Don’t Come Knocking – shooting report

Places that tell stories
Franz Lustig talks to Romain Geib about his experience when filming with high working speed, a Union crew and stars. This cinema hommage was shot in anamorphotic cinemascope in the vastness of the Middle West in the US.

Professional Production:
Mr. Lustig, “Land of Plenty” was your debut as DoP in a full length movie. Before that you have made commercials and music videos with Wim Wenders. How comes?

Franz Lustig:
We lived in a very political atmosphere after the war in Iraq started. We all discussed it when making “Land of Plenty”. It was an angry film. We have tried to cope with the situation with our own means. At that time I was suspicious about advertising and to make my first full length movie “Land of Plenty” (LOP) was the correct next step, as filming did not take that long. I was used to much shorter filming periods in advertising. I compare it to sprints, medium distances and marathon runs. I started as a sprinter, then I tried a medium distance with short films and after that I was prepared for a small marathon. I always do that: one after the other.

Professional Production:
What kind of experience did you take from commercials into full length movie work?

Franz Lustig:
In ten years of advertising, especially working together with Ralf Schmerberg, I have learned a lot, among others the use of a handheld-camera in a set or doing documentaries. On our first day with LOP we had the DV-camera on a tripod. That was a terrible experience for me. I had the camera in my hand on the second day of filming. We worked very fast – DV is ideal for that.

Professional Production:
How did you like the step from DV to Cinemascope?

Franz Lustig:
That was the toughest jump possible – when you look at the technique. LOP was low end, so to speak, while DCK was high end. The first project was with DV 25p filmed by hand and then digitally graded, the other one in cinemascope with a dolly, a tripod, a crane and a nearly complete analogue post production on film. Technically it was different but the contents was Wim´s perspective – as always. With DCK everything had been pre-thought so perfectly that we had room enough when we did our planning. This time we did not know weeks ahead how to film something, sometimes we did not even know where and in parts not even with whom. Tim Roth was engaged very late. On the evening before the start everything was clamped securely. Yet Wim is a man who knows exactly what can be done with each equipment. So we had to say in advance what we needed when exactly. Already with LOP we were a good team, the art director Nathan Amondson, the assistant director Joseph Liek, Wim and I – we were a quick and well functioning unit.

Professional Production:
How did you save your own perspective? Have you tried to forget “Paris, Texas”?

Franz Lustig:
I admire Robby Müller´s work. He found the absolutely correct pictures for “Paris, Texas.” When I saw the film again 15 years later I discovered they were stored in my subconscience. For me the story is always most important. It moves the film, pictures assist.

Professional Production:
According to Wim Wenders you two communicate nearly without words.

Franz Lustig:
True. We never had any discussion about principles, even though it may sound unusual: LOP was a good exercise as we had no time for long discussions. With DCK it was different, we discussed a lot beforehand. With Wim Wenders you meet a man who has collected unbelievably vast riches. I am not a person who sees many films and analyses them. I tend to analyse reality continually. So the places inspired me with DCK. Wim preserves places in a way with his long career in filming and photography.
The comparison with Edward Hopper is perhaps drawn, because this film has long been growing in Wim. He was in Butte, Montana, at the end of the seventies for the first time. I had some kind of reverence for his local knowledge. He is very precise when it comes to pictures. Not without reason a magazine once called him “hawk eye”. It´s funny that we used hawk lenses by Vantage when we filmed in Cinemascope.
The lenses were the perfect combination with the Arricam LT and ST. We had an exceptional deal and got the camera equipment from Otto Nemenz in L.A. without the optics. Due to assistance by Peter Märtin and Andreas Teichner of Vantage they sent the complete set of the Hawk V-Series directly from Weiden to L.A. The Zoom 46-230 mm T4 was used frequently besides the medium and long primes.
In physical terms all these optics need a certain aperture to show the contrast in the best possible way. Our experience with the Hawks is an excellent contrast performance and a wonderful pungency, even if we used aperture 2.8. With their hyper-real look they delivered the very realistic, slightly polished picture character that I had in mind. So we combined the sharpness of the lenses and the softness of the light with the width and beauty of the backgrounds.

Professional Production:
How did you manage the special technical requirements of anamorphic filming?

