Shooting Australian film ‘Brothers’ Nest’ with cinematographer Peter Falk ACS

A gripping dark comedy surrounds the unravelling of two brothers’ plans to commit a murder. From director Clayton Jacobson and cinematographer Peter Falk ACS, the brooding Brothers’ Nest was featured at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.

By Peter Falk ACS.

In 2006, the film Kenny burst joyously onto our screens. Directed by Clayton Jacobson and starring his brother, Shane, the film was a massive box office hit and made Shane Jacobson a star. Now, twelve years later, Clayton and Shane return with their new film Brothers’ Nest. 

Clayton directs again and also co-stars with Shane. The story is about two brothers, Jeff and Terry, who spend a day at the rural house they grew up in, preparing to murder their stepfather, Roger. They stage it to appear like a suicide and throughout the day they practise several options. Roger has become the benefactor instead of them in their dying mother’s will, so he needs to be gotten rid of and the brothers expect him to arrive at the house at the end of the day. What they don’t expect is that their own relationship will be tested as old grievances assert themselves. All goes well for a while and then… stuff happens, and it ain’t pretty! 

Whilst there are some laughs, the tone is dark, more Coen Brothers’ territory than the optimistic world of Kenny Smyth. The Hollywood Reporter described Brothers’ Nest as “a satisfyingly black sorta-comedy”, while it has also been described as “a tragic comedy about family, loyalty and murder.

7. Clayton Jacobson in a scene from 'Brothers' Nest' - DOP Peter Falk ACS
Clayton Jacobson in a scene from ‘Brothers’ Nest’ – DOP Peter Falk ACS

Pre-production for Brothers’ Nest began early in 2017. As the story takes place over a single day, primarily in one house, the nature of the light’s contrast and colour, reflecting the timeframe of the script, was a major consideration and so a time-of-day chart was prepared by Clayton and myself. It featured frame grabs from other movies that had the light and colour we were wanting. This was distributed amongst heads of departments so that everyone knew the look we were going for with each scene.

When discussing a style for the film, it was probably not surprising that our filmic references included a couple of Coen Brothers’ projects; season two of the television version of Fargo (cinematography by Dana Gonzales ASC) and No Country For Old Men (cinematography by Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC).

“ All goes well for a while and then… stuff happens, and it ain’t pretty! ”

What interested us with season two of Fargo was that the production stayed completely committed to its chosen colour palette; the popular teal and orange look. Teal and orange could be seen in the lighting, the costumes, the sets and the props and gave that show a strongly ‘designed feel’. Brothers’ Nest adheres to an autumnal colour palette, particularly shades of orange and brown. There are no bright primary colours in the film. 

No Country For Old Men also made strong use of colour, which created a dramatic, slightly theatrical feel. We were not aiming for available light naturalism with our film. From No Country For Old Men we also borrowed the compositional style of shooting in 2.39:1 and framing the subject just off centre, rather than using the extremes of the frame. This gave the characters extra strength and I believe enhances the audience’s focus on them, ensuring that the compositions never became distractingly ‘arty’. No Country For Old Men, along with season two of Fargo, also have a fine sense of dread.

Although pre-production was based at Melbourne’s Docklands Studios, Brothers’ Nest was filmed entirely on location. A fortuitous conversation in a pub sent the location scout to a small valley in a place called Bungal in Victoria, where the ideal property sat perched on a hilltop surrounded by exposed fields, outbuildings and wonderfully atmospheric wrecked cars. Aside from a battered signpost, there are no other landmarks denoting Bungal. It’s a little over an hour’s drive from Melbourne, near Ballan, and filming there in winter is cold! The only set built was a bathroom and this was constructed in a disused games room at a local caravan park. 

5. Kim Gyngell in a scene from 'Brothers' Nest' - DOP Peter Falk ACS
Kim Gyngell in a scene from ‘Brothers’ Nest’ – DOP Peter Falk ACS

The crew were accommodated at that caravan park, and in nearby towns, and the first day’s call time factored in travel from Melbourne. On the second day, however, the start time was listed as 0545hrs and for the rest of that first week we found ourselves standing in the frosty dark of pre-dawn, waiting for first light so that we could shoot the opening sequence of Jeff and Terry riding their bikes to the property under cover of semi-darkness. 

