Shot across Europe by Sydney-based Cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin ACS ASC, the world’s top bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds) gets a new client, a hit man (Samuel L. Jackson) who, against great odds, must testify at the International Court of Justice in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.
Interview by Dan Freene ACS.
AC – The Hitman’s Bodyguard is set and filmed in Europe, but it’s an American film?
JO – Millennium Films produce a lot of big action films like The Expendables (2010) and Olympus Has Fallen (2013). They own Nu Boyana Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria. It’s a Soviet-era built studio, with Roman, London and New York backlot streets. It’s amazing! When you wander around the old sound stages you discover relics from Soviet days. One of these discoveries was an old arc lights with an enormous parabolic lens that we used to create a water lighting effect for scenes set in the Rijks Museum Clock Tower.
AC – Was the rest of that scene shot in those studios in Sofia?
JO – The exterior of course was the famous Rijks Museum in Amsterdam; amazing we were allowed to shoot there. We also filmed in the interior of the clock tower. The interior below the tower, in a scene in which Reynolds and Jackson have a verbal showdown, was shot on a gantry of one of the old studios in Sofia.
AC – Can you describe how you achieved the water effect?
JO – These studios were built in the 1960s. Walking around the gantries and there was a kind of fine powder always falling from the ceiling. I’m thinking to myself, I hope that’s not asbestos! It had its own beautiful atmosphere.
The entire clock tower scene has a stillness to it. I created the ‘water effect’ to bring subtle movement into the frame. It’s something that Akira Kurosawa often did in static scenes and something I love.
Using rain, wind or some other element he brought a sense of movement to the frame. Fifty feet below the gantry, on the studio floor, I used two water trays with broken mirrors. We found an ancient Russian arc light that used a glass facet reflector mirror and I had the Bulgarian electrics crew remove it from the broken light. I put it on the studio floor and filled it with water and that created a terrific additional effect. I wanted to bring that home with me. They wouldn’t let me, it weighed forty-kilos!
AC – Did you have a European crew?
JO – Yes. Lorenzo Senatore (an Italian living in Bulgaria), was my Director of Photography on Second Unit. Damien Walsh, who I worked with on Black Sails (2014-2015), was the A-Camera Focus Puller. Walsh is South African but has a European passport so I hired him directly from South Africa. Then my 2nd AC and the rest of the camera crew were Bulgarian, all highly experienced.
My grips in London were Irish, so they stayed with me for the London leg of the shoot. Originally I wanted Ian Bird, an Australian grip who has done a lot of big films here in Australia, and moved to Romania some years ago. We couldn’t get him for the entire film, but I could get him for the Bulgarian and Netherlands legs. He was amazing. Our Gaffer was Shawn White. He headed the English team while filming in the UK and then he came with us to Bulgaria and worked with my Bulgarian Gaffer.
My Bulgarian Gaffer, Hristo Idakiev, had worked with Russell Boyd ACS ASC on The Way Back (2010). Idakiev had a Bulgarian electrics crew who were amazing. In fact, the Bulgarians were the fastest crew I have worked with. They reminded me a lot of the South Africans I worked with on Black Sails. They have a lot of big-budget film experience. Bulgaria and South Africa are really fantastic places to shoot films.
AC – There is heaps of action in this film. Did you have an action unit? How did they operate, and were they shooting concurrently with you?
JO – Our Second Unit team that came from Bulgaria. Senatore lives in Bulgaria and has done a lot with Millennium Films. He has done a lot of second unit shooting and is a highly-experienced cinematographer in his own right.
The Second Unit Director was Bulgarian-national, Dian Hristov. The Second Unit started a couple of weeks after we started, then they worked concurrently with us. However they did end up shooting a few sequences before we got to them. For instance, the Amsterdam sequence was partly shot in Bulgaria. The beginning of the big chase sequence which includes a frenetic car chase through an Amsterdam park and an urban open air sewer were all filmed in Sofia. Second Unit shot those sequences and then we plugged in the shots of Samuel L. Jackson which we shot on stage against green screen in Sofia. Lorenzo followed my brief, which I pushed consistently throughout the shoot; ‘wide and close’ or ‘backed-off and long’, keeping mid-sized lenses to a minimum.
