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Lighting a Glass Box: The Perfect Guy Brings Modern Noir to the Stalker Genre

Lighting a Glass Box: The Perfect Guy Brings Modern Noir to the Stalker Genre

Cinematography

When my agent first sent me the script for The Perfect Guy, I thought it was a romantic comedy.

I thought, “Why is he sending me this? He knows I want to do thrillers right now.” But as I read it I quickly realized that that misdirection was part of the conceit that the studio wanted. I also realized that the film begged for a slow boil of atmosphere and tone. Since the story was nodding to other noir and neo-noir antecedents, I wanted to give purchase for those connections both visually and in terms of story.

All too often visual tone in film gets perverted to ill effect, or rendered moot by a myriad of other choices and factors. Yet making a thriller of any variety requires setting mood and tension—uncertainty and suspense at as many possible intervals, and in as many subversive visual and auditory ways, as possible. There are some essential ingredients with good thrillers, particularly with thrillers with strong sexual threads. The sex can be simply played toward convention and titillation rather than having intrinsic value (value for story, value as tropes, value for the stylistic whole). But when the filmmaking is taut and tense, when performances inform the camera gestures and editorial pace, when the viewer is anxious and riveted and disappears into the movie…we know we’ve done our job.

When I started interviewing cinematographers for this film, I had already pulled a great deal of visual and filmic references. I wanted the simplicity and starkness of classic noir, but at the same time I wanted to update it. I certainly wasn’t reinventing the wheel with this approach. Adrian Lyne was brilliant at this, as were Polanski, Kubrick, Lynch and, of course, David Fincher.

Director David M. Rosenthal on the set of The Perfect Guy

Director David M. Rosenthal

The Perfect Guy is a story about a woman losing control of her life to a stalker. I wanted her to feel totally exposed in her environments; I wanted the audience to feel this too. I began to imagine her in these glass boxes. I think the structures of Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe were certainly rattling around in my head both for her residence and for her work place. In the end we settled on a mid-century modern home and office structures that provided that fishbowl effect. With production designer Bill Arnold’s studied eye and DP Peter Simonite’s photographic guidance, we were able to settle on locations that satisfied both our architectural and lighting desires.

Of course there are always compromises with a budget of this size—and generally, with location shooting—but we got very lucky. Peter and I were both very keen to work with our gaffer and friend, James Planette. I had worked with Jim on my last film, A Single Shot. He gaffed that film for DP Edu Grau, who had really pushed me and the producer of that film to spend a little extra money to get Jim up to Vancouver. It was so worth it, perhaps most because Jim and I became friends on the movie, but also because Jim has an incredible impact on the films he collaborates on. I think Peter and Edu would be the first to agree, and it takes nothing away from their own immense talents as DPs, but having a gaffer with as much experience and talent as Jim is hard to quantify and the results are always palpable on screen.

Peter and Jim were incredible in their approach to lighting these glass boxes for The Perfect Guy, particularly the night sequences. We had very interesting and dark lighting references, from Todd Hido (whom I’m a huge fan of) to Bill Henson to DPs like Harris Savides, Jeff Cronenweth and Roger Deakins, to name a few. There was a soft touch to how Peter and Jim handled these spaces, and because of the increased latitude of the digital sensors in these modern cameras (the Sony F65 in this case), the images at times feel as if they were photographs taken with existing light. But that could not be further from the case. These were lighting scenarios shaped deftly by masters in their field—simply done on a smaller scale.

570710 – The Perfect Guy

Michael Ealy as Carter, Leah’s (Sanaa Lathan) stalker in The Perfect Guy

Some of the creepier images in the film we shot were of Carter (Michael Ealy) lurking around Leah’s (Sanaa Lathan) house at night. We wanted him deep in the shadows, underexposed, but we still wanted to see Michael’s eyes piercing out through the darkness. Peter and Jim created source light meant to come from a street lamp over his car. They then gave his eyes their own subtle light source to make them pop. The object of his gaze is Sanaa looking out of this glass trap into the darkness. Again, the guys shaped the practical lights around her and integrated small source lights from just behind the door where she was standing—cleverly designed and simply executed on a smaller scale, and yet, so effective. They adapted to a challenging location in such a smart way, and we used that approach throughout the shoot.

There are some scenes toward the end of Night and the City, one of the great noir masterpieces, where Harry Fabian (played by Richard Widmark) is panicked and on the run. This sequence ranks up among some of my favorite of the entire genre, and one of the primary reasons for this is that the camera work and lighting are particularly stark and hardbodied, in a way that’s delicious to the genre. For me, my favorite work on this movie, cinematically speaking, was that which moved in the shadows. And whether that was Michael Ealy creeping and hunting or Sanaa Lathan being hunted, those moments were always incredibly satisfying to create. MM

The Perfect Guy opens in theaters on September 11, 2015, courtesy of Screen Gems.

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