We found that in the half hour window between first light and dawn, we were able to get three shots each day, although the third shot invariably had more light in the sky than was perfect. As it turns out, in the final grade, the sequence has been graded to match the light level of those latter shots. The scene has also been augmented with some drone footage that was shot by a reduced unit during the week following the main shoot. 

After the chilly morning expeditions, filming continued at the house at the top of the hill. My biggest problem to solve was the fact that, as already mentioned, the action takes place over the course of one day, from dawn to night time. We would be filming in a real house with windows everywhere, in the Victorian countryside, in winter, for five weeks. How was I going to keep the light inside constant in a natural environment where clouds raced across the sky and each day was a continual dance of sun and shade? 

“ The answer, of course, was to tent the house. ”

The answer, of course, was to tent the house. That is easier said than done, however, on a low budget. Fortunately, the house had wide eaves and Key Grip, Ed Barlow, made clever use of whatever was to hand to extend the tent as required. We could only afford to tent a couple of rooms at a time, so the grips and electrics were constantly rigging and de-rigging. They stayed remarkably cheerful! 

With the natural light now blocked, what was I going to do about the view outside the windows, especially the large picture windows that wrapped around the kitchen? We couldn’t afford a painted or photographic backdrop or any plant dressings at all to simulate a vista outside the windows. In the great Aussie improvisational way, the solution was to buy a large number of cheap white bed sheets from a discount department store and to clamp these to the inside of the tent and bounce light into them. The windows of the house were then dressed with semi transparent curtains that diffused the exterior view and fortunately the script required that they be closed. 

4. Clayton Jacobson in a scene from 'Brothers' Nest' - DOP Peter Falk ACS
Clayton Jacobson in a scene from ‘Brothers’ Nest’ – DOP Peter Falk ACS

The colour and quality of the bounce light changed as the script time of day progressed. This solution worked well and hopefully anyone who hasn’t read this article won’t be able to tell. To help sell the illusion, if we were shooting a particularly short scene and the exterior time of day was correct, the tent was removed so that a glimpse of the real vista could be seen, thus implanting in the audience’s mind what should be out there for those scenes where they couldn’t see the view. The exterior verandah scenes were tented as well so that they could be lit for pre dawn whilst actually being filmed later in the morning. A larger tent for the verandah scenes would have been ideal because the light source was awfully close to the actors, but we made do.

Throughout the film, the camera constantly, at times almost imperceptibly, moves towards the action, often from a low point-of-view. Clayton and I both favour setting the camera below the eye-line as we find this to be an interesting perspective compared to our everyday point-of-view, and thus creates a more striking image. The intention of the creeping camera moves was to subconsciously push the story forward and Clayton felt that they would also represent the ghostly presence of the brothers’ real father. The use of drone shots sporadically throughout the film also reflects that idea.

“ This solution worked well and hopefully anyone who hasn’t read this article won’t be able to tell. ”

Almost all the dolly shots in Brothers’ Nest were achieved with a slider. Although we had a Panther dolly and track available to us, the slider was a better fit in the small rooms and tight corridors of the house, where the large footprint of a dolly would have reduced the available tracking length, and using a slider also enabled us to get the camera low very quickly. The Panther dolly with an old Elemac-style mini jib was used as a pseudo crane. Combining the short reach of the arm with the rise of the dolly’s pedestal made for effective moves. Tying a rope from the back end of the arm to the dolly meant that as the pedestal rose, the arm craned smoothly in unison.

Brothers’ Nest was principally a single camera shoot, using an ARRI Alexa Classic with prime lenses, then cropping its 16×9 sensor to the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The tight location would not have made anamorphic lenses practical and at any rate, the production wouldn’t have been able to afford them. In fact, the budget only allowed for a set of Zeiss Compact Primes. Clayton was keen to get in close to the actors with wide angle lenses whilst also having a shallow depth-of-field, however the 18mm and 21mm Compact Primes open up to just T3.6 and T2.9 apertures respectively, not allowing much shallow depth-of-field with the walls of our location being so close. So the kit was augmented with 14mm and 21mm T1.3 ARRI Master Primes and an 18mm T1.3 Zeiss Superspeed. Neutral density filters were used when necessary to ensure that we were always filming at the lenses’ widest apertures. The production’s Focus Puller, Paul Seipel, and Kitty Allwood who took over from Seipel for one week, met this challenge gamely. Purists will no doubt blanch at the thought of such a disparate set of lenses. However needs must, and we were simply restricted by what was available in the rental company’s inventory at the time, and by the budget. 

