Australian Cinematographer Magazine sits down with award-winning DOP László Baranyai ACS HSC to chat about the chilling new film Downriver, and is joined by the film’s talented young Director Grant Scicluna, during 2015's Melbourne International Film Festival – by James Cunningham
Sometimes the path to redemption is paved in sin. James (Reef Ireland), 18, has been released from juvenile detention after serving time for his involvement in the suspected drowning of a young boy in a river years earlier. Ravaged with uncertainty, dealing with an estranged family and forced to face the dead boy’s mother (Kerry Fox), James is set upon a journey of self discovery, shocking revelations and danger as questions surrounding the boy’s death brim to the surface. Old friendships are questioned, family ties are tested and lives are put on the line as James must find his path to the truth. It’s a path that will lead him downriver…
AC - How did get involved with the project? Had you worked with any of the producers previously?
LB - It goes back to 2006 when we shot the opening train sequence of Noise (2007). We followed the character of Lavinia (Maia Thomas) on the train with a hand held camera and there was a young skinny man lying on the floor in blood with a terrible chest-wound, playing dead. I was very concerned about stepping on him as we walked the length of the running train, so I asked him: please roll away when you see me coming too close to you. He was Grant Scicluna who later wrote and directed Downriver. I guess the moral of the story is: don’t step into anyone’s face on the set. You can never know who they may become one day.
Our producer Jannine Barnes was a producer’s intern on Noise, and I can recall as we were shooting the night sequences in the caravan, she was hanging around with a desire on her face to step inside this incredible crowded place, but somehow we never invited her in. I can only hope she has forgiven us.
Not long after Noise, Jannine sent me an early draft of Downriver and since then my involvement grew little by little during the long years of bringing the production up. Before Downriver, I had the luck to work with Grant on his short Hurt’s Rescue (2014) which we shot on 16mm B&W in Cardiff, Wales, where he won the Iris Prize award a year earlier for The Wilding (2012).
AC - Was there a discussion about what to shoot Downriver on? What did you decide and why?
LB - At the very beginning there wasn’t much discussion regarding the shooting format, we all knew it has to be on film. Grant has shot all his previous shorts on film. Jannine and I believed too that film would give the right natural tone to Downriver. However, in today’s low budget filmmaking environment we can have as many discussions as we like regarding shooting format, but at the end of the day there is always seems to be someone else who makes the decision for us. No matter the Producer’s, Director’s or Cinematographer’s intention.
In reality as the post-production landscape changes, it is becoming increasingly harder to purchase, process and treat film. Losing the local representative and storage of Kodak and processing facilities in Australia, using film feels like a huge amount of inconvenience for so many people. And lets not forget: a first time Director is never really trusted by the financiers, they always fear he or she will blow out the shooting ratio. The irony in the end with us, is that our shooting ratio was very conservative, owing to the fact that Grant was very careful in how we cover scenes.
We had two choices: shoot Downriver on some digital format or not to make the film at all. We choose ARRI RAW for various reasons: the look, the post-production and the ergonomics of the Alexa cameras.
GS - I think had we been 6-12 months ahead in our financing, we would’ve shot on film. There was a wonderful period of about 10 years when Directors and Cinematographers had the choice of format, but those days are gone - at least in this country.
I believe the choice of format should sit as a creative decision, just like casting. What format is best for this story? For some of my shorts it was 16mm, for others 35mm, for one it was best achieved digitally. That creative choice has a real impact on how the audience perceives the story.
Film was falsely seen here as a format that had been superseded by the wonders of digital. Directors fought back against this idea in the USA. Scorsese, Nolan, Spielberg all fought for Directors to retain choice over their acquisition format. Look what’s happened there. The studios have contractually committed to a certain amount of projects originating on film.
Not here. The funding agencies prohibited funded shorts from being acquired on film (surely that could’ve been pursued as a kind of anti-competitive trade practice). It was the emerging sector that fought to keep film alive in Australia. It was the students and the first time directors. Our mentors, the industry’s most experienced, just shrugged their shoulders and towed the line with the ‘march of technology’. Now, to originate on film is mostly a logistical impossibility.
