Keeping Stuntmen Safe With Digital Rain

When writer/director James Gray started showing his new film, We Own the Night, to friends, they wanted to know how he got stuntpeople to agree to shoot a complex car-chase sequence in the pouring rain – an insanely dangerous proposition. "Mark Romanek said, 'Don't tell anybody how that's done. You're going to ruin it,'" Gray recalls. "But it was already in the press notes. The cat was out of the bag."

The chase scene, a centerpiece at the conclusion of the film's second act that serves as a turning point for Joaquin Phoenix's character, was shot on a sunny day. The downpour you see in the film was created by Digital Domain in a painstaking, months-long process that involved layer upon layer of water effects. Gray says the rain was important because the story needed an elemental component – he wanted it to have a supernatural force, suggesting Greek gods having their way with the mortals below. The result is very nearly seamless – it would take a very good eye indeed to peg the scene as a largely digital creation. Film & Video sat down with Gray in mid-August to talk about pulling off that trick, as well as his thoughts on sound mixing, and how he feels about the pros and cons of digital filmmaking tools. (Hint: if he has his way, you may have to pry his 35mm camera out of his cold, dead hands.)

FILM & VIDEO: Why was it important, creatively, for the car chase to take place in a rainstorm?

JAMES GRAY: The president of Warner at the time was a fantastic guy named Lorenzo di Bonaventura, and he said to me, “Write me a movie with a car chase.” So I tried to think of a car chase that had not been done – which is not easy. One day I was driving to the studio on the 101 in a terrible rainstorm, and the water covered my windshield. I was terrified for about a second. And then the water got cleared away and I saw a truck start to fishtail. I was driving at the time a very fantastic and expensive sportscar, and I was able to maneuver around it. If I were driving the current car I have, which is a Prius, I would have been killed. And it was very scary to me for two reasons. One was the rain, and the second reason was my point of view. Around the same time I had seen the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, and the plane crash in it is amazing. It’s totally point-of-view-driven, and there’s never a shot of a model of the plane going into the water. It’s about his perspective of the plane crash, and it was very effective for that reason.

So I decided to try and shoot the chase from Joaquin Phoenix’s point of view, almost never leaving the car. There are two shots outside of the car during the chase, only to establish geography. The introduction of the rain was the idea that the heavens are making their mark on this man’s life. He doesn’t have a say in the matter. It’s a very Greek-tragic idea in a way. What happens to this person in particular, Joaquin, was meant to happen, almost fated by the Gods. And weather always plays a big role in the work of [Akira] Kurosawa, for example, whom I idolize, because of the feeling that there are bigger forces than you. There are forces that are totally out of your control.

So the rain was in the script from the very beginning. When we were organizing the chase, I said, “Well, we better hope for rain.” And they said, no, no, no. No stunt man is willing to jackknife a truck or drive into oncoming traffic with wet streets. You don’t have any control. It’s too dangerous. We shot the scene totally in [sunny] weather like today, and I got into a panic because I thought, “That’s never going to look like rain.” And, low and behold, Digital Domain took on the job. And I think they did it.

Did you do anything practical on the set?

There are a number of things we didn’t do right. The VFX supervisors said to me, “In a way it’s good that you didn’t, because you shot it the way you wanted to shoot it. There’s a certain raw, screwed-up quality to it that you wouldn’t have gotten if we were there, because we would have said, ‘Don’t do that.'” They had to invent stuff. You have to understand, there is no rain in that sequence.

You didn’t throw water on the windshield?

They built every element. Water droplets on the windshield, on the rear-view mirror, on the side-view mirror. They built the next level of rain falling, they built the water on the streets, they built the water hitting the cars, they built the fog elements passing us by, the misting in the background. Some of the plates required 10, 20, 30, or 40 attempts to get right. It was an enormously labor-intensive and time-intensive sequence.

What was your relationship with the guys at Digital Domain?

Basically, what you do – I don’t know how familiar you are with this crap – they bring you in there, and you have a little bell and you ding it when the shot is done. You go ding!. And everyone applauds. There were 103 shots in the sequence. The first attempt I see, I go, “That’s terrible.” And I was really depressed. You give them notes. “Go back and do this, this, and this to it.” Sometimes you don’t know why it doesn’t look right. You just know it looks phony. So they do another version. They keep adding elements, subtracting elements, doing this and doing that. Finally they hit it – version 36 is the one you go with, and you go ding! and everyone claps. That’s the process. And you have to do this with every shot in the sequence.

