“How Cool Is That, to Have Schwarzenegger in an Arthouse Movie?” DP Lukas Ettlin on Maggie
In the late ’90s, a pre-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger nearly headlined a version of Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic classic I Am Legend before budget concerns derailed the project. Almost two decades later, the 67-year-old Schwarzenegger is starring in a decidedly different futuristic plague film. In the indie Maggie, Schwarzenegger plays a farmer who brings his infected daughter (Abigail Breslin) home for the last days of her life. No gunfights, no car chases, no “get to the choppers”: it’s essentially an ephemeral mood piece, photographed in widescreen with an emphasis on tight close-ups and naturalistic lighting. The film’s cinematographer, Lukas Ettlin, spoke to Filmmaker about Maggie’s unlikely visual inspirations, embracing a “less is more” aesthetic and Schwarzenegger’s old-school professionalism.
Filmmaker: The script for Maggie has been around for a few years, even landing on the Black List back in 2011. At what point did you make your way onto the project?
Ettlin: I came on very late, only weeks before I had to go out to New Orleans and shoot the movie. I met [Maggie director] Henry Hobson through friends in LA. It was one of those things that you never think will actually turn into anything, but we hit it off and had very similar interests in movies. Henry sent me a list of reference movies and they just happened to be many of my favorite movies, or the ones I hadn’t seen yet quickly became some of my new references that I’ve used on other projects since then. That list showed me his taste, which was a big part of why I wanted to sign on.
Filmmaker: What was on that list?
Ettlin: It was a lot of beautifully naturalistic movies and that was the big thing for Henry. He always said, “I want no artifice. Nothing fake. Nothing that would look like filmmakers meddling.” This could have quickly felt like a genre movie and that’s not what we wanted. Terrence Malick was definitely on the list. A big one was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is another one of Henry and I’s favorite movies. Never Let Me Go. This British TV movie Red Riding, which was quite interesting. [Lynne Ramsey’s] Ratcatcher. Another big inspiration was Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s a very gutsy movie. At times it’s very dark and you just see the glint in somebody’s eye. We saw that and thought, “How cool would it be to have Arnold Schwarzenegger in a movie like that? To just see his silhouette or have just enough light on him to see the glint in his eye.” He’s a guy that they usually pay $10 million and the DP gets fired if you don’t see his face. We very much took those chances and said, “If he’s somewhere where there’s not a lot of light, then let’s let that be it. Let’s not have all this fake light that’s being pushed in and make it feel like a movie. Let’s let this play out in a naturalistic way.”
Filmmaker: Noticeably absent from your list are any horror film references.
Ettlin: When you read the script, it doesn’t really read like a horror movie. I’ve worked in the horror genre before and I had fun doing it, but this needed to be something different. I guess it’s an art film in a way. I’m sure they wouldn’t want me to say that for marketing reasons (laughs), but how cool is that, to have Schwarzenegger in an arthouse movie?
To me, what makes the movie unique is that there’s no bad guys. I feel like in another movie the two cops in Maggie would’ve been the bad guys or the government would’ve been the villain. In our movie, everybody tries. It doesn’t have to be such a black and white world where there’s just the good guys and the bad guys. And of course having Schwarzenegger in a movie like that is interesting because he’s usually in that black-and-white kind of movie.
Filmmaker: Maggie was filmed in New Orleans, I’m sure in part because of Louisiana’s tax incentives. I read that you had some trouble finding appropriate rural locations within the 60-mile radius you had to stay within.
