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“The Vibrant Color of the Spilled Ketchup on the White Floor With the Broken Bottle was the Best Way to Describe What the Movie was All About”: DP Jean-Philippe Bernier on Dinner in America

A still from Dinner in America by Adam Rehmeier (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Punk rock and suburbia collide when Simon meets Peggy in Adam Carter Rehmeier’s Dinner in America. As the two traverse the Midwest, Peggy unwittingly assists the lead singer of her favorite band in evading the police, all the while uncovering the unforeseen connections between them. DP Jean-Philippe Bernier constructs two distinct cinematic styles that function in tandem with the film’s contrasting central characters. Drawing upon a background in film score composition, as well as an early career rooted in the punk scene, Bernier discusses the process of melding content and medium to create a distinct cinematographic look, drenched in the striking colors of 80s/90s film and street photography.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Bernier: It all started in Sundance 2018 when I met with my agent Tara for the first time. She told me about a script that she felt I would be the perfect match for. A week after we started working together she got me that script. As soon as I started reading it, I became obsessed with it. It was the kind of movie I would love to watch. It was raw, in your face, funny but also emotional. The story was also following the singer of a Hardcore punk band, a scene that I used to know well as I filmed a lot of shows and music videos at the beginning of my career.

From the first time I talked to Adam (Writer, Director & Editor of DIA) I really felt it was a perfect fit. He was a fan of my first movie Turbo Kid and knowing that his movie was a lot about rhythm and music he was intrigued by the fact that I am also a film score composer (Turbo Kid, Summer of ’84). I think this was a huge plus for me, I feel like having this tool on my belt is what got me the interview. We connected creatively on so many levels right from that first Skype meeting.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Bernier: In Dinner in America, we follow 2 different characters that live in their own world. At some point, both those worlds collide into each other and they end up merging together. In order for the viewer to feel that on-screen, Adam and I wanted to use the rhythm of the camera and the edit to make the two worlds different from one another. Adam, who is also a musician, always had a really good idea of the style of score he wanted for each of the scenes we were shooting and that was a big help understanding the speed and when to move or not move the camera. Our approach was always to discuss those 3 points (type of shot, edit & score) while cutting a scene on paper or on set. We created a rule book to make sure we could switch stuff around the right way when the inevitable chaos of indie filmmaking starts and you get pushed to cut stuff from your shot list.

Part of our rule book was that for Simon we wanted to move with him, to use handheld, to feel his intensity and his in your face punk attitude. For Patty we needed to use longer takes in locked frame. Using super wide shots to highlight her awkward body language and cutting to tight close-ups. When Patty and Simon meet and start sharing the story together we mixed all of our rules in order to sometimes give the impression that Patty is always behind and can’t keep up with Simon’s pace. Other times it’s Simon that invades Patty’s static shots and close up to make the audience feel the discomfort that she feels. The eye line of Simon and Patty was also super important to us. Having a clean single with a super close eye line to the lens was the key to elevate the amazing performance of Emily and Kyle when they first meet. We used that rule later in the movie to bring them to a totally different place, but I don’t want to spoil too much.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Bernier: Most of my influences were taken from the mid-80s and 90s. I wanted to recreate the feeling I used to have watching American indie movies from my teenage years. Those movies had lots of colors and were more raw in terms of lighting and camera work. That style of filmmaking was so different than your typical studio production, this was for me the same as what punk was for music.

Some of my film influences were John Waters’s Pecker and Cry-Baby, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to The Dollhouse, Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ‘66 but also 80s teen movies like Three O’Clock High and Heathers. Napoleon Dynamite is another amazing movie that has that indie vibe with a perfect notion of comedic timing.

In prep, Frankie (production designer) and I exchanged lots of photos, film stills and pop art references to build a look book together. After digging into lots of 80s/90s street photography, I became really obsessed with Richard Corman’s photo series he did with Madonna in the 80s. His street photography vibes and the saturated colors with pure white was exactly what I wanted to explore. The other image that followed me the entire time was the photography of the broken ketchup bottle by Miles Aldridge. The vibrant color of the spilled ketchup on the white floor with the broken bottle was the best way to describe what the movie Dinner in America was all about in my eyes.

For the Punk vibe and music performances of DIA I went back to the hardcore shows I used to shoot with my miniDV camera and other 80s documentaries, like Bad Brain live at the CBGB and The Decline of Western Civilization 1 and 3. I also dragged Kyle Gallner to a Dead Kennedys show while we were shooting in Romania together. It was a good way to put us in the perfect punk mood just a month before starting prep on DIA.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Bernier: Like most of indie filmmaking, it was time. It was a tight scheduled shoot, especially with the ton of locations and the super small tech crew. But the support I got from the producers and 1st AD was nothing shy from a big-budget production. I also owe a lot to my amazing crew, especially my gaffer, Marc-Antoine Serou, that went to war for me on this movie.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Bernier: We didn’t have the time to make camera tests while prepping for this project so I decided to go with a camera that I own and know in and out: the RED EPIC-W Helium. One of the requirements from production was that we needed a true 4K finish. Helium 8K is in my opinion a really good sensor that gave me plenty of room in post to add small emotion zoom at the perfect place in the edit while keeping our anamorphic look and staying over the 4K requirement.

Adam and I both knew right away that we needed anamorphic lenses to tell the story of Patty & Simon because much of the film lives in tight and medium two shots. We felt that the defocus of an anamorphic lens would add more separation and help isolate them in their own world. After looking into different vintage anamorphic lenses, I decided to go with Cooke. I love Cooke’s lenses for their mix of vintage aberrations but packaged in a more modern design that makes it easy and fast when on set. They also have the perfect amount of softness in the wider stops that pair perfectly with the hi-resolution 8K Helium sensor. We also used a Angenieux 24-290 and a Panavision 19-90 for comedic snap zooms.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Bernier: I approached the story of DIA in two different styles. For Patty and Simon’s world, I wanted a raw and natural light vibe. I didn’t want to interfere too much with their look and what Emily and Kyle were bringing to the characters. For the dinner scenes at Patty and Beth’s house, I went with lighting that felt a little more controlled and plastic. I wanted to make Simon clash with the world he was invading.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Bernier: We had several scenes on a moving bus and in a moving pick up truck. The pick up truck was an old vintage truck that died on us after hours of rigging and after only a couple of takes. That day was supposed to only be pick up truck related. So we needed to improvise and move to a random vacant lot near the production office just to get some scene in the cans. But at the end I really liked how this improvised location cut in the final movie. As for the bus, it was your typical logistic issue mixing a moving vehicle on a road with extras and too much coverage for our day.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Bernier: Adam, Frankie (production designers) and I talked a lot about the color of DIA in prep. We wanted to make a colorful movie with strong and rich primary colors while scattering the American flag colors a little everywhere. So most of the look was already there thanks to Frankie. I used a basic in camera reference LUT to add a bit more contrast and saturation while keeping natural skin tones.

When I arrived at Light Iron I gave all the references I had gathered before the shoot to Ian Vertovec and we discussed the look I had in mind. After 45 min Ian had created several different “film stocks” to test. We fell in love with one of his looks which was keeping the white neutral like in the Richard Corman Madonna series with rich color without the digital feel you get from high saturation. I love how Ian was able to push the color and sharpness while keeping an analog look to the RED sensor. He was truly able to bring that memory of the 90s indie films into our movie. Color was so smooth and easy on DIA, thanks to Ian and Light Iron.

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