Franz Lustig:
Sometimes it was very tough, especially with the 105° shutter shots with the handheld camera at night, for instance. After testing I pushed one stop on exterior shots at night and during dawn and dusk. It was no problem as we used the negative in total. The material 5218 from Kodak with 500 ASA took it without problems. That is why all blacks are so tight, the printer lights were optimal with all night shots, although we had to film with aperture 2,8 ½ to nearly 4. We had hoped for a good 5.6 or 8. To pull focus with the handheld camera was at it´s limit, but by then I knew that I could do it with the crew. The hawks together with the matteboxes are planned and built in a way that with our great camera crew we were not really slower than with spherical filming.

Professional Production:
The high working speed means that the team is used to each other.

Franz Lustig:
To build a team for me means a few weeks of research. Everything is possible somehow when the team stands together. There has to be a team-feeling before work starts, then you get best results. It starts with focus, when you decide to make a classical anamorphotic film. The focus – puller has to be first class, or else. We had a top man, Jay Levy, who had been working on “21 Gramms” and did a lot for Rodrigo Pietro.

Professional Production:
You had to work with a union crew.

Franz Lustig:
I never felt any restriction at all. With the unions you have some good and some less good rules. There certainly is nothing wrong for instance to eat at the appropriate time. That means using ones power sensibly like with a marathon run. With full length movies it is very important that concentration does not slacken. It would be visible in the end product. Union rules are a good means to keep a steady quality level. Producers should accept that.

Professional Production:
How was the work with an operator?

Franz Lustig:
In the beginning it was not easy at all. Because of union rules and as Wim suggested I, the DoP, had to give up the function as an operator. But than I found it a great solution. My friend Bengt Jonsson who I have known from LOP took that responsibility, one of the reasons was Wim who is seen as a cult giant in America. Bengt works as a DP himself in L.A., he is a very quiet man and has a wonderful eye. To find the right operator is the most difficult job. We filmed about 25 % with a two camera set-up. For some scenes, in the casino for instance, we had Tom Lohmann as an excellent steadycam operator. I was lucky to have James Elton Davis as my gaffer and Thomas Lembcke as key grip – both have to harmonise especially well. Kenny Davis, the dollygrip, was so fast and had an excellent way to handle the rhythm of the actors. Some crewmembers were quite young but with a high professional ethos. So the whole project somhow had much of an “old school character.”

Professional Production:
The filmed world looks like a surprising mixture of outdoor sets, theater back drops and a bit of the myth of the Western.

Franz Lustig:
Back drops is quite correct, the scope adds to this slightly heightened impression. I did not plan for that effect. Somewhere in my subconscience I have stored the picture world of Wim Wenders. But I never felt that close to it. From the very beginning I had a “classic” look in mind , I wanted to polish the film a little bit through my eyes, my experience and my career. I wanted small hard edges in it and rather a soft key light than a hard one. I wanted to put into the film what makes me and my work. That does not mean the film has the direct look of a commercial. But somehow you feel where I come from.
At the same time I kept asking myself if the result can be called classic or whether it is on the border. Much of the filming depends on the places, the light and the position of the sun. When we first visited the locations we had to plan ahead exactly to use the available sun . So sometimes the second dolly had been built up, as the sun was good for two hours only. We only had to go there with the camera, put it on it and here we are. We always asked ourselves if our equipment would suffice or if we could afford something else and if that made sense. Wim once said, it is good to heave certain limits, otherwise you become a little lazy. I can only agree to that.

Professional Production:
With the timelapses you found an interesting form of telling a story. According to Wenders “places are somewhat like acting figures.”

Franz Lustig:
We already fell in love with such timelapses with LOP. But then we took them digitally with a Nikon coolpix camera and have interpolated them into the film. For DCK we did some tests with timelapse. With my operator Bengt Jonsson we had altered an Arri III and coupled it with a Norris single frame unit. Alec Boehm was responsible for the B-camera at LOP. He took the shots along with Bengt as a second unit, while I finished some other scene. The timelapse ran from two to three hours. As the light changed continually, the was remote controlled and could easily be changed, should a small cloud appear. So we could use all shots and saved time. The single frames were digitally adjusted.

Professional Production:
Did you see prints in between?

Franz Lustig:
Yes, I fought for it and Wim was on my side. It was then no question for our far sighted producer Peter Schwartzkopff, he understood what we had in mind. We had to allocate more money into the camera budget because of the anamorphic equipment. We had circled printed takes which were send to the lab. In the evenings after the filming Wim and I decided upon that and sent our descriptions of the look to the colorist by e-mail. The worst happened in the first week, when we had no prints due to transportation problems. Those were the scenes with Jessica Lange and I wasn´t so sure about her make-up. At least we had video dailies of all footage.

