Directed by Russell Mulcahy (Razorback, Highlander, The Shadow) and shot by acclaimed cinematographer Peter Holland ACS (Gabriel, Seal Team Six, StartUp) In Like Flynn is the Australian biographical film about the early life of actor Errol Flynn.
Interview by James Cunningham.
AC – You’ve been based in the United States for a few years now. How different is it working in that system, and what was your experience like coming back to film in Australia?
PH – As a producer on In Like Flynn, James Vernon said to me during pre-production, “Film crews are amazing. You can fly to any country, state or city, fill the crew roles with complete strangers and they all come together for that first camera roll. Everyone knows their role and it all fits so perfectly. At the end, we all say goodbye and probably never see each other again.” That statement is so true.
There are a couple of practical differences, the grips under the US system manage all the textiles, rags, flags, diffusions and even light gels. Whereas in Australia that is generally all handled by the gaffer’s crew. One big difference is the working hours. In the US it’s a twelve-hour standard day as opposed to the ten-hour Aussie working day. I actually find that crews get more done and keep a better disposition working ten-hour days.
When I first landed in the Gold Coast and had lunch with our US producer, Felipe Dieppe, he was saying how much he was worried that we couldn’t shoot the schedule we had operating on ten-hour days. I assured him that everything would be fine. I even bet him five dollars that at the end of the shoot he would be a fan of ten-hour days. He gave me that five dollars at the wrap party!
AC – How did you initially get involved with In Like Flynn?
PH – Producer Corey Large called me. We had worked together a few years ago when I shot Kid Cannabis (2014) for him in Vancouver. Large often spoke of In Like Flynn back then, and said he would contact me when they came to shooting it. I was thrilled to get the call early one morning asking if I was available get to on a plane to Australia to shoot it.
AC – How did Director Russell Mulcahy first describe to you his vision for the film?
PH – Mulcahy first described In Like Flynn to me as a ‘Spielbergian adventure’, a big picture but also a very personal journey.
AC – What factors did you take into consideration when choosing what cameras and lenses to shoot with, both filmic and financial?
PH – Firstly, there was no conversation about shooting on film. Which in hindsight, I’m surprised about. In Like Flynn was only ever going to be shot digitally.
We definitely wanted to shoot anamorphic for a number of reasons. We wanted a widescreen aspect ratio and all the optical beauty that anamorphic lenses can add. We rented from Lemac, in Brisbane, who were lovely and their gear was great! I selected a set of Cooke Anamorphic/i T2.3 prime lenses which included 32, 40, 50, 75, 100 and 135mm. These were the main lenses for the A and B cameras, however were supplemented with the 40-440mm T4.5 Angenieux Optimo Zoom and a Cooke Anamorphic/i 65mm Macro lens. I was extremely happy with this lens kit. I never had that familiar moment of being in a situation and thinking, “If only I had that lens.” I certainly never felt under gunned on In Like Flynn.
As for the cameras themselves, I opted for ARRI equipment. This is a period picture and the image needed to feel classic and smooth. I think the Alexa cameras probably manage this better than any other system that I have experienced. We also employed Tiffen Glimmer Glass Filters to give an even more velvety feel to the film. The A-Camera, operated by Damien Church, was an ARRI Mini. We chose this because of its smaller size as it would be on the Steadicam a lot. The other camera, operated by me, was the Alexa SXT Plus. This is a full-body size camera which I prefer for hand-held work. I find I can get the larger camera better set up and balanced on my shoulder for hand-held. Also, the SXT was slightly less expensive.
In the film, the producers, played by Dan Fogler and Lochlyn Munro, shoot an old Bolex-style 16mm camera. For this footage we employed a kit of spherical Zeiss Super Speeds on the ARRI Mini, and shot open gate 4:3 aspect ratio. I think I shot all that 16mm looking footage. To distinguish that from the Anamorphic cameras I stripped the body of everything that was not essential for operating the shot. No wireless, no remote focus, no mattebox; just a battery, lens and viewfinder. I would pull my own focus off the barrel as I operated. I didn’t mind if the focus was a little off at times as I hunted manually on the lens. I felt this added to the verisimilitude of those shots. I would also utilise the internal neutral density filters, shooting at around T11-16. I spent years shooting 16mm and it’s a great medium, one of the drawbacks however is the inability to get very shallow depth of field. I thought, why not embrace that and shoot with a big deep stop, contrasting the ‘filmic’ anamorphic footage which would be shallow and creamy.
AC – Can you talk about the ‘look’ you were working toward and what you set out to achieve visually on In Like Flynn? What was your collaboration like with the production design team during pre-production? What references were you working from?
PH – When I started, the very talented Nicholas McCallum was already well in advance of me as Production Designer. He had a wonderful look book and detailed plans and marquetes for all the sets. McCallum had it all pretty mapped out already. I offered my input and ideas. However his plan was a wonderful jumping off point and served as our main reference.
AC – Mulcahy has a reputation for fast editing and quick cuts, and the trailer for In Like Flynn seems to indicate he continued it with this film. How did that affect your considerations regarding coverage?
