John Bailey, ASC is doing double duty in Utah this year as two of his movies, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and The Greatest, are screening in the Grand Jury competition at Sundance. In addition, the nearby Slamdance Film Festival asked him to participate in a seminar about the aesthetics and costs of moviemaking. The cinematographer, who has earned some 60 narrative movie credits over his career—including Ordinary People, The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Silverado and Brighton Beach Memoirs—brings a broad and eclectic perspective to his work and appearances.
But despite a moviemaker’s experience, it’s rare to find anyone with more than one project at Sundance in any given year. So how did it happen? When preparing to shoot License to Wed in 2006, the movie’s director, Ken Kwapis, informed Bailey that John Krasinski, the romantic male lead and star of “The Office,” had adapted a novel for a movie he planned to direct. Kwapis suggested the two men talk.
Krasinski’s screenplay for Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is an adaptation of the David Foster Wallace novel of the same name. Some 60 to 70 percent of the story takes place on a 12- by 18-foot set of a room where a graduate student is doing research for her thesis by asking men to share memories of their experiences with women. The rest of the story is made up of transitional and flashback scenes.
“John and I talked at great length about the content of each interview and how each actor would be interpreting his monologue,” Bailey says. “It was a springboard for me to think about how to light each character while he was talking about his experiences with wives, girlfriends, parents and friends. I used lighting as a variable, to get us into each character’s soul.”
The interview room set had four wild walls that could be moved independently if Bailey needed more space for lighting, or if he wanted to work with the camera further away with longer lenses. He decided to film each of the interviews with the camera at basically the same height and distance, with the same focal length lenses. “Since the image sizes, angles and focal lengths were consistent, the defining characteristic was lighting,” he adds. “I had complete control over colors and the quality of the light since the office had neutral colors and no character or presence of its own. Sometimes I bounced light coming off the floor as though it were reflected sunbeams.”
Produced mainly at several small studios in Brooklyn that were previously warehouses, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men included some exterior scenes filmed at a Boy Scout camp on Staten Island. There were two windows on the left side of the set that were off-camera most of the time and a third one directly behind the person being interviewed. Sometimes Bailey brought hard or soft light through that window depending on the time of day. A few daytime exterior and classroom scenes were staged at locations on the Columbia University and Brooklyn College campuses.
“I saw the film in my mind in anamorphic format while I was reading the script,” Bailey says. “I told John it would give us more flexibility for composing intimate portraits of the men with medium and close-up shots that have a feeling of depth. It would also enable us to put faces in interview scenes in slightly different places in the frame and to play with positioning of heads. That would give me a larger canvas behind the heads to paint with light and subtly differentiate characters.”
When working on his other Sundance premiere, The Greatest, Bailey recommended the same 35mm anamorphic format in 2.4:1 aspect ratio and coupled with answer printing at a film lab.
The Greatest, which was also directed by a first-time writer-feature director, Shana Feste, revolves around a mother and father who are coping with the loss of a son, while supporting his troubled, pregnant teenage girlfriend and their own younger son who is on a downward emotional spiral. The family’s home and other practical locations are like characters in the story, which is what drew Feste to contacting Bailey in the first place: The writer-director had admired his cinematography in 1980’s Ordinary People, a character-driven movie which focused on a crisis within a family. (That film, of course, was directed by Sundance founder Robert Redford.)
“After I read the script, I told Shana and producers Lynette Howell and Aaron Kaufman that if they wanted to produce a low-end digital video with a lot of handheld camerawork that was their decision,” Bailey says. “I also told them that by the time they paid for a DI and film-out for cinema screens, if we were responsible about the raw film budget, the cost would be pretty much the same as shooting on a 35mm motion picture in anamorphic format with traditional film answer printing.”
Bailey also advised Feste and the producers that a 2K or even 4K DI would defeat the purpose of shooting in 35mm anamorphic format, because it would degrade the richness of images and nuances in contrast and colors integral to the visual grammar. “Most people assume that if you scanned all the information off a 35mm film frame it would translate to a 2K or 4K data file,” he says. “My eyes tell me a medium-speed 35mm color negative that is properly exposed in anamorphic format is the equivalent in image information to an 8K digital file, and probably closer to 10K if you want to translate it into numbers.” Bailey’s assertion, which was carried out in the final result, is consistent with what Kodak scientists said when they introduced the Cineon digital film system in the early 1990s. The Cineon system was initially used for restoration projects and for compositing visual effects elements into film shots.
The Greatest was mainly produced in Rockland County, New York, with a screenplay that attracted an impressive cast, including Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan. Like Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, much of this story unfolds indoors—in a house that has been used as a location for many other movies and commercials, so it had some wild walls—but these characters interact at more varied and generally bigger locations. Bailey observes that the wider aspect ratio gave the actors freedom to follow their instincts and move freely through sets without requiring a lot of panning. He occasionally let parts of scenes go a little soft to draw the eye to what was in focus.
“The anamorphic frame feels more organic and natural, like the way we see the world with our eyes,” he says. “I don’t over-prepare or intellectualize during preproduction. I’ve learned to trust my instincts and what my heart tells me to do.”
Cameras and lenses for both projects were provided by Panavision—including the T-2.8 40-80mm and T-3 70-200mm zoom lenses that he asked the company to develop about 10 years ago. Bailey also used a T-4.5 270-840mm anamorphic zoom lens for a few daylight exterior scenes and Panavision C-series 40, 50 and 75mm lenses for Steadicam shots. He rendered images in both pictures on Kodak Vision 2 500T 5218 film for tungsten-lit scenes and on 250D 5205 and 50D 5201 stocks for daylight sequences. Front-end processing and dailies for both projects were handled by Technicolor, in New York, where Bailey timed the answer prints for both movies in collaboration with Lee Wimer.
“These were our fifth and sixth films together. John Bailey and I think very similarly and can easily communicate with verbal shorthand,” Wimer says. “I find myself nodding in agreement when he tells me his vision. The Greatest is a beautiful looking movie with dark scenes that define moods. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men has a totally different look, including the use of many different colors in that small interview room. These are two very dissimilar films, but I could follow what was happening in both of them before I heard any sound. I don’t know what the budgets were, but they don’t look like low budget movies.”
Meet John Bailey, ASC
John Bailey, ASC traces his passion for cinema back to 1962-63 when he spent a year as a foreign exchange student at colleges in Vienna and Innsbruck, Austria, at a time when New Wave films directed by Antonioni, Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, et. al. were in vogue.
“I saw an enormous number of those films,” he says. “During my senior year at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, I spent many nights at a local art house theater. I got interested in writing about film theory and enrolled [as a graduate student] at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Woody Omens, ASC, a talented cinematographer was a teaching assistant.”
Bailey’s first project was a still photography photo shoot of cooks and patrons at greasy spoon diners. He accidentally over-exposed every shot by two to three stops. “I could have gotten fatally discouraged, but Woody encouraged me,” he recalls. “I told myself that if I want to write about film, I had to learn the language and visual grammar of filmmaking by looking through the eyepiece and shooting films.”
Most of the students in his class wanted to be directors, so Bailey got to shoot their projects by default. His first professional job was as a camera loader on a black and white horror film that was shot with short ends. He was paid $50 a week.
The moral of this story? Follow your dreams.