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DP and Co-Director Lou Pepe on Direct Cinema and the High School Doc The Bad Kids

The Bad Kids

Lou Pepe has worked with long-time collaborator Keith Fulton ever since the two directed a feature length documentary about the making of 12 Monkeys in 1996. Their latest film, The Bad Kids, is a documentary in the American direct cinema tradition of Frederick Wiseman. In this interview with Filmmaker, DP and co-director Pepe discusses the difficulties of shooting direct cinema with a single camera, working in natural light, and scheduling around teenagers. The film premiered in the U.S. Documentary section of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Pepe: Keith Fulton and I have been making documentaries together for about 20 years. When we first started, we often split the shooting between us, but during the filming of Lost in La Mancha, I ended up spending more time behind the camera while Keith devoted a lot of time to producing. Ever since then, I’ve shot our documentary projects. Our joke about the division of labor was that Keith had the persistence and persuasive ability to get us into a room and that Lou had the patience to sit there for three hours in order to capture the scene we needed. But on The Bad Kids, Keith picked up the boom and mixer and did all of the sound recording, so we worked as a two-person camera/sound team. The advantage of this was that while I would be in-the-moment with the drama unfolding in front of the camera, Keith was always able to tip me off to the action happening behind me. Keith has a strong editorial eye, so he’s always whispering to me to grab the shot that he knows I haven’t noticed yet but that we’ll need in the editing room.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Pepe: In the 20 years that Keith and I have collaborated on documentaries, we’ve always fantasized about making a film in the American Direct Cinema tradition: purely observational non-fiction drama, without talking heads, that unfolds like you’re watching a scripted film. But in those two decades, we’ve always ended up needing sit-down interviews or narration to help clarify the story. On The Bad Kids, we were determined to tell the story in a purely observational style, which isn’t the easiest task with single-camera shooting.

Another primary goal with The Bad Kids was to give voice and agency to a group of teens from an impoverished community. In typical social circumstances, these young people are written off as lost causes and ignored, cast as ‘problem children,’ ‘dropouts,’ or ‘failures.’ Cinematically, these kids are easily objectified: luridly reduced to representations of social problems – the pregnant teen, the drug addict, the homeless kid, the abuse victim. But the film’s goal is to see them as vulnerable human beings and bring audiences into their interior lives, where despite their traumatic life circumstances they are still hopeful, innocent, and optimistic children on the cusp of becoming adults.

In visual terms, this goal translated into a heavy emphasis on close-ups, especially of kids when they were lost in thought. When possible, I tried to capture these moments framed against windows or natural light, even with the bulk of filming taking place in drab, institutional, fluorescently lit hallways and classrooms. If direct sunlight was available, I intentionally sought out lens flare as a means of imbuing the characters with a hopeful ‘inner light’ that would allow an audience to intuit beyond the stereotypical labels placed on these young people and connect with a sense of their inner lives.

Keith and I were also determined that, even though we were making a film which took place in a high school, we wanted a view of high school and teenagers that was fresh. Our goal was to capture the emotional experience of high school through our subjects’ eyes. To do this, we specifically set aside time when we would not film scenes, per se, or chase a story line but would just quietly observe. Every day in the course of 120 shooting days, for at least a few minutes, I would set off alone in search of “poetry.” A lot of times, I would come back empty-handed, but on some occasions, I would capture precious moments that gave a really intimate view of our subjects’ lives: a student trying his best to stay awake but falling asleep during class… a couple making out in a corner of the hallway… a boy staring at himself in the hallway mirror… a silent hug of comfort between two friends. These shots have no inherent story in them, but they were laden with emotion in a way that really allowed us to charge the film with our teenage characters’ experience of the world.

One other major artistic goal of the cinematography was to capture the Mojave Desert as a character in the film. On one level, the story’s Mojave location is an obvious metaphor for the isolation and alienation that our at-risk teens experience in their daily lives, and there were times when I wanted to capture its bleakness: vast empty expanses, blaring sunlight, hostile terrain. But depending on the light, the time of day, or the season, the desert is also an incredibly beautiful and peaceful environment, and I wanted to capture this aspect of it, too, as a reflection of the optimism and hope that our subjects feel about life despite their difficulties.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Pepe: Salesman by the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin is one of the most stunning examples of American Direct Cinema, and it’s the film that Keith and I constantly refer to as an example of real life playing out like a beautifully crafted piece of fiction. It’s also a great model for what one can achieve with single-camera shooting.

Fred Wiseman’s High School was our inspiration for how one can create a portrait of an entire culture of education without any main characters but by weaving together many strands into a broad tapestry. The Bad Kids does have main characters, but it was important to us that they were part of a larger mosaic that captured the essence of Black Rock High School, and High School was our touchstone for that goal.

