BackBack to selection

Shutter Angles

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

“Dolly and Slider Inside, Steadicam Outside”: DP Mac Fisken on The Last Stop in Yuma County

A cinematographer stands behind a camera on an outdoor set.Mac Fisken on the set of The Last Stop in Yuma County (Photo by Ernesto Pletsch)

In The Last Stop in Yuma County, an empty pump at an isolated desert gas station strands a collection of characters (including a pair of bank robbers and knife salesman Jim Cummings) at the adjoining roadside diner.

Written around the standing sets available at Four Aces Movie Ranch in Palmdale, California, the feature debut from director Francis Galluppi was partially funded by the sale of producer James Claeys’ house. That provided enough budget for a 20-day shooting schedule, a cast of familiar genre faces (including Richard Brake, Gene Jones and Barbara Crampton), a few epic needle drops and one talented stunt bird.

With the movie out today in theaters and on digital, The Last Stop in Yuma County cinematographer Mac Fisken talked to Filmmaker about lensing the sun-drenched yet darkly funny neo-noir.

Filmmaker: You’ve shot almost everything that Francis Galluppi has directed—shorts, music videos and now his debut feature. How did you start working together?

Fisken: My old roommate, who didn’t even know Francis very well, was supposed to shoot a short for him. He had to bail to take some job that actually paid money and passed the short on to me. I met Francis on that shoot, which was basically him and 10 friends going out to his friend’s cabin. Pretty much none of them had ever done anything on set. They’d all watched YouTube videos about how to be a camera assistant or a grip. So, I kind of walked into it and was like, “What is going on?” But they were all really great people and Francis was an amazing director. From that first short, I think we were both like, “We should do this again.”

Filmmaker: Francis wrote the script for The Last Stop in Yuma County around a specific location, the Four Aces Movie Ranch. Your process when working together sounds like it’s pretty intensive— using Shot Designer and making overheads, photo boards and shot lists. Walk me through how the two of you get ready.

Fisken: We’ve been very well prepared on all our shorts and music videos, but on Yuma we took it to another level. We were trying to get the movie made before COVID, but then we had this incredibly long stretch where we had nothing to do. The movie wasn’t going to happen for at least a year. So, we basically got on Zoom together every day and talked for six hours about the movie. I’ve never done anything even close to that level of prep and it was a blessing to have all that time. Now that we’ve gone through that process, I think we both agree that we could never do another movie without doing all that again. There’s just so much less stress. For every scene we could show the actors, “Here’s the overhead. This is where the camera is going to be for each shot.” It gets everyone on the same page.

Filmmaker: What’s your favorite shot that wasn’t designed in prep? Something you found on the day.  

Fisken: This isn’t exactly that, because it was still due to our prep, but the day before we started shooting we brought our significant others out to the set to shoot a test of the slow-mo Roy Orbison “Crying” sequence. Francis was worried about it because the timing had to be specific [to last the exact length of the song, which plays in its entirety on the jukebox just before the movie’s violence erupts]. We shot the whole scene and realized that we were missing a good seven or eight seconds. We played around and found maybe three new shots of Charlotte the waitress [played by Jocelin Donahue] walking toward the table of the bad guys, and those are now some of my favorite shots in the movie. It was something we didn’t even know we needed until we were in the space.

Filmmaker: I just assumed that “Crying” was chosen in post, because on a movie with a smaller budget you don’t always know what you’ll be able to clear when you’re shooting.

Fisken: I told Francis not to count on getting that song. I’ve had that experience several times on movies at this budget level. And he’s like, “Mac, we’re committing. We’re going all in so that they can’t possibly go back on it later. Once the song is locked in, it’s locked in.”

On a diner film set, two men direct an actress dressed as a waitress.
Photo by Ernesto Pletsch

Filmmaker: You end that sequence with a slow-motion dolly zoom. It’s a unique-looking application of that effect. For a second, I thought that maybe you had the actors physically on the dolly.

Fisken: I’m glad [the effect] showed up for you. The dolly zoom is such a funny shot. You do all this work and then it can be pretty subtle. You’re really hurtling that dolly down the track, especially when you’re shooting at 120 frames per second, and zooming out really fast while the focus puller is cranking at full speed. It’s funny to go through that whole process and then play it back and you’re like, “Oh, I guess it’s moving.” [laughs]

Filmmaker: Most of the film takes place at the Four Aces diner set, which has its perks in terms of simplifying logistics. However, the fact that the entire story unfolds over a few hours creates a challenge for lighting continuity. How did you keep things consistent for the diner interiors?

