Deep Fried Interview: The One I Love cinematographer Doug Emmett
No more low budget indie films. That’s what cinematographer Doug Emmett told himself. No more $100,00 budgets. No more 15-day shooting schedules. No more choosing lenses because they’re free and no more crashing in guest rooms.
Then the “scriptment” for The One I Love arrived and along with it the tale of a couple whose weekend retreat takes an unexpected turn into Twilight Zone territory.
“My agent sent me the script and said, ‘I know we’re trying to transition you out of doing small indie films, but this one’s worth it. It’s $100,000. There’s no script. And it’s one location with two actors.’ And I said, ‘What about that is worth it?’” recalled Emmett. “Then he sent me a scriptment, which I’d never even heard of a scriptment before, and for the first 10 or 15 pages it was just (your typical relationship problems). And then all of a sudden they go into the (vacation property’s) guesthouse and I instantly thought, ‘I’ve got to do this movie.'”
What happens in that guesthouse requires a special spoiler disclaimer. Because Deep Fried Movies’ cinematographer interviews seek to explore the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking process, Emmett talks extensively about how he achieved the effects necessary to pull off several of The One I Love’s plot twists. The film’s ending isn’t discussed, but several spoilers are revealed, so be forewarned.
The Plot: A couple (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) attempts to repair their troubled relationship with a weekend away at the remote vacation home of their psychologist (Ted Danson). When they arrive, they find the property’s guesthouse is inhabited by their doppelgangers – only the doubles represent the other’s slightly romanticized version of their partner.
The Cinematographer: NYU grad Doug Emmett’s credits include Whit Stillman’s long-awaited directorial return Damsels in Distress, the day-and-date VOD trendsetter Bachelorette and the fourth installment of the Paranormal Activity series.
Since The One I Love takes place almost exclusively at a single location – in this case a summer home in the picturesque wilds of Northern California – tell me a bit about that location.
(Before I signed on to work on the film) my agent showed me pictures of the house and I said, ‘There’s no way they’re ever going to get a house like this.’ And my agent told me, “No, that IS the house they’re shooting at. The director (Charlie McDowell) is Ted Danson’s stepson and the house (belongs to Danson and McDowell’s mother, actress Mary Steenburgen). So Charlie and I got to prep for three full weeks together where we’d go up and spend a couple days here and there. We had a rough outline for the film and we literally shot-listed out every sequence and took (reference) photos with our friends as stand-ins. By the time we started shooting we were super prepared and we had to be because we only had 15 days to shoot the movie.
(Above) The interiors of the guesthouse (left) and the main house (right), which Emmett distinguished through a combination of lighting, lens choice and camera movement.
How did you differentiate the look of the main house and the alternative reality of the guesthouse?
That was the biggest conversation between Charlie and I in terms of cinematography. First of all we decided that the guesthouse should have a warm, dreamlike feeling to the experience of being in there. So the colors were a little bit more saturated in terms of color grading and in terms of production design and the light was always going to be more luxurious. Also we used anamorphic lenses inside the guesthouse and spherical lenses inside the main house. In terms of camera movement, we decided to do all handheld in the main house and we did everything on sticks and dolly in the guesthouse.
What kind of lighting package were you able to put together with your budgetary restrictions?
We didn’t have money for many lights. We had one small HMI, a couple china balls and a pancake lantern. Really small stuff. For inside the main house, it was lit with bare-bones lighting. I used a lot of practicals, whatever was existing in the house. In the guesthouse we did have some lights that we could push in (from outside), but I would say 90 percent of the time we used an 8×8 silver lamé to bounce light in through the windows. (The bounce material) had these really fragile silver tassels that hung loosely on it that looked like it was covered in silver hair. It’s the most ridiculous looking thing I’ve ever seen, but it breaks up the light and sends it in different directions to soften it. My key grip (Ben Benesh) deserves a lot of credit because it was his idea to bounce all the sunlight into (the guesthouse).
I’ve done a lot of small movies and I’ve done a couple bigger movies and (no matter what the budget) you have to work within those constraints because if you try to work outside those constraints you’re going to fall on your face and you’re going to get slowed down by the gear. You shouldn’t spend your whole budget on a really big light and then not have the crew and the manpower to move it around. If you’re on a $100,000 movie and you have a bounce card and a light, utilize that to the best of your ability and embrace it.
Did your choice of the Red Epic as your camera spring from budgetary considerations or did you need the camera’s 5K capability for the effects work?
Steven Soderbergh had just retired and he donated two Epic cameras to our shoot. He has his own Epics that have his name laser-engraved on the side of them. We were really geeking out over those cameras. They were the cameras he used over the last couple of years to shoot his films so we knew what movies had been shot on them.