Professional Production:
How did you manage the situations with dusk or dawn?

Franz Lustig:
The shots during dusk or dawn are very delicate, they must be exposed very precisely. Meantime I love filming at dawn or dusk, although it is sometimes hell for a DP. Take the scene, for instance, where Sky scatters the ashes in the morning. We stood there in the morning, had rehearsed everything because there is only that one single moment when the sky shows the special colour and brilliancy. To brighten up one California sunbounce which was carried along hand held was enough.
I also wondered what could light Sam travelling in his jeep through the desert at dawn phoning up his mom. What could light him in his car in the middle of the desert? I had then built a cellular phone with LED´s which were filtered by diff. gels. I supported that light from below and for the edges with small LITE PANEL LED lights.. When filming from the car trailer the sky of dawn suddenly looked great, like a perfect rear- projection.

Professional Production:
You like to employ unusual means to strengthen results.

Franz Lustig:
Wen I first read the script I thought of a hand camera and 1:1,85 – still under the impression of LOP. But then it became clear that scope was the correct decision. All should be calm, the horizontal lines should only move when movement was in the drama. We mainly used long, precise dispositions. The camera should be neutral. You see the first handheld camera setup in the film, when Howard Spence, played by Sam Shepard, sees his son at night after his appearance in the Irish Bar and the son feels stalked.
It is a very subtle use of the hand camera with the Arricam LT and a 60mm/75 mmprime. The meeting of the two is important and the development of father and son from it. We strengthened the dramatic momentum using a 105 ° shutter which allows greater crispness of movement. Later when both wanted to fight each other I manually changed the shutter from 180° to 90° and sync- opened the iris one stop. It adds contrast to the scene and makes it physically more violent, more brutal. When the two let each other go in the night scene, we combined the effect with a speedramp to 40 frames per second and back. Thus the scene looks like a bad dream, when Howard tells Earl, he is his father.

Professional Production:
In another scene in which father and son argue during daytime in the street the sky darkens suddenly. How did this magic of light happen?

Franz Lustig:
The was the most impressive moment when filming, something like a holy moment. In the second take, when the son turned away from the father arguing, a dark cloud came up from behind and the total picture changed suddenly. Strongly moved Sam Shepard stands in the lonesome street full of garbage. He lets himself fall into the sofa and starts to weep and to laugh. With the help of iris remote I could open the three apertures underexposure slowly to only one and a half stop underexposure during the technocrane move on to Sam as if the cloud had become lighter. I will never forget this moment.

Professional Production:
Another magic moment was the 360° dolly tracks round the sofa allowing hours to pass.

Franz Lustig:
This circle tracking with its meaning is one of the essences of the film. It is a beautiful possibility to show the catharsis or the quiet moment that Howard experiences right then. This solution was decided rather late. Funnily enough the circular driving superseded a digital solution of morphing the pictures. We had tried it digitally but were not happy with it. The dissolves were 72 frames long, no normal laboratory in germany could handle that. Then we decided to manipulate the scene on the Oxberry optical print machine.
How should I prepare the lighting, when tracking in a circle and the scene moves from daylight to dusk to night? As 360° were visible we had to hide all our film lamps – which was a real challenge for light technicians. It became a real light show with many little bulbs and hidden lamps. When night fell the various lamps were cued up via dimmers – even in the houses around. In the night we used all lights. Hidden was a condor with six r 12K Pars. At the end a strongly bundled 2 KW XENON light was added – functioning as edge- and keylight. It worked like a stage light. Jay had no easy task and when pulling the focus you really had to think. It is due to my crew that we solved it in the available time. On the set it felt like a mantra, as the camera kept circling the sofa with Sam again and again. It was like Buddhists encircling a stupa.

Professional Production:
So the necessary artistic risk was not absent in this production.

Franz Lustig:
Due to little time we only had short rehearsals. All were so fit that we did not need many. So the saying was true – “rehearsals are for sissies !” In a way we worked without a net – but controlled. One of Wim´s special qualities is to always leave room for that. And afterwards we all sit together viewing the work prints and everyone is enthused.

Official website of Don't Come Knocking