We’ve covered Green Room‘s director and cast in previous articles this week. Today we round out our exploration of Jeremy Saulnier’s siege thriller with an extended interview with DP Sean Porter.
A veteran of the indie world, Porter has established himself as a versatile and innovative craftsman, composing the images for highly regarded indies like It Felt like Love and Kumiko the Treasure Hunter. Green Room showcases his resourcefulness at a maximum, with the tight, confined space of the titular venue imposing physical constraints on cast and crew. In the conversation below, Porter talks about hitting a balance between claustrophobia and visual variety, testing both the Arri Alexa and Red Dragon for the film, and the benefits of coming up through the Seattle filmmaking scene of the previous decade.
Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you come on to the project?
Sean Porter (SP): It was one of the first films that came through my agency. I had been with Innovative Artists for just a few months. Before that, I was used to having to deal with everything and manage different projects and talk with all these different people, so it was a welcome relief when they were like, “Here’s a script, here’s what’s going on, this is the person that’s going to call you.”
When Jeremy and I first started talking, we realized we came from similar circles—up for similar films, worked with similar people. A long time ago, I was up for a film called Septien by Michael Tully. I ended up shooting something else instead, and Jeremy ended up shooting Septien, so we were always nipping at each other’s heels. We always have been kind of in touch, superficially.
It’s nerve-wracking to have conversations with directors who are also DPs because there’s always this question: “You’re so good at your job, so what could I possibly bring to the equation?” and that’s always a little tricky. But luckily, I have worked with other DP-directors in the past and ended up having a really great time, because a lot of the technical boundaries don’t exist and you can really open conversations about lenses and lighting choices and what kind, such as low-key or high-key. In some ways there’s an extra shorthand that maybe doesn’t exist with other directors, so that was a benefit.
Blue Ruin was so good and so beautiful, and I think that Jeremy probably really had a lot of options. We talked on the phone here and there and he said, “The production company wants to meet with these other folks and they’re kind of in line, so we’ll see. I just really want you to know that I’m interested in you, so we’ll keep talking.” We just kept having more phone calls. Every director needs something slightly different, but Jeremy comes from the same deep roots in filmmaking as I do, and he knows what it’s like to make a movie for under a hundred grand, like, asking favors from your friends and your family. I’ve been there and I’ve done that. I think he was looking for someone who was going to be the shooter in the movie, but, more importantly, his filmmaking wingman, someone who got how he wanted to work and fight the right battles and really just support him. To be able to have conversations about character and story and not just, “This is how we’re going to light this; this is how we’re going to shoot this.”
I have a hard time not working that way. I always want to sit down immediately and really dig into the script on a creative level. I don’t even think about the photography first, but the tone. I think about each of the characters and the world they are living in. I think he responded to that. One day he was just like, “I think this is going to work out.” It was all a total blind date because I had never worked with him before, we never even met in person before; it was all over Skype and phone. I had a similar situation with the Zellner brothers where I didn’t actually get to meet them until I was in Japan [for Kumiko the Treasure Hunter] . I showed up and was like, “OK, let’s do this.” So it’s always fun and a little scary, but it’s cool that people have faith in each other over technology.
MM: I actually shot a short film and cast my lead actress via Skype.
SP: Yeah, it’s really changing everything and allowing people to live in a lot of ways. It’s allowing me the freedom to live in an actual place, and not be like, “I have to live in New York and L.A.”
MM: Jeremy told me that he insisted on Green Room being a union shoot. Talk to me a little bit about what that meant for you, professionally and artistically.
SP: I think it’s a slippery slope. There’s obviously a lot of reasons why it’s a good idea. There is this little budget pocket, where a small film that’s $3,000,000 or $4,000,000 [goes union] and all of sudden a lot of money that would normally be going on the screen is now tied up in other things, like transport unions and other stuff like that. It’s a scary place for directors and producers to work in, and also DPs. When you have so little money and you’re trying to make the best or the most ambitious thing you can, that can loom over a set.