The ability to capture in 5K was definitely helpful for the motion control (we used for some of the scenes in which the actors play opposite themselves). It was useful for re-sizing and the extra information on the Red definitely helped with shooting the green screen. The Epic also has an HDR [High Dynamic Range] setting that we used a few times. Given that we didn’t have enough lights to (match) the exposure indoors and outdoors and that the film has a lot of entrances and exits from a sunny outside exterior to an interior, the (HDR mode) helped us save a few highlights.
You spoke earlier about using anamorphic lenses for the guesthouse scenes and spherical lenses for the main house. What specific lenses did you choose?
We used Super Baltars, which are old lenses from like the 70s, for the main house. The Baltars were problematic for pulling focus. I had a set of Ultra Primes so I just ended up using the Ultra Primes for a lot of it as well. The Baltars are much softer and that effect is most prominent in the early therapy scenes (before the couples leaves for the vacation home).
Then we had Kowas for the anamorphic lenses. Kowas are a Japanese brand. For an anamorphic lens they’re really small and lightweight. They have so many bizarre imperfections. They create a warping sensation when you pan the camera. They elongate faces. They do all sorts of weird things depending on whether you put a person’s face in the middle of the frame versus on the third of the frame versus on the edge of the frame. So you have to be careful how you use them and how you frame portraits. For the Kowas, we mostly used the 75mm for close-ups and we used the 40mm for everything else.
I haven’t heard of Kowas before. How did you come across them?
They’re the only lenses that we could afford. The camera package and the lenses were donated by Keslow Camera, a very cool camera company in L.A. who gave us some ridiculously low price. I’d looked into using Hawk lenses or other lenses, but at the end of the day we weren’t able to get them for free and we really needed to be able to get our lenses for free. So that’s how we ended up with the Kowas and I’m happy we did because they’re interesting looking lenses.
Though you began production with a “scriptment” that covered all the story beats, most of the dialogue in the film is improvised. How do you approach coverage and lighting a space when the specifics of the action may change once you’re rolling?
We had a 40 page treatment and then every morning the writer (Justin Lader) would get up and write the scenes for the day and then give them to Charlie, Elisabeth and Mark and we would all sit together and talk it out in the location and they would improvise a little bit and discuss the point of the scene. And then we would shoot and we would cross-cover the scene, which made lighting difficult, and because I didn’t have matching (focal lengths) for the Kowa lenses in the guesthouse one actor would have a 75mm (for their close-up) while the other person would have like a 100mm.
I prefer for lighting just to shoot one direction at a time and then turn around and shoot the reverse, but on a 15-day schedule with improv you just can’t do that so rarely was there ever a time we didn’t use two cameras. We pretty much only used (a single camera) when we were shooting special effects scenes.
Did you look at any past movies featuring actors playing multiple roles for reference?
Adaptation and Moon were movies we looked at. Adaptation was a really good one to watch because tonally we love Charlie Kaufman’s stuff. Adaptation is great because they don’t make a big deal out of it. They don’t acknowledge what they’re doing when Nicolas Cage’s characters interact with each other. There’s a scene where one brother tosses the other brother a phone book and it’s just simple editing, but it’s so convincing. It really puts these people in the same place at the same exact moment. And it’s easy – in a close-up one guy tosses a phone book and then you cut to a wide shot of the other brother catching the phone book. That really connects the characters – they’re physically touching without touching. We had a scene with (the two Moss’s) passing a plate and we had it on this rig where she would place a plate down onto a little stand in the same exact spot that the other doppelganger picked it back up and in post we merged the two plates together with a little bit of motion blur. That was one of our little homages to Adaptation.
Did you have any effects sequences that didn’t quite work out?
We tried one scene where Mark was wrestling himself and strangling his doppelganger and we were going to do a face replacement. We shot it with a green hood (on a body double) with tracking markers on the hood and (our visual effects supervisor) was going to replace Mark’s face, but it wasn’t convincing enough so we didn’t use it. Charlie and I decided from the get-go that we were never going to try to impress the audience with our ability to create doubles. Our intention was never to say, “Hey, look at us, look what we can do.” The intention was to create a really convincing environment where the audience easily forgets they are watching a movie with doubles in it. So in the fight scene you don’t end up seeing their faces because one of them is a body double throughout and (the illusion of the two Mark’s fighting was achieved) through really good editing.
Below, Doug walks us through a few shots from The One I Love.
THE SHOT: In the film’s opening scene, Duplass and Moss attempt to re-create a memorable moment from early in their relationship by leaping into a stranger’s swimming pool.
