Deep Fried Interview: In a World cinematographer Seamus Tierney
Though her resume includes everything from the comedic absurdity of Childrens Hospital to the horror film Black Rock, to moviegoers with a more mainstream studio palette actress Lake Bell is most recognizable as the rom-com best friend or comedic sidekick, doing thankless wing-woman duty in movies like What Happens in Vegas. Bell breaks out of that niche in a significant way with In a World, her feature directorial debut.
Bell stars as a newbie movie trailer voiceover artist competing against her legendary golden-throated dad (Fred Melamed) and her pop’s protege (Ken Marino) for a primo gig as the voice of a Hunger Games-ish young adult franchise. The movie combines romantic comedy, familial drama and movie industry spoofery with an undercurrent of social commentary questioning the omnipresent patriarchy of the male-dominated voices that sell us everything from cars to banks to movies.
In a World hit all the home video platforms last week and, for Deep Fried Movies’ 100th post, the film’s cinematographer Seamus Tierney talks to us about choosing anamorphic, his childhood love of Peter Weir and how his dreams of an Eastern Promises-esque sauna scene went awry.
You grew up in both Hawaii and Australia. What was that experience like and what was your relationship with movies as a kid?
Growing up in Hawaii and Australia was somewhat of a different upbringing, to say the least. My mother is Australian and my father is American so we split our time between the two places as a family. I also traveled extensively as a kid and teenager. I think that this is where my interest in seeing the world from someone else’s point of view was sparked and years later that idea manifested itself in the form of filmmaking.
I knew from very early on that I wanted to tell stories. One of my best friends reminded me a few years back that when we were about 13 or 14 I told him that I was going to make movies one day and now I do. I did love to go to the movies when I was a kid. I remember falling in love with the power that a film had to evoke an emotional response. Some of the films that I saw blew me away and made me want to be a part of that form of storytelling. The early films of Peter Weir and Roland Joffe had a particularly large impact on me.
You started out working in the grip and electric departments – including Boys Don’t Cry and James Toback’s Black and White.
I worked on Boys Don’t Cry briefly. I loved gleaming information about lighting techniques from the DP’s that I worked with. I watched intently and I bugged the hell out of most of the DP’s that I worked for with many, many questions. I am sure that I pissed off a lot of DP’s with all my questions while they were trying to do their jobs. But the good ones were usually happy to share their knowledge and experiences. I had some great mentors and teachers.
Black and White was a strange film, but fun in its lose and improvisational style. I think that I learned the art of preparedness on that film, as we had to be ready for whatever was going to happen once the actors arrived on set.
What were some of the factors behind your choice of the RED Epic as your camera?
To be honest I was looking to shoot Alexa, but we got an amazing deal on the Epic package and saved something like $15,000. That may not sound like a lot, but on a small budget film every dollar counts. That savings allowed us to rent and dress a location that we would not have otherwise been able to afford. I remember it was for one of the last few scenes of the film and having that location really did help raise the production value of our small film.
It seems like right now movies at the budget level of In a World largely shoot on either the Epic or Alexa. Do you feel as a DP that you have a very limited range of camera choices?
There are a few more options in the level of digital capture that is a bit below these higher end digital cinema cameras. Almost too many to name and it seems that you hear about a new one every few months. It is exciting that the technology is so rapidly expanding the tools in the shed, but this also leads to a few duds and a lot of misguided information through marketing.
It makes me think how similar things are to when we used to shoot film. Back then it was all about what film stock you used and how your lab timed it. Now it is about what level of digital camera you are using and getting the right glass to combat that video look and spending more time with the powerful tools that a colorist has to take that edge off the digital image. It’s the same battle just slightly different tools.
What was your lens package like on In a World?
I used a set of Hawk C-series anamorphic lenses for the film. We chose these slightly older lenses because Lake and I wanted the film to look as cinematic as it could regardless of its comedic script. Anamorphic is a format that I love and try to push for whenever the story calls for it. There were a lot of group scenes in the film and that allowed me to make more comprehensive framing choices. But it also lent a measure of isolation to the scenes (of Bell alone) in the recording sessions, which I liked.
