This was my second film with Director Simon West and he is fantastic to work with. Like many of the British Directors I’ve shot for (and a few high-end Americans) he talks only just enough about what he wants to put the thought out there… Then expects you to understand his direction and pursue that and expand upon it appropriately. Quite the presumption by the man who speaks proper English communicating to a California native who speaks the Southern California dialect of American. And Simon is quite the wordsmith and chooses his words carefully. I enjoy his ideas as he’s fantastic at planting seeds and then actually making me think I thought of this brilliant thing. Until I think back later and see that Simon was pulling the strings the entire time. It’s a very fun way to work as the director and cinematographer stay engaged through the entire production. This film starred Jason Statham in a William Goldman written script originally entitled HEAT. There was a Burt Reynolds version of this picture made around 1980 that had been re-written to death. Jason had bought the original script that Goldman had written and intended to make that film with no changes. They only changed some small things to bring it up to date and added a brawl or two, but I’d say 80% of this film is the untouched Goldman script. It was great to see Jason carry a film with his acting abilities as I have always loved his performance as an actor… even when he is engaged in one of his famous action movies. Here he plays a gambling addict living in Naked City (the blue collar working neighborhood in Vegas where all the showgirls, hookers and hotel workers lived). The main character’s goal is to win his way out of Vegas so he can leave that life behind. What can go wrong with that plan?
Director Simon West is very much a film guy. The first movie I shot with him was on film and we were gearing up this production to be shot on film as well. Until we hit a snag. The lab gave me a ring about 3 weeks prior to shooting and said they would likely be shutting down somewhere around the halfway point of our schedule. I thought this was a practical joke, but sadly they were serious. Our Producers were uncomfortable with shipping film and had not the budget for that anyway, so we made the decision to change over to digital. This did not sit well with Simon who had not done a digital picture. He told me, “Use whatever camera you want… Develop your techniques… But I better not be able to tell it’s digital…. It needs to look like film. Starting with anamorphic lenses.” Ok, that said I went and started studying the Alexa 4:3 which was fairly new at the time. It looked promising until I received a summons into Simon’s office one day. He showed me a clip from a film he was researching, for art direction purposes, that was shot in digital format. “Shelly, this scene is lit extremely well, composed well, the location and art direction are spot-on. Why don’t I like it?” My take was that it was too clean. It didn’t have the kind of texture and depth within the image that film layers help to create. So, I worked for weeks with dailies colorist Bradley Greer at Kyoto Color in New Orleans, and developed grain layers, curves and diffusion techniques… Both in the camera and in the color bay, that would work together to form one whole image and recipe for this film. Simon never complained when he saw the dailies as I was baking-in all this technique into the Avid media to he could feel good about his film as he cut it.
This film had a plethora of different styles… Including three fight scenes, each with a different style. One highly designed and choreographed to show the main character’s resourcefulness… One in a casino that shows his fantastic martial arts prowess in the Cory Yun style… And one very visceral and violent fight. In addition, there was the dramatic story and gambling montages that played up his addictions. Unusual angles in the casino set built in New Orleans were used to stay in his head during these moments. I felt strongly that the use of multiple cameras would convolute the dramatic story and pitched to Simon we shoot all but our action as a single camera unit. He wasn’t against the idea but didn’t know if Jason would actually prefer the use of two cameras for his scenes. He said that if I talked to Jason and he agreed, that Simon would be fine with it. A few days later (and pardon me if this gets a little crass), I’m standing in the men’s room at the urinal and in walks Jason who stands at the urinal near mine. “Shelly, Simon said you wanted to talk to me about something?” I thought to myself, Really? Am I going to pitch this single camera idea in the men’s room? So, I just started pitching while we both stood there. I got about halfway through my idea and Jason interrupted me, “Shelly, are you saying you want to shoot all my dialogue with one camera? A single camera?… Because if so, I love the idea of acting to only one camera. I don’t like performing for multiple lenses for dramatic scenes. Sold.” I can safely say that was the most productive men’s room meeting I’ve had in my career.
We shot the majority of this Las Vegas based story in New Orleans… Including our Golden Gate Casino interiors. We scouted the actual Golden Gate Casino on Fremont Street in Vegas and it was amazing, but quite limited in terms of availability for film production. Our Designer, Greg Berry, proposed building the Casino as a set but ran into a speed bump when he ran the costs on the hundreds if slot machine rentals he would need. Those rentals racked into the hundreds of thousands… Amazingly. Greg then came up with a brilliant solution. In the Harrah’s Casino in downtown New Orleans, they have a very large storage floor immediately above their large Casino. It so happens this floor is full of their hundreds of stored slot machines that were all locked and under government regulation. Greg proposed building a set where the machines were stored, arrange them as needed according to his set design, then build a locking fence around the set itself, thus continuing to keep the machines in their guarded and regulated placement according to state law. It was a brilliant solution since the machines were included with location fee and the savings of machine rentals paid for most of the actual set. Greg is a very good designer and was very helpful in collaborating with me on practical placements since much if the set was to be practically lit from those sources. The place looked so good that when we returned to Las Vegas to shoot our exteriors, we were reminded just how authentic Greg’s set was. I wish I could say the bar served real martinis… But then I suppose they would have had to lock me onto the set along with the slot machines… In compliance with state regulation.
I think Jason may have used my reaction to the fact our film lab was closing (thus dictating our choice to shoot digital on this project) as inspiration for this shot. Our digital path lead is to a happy place and I’m happy we were able to crack that and give Simon a film he can be proud of. This small apartment set was also but on our Harrah’s Casino storage-floor “stage”. Our crew on this film consisted of a lot of familiar faces from many films I’ve done in the south. Gaffer Bob Bates, first AC Michael Charbonnet, key grip Danny Brazen and rigging keys Wells Smith and Vic Keatly. I also had a regular Steadicam/A Camera operator from LA, Greg Smith. I like Greg because he has a real eye for a frame. He understands composition and frequently impresses me with his offers of alternating frames he may discover.