AC – Was it beneficial to start them before you, so you can see exactly what they were able to do from an action perspective?
JO – The real benefit is that everyone is on the same page. They are shooting the great action sequences that Director, Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3), and I want. Then we know as Main Unit all we need to do is get shot six, nine, fifteen, and twenty one out of a sixty shot sequence. If we did it the other way round, often we may end up as a Main Unit shooting more material than we need. We are all control freaks; I’m a control freak, the Director is a control freak, and at the end of the day we all want to make sure we are getting what we want.
AC – The Amsterdam sequence is an amazing piece of action choreography. I noticed that Samuel L. Jackson is in a speedboat for most of it and it looks absolutely real. No stand-in being used here?
JO – It was real. Jackson is in the boat for most of the shots. We did some work in the boat with his stunt double, however for a lot of this sequence it’s Jackson doing the work.
AC – Was there drone work in the film too? It looks as though there are techno crane shots and what looks like a gimbal on a motorbike…
JO – We had an Alexa Mini mounted to the motorbike. We mounted an Oculus Head on the back of a converted dune buggy that Senatore owns. This vehicle was the perfect tool for filming on the narrow streets of Amsterdam and getting around the canals. The Oculus Head is a four-axis machine and so rock steady that I had to ask Senatore to put some movement back into what they were shooting, so we could see some vibration and get a greater sense of reality to the action within the frame. We couldn’t use drones in Amsterdam because of restrictions so we deployed a cable cam along a few of the canals that worked brilliantly. It was a single-cable rig designed in Bulgaria and was able to run up to one and a half thousand feet and reach a speed of almost forty miles per hour km/h with an Angenieux 28-76mm zoom mounted on a Red Epic.
AC – Did you have any films that you used as reference for the action sequences?
JO – We wanted to give The Hitman’s Bodyguard a 1970s action feel. A big reference was the The French Connection (1971), cinematography by Owen Roizman ASC. We were super interested in the classic un-choreographed car sequence under the elevated subway line. It’s amazing they shot that for real and didn’t even have traffic control! Another big reference was the car chase in Bullitt (1968) shot by William Fraker ASC.
An important aspect for me, and it’s something I talked about a lot with Hughes, was that our film had to feel gritty, really dirty. It can’t feel too controlled because then it becomes unreal. I wanted the audience to feel as though the Operator was in real danger getting the shot. I would tell Senatore to put the cameras in the firing line. Keep it safe but crash some cameras for me.
“ I want to see that moment on screen when the camera takes a hit. ”
To me, audiences are so savvy now with us breaking the fourth wall. Just look at The Revenant (2015) shot by Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC. His camera is right next to Leonardo DiCaprio and he’s breathing on the camera lens, fogging it up. I want the camera right in the action, I want to see that moment on screen when the camera takes a hit. The audience should feel as though it’s dangerous.
AC – Did you have a particular lens that you kept finding yourself using for mid-shots and close-ups?
JO – Yes. I liked the 40mm. We shot with Hawk Vintage 74s, and the 40mm is the equivalent of a 27mm spherical lens. It does depend on the actor I’m shooting, however. Salma Hayak works really well on that wider lens. But on Elodie Yung, who has more angular features, a 110mm lens worked better.
AC – Did you use the Hawk Anamorphic 74s on all of your cameras, across both units?
JO – Second Unit, at times, shot with up to fourteen or fifteen cameras! We didn’t have enough glass to keep them all on Hawk anamorphics so I made the decision to go with spherical Zeiss Ultra Primes for Second Unit. In the grade we had to match them all with plugins and flares to make their shots match ours on main unit.
AC – There are lots of car interiors in this film. I want to get a little bit of insight into how you handled them. Were they produced in a studio, and how did you approach different times of day?
JO – There was much discussion about how to shoot the car interiors. There is a lot of improvisation on the actors’ behalf and we wanted to give them as much freedom as possible. We decided to shoot our car interiors on the stage.
