“It’s Black or White to Me, a Frame that I Like or Don’t Like”: Drew Xanthopoulos on Lensing Discreet
With three new films on the horizon, I sat down with cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulos in the week leading up to the Berlinale World Premiere of Discreet. As part of the producing team of Discreet, I know the film intimately, and knowing also that Xanthopoulos had lensed three wildly different, challenging films in the last year alone, I wanted to learn more about how he creatively approaches his craft and new projects. (In addition to Discreet, Travis Matthews’s stark, carefully composed and mysterious thriller, he has shot Kyle Henry’s upcoming drama Rogers Park, about couples struggling to keep their love alive. And, he both shot and directed the Tribeca-premiering documentary The Sensitives.) Having worked alongside Drew in both the narrative and commercial world, and knowing he was in Austin finishing color work on The Sensitives, I was able to coerce him to my office in Austin to talk about his work on Discreet and his approach to cinematography.
Discreet has its West Coast premiere Saturday, April 8 at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the first time you heard about the project?
Xanthopoulos: I was on a plane ride back from Chicago with [actor/producer] Jonny Mars. We were, I think, on a scout or something for another feature I shot in which he starred. He hands me a single sheet of people and says, “Drew, you need to shoot this — read this now.” And it was a treatment for a really experimental, non-narrative film, kind of about conservatives in rural Texas and how there’s a lot of repressed emotions and a lot of repressed sexualities. A lot of repressed everything, kind of. I read it and said, “This sounds timely and amazing,” and I was put in touch with Travis after that.
Filmmaker: You do documentaries, you do commercials, you do branded content, you do fiction. What do you use to determine what you’re going to put your time into? How do you choose what you get involved with?
Xanthopoulos: Number one is people. That’s the most important thing — who you’re working with. You could be shoveling shit for a living, but if you’re doing it with great people, it’s the best job in the world. That was the first hard lesson I learned in this industry — to work with great people. The second thing is, I’m really drawn to work that is of the heart of the creator. It means a lot to them, it’s personal, they’re passionate about it. It’s not something they’re just trying to commercially create to up their career or whatever. It’s something they really care about. The third thing is, I really like stories that can be parables, or almost like myth — stories that are just outside of the world that you’re normally exposed to all the time. That’s what was so great about Discreet. It’s an underbelly that I’ve never seen before, never read before. Travis taps into things in that film that I’ve never thought about before. And number three, stories that have potential to reverberate in our communities, that have importance to people, to spark discussions that are challenging. God, that’s never been more important.
Filmmaker: What’s the mental shift for you, if any, between when you’re shooting a documentary and you’re shooting a fiction piece? How do you approach them differently?
Xanthopoulos: I’ve never thought about that. I mean, the kind of documentary I like shooting most, it’s all about reaction. I’m the witness there, I’m the flesh and bones, witnessing something that is ultimately representational images of what happened, right? But, I’m the flesh and bones, and somehow I need to transfer what it’s like to be there in person into a figurative medium, into a moving picture. To do that, I somehow need to set everything up so that my reaction can be felt in the camera. That’s really crucial to me. With narrative, there are moments like that for sure. I think if you’re shooting hand-held and if you’re dancing with the characters, the camera’s mobile, you’re definitely reacting to them. It’s a constant dance. If it’s not, maybe the big difference is that with documentary, you’re, at least with my experience, not choosing the perspective in the same way you are with narrative. With narrative, you have conversations about, what are the eyes of the camera? What are they? Is it a person? Is it a character that isn’t in the script? Is it omniscient? Is it spiritual? Travis and I talked about that with Discreet. You know, is the camera Jonny’s younger self? And that helps determine a lot of things; that helps determine camera height, it helps determine the camera’s movement or lack of movement. You can talk about that a little bit with documentaries, especially maybe more lyrical kind of stuff, but that’s the biggest difference in the way you shoot, to me. With documentary, when you’re shooting, you’re setting yourself up for the camera to be able to feel your reactions more. With narrative, you’re making a lot of those choices before you’re shooting, setting up the camera to have that specific perspective. Maybe that’s a difference, now that I’m like narrowing it down, because I’ve never thought about it before. In documentary, the perspective is always the filmmaker’s. In narrative, I mean, it can be anybody, so it’s making those choices to make it feel like that entity’s perspective, whatever that is. Does that make sense?
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about your process with Travis, about how you got from day one of visual prep to the first shoot day. What did that look like?
Xanthopoulos: Travis and I got on the phone and we talked a lot. I think he was fishing for what was coming into my head visually when I was just reading the script, and he was very open to ideas, which is wonderful. So, he was sort of fishing for things that I was seeing as I was reading the script, and I was giving those to him and he was responding to them in a really great way and he’d adjust a little bit too. We started by talking about specific scenes, like very emotional scenes. When Jonny’s walking the older gentleman through the woods, toward the river, I had Gus Van Sant’s Last Days in mind for that, as one potential possibility. We never shot it that way because there was a style that evolved with the film that didn’t suit that anymore. It was funny, in the very, very early stages… just juggling ideas that we ended up throwing away, even when we were very much on the same page aesthetically, like what images we liked, what tonally we liked, the sort of softness and the beauty and also an objectivity that we both really enjoy in cinema. We threw out examples to each other,to sort of try and get to the same language. Are we on the same page for what something looks like? It’s funny, there’s always nerves, though, like the first day that you are shooting tests with the director, when you’re shooting any images for their project, there’s always a nervousness. The first image that I shot, I think it was Don Swaynos against a brick wall, standing around behind the armory in Austin. I remember framing it up, I had my little viewfinder, nothing else, no monitor, framing it up very quietly, you know. Don was standing there, almost waiting and then there’s that moment when you say, “Travis, have a look.” And there’s always this worry of like, he’s going to say, “That’s not at all what I want.” And it’s fine, you roll with that, but that never happened. It never happened once in the movie, never. It was amazing how on the same page we were. He’d give adjustments that were awesome and really useful, but never once did we diverge so much that like I was on a different page than he was. That’s what made it a pretty special collaboration for me.