They didn’t have it for the first several attempts, and then I found a clip of a guy driving in a rainstorm on YouTube. Ha! Some guy driving in a rainstorm in Savannah, Georgia, who, shot through the windshield with his video camera. I said, “That’s the look of the rain that I want.” And you saw all of them go, “[Long pause] … OK.” Because they knew the technical challenge would be huge. It wasn’t just rain they had to add. They had to add an intermittent blurring effect that would mimic the effect of the wipers. They were not happy with me about that. Apparently it drove them quite crazy.

How long did the whole process take?

They started in late January. We mixed without it, and the sequence was finally finished and in the print on May 8. Those guys would be working until midnight, and at midnight I’d drive over to Digital Domain and comment on it so they could get things done. They were adding headlights in the distance to add depth to the frame, so it would sell the shot better. I do not have enough good things to say about Digital Domain. Not only are they technically amazing, which they are, but they care so much. They are there from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., and they work like crazy people.

Anyway, it took a long time and it was a pain in the ass. Certain shots were just so hard to treat. They would beg me, “Ding it. Ding it. Please, it’s done.” They sold one shot to me by adding rain droplets on the lens. I got Grand Prix, the Frankenheimer movie, which has a race on wet streets with a little bit of water on the camera lens, and said, “Why don’t you do something like that?” And that’s how they finally sold one of the shots I wasn’t so high on.

When you shot the sequence, did you know that Digital Domain was going to provide rain?

No. I remember my production manager saying, “Look, it’s going to be a great sequence even if there’s no rain falling.” I said [anxiously] “Yeah, but you’ve gotta have the rain.”

The shoot was insane. There were so many near misses. At one point two cars almost had a head-on collision. They did hit. A stuntman was almost killed, and the camera was smashed off the side of the car. It was a very harrowing thing to shoot. I used it in the movie, up until the last frame where the camera is destroyed. I was very glad to recover the film from it, actually. I don’t know how Michael Bay does it. That guy shoots stuff like this all the time, and I’m always worried somebody is going to get killed.

This movie is in large part a low-key character drama with lots of quiet scenes between really good actors. And then you’ve got a couple of slam-bang, expertly executed action sequences. One of them is the car chase, and the other is a scene that ends with Phoenix tumbling out of a window and hitting a fence. Everyone in the screening room kind of jumped when that happened.

I wanted to be broad and subtle. Movies are not really a medium about subtlety. You always need two or three major sequences that grab people by the nuts.

That sequence in the stash house, I went on a police ridealong and I was told the story by a police officer about an undercover police officer who was what they call “burnt.” His cover was blown. In order to get out he stabbed a guy with a piece of glass and jumped out the window. I thought, “That’s pretty amazing. I’ve got to put it in a movie somewhere.” My own view is that’s the best moment in the movie, because it’s linked to characterization. For me, there’s something so desperate and tense and crazy about it. Like when you see the 9/11 footage of people jumping off the top of the World Trade Center in order not to be burned to death. It’s primal.

That was the idea, to sprinkle the movie – I remember saying “I want three of them.” One in the middle, one two-thirds of the way through, and one at the ending. The whole narrative can build to the one in the middle, which sets the story in a new direction. Two thirds of the way in, you want to think of the rising action in the film, and of course you need your ending, which I wanted to be different in mood from the first two. It was very strategic very early on. I remember working on the script that way. A lot of the movie is going to be very quiet, very sedate, intimate. And then all of a sudden it wrenches you out of your complacency.

When did you get the idea for the sound mix in the car chase to be just the wipers moving back and forth?

That was another thing devised from the very beginning, like the rain: no music. The sound effects would be the music. They would start as real, and become more hyperreal to mimic Joaquin’s hysteria. I had gone and watched, essentially, every car chase you could possibly name that’s ever been committed to film. I’m sure I missed a couple, but if I did I don’t know what they are. And to a one, the most successful – The French Connection, Bullitt, To Live and Die in L.A., two or three others – were different in one key respect. They did not have score. I wanted the sequence to be – the word shouldn’t be real, because realistic is not necessarily interesting. But I wanted it to feel different from other action scenes in other movies, and I didn’t want score to tell you what to think or feel in that moment.

The Skywalker Sound people were really great. They must have played me 40 different windshield-wiper sound effects. I wanted sound effects to be the music for the sequence. We did a couple of screwy things, and then we raised it subtly throughout the scene. And then right before the two cars hit, it becomes very loud, maybe the loudest thing in the sequence.