Fisken: That was the biggest challenge. You’d think, “We’re shooting out in the Palmdale desert. We’re going to get pretty much the same weather every day.” That’s not what happened. The first day it was sunny, then the second day we had a rainstorm and the third day it was cloudy. Ernesto Pletsch, our gaffer, was constantly outside the diner setting up lights. It was funny being inside because I sometimes didn’t even realize all the stuff he was putting up out there. I’d go outside and be like, “Oh my god, this poor guy has got five units up trying to pretend it’s sunny inside.” It really was an interesting challenge. Ultimately, we got smarter about it in the second and third week of the shoot, just preparing a little bit more for the weather. Ernesto did a really great job. 

Filmmaker: Did you put ND gel on the windows or black tenting outside? How did you control the light as the sun moved throughout the day?

Fisken: We never gelled the windows. We did have to do a lot of toppers outside the windows when the sun was high, particularly for the knife salesman and his booth. We had established that it’s early morning the majority of the time that he’s in there. Every time the sun would get too high, it just looked ridiculous. So, we’d have a bunch of four-by flops out there just above the frame trying to hide that sun. I think our biggest unit might’ve been an M18 and then some 1200D Aputures. We definitely didn’t have any 18Ks out there, just smaller units that we could run off house power shooting through the window to try to match the time of day. There are just a few shots that bump in terms of the lighting, but overall it ended up feeling pretty cohesive to me.

Filmmaker: When Cummings is in that booth, he’s kind of three-quarter backlit on both sides by the windows. Did you do much to try to fill in his face?

Fisken: In the diner we generally didn’t like to use fill. Most of the time it was more about negative. We had two 8-by solids t-boned inside the diner that we would try to walk in as much as we could on every shot. It got trickier when we were shooting the bank robbers’ booth, because their window was open. You really had to have the level inside in order to hold exposure on the exterior. For that we’d use a little bit of fill, but generally it was more of a negative fill game for us. 

A car drives through the desert towards a bird sitting on a gas pump.
Courtesy of Well Go Entertainment

Filmmaker: In the opening shot, Cummings drives up from the deep background to the gas station. During that long oner, there’s a bird sitting on a pump in the foreground. When Cummings pulls up, the bird flies off. My only experience with bird wranglers was on this commercial in an abandoned warehouse. A batch of birds was supposed to fly through the frame. They did it, but then flew away through a hole in the roof. I asked the wrangler, “How do you get your birds back?” And he was like, “Oh, I have to catch new ones now.” (laughs) I was pretty dumbfounded that you got this bird to actually do that bit of action.

Fisken: I was dumbfounded too. I remember Francis saying, “I talked to the bird wrangler and he’s claiming he’s going to be able to get this bird to just sit on this gas pump. Then, once we cue him, the bird will fly off screen.” They had planned for it to be maybe a 30-second shot, but when we actually framed it up and had the real car do the drive, it took almost two full minutes. And we’re just like, “There’s a zero percent chance this bird will sit still for two minutes and not do something weird.” But then the bird just did it. I think we did maybe four takes of that shot and, if I’m remembering right, the bird absolutely nailed it every single time. I couldn’t believe it.

A man and a woman sit across a table looking at each other from opposite sides of a diner booth.
Courtesy of Well Go Entertainment

Filmmaker: There are a few of those long oners in the film, which are helpful when you’re making a movie in twenty days. There’s another one in Cummings’ booth when he gives his knife pitch to Donahue’s waitress and the camera slowly pushes in. I read that it was absolutely pouring outside during that take, but you really can’t tell.

Fisken: It was a full thunderstorm. During one of the takes we all stopped in the middle and ran outside because all the light stands were falling over from the gusts of wind. We’d planned that shot and it was always looking straight out the window. We reframed slightly so we weren’t seeing the ground [outside the window], because it was basically a lake of rain. Our lighting team just kept pumping light through the windows and, somehow, it worked out.

Filmmaker: There’s another long oner in that same booth that’s a bit more complicated. You’re pushing in, but also panning back and forth between Brake’s bank robber on one side of the booth and Cummings and Donahue on the other.

Fisken: That shot might actually be my favorite from the movie. We took days just trying to figure out that one shot, literally going through the script line by line and figuring out, “When do we pan?” When we got to set, we ended up shooting coverage on one side and Francis was like, “This works great. Maybe we don’t need that crazy move. We’re low on time anyway.” We started setting up for the oner and after the first couple of takes, it just wasn’t working. We were panicking a little bit and I said, “Let’s just open up our [prep] doc and look at it and really make sure we’re doing exactly what we talked about.” So, we opened up our playbook and realized, “Oh yeah, the timing can work better here and here [if we go back to our original plan].” It still took a bunch more takes because it was a tough shot, but I think it’s one of our favorite shots in the movie now for both of us.

Filmmaker: The camera, especially in the early part of the film, is always creeping and moving. Is most of that on Steadicam or a dolly/slider?

Fisken: Basically, our rule was dolly and slider inside, Steadicam outside. After the shootout, I believe it’s all Steadicam when the camera is moving. We just wanted it to feel a little bit different before and after the big character turn.