Alma Har’El’s Bombay Beach was our reference for “poetry.” The film beautifully visualizes its characters’ inner lives and, instead of fetishizing the extremity of their circumstances, finds deep humanity and universal themes in their experience.

The Mojave Desert and its ever-changing light were also a major visual influence on the look of the film. When Keith and I were in grad school at Temple University, our cinematography professor Warren Bass had us read Masters of Light and study the work of the cinematographers profiled in the book. Anytime I was shooting desert exteriors on The Bad Kids, I was reminded of what I had read about Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall and how they had worked with natural light.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Pepe: The biggest challenge to the way we shot the film was really the single-camera shooting. It’s just a difficult skill to master: getting all of the necessary pieces of a scene — masters, two-shots, shots & reverse shots, reaction shots, and cutaways — all in real time. It requires a tremendous amount of intuition and being in-the-moment, and one isn’t in that frame of mind all the time. For me, it would have been next to impossible without Keith doing sound and whispering to me to grab certain shots. But the benefits of this approach are truly worth the difficulty: a single camera means a smaller and less obtrusive crew, which really fosters gathering intimate footage. And also, being in-the-moment and relying on intuition, while difficult to achieve sometimes, forces you to be more attuned to your own curiosity and emotional engagement with what’s happening in front of the camera. You don’t have time to think too much about what’s unfolding, and you end up having to learn how to trust your heart’s involvement in the drama in front of you.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Pepe: We used a Canon C-100 for The Bad Kids. We like it for the interchangeable lenses, the image quality, the professional sound inputs, and the size (neither too small nor too big). I also prefer to shoot hand-held with a camera at chest height and not with a shoulder-mounted camera, so it was the most comfortable option for me.

For most of the shooting, I used either a Canon 16-35mm 1:2.8 EF L-series Zoom or the 24-70mm 1:2.8 EF L-series Zoom. At the beginning of the 2-year shoot, I favored the mid-range lens, but as we got to know the subjects better, I felt more comfortable being physically closer to them and would shoot more with the wide lens.

And for a lot of the landscapes or the times when I wanted to observe students from afar, I used an old Canon 70-210mm 1:4 EF telephoto lens that I had purchased in the late 80s for use with a still camera. It’s a telescoping lens with many layers of glass, so it resulted in a softer, dreamier image. I used it for a lot of the more atmospheric or poetic shots in the film.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Pepe: We shoot with natural and available light, so we mostly work with what we have in front of us. Before our first day of shooting, we did decide that the overhead fluorescent lights in Principal Vonda Viland’s office created a very ugly and unflattering look, so we bought her a tungsten floor lamp and a tungsten desk lamp that made her office a cozier setting. In the rest of the school though, we had no choice but to accept the overhead fluorescent lighting, but when possible, I always tried to frame windows and natural light into my shots.

For most of our outdoor shooting, we favored early morning or late afternoon since the sun was lower in the sky and the light was really beautiful — often pink or golden — and at an angle that really brought the landscape into relief. I also became a sucker for lens flare on this film, and I was always seeking out an angle where I had the option to frame subjects against the sun.

As a teenager learning photography, I had been taught to position myself with the sun behind me and get rich blue skies in my photos, but when Keith and I made Brothers of the Head, our DP Anthony Dod Mantle was always shooting towards the sun when we were outdoors or into stage lights during our concert scenes. It baffled me why he was doing this until I saw the dynamic images he was able to achieve. Out in the desert, where the sun is always present, I found myself constantly gravitating towards angles where I could get a lens flare in the shot or frame subjects with a glowing backlight, and I found that these images always felt more hopeful or optimistic to me.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Pepe: Any scene that involved making a concrete plan to film with a teenager was difficult to achieve! But that had nothing to do with technology or lighting. The only way to deal with those situations was a mix of patience and persistence.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Pepe: We shot all of our footage with the Canon C-Log setting to allow for maximum latitude in the color correction. But ultimately, our manipulation of the image was pretty minimal: crushing the blacks, bringing back some contrast in the shadows, and eliminating a lot of the ugly greenish cast of the fluorescent lights. We even got pretty attached to the less saturated look of the C-Log footage, so in the color correction we refrained from letting the colors get too rich and opted for more the bleached look that one gets with desert light.

  • Camera: Canon C-100
  • Lenses: Canon 16-35mm 1:2.8 EF L-series zoom; Canon 24-70mm 1:2.8 EF L-series zoom; Canon 70-210mm 1:4 EF telephoto zoom
  • Lighting: all natural and available light
  • Color Grading:DaVinci Resolve
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