On the set of The Big Ugly
Writer and director Scott Wiper & # 39; s The Big Ugly is the best kind of genre film, a thriller that is aware of the traditions in which it works but is not committed to them. The Big Ugly combines elements of the mysteries of the 40s and 50s (Jim Thompson seems to be a special touchstone) with the taste of Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill from the 70s, which were filtered through the visual grammar of Tony Scott from the 90s unique and convincing western noir. His emotional strength is largely due to Wiper's richly structured screenplay and the appearances of his consistently captivating ensemble, which includes Vinnie Jones, Malcolm McDowell, Ron Perlman, Leven Rambin, Bruce McGill and Nicholas Braun as players in a bad oil and money laundering system.
What brings the film to a completely different level is the consistently innovative cinematography by Jeremy Osbern, who, like Wiper, incorporates a multitude of influences and amazes the viewer with inventive methods for redesigning these influences. Osbern takes photos with the new RED Gemini and creates images that have a classic solidity and resonance, but have a modern immediacy and impact. The result is one of the best American films I've seen in 2020 so far. I spoke to Osbern about his work on The Big Ugly a week before it was released. The film will open on Friday, July 24th, in drive-ins and all indoor theaters that are still running, and on July 31st in VOD.
Filmmaker: One of the things that I liked about The Big Ugly is that it contains elements of classic western and noir films, but combines the traditions from which it comes in a unique way. What were some of your influences or visual references?
Jeremy Osbern: When I first spoke to the writer / director Scott Wiper on the phone, he asked me if I had seen The Outlaw Josey Wales as he saw this as a visual touchstone for this film. I had literally watched it again this week when my wife and I decided we wanted to revisit early Clint Eastwood films. Eastwood's DP in this film, Bruce Surtees, definitely influenced me. From that first conversation, Scott and I really felt like we were on the same page. In many films from the 1960s and 1970s, the darkness was recorded as it is no longer the case today. Even in something like The Sound of Music, people remember that Maria sang on a mountain peak in broad daylight, but much of this film is almost pitch black. Many films from that time have crossed the boundaries of darkness in a really interesting way. There are whole scenes in The Outlaw Josey Wales where you can't see a character's face. It's really bold and ambitious filmmaking that serves a dark story and that was the starting point we created for The Big Ugly. Scott wrote a really great script, and most of these characters are flawed and are themed in some very dark places. We wanted the pictures to tell the story, so we put them in a deep shadow. It's a little bit of surtees, a little bit of noir and a little bit of Tony Scott from the late 80s / early 90s. Cameraman Ward Russell (who shot The Last Boy Scout for Tony Scott) showed me a lot of kindness when I started my career, gave me tips, and bought me lunch as he swung through my hometown (we both went to the University of Kansas) , therefore part of these pictures is also a homage to him. One of my proudest moments was on the first day of production. DIT Matt Mulcahey put pictures on a laptop and said he wanted to double-check if this was the look I wanted before he started daily newspapers looking like a Tony Scott film from the early 90s. “I gave him a high five and we became good friends immediately.
Filmmaker: How did you get to The Big Ugly and what were your first conversations with the director like when you got on board?
Osbern: I received a call from the producer of the film, Karri O’Reilly. She asked if she could send me a script. I read it and was totally amazed at how good it was. When I read scripts, I usually think of paintings rather than visual references from other films, and on the second page Scott had written something like "soft light through tiny airplane windows". The noir silhouette of a beautiful woman rises from a leather armchair. “I immediately thought of a painting that I had seen from the Argentine artist Fabian Perez. His pictures usually show well-lit people who are well dressed, but there is always a sadness behind their facial expressions, as if something is missing in their lives. I seemed to like these pictures when I thought about this film, so I created a lookbook that was almost entirely based on his paintings, and I think it was very much in line with the pictures that Scott had imagined. I flew out this weekend and on my first day in Kentucky, Scott and I drove all day, only the two of us got to know each other, looked for possible places and talked about the feeling of the film. Over the next few weeks we talked through each scene and visited places. Most of the time we just pulled chairs out of a trunk and sat on a waterway or in the forest and did a lot of our pre-production outdoors, one to one, surrounded by nature.
Filmmaker: What type of camera did you shoot and how was it chosen?
Osbern: We were actually the first film to be made with the RED Gemini camera. RED had developed a new low-light mode for this camera that I knew would help remove some of our large night-time areas. It was difficult to track down the first camera housings in time, but we received them shortly before production started, and I couldn't have been happier with the pictures.
Filmmaker: What were some of the challenges of being the first to shoot with the Gemini and what were the joys?
Osbern: With the Gemini, I sometimes had to almost re-train my brain to shine for 3200 or 4000 ISO. I am fortunate that I belonged to the last generation of cameramen who learned the craft through filming. I turned my first three features to 35mm. At that time, 500T was the fastest stock available. So, for example, if you are lighting for a large nighttime exterior, you can throw 20 Ks in condors to create the basic backlight, and then use some parcans to accent from there. In the low light mode of the Gemini, it became clear in the pre-production that I could get away with throwing a few small lights into a condor, sending them up into the air and only dialing in a lot of light points instead of large washes, what for the dark pictures that we wanted was even more beneficial.
Filmmaker: Go into a little more detail. I wonder what your general philosophy was when it came to illuminating the picture.
Osbern: Overall, the key word on the set was "darker". Key handle Michael Stoecker added a negative fill to each scene to block out the ambient light, and it became a joke for the lighting technician Michael Dickman to ask me: "Do you want a fill light in this scene?" The answer to that was always no. Most of the time we only used backlighting or just shining a light in the deep background and the actors existed closer to the camera in the dark. For a daylight fight scene, we positioned the actors so that they are backlit by the sun throughout the scene. Then Stoecker and his team built me a 20 x 20 inch floppy disk, which consists of a condor, which we used the camera to block all ambient light on the camera side. The result is a daylight fight outdoors, in which the camera side turns completely black and emphasizes the tension of the scene.
Another day, we shot in a $ 50 million private jet. We mounted a 20 'black solid frame on a condor and moved it throughout the day to block the sunlight. Then we mounted 18K and 6K Par HMIs outside the aircraft windows to provide strong light rays. This was all against the camera, and the entire camera side was darkened to create an extremely high-contrast aircraft interior.
Filmmaker: What types of lenses did you use and how and why did you choose them?
Osbern: This story goes back to some of the character-based action films from the 60s and 70s that we don't see that often anymore. We wanted a touch of 70s visuals, and along with my initial visual references as an impressionistic painting, I wanted to make this film on older Russian anamorphic lenses from the 70s. I used a number of LOMO anamorphoses – especially wide open, they really have a nice, painterly quality of the pictures. Mechanically they are not as easy to use as modern lenses, but the 1st AC Rick Crumrine threw them out of the park because he was able to adapt quickly. He and the entire camera team made sure that everything went smoothly.
Filmmaker: You mentioned Kentucky. Did you make the film there?
Osbern: We shot in Kentucky. We used several small towns to double West Virginia oil lands in history. The people of Kentucky were wonderful and welcoming, but our biggest challenge was that this summer happened to be the rainiest place in the region's history. We seemed to have rain almost every day. One of our outdoor locations was even flooded and we had to wait for it to dry before shooting there. At some point we ran out of rainy areas and we had to be really creative with the planning to make everything work, but thanks to producer Karri O’Reilly and 1st AD S.B. Weathersby, we were able to finish the film on time.
Everything in Kentucky this season was so incredibly green, especially with all the rain. Respecting the country is a theme that runs through the film, and this part of Kentucky is beautiful and wild, and it really matched perfectly with the pictures in this film.
Filmmaker: Did you do anything significant in the post to expand your work? Tell me a little bit about how you worked with the colorist – and also with the DIT on the set.
Osbern: Matt Mulcahey was the film's DIT and he was the best I have ever worked with. When working with RED cameras, I constantly choose the look settings from scene to scene and even from shot to shot to get the final image as close as possible. Matt then took the footage and refined it to make it perfect before issuing the newspapers. Our editor, Jordan Downey, was with us in Kentucky and started editing as soon as we started filming. Matt made it a really streamlined workflow.
After the film was blocked, we reached the last color note with Doug Delaney at Technicolor in Hollywood. Scott had previously worked with Doug and knew he should make this film. He had just completed the color class for Captain Marvel and was glad that he had worked on our film. I spent a week at Technicolor with Doug and Scott, and we worked through the entire film before I had to fly off to do another project, so Scott oversaw the last pass with Doug. Doug is extremely talented and it was definitely a pleasure to work with him.
Filmmaker: Another thing I really enjoyed in this film was the ensemble of great character actors. As a cameraman, how do you see your role in making the actors' best work easier?
Osbern: I would say Scott Wiper's directing style is comparable to that of Robert Altman. I have several friends who have worked with Altman, and like Altman, Scott enjoys the freedom to work with the actors in the actual space, improvise, and create something organic on the set. Both like a moving camera that can change from shot to shot and from shot to shot. The actors came to play, to rehearse in the room, and as soon as we knew the areas, I illuminated the place that suited the actors and allowed a little piece to shoot, to take, to take.
We had an all-star cast. A Clockwork Orange was the film that made me become a filmmaker. Working with Malcolm McDowell was a dream come true, and he was a real advocate of the bold look we wanted. I even tracked down a Kinoptik 9.8mm lens like Stanley Kubrick used at A Clockwork Orange so I could film it with the same lens – it was the only spherical lens I used for the film. He and I became friends; We had breakfast together in the hotel lobby and he even invited me to his 75th birthday party. Ron Perlman was the absolute professional and is really an actor. And Vinnie Jones is the next level in this film. He is known for playing big, tough and impenetrable characters, but Vinnie has a very warm, caring side. Scott and Vinnie have been friends for years, and Scott wrote this script specifically to demonstrate Vinnie's diverse talents. I think people will be really surprised by this film. Vinnie is an amazing leader.
Jim Hemphill is the author and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streamed on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.