Hi FiLMiC fans, Neill Barham here with an interview with DP Steve Holleran from the feature film The Land, which premiered at Sundance to a sold out crowd this past Tuesday January 23rd in Park City. Steve shot The Land with director Steve Caple Jr. and actors Eryka Badu, Michael K. Williams and Machine Gun Kelly and executive producer Nas. Mobile filmmaking enthusiasts will be interested to know The Land features a stunning combination of Arri Alexa footage along with FiLMiC Pro footage from the iPhone 6+.
Here’s our chat from a few days before the premiere:
Welcome Steve and Congratulations! First off, tell us a bit about your relationship with the director Steve Caple? You were both USC grads, right?
It’s pretty rare to shoot a movie with one of your closest friends. Especially your first feature. So when Steven got the call to make The Land, I was there in a heartbeat. We got started shooting together in the same semester of USC’s MFA production program. I think our first shoot was a directing assignment in which I had to recreate a scene from Dog Day Afternoon. It was just the two of us and an actor on a rooftop in east LA for the whole day. My respect for him as a person and filmmaker has been at the bedrock of our working relationship since then. When it was his turn to direct his class exercise I didn’t miss it and we never looked back. A couple years and many collaborative projects later, we were on a plane to Cleveland shoot our first feature.
Without giving away any spoilers can you give us a brief synopsis of The Land? This is something of a personal story is it not?
The Land is the coming of age story of four teenage boys from Cleveland, Ohio over the course of one summer. They skate to escape the streets of Cleveland and eventually pursue a dream life of professional skateboarding but make some decisions in the process that threaten their dreams and friendship. The film was born in part out of Steven’s personal experiences growing up in Cleveland and also meeting four teenage skaters in Los Angeles while researching stories for a script. I had the fortune of watching Steven develop the script over a number of years and then accompanying him to Cleveland for weeks of location scouting. Meeting his family and friends, hearing his stories, and seeing where he grew up gave me invaluable insight into both the script and Steven’s inspirations for the film. On top of that, I grew up surfing and skateboarding and I immediately connected with the idea that boardriding provided a sense of escapism and freedom for the characters in the script. I ended up shooting many of the skate sequences in the movie from my own skateboard which was a dream come true. Looking back on it, I can see that The Land was a natural progression for us as filmmakers and individuals.
You shot primarily (or exclusively?) on location, in and around Cleveland, where Steve Caple grew up? What was that like? Any strange tales from production?
We shot the entire film on location in Cleveland which has some of the most spectacular texture and gothic architecture I have seen in the United States. Sitting right up against Lake Erie, the city is littered with abandoned structures from steelyards to brick warehouses that were overgrown with vegetation making them both dead and alive at the same time. Steven and I spent nearly a month last year driving all through town scouting for raw locations that spoke to the narrative of the script. I remember in particular two visually stunning locations, one was the old Westinghouse Electric building which was made up of 5 levels of exposed brick walls and concrete floors including a steel catwalk with an exposed glass ceiling 40 ft overhead. The other was an abandoned mall that absolutely blew our minds. Standing in what was once a great mall of America only to see it glass walls and ceilings shattered and pillaged was an apocalyptic experience. In the end we ended up shooting in over twenty locations from an abandoned metro line running underneath the Superior Bridge to the infamous Skatetopia, an 80+ acre homemade skate park in the woods of southern Ohio. Production was a challenge of overnight shoots, lightning strikes, rainstorms, interior temperatures nearing 100 degrees, and a plethora of physical challenges shooting and lighting in inaccessible and tight locations.
What motivated you to combine Alexa footage to FiLMiC Pro? Was that your idea? The directors? Was it a hard sell to the team?
Steven and I talked early on about found footage as an element for the film as we were inspired by young skaters who shoot and edit their own skate reels using their phones and other small cameras. It made sense that the characters in the film would do the same thing. I had experimented with Filmic Pro in the past and suggested to Steven that we use my iPhone 6+, Filmic Pro, and MoonDog Lab’s anamorphic adapter. I knew that with Filmic, I could get a 50mb/sec data rate out of the iPhone which would give us a shot at having enough detail and dynamic range to try and match the Alexa in the DI. Our plan was to create a “found footage” aesthetic that would simulate the depth of the field and scope of the Arri/Zeiss Master Anamorphics while maintaining the naturalistic and handheld quality of footage shot from a phone that you couldn’t get with any other camera, even a GoPro or DSLR. It was a visual choice based on a narrative purpose that proved to be an essential and powerful part of the story.
