Arriving in theaters on November 7th, Repo! The Genetic Opera is a true original—a “science fiction horror rock opera” that is sure to be unlike any other musical you’ve ever seen. Directed by the Saw series stalwart Darren Lynn Bousman (he helmed the second, third and fourth entries in the horror series) and based on a play by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich (who also wrote the script), the movie takes place in the not-so-distant future, when an epidemic of organ failures devastates the planet. Biotech company GeneCo emerges, offering organ transplants for a price. Those who miss their payments are hunted by villainous, cold-blooded repo men who will stop at nothing to recover GeneCo’s property. With a quirky concept and wildly eclectic cast that includes Paul Sorvino, Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects), Anthony Head (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and Alexa Vega (Spy Kids), Repo! The Genetic Opera looks likely to become the latest cult sensation.
MM caught up with the movie’s cinematographer, Joseph White, to talk about his burgeoning career and this truly original musical.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): When did you first discover you wanted to become a cinematographer?
Joseph White (JW): I have loved movies since as long as I can remember, and the fact that my mother is quite the cinephile certainly helped. I got into photography when all of my friends who were skateboarders needed someone to take pictures, and since I could barely stand up on a board and I owned my mother’s old Nikon, I became the resident photographer. When I arrived at college, the two interests melded in a strong way, and as soon as I learned what a cinematographer actually was, I knew I wanted to be one!
MM: How did you get involved with Repo! The Genetic Opera?
JW: The director, Darren Bousman, and I had been friends for years and had collaborated on some commercials and short films several years back, before his Saw days. When this project came about and it seemed like he was actually going to be able to make the movie he had been dreaming about for years, it was the perfect opportunity for us to finally team up on a feature. Repo! was a dream come true for me as a cinematographer since it was a movie with the potential to create whole new worlds and images, with no boundaries except for the limits of our imagination.
MM: What are some of the struggles you faced during the filming of Repo!?
JW: The obvious struggle of the time constraints we had to shoot the movie was an obstacle, but at every turn we were forced to think on our feet and some of our best work on the film was the product of having to rely on nothing else other than our passion and ability to problem solve on a moment’s notice. Truthfully, that’s the struggle with every film, but I sincerely believe that on Repo! we were at our best when things were at their most dire. We shot this film in roughly 30 days, and anyone who sees it will understand how many songs we had to film (remember this is an opera in the truest sense—there are no dialogue scenes and “standard” coverage) and do the math and realize how nearly impossible the task at hand was. I’d often joke that there are no “problems,” only “opportunities for creative solutions,” but even when the schedule seemed daunting and you’d look at tomorrow’s call-sheet and have a miniature coronary, we used the “problems” as ways in which to do things differently, often in ways we had never imagined in prep. Those moments define you as a filmmaker, and I feel that even during our toughest days—and we certainly had our share—the less we focused on the negatives, the better our work was.
Another challenge was that this movie was so unlike anything anyone had ever seen, so we didn’t have any genre conventions to fall back on. But that challenge was liberating in a way, and even though we referenced many films, like Blade Runner, Phantom of the Paradise, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Jesus Christ Superstar (to this day Darren’s favorite film), we were met with the task of filming things day-to-day that were truly original and only based in our collective imagination. I’ve never heard a cinematographer say that he or she had “enough” time and money to shoot anything, so as soon as you stop focusing on your boundaries the sooner you can surpass them.
MM: According to IMDb.com, Repo! was shot on digital video. What are some of the advantages of shooting digitally as opposed to film?
JW: Repo! was filmed on the Panavision Genesis system, and I have to say these amazing cameras gave us so much flexibility that there was truly nothing we couldn’t express visually that we had envisioned in our minds. The constraints usually associated with shooting on HD were largely absent, and the fact that I could show my director on the spot—in the moment—what the film would roughly look like, gave us the ability to create with a high degree of specificity, eliminating all guesswork. I love shooting film and still shoot film on other projects, but the Genesis system allowed us to explore the amazing sets designed by David Hackl and truly paint every frame and know that we had what we needed. I honestly don’t think that we could have achieved what we did on this film with any other format, especially in the time we had available to us to do so. Plus, having less downtime between having to reload the camera saved us on many occasions. At the end of the day, these are merely tools with which we express ourselves, and the more we focused on what was in front of the camera as opposed to what type of camera it was, the better everything went.
MM: Who are some of the DPs that inspire you?
JW: I am constantly being inspired by the amazing work done by my colleagues, and always find something to take away from most movies I see. Lately the work of Harris Savides, Ellen Kuras, Seamus McGarvey, Christopher Doyle and Darius Khondji have raised the bar for all of us, but cinematographers like Raoul Coutard, Gordon Willis, Michael Chapman and Sven Nykvist have been the artists whose work has always pushed me to strive to tell stories and explore characters in new, interesting and personal ways.
MM: Any advice for aspiring cinematographers?
JW: Concentrate on story and characters above all, and everything else will come. All the toys and gadgets in the world can’t make one’s lighting and composition shine; ultimately it’s our ability to connect with the people and places we’re photographing that define us. I think the look of a film must always stem from a personal relationship with the material, and as long as you uphold this conviction within yourself and encourage it within those who you collaborate with, your work will at least be interesting. Take care of the people you work with and for, and never write-off an idea or suggestion as the best idea on set might not always be your own. It’s a collaborative medium and the more you embrace this and those you work with, the greater your chance of success. There is nothing better in life than making movies with your friends, with a community of talented and passionate individuals, and no matter what the budget is or how hard the day might be, supporting one another is the best way to tell any story.