From the moment she began hijacking the family camera as a grade schooler, there was little doubt Rachel Morrison would live her life peering at the world through a viewfinder. The only question was whether Morrison would be adjusting the aperture on a still camera or movie camera.
Morrison spoke to Deep Fried Movies about the path that led her to choose the latter, a decision that has worked out well thus far for the cinematographer of Fruitvale Station and the new drama Cake starring Jennifer Aniston.
The Plot: Aniston veers from her typecasting as Claire, a woman avoiding the emotional and physical scars of her son’s death through meaningless sex, prescription meds and general misanthropy.
I like to start by asking DP’s about their relationship with movies growing up. Were films a big part of your life?
Rachel Morrison (RM): I started taking still photographs pretty early. I remember my mom had a camera and she used to take pictures of me, but by the time I was 6 or 7, I would take her camera and take pictures of the rest of the family. So weirdly, I’ve kind of always known what I wanted to do and I never really wavered. Seeing the world through a lens has always been a natural extension for me. As far as films that influenced me, the movie that for me was a revelation was a random French Canadian film called Leolo. It was this art house movie and I had never seen an art house film before. I’d only ever seen megaplex-type movies. I was probably 11 or 12 at the time and I remember being blown away by it and feeling like that was what I wanted to do, which wasn’t the way I felt watching something like Spider-Man.
How did you happen to come across that film?
RM: I lived in Cambridge in Harvard Square and so I saw it at either The Brattle Theatre or The Harvard Square Theatre. The Harvard Square would show three or four mainstream movies and then one kind of obscure one. So I think maybe I had already seen the other four movies. I don’t remember exactly how I ended up at that movie, but I did and it was incredible.
You studied photography at NYU, but as a grad student switched to a film focus at AFI. What prompted you to make that change?
RM: For a long time I was trying to do both. Somebody at some point probably just talked some sense into me and made me realize that they’re two very different careers. I ended up actually double-majoring at NYU. I went in for photo and effectively did four years of photo, but then I tacked on a film major in the last two years, which was kind of insane. But I graduated and I was taking my photo portfolio around to all the magazines and trying to get photojournalism work and then simultaneously sending my reel off – which was, I’m dating myself here, on VHS, maybe DVD – and trying to get anybody I could to hire me to shoot. I would literally have a photo job for one week and then I would have a film job the next week. At some point, the jack of all trades/master of none philosophy got the better of me and I was sort of forced to choose. The choice was a difficult one for me. I loved collaborating with people on film and I think I realized that photojournalism can be such an isolationist career that I decided that I’d rather work with other people than work by myself. Also I had a realization that there are photos that have been incredibly impactful and memorable to me, but I’ve never cried as a result of a photograph and I’ve definitely balled hysterically even days after watching a movie. The possibility that I could have that kind of impact on someone was probably the other thing that ultimately trumped (still) photography.
Let’s talk a bit about the overall style of Cake. The film frequently features a fairly naturalistic aesthetic, but there is also a sense of abstraction in sequences such as the ones involving the “ghost” of Anna Kendrick’s character – a member of Claire’s support group who committed suicide by leaping from a highway overpass.
RM: (Director Daniel Barnz and I) wanted it to feel believable and grounded and real, but also have Claire’s perception of things have an abstraction and a surreal quality to it. That’s why I picked anamorphic lenses. I showed Daniel tests and he really liked it because (anamorphic lenses) have a slightly altered quality to what we perceive as normal. You can barely put your finger on it. There’s something a little bit off and we were looking for that slightly off component in everything from our lens choices to the color palette – something a little bit hyper-real. I think the idea was that the world outside still existed and was actually quite beautiful, but that Claire had blinders on and wasn’t able to see it in the same way that she once could.
That idea certainly plays out in the way you chose to present Claire’s house, which is actually full or warm light even though Claire herself is in a very dark place emotionally.
RM: There’s hope and promise all around Claire, but she’s too consumed by her own pain to see it. She has all these people pointing to the things that are still beautiful and still have potential and Claire ultimately has to come to a place of readiness to be able to accept that.
How did you approach the scenes with Anna Kendrick’s character, who essentially serves as a surrogate that allows Claire to converse with herself?
RM: We referenced things like Fight Club. We really wanted the audience to not quite know what’s going on initially and not have it be Beetlejuice-y or Ghostbuster-sy. It was almost about having a conversation with yourself and your inner demons so we wanted that to have an element of reality to it as well.
Much has been made of Jennifer Aniston’s willingness to be “glammed down” for the role. How did you light her differently than your typical Aniston studio vehicle? Did you shoot any lighting tests in preproduction to figure out an approach?
