“Maybe The Mechanic Would Be Good for This”: DP Tim Orr on Manglehorn
When I ask cinematographer Tim Orr if – after ten feature films together with director David Gordon Green – their references are most frequently their own movies, Orr replies, “Well, you don’t want to make the same movie over and over again.”
No one is going to accuse the duo of that. In a collaboration that dates back to their days at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Orr and Green have made everything from lyrical Malick-esque meditations and medieval stoner comedies to surreal odes to lovelorn locksmiths. The latter describes Manglehorn, an odd mixture of magical realism and low-key character study which finds Al Pacino in unusually subdued form as a man pining away from a long lost love instead of opening his heart to lonely bank teller Holly Hunter.
Orr talked to Filmmaker about his and Green’s shorthand, Manglehorn’s distinct use of color and the joys of working with non-actors and bees.
Filmmaker: The early synopses for Manglehorn mentioned Pacino’s history as an ex-con. In the final film, the details of Pacino’s past aren’t specified. How did Manglehorn evolve?
Orr: There were definitely scenes — and this happens with any movie — that ended up on the cutting room floor that informed a different film. We set out to tell a very strange story that mellowed a little bit in the edit. The film is a little more linear and straightforward now.
David and I have made a lot of movies together now over the years and we kind of speak each other’s language. Early on in the process we’ll talk about the story and just general atmosphere, but in the early stages we don’t talk as much about framing, camera movement, etc. Then as things progress and I show up on the ground to prep, we refine our ideas about how to approach each scene in terms of what’s handheld, what’s dolly, what are some really weird ideas. And in Manglehorn, no idea was too weird.
Filmmaker: The film’s color palette is certainly unusual.
Orr: If there’s anything you could point to as a signature of this movie in terms of cinematography, it’s certainly the color. Creating a world that had some fairly odd color choices was one thing that David and I both talked about early on. Something that almost felt like it could be set in Thailand or Singapore even though we were shooting in Austin, Texas. I definitely tried to chose a color palette and then find place to use color that let [the audience] know that something is a bit off and not quite real.
Filmmaker: How did you settle on the saturated mixture of pastel yellows, pinks and cyans?
Orr: I kind of backed my way into some of that based on [the colors in] Harmony Korine’s character’s Tan Man tanning salon. A lot of places like that want to feel like Miami with pastel colors, especially ones that are more in the cyan [range]. They aren’t natural colors. You’re usually only going to find them in garish places like a tanning salon or maybe a nightclub. Then I contrasted those colors with a golden amber as a counterpoint.
I did multiple tests to figure out which gels to use and which colors to use. Gel colors you may find in a swatch book might not really work when you’re putting them on skin. So I tested to find what I would light people with and what I would just light backgrounds with. Then I plotted out when to use which gels. In the tanning salon and the casino, those [pastel] colors are more indigenous to the environment. Whereas in Manglehorn’s house, which is to a certain degree a more naturally lit environment, we leaned more on natural feeling daylight or incandescent lamp light. But even then, I would try to find places to add something that was a little bit off. When we scouted that location, in the dining room there was already a chintzy chandelier with glass panes and I gelled that with turquoise. It’s a little odd, but again it gives us a bit of a through line of color throughout the movie.
Filmmaker: You use a similar technique in Manglehorn’s locksmith shop, where the overhead fluorescent lights are mixed with bright yellow gel in the windows.
Orr: We gelled those windows a deep straw yellow. There was a guitar shop in New York on, I think, Bleecker Street that had that yellow film over its windows and every time I walked by it I used to think, “Wow, that looks so cool.” I thought using something like that in this location would be a really great contrast in color with the more monochrome, cool white fluorescents.
Filmmaker: For a film that is frequently surreal, the opening scene in Manglehorn’s locksmith shop basks in the banality of routine: driving to work, parking, unlocking the door, turning the sign to “open,” flipping the light switch.
Orr: It was always David’s intent to start the movie that way, in very meticulous fashion. It’s part of setting the tone and setting up the character. You could cut from him driving in his van to already being in the lock shop, but instead we spend three or four minutes of screen time living with this character and setting up the way the character moves. That [sequence] was fairly thought out. There are certain scenes that we plan very carefully, and this was certainly one of the sequences, but then there are a lot of other places where we completely make it up and improvise. This movie had a little bit of both.
Filmmaker: In contrast to that opening scene, there are dreamlike moments where Pacino wanders past a traffic pile-up strewn with busted watermelons or appears perched in a tree cradling his beloved cat. Even in fantastical moments like these, I tend to ponder the practical aspects. Like, “I wonder how they got Pacino up in that tree?”
Orr: As I remember, we took him up in a lift. The trickiest part of that shot was dealing with the cat, because the cat didn’t necessarily like being up there. We used two cats on the movie that were more or less identical, but Al got along with one of them a lot better than the other one. The cat we started using in that shot was constantly trying to get out of Al’s grasp in the tree so then Al switched to the cat he liked better.
Filmmaker: In addition to the cat, you had to deal with a beehive that symbolically hangs below Manglehorn’s mailbox. Did working with the bees present any problems?
Orr: We had beekeepers and they had a queen set up in a hidden box under the mailbox and then brought in drones that were more passive and apparently couldn’t sting. But within probably two minutes all the other bees in the vicinity started showing up, because they could smell the queen. So that quickly became something where everybody had to be careful. There was a shot or two where the bees were just swarming all around Al and he was great about it. Then, of course, we had a hand double to go in for the shot when Manglehorn actually grabs the hive and throws it in the mailbox. The first take with the hand double didn’t work too well. It wasn’t quite perfect, but he didn’t get stung at all. You feel bad about asking him to do it again, but we really had to have it and of course that’s when he definitely got stung.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk a little bit about the car accident scene I mentioned earlier, which is a long, slow motion tracking shot that follows Pacino in profile as he walks past a traffic mishap bathed in red watermelon pulp.