This was done the last day of our shoot. I think we actually wrapped out of the (main house location) that morning and then drove back to L.A. and kept shooting. We were so tired. The house (belonged to) a friend of Charlie’s. The water was freezing and we had this unnecessarily huge underwater camera rig that weighed like 150 pounds. We used a HydroPar underwater HMI and bounced it into the pool wall and let the softened bounce light return on the actors and house. The house was all white so it really does bounce a lot of light back at the camera. If it had been a darker house – a dark slate or something – we would’ve had to light it a lot more.
THE SHOT: Duplass and Moss lie awake in bed at the vacation home’s main house.
That whole scene was just lit with a KinoFlo. My approach to lighting at night is to keep things super contrasty. (For the moonlight effect) we used a slightly cooler, bluer look and then provided a little bit of tungsten light in the background where the door is open to provide that contrast. In this case, I probably set the camera to something like 4000 Kelvin so that the tungsten light in the hallway would go a little bit warmer and the moonlight would be slightly cooler. I wanted to make sure that the pillows were lit so that if I put the pillow right behind Mark’s face I got a nice clean outline of his silhouette. At this point I was okay with letting them go pretty dark. It was really more about hearing them whisper.
THE SHOT: A frame from the main house kitchen, which displays an emphasis on symmetry that’s a recurring motif in this film featuring characters alongside their mirror images.
I wish I could wax poetic about symmetry and framing, but for this shot I think I just loved the way this whole kitchen laid out in such a wide screen aspect ratio. Look at the windows and countertop – the whole thing looks like a 2.40 anamorphic image. That kitchen felt designed to be shot that way. You don’t get homes with long rectangular windows like that ever. So I wasn’t really thinking about any kind of metaphor or motif when we framed this up.
THE SHOT: A warm glow bathes this love scene set inside the mystical alternate reality of the guesthouse.
The curtain in the background was pretty warm as it was and we just added an HMI outside pushing into the room a little bit and added orange gel to the light. Then I didn’t add any light inside the house except I might have had a little bit of bounce just for a bit of fill. We closed down the iris so that we preserved the highlights in the windows. Then you have this rich, deep color and the drapes are all exposed properly and our silhouettes are really dark and sharp.
THE SHOT: In one of the movie’s twist, the doppelgangers – who were previously unable to leave the guesthouse – escape those confines. In this handheld shot, the camera tracks back as the “real” Moss and Duplass enter the main house (top left) and then shifts around Duplass’ shoulder (top right) to reveal their doppelganger’s seated at the dining room table (bottom).
This was the hardest shot in the movie and I’ve got to give credit to our (visual effects supervisor) Stefan Scherperel. There was green screen (covering the opening above the kitchen island that separates the kitchen and dining room) and it covered where the doubles are sitting (in the final shot). We put on some tracking marks and when I wrapped around Mark’s body (with the camera), I was just shooting a wall of green screen. Then Mark and Lizzy got changed (into the wardrobe of their doubles) and I shot them as a plate and the two shots were merged together in post. But it wasn’t so easy because Stefan had to change the perspective, which is really difficult but he made it work. We shot a bunch of plates and he stitched it all together. So that pan actually consists of a couple different plates stitched together, though you would never know it.
Did you know this shot was definitely something you could pull off? Did you shoot any tests beforehand?
We did do a test. We had Stefen come down a week or two before we started shooting and we did a down and dirty test and on the flight home Stefan composited it all together on his MacBook Pro. By the time his flight landed he was like, “Guys, it’s going to work.”
We also did do a lot of motion control (for shots with both doppelgangers in the same frame). Someone basically donated a Talon motion control head and then a buddy of mine who I’d worked with on Paranormal Activity, the video playback guy, came out and did a day or two for free with us. It was so sweet of him and he brought his whole rig and we were able to match up the motion control shots with our live shots on set. We had the equipment you would have on a huge movie, we just didn’t always have somebody to operate it. We were winging it, but we couldn’t have done it without having some proper equipment.
THE SHOT: With the camera rigged vertically rather than horizontally, the shot tilts up from piano keys (the discordant sound of two incompatible keys serves as a relationship metaphor in the film’s opening scene) to reveal Moss and Duplass entering a doorway.
I can’t remember if this shot was part of our shot list or if I discovered it on the day. I do remember thinking that this is a shot that no director will ever want in his movie, but Charlie is an adventurous filmmaker. (Laughs) It’s a super weird shot, but it really puts the audience in the mindset of the characters because the characters are experiencing something super weird too. I think we shot it both ways just to be safe and I’m really happy Charlie went with (this version).
Behind the Scenes
More Frame Grabs from the film
The One I Love is currently available in limited theatrical release and everywhere via VOD. Visit Radius-TWC’s official site for info on which cities are screening the film.