All the Magician’s Tricks: DP Brandon Trost on The Disaster Artist
In Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, Jason Schwartzman plays a precocious prep school student whose interests include staging age-inappropriate plays like Serpico. Rushmore’s crew had its own precocious teenager in 16-year-old Brandon Trost, who worked on the film as an assistant to his dad/special effects coordinator, Ron.
“I grew up on set with my dad. I’ve never had a job outside of the film industry,” said Trost, who was working on set by the age of 12. “You would think that growing up in movies would ruin the magic for you, because you know everything that goes into putting a movie together. But for me, it did the opposite. It was like being a kid and having a magician show you how to do all their tricks.”
Trost’s lineage of movie magicians stretches back even further than his dad. His maternal great-grandfather was a stuntman. His grandfather was an assistant director who worked on Thief, The King of Comedy and Unforgiven, and his grandmother served as a production coordinator and stuntwoman, doubling for Angie Dickinson. Trost’s brother is now an indie filmmaker and actor. His sister is a costume designer who recently worked on HBO’s Vice Principals.
At his dad’s suggestion, Trost eventually shifted his focus to cinematography and in the early aughts he began shooting in earnest by “saying yes to everything.” Since then Trost has amassed an eclectic filmography ranging from the insanity of Crank: High Voltage to a pair of Rob Zombie horror flicks to a host of comedies including This Is The End, Neighbors, and MacGruber.
Trost’s latest is The Disaster Artist, a James Franco-directed look at the making of the midnight movie favorite The Room. Based on the memoir co-written by actor Greg Sestero, The Disaster Artist focuses on the unlikely friendship between Sestero (played by Dave Franco) and mysterious “auteur” Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) as they craft a movie frequently listed among the worst ever created.
Trost spoke to Filmmaker about how he made The Disaster Artist feel analog despite his digital tools, how he looked to The Wrestler for inspiration, and how he bought his first car with money earned playing a rocket-launcher wielding Vietnam soldier in Rushmore.
Filmmaker: When you were working with your dad growing up, would you just do movies in the summer or were you, like, not going to school?
Trost: If it was the summertime, I was almost always on a movie with my dad. I remember working on Kazaam in the summer, where Shaquille O’Neal played a genie that comes out of a boombox and raps. That was super fun.
But there were times when [my siblings and I] were living with my dad — he was a single dad for a portion of our youth — and we would go with him on location [during the school year]. We’d get all of our homework for the month or two that we would be gone and we would take it with us, do it all and then come back to our school when the movie was over. I worked with my dad on Rushmore and that wasn’t during the summertime. I was 16 and I was sort of a ghost crewmember for the entire shoot. I loved it.
Filmmaker: True or false, you are in both Kazaam and Rushmore?
Trost: That’s true. In Rushmore I’m a Vietnamese soldier who runs up in the play at the end of the movie with a rocket launcher and I fire a rocket and blow this guy out of a tower. I think my dad talked them into giving me stunt pay because technically I was firing off a pyrotechnic. That literally bought me my first car. Granted, the car was like $500. (laughs) I loved working on that movie. Me and Jason Schwartzman were the same age and we’d hang out and were buddies on the movie. From my perspective, it was just another movie that my dad was doing. I hadn’t seen Bottle Rocket. But you could tell something special was happening on that movie. That was one of the experiences as a kid that cemented the idea that working on movies was what I wanted to do.
Filmmaker: And your dad was on The Disaster Artist with you.
Trost: He was. We actually work together often. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a position where I can put my hand up and suggest my dad for gigs. But it’s not just because he’s my dad. He’s fantastic at what he does and he’s super safe, so it’s an easy sell. I brought him in for Neighbors, so he’s been on the radar of the Seth Rogen camp ever since and he’s done a bunch of movies with them. It’s the best. I come to work and my first hug of the day is with my dad on set.
Filmmaker: Had you seen The Room before becoming involved with The Disaster Artist?
Trost: I had seen it, but I mostly knew it from the billboards [that Tommy Wiseau put up in Los Angeles to promote the movie]. I used to drive by the billboard on Highland every single day and it was there for five years. So I was always super aware of The Room. Once I knew The Disaster Artist was coming up, I listened to the audio book, which is the way to go. Greg Sestero’s impression of Tommy may even rival James’s. We also had access to Greg when we were shooting, so we could ask him anything we wanted.
Filmmaker: You recreate quite a few scenes from The Room, where you’re matching the exact lighting and framing from the original movie. Did you track down The Room’s DP to figure out what type of lenses or lights were used?
