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Filmmaker takes crew members to see films they worked on for the first time by Aaron Hunt

“The Sadder We Made It Look, the Funnier It Became”: Gaffer Daniel April Lights The Death of Dick Long

Daniel April

I first saw The Death Of Dick Long at a press screening at Technicolor Postworks. It is the second feature film from one of Swiss Army Man’s co-directors, Daniel Scheinert, whose kooky debut portends the mercurial sensibilities of Dick Long, a cotton state comedy of errors with a hushed twist. The film’s gaffer, Daniel April, the sought after lightsmith of New York indie film, still hadn’t seen the film, so I invited him to attend A24’s special screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn, featuring free wine and popcorn, the common bribes.

April had just gotten off the set of Betty, an upcoming HBO series based on Crystal Moselle’s feature film Skate Kitchen, when he arrived at the theater. Scheinert caught drift too, and was able to invite more of the crew, reuniting April with Dick Long’s DP Ashley Connor, who he’s worked beside for many years. First Match, Madeline’s Madeline and The Miseducation of Cameron Post are among the duo’s recent ventures, and in the thumbnail image above, Ashley keyed her gaffer with the flashlight on her iPhone just off frame. 

When the credits rolled, I asked April for his immediate reaction to the film and followed up with him later on his day off. In our talks: His pro tips on making a lighting package on a budget, the beauty of crewing up in a non-industry city, candid anecdotes from a bountiful career (100+ credits on IMDB) and the secrets to how his light helped coax the uncomfortable laughs of The Death Of Dick Long.

Filmmaker: [The credits roll] What’s your immediate reaction?

Daniel April: I had a lot of fun. I think that I’m much smarter than these characters and yet I probably would have done the same things they did. There’s not much you can really do in that situation. Other than the [spoiler] stuff, I would have done it the same. I was really stressed out, but I had fun, and it works. 

Filmmaker: Were you surprised by anything? Was there anything you shot that didn’t make it in?

April: I think they included everything. There were some scenes near the end that I didn’t expect would hit me as hard as they did. I was kind of worried about people watching it and not rolling with the punches. It starts as a sort of Coen Brothers noir and then becomes this sad, beautiful thing. It’s a very hard thing to balance. Ashley likes to block while the actors are blocking. I’m very happy we ended up outside [in a climactic kitchen scene]. Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) is deep and Lydia’s (Virginia Newcomb) by the window [in the foreground] where you can’t really see her. That is where you should end that scene. And to also shoot that kitchen in a million different ways. How do you shoot in a really boring kitchen that many ways? I was blown away we pulled it off. Eyeline and all the blocking, that stuff gets me excited.

When I work with [Ashley], and with Sean [Price Williams] as well, we like to light sort of 360. We light the space. The great thing about working in New York is that you get to work a lot in real locations, so going down to Alabama [to shoot on location] felt similar even though it’s a different world. The house we shot in kind of just looked like that, and Ali [Rubenfield], our production designer enhanced that feel with new wallpaper, furniture, and touch ups. We had a lot of practicals. If we knew the camera wasn’t moving we could shape it more. 

Filmmaker: This audience laughed at totally different things than the first audience I saw The Death Of Dick Long with. Did people laugh at anything you didn’t expect them to?

April: I noticed that the laughter tapered off and turned into an awkward laughter after the reveal. I felt sad for that person a little. [laughs] Did they not understand what just happened here? So it became a sad laughter. I found that exciting, I guess, and if you know the Daniels’ work you know it’s part of what they do so well. You laugh but you feel kind of gross about it. Some kind of Cronenberg meets Dumb and Dumber — I don’t know, something in the middle there. 

People are really dumb, and it’s fun to watch. But it does get really dark. I think my parents are going to like it? I tend to make films that my parents don’t really like but that critics do like and which don’t make money. This one is a little closer to one that maybe my friends from high school who watched sports a lot could get into. It’s a little more accessible and the jokes are a little more relatable.

Filmmaker: Do you think about that a lot? Whether or not your old friends and family will like the movies you do?

April: I grew up watching movies with my family and it’s kind of how I got into filmmaking. They’re super supportive. But there are a lot of things I worked on that I connect with that my parents don’t. My parents like Forrest Gump or something. They like movies, but it’s like Coen Brothers, Forrest Gump… So having them watch something like Madeline’s Madeline was… My mom said she liked the lighting so I trust her. How do you feel about that? Are your friends from high school and parents confused by you? 

Filmmaker: I think it’s more that they don’t think I’m working on actual movies, or what they’ve grown to know and understand is a movie.

