“I Was Definitely Curious About What It Would Mean For My Career”: David M. Rosenthal on The Perfect Guy
There’s been a lot of talk lately about indie directors making the leap to studio productions, but few have handled the transition as skillfully as David M. Rosenthal does in the smart, funny, and scary thriller The Perfect Guy. In a way it’s the perfect studio assignment for Rosenthal, in that it takes full advantage of the skills he exhibited in his previous film, 2013’s richly atmospheric thriller A Single Shot, while also allowing him to explore new territory as an old-school genre director. The basic premise is nothing new – it’s the stuff of dozens of Lifetime “woman in jeopardy” movies and ’90s erotic thrillers – but Rosenthal’s attention to detail (both in terms of character and visual design) elevates the material to yield a singular piece of work, a suspense film that satisfies its core audience without sacrificing intelligence or style. Sanaa Lathan plays Leah, a successful lobbyist who breaks up with her boyfriend Dave (Morris Chestnut) when he refuses to commit. On the rebound, Leah begins dating Carter (Michael Ealy), a guy who seems too good to be true – and is. After sweeping Leah off her feet, Carter reveals himself to be a sociopath, and when Leah tries to break things off he immediately begins making her life hell.
The concept is familiar, but the execution is anything but; taking his visual cues from ’40s noir, David Lynch, and Edward Hopper, Rosenthal creates a lyrical series of haunting L.A. nightscapes that serve as the perfect visual corollary for the sense of growing unease afflicting his main character. He also gets career-best performances out of his three leads, with particularly excellent work from Michael Ealy, who demolishes his image as the affable nice guy of Think Like a Man and About Last Night by subtly shifting his register from charming and romantic to coldly manipulative and obsessive. Indeed, one of the slyest and funniest underlying ideas in The Perfect Guy is its suggestion that there’s not much difference between conventionally celebrated “romantic” behavior and psychosis. While this idea is subtle, Rosenthal is just as good at the movie’s broad strokes, delivering the goods with rousing, expertly paced action and dark comedy. The Perfect Guy is not only one of the most well made studio movies of the year, it’s also one of the most flat-out entertaining. I spoke with Rosenthal about the film on the eve of its September 11 release date.
Filmmaker: I want to start by asking a little about making the transition from independent films to the studio world. What were the steps between finishing A Single Shot and starting work on The Perfect Guy?
David M. Rosenthal: In a way it was an unintended transition, because I was, and am, trying to get some of my own projects off the ground. One of them is an action-oriented thriller set in Alaska, and then there were some open directing assignments I was pursuing that had a more independent flavor. Some of them would get close but not happen…you know how it is. Then all of a sudden someone at Screen Gems had seen A Single Shot and I got a call from my agent saying that they were coming to me for The Perfect Guy and wanted me to read the script. That was all the information I had at that point – I didn’t know if it had already been cast, or even what genre it was. With that title I thought it was some kind of romantic comedy. So I read the script, and when it got to the turn that reveals what kind of movie it’s going to be I got interested. I asked my agent all kinds of questions about what doing this kind of movie and working with a studio would mean, and he just told me to go in and take a meeting. So I did, and learned that they were on board with my desire to elevate the genre a little. I also learned that there was cast attached; there was another director involved that had fallen out, and I inherited the three leads. They told me all that and I told them how I saw the movie, referencing things like Adrian Lyne and Body Heat and various erotic thrillers – and then they offered me the movie.
Filmmaker: Were you apprehensive at all, having worked so long in the independent realm?
Rosenthal: I was definitely curious about what it would mean for my career. I talked to people around me about it, and they said look, the money’s a lot better, the budget is a lot bigger, and this is a movie with a built-in audience. It was something that would enable me to flex different muscles and try working in the studio world. There are trade-offs; I don’t want to say there are extra layers of control, because that isn’t exactly the right word, but there are many extra layers of approvals that are just part of the process. The upside to all of those voices, interestingly, is that you feel a little less pressure. If you direct an independent film, the bull’s-eye is on your back, because you’re responsible for everything – if the movie doesn’t work, it’s perceived as being completely your fault, because it’s entirely in your hands. On a studio movie, if you can embrace that it’s a more collaborative effort there’s less weight on your shoulders, in a way.
Filmmaker: I want to go back to what you said about coming on board a movie with your three lead actors already attached. That could be really frustrating, but it seems to have worked out well for you here.
Rosenthal: Yeah, I was pleasantly surprised meeting all three of them and finding out that they were as smart and conscientious as they were talented, and that we were all in agreement on where the script needed work – as was the studio. The motivations needed to be explored and developed a little more, because – for example, with Michael Ealy’s character, playing a sociopath is a really delicate balance. It’s one thing to play a crazy person, but it has to feel real, and Michael and I were both concerned about layering in the intricate details that would make his character consistent yet still unpredictable. We had to do similar things with Sanaa’s character, building in a realistic background for her so that Sanaa – and the audience – would understand why she’s feeling so vulnerable after breaking up with Morris that she would fall for Michael Ealy without seeing the red flags. I think the actors were pleased that the studio had chosen someone from a more independent, character-based background to direct the film – it wasn’t a case where they came in saying, “Who the fuck is this guy? He’s never directed a movie like this before,” which is a way it could have gone.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the visual style of the film. I love the look of the movie, especially the use of anamorphic lenses.