Ettlin: I don’t know if [shooting outside of that 60-mile boundary of New Orleans] would’ve made it distant travel [for the crew] and that would’ve been too much on our budget, but whatever the reason we had stay within that radius. We initially found a farm that we liked, but it was a half-an-hour too far away. We had very strict rules we had to adhere to and obviously there’s not a lot of farmhouses in the middle of nowhere right outside of New Orleans. It was quite a challenge. We found another house that we liked, but then they found black mold in it so we couldn’t shoot there. We spent a lot of time in prep trying to piece these locations together and we quickly had to abandon the idea of using the same location for the interior and exterior. We had a house that we used for the downstairs which gave us our kitchen and living room and entryway, which was basically a McMansion that we totally had to redo. The art department did an amazing job making what was really just a generic house into an interesting, textured old farmhouse. The upstairs where Maggie’s bedroom is and the hallway and the bathroom we shot at a different location. And then the field and the forest were yet again somewhere different. To a certain extent you do some of that on every movie, but this was quite extreme.
The other challenge was, New Orleans is a very green environment and we wanted the world to be dead, so right away we tried to figure out how to eliminate some of that green. A lot of it ended up being a visual effects solution. We did burn a field for real. That was one of the nice sort of independent movie things where we just found out where they were burning a field and we drove out there with Arnold and the camera.
Filmmaker: That cowboy shot of Schwarzenegger silhouetted against the burning field is fantastic. Is that entirely lit practically by the fire?
Ettlin: There was no additional lighting, just him in front of the fire. And to Arnold’s credit, he was very game. To do a movie like this, you need a lead actor that’s game to do an independent movie and who will jump into a van with the camera and say, “Let’s go out there and shoot it. I don’t need a trailer and I don’t need a glam squad to travel with me everywhere.” He was great that way. He was very committed to the movie. I felt working with him was this glimpse into what one of those great A-list actors of the ’80s and ’90s brought with them, which is a professionalism to the point of where certain new stars could learn something from that. (laughs) There was no ego. He was just such a pro. He never had to show people that he was a star.
Filmmaker: Another scene I enjoyed is the scene in which Breslin gets a night’s reprieve by attending a field party with her friends, which is lit partially by road flares.
Ettlin: I love that scene too. Sometimes good lighting is just one good idea — like those red flares — and it makes the scene. Then we mimicked some car headlights and we had some fire bars as well. It’s a perfect example of a scene where you don’t need to put the big moonlight on a crane. I think that was a scene where we had to come back and shoot it twice. I think we just shot the dialogue scene and Henry, the writer and maybe some of the producers said, “We really need something uplifting, something that shows her light other than just her dying.” So we came back and shot them partying with the sparklers and you get a vibe that even throughout all this, teenagers will be teenagers and life goes on. When the script is written you don’t realize always how dark or sad something will play and I think we got to a point in the movie where we were like, “Okay, not every scene can be a downer. (laughs) We need some contrast here.” I think that’s a nice scene where, just like Maggie, [the audience] gets away from things.
Filmmaker: With Schwarzenegger attached most people will assume you had an ample budget to work with, but it sounds like things were pretty tight.
Ettlin: The movie was extremely low budget. It’s hard to really explain how low-budget it was considering Arnold Schwarzenegger is in it, because nobody is really going to believe that you didn’t have any money, but things like a dolly or a condor were luxury items that we had to beg for on a given day.
The schedule was almost undoable. It was a tight schedule to begin with and then you add in Arnold’s schedule. He’s a very busy man — you don’t get him for every day of shooting, i’s just never going to happen. Abigail was still a minor, so her times were very restrictive because she could only work a certain number of hours. Then you had all these different locations. We looked at the schedule and it was kind of a Rubik’s Cube. Every time you made one thing work, something else would fall off. Many times we would be shooting the last shot of the day and Arnold’s Learjet engines were figuratively spinning up so that he could be whisked away for something. He had his whole entourage pointing at their watches behind camera, but to his credit he never rushed us. He’d say, “No, no, no, let’s get it right.” Despite all those things it was one of the most fun projects I’ve worked on. You would think it would just grind you down, but there was just something so creatively fulfilling about it that made it a very rewarding and intimate process.
Filmmaker: Because of your commitment to the show Black Sails, you had to miss the final week of Maggie’s principal photography. How difficult was that for you?
