We chat with the cinematographer behind John Cameron Mitchell’s latest phantasmagorical punk rock fable.
We’ve all been in those clubs. Dank pits in the earth where the walls are coated with layers of congealed human sweat. To breathe the air down there is to suck in an age-old must festering with god-knows-what contagion. The punk scene is dank, gross, and glorious. Once tasted it cannot be un-tasted. Welcome to the drug.
John Cameron Mitchell has celebrated the rock ‘n’ roll fantasy/nightmare once before in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He is not a director interested in repeating himself. Falling into the late-70s London punk scene of How to Talk to Girls At Parties, Mitchell wanted to marry the grit and grime of that particular anarchy with the dreamy, ethereal world of science-fiction. To achieve that, Mitchell once again looked to his trusty cinematographer.
Frank G. DeMarco has shot every single one of Mitchell’s films (as well as a mess load of others like Margin Call and All Is Lost). He’s a technical wizard who enjoys tinkering with the mechanics of cameras as much as shooting movies. DeMarco was eager to take on the challenge of blending two unique styles for How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and he was thrilled to replicate 16mm photography digitally.
I had a long phone chat with Frank. We discussed his process of consuming the screenplay before even contemplating the shot list. Despite being anxious to film in proper 16mm, he knew producers would fight him tooth and claw for the digital experience. We talked about how he managed to please both masters and his ultimate pleasure of seeing the final project.
DeMarco is an incredibly resourceful and inventive filmmaker. His passion for the job is contagious. I found myself to be incredibly lucky just in digesting the information he was happy to feed me.
Here is our conversation in full:
What is your process? When you get a screenplay, what do you do from that point forward?
When I get a screenplay, obviously the first thing to do is, you read it. I try and just read it as a pedestrian reading a story. I’ll make some notes. I’ll keep a little yellow legal pad next to me, and I’ll make some notes if there’s any lack of clarity, or a character seems to come out of nowhere. I read so many scripts that I’m actually a pretty good script doctor. I just read a zillion scripts, most of which are not very good, and I can see the obvious problems with character development, or motivation, or things like that. Or, “This came out of nowhere.” So I’ll make my notes.
And then, usually, I’ll read it again, and sometimes my first impressions are wrong. “Oh, no, this does make sense here.” So then I’ll clean up my notes, and just make sure that if I am going to talk to the director about it, that I’m coming from standing on firm ground. Firm, well-informed ground.
And then also, as I’m reading it, especially the second time, I’ll start making camera notes. Cinematography notes. Like, “We could intro this with a really nice crane shot,” or something. Or, “We could start this with an insert shot of something symbolic that reflects back on the backstory” or “It’s going to portend the future.” So I’ll start making camera notes.
And then the director and I’ll meet. If it’s John Cameron Mitchell, we’ll meet before we even start prep, because we live in the same neighborhood, so we’ll start. He likes to get ahead of the curve, here. So we’ll meet way ahead, and we certainly did that with Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We met for a year. Every week we’d meet, sometimes two days a week, with Hedwig, for a year, until we had that thing so hammered out that by the time we got into prep, it was all just about fine-tuning.
And this is your fourth film with him, right?
Yeah. We’ve done four films, and music videos, and commercials, and stuff. We’ve done a lot of work together over the years.
How has that relationship evolved since Hedwig?
It’s good. We’re friends. We’re practically neighbors. He’s just a few blocks away. He and mutual friends, we all get together once in a while, every couple of months for dinner, usually over at my house. There’s a social relationship, and then there’s a professional relationship. It’s a very caring, friendly relationship outside of a professional relationship.
What was your first thought, then, when he approaches you for How to Talk to Girls at Parties?
Like so many of John’s projects, they take years to ferment and develop, and this was no exception to that. Oh, man, when… it’s like 2006. He said, “I want you to read this short story.” I have to double-check that, but it’s this 17 or 18-page short story, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman.
I remember reading it. It’s a nice little quirky love story between punks and aliens in 1977 South London. It’s right up John’s alley, because it is quirky, and weird, and funny, and he loves anything punk. He really is a big fan of punk. Hedwig is about punk.
I remember reading the short story, going, “Okay.” It’s a tiny little piece. And I’m like, “Okay, so how do you get a movie out of it?” But, knowing John, he’ll find a movie out of this, and he certainly did.
But it was years. Let’s say it was 2006 when he sent it to me and said, “Read Neil Gaiman.” It was in a collection of short stories. I bought the book. Read the whole book, with particular reading “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”. And then it was a few years later that I finally got a script.
