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“To Shoot on the 48th Floor is a DP’s Nightmare”: DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen on Sharper

Sebastian Stan and Brianna Middleton in SharperSebastian Stan and Brianna Middleton in Sharper

Set in a shadowy world of scam artists and grifters, Sharper follows four characters through interlocking stories set in a modern-day noir version of New York City. From Park Avenue penthouses to abandoned warehouses, director Benjamin Caron builds a dangerous world filled with betrayals and double-crosses. Justice Smith plays Tom, manager of a used bookstore. A chance meeting with Sandra (Briana Middleton) leads to Max (Sebastian Stan), a self-professed con man. Max will encounter Madeline Phillips (Julianne Moore), a wealthy widow with designs on corporate titan Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow).

Sharper is the feature debut for Caron, best known for his work on The Crown. He worked with Charlotte Bruus Christensen, a Danish cinematographer known for her collaborations with Dogme 95 director Thomas Vintenberg (The Hunt, Far From the Madding Crowd). Christensen has worked with Denzel Washington (Fences), John Krasinski (A Quiet Place) and directed, as well as shot, three episodes of the Black Narcissus miniseries.

After a theatrical run, Sharper is streaming on Apple TV+. Christensen spoke with Filmmaker via Zoom.

Filmmaker: How did Sharper start for you?

Christensen: I had just finished All the Old Knives when my agents at CAA sent me Sharper. I loved the script and the energy and pace of the writing. The idea of con artists conning each other, making a film where money is a supporting character—both were interesting. 

Filmmaker: How do you build a character visually?

Christensen: It’s hard to explain. Whatever it is that you bring as a DP—a different angle, or a different choice of lens, a small “Sven Nykvist zoom” or a “Chivo wide lens Steadicam move,” whatever it is that makes you stay with a person in a specific moment. Picking those moments and cinematic tools is what builds character, staying just a little bit longer than you would have if it was a Marvel movie and you’ve got to keep the beat going. I don’t know what it is, but it’s something that I love figuring out for each set up, each move. And each director makes it a different choice every time. Whatever I do, I always find my answers to questions through character.

Filmmaker: Can you think of an example?

Christensen: The first chapter is basically a love story. A young girl, Sandra, comes into a bookstore and it’s sort of love at first sight. Without giving anything away, you want to feel she’s on some sort of mission. When she says she’s going to see her brother, we hold on a really tight close-up of her. She says, “I care about you,” and we stay there a little too long, combined with an almost undetectable zoom—you may feel something is wrong as you’re watching it. Later on we come back to that image, but this time you know what she’s really saying and why.

Filmmaker: You allude to film noir in your use of lighting and shadows.

Christensen: Ben was very keen to shoot on film. I’ve done a lot of work on celluloid, so that helped. One of his big references was Klute, which Gordon Willis shot. We actually got a print and watched it in the cinema in New York—a proper, old-fashioned projected screening. Who’s a better inspiration for film noir than Gordon Willis? It’s incredible how much darkness and blacks can be part of storytelling. These days we want to put LED lights everywhere just because we can. You can put any color at any point, make it blink if you want. I think modern film noir is about not doing. The simplicity of it is a real study in terms of going against what’s happening at the moment in the business, how we light these days. It’s hard when you’ve got the equipment in the truck right outside and you could just put another back light in there.

Filmmaker: Sharper has four interlocking stories. Can you talk about establishing different visual approaches to each chapter?

Christensen: Klute was the overall inspiration, but we used a lot of other movies in the chapters. The first, with Tom at the bookstore, we looked at a lot of Wong Kar-wai. A warm, golden feel; reds, primary colors. There’s a little bit of an In the Mood for Love feel when they go to a restaurant and we rely on those paper lanterns. 

Sandra’s chapter is in a colder, rougher part of Queens. In terms of lighting, we made it more steel green. We tried to find places with iron. It had to be rough and raw and hard, moving from Wong Kar-wai into a sort of Blade Runner feel. The third chapter is the first time we go to Park Avenue, so money became key. I had a wonderful relationship with the production designer, Kevin Thompson. We found this wallpaper that looks like gold when it was front-lit. We found lots of ways to “feel” the money in the production design and lighting.

We worked really hard to separate the chapters without it being too literal and still keeping it in one world. We wanted to differentiate our New York locations—the Lower Manhattan bookstore against Queens against the Upper West Side. Our decisions had to fit the characters as well. 

Filmmaker: How did you work with Caron? Did you shot list?

