“OK, Storaro, Let’s Go”: DP Shane F. Kelly on Working with Richard Linklater and Everybody Wants Some!!
After a decade working with Richard Linklater, cinematographer Shane F. Kelly has learned that the most important rule on a Linklater set is that the performers have primacy.
“Rick wants you to provide him with a stage for his actors to work within. So as a DP you can’t really be too controlling,” Kelly said. “He wants the actors to have freedom of both performance and movement and if I try to restrict that, I’ll get a little nod from Rick.”
It’s a lesson Kelly learned in his first collaboration with Linklater on 2006’s A Scanner Darkly, when the Irish-born DP spent a bit too much time futzing with the lighting of a Woody Harrelson close-up. “I was coming in as a young DP and I wanted to impress. I was messing around with the shot and Rick came in and was like, ‘OK, Storaro, let’s go,’” laughed Kelly. “I think I’ve kept working with Rick because I’ve learned how to work without creating distractions and without destroying the flow of creating the characters.”
The characters in the pair’s latest teaming Everybody Wants Some!! are the members of a highly-touted Texas college baseball team. With freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner) as the audience surrogate, the movie follows the players as they meander through the last few days before the start of the 1980 school year. The film has been tagged as a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, but it’s equally a brethren to all of Linklater’s unique subset of joyfully plot-less conversation fests.
Filmmaker: Unlike Linklater, you’re a Texas transplant. How did you end up in Texas after growing up in Northern Ireland?
Kelly: After university I worked in London for awhile and then came on vacation to the U.S. and loved it so much that I ended up moving to Seattle during the grunge years in the ’90s. Then I moved to LA for about five years and got burnt out on that. I’d been to Austin a bunch of times and I just wanted a break so I ended up moving there in 2001. There was a younger filmmaking scene in Austin at the time and I got embraced by it and I’ve been here ever since.
Filmmaker: Were you working in production in Seattle? Did you cross paths with any of the iconic grunge bands?
Kelly: Yeah, I was a DP in Seattle. I actually toured with Pearl Jam in Asia and Australia in 1996 and shot a lot of footage, which was amazing. It wasn’t a lot of concert footage, more of the guys just hanging out. Some of that footage ended up in that Pearl Jam Twenty film that Cameron Crowe did. But, yeah, I shot Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, a lot of those guys. I used to shoot a lot of little $5,000 music videos, especially for Sub Pop Records. It’s great training.
Filmmaker: Growing up in Northern Ireland, what was your access to films like?
Kelly: Very limited. Growing up my exposure to movies was what was on the four channels that we got at home. (laughs) There was a movie house about 10 miles away that I think had one screen. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t so much into movies growing up as I was into art. I was actually about to go to university for fine art and then media studies was my backup plan. At the last minute I thought, “(Media studies) sounds more like me” and I switched. It was really at university that I began to understand and have an appreciation for film because I was exposed to a lot of movies that I’d never seen — experimental pieces and foreign films. So I wasn’t so much of a movie buff when I was a kid. I was more into art and architecture, which has served me well as a DP.
Filmmaker: Considering your background, I just don’t see your visual inspiration for Everybody Wants Some!! being Animal House. What types of films — or other works of art — did you look at for reference?
Kelly: I went to university in 1984, so it was very, very close to the era that the movie is set in. So for me it was more about thinking about that time in my own life. And that time was all about optimism and that’s what I tried to portray in the movie with my cinematography — this boundless optimism, this feeling that the world is your oyster. You’re starting to form opinions about the world and life has all this potential, before you become an old cynic. (laughs)
So very early on I knew that I wanted it to be sunny and bright, more like a memory of the ’80s rather than a slavish copy of ’80s movies. We did watch a few, though. Breaking Away was one of those, which was a favorite of mine growing up. Rick and I were talking about it and we said, “Wouldn’t it be great to shoot this in widescreen?” And we looked at the amount of widescreen movies that were actually shot in the 80s, and it was a fairly small number. So that was disappointing to me but we figured we better stay true (to the era).
Filmmaker: This is now your third collaboration with Linklater as cinematographer. How did you meet?
Kelly: When I first came out to Austin I was called by a producer to (be a camera operator) on A Scanner Darkly and at the time there really wasn’t a DP. They had this idea that you didn’t need a DP for that movie because it was going to be created in post, but what we quickly learned was whatever colors were (captured on set) were the colors that the animators ended up using. So once we did some tests I basically became the DP on the movie. And it was a great experience. I learned a lot on that movie about the way that Rick likes to work. He rehearses heavily, but then the nuances come out as we work through the scene. If you watch him work, it doesn’t seem like a lot is changing. But if you compare take one to take 13, they are radically different. He trusts his actors a lot in the same way that he trusts his crew, which is the wonderful thing about him. He always talks about making “our movie” and not “his movie.”
Filmmaker: When you work together, do you primarily work single-camera or do you use multiple cameras?