On the film London Has Fallen (2016), Nu Boyana came up came up with a device they call the ‘porcupine rig’. It’s a Mini Cooper convertible with a 360-degree Red camera array in the back. I think there were ten Red cameras that collectively shoot a 360-degree plate. So this gave us the freedom to shoot with any lens on the stage without having to match to the plate.
Several weeks after the stage work the Visual Effects Team headed out with the porcupine rig and shot the plates. The interior car scenes where Reynolds and Jackson travel at night from the Coventry Safe House to the Forested Road were all shot on stage in Sofia. Weeks later the porcupine rig went out into Bulgarian farmland at dusk, and in the early evening, to shoot the plates. It worked beautifully.
AC – There is a sequence in the film where Reynolds and Jackson separate, where Reynolds goes into the bakery and then a hardware store. There is a remarkable one-shot scene which has super hectic up-close fighting action, but also has some great slap stick comedic beats. How did you achieve that?
JO – We wanted this scene it to be different from the other action scenes that preceded it, to feel more visceral, and for it to feel like the camera is a participant in the action. We are right in there with the camera trying to stay out of the actors’ way. I worked very closely with our Fight Choreographer, James Grogan, and with our A Camera Operator, Stuart Howell, in the planning of this sequence. The whole idea of course was to make it feel like a ‘oner’ with hidden cuts and transitions.
There are another couple of match cuts in the film; it’s something Hughes likes to do. There is one where our guys break into a safe house in Amsterdam. Reynolds is at the front door next to the alarm control and Jackson is standing next to him. We push past Jackson on the crane as Reynolds is trying to jimmy open the door. All of a sudden Jackson opens the door to a gobsmacked Reynolds. That was a real location so we had to freeze the camera, freeze Reynolds and wait for Jackson to get inside before continuing the shot.
AC – Is Ryan Reynolds doing his own stunt work in the bakery scene?
JO – For a lot of the action yes, but we also used his stunt doubles Aidan Brindle and Danko Jordanov. They way we achieved it was to just have match cuts of overlapping action and camera wipes, then in the edit they were stitched together.
AC – What did you use in the brothel breakout sequence? Did you use blacklight?
JO – Yes, I did use blacklight. I also used sky panels tuned to a deep blue colour as well as tungsten tubes gelled with flame red and hard sources with Bastard Amber. It had to feel audacious as we were tapping into the whole Amsterdam sex trade scene. Reynolds gets taken to a dungeon where, ordinarily, hardcore bondage takes place. But they’ve taken him there to torture him.
AC – On lighting, when Reynolds and Jackson first meet in that safe house there is a really nice colour palette which is utilising green shadows and a sodium vapour coloured highlights. Was this something you found when scouting or something you deliberately added?
JO – I take a lot of photographs on my iPhone. I love Hipstamatic. I like this particular lens called the ‘John S’ lens with its greens and twisted blues. I just love that kind of look. I wanted to imbue the first act ofThe Hitman’s Bodyguard with this look, certainly at the beginning. There is a colour arc to the film; at the beginning it is blues and greens with a little splash of amber, and then as we get closer to Amsterdam the palette starts to warm as the characters start to warm to each other.
I worked closely with the Production Designer, Russell De Rozario, to get these colours placed in the wall and set textures. I’d show him photos and he might say that it was anodyne and so forth. Together we would create the look.
AC – What gel pack did you use to create the look?
JO – For the sodium vapour in the Safe House I used an industrial vapour which is a gel I first used on Wish You Were Here (2012). Which is kind of like a dirty amber.
The green in the production design, in the bathroom for instance, was called ‘arsenic green’. There is a fantastic quote which De Rozario attributed to Oscar Wilde; allegedly Wilde walks into a hotel room and says, “Either me or that wall colour has to go.” That colour was arsenic green. So we built this colour into our production design.