At the same time I’ve been doing a lot more union shows and the benefits are obvious. The talent of the crew alone is a huge thing—being able to turn around and have experienced and hardworking people at your disposal really goes a long way. And there’s the obvious great protection that it brings for the crew and the director—not working people to death. I’ve noticed that it’s really the directors who need that. I’ve worked on so many movies where the producers insisted the first-time director do a six-day shooting week, and there’s a time and place for that, but for a first-timer, the film and the director are gonna lose—no one else. Everyone is going to be working harder than they should, but it’s the director losing time to think about the material, watch the dailies, have those conversations, and repair themselves after a week of shooting. It’s so short-sighted of a producer to say, “Let’s save a couple of grand by forcing our director to work a day,” when really he or she should be spending that day prepping for the next week.
I really applaud and respect what the Green Room producers did with the project; I felt that with limited resources they crafted a really well put together movie. They had money where and when they needed it and never felt they were taking advantage of people. I think that going into a union was a big part of that, and that’s exciting to see: producers not shying away from that, but stepping up and trying to make the film work for everybody.
MM: It seems like you have worked at every level. Talk a little bit about evolving from the microbudget world, to the low-budget, to what is a pretty respectable shoot with this, financially.
SP: I don’t know where I heard this—probably from a high-school English teacher—“Never read other people’s biographies.” Maybe there’s a DP out there who shoots two movies and the third one gets an Oscar nomination… but everyone is on their own journey and it’s going to look a very different way. For me, every step of the way, it was someone taking a chance.
If the director and producer have a grounded sense of what they can accomplish on a budget, then you can really get away with a lot. My first movie was with Linas Phillips and I remember seeing a couple of documentaries he had made. I really wanted to work with this guy, and I sort of stalked him a little bit. We were both part of the small Seattle filmmaking scene, so that wasn’t very hard to do. Come to find out that we were mutual fans of each other’s work from afar. He said, “Well, I got this road trip movie,” and handed me 15 pages of the first act of the movie, nothing else. The tone of the film really grabbed me; the idea of an adventure where we craft the framework for the beginning and after that we really don’t know… now I don’t know if I would do that, or if my agent would let me do that, but at the time it was the perfect thing. Another director could have buried themselves with that film, but instead he goes to Sundance and really got a lot of attention for such a small movie.
Going back earlier, my roots have been varied enough that I’m comfortable in a lot scenarios. I came up during a time that was a transitional stage. Now you can grab an iPhone and go shoot a movie and make it a hit at a major film festival. The time when a DP or even a director had to have a lot of years of experience, technical experience on larger sets, is past. A clapper loader, then a second AC for 10 years, slowly working your way up…. that model is breaking down, but at the same time there are benefits to that. I was shooting constantly. I was there before the Panasonic DVX100 came out, before all these cameras that really changed low-budget filmmaking came out, so I got to see that evolution take place and be in it, while always working on other sets.
MM: Those were the 911 Media Arts Center [an arts nonprofit in Seattle] days, right?
SP: Absolutely. When they were around, I was assisting and gaffing and doing all kinds of things on those projects. Seattle was a great place for that, because everyone needed help on their movies and they didn’t really care who did what as long as they had help. You could go, “I want to try this,” or “I want to try that.” People were always open. You weren’t going to get paid anything, but you were going to learn a lot by bumping through it. We were like, “There’s this huge history of cinema around in Seattle. We would rather be pioneers and do everything on our own.” It was always tough, but at the same time…
MM: I feel like that’s the Pacific Northwest ethos.
SP: It totally is, probably for other industries as well. What I was getting at is, I got to put my hands on a lot of different ideas. I did a lot of documentaries early on, so I learned how to cross that over. If you’re going to get thrown in a room with no lights and 10 seconds to figure out the best place to put yourself to capture a moment that you can’t predict, you can take those skills and apply them in a more controlled filmmaking environment and have more realism.
MM: You’ve got this shoot where you have large numbers of people crammed into really small spaces like vans and the green room itself. What was your approach to shooting that? How did you strategize your compositions?
