When a woman’s family, land and innocence are ripped from her, she embarks on a brutal journey of retribution and revenge. Cinematographer Kevin Scott talks to us about filming The Flood.
Interview by Vanessa Abbott.
AC – Can you describe The Flood in your own words?
KS – The Flood is a WWII, female-driven Australian Western. It’s a film with an important message and a story that most of us needed to see. It is not strictly a true story, but it is based on actual events, which is really quite astonishing and worrying looking back at it now.
It has very funny moments, some points when the cinema is silent, other times when people are in tears and some scenes where the audience simply cannot believe what they are seeing. It was filmed in and around Kangaroo Valley in New South Wales, which has stunning landscape that becomes an important part of the film, almost another character at times. Told from a female perspective, Jarah (Alexis Lane) is out to seek revenge after her husband, daughter and land are taken from her during the war. Jarah is tasked with tracking down her husband who is in turn being tracked by a gang of local landowners.
AC – How did you first get involved on this film? Had you worked with any of the team before, or did you have to pitch yourself for the job?
KS – I’ve been working with director Victoria Wharfe McIntyre for the past ten years. We’ve shot a few short films together that have done really well in Australia and overseas, so this film has been the natural progression of this partnership.
AC – What were your initial thoughts, in terms of cinematography, when you first read the script?
KS – Victoria approached me with the script about eight months before shooting. We had time to work together and throw around ideas regarding the look of the film even before we officially started pre-production. We’d created a style on a film we shot together called Miro (2016) which we wanted to continue and explore. It was all about filming with wide lenses only, a constantly moving camera and as many one-shot scenes as we could manage.
AC – What was your collaboration like with production designer David McKay and his team, early on?
KS – I’ve worked with David McKay before on a few films one of which he directed, so we knew each other well. He’s one of those designers that has a knack of creating something out of very little. I’m not sure how he managed with the budget he was given but always seemed to come up with an incredible location where we could shoot in all directions. I love it when you are on a set and there’s nothing you can’t shoot, including outside windows. The detail was amazing, that really helped with The Flood just because of the fluid nature of the way it was being filmed.
AC – What factors did you take into consideration when choosing what cameras and lenses to shoot The Flood?
KS – We’d been working on filming predominantly with wide lenses. A couple of downsides to this are that sometimes the camera ends up physically very close to the actors, sometimes only inches from their faces. Eye lines had to be extremely accurate as they were so exaggerated. We’d already experimented in this style with Cooke anamorphic/i lenses and loved the look of them, however it did create real headaches with close focus, just from the very nature of being anamorphic.
We decided to shoot The Flood spherical to take advantage of better close focus distances on the lenses. That meant we could really get close to the actors. After testing a few options we opted for vintage Leica R lenses which had been re-housed. The Leicas have terrific character and flare beautifully, in really rich colours. The vintage look would also help the fact that this is a period film. I would say we filmed 95% of the movie on the 28mm and the other 5% between the 19mm and 135mm.
To enhance the intimacy of our shots we also decided to shoot in full-frame and opted to film with an ARRI Alexa Large Format (LF) in open gate. The Alexa LF has such an amazing sensor and really lends itself to faces because it has such a natural look. So many cinematographers love the original Alexa sensor and the LF has all the advantages but because it’s twice the size has an intimacy that the S35 sensor can’t compete with. It also has virtually no noise in the blacks, even when you push it to the extreme. We filmed in ARRIRAW at 4.5K open gate with a 2.39:1 finish. We went out with the aim to film as many of the scenes as we could in one shot, even scenes with multiple characters which ran for multiple script pages. 90% of the film was on Steadicam.
Sometimes The Flood is subtle and other times it’s really in your face. That meant that the occasions when the camera doesn’t move, it creates a real point of difference. There’s one scene in particular which is very harrowing; a four minute, eight-hander which plays out on a locked off 28mm. It’s like watching actors on stage, but when I saw it in the cinema, the audience were deathly silent. You could have heard a pin drop so I think it worked.
We pushed our Steadicam operator with the big Alexa LF. I feel that Steadicam is the perfect tool to film single-take scenes. We could design the shots to include wides, close-ups, horses and gun-slinging action all within one move and we could still see the landscape we were in, even on the close-ups. It was really enjoyable to do, if a little frustrating for the first assistant director, who would be putting the pressure on when we were two hours into filming a scene and the camera hadn’t rolled yet. But just ten minutes later we had everything we needed.
