Ellen Kuras, ASC, the only cinematographer to claim top honors for dramatic cinematography three times at the Sundance Film Festival, recently collaborated with writer-director Rebecca Miller on Rose and the Snake, a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Catherine Keener. Kuras and Miller, who’ve collaborated before on Angela in 1995, and produced Sundance favorite Personal Velocity in miniDV, chose to explore a different frontier with Rose and the Snake. They shot the film in Super 16mm and used a digital intermediate process as a gateway to create cinema-quality 35 mm prints.
The film was produced on approximately a $2 million budget in 35 days on Prince Edward Island on the east coast of Canada. Miller and Kuras were committed to shooting in real-time continuity, essential because Day-Lewis lost 35 pounds during production, emulating a much longer period in his character’s life. That made scheduling much more critical, since they were subject to the vagaries of unpredictable weather and related shifts in nature’s light.
The story revolves around Jack ( Daniel Day-Lewis), and his teenage daughter, Rose ( Camilla Belle). Jack is a widower who organized a Utopian commune during the late 1960s with the goal of raising Rose in that idealistic environment. The commune falters and the dynamics of their relationship change after Jack brings another woman, Kathleen ( Keener), and her two sons into their lives.
Miller, who wrote the script seven years ago, and Kuras, dissected the visual possibilities for bringing the script to life on the screen during countless conversations, and by searching for inspiration in books, still photographs, paintings and elements of movies. They got ideas from reading passages in books and from noticing the effect of the way a camera moved in certain situations.
A Sense of Space
"We found a book of very early color photography that inspired us to rely on a muted color palette where greens and blues were kind of a subdued teal with a yellowish-orange cast in some highlights, and the blacks weren’t very dense," Kuras says. " Rebecca and I talked for a long time about how to treat the house and the landscape around it as though they were characters in the story. We designed shots so you had a sense of the space around them and also for their feelings of isolation."
Some 90 percent of the story takes place on a commune set, built on a bluff overlooking the ocean near a fresh water pond that flows into the sea.
"(Production designer) Mark Ricker built an amazing house on the side of a slope," Kuras says. "You could look out of the windows and see both the ocean and different areas in the commune. There was a geodesic dome built on stilts, where we staged certain scenes. Other scenes were set in a tree house and around Rose’s garden."
Due to the intimate nature of the story, Kuras and Miller wanted to give the actors as much freedom as possible in scenes. In one scene, which starts in Jack’s room, he exits and walks down the hall to Rose’s room. "We started with one camera inside Jack’s room and the other in Rose’s room," Kuras explains. "The first camera covered the opening part of the scene. We picked up Jack walking down the hall and into Rose’s room with the second camera. We basically shot three scenes in one take with one camera or another rolling continuously for 20 minutes."
The actors walked through blocking, but never over-rehearsed, because Miller wanted the spontaneity of them following their instincts. Kuras admits that it was very tough on the focus pullers and camera operators, because there were no marks, and they were often shooting freestyle in small rooms without a lot of light. "They were among the most difficult sets I’ve had to light," she says. "We were usually shooting at T-2.8, which was wide open on the zoom lens. I lit interiors through windows augmented with Chinese lanterns, practicals and small lamps hidden in niches."
Why Super 16
Kuras explains that she and Miller shot in Super 16 because the more dreamlike texture of film suited the dramatic story’s tonality, and the mobile camera format enabled them to shoot handheld, 10-minute takes without reloading.
Their modest camera package included two Arri SR3s with a set of zooms and a wide-angle Canon lens. Most of the time, Kuras shot with two handheld cameras. Exceptions included occasional shots from a rig on a moving car. There were also a few high-angle shots when Miller wanted the audience to see the scope of a scene from a more distant perspective.
Kuras used the new Kodak Vision2 7218 film, a low-grain 500-speed stock, which gave her the latitude to shoot in tight spaces at low key levels with very little fill.
"We had sparse, stylized lighting and situations with extreme contrast," she says. "I’ve used this film on commercials, so I knew highlights weren’t going to blossom. There is just a slight halation that gives the film kind of a rounded feeling. I also liked the way it reproduces colors, and the combination of speed and low grain, which was ideal for a digital intermediate process resulting in 35mm blowups."
When necessary, Kuras "pushed" the film a stop without creating grain. It held details in shadow and highlight areas even in extremely contrasty situations.
The negative was shipped daily to Deluxe Labs in Toronto, which also provided DVD dailies. Kuras will put the final touches on Rose and the Snake during digital timing at a facility in Los Angeles.
Kuras also lensed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and and a documentary about an Apache tribe in New Mexico and Oklahoma, this year.
"Documentaries taught me to think on my feet," says Kuras, who shot documentaries in El Salvador and in Cambodia in 1987 during brutal civil wars. "You find ways to shoot and cut in your head so the editor has a range of material. I’ve also shot a lot of commercials. I’m always trying to learn something new or challenge myself in different ways. I think each genre influences everything else that you do."