AC - What was your collaboration with the Production Design team like in pre-production. Can you talk about the 'look’ of Downriver and what you set out to achieve? What references, filmic or otherwise, were you working from? Did you stick to a storyboard or was there room to adapt and experiment on the day?
LB - Downriver is a visually quiet film, no spectacular effects or epic sunsets, just natural quietness. So little happens on the surface of the story and so much more on the psychological level. Grant, Jannine, Penny Southgate (Production Designer), Michael Chisholm (Costume Designer) and myself worked as hard as possible to maximise what resources we had in our low budget. Looking back I am happy to say: there is no way to remember which idea came from whom. We endlessly inspired each other to achieve the look of Downriver.
Grant and I drove together to the set every day, discussing plans for the day or favorite filmmakers and scenes, while I tortured him with the music of Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, Emerson, or Lake & Palmer on the car radio to be inspired by these musicians’ bold approach and free spirit. I am a music junky, a lot of my inspirations come from the variety of music I listen to. I am still not sure if I have pushed poor Grant too hard with my musical taste.
We had no storyboards. We didn’t need them. I often find preconceived storyboards take away from the inspiration we can draw from the cast, the location and the actual moment of creation.
Of course we planed some specific shots, but generally we set out to have a pragmatic approach during the twenty-three day, entirely on location, shoot. We threw around film titles and director names, favorite scenes as you always do, but never with the intention to copy any of that. Yes, we constantly adapted and experimented as much as time permitted. We had a very basic concept in the story telling; expose lies and hide the truths. So the audience have to do they work to keep up.
Anthony Cox, our brilliant editor, took this concept even further to a level we could not have planned for. Downriver has a very dark emotional tone, with a subtle color scheme, and in terms of look, we were aiming for a mixture of hot, dry summery highlights in the exterior scenes, and dark, often mixed colour temperature lighting inside or night time, but still keeping it natural. We have treated the flashback scenes as our ‘best summertime memories’, with higher color saturation and thirty-frames/second frame rate.
We moved the camera wherever it was possible to create a ‘floating feeing’ - like a river - often we used a mini jib to allow us to be as responsive to the actors as possible. It is an old favorite way of mine to adapt the camera to the actors, not the other way around. We used the 1:2.40 aspect ratio to express physical and emotional relationship between characters.
GS - For me, I just wanted to set forth the ideas, which begun with the script, plus a little discussion and then let those who are more experienced than me, run with them and bring back to me better ideas or surprises. I like to be open to the inspiration on the day rather than overly rigid, forcing everyone to do it exactly as I say. Sometimes this drives crewmembers mad, especially art department who never want to be caught out on the day. Luckily, László also responds to the stimuli of the actor and the space on the day, so we both go into the day with open minds.
Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking. I woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats thinking, “What if we turn up and things don’t work? What if there’s not enough time to figure it out?” Then I would just tell myself that everyone on the set has done this before. Even the caterer, who has been on a billion more sets than me, could come down and solve my problem. So I just breathe and try to go back to sleep.
AC - What equipment were you filming on? How was the durability of the gear with all your location work? Did you run into any complications?
LB - We had a very simple camera package from Panavision: Arri Alexa Plus camera, Gemini 444 raw recorder, a set of Cooke S4 lenses, an Angenieux 25-250 mm HR zoom, the usual set of ND, ND grad, polarizing filters, a set of each black pro-mist and Hollywood Soft filters, plus an O’connor 2575 fluid head and set of legs.
Downriver was a single camera shoot and thanks to the care of Peter White (1st AC) and Kat Schachte (2nd AC) we had no issues with the gear on the set. We didn’t do data wrangling on the set. That was done by Deluxe DDP Studios. We had Daryl Pearson as gaffer with a small lighting van and Llew Higgins on his own as grip, both doing excellent jobs. The crew was very small, but extremely effective. They all loved the script and put everything they had into the production.
AC - Do each of you have a favorite shot or sequence? Why?
