“Box Within a Box Feeling”: DP Paul Ozgur on John and the Hole
In Pascual Sisto’s John and the Hole, John (Charlie Shotwell), seemingly unprovoked, drugs his family and tosses them into a bunker where he holds them captive. Written by Birdman co-writer Nicolás Giacobone, John and the Hole is a zoomed in look at the psychology of boyhood. DP Paul Ozgur shares his frustrations with the changing of the seasons complicating shooting and the team’s move away from romantic imagery.
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?
Ozgur: When you get a script from your agent that’s written by Nicolás Giacobone then it’s hard not to get excited. The script was something refreshing and I really felt that this was something unique and very inspiring. I’d been a huge fan of Nicolás’s work for years so I jumped on the opportunity to work on one of his movies.
I believe Pascual had seen a short film I shot years ago (Magnesium, which was selected for the Sundance 2013 Film Festival and won Best Cinematography at the Camerimage Film Festival). Pascual mentioned that he liked how focused the cinematography was on the main character. Interestingly the cinematography in Magnesium is very different from how we ended up shooting John and the Hole.
Magnesium was handheld, shot on super 16mm and John and the Hole is the complete opposite, a calm and static camera, large format and I believe only three scenes were on the shoulder. But he envisioned the film with that same focus. After my interview with Pascual I got a pretty clear idea on how he wanted to visualize the film and I shared a similar vision. We spoke about films as references but mostly about what he didn’t like. I think what really convinced Pascual was a book I found by Arne Svenson: The Neighbors. When I showed it to him he said “yes, this is exactly how I see the film!” We both loved the voyeuristic aspect of some of those pictures and the way he captured quotidian activities of his neighbors in a glass-walled apartment building across the street from his Manhattan studio.
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?
Ozgur: Pascual is a very meticulous visual artist with a clear vision, this was something I really felt in the words when I read the script. He had strong ideas on how he wanted to capture the film and I think we both agreed on that we have to tell this story from John’s perspective. We both like beautiful cinematography but we both agreed on that this movie needs a very contemporary aesthetic, he always said to me “I don’t want beautiful images!” Of course he wanted the movie to look pleasing to the eye but he didn’t want it to be distracting and I agreed with that aspect. Our main character is a curious but introverted young kid that stares at the world in a curious and particular way. This accumulated in a cinematic language that would reflect this by looking at the world through his eyes. We kept the camera static and direct. And wanted an exact placement of objects and our characters. Our goal was to avoid connecting John to other characters, only on very specific moments. We were very strict on when we would use over-shoulders and when not. And when we were not with him, we would look at him in voyeuristic manner.
For the parents, it was the opposite. They were growing closer towards each other as the film progresses.
As for our compositions, we strived to use the square format but not over do it. It’s very tempting to go too far and overuse the negative space and it would become distracting. We wanted it not to feel too contrived. My goal was to reflect the audience’s field of view and I felt that the square format would enhance the experience.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Ozgur: When I read the script I was fascinated by the hole in the ground. Whenever I start visualizing a script I always see one or two images in my head, sometimes they leave during prep, sometimes they stay in my head. In this case I had this shot of a POV looking up from within on a square hole. I told Pascual I always saw this film in a 1:33.1 ratio. So I proposed the idea of making the opening of the hole the same as the shooting ratio, so that you really have this box within a box feeling. For me, even though John never went into the hole it would reflect his inner feeling. Pascual and Jacqueline Abrahams (production designer) loved it. So slowly, organically it became a visual theme that would reoccur in all other locations.
As I mentioned one of our biggest visual reference was the photography book by Arne Svenson. It was really a starting point for us. Pascual always wanted to tell the story as if the audience was looking into a fishbowl, and so with this in mind we started developing our visual language. We were very particular on where we wanted to place the audience in the scene. There were times we would place the character outside the house while we kept the audience inside. These we very deliberate commitments. We choose our main location based on this philosophy, the house had to have loads of windows to look in and out from and straight lines that could dissect the image creating spatial divisions between the two worlds. Even on some of the car shots we used the windows and mirrors to apply this concept.
For the hole location we wanted to feel the opposite. The hole was a cold concrete build space with only one opening from the top where you could see some trees and have the light come in. We would either look down on them or be with them down in the hole.
