Getting the Job, Learning from The Master and Goodfellas, and Shooting with Cleaner Glass: Cinematographer Sean Porter Talks Green Book
Viggo Mortensen always seemed like the kind of actor who would insist on eating a dozen hot dogs in a scene if his character did the same. Green Book cinematographer Sean Porter confirmed those suspicions. “We shot a hot dog eating contest and Viggo was cramming them in at full speed every take,” laughs Porter.
Green Book provided Mortensen (and his digestive system) with ample opportunities to display that kind of commitment to authenticity. In the based-in-fact story, Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, a Bronx bouncer with a penchant for gluttony who accepts a job driving a refined piano virtuoso (played by Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour through the Deep South in 1962.
Porter, whose credits include Green Room, 20th Century Women, and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (and whose “Things DPs Don’t Talk About” column ran here at Filmmaker), shares Mortensen’s predilection for authenticity. On Green Book, that meant shooting the abundant car scenes practically rather than in the vacuum of a sound stage. It meant covering scenes in the simplest way possible to tell the story. And it meant limiting the film’s palette to the hues capable of being produced by the era’s light sources.
“For one of the concert scenes my gaffer Scott Todd and I were messing around with a SkyPanel and [scrolling] through the colors and we found this crazy deep purple, but we had to ask ourselves ‘Can we sell this as a color that would’ve been around then?’” says Porter. “We eventually rationalized it as being neon somewhere in the room, but we were that conscious of the sources of light. Every lamp, every source had to be qualified.”
With Green Book in theaters and generating Oscar buzz, Porter talked to us about the photographic equivalent of ingesting copious amounts of nitrates in the name your craft.
Filmmaker: This movie is obviously a big departure for Peter Farrelly, who’s known for directing comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. How did you end up on his radar for Green Book? Did he know your work from a certain movie?
Porter: Kumiko may be the only movie he has ever seen of mine and I don’t even know if he’d seen that when I first interviewed. [Green Book producer] Jim Burke, who came in as a producer late on Kumiko, is probably the only reason that Pete even met with me and it was a very strange interview. [laughs] We met in Pete’s office. It was very short and there were a lot of jokes about how young I looked. I left being like, “Okay, that was a disaster.” Months and months went by and I had kind of forgotten about the movie and then my agent called and said “You remember that movie Green Book? You’re their guy. You’re starting prep in a couple weeks.”
Filmmaker: What was your process like in working with Pete?
Porter: Pete is all about story and I think that’s his strength. He knows what to do with his actors and he knows how to communicate a story, but talking about visual arcs isn’t where his head is at. We had very broad conversations about how the film should look, but he’s used to having his DP kind of take hold of the reigns and really design the coverage. So with Pete a lot of my job was pitching. Like, “What do you think about this versus that?” And once he could see some things in front of him, then we could have more focused conversations. That wasn’t really a process that allowed for me to come up with elaborate oners. It didn’t allow for moments of actors silhouetted against sunsets. That’s not what Pete is interested in. The words that would come up often from Pete were honesty and authenticity. He didn’t want anything to feel fake or artificial. That’s how he talked to me about the way the film should look and feel, but we didn’t talk about like how dark something was going to be.
Filmmaker: What references did you share to get an idea of the Midwest and the South in 1962?
Porter: We didn’t really exchange photographs or watch movies together. That’s just not part of Pete’s process. I actually didn’t watch a lot of films [on my own either]. I did do something that I hadn’t done before, which was surround the office in images. Typically I might make some digital collages or just have an online photo gallery on Google Docs, but Pete doesn’t want to sit in front of a computer all day. So I put up images all over the office, which was great because then if something grabbed Pete’s eye it would start a conversation.
Filmmaker: What was on the walls?
