When he read the script for his latest project, The Spectacular Now, Jess Hall, BSC felt an instant connection with the material. “The story had a kind of resonance,” he says. “It reminded me of situations that I’ve been in throughout my real life. I thought it stood out. It’s quite rare that you read something that really touches you in that way.”
Hall’s background includes fine art still photography as well as eye-catching music videos and commercials, along with the feature films Hot Fuzz, Brideshead Revisited, Creation, The Switch, and 30 Minutes or Less. He studied film at Central Saint Martins University for the Arts and Design in London.
When Hall joined The Spectacular Now, director James Ponsoldt was already scouting locations in his hometown of Athens, Georgia, a setting that would play a key role and flavor every subsequent decision. One of the first things he said to Hall: “This is a 35mm anamorphic film. That’s how I want to shoot it, and that’s what I told the producers. I feel very passionately about this.”
Ponsoldt chose the widescreen format despite working with a trim $2.5 million budget.
“I was impressed by his conviction,” says Hall. “I’d shot Son of Rambow, a small-budget feature in 35mm anamorphic, and James loved that film, so I wasn’t put off by the idea. James wanted to make something with scope. That’s how he had seen the film the first time he’d read it. And he had very strong feelings about film, and the way skin is captured and represented on screen.”
In The Spectacular Now, a high school senior who lives only for the present meets a different kind of girl. It’s a tender tale of human beings finding their identities in the world, so faces were important.
“In Son of Rambow, we were also working with young actors, and we had to shoot with very minimal coverage,” Hall recalls. “So we did a lot of developing shots – start in a wide shot, develop into a two-shot and possibly end in a close-up. That was how we got the best performances from the kids. It’s a technique we adapted for The Spectacular Now. James wanted to see the relationships and the scenes evolve on screen in real time, in a way.”
Hall was very involved in choreographing and blocking the shots. The widescreen aspect ratio worked well with two-shots, and wider shots that evolve into two-shots. He helped make the format work within the budget by drawing up a lean equipment list, and by creating efficiency on the set, in collaboration with the entire cast and crew.
“James’ trust and generosity allowed me to really have a large part in designing the film visually,” says Hall. “And the actors delivered great performances without needing a lot of takes. They were prepared. They were in their role. There wasn’t a lot of coverage. We committed to these shots that told the story rather than trying to get a lot of coverage for everything.”
The camera was a PANAFLEX MILLENIUM XL with a mixture of lenses, mostly PANAVISION E-series anamorphics. The main stocks were KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION2 50D Color Negative Film 5201. A few exteriors were shot using KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207.
“James didn’t want the film to be placed in a specific time,” Hall explains. “We were going for a classic look, and the 50-speed stock was great for that. We had quite a lot of exteriors, and we wanted to capture the warmth of the southern atmosphere. I wanted it to feel like a real summer in the south, without being over the top with warmth. Colors were naturalistic – I tended to bounce into textiles that had some color. The light was often coming through multiple layers of textiles and diffusion to warm the light and soften it.”
Hall points to an important shot, done on a 50mm lens, which appears about one-third of the way in. “We wanted really to authenticate the performances, which we did in long takes,” says Hall. “This four-and-a-half minute walk-and-talk shot really sets up the movie. The main character takes this girl to a party where the hipsters, and his beautiful ex-girlfriend, are. She’s very out of place. They walk away from the party through a nearby wooded area. It’s basically a pull-back and a two-shot with them on the STEADICAM. The shot required an entire 400-foot mag. You see their relationship evolving in real time, and it’s an amazing thing to watch. It goes from tentative flirting and vulnerability to the blossoming of potential love within a single shot.”
Five takes of their walk were done over one day. “To me, that was the most interesting thing about this film – the way these long takes work was a significant aspect of how we conceived it,” says Hall. “There’s a triangle between the camera crew, the director and the actors, and without the encumbrance of the DIT and the video village, that core group created a very interesting dynamic. I think the film is quite pure in that way.”
The front-end lab was Deluxe, and a digital intermediate was done at Company 3 with colorist Sean Coleman. “The DI was pretty seamless and fast,” Hall adds. “The look of the film – our intention – was very much set in the lighting and the photography.”
Authenticity was an important concept to the filmmakers. “James’ childhood and adolescence was spent in Athens, and that really added another layer,” Hall relates. “We were shooting in places that had a kind of a history for him as well. We were very much preoccupied with the thought of authenticity. We wanted it to feel like a genuine experience of that age. At Sundance, I was pleased to find how many people were touched emotionally by the film. I think that’s, in a way, because we did kind of succeed in that sort of sense of truthfulness. Things were pretty stripped down, and the choices were informed by James’ subtle sensibility.”
Film critic Marlow Stern, writing in The Daily Beast, called The Spectacular Now “one of the most poignant and gratifying films at this year’s Sundance.” The film is slated to run at a number of film festivals before a wider theatrical release in late summer 2013.
Hall is currently serving as director of photography on Transcendence, the directorial debut of OSCAR®-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC, BSC.
Photos: Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in scenes from The Spectacular Now (Jess Hall, BSC/ courtesy A24). Previous page, bottom: Jess Hall, BSC (Matt Evans/ courtesy A24).
Connect with the film on Twitter at @SpecNowMovie or visit andrewlaurenproductions.com/the-spectacular-now.html