SP: Working in confined spaces was challenging. Half of the movie takes place in that one room, so you don’t want it to become boring and repetitive. We spent a lot of time talking about ways in which the look of that room could progress through character-motivated action. As the room gets torn down and people start exploring things or breaking things, light bulbs get replaced, lights get shut off, furniture gets rearranged. We were able to let the film evolve so that [the look] starts off relatively normal, but it gets progressively darker, more contrasting and more tense—not because we have done anything, but simply because the characters worked in the space. In every scene, we looked at the material and found new ways to tell the story, trying not to repeat the same visual language. There would be scenes where we used a lot of cuts and a lot of singles, and then there were scenes we really let play out in as few cuts as possible and in a wider composition. This is also from an indie thing: We don’t like to falsify spaces. Even if you’re building a set on a soundstage, we will very rarely want to or need to remove walls. I want to be trapped in that space. Maybe there’s some comfort in having that limitation. It grounds the work and it just ups the level of the realism, and I think the audience can feel that. If I’m forced to use wider lenses because I want to get a medium shot rather than just move that wall back, put the 50 on and get back 20 feet, there’s a falseness to that. Subconsciously an audience can pick up on it. We want this to feel as claustrophobic as possible. If we were to use these lenses and focal lengths, then yeah, we’d be stuck with a certain image size because we’re 10 feet from our actor. I like those rules because they give way to these little gems that you weren’t planning on.
MM: But, amazingly, you guys skipped the handheld approach and had fixed and dolly shots, which is pretty bold for that kind of strategy.
SP: Absolutely. I think that was probably the most nerve-wracking thing about it. Early on Jeremy was like, “I really want this to have a very controlled look.” Luckily I had some background in both worlds—I’d gotten to do something like Kumiko which was so reserved and observational, where we moved only when really necessary. For this film, Jeremy wanted that sense of control, but with a lot more movement. He talked about this idea of swirling around that space, especially when we go to the side of the villains and enter their world. The camera is always swooping around. [We found] Steadicam to be a little bit of a crutch, not having that rigidity that he wanted, so everything was always on a dolly or a slider.
During prep I was visiting a camera shop in Portland and in the back room, totally abandoned, was this really bizarre prototype jib called the zero gravity jib. What it basically allowed me to do was set the base on track the way a traditional dolly would, but it had this counterbalance system so I could move the camera basically anywhere within a 10 to 15 foot sphere around the dolly. It worked kind of like a Steadicam, but also a lot freer than a dolly. It was cool but cumbersome and I could see why it was so abandoned. What it did allows us to get was very close to what Jeremy saw in his head. It was a lot of fun because I could walk with the camera and let it go at any moment and it would stay there, but then I could also grab it and move it. It kind of felt like it was handheld, but the results were as if I was shooting from a dolly. We needed to expand the feeling of the movie while in the green room, so that movement was important.
As for handheld, when we reached some sort of violent climax we were going to unleash it, but it just never felt right. It happened like three times. It was like, “We’ve come this far with this very controlled look, why abandon that now if it’s working?” It was good that Jeremy stuck to his guns.
MM: I think that was a good instinct. You shot on the ARRI Alexa. What was it about the Alexa that made you pick it over, say, the Red Dragon?
SP: On every movie, I give all formats a chance. I do extensive camera tests before shooting any film when I get the opportunity to. For Green Room we tested the Dragon, Alexa, Amira and maybe another camera and a huge variety of lenses. I think that, whatever Arri did six or seven years ago, they just got it right. I feel like every other camera ended up struggling to get to that place and there’s always a catch. The Alexa gave me what I wanted; it would let me push it around, if I wanted to shoot with one foot-candle it never shied away from me. The Red Dragon can make some really beautiful images within a very narrow bandwidth; you have to expose it right on. You can get some good-looking darks and beautiful dark imagery, but if you make any mistakes or an actor walks in the wrong direction a foot in a half, you don’t have any chance of recovery, even with the newer sensors.