Porter: One movie that I continually went back to was The Master. I find that I tend to just reference the same set of films over and over again regardless of what movie I’m making. (laughs) So I had lots of shots from The Master up on the walls and those were juxtaposed with a lot of period photographs. No Country for Old Men was another reference. I had a lot of frames shot by Roger Deakins, Hoyte Van Hoytema, and Greig Fraser. Those guys are doing very interesting work.
One movie we did actually talk about a lot was Goodfellas — not because it was something we were looking to emulate, but as a way to communicate about pacing and coverage. Pete is used to a studio coverage scenario where every line of dialogue gets at least two or three [sizes] — you’ve got your medium shot and your single and your wide shot and everyone gets reaction shots. Pete loves Goodfellas so it was great to be able to look at shots from that movie and be like “Look at how effectively this five-page dialogue scene is covered. You don’t see rounds of singles. You don’t see three submasters. There’s none of that.” That movie was a very powerful resource to be able to say to Pete for a couple of different scenes, “You don’t need all this extra stuff.”
Filmmaker: What was a scene where those discussions came in handy?
Porter: One example was during Mahershala’s first musical performance at a mansion in Pittsburgh. We had to do everything for that scene in one day — all of the stuff with Viggo playing dice outside, Viggo watching Mahershala play for the first time, and it was also the first time we shot the head replacements with [the film’s composer] Kris Bowers playing the piano [as a stand-in for Mahershala]. It was a really ambitious day. When we were setting up the dice game, Pete talked about wanting to get a shot of this and a shot of that, maybe a close-up of the dice hitting the deck. It was going to be a half-day’s work and we didn’t have time for that. So I was like, “Pete, let’s just set up this wide shot.” So we did a couple of takes and it was great. It was like “What would you cut to? Just let his happen.” And Pete said, “You know what, you’re right. We don’t need any of that other stuff.” So we did two more takes of that wide and moved on. It just felt right for the spirit of the movie. Viggo and Mahershala are such powerhouses. They can do it all in the wide shot. You don’t always need to go in for close-ups with those guys.
Filmmaker: Any of those types of scenes that didn’t make the cut?
Porter: There’s this moment in The Master where Joaquin Phoenix’s character walks into one of the first high society soirees he attends and there’s this really long shot of him walking through the party that starts as a wide looking one way and then ultimately pans 90 degrees and turns into a completely different shot where he’s eating some hors d’oeuvre. We watched that shot maybe half a dozen times and talked about it and we ended up recreating a similar shot. But it got cut from the movie, like all your favorite shots do. [laughs] The Master was a movie we talked a lot about. I don’t think Pete actually liked the movie all that much [laughs], but on a global level it was a way to say to Pete, “Look at how one camera move can communicate so many ideas and how interesting and invigorating that is.”
Filmmaker: Tell me about what went into the head replacement shots.
Porter: It was a topic that was discussed often because it was a complicated, expensive, and time-consuming process. And we had to sell it 100 percent. There has to be no question in the audience’s mind that Mahershala is playing the piano.
We didn’t know how it was going to go and I think everyone was worried that it was going to be a complete disaster. At the same time, we didn’t want to be beholden to the effect. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to locked-off shots just because it was going to be easier on post. The shots still needed to be dynamic.
For those shots we always started by doing some takes of Kris playing. It was tough on Pete because he had to decide right then and there which take we were going to match to. Mahershala would study that take and talk to Kris about how to move his shoulders and body. Then we’d do a pass with Mahershala in wardrobe and also a pass where Mahershala would just wear a blank tank top because VFX needed to be able to grab his collarbone. Depending on the location, we sometimes had to do a greenscreen pass. My gaffer Scott created this pretty rad portable LED greenscreen board that was self-illuminating so it would be consistent under any lighting, because we couldn’t interrupt the set lighting at all. Once in a while we’d have to bring that board out and do another pass just to make sure VFX had a clean shot of Mahershala’s head. We could watch playback [on set] with a 50 percent overlay from VTR and see if the match was close and then the VFX guy might weigh in and be like, “We need another one where Mahershala turns his neck a little bit more or else it’s going to be really hard to rotoscope.” It was very complicated and I think the performance side of it was actually much more complicated than my side.
