Deep Fried Interview: Bad Turn Worse cinematographer Jeff Bierman

The quote above slips out of the mouth of teenage bookworm Sue (Mackenzie Davis) in the first post-credits scene of the new Texas-set neo noir Bad Turn Worse. It’s followed by a 1990s-era Tarantino-ish digression on the semantics of biscuits and gravy at the fast food joint Whataburger.

Considering my affection for Thompson’s misanthropic crime novels and Whataburger’s buttery goodness, Bad Turn Worse pretty much had me at “biscuit and gravy.” However, the film took a circuitous route getting there. The Whataburger scene was shot in Los Angeles nearly a year after principal photography wrapped in Texas, part of a series of pick-ups that shaped the film into its final form.

The job of matching the two shoots fell to cinematographer Jeff Bierman, who talked to Deep Fried Movies about embracing the bleak palette of his locations and being inspired by both The Sugarland Express and Terminator II.

The Plot: After a trio of teenagers (Davis, Logan Huffman and Shameless’ Jeremy Allen White) embark on a weekend spending spree fueled by money stolen from a sociopathic small time crook (Mark Pellegrino), that crook blackmails the youngsters into pulling off a larger heist.

The Tools: Red Epic camera with Zeiss Standard Speed prime lenses and a Cooke 20-to-100mm zoom lens

Availability: Currently streaming OnDemand via these outlets.

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Before we get into Bad Turn Worse, tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what drew you to filmmaking.

I grew up outside of Philadelphia in a town called Upper Darby. I really didn’t get into movies until I started making films, which was when I was 15 and a friend of mine bought a video camera. I saw some of the things he was doing and I just thought it was fascinating. I come from a very blue-collar family and I worked in construction since I was around 14, so I worked all summer and I bought my own video camera. Having the camera really got me into film and then I saw Taxi Driver and it blew my mind.

Were you making the 16-year-old equivalent of Taxi Driver with your new camera?

What I loved in Taxi Driver were the night scenes. Most of the stuff I was shooting (as a teenager) was at night, but it was literally just my friends hanging out and I would cut it together to music – Glenn Danzig or something like that (laughs) – and it became an interesting exercise. But it never became narrative.

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So much of Bad Turn Worse is predicating upon the desperation of these kids to escape the drudgery of their hometown. How did the film’s locations in Taft, Texas affect the look of the movie?

I think it influenced it a great deal. Being that the budget was low, we couldn’t walk into a location and say, “Alright, we want all the buildings to be red.” Before I was on the movie, (members of the production) had gone down to scout and thought, “Oh, we are going to this cotton farming town. It’s going to be fields full of cotton.” But in the wintertime it’s the opposite. It’s completely empty. It’s totally barren. It’s just dirt and sky and these blue-green buildings. So we basically had a very simple color palette that reflected those colors. We worked red into our palette as well, but that became a special thing. We were really influenced by a lot of movies of the 1970s. That town of Taft, Texas really feels like it’s been dropped off in history in the 70s or 80s and hasn’t really progressed. We wanted the movie to feel like that as well.

Talk a bit about the tools you used on the film – the Red Epic as your camera and Zeiss Standard Speeds as your main lenses.

The goal for this movie was always for it to go on a big screen so I emphasized that we needed a camera that could handle that. But also on the commercials and music videos I’ve been shooting I’ve had a lot of success working with older glass, which sort of takes the edge off the digital cameras. The Zeiss Standard Speeds have a really soft look and their colors are kind of muted and that fit into our look. Then we also had a (Cooke) zoom (lens) which (co-director) Simon (Hawkins) was really emphatic about so we could do practical zooms. (Steven Spielberg’s theatrical directorial debut) The Sugarland Express (1974) was a really big influence for us. There are some great zooms in that movie and we wanted to find ways to incorporate that into our visual grammar.

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Outside of The Sugarland Express, what were some other films that served as visual reference.