LB - It is almost impossible to pick favorites, the script of Downriver is so complex and it takes you on such an emotional journey, every scene or sequence is a favorite for different reasons. If I have to pick, I would chose the scenes where we accomplished almost everything we were planning on aesthetic, emotional and technical levels, such as the 360 degrees jib shot of the little boys at the river, the confrontation scene between Paige (Kerry Fox) and Anthony (Thom Green) covered from a single long tracking set up, or the sequence where James (Reef Ireland) descends into a subterranean space. I love these scenes because we could create the conditions necessary to shoot but never interrupted the flow of performance.
GS - I’m always seeking that perfect synergy between performer and camera. So is László. He has a creative and technical ability to design coverage that is inspired by the movement of the actors. His camera works vigorously to cover as much as possible within the one shot. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be a very slow dolly from a MCU into an ECU of Reef’s face during a particularly emotional scene. I asked Laszlo and Llew Higgins (Grip) if we could creep in slowly over the five-minute scene - a push of just four feet. Llew, being Llew, said no problem, although he’d never in his long career tracked such a short distance over such a long time. This is actually physically incredibly arduous! It cannot be achieved by simply pushing the dolly, so Llew devised a way to lock his fingers into the dolly and twist the wheels painstakingly over the take, knowing where he needed to be at any particular line of dialogue. That’s what I mean about perfect synergy.
When people see that scene, they talk about the mid shot and the close up and I tell them, no, it is one shot, not two. It’s only by playing the shot in fast forward are they made aware of how they were being fished in to the character.
AC - László, as the Cinematographer, how did you work to achieve Grant’s ‘directorial vision’ while still imparting your own unique perspective, or signature, as the Cinematographer?
LB - In my career I try to avoid of the mistake of making ‘my own film’ against the script or the will of a Director. For me the inspiration comes from the story, the Director and from the actors on the set. I believe my primary duty, as a Cinematographer, is to document what the actors are doing and give them all the support I can with the tools of cinematography. I like to spend a lot of time with directors to learn about their way of thinking, their preferences and most importantly what are they expecting from me, to learn where is my space going to be in the project. These are too complex to be asked as straight questions, or expressed by statements. From this I can build my perspective and as a result with Grant, we had very little talking on the set, it was almost only looks and headshakes, with occasional worried or smiley exchange of looks.
If I have a unique perspective, it must come from my education, life experience and my love of freedom of expression and risk taking. I never try to hide my personal response, but I am always careful not to make it overwhelming. It usually manifests in small details I love to smuggle into the Director’s vision with lighting, composition, movements, and framing to create strong emotions.
Long ago I realised something; when I am operating a camera I am not looking for the frame, ‘the picture’, I am watching the actor’s performance because nothing gives me more pleasure than witnessing good performances and instinctively adopting my operating/lighting to these performances. Yes, in one way we can say I am a sloppy camera operator.
Talking of my body of work: Downriver was probably the hardest to crack psychologically. The story is filled with so many references to my childhood and my family relationships, I often had a kind of teary eye moment after finishing certain takes. I think it is understandable why Downriver was such an important project for me.
GS - There is a real partnership on the set between László and myself. László is there when I block the scenes. Actors want to go in all directions and I try and encourage them to move wherever they want. At the end of that process, I turn to László and ask him what he’s thinking. Together we whittle down to the essence of what we think we’ll need to tell the story.
When we’re shooting, I don’t like to look through the monitor if possible. I prefer to watch the actor, while standing beside the camera. Bruce Beresford taught me to do this when I did my internship with him, although he looks at the actor through Opera Binoculars, which I think is a step too far!
What it means though is that I am judging the performance only and when I’m happy, I turn to László for his judgment on whether we achieved what we set out to achieve technically. Usually if László nods, I’m ready to move on. There’s always a monitor on the camera for me to quickly check the frame at any particular spot during the take, and sometimes I will replay the take to check it on the monitor to make sure I’m absolutely happy. I laugh when I ask if László wants to look at the monitor to check the take too and he always responds, “I’ve seen it.”
AC - As the Director of Photography, how involved were you in the post-production process? What post work was done on the film, and why? How did you approach colour grading?