Filmmaker: The aspect ratio on this one is 2:1, like on 20th Century Women?
Porter: Yeah, I feel like that’s a great middle ground because you still get some of that epic quality that widescreen offers. I had to pitch it to several people at Participant Media and make all these presentations. But once we knew that Universal was most likely going to be involved in the film I was like, “Hey, Universal has several movies in 2:1 and Netflix has some movies in 2:1” It’s a way easier sell than it used to be.
Filmmaker: You’ve been using older Cooke lenses like the Speed Panchros for years, but for Green Book you shifted to Leica Summilux-C’s. What went into that decision?
Porter: It was a big change. I’d done several movies with the Panchros and maybe it had just run its course. I remember reading old American Cinematographer interviews with Roger Deakins where he’d say “I only shoot on Master Primes” and I used to think “that’s so boring and so clinical.” I was still in this phase of only wanting to shoot with the oldest and most beat up lenses I could get my hands on. But the idea of cleaner glass is becoming more appealing. I actually think it asks more of you as a DP. People can make beautiful work with whatever tools are available to them, but I think it’s a little harder to make strong images that communicate the story when you’re simply finding a frame or a camera move or a color palette that’s doing all the work [rather than relying on the quirks of the lenses]. That idea has become very inspiring to me.
But in terms of using the Leicas, they are so compact and a huge part of it was finding fast lenses that were very small because we were going to be doing so much car work. The Cooke S4’s are just big lenses. The Panchros are small, but you could never really shoot wide open with them and I shot most of [Green Book] wide open. We used the Panchros on 20th Century Women and my 1st AC would be like “I don’t think anything feels in focus — ever — no matter where I put the barrel.” And I didn’t want that look for this movie. The story needed to feel just as relevant now as it was back then. I didn’t want to have this gauze, this layer in front of the camera that gave the audience the opportunity to say “This is something that happened years ago and doesn’t apply to us anymore.”
Filmmaker: How much of the movie was shot in Louisiana?
Porter: Probably 95 percent. I think we all [initially] assumed there would be a substantial New York unit, but it was amazing what we were able to find in Louisiana. For the Bronx, we found a small town called Hammond that had a lot of East Coast architecture. It looked like it hadn’t really changed in 50 years. Most of the time when you’re doing anything period, when you point the camera outside it’s a VFX nightmare or it’s an art department nightmare. But there were a lot of great views down city street blocks in Hammond where you didn’t really have to do anything.
But the first thing we shot was actually in upstate New York. When we were starting production Pete wanted to go up there to get the fall foliage because the leaves weren’t turning in Louisiana yet and he wanted those big beautiful colors that you can kind of only get in the Northeast. That was before proper prep had even happened. I do like to have a preshoot day anytime I can get it because it gets all the anxiety of shooting your first day out of the way. If the first thing you shoot is on [the official Day 1 of principal photography] and you line up your first shot with your number one actor on the call sheet, there’s a lot of pressure on all the departments. When you start rolling the camera, it’s like “Oh shit, THIS is in the movie.” But if you’re out shooting landscapes and car shots, half of it isn’t going to end up in the cut so that pressure isn’t there. It’s a good ice breaker for me and the director.
Filmmaker: So Louisiana was a good fit in terms of period architecture. How else do you sell the 1960s setting?
Porter: We didn’t have to use like antique suede filters or anything like that to make the film feel period. I knew that the production design, the wardrobe, and the cars were going to do that for me. You could take a brand new digital camera with a sharp lens on it and point it at a scene that’s been prepped by art to look like 1962 and it’s going to feel like 1962.
