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Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

23 Days, Ten Crew Members, Two Lenses and One Joker: DP Drew Daniels on Red Rocket

Simon Rex in Red RocketSimon Rex in Red Rocket (courtesy of A24)

“I really love to embrace limitations,” says cinematographer Drew Daniels. “I try to limit some of my choices on any film I do.”

With Red Rocket, the opportunities to welcome constraints were plentiful.

The latest from Tangerine and The Florida Project filmmaker Sean Baker, Red Rocket was shot in 23 days entirely on practical Texas locations with a supporting cast largely populated by local first-time actors. The crew boasted 10 members, including producers doing double duty as assistant directors or costume designers. The grip/electric department was a literal one man band, armed with Digital Sputniks, a few Astera tubes and a single 800 watt Joker. The lens package leaned almost wholly on two pieces of prototype anamorphic glass, created for Steven Soderbergh’s Che and then abandoned.

Unfolding during the months leading up to the 2016 Presidential election, the film stars Simon Rex as a narcissistic adult film actor who slinks back to his Texas hometown after burning one bridge too many in L.A. With Red Rocket now available on VOD and out today on physical media, Daniels spoke to Filmmaker about perfectly timed trains, the simplistic beauty of the Spielberg oner, and the influence of The Sugarland Express and Paris, Texas.

Filmmaker: Simon Rex has talked about getting cast as Mikey at the last minute and then leaving immediately to make the three-day drive from Joshua Tree to Texas to start work on the film. How did you end up on the project? Did you have much prep time or did you come on belatedly as well?

Daniels: Trey Shults, who I worked with on It Comes at Night, Krisha and Waves, and Alex Saks, one of the Red Rocket producers, recommended me to Sean. Trey and Sean are actually very similar as filmmakers so I think it was a natural fit and I think Sean really trusted Trey’s word. Sean gave me a call and we had an immediate rapport, talking about the same films and the same approach, and that was before I had even read the script. 

I drove out to Texas and actually lived for a few weeks with Sean, Sean’s wife [Red Rocket producer Samantha Quan],  [producer] Alex Coco and his partner in this little Victorian house in Galveston. It was like a big family. Lots of dogs. (laughs) A lot of the prep was just driving around for a few weeks together and searching for locations and scouting, getting excited and hopping out of the van to check something out. It was very small, very intimate. It kind of reminded me of shooting Krisha with Trey—just friends driving around, talking movies, talking ideas. 

Filmmaker: What is Sean’s process like? Red Rocket is full of long takes that play out in wide frames. Did you have shot lists or does Sean like to get into the space on the day, rehearse and figure out the best spot for the camera? 

Daniels: It surprised me, because I thought that Sean was a lot more, like, shoot from the hip and riffing, and it was actually anything but that. It was pretty controlled. We did have a shot list for a lot of things. Everything at (Mikey’s estranged wife’s) house, we had a shot list for. We spent a lot of time at that house during prep sitting and going through every single scene, talking about what it needed to feel like and what the purpose of the scene was. Sean and Alex Coco would act out scenes, and I would take photos or shoot videos with my phone. We did it in a pretty classic way, but we were also working with a lot of first-time actors and variables that were changing all the time. We’d lose a location or find a new actor or add an actor into a scene. So, it was a mixture of approaches.

Filmmaker: There is such an economy to the visual storytelling. It really feels like the approach to most scenes is, “What’s the minimum number of shots that we need to tell the story?”

Daniels: Exactly. One of the first things Sean said to me was, “I want to do unconventional coverage and longer shots.” We’re shooting on 16mm film with first-time actors, doing all these things that go against that approach. So, it was an interesting challenge to shoot things in longer takes with much less resources. One of my favorite online videos is by this guy Tony Zhou, who does these filmmaking breakdowns, about the Spielberg oner. One of our main references for Red Rocket became The Sugarland Express, which is full of these Spielberg oners that are very simple, economical camera placements where you can play out most of a scene in a wide. Maybe a character enters frame into a close-up, or the camera does one pan, or pans over and back. It’s almost imperceptible that it’s a oner because it just feels like the camera is doing exactly what it needs to do to tell the story. That sort of economy and simplicity and direct filmmaking was a big influence on Red Rocket.

Filmmaker: You’re also working with a director who edits his own films. So, maybe where you normally might say, “Let’s just grab an extra shot just in case,” there is no “just in case,” because Sean knows what he’s going to use.

Daniels: I’m a very edit-conscious cinematographer and I always think about how things are going to cut in the scene and Sean and I were on the exact same page as far as concepts in editing for the film. We wanted every scene to have a structure to it. We never wanted to just be cutting from, for example, a medium shot to a medium shot then to a wide shot, back to a medium to a close-up back to a medium. We wanted a structure and a progression in the edit in the shot size and we didn’t want to re-use shots. I don’t know if you noticed it, but there’s very little re-using of shots. It’s like when we cut to a shot, we commit to the shot and then that shot brings us to a new shot. There are times where it’s crazy and it’s all handheld and chaotic, but often the scenes have a design to them and an editorial structure that we would really talk about on set. How Sean talked about editing the scenes is like 99 percent of how they’re actually edited in the final product.