As with shallow depth-of-field being used to create separation between the actors and the backgrounds, haze was also used throughout the production to add depth to the small rooms, and it also nicely picked up the light beams of the torches and personal head lamps that feature in several scenes. Clayton wanted these lamps to throw warm light, but of course they are all fitted with cool LEDs nowadays, so they were colour corrected with colour temperature orange and magenta gels cut to fit.

2. Shane Jacobson in a scene from 'Brothers' Nest' - DOP Peter Falk ACS
Shane Jacobson in a scene from ‘Brothers’ Nest’ – DOP Peter Falk ACS

Brothers’ Nest was scheduled roughly in story order, however the limited time that we had with guest cast members, or the quality of light required for an exterior scene, meant that in a couple of instances work underway on an interior scene with just the brothers halted part way through, to be continued later – sometimes weeks later. I kept detailed lighting notes of each day’s filming in a little note pad for such instances.

After four weeks of mostly interior scenes, the final, fifth week saw the crew move on to night exteriors. We got lucky that the film was shot sequentially because Brothers’ Nest was conceived as a very low budget project, however the scale of the production grew as more investors came on board during the shoot. The budget remained tight but whereas for the first week of filming the production could only afford two people in the electrical department, by the fifth week the budget stretched to five people. For the night shoots, two of those people were in charge of prepping the knuckleboom for the ‘moon light’ whilst filming continued elsewhere with Head Gaffer, Andy Dunnmoore. Having them on board made for significant time saving. 

The working days during the last week began as half day/half nights, then throughout the week the night component gradually became longer. The aim was to create two looks during the night shoot: an early evening look which features an even spread of ‘moon light’, and a late night look featuring pools of light. The main light source for the earlier night came from the aforementioned 80ft knuckleboom, which was rigged with one 6K HMI and one M40 HMI, diffused with a Chimera, providing an even wash of light. For the later night look, practical fixtures came into play and served as the motivation for a range of tungsten lamps, with the knuckleboom providing cooler ambient light.

“ For the film’s climax, a second camera was brought in. ”

For the film’s climax, a second camera was brought in. This was operated by Richard Hosking, who also shot some Second Unit material. Nigel Gorham at our equipment supplier, Gear Head in Melbourne, was also very generous in giving us access to the new ARRI Maxima/MX30 gimbal. This was mounted with an ARRI Mini and was operated by Second Assistant Camera, Benoit McCullough. The Arri Mini, fitted with Compact Primes, was also used for the drone sequences.

The film was rough cut as it was being shot, with Co-Editor Sean Lander set up with his equipment in a spare bedroom at the location. Following the shoot, Clayton edited as well and the two of them carried on the process for a couple of months. Audience test-screenings were held across three cinema locations and the feedback was incorporated into further editing. The completed project was then colour-graded by Martin Greer at The Post Lounge in Melbourne over two weeks. 

Clayton likes to see the drama in the characters’ eyes, so although the lighting is often dark, it couldn’t go so far down that eye detail would be lost. A happy balance also had to be found in the colour saturation. Not so strong that the colour felt overly affected and not desaturated to the point that the images lacked energy. It didn’t take long for a look to reveal itself and then the grading of the film from start to finish became pretty straightforward.

3. Peter Falk ACS at the 'Brothers Nest' Production Office - PHOTO Supplied
Peter Falk ACS at the ‘Brothers Nest’ Production Office – PHOTO Supplied

Brothers’ Nest, which was produced by Jason Byrne and Clayton, had its world premiere in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where in anticipation Rolling Stone Magazine announced, “This could (and should) be the sleeper hit of the fest.” Ultimately it was extremely well received. “Seething with grit, dark humour and a brotherhood that’s twisted in a dark love… visceral and stunning, one of the early gems of 2018… highly recommended, 9/10″, was a typical reviewer response.

Throughout the filming of Brothers’ Nest, all of the various departments had to be inventive and with all hands on deck, a great sense of camaraderie developed amongst the crew. I’m very pleased with our achievements and I hope that audiences view the film totally unaware of the improvisations and just enjoy it because it’s a great film. See it and spread the word!

Peter Falk ACS has had a long career working as a cinematographer, with credits ranging across some of Australia’s most popular drama productions and award-winning music videos.

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