April: Going union recently I’ve ran into this idea that non-union is practice, but I’m like, “No.” That’s where it matters. It’s like family, there are departments but we’re all looking out for each other. 

[Danny and I reconvened a few days later on his day off. Later that night, he would attend the wrap party for Betty, the HBO series based off the feature film Skate Kitchen, awkwardly scheduled a week before shooting actually wrapped.] 

Filmmaker: Where’s the wrap party?

April: In Greenpoint at The Spring, I’ve never been, but it’s HBO so… I hope they bring like Omar from The Wire. I hope they do something like that, but we’ll probably just end up drinking. 

Filmmaker: A bunch of HBO cameos.

April: Yeah, like the guy from Tales From The Crypt shows up. 

Filmmaker: What have you learned to prioritize or compromise on in your G&E packages for smaller movies? 

April: It comes down to multiple things, but for me it mainly comes down to the cinematographer and what they feel comfortable with. Because Ashley and I have worked together for so long we have a shorthand, yes, but I think I’m also a bit riskier in trying new gear with her. If it doesn’t work she won’t think I’m an idiot. But we’ve also worked so much together that sometimes we don’t even scout. We say: “Let’s just get a SkyPanel, JEM ball, Leko” and a few of the basic things we always use. That’s kind of what we used on The Death Of Dick Long. 

We shot in Alabama and I didn’t know any rental houses down there. The line producer, Ted Speaker, knew a guy that owned a bunch of gear. So we got a deal with this guy, and he was super helpful. Every rental house is different, and I don’t own any gear. I know people that do and there’s a lot of advantages and disadvantages to that. I like to stick to the same stuff. I know what a SkyPanel weighs, I know what the output is, I know what a Leko does. There’s like six lights that I always use and can do anything with. Recently I’ve added the Astera kit to that. I can do something hard, I can do something soft, I can match it to certain things, I know how much power it pulls, so it’s kind of a lot of repetition with the same lights to get to a point where I know, off the top of my head, the situations I could use each light in.

So I would recommend, if you’re just starting out and you want to make a G&E list and you get a few jobs in a row, that you keep the same lighting package and add a few things here and there. Use lights that you feel comfortable using. A lot of your decisions are game time decisions — you have to think about them on the spot, things are changing, and if you don’t have to think about the [gear] that much it becomes more natural.

This was shot in 2017. The lighting world is constantly changing, so the Astera kit was not out yet. But we used an M40, HMI, an M18, a Joker 800 that turned into a Jo-Leko, and a bunch of LiteMats. In the dining room scene we had all those practicals up at the ceiling, but we also rigged a bunch of LiteMats up there that were kind of soft and matched the quality of the practical bulbs. Then we took strips of primary red gel and put them in random spots on the LiteMats so that they matched what the practicals were doing. We spray painted the glass cover of the bulbs on the ceiling red. It wasn’t truly red because there was a Tungsten bulb coming through it, so we also put a little red on the LiteMats so that it was usually far side key [keying the side of the face farthest from camera while typically leaving the near-camera face side dark] if we were doing french overs [A shot over the shoulder and from behind]. It would be sort of frontal, but we’d try to give some shape to it. I might be wrong about this — it might just sound really cool — but as the movie got more intense I think we put a little more red into it. 

But I think Ashley and I tried not to go too insane with all of the colors. I felt like I’d already done a lot of movies like that. With this we went for something that was more natural and grungy. 

Filmmaker: You had quite a color streak there.

April: Right when the SkyPanel came out I went kind of nuts, and especially with the L7-C. I used to work with Josh Richards, who shot The Rider, and we did a lot of stuff with color and light ribbons. We did a lot of fashion stuff, we had the L7-Cs and just went fucking nuts with them. Being able to use any color at any moment became really exciting. But I also think a lot of colors fit the stories of those movies like Good Time and Thirst Street, Which I did the New York unit for. 

Filmmaker: No SkyPanels on Dick Long? 

April: We had an S60 and a few Lekos. For the driving stuff we actually had a process trailer, so we had a lot of PAR cans playing, and SkyPanels out on the street as they drove through them for a sodium vapor look. Then we had a balloon light with a condor for the horse stuff. We wanted to make the horse look super majestic, so we thought, “Let’s do a balloon light and backlight the horse.” We thought that’d be really funny, and it was funny to make lighting part of the humor. Let’s make it funnier by lighting the shit out of this horse and not make it frontal. We had this condor and we sent it as far back as we could. It made this beautiful looking thing. 