Again, everything came back to authenticity. When we were looking at street photography from the 1960s we’d look at the light fixtures. What was in those old barbershops? What did the neon signs look like? What were the lamps? What colors were popping? I asked my gaffer what sources would’ve been available in 1962. Basically they had tungsten, fluorescents, sodium halide, neon, and mercury. And that’s kind of it. So those colors and those spectral responses ended up being our foundation. Everything had to [feel as if it might believably] come from those four or five types of sources and that was really fun. It was an excuse to put on some really heavy creative constraints that typically might feel forced. Like if I did a movie that was set now and gave myself that sort of restricted palette it might come off as stylized and not very natural, but because it was all rooted in the realism of the period I could use those colors in Green Book and not have it feel affected.
Filmmaker: I’m glad that you didn’t shoot the car scenes on a soundstage. It never feels right to me, even when it’s done well.
Porter: On my very first call with Pete after I’d been hired, he was like “I’m getting a lot of pressure about shooting all of the car stuff on a stage. What do you think?” And I said, “Look, Pete, if you shoot on a stage you will have way more time with your actors, you will get more material, and you’ll probably get more unique angles than you’d get out in the real world. But you’re not going to get that authenticity you’re looking for. If we drag the whole production out onto the middle of nowhere in upstate Louisiana and put those actors in that car, everything is going to be authentic — the look, the vibe, the performances.” And that spoke to Pete immediately. To his credit, he knew that every time we took a shortcut on authenticity, it brought the film down a click and if you do enough of those clicks then you’re in Lifetime Movie territory even with those great performances.
Filmmaker: There’s a production still that shows a little bit of how you set up the car work. I see three Alexa Minis rigged to the vehicle and a couple Arri SkyPanels on the roof.
Porter: The car work was challenging for sure. Mahershala and Viggo have very different skin tones so I had to create a base ambience that wouldn’t change all that much even as they drove in and out of sunlight on tree-lined rural roads. The general vibe was to put a big silk across the top of the car so that any stray sunlight would be negated if the sun was high. If the sun was low and we were shooting at sunset, then it didn’t matter. We’d let that light come in. Traditionally I would’ve towed the car and put big fixtures on the back of the tow vehicle and pounded them through the windshield, but [on Green Book] I used the SkyPanels to boost the ambient exposure. The SkyPanels are so great because they’re all wired to a dimmer board that’s remotely operated by my gaffer Scott, who’s sitting right next to me so we can change the color temperature and exposure on the fly.
Scott also installed small LED fixtures in a couple key places around the car – one under the dash for Viggo, a couple for Mahershala depending on which way he was looking or which way the camera was facing. Scott did 20th Century Women with me as well and we used a lot of the tools we learned on that show, but we took them to another level. That movie was our first foray into shooting in an almost all LED-lit environment where all the rooms were pre-rigged with LEDs and we could control everything on the fly. You want night time, you want day time, you want to balance to the exterior, you want to balance to a tungsten lamp in the room, all of that could be controlled [wirelessly].
Filmmaker: To finish up I want to ask you about something I’ve never seen discussed in an interview — the “spit bucket.” For people who aren’t familiar, it’s exactly what it sounds like — a bucket where actors can discard mouthfuls of food so they don’t have to eat like 20 full hamburgers for a diner scene. Viggo’s character is always eating in this movie. Do you have any tricks for when actors are dealing with food?
Porter: I’ll tell you straight up — there were no spit buckets on that set. I don’t think the prop folks had any idea what they were in for. Usually the actors will just pick at the food a little bit in the scene and maybe props needs to make up a handful of plates. But with Viggo, it was like, no, he’s going to eat the entire plate in this scene so you better have 10 full meals prepared and ready to go. Those scenes in the car with the bucket of chicken, he easily plowed through a dozen whole pieces of chicken. That scene where he folds the pizza in half, props had to have ten pizzas lined up because he did it every single time. It was absolutely part of Viggo’s process, but it was a little disconcerting to watch. (laughs)
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.