And I remember having huge arguments about the gunshots. I was absolutely wrong, and I’m so happy that I listened to the mixers. We didn’t have the gun flares in the scene yet, so I didn’t know how the scene would look. We were shooting blanks, but the shutter sometimes doesn’t catch the flash because it’s less than one frame of film. I knew we’d have to add that. I remember thinking the gunshot is not meaty enough. It’s not loud enough. And then I saw the movie done with special effects, and the mixers were completely right. It has this weird, haunting “Tww! Tww!” and you just see the flash. It’s totally Joaquin Phoenix’s point of view, and it’s really disturbing. There’s a gun battle going on, he’s powerless to control it, and who knows what’s going to happen.

It’s better than music. It reminded me of a heartbeat, too.

Absolutely. There is a heartbeat in the stash-house sequence, although it’s a very strange heartbeat. We used the noise that comes from a defibrillator and processed it a bit so it’s more of a “glub-glub-glub.” It sounds like blood rushing in your head. That’s what I was asking for.

What about the look of the film? Did you do a digital intermediate?

When we cut negative we did not do a DI, but I did one two weeks ago, and they’ve made prints of it now. I was against it [because] I am a film purist. And I’m wrong. Having gone through it now, it’s incredible what you can do.

Was there anything specific that sold you on it?

We shot the movie thinking we would not do a DI. Frankly, your cinematographer has to be better because the DI corrects problems. The cinematographer on this was Joaquà­n Baca-Asay, who did a fantastic job for me. But the DI simply enables you to push the footage to another level. It’s fantastic. I will never not do a DI again.

There’s a scene where Joaquin Phoenix beats up his friend outside the club toward the end. Baca-Asay and I were not happy with the way it looked. It was so cold that night the cameras weren’t running properly. With the DI, the contrast is better. We sharpened focus, which is amazing. And I changed the color a little bit. It’s just fantastic that you can do that. And there were some issues with boom microphones. By the way, if you saw any boom mics, it’s not the fault of the movie.

It’s the projectionist [misframing the image on the screen].

But you know what they say: the projectionist has final cut. And I had seen two prints of the movie where the microphones were not in the frame, but they were fairly close, so that if a bad projectionist was doing it you’d see them. I thought, “Oh boy.” And you put a hard matte in the DI, so no idiot projectionist, no matter how bad they are, is ever going to be able to screw up your movie.

How do you feel about film [acquisition] versus digital?

Ah – now, there I’ll never give in. What if the paradigm were turned around? What if I said, “There is a product out now that has better resolution, better contrast ratio, better color, and the image is made up of dots instead of lines, which is pretty much the way your eye sees, and it’s called film.” If they were all shooting digital, everyone would be trying to now use film. It’s only a chronological issue. I’ve seen Zodiac and other digital movies and some of them look beautiful. But they look beautiful in a different way. And to my eye, there’s something humane about the photochemical process. It is really that dots thing, the random grain, that is such a thing of beauty. I’m not the only one that says this.

The equivalent in painting would be if I said to you, “No more use of the fan brush.” Or, “you cannot use cadmium yellow any more. That’s it. I’m taking it away from you.” But in film it’s acceptable to say “No more black and white.” Why not? That’s a tool. Maybe digital will be great in years to come. It’s not there yet. And if it does get there, don’t take film away from me, because that’s a tool. That’s what’s upsetting about it. It’s not only an issue of aesthetics. It’s an issue of judgment. And then you have no more aesthetic choice in the matter. It’s the judgment of the corporations and the system at large that you’re not supposed to be able to shoot with this medium anymore.

I’m the guy sitting in the front row in the screening room to watch your movie because I like to be close enough to see the grain.

We love the grain. It matters. I have to say, I think that technical perfection is not attainable, but even if it were, it’s not enviable. It’s like when you look at the Van Gogh and see the thick paint that he’s put on the canvas. It’s why they’re so magical to look at in real life. The Van Gogh is not as perfectly rendered as the Renoir you see in the next room – but Van Gogh kicks Renoir’s ass. Renoir is a wonderful painter, but Van Gogh is Van Gogh. And it’s because of that extra thing, that tactile quality. Nobody thought anything of him as a painter, partly for that reason. “The guy’s glomming the paint on the canvas. What is that bullshit?” So the grain, in a way, is that. It’s part of the imperfection that makes it sing.