Christensen: We prepared a lot. We had ideas and plans for everything—not necessarily a shot list, but sometimes just a few specific ideas which we could build our day around, then other shots would develop once we blocked the scene. For a few scenes, we found storyboards helped us share our ideas with our collaborators. We worked a lot on transitions—from one chapter to another, but also from scene to scene. Within the scenes we had overall ideas. We could plan wide shots, but of course know we would want to get some close-ups as well. We talked a lot about what Ben wanted to reveal and what he wanted to keep secret. So, all the key elements were there. We trusted each other to plan overall, then feel it out with the actors.

We planned certain wide shot—for example, a wide shot of the bookstore. We wanted to dress it and light it so it felt like a cave, so that Tom’s character recedes into this darkness. Ideas like that would brew through Ben and Kevin Thompson to me. We would know the wide shot was from a specific angle. I would set up a shot and Ben would bring thoughts and ideas to each setup. Since we shot on film, Ben often would sit very close to the camera and have a look through the lens. It was a very organic collaboration where we felt that the story was leading us. We never forced a visual style. It was more through character rather than this shot or that shot.

Filmmaker: Did you work primarily on location?

Christensen: We had a few sets: the penthouse, Sandra’s apartment and a few pick-up sets. The rest was location, some of it really tricky, like the 48th floor of a hotel.

Filmmaker: That’s the Marriott Marquis in Times Square?

Christensen: Yes, the Marriott. To shoot on the 48th floor is a DP’s nightmare, and then it’s a white room with low ceilings and huge windows so you can’t hide anything, and we’re in wintertime so the light’s changing at three o’clock. My team did some light studies, so I had an idea of how the room changes from morning until afternoon. You can’t block the sun on the 48th floor, you can’t do anything. You have to work with what’s there. Sometimes finding a solution is doing things differently. It drives you to not be so in control and light like you would in a studio space. 

Filmmaker: You have a Steadicam shot following Sandra as she leaves an elevated train and walks down a Queens street filled with wonderful green and red tones. How could you light that entire area?

Christensen: My gaffer Sean Sheridan and I had a few concerns about lighting this busy street corner in the middle of Queens at night. When we scouted it, we saw some interesting colors. The train station across the street was pretty well lit, even for film. We found corners where we could hide a lift in which we put 2 x 360 SkyPanels. We asked for a wet down so we could pick up the cyan color in the streets rather than using lights to try to achieve the same effect. We had a second lift with a tungsten 10K to give a warm spot just before the bridge, and on the stairs descending from the train track we found places to hide a few smaller tungsten lights to give it a warm sodium spill.

I really enjoy lighting setups where you need to capture the real atmosphere of a location. It’s about hiding stuff. You’ll never get it the way you planned it; you have to work around cables and bus stops and real life. I love that way of working, because it keeps you on your toes. 

Also, we’re on film. When you light a night setup, you light it to your eye and your light meter. You put yourself in a position where you know the camera’s going be. At some point you’ll look through the camera. That’s the closest you’ll get. You don’t have these big, fancy monitors where you can dial in and start grading. It’s an analogue approach which I love.

Filmmaker: What did you shoot on?

Christensen: I have a great relationship with Panavision. I’ve shot so many projects on the Millennium XL 35mm cameras. They’re great to load, great on handheld. I love working with them. Ben was very keen to shoot widescreen, so we ended up with the Panavision C series lenses. I love them because they’re not like a complete set. I mean, they have the same glass, but they have different characteristics. Some are warmer, some softer at the edges. You get a lot of choices, which I love because they help you finesse things to get closer to the feelings you want to achieve.

I was working Sean Sheridan for the first time, and it was a true pleasure. I’ve done a couple of projects with key grip Mitch Lillian, who’s also become a true collaborator. We spent a lot of time pre-rigging the big stage shots. We had a great mix of led and tungsten lights. I would say that the majority of our lights were old fashioned tungsten lamp like PAR cans. 1Ks, 2ks, 5Ks, 10Ks. Some LED lights. We used SkyPanels and very often the fabulous Astera tubes.

Other than that, it was pretty old-fashioned. I love tungsten lamps, they’re fun to work with. I love PAR Cans. Everybody seems to hate them. It became a joke on set—they would look at me and ask, “Do you want a PAR Can here?” And I would say, “Yeah, I think I do.” I know they’re hard to cut and they can barrel too much, but you can paint with them because they’re so precise. They’re little spotlights.

Filmmaker: What are you working on now?

Christensen: I just finished a nine-month, seven-episode show called Retreat. We shot for 106 days. When I wrapped that, I needed a break. It stars Clive Owen and Emma Corrin and will be on Hulu. It’s a Disney FX project. Some parts we shot in Iceland, the rest in New York and New Jersey, and lastly we went to Utah.

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