AC – Can you speak about your own crew in the camera department?
KS – It’s always the way with this type of film; you’re trying to do things with not enough money and less time than it should take. You need really experienced crew. Jake Iesu did most of our Steadicam work and he was just great. He threw the rig around like it didn’t have a full size Alexa LF on it. Between us, we could work through the shots which we needed but also tell the story and create the emotion which the director needed. We developed a great short hand which made things a lot easier.
Our first assistant camera was Drew English who I’ve worked with a number of times before. I sat in post-production and wondered how he ever managed to keep the film sharp with the depth he had. Being a full frame sensor, Steadicam and wide open we didn’t help him much. Looking back it’s a wonder he got anything at all, but he nailed virtually everything. Andy Robertson came on board as gaffer and he was up for it from the moment he read the script, which was great. I really lucked out with my crew.
AC – Were you filming mostly location work on The Flood, and how did you approach lighting on location?
KS – Yes, the entire film was shot on location. We scouted for several weeks prior to shooting, the director and I were hunting around way before we were officially in pre-production. It was all eventually filmed in and around Kangaroo Valley. It was trickier than we expected to find exterior locations. It sounds strange, but we had an awful lot of scenes in the bush and needed to make each location look very different from the others. They had to be individually very different places and spectacular enough that they are recognisable when revisited later in the film. That was crucial so our audience can follow where characters are, in relation to each other.
We avoided building sets as much as possible to keep costs down but were forced to build a pub, a gaol and a stockman’s hut for the final shoot out. Everywhere else was found and dressed. I decided to make day scenes warm, vintage warm, so I used full-cover coral filters in camera of varying strengths on everything. Night exteriors were cool but always had warmth, looking onto windows or firelight etc. I didn’t want any huge lights powering through windows for interiors so basically looked at the location we were in and what was already there, then just embellished that.
We pre-lit the interior of the pub set for day and night together so we could just switch between them. Scheduling and cast availabilities didn’t work in our favour, so we had to switch between the two. All the hardware had to be hanging because in most shots we found ourselves seeing everything in the room, 360° degrees of it. That’s what happens when you need wide shots and close-ups of everyone, all within a single take. It meant that lighting time was extended a little but once we were ready, we were ready for most things. The good thing was that the gaol and the pub were built in the same location. We lit the gaol then filmed there for three or four days. Whilst that was happening the pub build was completed and gaffer Andy Robertson was able to get in to start lighting it.
AC – How did you approach coverage, and how do you shoot for performance?
KS – McIntyre wanted to see the emotion on our character’s faces. We’d already decided on getting in close to actors on wide lenses and this meant we would see the subtlest reaction in their expression. It took a little getting used to because very often we had to create close-ups by people either entering shot, us moving into them or simply by spinning 180° degrees to get a reaction. When that happened in such close proximity it was interesting.
We also had to be aware that if we put the camera in certain areas, it had the potential to affect the performance. We certainly didn’t want to have the actors working around us so that was a juggle as well. We were lucky that everyone was really on board and excited about the style, which made things easier.
AC – How involved were you in post-production on The Flood? Who was your colourist, and what was your intention in the grade?
KS – Although everything you see in the film actually happened, in the context of McIntyre’s story it didn’t have to look real. Consequently The Flood is heavily stylised. We had a good amount of time to grade the film and we were really lucky to have Billy Wychgel on board who has a terrifically creative eye. He got the idea of the film right away.
AC – Do you have a favourite shot or sequence in The Flood? Why?
KS – I would have to say the shootout scene in the pub. It’s the very first time we see Jarah start to get her revenge. During pre-production, McIntyre said ‘think Tarantino’ for this scene. That certainly was taken on board and comes out in the edit. Petra Salsjö also wrote some brilliant music for Jarah to enjoy her moment. It all comes together really well.
AC – Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, what might you have done differently?
KS – Apart from fight for an additional three weeks in the shooting schedule, not much!
AC – Finally, do you know what you’ll be working on next?
KS – At the moment I’m shooting a documentary about Australian Country Music with Kriv Stenders. A bit of a contrast to The Flood but really enjoyable. The vintage Leica lenses are getting another go.
Kevin Scott is an award-winning cinematographer who has been working in the film industry for over twenty five years. He has worked on over forty feature films, hundreds of commercials and documentaries all over the world.
Vanessa Abbott is a writer based in Sydney.