Emma Paine shoots the award-winning short film Hook Up for friend and director Laura Nagy – by Emma Paine
In early 2018, I found myself spending an afternoon with director Laura Nagy and some friends filming vignettes around the Balmain Peninsula in New South Wales. We were putting together the pieces for a script that Nagy had written and was seeking funding for.
We have been working together since we first met at film school in 2010. Since then, we’ve been creating a shared language of references and approach to story which feel they have culminated in the short film Hook Up. The initial test footage we shot, Nagy would edit into a mood reel to apply for funding for the project. Eventually it won the Melbourne Queer Film Festival’s inaugural ‘Pitch Pleez!’ initiative and the team were given a small amount of funding to make the film for the 2020 festival.
Hook Up is a short coming-of age-about two teen girls, Lucy (Jillian Nguyen) and Alice (Kirsty Marillier). These young friends are going on a Tinder date with two older men. When the line between flirtation and consent become increasingly blurred and Alice is placed in danger, Lucy must decide how best to act to protect Alice, and in the process, realises the deeper feelings she holds for her best friend. The film explores the modern teen experience in a social media world and demonstrates how mobile phones can be weaponised.
We had a few months lead up to the shoot to work on pre-production on the odd weekend and over coffee catch-ups. Since some of the conceptual work had been completed previously in putting together the application for funding, this process was more about questioning whether we were still excited by those ideas and revisiting some of our reference films, from Ginger and Rosa (2012, cinematography by Robbie Ryan BSC ISC) to Mustang (2015, cinematography by David Chizallet and Ersin Gok).
An ARRI Alexa Mini kit was donated to us by production company, Paper Moose and knowing that we were going to be shooting mostly night, I was keen to use uncoated Super Speeds. These were provided by the supportive and knowledgable Nic Godoy at Panavision.
The Super Speeds were a perfect fit for this film, we leaned into flares of the sunset, car headlights and particularly the camera flash of the mobile phone. It was an attempt to remind the audience of Lucy’s desire to spend the night with her best friend for whom she has feelings, and in contrast to how dark her situation becomes.
Although Hook Up is an ensemble cast, we tried whenever possible to reinforce that this was a story being told from the perspective of Lucy. Enhancing the hope and romance of the sunset with Alice and the disappointment and awkwardness of the Tinder date with Mitch (Travis Jeffery) and Jason (Joshua McElroy).
One of the moments where Lucy’s perspective is strongest visually is a moment where the group are stoned in a car and we can see Lucy’s point-of-view through the rear view mirror. Alice is almost unconscious in the back seat with Mitch and Jason taking up the frame on either side of her. Further compressed, distorted and made small by the thin mirror.
Like most short films, our biggest limitation was budget. This meant that we had to be particularly flexible with lighting. Our kit was made up of only two Titan Tubes and a light mat, so of course this made me incredibly nervous for a film that was mostly shot at night. This fed into our decisions about location and led us to an abandoned parking spot in Balmain that had a view of the city for some background texture and a cool tone street lamp that could do a little bit of work as ambience. I also ended up buying battery LED lights from Bunnings to use in the car and we had some spare car batteries on set for a scene that played out in front of the car headlights.
We had four days to shoot and we scheduled three of those with sunsets so we could play the opening few scenes with the beauty of natural light setting up the characters expectations of the night ahead. Our nights got longer throughout the shoot and, I have to admit, I’m always surprised when everyone shows up for a night shoot on a short film. First assistant camera Cameron Johnson put in an incredible amount of work and was wonderful to have on set. We also had Isabelle Laurent as second assistant camera as well as Andy Diep, Pat Wieks and Steve Chen juggling the role of lighting assistant across different nights. When our gaffer had to pull out at the last minute due to injury, I was deeply impressed by everyone’s willingness to read the lighting plans and just jump in and trust it would all come together.
Despite having only one day to grade the film, the talented Justin Tran was able to pull it off effortlessly. The director and I had quite a strong vision for the final look of the project, keeping it naturalistic and moody. If anything, we mostly wanted to lean in to what we had captured on set and enhancing colour contrast between the night exteriors and warm tones of the car interior.
Although the Melbourne Queer Film Festival was cut short after four days because of Covid-19 restrictions, we were incredibly grateful that the film was able to screen on the opening night of the festival. A lovely bonus was also that Nagy won Best Director for the film, which I think is very deserving.
Despite the challenges and nights spent on a freezing cliff, working as the cinematographer on Hook Up was a genuinely enjoyable experience with new and old friends. Although I take on far fewer short films now, one of the things that does keep drawing me back is the challenge of making sure the cinematography is lifting the story even when resources are limited. These shoots bring you back to basics and allow you to explore stories outside of the mainstream.
Emma Paine is an Australian cinematographer based in Sydney.