Dark secrets are laid bare in Netflix’s new Australian psychological thriller Sweet River, shot by cinematographer Tim Tregoning ACS.
By James Cunningham.
Sweet River is a film about two women from completely different worlds who are learning to deal with the grief caused by the loss of their children. Hanna (Lisa Kay) has a son who was abducted by a serial killer and is presumed dead, whilst Ellenor (Geneviève Lemon) had a daughter who lost her life in a tragic bus crash along with several other local children.
As Hanna spends more time in the town investigating her son’s disappearance, and with some unexplained encounters after dark, it becomes clear that no one wants her here. The town is intent on protecting its secrets and a wound that will not heal.
“This is a project that had been floating around for a while,” says cinematographer Tim Tregoning ACS. Director Justin McMillan had contacted Tregoning about Sweet River whilst developing the idea, and eventually sent him the script. “Like most scripts I read, I watched this play out in my mind and I absolutely loved it. The backdrop was perfect, a small river town surrounded by sugar cane farms in far northern New South Wales’ Tweed Valley. It has a certain aesthetic that was very appealing to me. The dark, sinister side of the script suited the eerie visual tone of this town. A large sugar refinery with bellowing smoke stack as the centre piece.”
During pre-production on Sweet River, McMillan, along with Tregoning, worked extensively to develop and devise an approach that related to each character. The pair discussed at length how they wanted to photograph each actor, what each camera movement should be and how they wanted each character to come across on screen.
“McMillan cast this film beautifully. He worked hard during pre-production working through scenes and developing character relationships as he knew he wouldn’t have time on set to do this,” says Tregoning. “As our hero actress, Lisa Kay, became more and more distressed throughout the film we moved in, physically closer, getting the lens right up in her face so we could feel her discomfort and watch the alcohol and drugs destroy her.”
In the lead up to filming Tregoning spent a lot of time putting together a visual ‘look book’ for each and every scene. The crew could refer to it regularly. McMillan and Tregoning had a very similar aesthetic for this film, “We’d been taking and sharing images for about a year, refining the perfect look for the film,” says Tregoning.
” My camera team made this film happen. “
One recent film called The Wolf Hour (2019, cinematography by Khalid Mohtaseb) was something the cinematographer loved as a reference for Sweet River, along with the acclaimed television miniseries The Night Of (2016, cinematography by Frederick Elmes ASC, Robert Elswit ASC and Igor Martinovic). Sweet River needed to be dark and sinister with a very low saturated palate to match the subtle supernatural element of the story.
The team’s biggest focus with art direction was locations. McMillan searched the Tweed Valley area, high and low, and he found amazing houses and streets that offered up so much. “The initial location scout we did together was very exciting and we were spoilt for choice,” says Tregoning. “The art department and production design added their touches beautifully to bring our location choices to life. We used a lot of practical lamps and heavy shears for the interiors. My gaffer Matt Russell did an amazing job building street lights on the side of sheds and telegraph poles out of old enamel lamp shades we found in antique stores around the area.”
Tregoning’s camera package was a relatively easy choice at the time. Netflix’s 4K requirements led him to the Red Monstro 8K VV. Tregoning had done a lot of work with this camera due to the resolution it supplies when shooting anamorphic. The cinematographer selected a 6.5K anamorphic codec, combining an older set of lenses with RED’s modern, high-resolution sensor.
“The Red technology in the VV camera gives a great result with older softer Panavision glass,” explains Tregoning. “I have a long standing relationship with Panavison Sydney. Although I had a fairly good idea of what look I was going for, I tested every vintage lens set that was available at the time. Bearing in mind I would be doing a lot of night scenes in low-light and needed lenses to support that.”
Being a psychological thriller, Tregoning wanted to shoot the entirety of Sweet River wide open to bring texture and grain to his images. “The film really leant itself to a grittier more naturalistic look,” he says. Rhys Nicholson, my first assistant camera, and I ended up selecting a mixture of G-series and E-series anamorphic lenses for our night scenes. We often had practical lights as well as harder light sources in shot, and these lenses were able to preserve that image quality.
Nic Goodoy from Panavision brought in 50mm and 75mm high-speed anamorphic lenses for daytime exteriors and low-light scenes at night. The high-speed lenses ended up being my go to lenses of choice for close-ups as well.
One of the more technically daunting scenes in Sweet River in terms of cinematography and planning was the filming of an actual sugar cane field fire at night. “Shooting a sugar cane fire for real was one of the major logistical challenges of this film,” explains Tregoning. “McMillan, along with on of our producers Ashley McLeod, worked tirelessly with local farmers to coordinate our own filming with a real burn. We had one go at it before the field was gone forever. That would have compromised our story dramatically.”
Together, the three of them scouted and even test-shot multiple burns to learn as much as possible about the distance we could be from the flames and the time the sugar cane took to combust. “The crew had to really trust us on the night,” he says. “It was not easy and tensions were high. But our cast and crew were amazing.”
“I was incredibly happy with the crew I had on this film; we were a very tight unit,” says Tregoning. “Nicholson and I have been working together for a long time. The trust I have in him and his team is second to none. We have a short hand that helped us get through this film. We worked mainly in very low-light, and wide-open on anamorphic lenses, as well as very often on 100mm lenses and above, on a Steadicam. Time was of the essence and this crew absolutely nailed it.”
” Colour grading is obviously so important to all cinematographers. “
Justin Besser ran Steadicam on Sweet River as well as some B-camera. Again, he and Tregoning developed a great short hand. “He was able to suggest many awesome angles and ideas while I was lighting and working with the director on blocking scenes with the actors,” Tregoning explains. “My camera team made this film happen. On a film like this having a camera operator like Besser who can deliver is vital. As did all the crew.”
The cinematographer also found himself lucky to have the skills of key grip Michael Lesley and gaffer Matt Russell to lean and depend on throughout filming. “Theses guys have years of experience and I was fortunate enough to be able to draw upon this every day on set,” he says. “They’re great mates of mine and mentors in the film industry. To have them with me was a blessing.”
Due to Covid-19 restrictions Tregoning was unable to physically attend the colour grade. He ended up being involved remotely thanks to a program called Frame.io which meant he, along with colourist Billy Wychgel and the director, were all live-grading remotely.
“It was amazing,” he says. “I could make notes related to specific time codes and discuss together about each image through a data room. Colour grading is obviously so important to all cinematographers. I shot the film on the edge and pushed the images so hard that the contrast ratios were very small. I believe we ended up getting a great result and Wychgel added so much to the process.”
One of the cinematographer’s favourite scenes in Sweet River is a single Steadicam shot where Hanna walks through a house searching for clues. “It’s incredibly suspenseful,” he says. “The Steadicam operating and choreography of actor and camera is frightening to watch. We had to light the entire house through the exterior windows as we saw every corner and room in that location.” Small light mats were fixed to the ceiling in areas of minimal access. “Mirrors, reflections and practicals helped us immensely while we had a roaming paper lantern to keep exposure on our actress’ eyes.”
“Looking back at the experience of filming I think I would have prepared in more detail,” says Tregoning. “I do love to look at what’s available to me when I walk into a scene and add to what’s there, but time is always against you on projects like this. It’s such an overwhelming experience. I was so lucky that I’ve spent so many years working and collaborating with McMillan that we were able to work at such a fast pace to shoot out each day.”
If the cinematographer could ask for anything else it would have been more shooting days, “Refining and finessing each scene was something I always felt I simply needed more time to do!”
Tim Tregoning ACS is an award-wining cinematographer known for his work on ‘Buoy’ (2017) and ‘Brolga’ (2019).
James Cunningham is Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.