How He Matched the Look of the Notorious Indie Feature The Room
For a period of time in 2003, the unique 14-foot-tall visage of Tommy Wiseau stared at Hollywood from a billboard advertising The Room, an independent feature film he wrote, directed and starred in. It is widely considered one of the worst films. Ever.
Time can have a funny effect on legacy, however. An accidental comedy, The Room developed an international Rocky Horror-like cult following and spawned a hilarious tell-all authored by Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero titled The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. Sestero has the unique distinction of being that film’s co-star.
Seeing something uniquely Hollywood in the story of the movie, actor-director James Franco turned the book into its own independent-feeling feature film, The Disaster Artist, about two acting school classmates bound together by movie-biz dreams and the movie that was to launch their success. Like Wiseau before him, Franco directs and stars in the film as Tommy Wiseau, weird Polish-infused accent and all. Dave Franco, James’ brother, stars as Greg Sestero, marking the first film the brothers have acted in together. The film also features Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Paul Scheer and Ari Graynor, with countless cameos.
That cinematographer Brandon Trost was charged with the film’s photography was no surprise — he’s been tight with the Franco-Rogen-producer Evan Goldberg group for a while now, having shot This Is the End, Neighbors, The Interview, Neighbors 2, The Night Before and the pilot for the Future Man series. His other work is an eclectic mix of Halloween II (2009), Crank: High Voltage, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Diary of a Teenage Girl and MacGruber.
“I love working with these guys,” Trost says. “We tend to dive into these movies with a very specific tone that gives it more of a biting edge than just your average comedy. The Disaster Artist is a very funny movie but resonates dramatically for the heart and feeling of it all.”
Trost applied a realistic, documentary aesthetic to the visuals. “The story is about Tommy and Greg and their passion in trying to make it in Hollywood,” he explains, “and early on we decided to go more handheld for intimacy and experiencing this movie with the characters. The Wrestler was a touchstone, as were films by the Dardenne brothers that have a voyeuristic documentary approach with cinematic flair.”
He continues, “We wanted a lot of practical lighting so that it felt real, and I was okay with the lighting looking ugly and harsh at times. Also, Tommy Wiseau was such a wild card — you never knew what he would say or do next — that we liked a harsh reality to go along with that unknown. I liked that energy and translated that through the lighting and in operating the camera and through the lens choices, as well.”
Knowing that the majority of the film would be handheld, Trost needed a lightweight camera small in form that could dangle effectively from the Easyrig support on his back. The Red Epic Dragon 6K camera was called into action. “I wanted to be disconnected from any kind of cables or wires,” he says. “This was basically just a camera body, a lens, some remotes for focus and a battery. I could have this small camera hovering in front of me all day because the Easyrig took some of the weight off my shoulders and arms.”
Panavision’s older C Series anamorphic lenses gave Trost that “cinematic flair” he wanted to layer on top of the documentary aesthetic. “I love anamorphic,” he says. “It adds grander scope, more scale, so that we weren’t full-on documentary style. Coupled with the Epic Dragon, it was the right package for this film. There is something in the way the Red sensor picks up the texture from the anamorphic bokeh characteristic and shallow depth of field. I could be crazy, and it’s totally subjective, but it just felt better for this film.”
Inspired by a trick Greig Fraser, ACS, ASC, employed for sequences in Killing Them Softly, Fraser had Panavision give each of the C Series lenses an “anamorphic twist.” Basically, that means an element in the lens is slipped a couple gear teeth. The tweak doesn’t affect what’s in focus but skews out-of-focus backgrounds slightly. “I had this idea that what is happening in The Disaster Artist — these guys dealing with the harsh reality of Hollywood with relentless optimism — is just a little not normal,” Trost says, “and that was my reasoning for it. I found the unique texture interesting and was really happy with how it turned out.”
Lighting the movie was rather freeing for Trost. “I relied so heavily on practicals,” he recalls. “Oftentimes, if you saw a lamp in the shot, typically that was what was lighting it. There’s a scene in Tommy’s messy apartment where he and Greg sit on the couch and talk about their histories, and they literally are lit by the lamp next to them. It was daylight with the curtains drawn, but we shot at night so I faked a daylight glow outside with HMIs. That wasn’t necessarily challenging but was a typical example of how I would just accent what already was there. That one lamp was doing all the work.”
Trost set the Epic Dragon ISO to 3200, shooting 6K resolution with no fancy LUT and a lens stop ranging from T2.8 to T2.8 and a third — the “bleeding edge of keeping those lenses in focus before they fall apart,” he says. “I like the way 3200 ISO looks. That allows me to shoot with less light, and it adds noise and it inherently softens the image. I tend to lean toward softer images if I’m going for an analog vibe, and don’t have to use diffusion filters, which can look too affected.” Colorist Doug Delaney at Deluxe in Culver City layered a film grain on top during the digital intermediate and slightly lifted the black level to better emulate the older analog film look.
“The hardest parts of this movie were anytime we were re-creating The Room, which we shot in the first two weeks in the schedule because that was when we could get all the actors together,” Trost points out. “It was the hardest and the most fun. We basically were mirror-imaging what existed in The Room — a combo of setting the right lens and getting the shadows, or multiple shadows, as the case may be.
“I was amazed how hard it was to make something look a little lower quality. I had my laptop on mute and played a The Room scene and stood beside the monitor on set while Franco was performing. I tried to help him get the timing correct and their movements and motion to match.”
A second Red Epic Dragon was deployed when possible to grab extra coverage. For the film-within-a-film, Trost grabbed the Cooke/Panavision Zoom Z5S — the T3.1 Panavised version of the Cooke 20–100mm zoom lens that The Room was shot with — and bumped the Red camera resolution down to 5K to accommodate the spherical lens.
At the end of the film, scenes from The Room and those of the film re-created in The Disaster Artist are played side by side to show how close the filmmakers matched them. “You can see how intensely we paid attention to as many details as we could,” Trost says. “Lighting-wise, I also tried to use the same units that I saw in behind-the-scenes footage from the original film, like some smaller old-school Mole-Richardson tungsten Fresnels and some Kinos here and there. You look at it and think this must not have taken any time at all — but it was the most detailed stuff we did.”
The Disaster Artist opens in theaters this Friday.
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