We also went with anamorphic because a lot of Lake’s references were shot anamorphic. Lake’s biggest reference was Tootsie, shot by Owen Roizman. It’s dark when it needs to be and not shot like a comedy at all yet feels so appropriate. She also loved The King of Comedy.
There’s a very limited use of handheld camera in the film. Can you talk a little about that choice?
There was very little cause for handheld in the film so we didn’t do much. I’m not a fan of the camera moving in a way that isn’t motivated by the story. In a World was more about compositions that worked to free up the actors and for the audience to get lost in the film and not notice the camera very much, if at all.
Below, Seamus walks us through a few of In a World’s most memorable shots.
The shots: Bell’s father and his protege talk business in the sauna, a scene with just three set-ups.
I was looking forward to shooting this when we were in preproduction: I had that epic fight scene from Eastern Promises in my head. However due to the time and the budget, or lack of both, we had to shoot that in a room in one of our other locations to avoid extra location costs. So the production designer asked me what we were planning on seeing and what we weren’t. I said how many walls can you cover with that fake tile, she said two.
So we shot a master and two racking (over-the-shoulders) and it totally works. I used one Kino diffused right above them to rake the walls and light the haze that we pumped into the room and I think that it sells the scene. I love those types of production challenges. It forces you to make things simple and not get too flashy. I hate when things become overly complicated just because of too much gear/stuff. Keep it simple and tell the story is the way I like to work.
The Shot: The camera pushes in slowly on Bell as she records her first movie theater trailer voiceover.
This shot is one that (made me) happy that we had chosen to shoot anamorphic. The recording studio was a practical location, which was great because it really informed me on how the space wanted to feel. It did provide a bit of a challenge as to how to light it because of all the glass and small spaces. But again I love the limitations. It’s the thing that challenges me and my crew to come up with solutions.
The Shot: Bell and her brother-in-law (played by Rob Corddry) in the latter’s white-walled apartment.
This was a set, but I tried to treat it like a practical location because I didn’t want the consistency of the film to suffer. I placed 6k pars outside of the windows through diffusion – much like I would at a practical location.
This allows the actors to move around more freely and decreases the time between setups, which is a must on these types of films. If I spend half the day lighting a scene, that leaves the director with much less time to get the right performances from their actors.
The Shot: Bell awaits her ride to an industry party.
I’m very happy with the way this shot turned out. Again we kept this one simple. I had my amazing gaffer Dan McNutt switch out the bulbs that were lighting the building with slightly higher wattage bulbs and we added a 10k tungsten unit through some diffusion down the street off to the left, and that was it.
I asked Lake if she could stand in front of the building light thus silhouetting her against the building with a slight edge light from the 10K. And in order to fill the frame I had the car pull up to the right of frame. The 2:40 aspect ratio allows for so much in terms of dynamic framing. It just feels right more times then not.
The Shots: A montage in which Bell and her two voiceover rivals record their trailer pitches for the fictitious Amazon Games franchise.
Lake and I planned this one out quite a bit. We wanted every charters’ shots to have their own look and feel and reflect their own take and process as to how they do their job. I loved all the close up stuff. I remember using lots of different angles and camera techniques, push-in dolly shots and diopter filters to get in tight on a few shots.
The Shot: Bell and sound engineer (and love interest) Demetri Martin share a quiet moment.
I wanted it to be isolated and personal. So I used a single source and let the light and actors positioning tell the eye where to look without distraction.
The Shot: An image from the movie’s faux-Amazon Games trailer, which features Cameron Diaz.
This was such a fun day of shooting because it was such a departure from the rest of the film. This shot was the last shot that we did that day. We had shot almost everything that we needed but we still wanted one last iconic shot. So we hiked up this mountain and I asked Cameron Diaz if she felt safe climbing out onto a ledge that looked pretty scary. Without hesitation she said sure and with the dexterity of a mountain goat she hopped out onto the ledge and we did a handheld shot just as the sun was setting, hitting the lens just right, and giving use one of those epic anamorphic lens flares.