Philippa Goslett had written the script, and I don’t know how she was connected. She’s a Londoner, so I don’t know if that’s something. Neil Gaiman brought her in? But I don’t know. Anyway, there was a script by Philippa Goslett. John, he’s very particular about things, especially details, and authenticity. And so, then, once he had Philippa Goslett’s script, he then took the script, himself, took it over and spent a lot of time writing and rewriting. John’s really thorough with that.
So finally, much time later, he sent me a script that… it says, “Philippa Goslett and John Cameron Mitchell, writers.” And that, essentially, was the main script that we worked with.
So with that script, what are your first thoughts on setting the visual language of this movie? What jumped out at you first? How did you know what you wanted this film to look like?
Well, I think one of the things John talked about and we looked at were movies. We looked at a Nicholas Roeg movie with Mick Jagger as one of the lead characters, Performance. So we looked at that. We would get together. I go up to his house and we’d watch movies. We looked at YouTube videos of punk music stuff filmed on 16mm in the ’70s. Grainy 16mm stuff in clubs with barely any lighting, so it’s super grainy. He said, “I love this. I love this grain. I love the look of this thing.”
Also, Performance is such a weird, trippy movie, being a Nicholas Roeg movie. And so that comes in there, too, this whole trippy idea of aliens visiting for 48 hours in 1977 in South London, the Croydon neighborhood of South London.
The basic thing that was instilled into me is John liked the idea of graininess. This punk world. It’s gritty. And things shot on 16mm, there’s more focus. There’s more depth of focus. In 35, if you rack up a portrait of somebody, the background is beautiful, and soft, and silky, and romantic. Whereas in 16, if you rack up a portrait of somebody, the background’s in focus, too, so you can see the graffiti. You can see the decay. You can see the torn posters and the broken brick. You can see details. It’s a documentary format. So I think that’s really stuck with me, with this idea.
John really wanted to shoot on Super 16, which I was a big fan of. The producers are concerned. They won’t see the image until the day after, so also they just have less control, less ability to comment as you’re filming. Whereas with video, if they think it’s too dark, or too light, or too colorful, whatever, they can critique and comment as you’re filming. This is one of the changes that digital has brought to us, is there’s more influence, or… producers can enter into a realm that was strictly —
I guess I hadn’t thought about that.
Yeah. This used to be a realm that was strictly the DP and the director’s. “Trust me, we know what we’re doing,” kind of realm. Now the producers can sort of put their feet into that, a little bit, for better or for worse. It just depends on who the producers are. Anyway, John really liked the grainy thing. So the whole idea from the get-go was to shoot on Super 16, the whole movie.
And so when I read the script, the interesting thing about it… John is an interesting guy that he doesn’t mind people close to him disagreeing or having their own opinion. Rather than “disagreeing”, having their own opinion. He won’t shut you down. He’ll let that stay, and he encourages people to speak up and express themselves.
It comes from theater. I think that’s why he understands it’s important that your collaborators express themselves. Because in theater, at least, you do a show, and that night if people don’t laugh at a joke, or you try something new and there’s no result, you get immediate feedback. The danger with filmmaking is you film a film, and then maybe the film comes out six months, a year later, two years later, whatever, and something you thought was hilarious, nobody’s laughing in a theater. Well, it’s too late to correct that.
So John creates his own theater audience by having his close collaborators be the ones he bounces ideas off and tries new things with. He wants to hear the opinions because he understands that this is the feedback you get in filmmaking. If you wait until the film’s done, it could be terrible. So he really liked this immediate feedback while you’re working, prepping, and shooting.
The thing that really stood out to me is that there are sort of two things going on. You had the alien world, and a very interesting production design and costume design world. And we had Helen [Scott], that was our production designer, and we had Sandy Powell, was our costume designer.
Looking at the initial drawings for the production design, the alien house. They take over this defunct hotel in some abandoned outpost in Croydon, and it’s all done up. They’ve brought their own lighting. They have their own costumes. They have their own cushions. So the aliens have essentially brought their own production design and costume design, and it’s very polished and futuristic. This is what stood out to me. The alien world was very polished and futuristic, and then there’s this grunge world of punks which is real and dirty, and it’s bricks, and posters, and graffiti, and torn jeans, and safety pins, and rips, and gelled hair.
So visually, this was coming at me. And at the time, it was sort of just an incipient thought, but it felt to me that the movie had a bifurcation. It had, to me, two visual worlds. The punk rock world, the spitting and throwing beer, and stuff, of these basement clubs underneath pubs, and the streets, and the nighttime, and people’s apartments and bedrooms with posters and record players, and stuff. Drawing. And then the alien world, which was very, like I said, very smooth and polished and designed, and had a unified look as opposed to a punk, anarchistic, “everything goes” kind of look.