*****Spoilers follow*****

Filmmaker: I love the style of longer takes and wider shots. That’s just a rhythm that appeals to me, personally. The only moment where I remember thinking “I wish they would get tighter” is when Mikey tells his wife Lexi he’s leaving town. Did you have any moments on set where you felt yourself pulled toward a tighter shot when the plan was only for wider coverage?

Daniels: Not really, because I trusted Sean so much. I love being able to commit to something. We didn’t cover that scene at all. We just shot the wide and it worked so well. We rehearsed it and it was so dialed in, the timing and how you could see Simon’s body language and [Lexi actress Bree Elrod’s] detachment as it all played in the wide. Not long after that, there’s a shot of Lexi and her mother outside the house smoking. Without either of them actually saying anything, you see Lexi’s reaction to that break-up. I like that approach, where you save the character’s reaction for the next scene and it’s almost more interesting, because it’s like seeing them processing, or reeling from, what just happened.

Filmmaker: Simon’s reaction to that break up is a turning point in the movie. He goes into his room and sits down on his bed and there’s this moment where you think, “Is this finally some sense of guilt or remorse?” Then he smirks and it’s like, “Nope.”

Daniels: That’s another one of those Spielberg oners where you just pan him into the room slowly and he goes from almost pure darkness and walks into a silhouette. He sits down and he’s half-lit on his face, then the camera creeps in and he lays down and he’s in full light. I love how that shot has an evolution of light. 

****End of spoilers****

Filmmaker: The point of view in the film is interesting. I tend to like an objective, observational point of view. Even though Mikey is in almost every scene, we really see the movie from a detached perspective.

Daniels: I actually really like more of a subjective camera—working with Trey, we love subjective camerawork—but with this character Mikey, you want to have a level of detachment from him. He is our lead character, so he does drive the camera in certain ways, but you don’t want to be in the eyes and the head of a narcissistic character like that. I think you need a little space.

Filmmaker: Tell me about going with 16mm, especially when pairing it with anamorphic lenses.

Daniels: Sean wanted to shoot 16mm from the very beginning. He pitched me on it right from the start and actually even bought his own SR3, so we shot with his camera. I love 16, it’s one of my favorite formats, but I thought it would be interesting to try to shoot 16mm as clean as possible. With anamorphic 16mm, you get a little bit more of the negative, so it becomes this almost undefinable negative size that I thought would fit the weird character of the film itself, with this lead character that you love and hate. So, we shot anamorphic and tried to use lower ASA film stocks, as low as we could for any given scene. I also tried not to push or pull [process] the film and tried to shoot at a deeper stop, like a 5.6, to get as clean of an image as I could. We also wanted to offset the inherent grittiness of the locations and the story by shooting 16mm with very rich colors. So, in the grade we pushed the colors. Red was a big thematic color in the film, so we always tried to push that color. That was our main goal—density and a richness of color, texture and depth.

Filmmaker: The lenses you used were ones that Steven Soderbergh put together for Che years ago and ultimately didn’t end up using. Had they been in some rental house collecting dust or had other people used them since then?

Daniels: I think for the most part very few people have shot on them. There’s only two sets and there’s only two lenses in each set—a 16mm and a 50mm, basically a wide angle lens and a close-up lens. So, we only really had two lenses on this movie. I loved both of those lenses, but I definitely liked the wide one a little bit more. I first found out about them from a friend of mine, a DP named Matt Mitchell. I saw that Matt had shot a short documentary with them and I was fascinated. I always love finding these weird formats or lenses people aren’t really using and trying to make them work for a film in some way.

That said, I would have loved to have had at least one more lens in the middle, you know? Sean also bought an anamorphic lens adapter, which we did use every now and then. It was this crazy German front element adapter that was actually really difficult to use. You never quite knew if it was in focus or if it was going to work 100 percent, and it took a long time to put on and take off the camera. Any wiggle room between any of the adapter elements and your focus was kind of off, but we did use that a little because it filled in the focal lengths a bit. The [Soderbergh] lenses also have a four foot close focus, so that was a pain in the ass. We were always using diopters. A lot of the blocking or shot mechanics would be dictated by the limitations of the lenses.

Filmmaker: Especially with the wide lens, it adds this unique element because a lot of times a movie like this, that takes an observational point of view, is trying to put forth some sense of realism. But that wide lens has such prominent barrel distortion and feels so distinctly anamorphic that it skews the look away from simply replicating the perspective of the human eye.

Daniels: I’ve had a love/hate relationship with anamorphic, but for the right film it totally works. Spherical is like hard reality, and I feel like anamorphic is more like an interpretation of reality. It’s a format that’s kind of funky and has a bit of a magical quality to it. A big inspiration was the photography of Vilmos Zsigmond, particularly Close Encounters and Sugarland Express. I just love what he did in the 1970s with anamorphic. 

Filmmaker: Red Rocket had a ten person crew. Your G&E department was literally one dude. What was even in the truck and how much of this is actually available light? 