LB - No cinematography is completed without post-production. In the ‘old film days’ we could embed the look into the film negative. Grading was a simpler trimming-matching process. These days, with all the options of the digital post-production, the process is more complex and I feel the involvement of the Cinematographer is essential.
When we work on low budget productions we must admit an unfortunate fact; we have to embrace the dreadful ‘fix in post’ approach. Our greatest enemy on the set is… time. Basically we are presented with two choices: take the time and fix everything on set down to the finest details, risking overtime or even the compulsion to drop scenes and takes; or preserve time for everyone, do our best on the set with the thought in the back of our mind, we can fix the compromises in post. It is not my preferred way of doing my work, but I had to learn this with the realities of lower budget filmmaking.
For example: when we shot James’ last night in in the detention center, we created a tender moment between two cellmates under a suicide watch light, but we had no time to get the ugliness of this lighting right to counterpoint the warmness of the relation between the boys. It had to be finalised in the grade.
Since I have been living in Australia, almost every job I have done has been graded by Ian Letcher at Deluxe. Ian, a great artist of his own right, understands exactly what we try to achieve and why, and very often enhances our concept with his contribution. I still keep my old habit of creating the look on the set as much as possible and always make a small Leporello notebook about the look of the sequences, so whatever disorder we shoot the project, I have a strong sense where we are in terms of the film’s look. This time, while Grant and Anthony were editing, I experimented with a couple of grading concept on my computer and gave it to Grant to choose his preferences. This way we saved a lot of time and confusion in the grading suit working out our concept of the final look. The look of Downriver is as natural as possible, with some slight murkiness occasionally – along with other reference to the river’s water.
AC - Looking back on what you had originally set out to achieve on the project, do you think you succeeded? In hindsight, what would you have done differently? What have you learned from Downriver.
LB - Did we succeed? Can we ever say that yes we did? The audience will let us know.
We definitely gave it our best shot - no pun intended - and the film reflects honestly where we are in term of our capabilities. I personally wouldn’t do anything differently. Maybe only one little thing, and this is one of the many things we learned making a very low budget feature. It happened almost accidentally a couple of times on the set. After we had multiple takes of a scene and we thought we got what we wanted, there was a little time left in the schedule, so why don’t we go for another take, this time play it ‘freely’ without the pressure on everyone to get it right. These takes all have some special magic, something hard to put a word on. Something like a little miracle. I wish we had time in our killer schedule to experience these little miracles more often.
Downriver always will be a treasured memory for me. It doesn’t happen very often when such a great script comes to my way, and I am trusted by an upcoming Director as Grant trusted me. We had great cast and crew to make the best we can. I hope Downriver is going to be a good start for a group of young and very talented filmmakers and actors.
GS - If there’s one thing I would’ve done differently is trying to push for more time. With film schedules as tight as ours, we couldn’t afford to be Gone With The Wind (1939)in the morning and Mister Squiggle (1959-99) in the afternoon. Things unavoidably go wrong though, and there were too many moments where we’d be at 4.30pm and have a whole scene to do in just one hour or less. Time for one, maybe two set-ups max. Those moments are not the most enjoyable moments on set, but they force you to bring into the sharpest clarity everything you know about directing - one of my the scenes I’m most proud of was shot in twenty minutes.
The thing I have come to trust in going through the process of making my first feature is that filmmaking is just that – a process, which involves the work of many hands. Everywhere I looked on set, I saw the work of hands.
My vision for Downriver when I wrote the script is not what I got. It’s somewhat similar, but it’s a different beast. Even with me at the helm, arguably the best protector of that original impulse.
A script can be a lovely thing in itself. A film, despite your best efforts, is an ever-expanding series of variables. This depends on that, which depends on that, which depends on that. When things go right, it really is as if by magic.
In the end, what I have is the synthesis of a process. My ideas, and the ideas of a good many more-experienced people. The craftwork of all those hands, the sparking of all those minds.
Robert De Niro says the “talent is in the choices”. This or that? As a Director, once the show is on the road, my simple task is to capture and keep the good ideas, to leave behind the rotten ones that have no value. It’s easier said than done.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.