Kelly: We shoot with two cameras a lot on Rick’s movies, whether it’s just a wide shot and a close-up or a conversation where we’ll shoot (both sides of the conversation at the same time). Shooting multiple cameras is not always great for the DP because you do have to make compromises, but if you’re making compromises in order to get a better performance, then that’s totally worth it.
Filmmaker: So much of the film is just these guys navigating through various spaces and trying on different personas to find the one that fits. Let’s talk about the look of those different spaces, starting with the house where the players live, which is full of DP-unfriendly white walls.
Kelly: I’m glad somebody picked up on that. (laughs) When we first looked at that location the walls were very much distressed. It was a house that nobody had lived in for awhile. Several dumpsters of crap had to be cleared out of there and actually there were a lot of bees in the walls. When you go in and you see a space like that, your instinct is to say, “Don’t touch a thing. This is great.” So the white walls were authentic — although I hated them. (laughs) There’s nothing you can do so you just have to embrace it. You try to get the actors away from the walls, but that’s not always possible if you have 12 people in a room. So somebody’s gonna be up against a wall. But if Rick’s good with it, I roll with it.
Filmmaker: How about the disco bar, where the team goes on the freshmen’s first night in town?
Kelly: That was so much fun. These guys are trying to find out who they want to be so they go to these different clubs and experiment and that’s the beauty of the movie and of being 18 or 19 years old. You don’t know who you want to be yet, so you experiment and eventually you find something you like — it might be punk or it might be disco or it might be country.
Rather than research what was actually going on style-wise at the time, I more used my memories of my time at college and at discos and punk clubs to create a look. Discos were lots of colors and they were smoky and they were sexy. The disco is a fantasy land. We used a lot of vintage fixtures that we found in a warehouse and they kept breaking down. Then Bruce Curtis, the production designer, found the largest disco ball ever. (laughs) It was like five or six feet across and I think we went through three different motors for that thing.
Then my memory of punk clubs was just white light because they were filled with par cans above the stage. It’s like they almost didn’t put a lot of thought into it in punk clubs. There’s a scene before the guys go to the punk club, where they go into the (campus’s) “punk house,” and previously Rick had asked me what my favorite Northern Irish punk band was growing up and I said Stiff Little Fingers. When I came to see the first cut of the movie, there’s Stiff Little Fingers playing in the background of that scene, which made me smile and laugh. It was just a little gift from Rick.
Filmmaker: Urban Cowboy loomed pretty large culturally in the states in the early 1980s, but were there actually country bars in Ireland while you were in school?
Kelly: No, not really. It hadn’t caught on there so I did have to do a little bit of research for that and, funny enough, country bars haven’t really changed that much since 1980. (laughs) I did look at Urban Cowboy. That movie did have a huge influence on popular culture along with Saturday Night Fever. For the country club in the movie I used this really nice cyan blue that I fell in love with. I always used colors that went along with what the production designer was doing. There was a swatchbook for the colors that were being used (for each space) and myself and my gaffer matched those colors with the lighting.
Filmmaker: What were the logistics of shooting the scene where a car full of players sing along – for a comically extended period – to Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”?
Kelly: We shot that in a town called San Marcos in Texas, which is a college town. It was somewhat of a laborious process in a way. You’ve got five guys in a car and you’re trying to cover everybody and you’re towing the car and you’re driving 15 miles an hour around and around. And with (a period movie) if a modern car goes by in the background the shot’s blown. So we spent a long time on that. It’s just such a long song. Just when you think it’s going to stop, it just keeps going. (laughs)
Filmmaker: Most of the players in the film are never going to play baseball above the college level — but the exception is the character of McReynolds (played by Tyler Hoechlin). Walk me through the scene where McReynolds asserts his place atop the pecking order by slicing through a pitched baseball with an axe. I’m assuming the baseball was pre-split in half.
Kelly: It was, but he did hit the ball every time. I think we only did three or four takes and he hit it on each one. In a way it is the scene that shows how much of a badass he is. Some people might say, “That’s not believable,” but it doesn’t really matter. It’s showing the character. It shows that there’s no stopping this guy. That this is the guy who is going to go pro and the rest of those guys, even if they think they are going pro, they more than likely are not.
That was a fun day. There were a lot of hijinks that day. It was the day (when we shot the party at the baseball house). I had a Chapman Hydrascope crane and I basically shot the whole day off of that. (Shooting from the crane), we would do takes where I would just interpret what the actors were doing and sometimes the first time that you do a move that is not expected is the best one. I was an operator on Friday Night Lights for years and we wouldn’t rehearse. You’d go in with three cameras and the actors would just start doing the scene and you interpreted the shots just as you found them and for the camera operator the first take was frequently the best take because you’re just reacting to the scene as an observer rather than thinking about it too much. You can design lots of shots, but sometimes those little happy accidents are the best pieces. Like at the start of (Everybody Wants Some!!), there’s a crane down on the road into Jake’s car and I got it right on the first take and then I could never get it again. And that first take is the one that’s in the movie.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.