I also wanted to control reds. They could be used, but very sparingly. Just an accent, like a sprinkle. At the time I was watching a lot of David Fincher movies, in particular his remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2012) shot by Jeff Cronenweth ASC. He controls his reds brilliantly. He controls the entire palette. He may have just an accent of colour. It may be simply a can of coke that’s red, it might be some salt and pepper shakers which are blue. We tried to control our pallette as much as possible on The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I really don’t like a patchwork quilt of colours.
AC – In terms of managing colour on set each day, did you have a LUT that you used across the film?
JO – I kept on-set image manipulation to a minimum with only standard LUTs being used. Most of the work was done in-camera. I did have a night-LUT that gave me an extra half a stop in the shadows. The day-LUT was just a little bit of desaturation.
AC – Tell us about the grade. Where was it? How long did it take?
JO – The grade was at Molinare Soho in London with a Digital Colourist named Asa Shoul, who recently shared a BAFTA Award for his work on The Crown (2016). Shoul was also the Digital Colourist on Ex Machina (2014), he’s really a fantastically talented colourist. We used Baselight.
We watched the film together; we talked about it. He knew what I was trying to achieve. I had a terrific week with Shoul, we laughed a lot. We did a first week together before the visual effects was completed, we graded six reels in five days, then did one final pass over the whole film on the last day. Once the visual effect plates were in, Shoul spent another week grading but I was overseas on another job so he sent me through temps to check before the final grade was locked off.
Our Director was in London at the time of the grade overseeing post-production and would drop in occasionally to look at our work. The most important thing here is that you have an experienced Colourist whom you trust and who is executing your ideas. One of the big problems in the film business is getting producers to pay us for our time to be in the grade. Grading the film is part of our job description. We are making decisions in pre-productions and on set that must be taken through to the grade. Not to have a Cinematographer involved in the grading process, I believe, creatively robs the film. It’s falling at the final hurdle.
AC – Samuel L. Jackson, Ryan Reynolds, Salma Hayek, and Gary Oldman… those are some serious actors. How did you go on set? I mean, I’m guessing they always had stand-ins?
JO – They all work in a different way. Reynolds is very accommodating. If it is working for his character I could get him to be pretty precise in his movements; to hit a lighting mark or suggest that if he throws a look in a certain direction the light would pick up his eye. He is really great like that, he is that kind of actor.
Jackson works in a different way. He likes the freedom to move around so I had to be more fluid with how I worked with him. Having said this he always knows where the camera is and makes great choices. Lighting wise it was exciting to me to have two guys who were in almost every single scene; one who we I can be more prescriptive with and another who I’ve got to give freedom to. That’s interesting.
Gary Oldman was awesome. Super generous with an amazing energy. You can, kind of, do anything with him. But you just have to be mindful of his character. He’s the dark side of the movie, the real deep set drama of the film. He’ll do anything for you but you’ve got to be respectful of his process.
And with Salma Hayek, it was important that I really looked after her. She’s a live-wire and so much fun to work with.
AC – I noticed the highlights in the film, in some shots are really blooming, is that the Hawk lenses?
JO – Yes, the Hawks tend to bloom and flare. Especially with hot back light. On The Duel (2016) we used the Hawk V lights and with really hot backlight I could get a narcissistic flare; a double image. So you can’t shoot these lenses wide open, you have to stop down.
I shot most of the film around T4. I try to be consistent with this and my Focus Pullers know it. Unless there is a reason to stop down further to see more in the frame or perhaps with some of the action. I tend to ride the ASA in the camera a bit as well, rather than throwing in a lot of neutral density. I’m okay with losing a bit of top end dynamic range.
On the Alexa I would work between 320 to 800 ASA, and very occasionally I would go to 160. I’m cool with running it like that as the shift in dynamic range, with the smooth roll off on the Alexa in the top and bottom ends. I prefer to have very little glass in front of the lens, particularly with the Hawks.
AC – What’s next for you?
JO – I’m shooting a six-part documentary series for Foxtel about the three major voyages James Cook did around the Pacific. It’s spread over five different blocks between June and October. As for drama there are a few things in the pipeline. It’s an exciting time to be making movies.
Dan Freene ACS is an award-winning cinematographer living in Australia. He has shot short films, feature films, documentaries and music videos.