Fred Elmes, ASC, speaks about his work on the "Hunters" series’ pilot, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Al Pacino vs. the 4th Reich

La Lettre AFC n°314

[English] [français]

Available on Amazon Prime Video, "Hunters" is one of the flagship programs of year 2020 for Jeff Bezos’ platform. Produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out), and written by David Weil, this 10-episodes series is a kind of homage to B cinema. The premise : a Nazi hunt in New York City in the 70’s, led by Al Pacino. Somewhere between extreme violence and humor. Fred Elmes, ASC, has lensed this pilot, picked up from the Fist Look - TV Pilots section at Camerimage 2020. (FR)

In 1977 in New York, a gang of Nazi hunters discovered that hundreds of high dignitaries of the fallen regime are living incognito among them and are plotting to establish a Fourth Reich in the United States. The team of Hunters then embarks on a bloody quest to bring these criminals to justice and fight their plans for genocide.

What is the genesis of Hunters ?

Fred Elmes : I knew Alfonso Gomez Rejon (who directed American Horror Story and Glee) for several years. We had promised to work together, without success so far. When Amazon decided he would direct the "Hunters" pilot, I took that opportunity, especially since they really wanted this pilot to be the "mold" from which the rest of the episodes would be produced. Amazon also promised they would support that, offering Alfonso more time than the average to deliver a 90-minute episode. Few TV pilots are this long, and that was another motivation for me to join the show. However, Alfonso and I only did the pilot together, the rest of the series was shared between five other directors and two other DoPs (Tim Norman and William Rexer).

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon et Fred Elmes

What were the challenges for you ?

FE : The first difficulty was to shoot in winter though the script mentioned very clearly that a lot of scenes take place during the summer. Like the opening sequence, where people are in swimsuits by a swimming pool at a barbecue party... that’s why the shooting was finally scheduled in two parts to wait for warm sunny days. In all, we’ve had twenty-two days of shooting, which is quite comfortable when you consider that a standard TV pilot in the United States is usually shot in about twelve days for a one hour show.

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What about the long complex shots ?

FE : This is one of the decisions the director and the cinematographer make early on, with the blessing of the executives of ten series. This is not always easy on a television schedule. The result is a very long opening shot that starts with a very large high angle shot from a crane, then goes down at ground level, and follows the actions and the dialogue of several characters, to end dramatically in very big close-ups, without the viewer really feeling any cut until the final face-to-face.
The few cuts for matching the different camera shots are hidden in the whip pans. Starting extremely wide, then tightening up while craning and panning continuously was difficult. And, of course, we needed an appropriate weather, a beautiful sunny day, to saturate all these primary colors (the red jelly dessert, the victim’s blue pants, the yellow parasol...) We also carefully planned around the sun’s path to avoid the crane shadow... So, looking more closely, you’ll notice that the final face-to-face between the executioner and his victim is really in a setting sun... Which was in fact the case, the last shots were taken at the end of the day. There was some fancy choreography around the camera, the track and the base of the crane.

The series is very "pop". Some have even compared it to a Tarantino series...

FE : Alfonso and I wanted to have fun on this pilot, to offer a very vivid image, with a lot of saturated colors like a comic strip. New York in the 70’s was a very dirty, creepy place. The city had even come close to bankruptcy in 1975 ! So we wanted to give it a little more spice with a "bigger than life" style. In terms of reference, not necessarily Tarantino. We didn’t mention other films strictly speaking. Perhaps a few influences from photographer Saul Leiter’s work and his iconic use of color on the streets of New York.

You were the cinematographer for Blue Velvet, among others. Have you found any elements or situations from exploring a hidden America ?

FE : It is true that there are links with this project. For example, this young protagonist travels from the sunny surface of things into this extremely dark story. It reminded me of moments in David Lynch’s movies, sometimes.

Meyer Offerman’s mansion is a centrally important location. This large library marks this pilot visually...

FE : In preproduction, this house was chosen for its basement and exterior. It is a very large mansion located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, with a gate and even a ramp to park your car. A rare thing in New York City ! It was while scouting that we decided to take a look at the upper floors, and we came across this splendid library.