Trost: You know, I didn’t. Maybe I should have. (laughs) It was actually three DPs that shot The Room. There was the first one, who we used as a model for the character that Paul Scheer plays. There was another one, Todd Barron, who you see in the movie in the scene when the van pulls up to pick up Greg, and Tommy says, “This is Todd and Todd’s friend and Todd’s other friend.” Then there was also a guy in the middle who shot for like a week.
Filmmaker: What other research materials were you able to get your hands on?
Trost: I had access to a bunch of behind the scenes footage that was shot on the set of The Room, so I could see what lights and lenses they were using. And I used to work on the same size movies when I was first starting out, so I knew what you’d use on that type of movie. You’d have some beat up old Fresnel units, a couple of Kinos, and maybe like a Zip Light. So I would use those lights as set dressing on The Disaster Artist, but also to light the scenes.
I have friends who worked on The Room and I also talked to them about it. My buddy Jesse Feldman was a 2nd AC on The Room and I actually hired him to work on The Disaster Artist as our second camera operator and to shoot second unit. There were a couple of people who worked on The Room who also worked on The Disaster Artist, which was kind of an extra layer of meta on top of the whole experience. A lot of the people playing The Room crew in the movie were friends of mine. Half of those people are part of my usual crew, but they weren’t working on The Disaster Artist, so I brought them in to be extras so that they could operate the camera and look like they knew what they were doing.
Filmmaker: There’s this great montage before the end credits that compares scenes from The Room side-by-side with The Disaster Artist’s recreations. How much of The Room did you actually reshoot?
Trost: I’d say maybe 20 to 25 minutes. We did more than what ended up in the movie. We didn’t have a lot of time to do those recreations. We only had two weeks of our schedule to shoot everything that had to do with filming The Room. We had all these big scenes to blast through. So we had to kind of earn time to shoot the recreations. They would always be [listed on the call sheet] as “time permitting.” Every single day. So we’d haul ass through our day and then we’d get to do a scene or two [of Room recreations] at the end of the day. It was kind of like a reward for us because they were so fun.
When we were winding down at the end of the day I’d send my gaffer and a grip over with a clip from The Room and tell them to rough in the lights. Then we’d all go over and play back the scene a couple of times off a laptop and try to match the timing. We got pretty close. Not all of them are perfect, but we couldn’t spend all day doing them. We shot a lot of The Disaster Artist with practicals, so those recreations were oddly the most detailed lighting we did in the whole movie.
Filmmaker: Was the plan always to put those side-by-side scenes at the end of the movie?
Trost: It wasn’t, actually. We knew that some of it would be used for the premiere scene at the end of the movie, but we didn’t know what was going to make the cut so we just kept shooting basically the “greatest hits” of The Room. Those side-by-sides weren’t in the first cut I saw, but I’m so happy they put them in. It’s like a little treat at the end of the movie.
Filmmaker: I worked on two super low-budget James Franco movies shot in Ohio and he seemed to have a little bit of Tommy Wiseau in him in terms of doing things with a certain amount of eccentricity. Maybe that’s what attracted him to this material.
Trost: He was great to work with. He was in character the whole time he was directing. (laughs) He kept the voice between takes. He would be “James,” but he would be speaking with the Tommy voice and the accent. I’d shot three movies with James [as an actor] so we knew each other. James’s movies, like the ones you are talking about working on, are all very small and very fast and he wouldn’t always have time to prep. He would just dive in and make a movie. But on The Disaster Artist, James really got super focused and the results show it.
When The Disaster Artist came around, James went to [producing partners] Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to figure out how to get the movie made and they said they would make it with him, but he was going to have to make it just like a normal movie. So I kind of came with the package along with Seth and Evan.
Filmmaker: Let’s dig into a few tech details. You shot with Red Epic Dragons, but rated the camera at 3200 ISO instead of the standard 800 ISO. Maybe it’s because you came up working on low budget digital features, but you’ve always seemed to have this willingness to push the boundaries of digital cameras.