We watched a lot of first-time director films – so (The Coen Brothers’) Blood Simple and Sugarland Express were really important. One movie that stuck out was (James Foley’s) At Close Range (1986) with Sean Penn. There were definitely a lot of pictures from At Close Range in our look book. It’s very 1980s in that it uses hard sources where sometimes it looks really lit, but it’s a beautiful film. Capote (2005) was probably the only modern film that we saw that we really liked, but it’s set in the 60s so it had that older vibe. It’s beautifully shot, especially the exteriors which were really influential for us. (Co-director Zeke Hawkins) was actually Bennett Miller’s assistant during that film and he lived in a house together with Bennett and (Capote) cinematographer Adam Kimmel during the process of making the movie. So Zeke had this incredible perspective on Capote because he was there every day of shooting.

Covered Wagon

(Above) An example of a covered wagon. The mesh frame will be draped in a diffusion to create a soft source. This photo comes from the website Suttle Film, which includes instructions on making your own covered wagons.

As someone with a background in construction, are you a DP who likes to build his own fixtures?

I used to do a ton of that. I don’t do as much of it nowadays because I have great crews that tend to do a lot of that for me. When I was a (student at the American Film Institute) I found out that cinematographer Harris Savides was building these covered wagons on (David Fincher’s) The Game so I ended up building a bunch of covered wagons. I’ve always been interested in using less traditional equipment and using things that are a little funkier and feel more natural and less manufactured. And I did it on Bad Turn Worse as well. The budget was really tight for this movie. We shot in one of the producer’s hometowns where he had a farm and his dad lived down there so I sort of sent (him and his family) instructions on how to build covered wagons and they ended up building like 15 of them of different sizes and we lit a lot of the movie with those.

I was surprised to discover that many of my favorite scenes from the film were actually part of reshoots you did a year after principal photography. What were some of the challenges of integrating the reshoots into your original footage?

We shot for 21 days in Texas and then we came back to LA one year later and shot for three days. It was sort of interesting because you kind of forget what you did (on the original shoot). A lot happens in a year. So you have to jump back in it and make sure you maintain the same visual style and the same grammar. In Texas we had really limited resources and then for these three (reshoot) days we shot in LA so I had my (regular) crew and we had lighting resources we didn’t have before. But I really made an effort to not use any lighting units that I didn’t have in Texas, which meant I didn’t use any HMIs or Kinos. It was all just Tungsten units. So I tried to maintain that for the (reshoots) even when we were doing daylight scenes.

Jeff walks us through a few images from Bad Turn Worse.

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The Shot: An over-the-shoulder medium shot of Sue during the Whataburger scene.

This scene is actually one of our reshoots. This is also a scene that wasn’t originally in the screenplay. We lit this with a lot of natural light and then we had Tungsten Par cans outside the window that were pushing in as a little bit of a sidelight through diffusion to soften the edge off of Mackenzie. She was so easy to light. Her face just wraps perfect and glows. The other thing that was inherent with using only Tungsten units for the film was that it naturally gives you this sort of golden brown look that we wanted so it worked to not have HMIs. In terms of framing, we used a lot of static shots with wide lenses. Probably 75 percent of the movie was shot with a 25mm. So this would be that 25mm on Mackenzie.

As far as I know, there aren’t any Whataburgers in Los Angeles. Did your poor production designer have to manufacture an impromptu Whataburger for this scene?

Yeah, (production designer) Sunny Moon had to bring in a ton of Whataburger paraphernalia, though I think actually it was rather easy because, if I remember correctly, producers Brian Udovich and Justin Duprie called Whataburger and they sent them boxes and boxes of Whataburger cups and posters. Then we found this diner – we had been looking for diners for a month or two and had went through maybe 40 different places – and this was a little diner in Vernon, California, which is just south of Downtown L.A. in an industrial town where nobody really lives. It was the perfect spot for what we needed. I think it totally sells Texas.

