To hear cinematographer Salvatore Totino, ASC, AIC talk about his latest film, People Like Us, you can tell the project resonated deeply with him. The Dream Works SKG film, about a man who must deliver part of his deceased father’s fortune to a sister he has never met, stars Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer in writer-producer Alex Kurtzman’s feature directing debut. The story, written by Kurtzman, is quite a departure from his usual fantasy and science-fiction fare (Transformers, Star Trek, Alias and Fringe), and it really gripped Totino.
“I equate this film to a modern-day version of the psychology that was behind Italian neo-realism films,” says Totino. “This is a real story that has been fictionalized to some degree but is accessible to everybody. With that storyline, a lot of people will turn around and say I know somebody like that or that has happened to me or will know what it is like to be an illegitimate child. It’s so real, and that is what drew me to the film.”
What did you feel you could bring to the film as far as a visual approach?
Totino: My whole idea with the film was to help create a real environment so that the viewer can relate to the story. For example, we would be inside a house in the middle of the day, and it would be lit from outside so it feels tangible.
Did shooting on film help in your approach as opposed to using a digital format?
Absolutely. If I had my choice, I’d always shoot film as much as possible.
Which film stocks did you use?
We shot KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 and a little bit of KODAK VISION2 100T Color Negative Film 5212, which I used on a few daytime exteriors. Most of the time I chose 5207, including for the majority of daytime interiors.
For nighttime shots, did you do any pushing of the film stock?
I didn’t need to do it. I worked in the toe of the film when I could, and there is a lot of latitude there to work with. I didn’t want to change the grain structure at all by pushing the film because I was trying to be clean and not artificial. I was very conscious of making it feel very naturally lit.
Considering the cast, was there any special lighting for them?
No, and that was a fine line to walk because it was all about keeping it genuine. I wasn’t trying to be extra conscious of beauty. I wanted them to look good, but I wanted it to look real and not over the top. The film is very emotional, and you forget you are watching a movie. I give credit to Alex (Kurtzman) for that. Although this is his first feature as a director, I felt like I was working with a seasoned filmmaker. I was very impressed with how prepared he was.
It sounds like there was restraint in having the cinematography and look call attention to itself.
I try to do that with most of my films, unless it is something like a science-fiction thriller where the look is part of the story. Alex wanted the film to look good, and gave me a lot of room as to where I wanted to go with it. In this film, the look is there to help tell the story but not distract from it.
You shot this in 3-perf Super 35mm. Which cameras and lenses did you employ?
I shot the film on ARRI ST and LT cameras and COOKE S4 lenses. I love those lenses. They are slightly on the warm side and are very clean. I own a set — that’s how much I love them! I usually shoot two cameras and operate one — the B camera. I had an incredible operator in Colin Anderson who brought a lot to the table. I gave Colin a lot of room to bring his storytelling abilities to the film.
How did camera movement factor into the visual approach?
We were always mindful of moving the camera. The cameras were on dollies, sliders, and STEADICAMS. Every scene had a little bit of camera movement to it to help draw you in and help you focus on what was happening with the actors. Camera movement makes the audience feel like they are there as opposed to being just an observer, and that is what really helps them relate to this film, as well.
Which scene sticks in your memory the most?
There are a couple emotional scenes with Michelle (Pfeiffer) and Chris (Pine), and I found myself crying behind the camera. When you’re behind the camera and you start crying … you go back to that moment when you were younger and deciding you want to make films — that you believe in them. The actor and actress have taken you somewhere. It’s one of those extremely rare moments of ‘This is what I always wanted to do.’ You’re an artist, you’re a technician, you’re a manager, and you can become so preoccupied with what’s at hand to accomplish that day that when you get those moments, it’s so special.
When lighting interiors through windows, what are you using to get enough light for your exposure choice?
Different locations called for different lighting elements. We shot a scene in Cole’s, which is a restaurant and bar in downtown Los Angeles with very dark windows and a dark interior. I lit that with 240,000 watts of light through the windows. We used two 100,000-watt SOFTSUNS, plus a bunch of 18Ks. When you see the scene, you don’t even feel like it’s lit. In Michelle’s house interiors, I used some 18K ARRIMAX HMIs outside.
Do you complement this lighting with anything inside the interior locations?
Very little is used inside. I try to use a little bit of bounce. But that’s what is so great about the film stocks — you have this latitude and contrast there that allowed me to work in this environment. I would have had to approach it differently if I did it digitally.
Did you encounter a shot or scene that turned out to be more complicated than anticipated?
There is a night scene with Chris and his mom on a bench in Laurel Canyon overlooking the city, and we had talked about approaching it a certain way. When we got there with the actors and blocked the scene, it wasn’t working the way we had planned. We only had one night to do it. It’s a low-budget film so we couldn’t come back, and we were fighting against the rising sun. We simplified it and changed everything — the coverage, the angles, the camera movement — and it turned out great. We shot listed the script beforehand, but sometimes you have to change it up when the players get there. We had that flexibility to do that, and it was great to work that way. That’s the way I work with Ron Howard, as well.
Another good thing about this film is that we worked really hard to make sure we had a lot of coverage, which gave Alex more choices editorially. That is unusual in a lower budget film because you don’t have the time. We shot for 42 days with two days of additional shooting. We had a great crew and the actors were dialed in. The coverage enhanced the film.
Who handled your dailies and digital intermediate?
Deluxe Laboratories developed the film, and we did dailies at EFILM. Ben Estrada did my dailies as well as the DI color timing. I viewed dailies in digital form on DVD, but I got to look at some prints when I needed to. The film colorist was Yvan Lucas. Did you use the DI to create a look or was that done primarily in camera beforehand?
We captured most of the look in camera. The DI was more like conventional color timing except for a few spots where we did some Power Windows, and that was only necessary because while we were filming, it would have taken extra time to flag off and bring down the lighting on a particular wall. Instead, we used that time to get more coverage through an extra setup or two.
Looking back, what do you take away from this movie’s undertaking?
It was an incredible experience, and working with those professionals in a low-budget world helped make a difference. Producer Clayton Townsend — with whom I did my first feature Any Given Sunday — worked really hard to give us what we needed to tell the story. Ida Random, the production designer, worked with one hand tied behind her back because she didn’t have the funds but gave us sets that were fantastic. She did a great job and helped me tell the story. The other asset was the collaborative relationship with the director. Alex felt comfortable and trusted me, and that collaboration always makes a difference.