Trost: The movie that we leaned into the most for the look of The Disaster Artist was The Wrestler. That was our guidebook, which is a little crazy because we were basically making a comedy and The Wrestler is anything but a comedy. I wanted our movie to look analog. The Wrestler was shot on 16mm, but honestly shooting film these days is a pain in the ass. The infrastructure is not there anymore in terms of getting stuff processed, especially for smaller movies. I haven’t shot a movie on film since 2009. I’d love to do it again, but it’s getting harder and harder. So I’m desperately trying to find that analog formula for these digital cameras and what I love about shooting at 3200 ISO is that it tears the sensor apart a little bit. It softens the image without having the look of a diffusion filter in front of the lens. Granted, there is noise that comes with the ISO being that high, but I ended up adding a faux film grain in the DI on top of that anyway. I also like using older anamorphic lenses — the funkier they are, the better. It adds more texture to the image.
Filmmaker: You shot most of the movie on Panavision C series anamorphics, which date back to the late 1960s.
Trost: I also had Guy McVicker, the lens tech at Panavision Hollywood, detune the lenses. I fell in love with this look that Greig Fraser used for several sequences on Killing Them Softly where the bokeh in the background has a different, smeary quality.
Filmmaker: How do you adjust a lens to do that?
Trost: Guy calls it an “anamorphic twist.” Basically he takes an element in the back of the lens and offsets it.
Filmmaker: And it doesn’t affect what’s in focus?
Trost: It doesn’t affect what’s in focus, it only affects what’s out of focus. It takes the oval bokeh you get from your traditional anamorphic and smears it at a [diagonal[ angle. I did it to all the lenses.
Filmmaker: All of them? So you went all in.
Trost: Yeah, I dove in. I did it for every single lens. The effect was a little more pronounced when Greig Fraser did it because I think he used [faster lenses]. The more you open up your lens, the more that look stands out. On these C series lenses I had to shoot at a T2.8 or a T2.8 1/3 or else the lenses fell apart. They’re older lenses, so they’re not the best when you shoot them wide open.
Filmmaker: What did you use the MAP 55 for? It’s a close focus anamorphic lens, but on Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch they used that lens for everything from wide day exteriors to actor close-ups.
Trost: Almost everything that’s a close-up in The Disaster Artist was shot on the MAP 55. I love that lens. I discovered it when I was testing for a movie called The Diary of a Teenage Girl. I shot 90 percent of Diary with just that lens. With Disaster Artist I ended up shooting a lot of the movie on [the C series] 35mm, because most of the movie was handheld with me [operating] in the middle of the action, fishing around and finding the scene as it took place. But just about anytime there’s a close-up or a single on somebody, it’s the MAP 55. I shot most of the movie on those two lenses.
Filmmaker: You’ve talked about how difficult it was to recreate the “bad lighting” from The Room. Was it hard to make those rooftop greenscreen shots look so wonky?
Trost: All we had to do was recreate the exact set that they used originally, which was the parking lot of the [rental house and studio] Birns & Sawyer. We had many photos of it and we just copied it. I didn’t light that greenscreen with any care at all. I just lit it like I thought they would’ve [on The Room]. The funny part is that The Room takes place in San Francisco, but they shot it all in LA. So they shot that rooftop scene in LA with greenscreen, but then they shot the plates on the roof of a building that Tommy owned in San Francisco to get those views. When the crew got there, they were like “Why didn’t we just shoot the scene on this rooftop?”
Filmmaker: There’s a funny bit in the movie that’s similar, where they’re shooting in an alley set at Birns & Sawyer that looks exactly like a real alley about 10 feet from the stage.
Trost: All the things in The Disaster Artist that seem too crazy are the most accurate stuff. At the real Birns & Sawyer, that alley was outside just like that. I actually used to go to Birns & Sawyer to rent specialty lenses. It’s been taken over by a post house now, so we couldn’t shoot [The Disaster Artist] there, but we ended up shooting at a studio that was literally one block away from the original Birns & Sawyer.
Filmmaker: The Disaster Artist got an IMAX release. This isn’t your typical IMAX movie. Did you have to put together a special IMAX version?
Trost: No. (laughs) I didn’t even know that was happening until I saw it advertised. It was a total surprise. But there’s no difference [in the IMAX version]. It’s the same DCP on a bigger screen.
Filmmaker: How long was your shoot? I feel like The Room probably had twice your shooting schedule. It shot for something like 50 days.
Trost: I think we had 27 days, which is not a lot of time to be honest. We had a lot of locations. It was weirdly a very big “little” movie, but we still shot some of it very low-key. When we shot the scene where Greg sees The Room billboard while he’s driving, we’d wait for a red light and I would walk out with the camera and Dave [Franco] would roll the window down and react. Then I’d haul ass to the side of the street so the traffic could get through. That’s how we shot that whole sequence — between red lights.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.