Were there any changes in working with the actors when shooting with iPhones?
The question to incorporate “found footage” into the film was a conversation that Steven and I had very early on in the pre-production process. We were inspired by the explosion of personal skate reels shot on consumer cameras and phones and thought shooting in the same way would add both realism and a unique perspective to the skate sequences in the film. It was also a means of accessing the characters’ friendship on screen that we couldn’t have captured in the same fashion otherwise. There is a real intimacy that our culture has developed with phones and I find that it can subsequently create opportunities for surprising natural moments that you can miss with a larger camera. Steven and I were both very excited about this particular aspect of shooting with an iPhone, so when it came to working with the actors, we let them have full rein in terms of what and how to shoot. The purpose of that experiment was to allow them to use the phone both as a prop but also give the image the “found” quality that had inspired us to use the iPhone in the first place.
Did you find it easier to shoot on location with the smaller rigs without drawing attention to yourselves or did you have too big of a crew that it didn’t make a difference?
In the case of our production, we generally had a large footprint so there weren’t a lot of opportunities to shoot in a minimalistic way that wouldn’t draw attention to us. Having said that, there was one scene in particular in which I noticed the iPhone allowed us access to moments that we wouldn’t have been unable to capture otherwise. The scene was at the Puerto Rican festival, an annual event celebrating Puerto Rican culture in Cleveland. It was jam packed the night we shot it and the boys were able to use the iPhone as they walked through the crowd and talked to strangers, much like a teenager would when recording an event. When I reviewed the footage, there were some particularly valuable moments that communicated the bond between the boys, their recklessness, and the high energy of that summer night. It was exactly the type of material Steven and I were looking for. I do think that the iPhone, because of its small size, can give filmmakers in certain situations unbelievable access to people, moments, and locations that otherwise would be off limits. In my experience shooting documentaries and traveling, putting subjects at ease is quite often the most difficult part of a shoot. With the iPhone, due to its size and our global familiarity with it, people immediately are comfortable with its presence. I see a bright future for these types of travel and documentary videos being shot on phones and can also truly appreciate its applicability in certain narrative situations like ours.
You mentioned the higher data rate in FiLMiC Pro giving you guys a shot of matching the Alexa footage in the digital intermediate. How did that work out? Were you pleased with the results? Can you tell us a bit about how you approached grading The Land?
Going into the shoot, we knew we wouldn’t be going for an exact match between the two cameras because they serve different narrative purposes. The Alexa in Arriraw and the iPhone at 50mb/sec are unique animals for disparate storytelling purposes. Fortunately, I knew we were going to deliver at 2K and trusted Filmic Pro’s ability to harness the maximum data rate out of the phone’s sensor which would give us the best shot of having enough dynamic range in the DI. What I did want to replicate was the scope of the anamorphic format. My biggest concern in pre-production was what camera could be held in an actor’s hand and also give us something akin to that anamorphic look. After testing out various other cameras, Steven and I turned to the iPhone. When we saw the final images in projection with the Alexa we were very pleased both with the naturalistic quality of the handheld footage but also Filmic Pro’s ability to record in low-light situations and in mixed color temperatures.
Now the film premieres at Sundance on January 26th at 8:30 pm. Is this your first time at Sundance? Do you and the crew having anything special planned?
2016 is a year of firsts for both Steven Caple Jr. and myself as it will be the premiere of our first feature and my first time at Sundance. I’m looking forward to seeing many of our crew, family, and friends who are either making the journey or live in the area. Other than that I’m hoping to catch some of the great films at Sundance and meeting likeminded filmmakers in the industry. Most importantly, I hope Sundance will be a time for reflection on Steven and my journey from film students to filmmakers and celebration with the talented people who supported us and gave their time along the way.
What do you have planned for a follow up? Will you be shooting with Steve again? Or do you have some other projects lined up first? What’s the best way for a producer or director to get in touch with you.
I can’t wait for the next project Steven develops as I think it will be a compelling narrative with the opportunity for us to visually supplement the story in unique ways. In the meantime I’m open to shooting other narrative projects and commercials that intrigue me. To get in touch, the best way is usually through my websitewww.steveholleran.com or instagram @stevenholleran.
Thanks for a wonderful chat, Steve! I wish you and Steven a ton of success with The Land and all your future ventures.