Filmmaker: Was that oner in the booth with Brake on a dolly on dance floor?

Fisken: It was actually not even dance floor. It was curved track. I think it’s two pieces of 8’ track and then a 45-degree curve. It’s a really unconventional setup. I’d never done a dolly shot like that, which is part of why I was freaking out while we were first setting it up.

Filmmaker: There’s a shot toward the end of the movie where Jim is driving, and the camera is on a hostess tray rig on the driver’s side pointed toward the road. Then the camera pans over to Jim behind the wheel. I’m assuming you didn’t have a remote head on this.

Fisken: We did not. Initially it was like, “Yeah, we can totally do that shot. It’ll be great. We’ll get a remote head just for that day.” And, of course, by the time we got to it, there was no way we could afford to rent an extra piece of gear for a day.

Filmmaker: That money was long gone to Roy Orbison.

Fisken: Exactly. So, we extended the pan handle, and I was in the back seat of the car reaching as far as I could out the window and just panned the camera. It was very rushed, and the car mount was super loose and bumpy. The roads out there were terrible. So, I was basically holding onto the head with my whole body while I was trying to pan the camera with my other hand. That move definitely needed some stabilization in post.

Filmmaker: What was your camera and lens package like? 

Fisken: We were on an Alexa Mini. Francis has a great friend, Chris Heinrich, who has a camera package with the Zeiss B-Speed lenses and he lent that to us for this movie. When you go with the cheapest option, you have to take what you get, but I ended up really loving those lenses. They’re part of the Zeiss Super Speed line, but they’re less common than the other Super Speeds. They have a unique characteristic when you get wide open where you get this funny triangle bokeh in the background. By the end of the shoot I was completely sold on those lenses and would go back to them in a heartbeat.

Filmmaker: How many cameras did you have? 

Fisken: We only had our B Camera for the explosion at the end. We did that truck explosion practically and were like, “If we’re going to light this much gasoline on fire, we better make sure we get more than one shot out of it.” So, we had two Alexas pointed at it and I also brought my drone out, but there were 40-mile-an-hour winds that day, so the drone did not happen. I could have used more cameras, but I think we got the angles we needed most.

Filmmaker: Obviously there wasn’t going to be a second take because you’ve only got one truck. 

Fisken: One hundred percent. It was the last day of the shoot, and it was going to pour rain the next day. We were worried because if it got too windy, you can’t just light off this fire bomb in the middle of the desert, but we were backed into a corner because [if we pushed that shot to the next day] and it dumped rain, it’s not going to make any sense if we cut from the dry desert to everything being wet. Also, we were literally filming that in a river wash. For all we knew, it would have washed the truck away if we had waited another day. 

Filmmaker: You didn’t make your life any easier by setting that scene at dusk. Did you shoot that finale over multiple days at magic hour?

Fisken: That was an ongoing discussion. Francis and I both really wanted to shoot it at dusk, particularly the explosion. I think it looks so nice when you can have that blue contrast in the background to make the actual fireball stand out from the rest of the scene. We basically had to devote one entire sunset to the explosion and then two days of throwing the camera on Steadicam and trying to get as many shots as we could in an hour and a half [of magic hour light]. So, we’d take our time in the morning. We’d shoot little close things that we thought we could get away with and then also had the title sequence to shoot out at that location, which is all slider shots. We wanted to get that in pretty light as well. So, Fran and I would wake up with our AD Mazzin Chaudhari and a few of us would go out at 5 a.m. to try to get that stuff when we had nice light, because we couldn’t afford to have the whole crew [start that early] and do 16-hour days. 

Filmmaker: How far was that location from Four Aces?

Fisken: Four Aces is about an hour and a half outside of L.A., and we stayed at Airbnbs that were all about half an hour from there. The actual truck explosion road was maybe four hours from L.A. and there’s nothing nearby, so I think we were staying in Mojave for the last couple of days. We would go out there early in the morning and do what we could, then wait around for an hour for the rest of the crew. I remember we were going to shoot some shots of [fluid] dripping out of the pipes of the fuel truck and we were like, “We can just pour water through.” Then we realized we didn’t have any waters with us. We used Sprite because that was literally the only liquid we had. It was kind of bubbly and weird, but the nearest grocery store was about an hour and a half away.

Filmmaker: You served as your own colorist on the film. Was that out of necessity or did you want to do it?

Fisken: Kind of both. It’s a lot of responsibility just because I know that if it looks bad in the end, I really don’t have anyone to blame but myself. I started coloring because I felt like on these tiny budget movies you just can’t afford to get somebody to put in that much time on color. So, my experience has generally been that even if I’m a worse colorist than the pros, just the fact that I’m willing to put in an extra 50 hours of color on it means I can usually get it to a pretty good spot, and I’ll definitely be cheaper.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham