Job interviews are never fun. Often they feel like shooting galleries. Your back is against the wall. The questions fire with speed and precision. Your answers are your only protection. Speak carefully. Your life is on the line.
Cinematographer Trevor Forrest came to Little Fires Everywhere over the phone. The Hulu miniseries is set in Ohio during the 1990s, but for a variety of scheduling, budgetary, and political reasons, the production required a Los Angeles based shoot. They needed a director of photography who could trick the eye of the audience, masquerading the always sunny shine of Southern California as Ohio’s full spectrum of seasons. Lazily slapping gels onto lenses would not do.
“I had a phone call with [Executive Producer] Pilar Savone,” explains Forrest. “She was like, ‘Okay, these are the things we’re having trouble with.’ That was on a Friday night, and then I had a meeting at 9:00 A.M. Tuesday morning.”
The pressure was on. Not only did Forrest need solutions for flipping California for Ohio, but they also required his take on differentiating flashbacks from the present day, and how he’d represent flames on-screen, elevating both the literal and metaphorical aspect of fire for a narrative that hangs on a rageful burning of a house.
Forrest had the weekend to study and absorb the scripts for all eight episodes. As every cinematographer will tell you, the job begins with the narrative. The story will dictate how the visual language of the film or series will form. Forrest, however, had an extra weapon at his disposal.
“Luckily, my wife had also read the book,” he says. “So I sat her down and said, ‘Look, you got to give me a cheat sheet on what you can remember.’ One of the things that stuck in her mind was the way that the drama followed the weather. It went from summer — this buoyant, beautiful summer situation — into the drama of the fall when these two parties clash. Then it descends into winter, and this tightly wound thriller between our two leads.”
Latching onto the weather sends a cinematographer’s imagination racing. All you need is one hook, and once you have it, the whole project comes together in your imagination. You can’t ask for anything better than an emotional weathervane.
“That’s fantastic for cinematography,” Forrest continues. “The interiors become more important, and everything becomes crushed in. One great example of this is in Seven, a favorite of mine. The way they use rain in that film just makes everyone feel trapped. It’s simple; it’s effective. Sure, it’s not a new idea, but we were going to use it.”
Forrest went to work and left the weekend not only confident of how he would shoot Little Fires Everywhere but hungry to do so. Rather than wait for the green light, he started the process of connecting with his crew. He went into the Tuesday meeting with a thick shotdeck of images.
“I made a sixty-page deck over the weekend,” he says. “I reached out to two friends of mine: Dan Sasaki, who’s the lens wizard over at Panavision, and Stefan Sonnenfeld, who’s the head colorist and owner of Company 3. I said to them, ‘Look, I’m going to need to make the light of LA — this laser-pointed, bright, cold, hard, blue light — feel like the East coast.’ I sent them some photographic references, and we figured out how to move the lights from one to the other through making a lens.”
With the knowledge of Panavision backing his ideas, Forrest formulated a plan of attack. The challenges that Savone and the Little Fires Everywhere production perceived could be conquered with skill and the right tools.
“There’s a set of PanaSpeeds at Panavision where you can tune them,” he says. “You can tune the softness, the contrast, the bokeh, but also the transition of the light, and that controls how cold and how warm it is. The actual term is ‘transference.’ We wanted to change the cool light of Los Angeles into the warmer, softer light of winter on the East Coast. So, that was part of my pitch when I went into win the job.”
Series are rarely shot by one cinematographer. Often a whole slew of them are brought on board, but for Little Fires Everywhere, Forrest was only joined by Jeffrey Waldron. Maintaining continuity of image is always a concern, but there was a strategy built into the schedule.
“Luckily, the producers planned that every time there was a change of season,” says Forrest, “there was also a change of cinematographer. Episodes one, two, and three were summer, and then four and five were fall going into winter. I was able to fine-tune in four and five, and then hand that off to Jeffery to do six and seven. Then, in seven, we were in prep. I tuned the lenses for eight so he could also use them at the end of seven during that last transition into the cold, hard, dark blues and blacks of winter.”
At the end of it all is the blaze. Everything culminates in the fire, and Forrest took tremendous delight in bringing its savage beauty to the screen. Dramatically, few visual metaphors are as powerful or as rich with potential.
“What’s amazing in the story,” he says, “is that the fire — the hottest, most operatic flame-covered house — happens in the dead of winter, which is the most beautiful. You can’t plan that any better for a cinematographer or even a painter. When should you really make this warm, orange, operatic scene occur? In the icy, dead, freezing cold of winter.”
Selling fire for film or TV is always difficult, especially when you can’t just burn a building down to its ashes. Little Fires Everywhere had to get clever with its blaze. Working with sets, models, and a special effects team, Forrest tackled the climactic moment with as much honesty as he could fabricate.
“Fire is very different when it’s something like a house,” explains Forrest. “There are different rooms that are going to be on fire, and they create pockets of hot air that blows through and pumps more and more power through the flames. We were playing with the idea of the central staircase in the house, because that creates a nice pocket of air, and as the fire would find itself there, it would basically collapse.”
Forrest not only knew the blueprint of the building he was shooting, he knew how nature would shred through it. The science of fire steered his camera and lens adjustment. Sticking to the reality of the situation removed the stress of concocting something from nothing.
“If the staircase in the middle of the house collapsed,” he continues, “it also sucks out the middle of the roof, which would then push the flame up into that space. We didn’t quite get there, unfortunately, but we did have that collapse apparent in the morning after when you see the house at its end. That collapse definitely informed its state and its blackness and the black cold around it.”
Nearly everything Forrest discussed with Savone on the phone, or in the following meeting, wound up in practice on Little Fires Everywhere. The cinematographer went into his interview charged with solutions, and he had the professional connections already in play to get the job rolling. Capturing his vision was merely a matter of getting the job and physically shooting it.
Little Fires Everywhere is now streaming on Hulu.