Filmmaker: What’s Discreet about for you?
Xanthopoulos: For me, Discreet is about a man whose chance to develop a healthy kind of intimacy was stolen from him as a child, and by the man that molested him systematically when he was a kid. And he never recovered from that, he never found reliable intimacy. So, that’s driven him to look for it in places that he can never find it, like places that give you a really cheap version of it. And the only kind of closure, the only kind of closure he can [find] is to confront the man that stole that from him, that stole his chance to develop a healthy intimacy. And when he finds him, the man’s no longer there. It’s a shell of that former person because of dementia or Alzheimer’s or something. So, all of a sudden, this guy now has to grapple with, how do I find closure with someone that isn’t there anymore, but their body’s still there. And he goes through a lot of different means to find that closure. I think he finds it in the end. I think. I haven’t seen the ending.
Filmmaker: This year you shot and also directed a documentary called The Sensitives. You shot a wonderful new film called Rogers Park for Kyle Henry and you shot Discreet for Travis Matthews. Those three films are all going to come out into the world in 2017. How are they connected? If someone, not knowing you, wanted to draw a triangle and connect to them, what would that sort of through line be for all three projects, besides Drew Xanthopoulos, cinematographer?
Xanthopoulos: I mean, they’re all really challenging projects for audiences. Travis’s film is not easy to watch — somebody dealing with confronting the darkest, deepest corners of their past. And it’s not easy to watch a documentary that asks you the question of why are you so uncomfortable with not being sure of why someone is ill? Kyle’s film is challenging because it’s doing everything that you don’t see on the big screen. It’s about people in middle age, it’s about interracial couples. They’re in Chicago. They are going through extremely relatable struggles in their relationship having to do with mental illness, having to do with being a divorced parent, having to do with just being a lonely person and not knowing how to have a real bond with someone else. Not knowing how to not be selfish when you’re in a relationship with someone. Its stories are not typically given the time on the silver screen. [The films] are all underrepresented subjects, and they spark discussion about our communities and ourselves. They hold mirrors to us in ways that I don’t think are entirely comfortable. And that’s absolutely what drew me to them, after who was involved with them.
Filmmaker: What sort of pressure do you feel on a fiction film, something like Discreet?
Xanthopoulos: I wear my emotions on my sleeve, and if I’m not crazy about a shot, the director knows it, like absolutely knows it. It’s happened a handful of times with Discreet, like there was something about the frame that just wasn’t satisfying. It’s black or white to me, a frame that I like or don’t like — there’s no gray area. It’s a good thing, usually. But, every so often, I just can’t find it and then Travis will have a simple suggestion, like “Just obscure it with the doorway a little bit and move it back like four feet.” That was it, you know, getting lost in all the elements.
Filmmaker: What was the biggest challenge shooting Discreet?
Xanthopoulos: I think the biggest challenge with Discreet, which is maybe the biggest challenge with any feature of this size, was just time. That’s all. I think over having more lights or crew or different kinds of equipment, I would have asked for more time. You set the frame, and everything is locked, and then as it’s rolling, you’re looking at it and there’s something really small that bugs you and maybe you can adjust it for the second or third take. But yeah, the luxury of time — would have been nice to have a little bit more of that. Nothing was really tough. I don’t remember that as a hard shoot. It felt very, very smooth to me.
Filmmaker: Can you talk a little bit about format, camera, lens choice and kind of talk me through the tech package, knowing again, that this is a no-budget movie?
Xanthopoulos: Yeah. The most important element with a limited budget like this was the kind of glass that we could get in front of the camera. At a certain point, all the cameras blend together. There’s not a significant difference between them, for me, especially if we have time to work with the colors, which we did. So, to me, the glass was the most important part, and we shot with super Baltar lenses. It was beautiful glass, gave it a character, gave it a texture, made it feel very filmic. The flares were beautiful, when you opened up all the way on some of those lenses, it turned really soft and fuzzy, and we actually used that for certain fantasy scenes in the film — we would shoot opened up all the way. And all the highlights became really blossomed and bloomed and got really fuzzy, and it was really cool. Everything else was extremely low tech. I mean, we used, I think, 250 watt, maybe 400 watt bulbs, and rice paper lanterns that I don’t think they were brand new — I think they were from someone’s used kit and we gaff taped them to ceilings and had dimmers and extension cords and trash bags to control the light leak from the lanterns to help direct the light. So, it was a lot of trash bags, rice paper lanterns, clothespins and gaff tape that essentially lit the movie. I don’t know that we even use a reflector board, really — maybe with a few exceptions. Most of the movie is lit, making the most of the available light and choosing the best angles for that.
For a link to listen to the full interview, please visit SOUNDCLOUD. (And as a note, the whisky discussed at the end of the interview is The Balvenie, DoubleWood Aged 12 Years.)