“The DNA of the Film Becomes Second Nature”: DP Frank Barrera on Together Together
Nikole Beckwith’s surprising romantic comedy Together Together lacks an actual romance. Matt (Ed Helms) decides to have a child despite being single, so he seeks the help of gestational surrogate Anna (Patti Harrison). The two strike up an unlikely friendship, a purely platonic relationship between two self-described loners who gradually learn a thing or two about love. DP Frank Barrera details how his team made difficult seems look effortless and how to film realistic drama.
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?
Barrera: Both director Nikole Beckwith and producer Anthony Brandonisio were familiar with the work I had done with Patrick Wang. Nikole and Patrick share a deep theater background and this comes through in their work. They both explore certain combinations of cinema and theater. I have a lot of experience in this area. During my interview with Nikole we talked about our love for these types of dramatic films. There is a certain sensibility to telling a simple story that explores complex human relationships. This is my favorite type of filmmaking. I think that played heavily in my being hired.
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?
Barrera: We wanted the film to be soft, warm and inviting but also be able to retain areas of contrast and shape. We wanted it to feel like a naturally lit comedy with an underpinning of realistic drama. I focused on the idea that the lighting needed to support an empathetic reaction from the viewer towards our are two main characters. There is an experimental narrative aspect to this film in that 85% of it is just two actors talking to each other. That could get monotonous real fast if not mitigated. I took great care in making sure that the lighting always had some subtle dynamic to it that would add a layer of visual interest in support of the performances. I wanted to fall in love with Ed and Patti every time I looked through the viewfinder. Hopefully the viewer would share in that same experience.
We wanted to look at using older glass to add a timeless feeling. After extensive lens tests with both modern and vintage glass we landed with the Zeiss Super Speeds. It had just the right amount of built in softness. Also Nikole and Anthony liked the flatness of the image versus the more dimension we get with a modern lens. So many great films were shot with the Super Speeds during their heyday that we tend to associate their characteristics with a time that has past. In addition we also used Tiffen Black Pro-Mist filters to push the softness even further. When possible I would expose at a deep stop (5.6) so that the depth of field would perceptually help apparent sharpness through what was usually a fourth or half Black Pro-Mist. I have never shot an entire project with so much diffusion on the lens before. I was often surprised at how much detail was retained after the light passed through all of this glass. It looked beautiful. I quickly fell in love with these images.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Barrera: To create our visual language Nikole and I had a wide ranging discussion throughout prep about what influences we might draw upon. Also we had never worked together before so I needed to understand her overall sensibilities and taste. We discovered that we had a lot of creative common ground.
Most instructive were conversations that we had regarding some recent films that had elements that Nikole felt were connected to her film. Some of the films we discussed were Private Life, The Meyerwitz Stories and Tully. There were different aspects throughout these films that she responded to. Some of it was the framing and composition; the camera movement or lack thereof; production design and use of color or certain lighting effects. It all added to our developing conversation about how she wanted Together Together to look. Ultimately this all led to our lens tests which would definitively represent the final look overall.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Barrera: The biggest challenge for maintaining the visual identity of the film was its short schedule. We only had 19 days. The key to success here is preparation. I know that sounds obvious but it cannot be emphasized enough. Going into a production of any length of course requires great planning. But when there is zero wiggle room in the schedule you need to make sure that all department heads are on the same page not just creatively but also logistically. I take it upon myself to work very closely with everyone to make sure that any perceived compromises during prep result in eventual achievements when we shoot.
I must say I do enjoy the prep phase quite a bit because it mixes the unlimited creative process with the pragmatism of what the reality is going to be when you start shooting. Its problem solving at its finest. We go in with a strong plan. Sometimes of course you have to divert from the plan but as a company we are all so familiar with the language of the film that any surprises are always approached through the lens of our film’s look. I try to create an environment where the DNA of the film becomes second nature in everyone’s mind.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Barrera: We used the Arri ALEXA Mini. I have shot extensively with the ALEXA system and have always admired its color science, its representation of skin tones, its roll off into over exposure and its rugged build. For me, the ALEXA is a default choice until there is a requirement for some other technical attribute that it does not possess.
Zeiss Super Speeds with Tiffen Black Promist.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Barrera: We wanted the lighting to be soft and inviting but not at the expense of a certain level of naturalism and realism. We also wanted the actors to have a great deal of freedom to move around in each set. So in some ways we were trying to light the spaces and not the actors. But of course we would usually make adjustments for close ups.
When working in this style of lighting I often think of the domestic interiors of Vermeer. The compositions of his often intimate scenes would usually include a window. From these windows would pour in this beautiful, soft light. And yet still there would be a retention of contrast in other areas of the room. This feels very much like a benchmark for modern dramatic filmmaking to me.
Our gaffer Chris Tonkovich and I came up with various ways based on each location on how to achieve our approach. We would always simply begin with any naturally motivated sources (lamp light at night or window light during the day) and then adjust from there. Chris is also a wizard at using the Luminair software to control all of the lights on set. This was my first time working like this and it was infinitely helpful. I believe he spoiled me. To be able to make macro adjustments just moments before we were shooting without a technician getting up on a ladder to adjust color temperature or intensity was a major shift for me. It made all the difference in the world in how the film finally looks overall.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Barrera: The most challenging scene was the one where Anna (Patti Harrison) tells Matt (Ed Helms) that she wants to step back from their developing relationship. Although it is not actually a break-up scene in the traditional sense we certainly treated it like it was. It is an emotional scene that was going to require a lot of work from the actors and Nikole.
We had planned on this being a day scene with our beautiful soft light streaming in from the living room windows bouncing around the room and giving the actors plenty of room to move. All of that would have been fine but the production had uncharacteristically fallen behind in our schedule that day so we not only had to move at a break neck speed but also the day scene now had to be shot at night.
The challenge was to move as fast as we could, maintain the look of the film and give the actors and Nikole enough space and time to make certain that we capture the best version of this incredibly important scene. It was a three and a half page scene that needed to have the actors move from a hallway on one side of the room all the way across to the front door on the other side of the room. After watching the blocking and all the emotional beats we realized that the coverage would need to be consistent and somewhat surgical. Each beat would require a close-up, but they were moving across the room. If we were to keep true to our lighting style that we had already established we would need about 15 camera and lighting set ups. I think we had about three hours to do it. It was a tremendous amount of work for everyone in a short period of time. But we did it. Looking at the scene now I don’t think anyone would ever think it was so difficult to do. But it was.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Barrera: Of course color correction is always integral to the final image of any film but when working on dramatic projects I usually don’t see much reason to leave any significant amount of the look to the post-production process. Other than sweetening and enhancing here and there I believe in committing to the look in camera. That was our approach on this film as well.
Film Title: Together Together
Camera: Arri ALEXA Mini 3.2K Probes 4444 Aspect Ratio 2:1
Lenses: Zeiss Super Speeds
Processing: Light Iron
Color Grading: Light Iron