We got that [condor] in Atlanta. There’s not a lot in Alabama, so we had to get a lot of our specialized gear from there. But we kind of kept it simple. Ali Rubenfield, the production designer, would build in a lot of practicals. She was incredible to work with. She was very good at setting the tone for each space. Earl’s trailer home had all sorts of weird shit going on, lots of crazy props and that mirror thing that he looks into at one point. All of those things set the tone, so using a bunch of CFLs and things like that without putting lamp shades over them — Earl probably wouldn’t have lamp shades over the lamps in his house. It was very collaborative working with Ashley and Ali. I’d never been to Alabama, Ali’s a Jew from New Jersey, and Ashley’s from California — all we knew was what we knew from movies. But Daniel [Scheinert] is from Alabama and he knew what’d be where. 

Filmmaker: Tell me about outsourcing from Atlanta.

April: It’s a few hours away. When we needed additionals we’d get people from Atlanta. We also found some guys from Alabama, and they had the best stories. They were much older and would tell crazy stories from all these classic movies. My key grip came from New York, but everyone else like my best boy electric and my third electric, his best boy grip, third grip, and dolly grip were all locals.  

They told us they mostly work on religious movies or movies about people coming back from the Iraq war, so they were super stoked to work on a slick A24 thing. I loved my crew, I would recommend those guys for any job. So awesome. 

Filmmaker: Are they old union guys that stick it out in Alabama? 

April: These guys weren’t actually union.

Filmmaker: Those guys that work on everything that comes through?

April: Yeah, and there were some commercial guys who did corporate stuff. I think the guys got onto another feature after ours. Production started to pick up. I think Lynn Shelton did a film with Marc Maron [Sword Of Trust] down there right after us and they all did that. And I think that Fred Durst John Travolta movie, like The Stalker or something?

Filmmaker: Oh, The Fanatic.

April: Yeah, that’s sick. 

Filmmaker: Not knowing anyone out there, how’d you find your crew?

April: The line producer Ted Speaker, he was also the line producer on Funny Bunny, which I did with Ashley six or seven years ago. I reached out to him. He’s based out of Birmingham. “I know I can’t bring anyone out from New York, who do you have?” In Alabama you’re not just a gaffer, you can do grip, you can do sound… There are a bunch of gaffers down there who just work as gaffers and they own trucks and stuff. But one of the guys we got was also in our art department, doing all the prep. I asked Ali, “How is he?” and she said “He’s great.” So I stole him from art department because he was awesome, Dan King. Adolph Steele was my best boy and he just does a lot of shoots out there, works as a camera assistant or whatever. It’s different in New York, it’s super specialized. Like, I’m a gaffer, now that I’m in the union I can’t take on another craft without permissions and stuff. Down there it’s a little bit looser. There’s not as much work so you have to be able to do it all. But I sort of came from that world in New York working on these smaller productions. I would kind of be the camera assistant, the gaffer, and I’d drive the truck. I would do it all because I enjoyed it. It didn’t seem that foreign to me. But working on the The Irishman, they’d be like, “What? Why aren’t you just staying a rigging electric?” because there’s so much work and stuff. 

Filmmaker: Can you think of any other instances where the light played into the humor?

April: The scene where Dick’s wife looks into the trash bag with the Arby’s. I couldn’t stop laughing while we were shooting that because it looked like we shot The Deer Hunter, but we’re looking at a bag of Arby’s. It was Arby’s, but we lit it in a sad way. The sadder we made it look the funnier it became. It’s literally a zoom into an Arby’s bag in a trash can. It felt like we were all in on the joke. 

Filmmaker: The film is lit pretty dark throughout, with some variance, of course. Why did maintaining a grungier lighting scheme make the most sense with all of these different emotional beats and tones?  

April: It does juggle between a bunch of different genres. It’s a thriller, it’s a noir, it sometimes has Gummo vibes, and then it’s a comedy. When Michael Abbot’s character [Zeke] is putting a blanket in the closet we lit it like Mindhunter. In Earl’s apartment we have all these different crazy practicals, we’re not doing far side key, so I feel like every scene feels different but stays in the same world.

I also feel, as Ashley and I have worked so long together and done jobs outside of each other, that we come back to each other with different skills. This movie looks a lot different than anything we’ve done together. Take Madeline’s Madeline or The Miseducation Of Cameron Post for example, they are very different in a way, but we kind of spoke the same language at that point. Coming back it was like, “Oh, I learned this and this thing!” And that really helped us on Dick Long where we’re floating between different looks and different scenes and we’re obviously not shooting in order.  