Daniels: You know, more of it is lit than you think. That was actually probably the hardest part. Chris Hill, who was the gaffer on Waves—bless his heart, man. He drove his little Ghostbusters van full of grip and electric gear down. He had apple boxes, sandbags, stands, a couple bounces and then a couple flags, and he had a set of Digital Sputnik lights, which are these punchy LED lights.

Filmmaker: Those are the Greig Fraser lights.

Daniels: Yeah, I’ve been using them ever since Greig Fraser started using them. I love them. I always try to get them for whatever I work on, they’re really useful. So, yeah, mainly we used Digital Sputniks. We didn’t even have a SkyPanel or anything. We had one HMI, which was an 800 Joker. So, if we were pushing daylight through a window, it was usually that light literally a foot outside the window, just blasting. (laughs) For diffusion, what I ended up using were these plastic bags. If it was one layer it was kind of like an opal. If it was two layers it was more like a 250, then I would triple and quadruple it if I needed more layers of diffusion. So, Chris would be setting a light outside and I would be layering diffusion on windows and putting blacks on walls. We also did a lot of TV gags with Astera tubes. That was basically it—Digital Sputniks, Asteras and that Joker.

Filmmaker: You mentioned before trying to shoot at lower ASAs for a cleaner look. What stocks did you use?

Daniels: For daylight I would use 50D ASA as late in the day as I could use it, then switch over to 250. If I had to do interiors I would try to do it at 250 just for a little tighter grain, but honestly the 500T is so good that sometimes I would just use that if I wanted to shoot at a deeper stop. That 500 has actually become my favorite stock. Especially for shooting the fluorescent lights of the refineries in town, that 500 was awesome.

Filmmaker: I love the way the night exteriors look in the movie. It’s a town where there’s no white, neutral light in the exteriors. It’s all this industrial mix of sodium and mercury vapor.

Daniels: Yeah, one of my favorite films is Paris, Texas, shot by Robby Müller. I love the daylight exteriors on that film. They’re just amazing—the blue skies, the greens, the reds that are always popping. At night there’s always the green fluorescents and the way streetlights burn out and halo. Paris, Texas was a big inspiration. And, again, Sugarland Express is very similar in that there’s lots of fluorescents, lots of mercury vapor lights outside and sunsets—shooting dusk with industrial lights in the foreground and beautiful dusk sunsets. It’s just glorious. Another Robby Müller film, To Live and Die in L.A., has some really beautiful images with refineries. Robby Müller and Vilmos Zsigmond are two of my favorite cinematographers and I definitely got to fully embrace that inspiration on this film.

Filmmaker: The exterior light at Lexi’s house has that Paris, Texas green color to it for sure.

Daniels: That was just there at the house.

Filmmaker: That light was already there at that location? You didn’t even change the bulb?

Daniels: Yeah, that was just there. We would look for that stuff [when choosing locations]. Sean and Alex Coco had already found that location [before I got to Texas] so I didn’t really have anything to do with that one, but it was pretty amazing. I got really lucky. It was really tiny, but it had little nooks to hide lights in and windows exactly where you needed them. 

Filmmaker: There is this great car shot in the movie where there’s a 30-second dialogue scene where you’re pushing in to the picture car. How did you do that?

Daniels: I’ve dreamed of that shot for years. I’m from Texas, I grew up in that area. Texas has these feeder roads, basically like an access road, and they run parallel to the freeway. So, we were on I-45 shooting out the side of the van and were able to merge perfectly parallel with [the car with the actors] on that access road and come right into a medium shot through the side of the car by just merging and driving next to them. I’m obsessed with road movies and 70s road movies especially, and I feel like sometimes a film’s style is defined by how you shoot car scenes. I’m so happy that Sean was down to shoot the car scenes the way I wanted to do them, which was car-to-car.

Filmmaker: There’s a shot where Mikey comes to ask Strawberry, a donut shop employee he’s grooming to enter the industry, to leave town with him, and right as he’s asking this train roars by. Was that planned or a lucky accident?

Daniels: We had been shooting at that location for a few days and noticed that these trains were going by and Sean was like, “Okay, we have to have a train in that scene.” Up to that point every single train that passed was like two or three cars long and super slow, but we wanted this epic train. Like a “train train,” you know? The day we were going to shoot that scene we were outside starting to get ready and there was a guy working on the train tracks. We asked him, “Hey man, are there any trains coming today?” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, there’s a train that will be here in about 20 minutes.” And we asked how long it was and he said, “About 20 cars long.” We called Simon and were like, “Get over here! We’ve got to shoot this scene now!” We shot almost everything in the movie on a tripod, but that was one of the shots we used a Dana dolly for, just on speed rail. We started with a whip pan into it and only had one take, so we had to wait for the train to be in the exact right place. It just all timed out perfectly and then there was a train horn at the exact right moment to obscure what Simon was saying. I remember Sean saying that he wouldn’t change a frame of the timing of it. It was perfect and that was just total luck. The film gods on this film were shining on us 100 percent, from getting Simon three days before we started shooting, to all the characters we just stumbled upon on the street and cast into the film, to nobody getting COVID. It was crazy how we were able to pull it off.

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