“The Shoot was Undoubtedly ‘A Poor Man’s Revenant‘”: DP Eric Treml on The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter at SXSW 2018
The Movie: The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter
The Plot: Accompanied by his trusty cameraman (Danny McBride), the recently divorced host of a lo-fi hunting show (James Brolin) takes his son into the wilds of North Carolina to bag his first deer on camera.
The Interviewee: Cinematographer Eric Treml. He previously collaborated with Whitetail director Jody Hill (Observe and Report, Eastbound & Down) on HBO’s Vice Principals.
Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit about your background in production. You have early credits on some big movies as part of the underwater camera team.
Treml: When I first moved to Los Angeles from Austria to become a cinematographer, I started out as a camera tech at a camera rental house, Clairmont Camera. From there I eventually got hired as a loader, 2nd AC, 1st AC, etc. Early on I got a call to do an underwater commercial in the Bahamas. Production asked me if I was a certified diver and I said yes, which wasn’t true, but I wanted to learn more about underwater cinematography and the Bahamas didn’t sound bad either. So prior to the commercial I flew to Miami, enrolled in a diving course and got certified. The commercial went really well and I connected with the amazing underwater DP Pete Romano, who owns [the underwater camera housing and lighting company] Hydroflex, and for several years he hired me on many fun and interesting shoots. What I enjoyed about underwater cinematography was the specialness of the work and footage. It also allowed me to participate in the making of high-end features and to observe top filmmakers work, from which I gained enormous insight and knowledge.
Filmmaker: For The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, break down the camera and lenses you used and why you chose them.
Treml: We used Alexa SXTs with Zeiss anamorphic Master Primes and anamorphic Optimo zooms. We also used Alexa Minis with spherical lenses cropped to 2.4:1 for our stunt rigs.
Jody Hill and I agreed early on that widescreen was the right format for Whitetail. We opted for clean high-speed anamorphic lenses with the Zeiss Master Primes, balancing the lighthearted mood of the movie while still honoring the scenic beauty of the Appalachians as their own character and backdrop. We also needed to utilize every minute of daylight and, indeed, we often would shoot well into magic hour and still get the shots done.
At first Jody insisted on shooting film and we had already prepped and shipped a film package [Arricam LTs and Arri 235s from Otto Nemenz to Asheville, NC, where the entire shoot took place. However, the circumstances of short shoot days in the deep mountains of North Carolina in the fall/winter season, the awareness that we couldn’t bring lights other than LEDs to most locations, the time it took to have the film shipped to New York for development, transferring, and editing, and then also shooting a 12-year-old first-time actor (Montana Jordan), who may need long takes, made us reconsider digital. We shot comparative quality tests and all agreed that the advantages of digital outweighed the disadvantages. So literally last minute we switched to Alexas.
Filmmaker: At the SXSW screening, Jody Hill called the movie “the poor man’s Revenant.” What were some of the difficulties of shooting out in the middle of the woods?
Treml: The shoot was undoubtedly a “poor man’s Revenant.” The conditions were similar, but we didn’t have the resources to solve issues the fast or convenient way. It was the teamwork and high morale of the participants that got us through this amazing experience.
We were confronted with harsh, inconsistent weather conditions — rain, snow, freezing temperatures, cold rivers, slippery grounds, steep hills, etc. And the locations were hard to access. Most places took an hour or more to drive to and then required hand carrying or pushing the gear to the locations. It was rarely easy. Deep in the woods or up in the mountains or far across rivers and waterfalls was the norm. Of the 42 shoot days, we had 40 walking lunches due to weather and light conditions. The locations, however, were stunning and the crew’s morale and the local safety personnel’s support were amazing. Everybody kept their enthusiasm and nothing severe happened thanks to exceptional safety precautions and great leadership.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot the footage for Brolin’s Buck Fever show, which is 1.33:1, on older cameras or did you manipulate the Alexa to get that look?
Treml: During the prep of Whitetail, Jody showed us tons of hunting footage and he wanted to emulate that lo-fi quality. When Sony generously sponsored all the electronic props for Whitetail, I asked for a consumer digital camera that I knew would get us that look. We tested different levels of low quality and quickly found the level we liked, which was a very, very low quality setting.
Filmmaker: I have no familiarity with that type of hunting show. Did you have to go down some YouTube rabbit hole watching clips of those types of shows?
Treml: Jody had researched and brought a good amount of real hunting DVDs to Asheville. Not knowing the hunting world at all, I was astounded by the seriousness and weirdness of the hunting culture shown in the DVD’s. We did go through YouTube videos as well, but the main references were Jody’s DVDs.
Filmmaker: We sometimes see the footage that Danny McBride’s character is shooting. Was Danny actually rolling that camera and did you use any of that footage?
Treml: Yes, Danny’s camera was indeed rolling and it was the same type of camera with the identical settings that we used to shoot all the other footage [for Brolin’s hunting show]. We had several of those cameras ready to be used by either Danny or the crew.
Filmmaker: What was your approach to shooting the day exteriors? Would you lug a little putt-putt generator out there?
Treml: 90% of the movie is day exterior in the deep nature of North Carolina. Consistency of lighting was permanently a challenge. Lighting was mainly working with available light. The main approach was bounce cards, a few smaller rags and negative fill, combined with battery powered LED panels for an eyelight, a fill or an edge. If the location allowed, a putt-putt would power small light sources.
