that nice, soft, flattering light while still keeping with the aesthetic progression that the film takes. My gaffer, Phil Matarrese, utilizes a lot of LiteMats and Panels to create this look while also allowing us to work quickly.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

McElwee: I think the most difficult scene to pull together was the sequence towards the end of the film on the docks at the marina. I won’t give too much away but we had a lot of pages to shoot, including stunt work, all either on boats or in the water. Not to mention we were night-time dependent in the summer in Los Angeles, when you really only have about eight solid hours of night. It was a whirlwind, to say the least.

We pulled it off, not only because of the hard work and great attitudes of the cast and crew (our wonderful actresses had to jump in the San Pedro harbor at five-thirty in the morning!) but because of our tireless communication and foresight during prep. Alethea and I storyboarded that sequence and Ian, our 1st AD, made sure we were all on the same page in terms of the shot list, shooting order and practical issues with the stunt work. It was quite a challenge but, in my opinion, the most rewarding night of the shoot.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

McElwee: We shot Arri Log internally onto SxS cards, so no look was really “baked in”. We had a DIT on set, but because of how quickly we had to work, he and I only established a couple of looks to use just to keep things as simple as possible.

I am always shooting with the DI in mind, and with some budgets you simply don’t have a lot of time for color correction later, but the color team at Technicolor LA really did a great job in a short amount of time.

  • Camera: Alexa (Original Model)
  • Lenses: Angenieux Optimo Zooms, Cooke S4 Primes
  • Lighting: The Usual HMI Suspects, plus LitePanels, LiteMats, SkyPanels, sometimes through extra diffusion frames for an extra soft effect
  • Processing: Digital
  • Color Grading: Digital Intermediate, Technicolor.
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