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Of course, adding the library made the cost prohibitive, but the location was so unique we needed to figure out a way to have it. It was a beautiful location, but the real challenge was that I was forbidden to attach anything to the walls, as in a museum, or a historical monument. And yet Alfonso did not want to give up his idea that Al Pacino was watching a film screening during the scene... another challenge, because everything had to be done live, with a real video projector placed outside of the frame, projecting, in sync with the performance. To do this, I had to have a whole series of small, very light, self-powered LED lights placed among the curtains that illuminate the interior of the set. HMIs were on cranes outside the windows. A nice part of the chess game they play is the light coming from the projection screen, reflecting on the chessboard and also a little on their faces. In close-ups, we just used another movie screen placed a little closer to get the right amount of reflected light... The trick was to balance the exterior sunlight with my LED lights, and the projector. You can imagine when Al Pacino arrives on the set and he sits down, you’re pretty eager to start shooting !

What equipment did you go with ?

FE : The series was shot in Arri Alexa LF, as I wanted to take advantage of the large sensor to be able to control the depth of field. I went for the Cooke S7 lenses that cover the full frame. But I diffused them with a very fine silk netting to break up their definition a bit and bring softness to the faces. A choice that seemed to me right for this pilot and especially given Alfonso’s wish not to cover the scenes in a classic way and to work as much as possible in sequence. The flexibility of the large sensor, the aperture of the lenses (T.2) and the minimum focus distance (4 to 8 inches depending on the focal lengths) were very useful.

Let’s talk about the scene in the toy store where the protagonist finds his aunt’s murderer...

FE : First, I have to talk about the street outside of this toy store. We’re in a sort of canyon. It is, I believe, the narrowest district in New York because the streets are so narrow and the buildings so high ; something like 30 floors high... It was very important for us to have this wide shot at the beginning of the sequence, with the red car and Jonah arriving.

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The interior of the store was built by the production designer, Curt Beech, and it’s a beautifully seedy warehouse, but full of toys... really on the edge of a believable kids’ shop ! It was a funny place, really, not quite as much as written in the script, but we immediately fell in love with it !
Among the existing details, were some wonderful old-fashioned glass partitions that we used to separate the office area from the store. Finding the right dolly moves, to reveal Logan, our young hero, sneaking into the shop to confront the owner, has proven difficult. But it’s rewarding when you find the right combination, and it sometimes just comes down to a small detail, like putting the glass partition in the right place.

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You do not hesitate to light with very saturated colours, too...

FE : Yes, I gave myself a lot of freedom on this pilot. The use of magenta, red and sometimes green and cyan colors, which we had tested before filming, really pleased Alfonso. In the interrogation sequence that follows for example, the toy shop owner is lit in magenta-red color, while Jonah remains in cold light... There is indeed no justification for this colour contrast, but it just seemed the right ambiance for this scene. In this sequence, I also really enjoyed using the close focus possibilities and the very shallow depth of field. For example, at the end of the interrogation, there is a very tight shot of the toy store owner (Kenneth Tigar) approaching the camera... just a few inches from the lens. He was great in this role ! His eyes are in focus, but his nose and ears are blurry... I think it makes him even more terrifying.

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What about shooting for Amazon ?

FE : Amazon was truly supportive on this production. They really let us make the movie we wanted, particularly as concerns the long continuous shots. I think they wanted Alfonso to do it the way he wanted to. A good example is the flashback in the Warsaw ghetto. It’s a night sequence shot on cablecam with hundreds of extras, trucks passing by and action for the actors. It was thoroughly choreographed and rehearsed to play as one long continuous take. It’s a complete coincidence to me that we shot in Paterson, New Jersey [which was used as the set for the Jim Jarmusch film, Paterson , photographed by Fred Elmes in 2016 - Editor’s note].

Another memory that has stayed with you ?

FE : A very simple scene caught me by surprise. This was the first dialogue between Meyer (Al Pacino) and Jonah (Logan Lerman), just after his aunt’s funeral. It takes place on the house’s front porch. It was the first scene we shot with Al Pacino, and no one on the crew had ever worked with him before. Of course, prior rehearsals had been done with the director, but shooting on our first outdoor scene with him, knowing that he was only available for three hours... The weather could change, or there might be too much noise on the street, a lot of things could go wrong... In short, we were all a bit nervous. However I must admit that he was great in this scene. Playing the part right from the first minutes, gracefully and naturally, giving the whole team confidence. If you look carefully at the scene, there is a moment when he leans very close to Logan to comfort him. These two very tight shots were magical moments for me. He knew exactly how far to lean towards the camera, in total control of the situation. I was filming him but it was actually Al who was in control of everything in the image.
Looking back at the scene, I think it’s a great introduction to his character.

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(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC.)

Hunters
Director : Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (TV Pilot)
Director of Photography : Fred Elmes, ASC (TV Pilot)
Production Designer : Curt Beech (pilot and show)
Costumes : John Dunn (pilot and show)
Sound : Matt Perry Thomas (mixer) (pilot and show).