I can’t remember if we shot out all of the dining room. I don’t think we did, I think we shot it in two different parts of the whole shoot. We had to come back to it and reestablish that look. Because we’ve worked together so long we were able to keep track of the vibes in each scene.  

Daniel April and Ashley Connor

Filmmaker: You mentioned you have a set of six or so lights you’re totally comfortable with and always use. What are they?

April: This is a lighting package I start with for a short film or a smaller feature. Without really scouting, I know I’ll get these set of lights and then it will always expand out. Maybe the reason I feel comfortable with this group of lights is that on low-budget features you don’t have the luxury of having multiple trucks. You can’t have lights that can do each specific scene. You need a bunch of lights that can be flexible for the month or so of the shoot. You can’t rent one light and return it the next day, and get another type of light for a scene the day after that. I need lights that help me in a lot of situations. SkyPanels are great for night exterior work. You don’t need a lot of power, they go pretty bright and they change colors. We shot all of Good Time in a sprinter van. It was me and one other guy. So we needed to know what lights helped us in the most situations. It was SkyPanels, Lekos, Rosco Lightpad kits we could put into cars and light off a cigarette lighter, 1×1 Bi-Color Astras that work off batteries — that was a few years ago, but I still stick to lights like that. 

For a whole feature, these would help me out in most situations. JEM Balls, have you worked with those before? They’re kind of like a heavy duty paper lantern with a metal spring and you can change the coats. It’s really nice and soft. 

[to someone off screen] Hey B!

Off Screen Voice: You on your call?

April: Yeah!

Off Screen Voice: Good for you!

April: Thank you!

Filmmaker: Was that your wife?

April: No that’s my landlady. [laughs] Let me think. On Tesla [the upcoming Nikola Tesla film from Michael Almeyreda] we had Astera tubes which are battery powered, wireless, and work off an iPad. We had to do a lot of firework fare, but those bulbs also helped us out in any situation really. We had a lot of night exteriors where we’d walk with them for like an eyelight and stuff.

Filmmaker: I didn’t realize Good Time was that tight.

April: Both that and Madeline’s Madeline were one and one. Sean Gradwell, who is one of my best friends, he officiated my wedding and he’s an incredible human being, it was just me and him. There was some night work in Good Time where we needed a few extra people to come out, like in the amusement park and stuff, but for the most part it was me and him in a sprinter van. And they wanted to do the whole movie with every department in a sprinter van to keep it really small and really crazy. It worked [laughs], everybody was going crazy so… 

Filmmaker: I like the look of the hospital in Dick Long, it has those nice overhead practicals.

April: We didn’t really do that much [to the hospital] honestly. All the lights kind of matched and the exposure was nice so we just shaped it a little bit if we needed to. Then in the emergency room I think we just used whatever was there. I prepped the night exterior work at that time. I think one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten was from this really big key grip, he was talking about Good Time and he said, “It doesn’t look like you lit it. It looks natural” I think it’s sometimes harder than overlighting something, where you can’t tell what we did and what we didn’t do. I took it as a compliment. So I’m glad you like that hospital scene because I feel my role as a gaffer is not to showcase how many lights I can use, but to support the cinematographer, production designer, and story. If it looks natural and feels right for the story why mess with it? Especially if you work with really great locations. It’s kind of already there. You might shape it a little bit, but I’d rather move on to a scene that needs more work on a smaller movie. 

That hospital looked like a hospital in Alabama. I was outside the whole time prepping the night exterior where they carry Dick’s body down the hill. 

Filmmaker: What were you using to light night exteriors on this?

April: We ended up using a combination of lights we bought from Home Depot. The hospital had a bunch of stuff there outside of the buildings. We also wanted it to feel a little mysterious, we didn’t really want to see what was going on. So we just backlit the whole thing, hid a bunch of 1Ks kind of deep, and Home Depot sodium vapor lights in different spots. I think I did a special on the Emergency sign. I put a Leko up to shape it so you can see the sign better.

Filmmaker: Do you feel pressure from production on union shows to use bigger lights?

April: I kind of get called to do smaller union shows anyway. On the show I’m doing now it’s a lot of practicals and Astera tubes, so it’s in my wheelhouse. But Tesla was crazy because we shot camera tests on Ektachrome, and scouted it like we were going to shoot it on Ektachrome. We had all of the lights for an Ektachrome shoot and then we found out days before that we were going to shoot it on a Venice [Sony’s new full frame digital cinema camera]. We already had all these big lights so we ended up just using them. Using larger lights just demands more manpower. That’s where it gets complicated on a smaller shoot. I’d love to use larger lights, you’re just going to need more experienced people, and at times, it doesn’t happen all the time but when a crew gets bigger and the job itself is trying to feel intimate, it can get crazier with too many people. Crews don’t really like that. 