Another big inspiration was Yasujirō Ozu, I studied his determined compositions a lot during prep and I love his simplicity and radiantly calm tone.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Ozgur: As with every indie feature film, budget and not enough shooting days! But one big challenge was the changing environment of the exteriors we were shooting (Boston, MA). I remember during preproduction our producer would warn us for the changing and turning off the leaves from green to red to orange. At the time I couldn’t imagine the leaves would turn so quickly. I was wrong! The film was supposed to take place during the summertime and we both did not like the romantic orange and red leaves. We had so many exterior shots and that made me a bit nervous. We tried to shoot as many exterior shots at the beginning of principle shooting but unfortunately because of scheduling we had to shoot some scenes later in the shoot and the trees would literally be bare! Which stressed me out a bit, I would walk around on set and clear the forest from orange and red leaves before we started shooting.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Ozgur: I tend to shoot a lot on medium still format film in my time off and to me it has such a visceral feel to it. I strived to give this film a similar format. We spoke about shooting on 65mm or 35mm 4-perf but obviously the budget would never have allowed it and so we wanted to find the next best thing. We ended up testing the Arri ALEXA LF with an open gate. The bigger format would give us the option to play with a very shallow depth of field or a very deep depth of field.
Choosing the right lenses was a challenge, during our shooting not much glass was available that would cover the large sensor. We tested some older glass and newer glass and we both agreed on that the Zeiss Supreme primes were a match. I also needed the consistent, close focus and speed of a modern lens. I am a strong believer that on LF every T-stop has a huge impact on the image. The difference between a T2 and a T5.6 is immense. So instead of changing lens sizes in scenes I wanted to play with the T-stop and the position of the camera.
We realized that our workhorse should be the 50mm and the occasionally the 85mm for close-ups, so we ended up using 2 lenses only. I like working in a disciplined manner, as I believe that it will keep you more aware and cautious on were to put the camera (and thus the audience) physically. For some of the slow zooms we used the Angenieux Optimo zoom, it is a bit colder and less contrast-y then the primes but I figured we could match it easily in the DI.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Ozgur: Pascual loved to keep the lighting very contemporary, and not too dramatic. Pascual and I kept talking about “beautiful lighting” and how it wouldn’t fit the story. The main location was an open space house that had these incredible huge windows, it was a gift for the film but a challenge for me because if I had to light the space I needed similar big sources to match the character of the lighting. Which was hard with the lighting budget. We had to work very disciplined but thanks to our incredible AD, David Spencer, we achieved using natural daylight most of the time. I always have a very close working relationship with the AD. I think it’s important to make schedule decisions together between the director, AD and me.
The other challenge was matching the exterior lighting of the hole with the interior, which we end up shooting on the sound stage. We decided that it was best to shoot all the exteriors first, the POV is looking out of the hole, the VFX plates so they dictated the type of weather we would later have to match. So I made notes, took reference pictures on what the natural lighting would give me and match it a couple weeks later in the studio. Thanks to my incredible gaffer Ben Heald this ended up matching seamlessly. We kept it all natural in the hole, no fill, no bounces. If they ended up in completely darkness then that was how it was shot. There was only one way the light could enter the hole and so we kept true to that.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Ozgur: At one point the main character John flies a drone carrying lights above the hole at night. We planned on doing a POV looking up to the drone from within the hole. Because we shot the drone on location and the hole was build on set, we had to match the lighting. It was a beautiful scene on paper but I was a bit nervous on if I would be able to match it. Shooting plates wasn’t the problem but matching the movement of the drone and the light in the studio. We had to create a similar light movement so that the shadows falling on the walls and actors in the hole would match the movement from the drone. I knew it would work but at some point I just didn’t know if it would be believable. I must say, the editor and VFX team did an incredible job matching those sequences and so I’m quite pleased with the end result.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Ozgur: The way I shoot is that I bake in the look as much as I can in camera, even if I shoot RAW (which we did) I change the color temperature accordingly to the look I want. I filter all my lights to get the right color temperatures. I don’t believe in changing the look in post unless there is a color issue that needs solving.
Finishing this movie was probably the biggest challenging of the project. Due to the pandemic the director and I couldn’t attend an in-person grade! Which was not great, so I ended up grading every frame of the film myself, making notes and pinging them back and forth between the grader and Pascual. We did a couple live grade sessions via an iPad connection but it was far from ideal and I hope that I never have to finish a movie this way again, but there was no other way. We had to be flexible and we got there in the end!
Film Title: John and the Hole
Camera: Arri ALEXA LF (open gate)
Lenses: Zeiss Supreme Primes / Angenieux Optimo 25-250mm
Processing: Digital Intermediate / ARRIRAW
Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve