We shot Dark Night in June of 2015, in Sarasota, Florida: It was very hot and right in the middle of the rainy season.
This was my first collaboration with director Tim Sutton—we had never met in person before I arrived on set. Rather, we prepared the shoot through emails: I wrote him many, many times, and he would always reply very precisely. Tim knew exactly the kind of story he wanted to tell, and how he wanted to shoot it, right down to budgeting choices. Our producer, Alexandra Byer, was also totally involved in the artistic choices along the way.
For my part, I wanted to understand who was Tim as a director—what he liked, and most importantly, what he disliked as an artist. We shared many photos with each other to arrive at the visual concept for the film. We didn’t talk about too many other films as we didn’t want to get lost in a slew of references, but we did, for example, look at some stills from Goodbye Dragon Inn and Rebels of the Neon God, by Tsai Ming Liang. Tim also took many pictures during previous scouting trips: some atmospheric landscapes, some colors he liked—blue-ish-magenta, especially—some showcasing natural light, and some moments at twilight. This was extremely useful for me to prepare for the shoot, as it gave me a lot of clues, a lot of insight into his tastes and his overall vision. Specifically, the way he framed his pictures really helped me to understand his particular way of observing the world around him.
We understood our coverage was going to be very minimal and specific, and so our set-up was mostly about simple lighting and some clear framing ideas. We also decided some of the malfunctioning streetlights we came across could become a visual motif for the film, that this specific kind of light within the frame could make the darkness we were shooting appear to glow. Other than that we just had to keep our eyes open to possibilities during the shoot, and to follow our visual through-line.
When I finally met Tim just three days before we began shooting, I had the strange feeling that I’d known him for a long time already. Throughout the 16-day shoot we were definitely on the same page. We never doubted our choices. Each morning, Tim would draw the story board for that day: no more than 16 shots, and we didn’t shoot more than 2 or 3 shots for any given scene (except when I was shooting hand-held) so I didn’t have any issues with lighting continuity. But we did, of course, have to work within a tight schedule; we had to make sure everyday that we were visually describing each character according to the script, their one day, from sunrise to midnight. It was in the editing that Tim wove these separate stories into one.
On the technical side of things, we shot with the Amira (1.85), the Cooke S4 and used Mitchell diffuse filters to counteract the harsher aspects of the digital textures. In the film you can see a mix of some wider shots (25 mm), some very intense close ups with the 100mm and some smooth tracking shots, shot with the 32mm or 50mm lens via a camera van—very expertly rigged by our gaffer Andrew Gafford. I worked very closely with our 1st AC, Soren Nielson and 2nd AC, Mo Shane. I created some new LUTS with Soren for the dailies that were less contrasty and with some highlights “lower” than the Standard Rec 709. Each evening, we applied our LUTS for the editing process. I also took some stills to keep as a reference for the color grading process.
The color palette was very important for the story, and was even written in the script. For example, during the first scene, the glowing red and blue police lights flashing on and off on the eyelashes of a girl in a parking lot at night—that was something specific Tim had written. Or the scene in Bryce’s bedroom, a young 14-year-old skater, with his enormous pet snake illuminated by a bright red lamp. Or at the end of the film, the way Jumpers’s car catches every green light. There’s one interview with Jumper, where we used some light changing effects (blue and red) while he was speaking in front of the camera. It was clearly a stylized effect, but we decided to go for it, even if the majority of the style is highly naturalistic.
When shooting through or around windows, I decreased the natural glare with black net or gels. Generally, we’d use a 800w joker bug to recreate the feeling of the sun, but most of the time bounced on the ground (to avoid the direct light, the 800w joker bug is not quite strong enough to look as naturally warm as real sun.)
Throughout the film we use hand-held moments to break up the longer, more locked-in tracking shots. Shooting hand held is still a big pleasure for me.
One magical moment for me during the shoot was the scene in which Rosa is walking during twilight, right after the beach scene, lit only with her cell-phone. We shot the scene during actual twilight, with only the light of her cell-phone, and at this moment, I discovered that filming digital is really great for shooting in the dark. MM
Dark Night opens in theaters February 3, 2017, courtesy of Cinelicious Pics.