So it’s something, as John and I were prepping months before we left for England, I started thinking about. And also, I was just concerned. The budget, I think, was $7 million US. I don’t know if it was 7 million pounds. I think it was $7 million US. We’re shooting in London. It is not going to go that far. It’s even less money than 7 million US would get you in New York. I think it’s even more expensive to shoot in London. I might be wrong about that.
But either way, it’s not a lot of money, considering the ambition of the project. And I was just also very concerned. I know producers, nowadays, so many don’t support film, or have their doubts about film. And I knew one of our producers, and he totally supports the director, but he also wants to make sure the movie gets done. One of the compromises I thought would be that John might not be able to shoot film.
So while I was in New York, John had just left for London. He was over there casting, and prepping, and working with the production designer already. I did some tests with an ARRI ALEXA where I shot stuff while I’m using the full 35 chip, and then I shot the same thing using the Super 16. All on the same ALEXA, but I could make a little box, a little electronic box, and just shoot that image. And I took everything, all those digital files, from the ALEXA, and I went over to Harbor Post and Joe Gawler. Everybody at Harbor Post was very accommodating.
They blew up the Super 16 to be the same size as the 35 to completely fill the movie screen. And the interesting thing is that Super 16 digital has some sort of digital grain. Then, I think, too, Super 16, whether it’s film Super 16 or Super-16-sized imaging of digital, it also has, like I was talking about earlier, it has a lot of depth of focus. And I could graphically show that, the experiments I did over to AbelCine, who was kind enough to lend me the camera and the time to do my experiments. You had that soft, silky background on the full-frame 35 stuff, and you had a fairly in-focus backgrounds on Super 16.
So I made a point of shooting experiments that could really show this difference, what the real difference between 16 and 35 are. Which is something since the inception of my working on films, I was always shooting 16 when I was starting. And, me, very early on, knew the difference between 16 and 35, which is that depth of focus. 35 softens backgrounds. 35 makes everybody look beautiful. They’re isolated in focus. They’re the subject of your thing. Whereas 16 is documentary. Everything is in focus. And that’s the whole idea with documentary, you want to see everything.
And it’s gnarly, and perfectly punk.
Yeah. It’s gnarly. It’s punk. It’s grainy. To shoot 16 was a good historical choice for John for this movie, because it would mirror the way so much of punk footage, when you look at YouTube and documentaries, it was all shot on 16. It was a little bit pre-affordable-video. So it was all shot on 16. A lot of punk club stuff, it was amateur friends of the band, and stuff, shooting on Bolexes, and stuff. And so it’s great. It’s fantastic. And there was no light, so this is stuff that’s dark, and grainy, and crappy, and horrible, and beautiful.
I did the experiment, and then I went to England to prep. I had four weeks of prep, then we went along. The full intention was just to shoot Super 16. Maybe it was a gut feeling. I just knew that somewhere, somewhere along the line, this 16 idea… the rug might get pulled out from under us. I brought along my test.
And, literally, two days before we were going to wrap prep and start shooting on the following Monday, the producers call me, and they meet with me, and they say, “Look. You got to tell John we’re not going to shoot film.”
I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” My job is to say “yes” to John. I’ve done it a lot over the years, and he’s very happy and comfortable with me saying “yes” to whatever he wants, and then figuring out a way to give him the “yes.” So I said, “I’m not going to tell him we can’t shoot 16. That’s not my job. I’m not here to shirk responsibility, but I’m not telling him. You’ll have to tell him. However, I will tell you this, to make it easier on you guys when you tell him, is, I have a plan. I have an idea that might, after the initial shock, and mourning, and loss of Super 16, I have an idea that I can throw at everybody and see if you like it.”
So they told John, and he went through the roof. And then they said, “But, Frank, he’s got something he wants to show all of us, and we don’t know what it is, but maybe it’ll help.” And so I told them, I said, “We need to go to a really post-production facility with a really big, large screen, and an HD projector. A 2k projector, at least.” And I had a little jump drive in my pocket that had all these tests that I’d shot over at Harbor and AbelCine.
We went to Molinare, which is a beautiful post-production, mostly commercials but they do movies, too, beautiful post-production facility. Beautiful, big screen projection over there. And we put up the test, and the producers, and John, and the director, and any interested parties came. I showed them this comparison Super 16 extraction on the Alexa versus a regular full-frame 35 on the Alexa. I showed them the test, and gave them the walkthrough, and talked, and told them about the depth of focus, et cetera, that I just told you about.