Ettlin: It was extremely difficult. The start date for Maggie got pushed back and I approached Henry and said, “I understand if you want to get somebody else.” And he said, “There’s no way I would do this movie with anybody but you.” So, as a united front, we presented this less-than-ideal plan which was to replace myself for the last week. It was very hard to walk away from something that I’d invested all this time and energy in. It had become a very close relationship between Henry and I at that point, but I had to honor the commitment I made to the next project. We got a really good replacement, Mike Bonvillain, who’s a very talented DP in his own right, and he did a beautiful job. I was very happy with the scenes he shot. He continued the look and feel that we’d established and I don’t think there’s anyway somebody could tell which portion was shot when.
Filmmaker: One of the more striking aspects of Maggie is the film’s use of tight close-ups of the actors. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Schwarzenegger photographed quite that way before.
Ettlin: Because there’s not that much dialogue, the story is being told by faces, and very quickly we fell in love with Arnold’s face. I don’t think it’s something that’s been explored that way. I think he’s at the right age to have that gravitas and I liked the way they styled him with the beard and the grandpa sweaters. (laughs) Arnold played the role beautifully. I never spoke to him about how he came to this, but he had this broken-down body language and we just couldn’t stop filming him.
Filmmaker: Did you have a go-to lens for your close-ups?
Ettlin: We used mainly Zeiss Super Speeds on the film, which were supplied by Panavision, who have supported me throughout my career, but our favorite lens was the 60mm macro. I feel like we shot half the movie on it. (laughs) It has a very, very shallow depth of field and it’s just a beautiful lens. At first we were just going to use it for detail shots and then we ended up using it a lot more for faces. It became part of the language of the movie.
Filmmaker: In addition to those close-ups, part of Maggie’s aesthetic is its naturalistic handheld camerawork. How did you decide to use that intimate operating style in conjunction with a widescreen aspect ratio?
Ettlin: Henry and I both felt that widescreen gives you more visual choices in the storytelling. There’s just more tools, whereas a 1.85:1 frame, by the time you put somebody’s head in there, that’s kind of it. (laughs) Your choices are made. The handheld aspect came from wanting it to feel organic and allowing the story to unfold. The longer I’ve been doing this, the less I try to give actors marks and the more I try to let them be in their world and not have them worry about technical filmmaking on top of it. The beauty of shooting on the ALEXA is that it’s such a beautiful low-light camera. We definitely pushed it to the edge of what it can do.
When I watch the movie one thing I’m amazed by is that we were able really use the time of day to our advantage, which a lot of times in filmmaking you just can’t do because of the schedule. Often you just have to shoot scenes when you have to shoot them. But we were able to say, “OK, this scene needs to be shot at magic hour.” If you can shoot fast, you can shoot a whole scene in that half-hour window, but it means being really quick on your feet and everybody has to be game to jump in there. Of course, a lot of it had to be shot that way because it was a very quick schedule, but there were beautiful things that came out of it.
One of the reasons I was excited to do the film was for a chance to try a “less is more” approach. I was inspired by the work of Harris Savides. You watch his work and you say, “Damn, I can’t even tell where those lights come from. Did they even use any lights? They must have or else how did they even get an exposure?” That’s exciting to try to get to that point.
Filmmaker: Did that “less is more” approach bleed over into your work after moving on from Maggie?
Ettlin: Absolutely. I shot Maggie in between season 1 and 2 of Black Sails and I definitely came back to Cape Town for the second season trying to do less is more. That’s totally where my head was at. And there times were someone would say, “Dude, that’s just way too dark.” (laughs) But it played into the show as well because it’s a pirate show in the 1700s and it could so easily become campy. So I’ve ended up lighting a lot of night scenes with only candlelight, which works well for a show that plays pre-electricity. I actually found that sometimes our candles were too bright. We had to darken the candle wax because they would just glow and wouldn’t expose properly. But it’s nice as a DP to light with candles. You just put a bunch of them around and say, “Alright, you’re lit.” (laughs)
Matt Mulcahey writes about movies and interviews filmmakers on his blog Deep Fried Movies.