Tesla was kind of an insane shoot. It’s also the thing where you can get a bunch of people who come from television where the coverage is really straightforward. On Tesla we’d go through the blocking and say, “Oh we should shoot this on a really long lens on a dolly through a bunch of glass and that’s the whole scene.” And we just decided that five minutes ago. If you have a bigger crew and nothing’s really planned it’s slower moving. I feel more nimble on something more experimental and avant garde. Cameron Post was shot in a more tempered way: on sticks, on dolly. So we were able to go a little bigger on those setups because we knew the coverage. So I worked with Ashley to make that film look a little cleaner. I also worked with Chloe Grace Moretz’s personal makeup artist, and she’d give me a lot of notes like: “Chloe actually likes to be lit this way,” and I’d be like “OK. You know better than me!”

Filmmaker: And tell me more about the film to digital switch on Tesla.

April: So with Ektachrome it’s 100D and you only have roughly 4 stops of latitude. So when we were going to shoot [Tesla with that] it was going to be just the candle [exposed] in the frame. That’s all you can see. Watching the trailer for The Lighthouse it was like, oh man, that’s what we were maybe thinking, like really contrasty and you can only see a few things in the frame. And then we went to the Venice, which is super sensitive, you can see everything, so we had to switch gears a lot. We went with almost a period piece look, but the coverage was super whacky. I’d never done anything that’s taken place before the ’80s. Everything I’ve done has been about like a Brooklyn person who’s a writer and goes to a bar or something. That’s what I’ve done a lot: in an apartment, in a bar. 

So we’re shooting 1890s in Brooklyn which is totally insane. There’s not a lot of money. In a lot of these locations we had to hide stuff because you’d see modern buildings or cars outside the windows. One of the chairs we used might have been from the 1920s and if you’re a big nerd about it you might notice these things. So we were trying to make it darker, but we had a bunch of 12Ks and M40s. We put those through windows or did a lot of candlelight. For night exteriors we couldn’t do sodium vapor looks because it didn’t exist. So we had to get crafty with it. We had a lot of rain. We’d backlight the rain and put a little blue on tungsten to get that punch without it being too hard on their face. It was a really tough shoot. We pulled off a miracle every day. When Sean [Price Williams] and I scout we don’t really talk much. We don’t talk about shots, we talk about harder scenes and maybe talk a little about what we’ll do. But we usually figure things out right before we show up to set. It can be really stressful, but when it works it’s extremely fun and rewarding.  

Filmmaker: What’s the primary distinction, advantage, or disadvantage, of working with more power for you? Bigger lights vs small.

April: What’s really helpful about bigger lights is that you can really shoot longer throughout the day. If you have a bigger light coming through the window, the sun might be changing but you’re not relying on it now. You can shoot it and it will look the same through the same scene. On Madeline’s Madeline, we had a bunch of mirror boards literally laying on the ground bouncing into the ceiling, which is not the way you should light scenes on like Blue Bloods or something. But on this shoot it made so much sense and created this crazy vibe to it. On smaller movies I think you lean into the idea that you can’t make it look like a bigger movie. It’s not even attempted because it’s only going to be half of what you should be doing and then won’t look like anything.

On Funny Bunny we had no money and we shot in a bar. Normally when you shoot at a bar on a low-budget movie you shoot in the day when it’s closed and so you black out the windows. But instead we took Tokyo blue, which is this crazy heavy blue gel, and skimmed all the windows with it. Inside the bar was really red, and the windows were blue and you couldn’t really see outside because it was so thick and heavy and it blurred it out a little. So you kind of think in that way. Even in Good Time, when we scouted the bail bond agency, we saw that they had a lot of pink lights in there. So we were like, “Let’s just do this!” But if we were to have built it on a stage we would have done all this research on what a bail bonds place looked like and just done that and put a bunch of fluorescent overhead. The thing about bigger shoots is that you end up building sets, and I feel like it can be hard to make those sets feel natural. 

But back to bigger lights. For a while when I’d do night exteriors I’d shy away from doing moonlight because I thought I couldn’t do it right. It would never be high enough, it would never be soft enough, but on union shoots I feel much more comfortable. We can afford the proper gear and manpower and can achieve almost any look.

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