Rosenthal: I think about lenses right from the beginning in prep, partly because I come from a photography background and studied cinematography at AFI. In fact, it’s a little tricky, because I always have to have a conversation at the beginning with my D.P.s explaining that I’m never going to get in their kitchen, but I am going to be heavily involved in a lot of the choices that are normally their domain. In the case of The Perfect Guy, I knew we were shooting digital, and one of the things that irritates me about a lot of digital work is that it’s hyper-resolved. You lose that magical quality that you get from photochemical, especially in the day exteriors. We shot on the F65, which is a good box with a good sensor, but I wanted to use vintage anamorphic lenses and lose some resolution, and get that beautiful creamy look you get from true anamorphic. Optically, at the top and bottom and in the corners you get a little fuzziness, which I find inviting as a viewer. I really wanted the Panavision C series, but they’re impossible to get – they were on Star Wars at the time, and the biggest directors have them on hold for months in advance. As soon as I got the job on The Perfect Guy, I asked the studio to get in touch with Panavision and see if they could get the C lenses, but they couldn’t. So the cinematographer Peter Simonite and I started looking at Hawk lenses, and they had a new set that mimicked vintage anamorphic. That’s what we ended up using.
Filmmaker: They give the movie a nice dreamy feel. It’s funny, I was reminded a lot of Mulholland Drive in the night interiors and exteriors, though that movie wasn’t anamorphic.
Rosenthal: Mulholland Drive was one of our references, along with Fincher and Cronenweth and Harris Savides – I wanted really black blacks with subtle gradations. I also wanted a slow, creeping camera on tracks whenever possible, constantly pushing in and moving out. There were times when I had to break that rule and the Steadicam became the tool of choice, but I had such a great Steadicam operator – this guy BJ McDonnell – that even though there’s always a difference between Steadicam and dolly track, his Steadicam operation had a real weight to it. Sometimes you want something a little more kinetic, as in the fight scenes, where we would use handheld or a more dynamic Steadicam, but overall in a psychological thriller like this I wanted to move the camera in a more unobtrusive way.
Filmmaker: You also do a lot with the framing to set the audience on edge, framing Sanaa Lathan’s character through glass whenever possible so she seems both like a kind of bug under a microscope and like someone who is very vulnerable, who can be attacked from anywhere in the frame.
Rosenthal: Yeah, I wanted a sense that she was in a fishbowl or a diorama, so I talked with the production designer William Arnold about finding her a house that was kind of mid-century modern, with a lot of glass. There’s nowhere she can run to avoid being seen. Now, we were shooting on practical locations, so we didn’t have a lot of control. What we did have was a gaffer, Jim Plannette, who has done everything from E.T. and Braveheart to Steven Soderbergh movies and small independent films. Peter and I had both worked with him before, and because he’s worked on every kind of film there is, he knows not to bring big guns to small parties. So when we’re shaping light in this mid-century modern house with glass everywhere, he’s very careful to use the minimal number of units. It was also helpful to be shooting digitally and have a sensor that was very sensitive. If I had more money I probably would have built the house and taken more time on every little visual detail like Fincher does; shooting on a practical location in the Hollywood Hills, you just can’t do that.
Filmmaker: On the other hand, I’ve found that sometimes having limitations in terms of time and money can force you to come up with ideas that you wouldn’t have otherwise. There can be a good side to it, right?
Rosenthal: I’ll tell you one thing, working quickly is better for the actors. Working through a scene in a day or two days instead of spending a week on one little thing gives the performances a lot more energy, because the actors really attack it. Methodically working through something can make the visuals spot-on, but then the performance might not be equal to it, and if you have a bad performance and great camerawork, nobody gives a shit. It’s a balance though, because obviously the visuals are extremely important to me.
Filmmaker: Well, there’s certainly a lot of attention to the use of color in the film in both the costumes and production design. It’s very precise.
Rosenthal: Halfway through prep my costume designer, Annie Bloom, started referring to me as “mid-tone Dave.” I guess I was subconsciously pushing the film toward that noir aspect – I would have loved to have shot it in black-and-white. It’s not exactly monochromatic, but it does something to the audience when you don’t have a lot of bright colors. I set up some rules for the production designer and the costume designer – I would say, “Don’t bring me purple, yellow, or bright green. Ever.” I only wanted red a couple of times, for emphasis. You have to be really obsessive about those kinds of details to create the overall effect you’re striving for.
Filmmaker: Bringing it back to what we were talking about at the beginning, now that the movie is about to come out, how do you feel about your first studio directing experience?
Rosenthal: Here’s one of the big advantages. On every movie I’ve done before this, there has been a lack of financial security leading right up to shooting, and in some cases even during shooting. It’s a house of cards ready to come down at any time. Dealing with a studio, you never have to worry about that – that money isn’t going anywhere. What you have to worry about are all the people you have to make happy. Is the studio head happy? Is the division head happy? Are all the execs happy? How do they feel about the dailies? I’ve never had that experience – I’ve had the experience of waiting for the other shoe to drop in terms of financing falling through, but not in terms of the people in power suddenly not being happy. On independent films, you don’t worry about being judged until very late in the process, showing it to sales agents or whoever. In this case, you’re being judged as you go. But I was lucky, the studio was happy with what I was doing and didn’t bother me on set once. They did become more involved in the editing process, and I think this happens on a lot of studio films: you turn in your director’s cut, and they have ideas they want to implement. And that’s part of the process, because it’s not my baby. It’s our baby. It’s a shared baby.