OCTOBER 2014 | Valentina I. Valentini
Shooting 'Transparent': From Rehearsal to Lenses to Intimate Family Drama
..."Jill asked me to join her and the cast at rehearsals with indie filmmaking guru and consulting producer Joan Scheckel. The time spent was not about running scenes, but about exploring character, relationship and emotion - all with music and through movement. Jill or Joan would call out specific actions: 'Go to the person who you feel most connected to, or least connected to,' for example. And while I had my still camera there to document moments for possible reference, I was participating as fully as the actors were. That’s a treasure for a DP. And it was fantastic."...
It may be obvious to say so, but transparency runs through the entire production in Amazon’s smash hit debut of Jill Soloway’s "Transparent." In fact, it’s with that utmost devotion to authenticity that Soloway seems to be winning over the hearts and heads of possibly previously skeptical viewers of LGBTQ-focused television content.
Since it is through a cinematographers’ eyes that we’re privy to what happens on a set, Indiewire thought it’d be worth getting intimate with Soloway's DP, Jim Frohna.
"Jim is probably the most intuitive DP I’ve ever worked with," gushed Jeffrey Tambor. "He knows before you know where the action is going to go. During this one scene with an argument, he was lying in the floor just covered in sweat afterward. He’s not just photographing it, he’s experiencing it. He was all but a cast member."
The filmmaking duo - who affectionately refer to each other as "Jimmie" and "Jillie" - first paired up on Soloway's Sundance indie from 2012, "Afternoon Delight." It was there that symbiosis was born. "She would allow me to use my intuition and had total belief in my process," Frohna said when at Sundance two years ago. "Isn't that what we all want from a director?"
Frohna's wishes have come true, and we got the inside track of what it's like to work within such an organic state of art-making.
The paradigm is shifting.
"Amazon Studios is essentially three people, which already tells you that things are different. From the start, it became clear to us that Joe Lewis and Amazon were very supportive and quite passionate about what we were doing. There were many days where it felt like we were working during the early '70s, when studios were making more independent-minded, free-spirited, risk-taking passion projects. With Joe and the team at Amazon, we were in the embrace of new possibilities."
It begins with rolling around on the floor.
"Jill asked me to join her and the cast at rehearsals with indie filmmaking guru and consulting producer Joan Scheckel. The time spent was not about running scenes, but about exploring character, relationship and emotion - all with music and through movement. Jill or Joan would call out specific actions: 'Go to the person who you feel most connected to, or least connected to,' for example. And while I had my still camera there to document moments for possible reference, I was participating as fully as the actors were. That’s a treasure for a DP. And it was fantastic."
And continues on stage at Paramount.
"The work we did in rehearsal not only built the foundation of the Pfefferman clan, but it also gave me an intimacy with the actors and the material. This whole approach to filmmaking is intuitive and allows that same sense of exploration and 'play' that we used in rehearsal to be carried over to the set. For 'Transparent' (and similarly for 'Afternoon Delight') Jill and I don’t feel the need for a storyboard or often even a shot list. Here, the actors don’t have marks and they are not restricted by a lighting set up because we generally light for the whole scene. As well, I like to operate the main camera and work, as Jill would put it, like the 'unseen player.'"
No need to call "Action."
"Many times Jill just let the cameras start rolling without calling action. She would signal to me and give a quiet look to the actors, and things would start unfolding. Jill is still very much in charge and her directorial vision clear, but it comes from a very soulful place of creating space for the actors and for all of us on the crew to feel safe, take risks and be our best creative selves. In any given scene, our mission with the camera is to be completely open, to stay connected to the characters and to document emotions. Jay Duplass coined a phrase that Jill would often repeat as encouragement to take risks: 'Disobligate yourself from trying.'"
When shooting is like dancing.
[SPOILER ALERT.] "Late in the season, Maura, Jeffery Tambor’s character, goes to cross-dressing camp. At this new place representing freedom, Maura meets another cross-dressing friend’s wife (played by Michaela Watkins). Jill sent me into the room with one simple direction: 'Just be in the moment.' I was handheld, and it became this amazing improvised, playful dance between the three of us, with cabaret music playing and their dresses swirling and their bodies overlapping. They even started talking in these mock Italian accents. This went on for almost a half hour, and we were rolling continuously. Our editors, Cate Haight and Hilda Rasula, and Jill shaped it into one of my favorite scenes of the whole season."
Sometimes "Cut" doesn’t mean "Cut."
"Because of the size of the Canon C500 it was so easy to cradle it at my chest and keep a low profile, and to get away with just grabbing extra stuff on the fly. One time that really paid off was when Tambor’s character is in a hotel room, introducing herself to Bradley Whitford’s 'Marcy.' There was some music playing on set and Jeffrey just started improvising as Maura, doing this strange dance, sipping on a Martini. The entire cast is made up of exceptional actors but also remarkable people who open themselves up to endless possibilities. When these moments show up in the final edit, it’s a real treat, especially when Bruce Gilbert, our music supervisor, adds just the right song or composition to complete the story."
Digital is your friend.
"I did blind camera tests with Red Epic, Sony F55 and the Canon C500 and we picked the Canon. I paired it with 70-year-old Leica Leitz lenses and even when I pushed it all the way to 3200 or 4000 ISO it was amazing. It gets this texture to it -- not blotchy, digital noise -- but looks more grainy and film-like. I miss film, but these are amazing tools that we now have that open up a whole new realm of possibilities. Thirty-minute takes of me moving around the room or shooting into the darkest shadows of night could only be possible with this new technology."
Let the machine fall away.
"We took Jill’s goal of having everything feel as authentic as possible even into the way we lit the show. I love natural light and use it as much as possible. About 60 percent of the show was shot on a stage, yet I always wanted it to feel naturally lit, which was a challenge the lighting and grip crew met admirably.
"A lot of television stages or film sets have walls and ceilings that can fly away to accommodate the camera, but I knew right from the beginning I didn’t want to be able to do that. I wanted to light like it was a real space, which means big sources from outside the set. I tried where possible to keep as much gear out of the room and give the space over to the actors, who could then move about freely. There have been many times, particularly on intimate sex scenes or emotionally intense scenes when, even though I’m a foot away from a face, the cast would often forget the machine of filmmaking was there. This lean, quiet movement without focus marks says a lot for my focus puller, Shelly Gurzi. Because I’m constantly running around and doing this dance with the actors, she has an extremely hard job. I call Shelly my silent dance partner."
Hooked on a feeling.
"I’m proud of how the show feels. If there’s a formal language to filmmaking (your standard wide-shot, medium, close-up, close-up) then I think what Jill is creating, or asking from the writers, the actors and her crew is that we collectively build a new language alongside the visuals. It starts from a director who guides all of us, from pre- to post-production, to do their best art. Jill would often remind us: 'Everyone's always worrying about running out of time, and running out of money, and running out of light. We have enough time, enough money and we are the light.'"
Read this article at IndieWire