“The Movie’s Beauty Comes From What Reminds People of Their Own Life”: DP Cristina Dunlap on Cha Cha Real Smooth
Cha Cha Real Smooth taps into generational angst with its story of Andrew, a recent university alum who finds himself moving in with his parents due to a lack of job prospects. Andrew catches a break when he finds work as a party-starter for bar and bat mitzvahs, where he finds himself yearning for a future that might not be his own. Cinematographer Cristina Dunlap discusses how she varied the look of each of the seven bar and bat mitzvahs and making an abandoned Pittsburgh mall stand-in for so many different locations.
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?
Dunlap: I was lucky enough to work with Dakota Johnson & Ro Donnelly of TeaTime Pictures on another film at Sundance this year, Am I Ok?. After that, they approached me about their next project, Cha Cha Real Smooth, and they set up a meeting between me and director Cooper Raiff. The title alone piqued my interest, and then I fell in love with the script. While reading it I was flooded with inspiration and images, so I came to my meeting with Cooper with a pretty extensive lookbook.
We hit it off immediately and spent months talking through references and watching films together in order to hone in on the tone and feeling of Cha Cha Real Smooth. Being that Cooper was not only the writer-director but was also going to be starring in the film meant that we really needed to have discussed every detail before going into production. I wanted to have a pretty concrete plan about everything so that once we got to set, he had that trust in me and could really focus on acting and directing.
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?
Dunlap: My artistic goal for this film was to make it as relatable as possible. Cooper and I talked a lot about the camera movement being a big emotional component in each specific scene. This isn’t the type of movie that called for big crane moves or showy long one-takes. While that stuff is always fun to do, as a DP, my main goal is always to serve the story and not distract from it.
We wanted it to feel grounded and raw while still being inviting. We wanted to allow the camera to find the humor or tender moments in a scene by panning or tilting to reveal a punchline or a detail that might otherwise go unnoticed. We really wanted it to feel as though we are in Andrew’s world and that we are experiencing things along with him. It was important to us to have a very intimate style of shooting. When we first met, Cooper told me that he wanted the movie’s beauty to come from what reminds people of their own life or reality, their fondest memories, so that was the ultimate goal.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?
Dunlap: The artist Lauren Greenfield did an incredible photo series at bar and bat mitzvah parties that I had seen years back. These photos became a big inspiration for the feeling that we wanted to create. There is one photo of a boy and girl slow dancing, and the girl is about a foot and a half taller than the boy. He’s staring into the lens with this dumbfounded look. The series encapsulates that age so well, the awkwardness and innocence of kids taking that step toward adulthood. We wanted to translate that feeling into the party scenes of our film.
Another big influence was Silver Linings Playbook. There is a kinetic energy in that film that we wanted to bring to Cha Cha Real Smooth. I also think it does a great job of keeping the lighting naturalistic while still being interesting. I wanted to be able to light the room entirely in order to allow the actors to move freely about the space. I love when blocking takes a character in and out of shadows and light when the scene requires it.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Dunlap: The biggest challenge was definitely having to shoot half of the movie at a semi-abandoned mall in Pittsburgh. In order to qualify for the tax incentive, we had to shoot 10 or our 23 days there, and I still can’t believe we pulled it off. The only location in the script that could potentially take place in a mall was Andrew’s job, and for the rest of it we had to find ways to make it work. It was a gigantic mall that had only about 10% of the stores inside operational. Five of the seven bar and bat mitzvahs were filmed inside vacated restaurants and stores. One of them I am pretty sure used to be an Abercrombie.
We could be shooting for a few hours without seeing anyone and then suddenly a random power walker would go by doing their laps around the mall. The production design team, helmed by Céline Diano, did an incredible job of transforming these different spaces into bar mitzvahs and many other locations scattered throughout the film.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Dunlap: We shot on the Alexa Mini with Cooke S4’s and an old Angeneiux HR 25-250. The Alexa is always my go to when film is not a possibility. After testing many lenses, we ended up landing on the Cooke s4’s because of their rendering of skin tones and ability to hold contrast and detail.
There are many moments throughout the film of watching and being watched, and we wanted to translate visually how that feels. Early on in our discussions, Cooper described wanting to think about the camera as drunk/focused/loving eyes. For this we used an old Angenieux HR 25-250—usually at the long end—to capture the emotion of seeing someone you like across a crowded room and feeling as though they are the only thing in focus and that you are being drawn toward them.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Dunlap: Lighting was one of the most exciting aspects about this film to me. It really gave us the opportunity to span the range of very gaudy and colorful club lighting to super intimate and naturalistic interiors. It was a real challenge to come up with a light scheme for seven different bar & bat mitzvahs, oftentimes only having one day or sometimes half a day to film one of the parties. I worked closely with my wonderful gaffer Justin Garcia to make sure that every bar or bat mitzvah had its own unique look & characteristics. We wanted to make sure that we spanned the range of different budgets and extravagance. We used mostly LED space lights or softboxes overhead, and sometimes we were able to incorporate real party or concert lighting into the fancier parties.
For the house interiors, we worked in as many practicals as possible and pushed moonlight in through the windows whenever we weren’t having to shoot day for night.
Like I mentioned earlier, it was really important to me to leave space for the actors to move around the room, so we tried to light as broadly as possible and then would bring in specials for closeups.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Dunlap: It’s never the scene you are worried about that ends up being the most difficult. The final scene should have been one of our easiest scenes being that it was supposed to be a magic hour exterior. Of course, on the day we had crazy storms with lighting and very heavy rain.
It was the last day we had with Dakota, so we had no choice but to shoot it. After trying to wait for breaks in the rain and having large overhead rain cover we had to give up because it just wasn’t relenting, so we moved the scene into a car. It ended up being super sweet and intimate, perfect for the scene.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Dunlap: I worked with my colorist Nat Jencks to come up with a LUT before filming. There were some tweaks made while on set with my DIT, Jason Johnson, but we did end up sticking pretty closely to the LUT. We of course did work on sculpting it further in the DI, but we only had five days to color, so we didn’t stray too far from the original vision.
Film Title: Cha Cha Real Smooth
Camera: Alexa Mini
Lenses: Cooke S4’s & Angenieux HR 25-250 zoom
Lighting: LED, HMI, & Tungsten
Processing: 4K UHD ProRes 4444 XQ
Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve Advanced