Hollywood Calls

Late friday afternoon. I get a call from my US agent about a job shooting in LA. The DOP had fallen though on a US feature shooting in LA because of a schedule change and they were looking for someone to fill in. She wanted to know if I could do a phone interview.

30 hours later I was in LA looking at the location where more than 70% of the film would take place.

Jetlagged, and with my head spinning, I met the director, Nick Tomnay literally after driving straight from the LAX to what would be our principal location, an upmarket house in the trendy LA suburb of Los Feliz.

1st AD Dave Casper, Designer Richard Jattan, UPM Laura Irvine and Director Nick Tomnay. Day 1 and I've just met these guys and seeing the house that's already been chosen.

We got along right away, which quite frankly was a relief !

Nick is Australian born and had been living in New York for the previous 4 years. After making his AFI award winning short “The Host” he’d decided to move to the U.S to turn his short into a feature and after a few false starts, the film was going ahead. The Perfect Host was based on the original AFI and IF award winning short, shot in 2004.

Still not having gone to the hotel yet to check in we moved onto the next location, a parking station where the pivotal final scene of the film would take place. In the distance, was the famous Hollywood sign. It was surreal to be in LA shooting only shooting my second feature and to be in that world.  As daggy as it was I had to take a photo.

The Hollywood sign as seen from the carpark

Director Nick Tomnay struggles to find the "Elevador"

The film was ambitious. Taking place over the course of an evening in a single location with a few flashbacks, it would be a challenge to keep things looking interesting and engaging. With only 17 days of shooting, including 10 in the main house location we would have to move very quickly indeed.

The Perfect Host is a tense and gothic thriller, about a bank robber on the run (Clayne Crawford) who talks his way into the slick upmarket house of well-to-do Warwick (David Hyde-Pierce) by pretending to be a friend of a friend. Warwick was about to host a dinner party and has timed the duck to perfection and he isn’t about to let a bank robber prevent him from being the perfect host. As the guests arrive each man begins to fathom the true nature of the other.

Nick had spent most of his time since moving to the US in New York working as an editor, so head a terrific sense of what he wanted from each scene. That made it so much easier to serve the story as he really knew how he wanted to cover each scene. I always love working with directors who come from an editorial background. Nick had a great sense of coverage and had been living with the film so long, he knew exactly what he wanted from each scene.

And just like a true New Yorker, Nick operates at a million miles an hour…I just tried to keep up !

It turned out we were staying in the same serviced apartment and our local restaurant was the Outback Steakhouse, a dodgey Australian themed restaurant. We spent most evenings in there at their large booths with our plans spread out before us. We ended up eating a lot of faux Australian meals and drinking a lot of sprite.

And we spent a lot of crucial time together in that week. I wasn’t just trying to get on top of the story, but into Nick’s head. I wanted to make sure we were on the same page as we just wouldn’t have the time to work things out on set. By then it would be too late. We spent most of our time just trying to get the most out of our single location, Warwicks house.

Nick was very keen to create a very gothic yet contemporary feel for the film.

There was a problem though. The story takes place of the course of a single evening. The house had to largely shot day for night because we were shooting towards the end of summer and we’d only have 90 mins of true night at most before we had to stop for a 10PM curfew.

It was a major problem. I considered something I’d done previously where I’d use tinted perspex on the windows, but Nick wanted free range to have his cast members move between the back and front of the house, both inside and outside. The back yard had a pool and a number of crucial scenes would be required to be staged in and out of the pool itself.

The only solution I was left with was tenting, But it was a huge back yard…With trees ! It would certainly be the largest tent I’d ever built. We organised a rigging grip to come in and tent the entire back yard. It was at least 100′ long in one direction and 40′ across.

What amazed me about LA was the number of standing sets that exist just to be filmed in. Our police station set was a standing police set that was in a downtown LA building that had last been used in Zodiac. Not only that but Warick’s corner office was also the main office where Verbil / Kayser Soze is interviewed in the film The Usual Suspects. It was amazing to see the kind of history that existed in these locations. Certainly some good vibes from those productions.

The floor below us was a hospital set, complete with operating theaters ! We also had an series of scenes that John flashes back to as he goes through his dinner party ordeal. These were shot in a dressed corner of the floor above.

I also had to put a crew together in the single week of pre-production.

It took me quite a while to get used the way Gaffers and Grips work in the US. Essentially Gaffer’s only touch things that can be plugged into walls. Otherwise grips do the rest, including light control. I often found myself asking for rigs with my gaffer who would then politely nod before relaying my requirements to the Grip. I had to really change the way I worked with them.

My gaffer Chris Ferguson was a young DP in his own right and had just bought himself a RED. I was really grateful for his energy and collaboration. My dolly grip Brad Carr also had a great feel for moves as well. I was impressed by their professionalism, even on such a small scale of show.

It’s hard to believe but in late 2008, RED was still a bit of a novelty item and didn’t have the widespread acceptance it does now. It hadn’t even been on the market for a year and there was a lot of nervousness. So much so that Panavision wasn’t renting them. The only rental companies that did were small boutique operators and owner operators with lens packages that left a lot to be desired.

We briefly talked about maybe shooting on film, but the budget was very tight and this would have meant major sacrifices in the design, lighting and gripping departments.

Nick had already had some positive RED experiences with his TVC editing work back in NY and was keen to give it a try. We didn’t really have any time for testing.

The Perfect Host was shot primarily with Zeiss Ultra Primes. I also had an Angeniuex 25-250 HR and a 300 mm Canon.

The first day of shooting was auspicious. It was my birthday and a great way to start the show. The first day we were shooting in Warwicks house was also the eve that Obama was elected.

Warwick’s house ended up being lit by judicious use of practical lights and then kino’s when I needed a bit more level. I had a couple of 1.2 HMI par’s bounced off the swimming pool for some shimmering water ripples in the background in the house. Just for speed lighting with the built in pracs and those placed by the art department made things a lot simpler. We could then just shape and model things as we went.

One of the final scenes we had to shoot at Warwick’s house called for a dramatic crane shot skimming across the pool into Warwick himself surrounded by some of his guests from the dinner party. This was to be one of the few day scenes but the availability of the actors meant that we had to shoot this day scene AT NIGHT !

Frame grab of the day for night at the pool

So now I’d gone from day for night to night for day. I’d hired in some additional 6K HMI Pars just for that night.

It ended up becoming one of the poster images and I was pretty happy with how it turned out.

The Perfect Host was selected for Sundance in 2010 and It was thrilling to get to see the film premiere at the Egypitian theatre at one of their famous midnight screenings. By coincidence a short film I’d worked on, Celestial Avenue was selected for the companion film festival at Slamdance, and the directors Colin & Cameron Cairnes made the trip as well. The premiere screening would also be the first time I’d seen the film as I’d not been able to attend the grade.

I’m very proud of The Perfect Host. Although we didn’t have the greatest amount of pre-production time together I really felt like we were able to hit the ground running. I think Nick has done a terrific job with the film and can’t wait to see what he can do with more time and bit more of a budget to spend. After a small US theatric release, The Perfect Host currently available for download in the US through Itunes and in Australia from retailers such as JB HiFi.

About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
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One Response to Hollywood Calls

  1. Eric says:

    Wow, now that’s a very detailed experience.
    Good job, mate.

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