Filmmaker: I feel like normally I can spot CGI animals and the movement never looks quite right. But I really couldn’t tell in this movie. So real or fake deer?
Treml: All the deer were CGI. We initially intended to shoot most of the deer practical, but during the prep we were told that it was the mating season for bucks and they get rather aggressive, which mandated the deer being CG. The well-executed CGI was thanks to Jody. He was very thorough and detailed in getting it right.
Filmmaker: Any fun stories from the scene where Brolin’s son wrecks the ATV? There’s a pretty great shot of that thing toppling end-over-end down a hill.
Treml: The wreck itself only happened once and we rolled all five of our cameras just to be sure. With all the bumps and uneven terrain on the hill, we couldn’t predict exactly where the ATV would go. So three of the five cameras were unmanned and two were put in safe but good vantage points. I was on the camera that got the longest shot, but because of where I placed the camera there was a small chance of the ATV heading my way. For protection, the safety guys had the strongest grip hold me at my hips; in case something were to happen, he was supposed to pull me aside into a protected spot. As we rolled on the stunt, there was a split second where we thought the ATV was heading our way and the grip picked me up like I was a toddler. I’m a 190 pound, 6’1” guy and my feet were dangling as I was lifted in the air. But I kept shooting – you can see a little jerk in the operating if you look closely. The grip eventually set me down again, since it truly never was dangerous, but it was a funny sight.
Filmmaker: To finish up, let’s talk about the two big action set pieces in the film. Start with the scene where Brolin and crew cross the rope bridge overtop a river.
Treml: The rope bridge scene was the toughest to shoot. Finding the right location took time. We found several perfect places in terms of shooting, but they were lacking drama. We discussed shooting the performance on stage, but that was dismissed early on.
Once the stunt and rigging crew made the rope bridge and terrain safe, we started storyboarding the shots so we would know what we needed. A lot of the wide shots, by the way, are CGI. Not that the location didn’t have all the imposing features, but with a raging river below we couldn’t achieve a perfect wide shot. So with drone footage and plates, the post house pieced most of the right side of the frame together to make it a proper scary valley.
On the shoot, we suspended our A-camera operator Cedric Martin in a cable pulley above the actual rope bridge, so we could track with our actors literally crossing this valley. The actors obviously had safety ropes, but all three of them — Danny, Josh and Jordan — were still over that river 50-60 feet above ground. It was scary even to watch, but they all did an amazing job.
We also had a 120-foot Condor parked next to the riverbed for B camera to get additional angles of the stunts and performances. The weather and logistics weren’t our friends. Over a three-day shoot we had rain, clouds and sunshine going in and out constantly. The occasional shiny board from below or a diffusion rag to match the sunny takes with the cloud takes was all I could do. Surrendering to higher forces was my mantra on this one.
For all the elements to work together and with safety being our top priority, things did go slow. Getting the actors to perform in tough situations and also replacing them with the stunt doubles for the action part of the scene ate up a lot of time. We eventually got it all done, with a stellar B unit covering additional angles with the stunt doubles. On a pickup day on stage we did still get a few close-ups in front of greenscreen of Josh and Jordan, but we knew we had covered the scene adequately in the end.
Filmmaker: And how about the rafting scene, where Brolin’s character and his son strap an injured Danny McBride to an inflatable air mattress and brave the river’s rapids?
Treml: The rafting action scene had several parts — the initial mounting up on the air mattress, going down the river, the rapids build up, the rough rapids and then the fall into the water. All in all we had seven locations along three rivers that gave us the right amount of narrative build up. We had one camera with Josh and Jordan (and Danny, but most of the time we used a dummy for Danny) either on the mattress or in a boat tied next to the mattress We also did takes from the side of the river for stunts.
The fall into the water was done by Josh and Jordan themselves, which was incredible. It was right before our Christmas break and Josh was actually just getting sick. Despite that he wanted to get the scene done. So he did all the stunts in the freezing water while being sick. He displayed quite the dedication throughout our 42 shoot days. Josh truly was a leader and consistently kept the morale high, along with the director and the production team.
If the rain didn’t get us soaking wet during those rafting scenes, the rivers made sure they did. As throughout the rest of the shoot, the safety crew was exceptional and surrounded us with plenty of support. The gear was protected by watertight splash bags, and we were wearing plenty of raingear or diving/surf suits. It did not keep us from getting wet, but we all recovered easily and quickly.
The final rapids scene was shot exclusively with stunts at the most beautiful rapids one can imagine. The only issue was the location required a two hour hike and climb both in and out, which only gave us a four hour window to get all the shots done before it got dark. A scaled-down crew went in carrying everything in backpacks, since you needed both hands for safety. No carts could have possibly made it there. Helicopters were cost prohibitive and taking boats was impossible. So all we had was our manpower. We used three cameras and a well thought-out plan that was scheduled to the minute to get everything done. With a few glitches, like an unexpected low water level, it worked like a Swiss clock. We got the shots done and after shooting a few close-up reaction shots of Josh and Jordan on our stage day in front of greenscreen, the rafting scene was “in the can.”
The shoot was a once in a lifetime experience. Everybody had the best attitude and the leaders — Jody, Josh, Danny and the line producer Lila Yacoub — all helmed the project impeccably. I hope that spirit comes across in the movie.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.