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The Shot: A subjective point-of-view shot from the perspective of the character of BJ as he talks his cohorts through the plan for their upcoming heist. Below that image is a frame grab from Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days.

This is what we called The Imaginary Heist scene. This was (co-director) Simon (Hawkins’) idea. Originally, I think we were going to go with a glossy Ocean’s Eleven look and then Simon remembered seeing Strange Days (1995) and he said, “What if we do this whole scene first-person POV?” It’s actually me acting as BJ with the Epic literally ratchet-strapped to my shoulder. It was the hardest day of the entire shoot by far, partly because I had the flu. I was completely sick and then had to do the most physically demanding handheld camera work, running with the Epic strapped to me. But the scene was really fun and it was cool to get to act a little bit, with my hand at least. (laughs)

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The Shot: An establishing shot as Bobby (Jeremy Allen White) prepares to talk to the town’s sheriff.

Originally, the screenplay was broken into three chapters and (the characters of) BJ, Sue and Bobby each had their own chapter and they were going to get title cards as each sequence began. This shot was originally the beginning of Bobby’s chapter of the film. The way we had always wanted to shoot Bobby’s chapter was with a lot of negative space and with a lot of headroom. So this is the beginning of that visual style coming in.

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The Scene: Bobby chats with the town’s shady sheriff, played by the great character actor Jon Gries (Real Genius, Get Shorty, Napoleon Dynamite).

This was part of our reshoots as well. The lighting here was completely natural. This was like an Elks Club in the Valley in Van Nuys. There was a huge bare fluorescent tube in the ceiling directly above where the desk was and I said, “We’re lit. We don’t need to add anything else.” So we just skirted the light off of the walls. For Jon, we put a bunch of white papers in front of him and that filled him in just enough to where it felt gritty and dark and that’s the vibe we wanted.

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The Shot: Giff confronts Bobby.

We had the truck headlights going, but conveniently there was a big metal rack on the grill of the truck so we mounted like a 650 Fresnel to that as well and pointed it right at Bobby to get that halo that he has on him. There are a couple units outside the barn kicking in and another one hitting the tree that’s behind the truck. In the ceiling we rigged up six of these covered wagons that were maybe six feet long that just give a low ambient glow to the place. That’s what’s keying (Mark Pellegrino’s character of) Giff’s face. Mark came up with this idea of walking in a circle which worked perfectly for the space and the scene became more dynamic in the way he would walk in front of the truck headlights and put Bobby in shadow.

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The Shot: The trio of protagonists on their way to Bad Turn Worse’s heist finale.

I think this was an outtake. We built this process trailer rig to shoot some of the driving stuff with the truck, which was really just a normal trailer that you would move around tractors with. It was like two feet off the ground. It was not a classic process trailer. So we rigged up a couple of lights to the pick-up truck that was driving the trailer and I was riding in the back on our way to the next location and me and Simon saw this and said, “Whoa, we have to shoot this.” We just popped it off and it made its way into the movie.

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The Shot: Bobby and Sue during the film’s finale – a chase through a cotton gin owned by antagonist Giff. Below that frame is an image from the steel mill-set final chase from Terminator II (1991).

This was a rough one. This was the last three days of production in Texas and it’s by far our biggest set-up. There was a huge page count for these scenes – something like 18 to 20 pages – so the lighting had to be versatile. Part of the idea was to make the gin feel bigger and more chaotic than it actually is in real life. If you were there and the lights were on, you could find your way out pretty easily. (laughs) So the challenge was to make it seem like they were stuck there and Giff had them cornered. The space had to feel big and complicated. One of our references for this sequence was (the finale of) Terminator II when they’re going through the steel mill in this chase sequence in this gritty, industrial area. We shot a lot of this on longer lenses so it compressed the space and created as many layers as possible and made the handheld feel a little more energetic.

More images from Bad Turn Worse

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