RM: We did shoot tests, but they were as much for how her scars would photograph as how I would light her because I didn’t have a full array of lights for the test. Also, when you do a film that’s on 40 different locations it isn’t like you find just one lighting approach that’s going to fit them all. Daniel and I were very much on the same page about not chasing Jen around with a beauty light for the entire film. She wasn’t glammed down, she just wasn’t glammed up. And from the moment I started shooting tests with her, she was totally game for whatever it took for her character and that was what was important to me. It wasn’t about being extra gritty. It was about lighting for drama and lighting for character and having the full range of tools to tell a complex story. I think the problem with beauty lighting is that it flattens out the drama and flattens out the arc of the character. Jen has moments that are very beautiful and moments that are very raw where her character maybe doesn’t look as good, but she shouldn’t.
Jen’s face is so recognizable and I find that for the “A-list” actors – the very widely photographed and exposed actors – that (exposure) can so easily become a distraction. The whole point of a movie is to have the audience be immersed in it and to essentially be able to walk in your main character’s shoes. When you have movies that feature Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie or Jen Aniston – people who are on every magazine cover in every supermarket – I think it becomes that much harder to feel like you’re really identifying with the character that they’re playing. That was the other challenge – to forget you’re looking at Jen Aniston and really believe that you’re looking at Claire.
Cake wastes no time in breaking Aniston free of her preconceived image. In the first scene, she upsets her “Women in Chronic Pain” support group with graphic facts about the suicide of Kendrick’s character.
RM: There was a version of the script where Claire is actually quite unlikable and I think that was my biggest concern for the movie, that she’s so acerbic, how do you identify with her? How do you call her your protagonist when she kind of acts like an antagonist? And I think that both Daniel and the editors did a good job of toeing that line but not crossing it because ultimately she’s quite unlikable at the beginning but she’s very likable by the end. That’s the arc of her character. It’s sort of like As Good As It Gets. Jack Nicholson is an asshole in that movie, but by the end he becomes a lovable asshole. But if you actually cross that line, it’s hard to recover from.
I think what Jennifer Aniston does in Cake is actually more difficult. Nicholson may be a prick in As Good As It Gets, but he’s still employing his familiar persona and therefore earns a mountain of goodwill from the audience. In Cake, Aniston is playing a character totally dissimilar from her established screen persona.
RM: True, but I still think in a weird way Jennifer’s (established screen persona) worked in our favor because she’s so likable that even though her character is kind of being an asshole you can’t help but like her despite it.
You’ve shot films in the past on the Alexa, on 35mm and even on 16mm in the case of Fruitvale Station. Was film ever on the table for Cake?
RM: I think unfortunately film wasn’t really even on the table even though if it were up to Daniel and I, we both would’ve liked to shoot on film for this piece in particular. I find the pieces that are really steeped in humanity do really well with film just because there’s this tactile, humanistic quality about it. But film has almost priced itself out of the game. It’s the nature of the beast, but as demand has dwindled, they’ve had to jack up the costs. Film has gotten more expensive. Processing has gotten more expensive. They can’t cut the same kind of deals that they used to because they’re not operating in bulk and so you get priced out quite quickly. I’ve done smaller movies a couple of years back that were able to shoot on film because we were still able to get deals and now unfortunately you just can’t. They can’t stay in business and offer those kinds of deals. But it’s a Catch-22 because without those deals, you can’t justify the cost difference anymore.
As this race for digital resolution escalates to 6K and 8K and whatever it’s going to leap to next, it seems like the digital data costs might eventually get so expensive that film could be competitive again. But it just doesn’t seem like the format is going to be viable long enough for that to happen.
RM: With 6K and 8K, there’s such a thing as real but then there’s also hyper-real. Seeing peoples’ skin that close is not doing anybody any favors. I mean, God, who needs to see pimples that close and that clearly? I think most DP’s have no desire to shoot in high resolution because it can get really re-composed in post and it alters their intentions, which is already starting to happen. I’ve heard that David Fincher shoots everything 6K and then literally every frame gets slightly re-cropped and it’s like at that point, if I don’t know what my shot’s going to manifest into, it’s hard to feel as invested as a DP.
I interviewed Fincher’s regular DP, Jeff Cronenweth, and that is how he described the post process – most shots were slightly cropped or re-framed with digital stabilization added to most of the camera moves.
RM: Fincher’s stuff is beautiful, but I think you lose something working that way. I believe in imperfection. I believe there’s something very real about the slight flaws in life and I think when things are too perfect, they don’t resonate as true to me and I start to feel like I’m watching a movie as opposed to experiencing something. If people are re-cropping everything so that there’s no hiccups and every line is perfectly horizontal or vertical, on a subconscious level it loses a component of reality. Reality is messy and that is part of what I love about film too is that you have these happy accidents and you discover something that you didn’t set out to do, but that’s life and I feel like film captured the beauty and magic of life and replicated it in a way that didn’t feel so predictable and controlled.
Like Fruitvale Station, Cake is largely shot with unobtrusive handheld camerawork. As a DP who also operates, what’s your approach to handheld?