PH – I didn’t consider it. The trailer is not entirely indicative of the film, which in general is not cut fast, except for fight scenes. One of my favourite scenes is a knife fight between Flynn (Thomas Cocquerel) and a female assassin (Kelly Marie). Mulcahy wanted it to feel like a tango between Flynn ant the assassin. We shot a lot of that scene at 96fps, allowing Editor Rodrigo Balart the ability to ramp up the speed in post-production.
AC – Did you work with a fight choreographer? How did you plan out shooting these fight sequences?
PH – Our fight choreographer was another very talented man, Keir Beck, who was also our Second Unit Director. Mulcahy would discuss a style or theme with Beck who would come back a few days later with a fight video he’d made with his stunt crew. They were always very good and Mulcahy would, or more rarely I would, make suggestions. Beck would come back with an adjusted fight video. It was a great reference to have, and also to understand the tone of the fight, pick off the best camera angles, prepare for speciality rigs or equipment needed, and then on the day have it as a solid reference.
AC – As the film was shot largely on the Gold Coast, were you shooting mostly location work or did you utilise studio/sets?
PH – We had two scenes on a stage the very first day of the shoot, and which happened to be the final two scenes in the film, Flynn’s dressing room and on the set of The Bounty. We shot these in an industrial shed on the outskirts of Surfers Paradise, where the production offices were housed. All the other sets including Sydney, Townsville and the hospital in Papua New Guinea were all exterior. One outstanding set among so many was the interior of the boat Sirocco. Built on a rolling gimbal, McCallum designed and built it to be able to survive being flooded with water, while also rocked side to side and on fire. Operating that scene hand held, wearing waders, trying to keep balance and not being bowled over by the surging water whilst not getting burnt by the raging flames was quite some task.
AC – Can you speak briefly about your own crew in the camera department? Had you worked with any of them before, and what was your working relationship with them like?
PH – I was able to bring up from Melbourne both my regular key grip, Tim Delaney, and First Assistant Camera, Cameron Morley. I think apart from these everyone else was new to me. We had an amazing local crew. My Second Unit/Underwater DP, Simon Christidis, is just fantastic and a Gold Coast local.
One interesting note, originally Reg Garside was our gaffer but had to pull out. He suggested his Best Boy, Peniaku Loloa. Loloa and I go way back, he was the Best Boy and I was one of his electrics assistants onThe Matrix (1999). Laola hadn’t actually gaffed a film yet so I called him up and he was super keen. I’ve worked as cinematographer with quite a few people who were once senior to me, it can be a little tricky to navigate that new dynamic, especially at first, but Loloa and his team were champs and blew it away!
AC – How involved were you in the post-production process? How did you approach colour-grading on In Like Flynn and who did your grade?
PH – The colour-timing was done in Melbourne while I was in Los Angeles. Our colourist, Kali Bateman, would upload the days work and I would scroll through and comment. Then continue the next day. This system is fine for the broader brush strokes, but it does get very tricky. I don’t have a calibrated monitor at home and I had to trust and defer to Bateman whenever we were getting down to the finer points of colour.
AC – How did you work to achieve Mulcahy’s ‘directorial vision’, while still imparting your own unique perspective as cinematographer?
PH – I think that what we do as cinematographers is create a calculated creativity. By this I mean, especially in preproduction, we are very focused on the organisation, technique, technology, schedule and even our budget, but because we do that part so well, we have then created the calculated space, a safe structure and road map which then hopefully allows for the creativity to shine through. I think we did a good job of achieving that, Russell wanted a ‘big picture’ film, but at the same time we wanted to be nimble enough to improvise and break classical cinematic boundaries. I think the cinematic approach reflects Flynn’s character, good looking and suave on the outside but irreverent, cheeky, coquettish and vital on the inside.
AC – Do you have any favourite moments in the film?
PH – There is a fight scene in Sydney, in the rain, in the early part of the film. I love the tonality, the cool blues and shooting in rain and muddy puddles. It was loads of fun and I think looks pretty good too.
There is also a scene I love on a remote Island. On paper it is quite a staid scene and set on a beautiful tropical beach, but there are deeper undertones in the conversation between Flynn and Charlie (Clive Standen). Luckily for us, the early morning ocean surf facing the two characters was raging and powerful. It was an ominous omen of Charlie and Flynn’s tribulations to come.
AC – Looking back on what you and the creative team behind the film had originally set out to achieve on In Like Flynn, do you think you succeeded? What would you have done differently?
PH – Everything! [Laughs] I’m sure everyone would feel the same with any work they’ve done. I’m always critiquing my own work, even on my very best stuff. When watching any film back I am mentally trying to nudge the camera a bit that way, changing a lens mid-shot or wishing I hadn’t put in that extra fill bounce. It’s constant, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
AC – Finally Peter, what are you working on next?
PH – Right now I am working on a very interesting project with South African photographer Norman Seeff. An amazing man and artist. I can’t talk too much about it but in the last few days I’ve shot Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor, Emilou Harris, Rufus Wainwright, Seal, Glen Hansard, Graham Nash, Chaka Khan, Diana Krall and Norah Jones. It’s been quite something! But next, I am grateful to be starting pre-production on a film in Los Angeles. It will be nice to be home for a while.
Peter Holland ACS is a cinematographer based in Los Angeles with a raft of international feature films, television series, commercials, music videos and documentaries under his belt.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.