Orr: It was an easy set-up for [camera]. [Production designer] Richard Wright had the hard job, though it had to be fun, busting up all those watermelons. We set up just a really long dolly track — I think it was 130 feet or so — and then I shot the profile tracking shot and [Steadicam operator] Matt Petrosky followed behind [Pacino] at the same time. We did it maybe three or four times and the last few were honestly just because it was a fun shot to do. (laughs) As I remember we shot that at 60 frames [per second]. Sixty frames just felt right. A lot of [choosing an overcranked frame rate] is dictated by how slow people are moving. Al’s walk was pretty slow so we didn’t want it to take 10 minutes of screentime.
Filmmaker: It reminded me of the long tracking shot in Godard’s Weekend.
Orr: Oh yeah, I love that movie.
Filmmaker: Did you and David have any specific cinematic references for Manglehorn?
Orr: Early on when David and I were talking about the movie, we talked about that Nicolas Refn movie Only God Forgives. I didn’t really care for the film that much, but the colors were very enjoyable and because that had come out a few months before we made Manglehorn it was like, “Oh wow, did you see the color in Only God Forgives? That’s something along the lines of what would be interesting to do with Manglehorn.”
Sometimes we’ll have maybe one or two references we talk about within whatever movie we’re making, but then sometimes there aren’t any at all. A lot of the time, references are a way to communicate to the other people you’re working with what you’re thinking. Since we’ve made a few movies together, David and I are usually already on the same page and we just trust each other that we’re setting out to make the same movie.
Filmmaker: After ten movies, do your references just become the other films you’ve made together?
Orr: Well, you don’t want to make the same movie over and over again, but there are certainly times when we’ll refer to shots from our other movies. For example, there’s a shot that we call “The Mechanic,” which was born out of the movie Undertow. There was a scene in that movie where Josh Lucas’s car breaks down and he’s just kind of bullshitting with these two weirdo mechanics around a tow truck. We set up two pieces of dolly track in an L-shape — though we typically only use one at a time, because most of the time we shoot single camera except for on the comedies — and we did a slow dolly move with slow zooms and I improvised with the camera and made choices on the fly. Within those two dolly moves, you can get virtually every angle you need to cover the scene and then the actors can do whatever they want as the camera floats around and slowly discovers things. It’s become a really nice thing that we’ve leaned on over the years together. So that’s something where David will say, “Hey, maybe The Mechanic would be good for this.”
Filmmaker: Another hallmark of your work with David is the use of non-actors. In Manglehorn, there’s a great scene between Pacino’s character and his granddaughter set at a park. How do you as a cinematographer approach scenes with novice actors differently?
Orr: That girl was a total natural. She was just a goldmine. We shot all of that on longer lenses so we were much further away [from the actors]. It’s just a different feeling than if the camera is three feet away from an actor. It’s a different vibe and, especially for someone who’s not as used to it, it can affect their performance. Sometimes you don’t even let them know when you’re rolling the camera. You just give a silent nod or something and turn over the camera, and then they can just totally relax and they’re not acting.
Filmmaker: Walk me through the tools you used on Manglehorn in terms of camera and lenses.
Orr: We shot with the ALEXA Plus 4:3 and Xtal Express vintage anamorphic lenses, Joe Dunton’s old lenses that I got through Panavision. Anamorphics paired with the ALEXA is a very nice marriage. Those Xtal lenses are kind of quirky and some of them have a little bit of soft vignetting. They definitely have soft edges and with the way the depth of field falls off, it gave a little bit of a woozy feel to the whole thing. They are a little more painterly than modern, contemporary lenses.
Filmmaker: Ex Machina recently used the Xtals as well.
Orr: I saw that movie, which I liked a lot, and I was wondering what lenses they used. Then I looked it up and I was like, “Ah yes, of course.” They’re really beautiful lenses. I’ve used those on a couple movies and I really like them. I did do an odd thing in that I used the anamorphics for everything except for the wide lenses, then I used spherical lenses. Anamorphics, especially the old ones, have a lot of distortion in them once you get [wider] than 40mm. We used a few really wide lenses in the movie for certain points where Manglehorn was in an uneasy mental place and for those shots I used Zeiss 14mm and 12mm spherical lenses because there was just a bit less distortion.
One of the upsides of the ALEXA, if you talk about pros and cons of film versus digital, is that I could mix spherical lenses with anamorphics, because it takes 30 seconds and you press a couple buttons on the ALEXA and then you’re back into unsqueezed mode.
Filmmaker: With the color palette and the level of saturation being such an integral part of Manglehorn’s look, how much of that did you try to achieve in camera rather than kicking the can down the road to the DI?
Orr: I’m a fairly big believer in doing as much as you can in camera. So I wanted to do most of the color in camera and then in the DI in the color correction, it’s finessed and you can pick out certain colors to maybe saturate more or desaturate a little bit. The biggest thing we did in the DI was we decided with our colorist Alex Bickel to put a Pro-Mist type diffusion on the entire movie. That was something that wasn’t an intent in prep but it came up in post and I liked it.
Matt Mulcahey writes about movies and interviews filmmakers on his blog Deep Fried Movies.