RM: As much as I would love to hide it, I have a background in reality TV and I think I developed a real stable handheld quality just from the years of it. Ryan (Coogler) and I shot Fruitvale on film and he was very interested in watching the actors’ performances. He would reference the monitor, but he was really watching everything in real-time. So he didn’t see our first days footage for maybe five days and when he did he was like “Whoa, that’s handheld? I need it to look way more handheld than that.” So I had to add some shake to it. In Cake, the idea behind using handheld is that Clare’s life is not stable. There is no version of this were using Steadicam makes sense.
One of (Cake’s) producers, Courtney Solomon – who comes from this world of big, epic movies – said to me in one of our first conversations, “What shots do we need for the trailer? What are our big crane shots? What are our helicopter shots?” And I just looked at him like, “This isn’t that movie.” (laughs) I’d be hard-pressed to know what to do with a helicopter in this movie. It’s such an intimate character piece, the faces are our landscapes and so I just remember being kind of baffled. I understand wanting to have production value, but I was just like, “Let me use Jen Aniston’s face as our landscape and give you what you need for the trailer with that.”
Rachel walks us through a few frames from Cake.
The Shot: Claire visits the highway overpass from which Anna Kendrick’s character leapt to her death.
RM: This was actually originally scripted as a bridge at Terminal Island in Long Beach, but it’s basically impossible to (get permission) to shoot there so this shot was actually reconceived during our tech scout. We had an amazing location manager named Robert Foulkes who did an incredible job of helping Daniel and I visualize everything we possibly could’ve imagined on a budget. When he told us we could shut down the intersection of the 110 and the 105 express lanes – both (Daniel and I) knew what a jackpot that was. One of the themes of the movie was the intersections, metaphorically, in life where one small turn and your life could end up being completely different. The overpass was basically a reflection of that.
The Shot: An in-camera day to night transition as Claire lies in a hospital bed.
RM: I’ve done this type of shot a couple of times over the years – they don’t come up often in a way that makes sense – but the way to do it usually is to shoot it at night. It’s easier to shoot at night and then light for day than it is to do it the other way around. We were in a fourth story hospital room in a practical location and I had conceived the shot with the idea of shooting it at night and using a balcony to light from outside. Then I was told we weren’t allowed to put lights on the balcony and it didn’t fit our schedule to shoot it at night. So we had to do it inside during the day. I believe it was some version of my grips lowering a 12×12 to cover the window to make it go dark and then they faded up a light to mimic the fluorescent overheads. I think actually we also had a Kino or a cool white light that had been gelled kind of greenish that we had covered for the day portion and another grip uncovered that with probably a meat axe or something as the shot shifted into night.
The Shot: A birds-eye view of Claire floating in her emerald swimming pool.
RM: We died the water green, which is very hard to maintain. Next to haze, it was probably the hardest thing to keep consistent on set. It would be perfectly green one night and we’d show up the next day and it looked like a swamp. You then had to cycle through all the chemicals in the pool to get the pool back to normal color and then (re-apply) the green. But it was beautiful and I think it worked really well, but it was a giant pain in the ass. The shot was from a jib with a hot head suspended above the water.
Anytime I see an animal in a movie I have to ask if it behaved itself. Did the possum that shows up at Claire’s poolside behave?
RM: Oh my God that possum! This was one of our few night shoots and one of our longer days and the possum was the last shot of the night. We’d wrapped Jen. We’d wrapped her stunt double, who did some of the underwater work. And we were just left with the possum and that fucking possum would not do what it was supposed to. It was like watching paint dry. We were just sitting there with two cameras waiting for the possum to even get a beat that was usable. The possum would run over to wherever (its handlers) put the food, it would eat the food and then it would run away. So the answer is no, it didn’t do what it was supposed to do. If you’re ever told that you have a trained possum, the likelihood of it actually doing what you ask it to do are slim to none.
The Shot: Claire enters the room of her deceased son.
RM: Our idea was to withhold blue, which was representative of her son, until this moment. She’s basically shut away all the blue in her world and that included her pool, which is why we dyed it green. We shot this in a very small room – I would say maybe 8×10 – and we had myself, a second camera operator, both of our first ACs, a boom operator and someone from the art department. It was also a big reveal for Jen. I don’t think she had actually seen the room yet before the first take. I think we let her experience it for the first time on camera. But acting in a tiny room with eight people stuffed into one corner was interesting.
We were intentionally operating (with the lens) most of the way open. Daniel really responded to shallow depth of field, which is part of why we ended up shooting anamoprhic as well to have even shallower depth of field to emphasize what we talked about earlier – that Jen has blinders around her and the world is around her but always slightly out of focus to her.
Cake is now out on all home video platforms. Continue onward for a collection of production stills.
Behind the Scenes
All pics courtesy of Cinelou Releasing.