And I had done everything in such a simplistic way that it was clear, and John certainly understands it. He understands film. And just for the producers who might be a little leery or concerned, I made it very graphic. And so they got it. They really understood, and cautiously optimistic that maybe this is the way to go.
There was concern. We’re blowing up the image almost 300%, which is a lot. But that’s what Super 16 still is. It’s 300% smaller than Super 35. You’re doing the same thing on film. People mix film with 35 and 16 film all the time. In fact, John and I have done it. And the difference is, it’s the same film. It’s the same Kodak film stock. Just, while you’re just enlarging the Super 16 in order to fill a 40-foot screen, you have to blow it up 300% more than the 35. Which brings you with grain, and more depth of focus, and all that.
So it sounds to me, as the culture of the image is changing and moving into digital, you just had to evolve yourself. You just had to adapt to this movement.
Yeah. I think, because of budgets, and producers’ lack of confidence in film these days. And, just, also, they’re wanting to have more control over the imaging of their projects. There’s a little bit of a tussle there about who’s going to win that discussion about film versus video.
But, also, it was a legitimate thing. My shooting digital on this thing… I trust [producer] Howard Gertler. They gave me the wrap about why this is. It bought us two or three extra days, which John really needed. Also, John likes to shoot a lot of takes. If we were shooting film, we were only going to be able to have 55 minutes worth of 16mm film a day to shoot, and we were shooting two and three hours’ worth of digital a day. So we would’ve run out of film, or John would’ve had to compromise the number of takes, and not gotten the performances he was going for, et cetera, had we shot the way they had budgeted the film for this movie.
There’s a lot of moving parts in the decision, and I understand them all. But was I disappointed? Was John disappointed? You bet. I’m not going to toot my own horn, but I offered them a compromise idea that in the end everybody, especially John and myself, were extremely pleased with. Because we got our Super 16. We also did something nobody’d done before. I think maybe somebody has since then, because we shot in 2015, so a couple years have passed. But we were the first ones to do a movie with this Super 16.
We also had a lot of help from Arriflex London, Arri rentals, because they have a lot of Super 16 lenses sitting around doing nothing, because nobody’s hardly shooting Super 16. Neil Fanthom is one of the guys over at Arri. He’s head of… what do you call it? Research, that kind of thing?
Yeah. So he was thrilled when he heard that there was some DP, some Yank DP downstairs in the checkout bay doing this Super 16 extraction idea. He came out of his way to come down and meet me, and shake my hand, and say, “I’ve been trying to push Arriflex in Germany to popularize the idea we could do Super 16 extraction on video.” And that was two things. It’s another format for creative artists to use, and also, as a rental house, they could get all these Super 16 lenses back out into circulation. Do some rentals and make some money, you know? They’re sitting there, collecting dust. So he was thrilled.
You might not want to toot your own horn, but I’ll toot it. You’ve always been a tinkerer with format, right? With film?
You were working with Darren Aronofsky during his tests of Pi, right?
That’s right, yeah. I came up with this idea of Ultra 16. Darren’s movie was so low budget, he wanted to shoot 16, but he did want a bigger look. And at the time, Super 16 cameras were expensive. Super 16 lenses were slow compared to regular 16 lenses, and it makes a big difference. The Super 16 zoom was a T2.8. And when you’re working with no light, if you can shoot it at T2, you can get away with it. But if your lens only opens up to 2.8, you can’t shoot with just one light. You have to start adding lights, and then you have double shadows, and it spoils the look. The whole on-the-fly smash and grab kind of way of filming gets imposed upon.
So, yeah, so I came up with this Ultra 16 idea, which uses regular 16 cameras and regular 16 lenses, but only thing that changes… I shaved the gate out wider, east and west, almost touching the perfs. So you could shoot regular 16 or Super 16 film, and this format was Ultra 16. It was a little smaller than Super 16, but it was regular 16 lenses, regular 16 cameras. No changes other than to the gate. I still have that gate.
There’s articles on the web, and stuff. A couple people embraced it. But, fortunately, now with everything done as digital intermediate, you don’t… I was going to build an Oxberry gate, pay for that. But now I can get away with it. Now you can scan the whole image. You can scan all the way out to the perfs. So shooting Ultra 16 would be easy now, but it’s sort of moot at this point. But it was fun.
Like you said, I love to experiment. My dad was an inventor. I have a couple of patents, and stuff. I have one patent, actually. But it’s just fun to leave your mark on the craft.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties opens in select theaters on May 25th.