Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson ACS on filming ‘Lone Wolf’

In a near-future Melbourne marked by state corruption and constant surveillance, a group of small-time activists hatches a plan to commit a ‘victimless atrocity’ in Lone Wolf,  filmed by Milli Award-winning cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson ACS.

By Geoffrey Simpson ACS.

Hugo Weaving in ‘Lone Wolf’ – DOP Geoffrey Simpson ACS, PHOTO Mat Govoni

I have known director Jonathan Ogilvie since we worked together on The Tender Hook in 2007. That filmmaking experience was terrific, shot in Melbourne though set in Sydney, we had a superb cast headed by Rose Byrne and Hugo Weaving. A great shoot. 

Ogilvie and I have kept in touch, seeing each other socially over the years and so his plans for this film were around for quite a while before it finally all came together in winter of 2019. This film is based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent written in 1907. It has been popular with filmmakers ever since. 

Alfred Hitchcock made a movie called Sabotage in 1936, based on the book. In 1992 it was made into a television series. Then as a film in 1996, staring Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Gerard Depardieu and a young Christian Bale. In 2016 another television miniseries was made and then the Jonathan Ogilvie version comes along, this time with a twist. 

Ogilvie’s idea was to have the story told via police security cameras, existing surveillance cameras, wire tapped telephones and hacked computers. The film would start and finish where we see the Police Minister played by Hugo Weaving, speaking with the police involved in the secret collection of various conversations and activities. The police show Weaving’s character the entire story told totally by these clandestine techniques. 

We filmed a ‘proof of concept’ a couple of years before the shoot to show investors how the film would work. A recent Sundance success at the time was Aneesh Chaganty’s film Searching (2018, cinematography by Juan Sebastian Baron). Actor John Cho plays the father of a missing daughter, and the film is largely shot via her laptop computer. This success possibly helped pave the way for Lone Wolf. 

Geoffrey Simpson ACS behing the camera on ‘Lone Wolf’, actors Stephen Curry and Hugo Weaving on right – PHOTO Mat Govoni

I enjoyed the challenges faced in making this film. It was an interesting script with an incredible cast including Tilda Cobham Hervey, Josh McConville, Chris Bunton, Diana Glen, Stephen Curry, Tyler Coppin, Marlon Williams and of course Hugo Weaving mentioned earlier. 

Certainly considered a ‘low budget’ film, we had only four weeks to shoot and found me sharing an Airbnb with the director in freezing Melbourne. Our first Wednesday there was the coldest day ever recorded. Once we had all four cameras set up it should have moved quickly, or so we thought.The film opens and closes with Weaving and some of his senior police. The plan had always been to have a big difference between the ‘bookends’ and the body of the film being the surveillance footage. It seemed obvious to go widescreen, 1:1.39 anamorphic then 16:9 for the rest of the film to give us this difference. 

We used the smart phone vertical format a couple of times which drives me nuts. Call me old fashioned, but the entire planet uses landscape format for television screens, movie screens and computer screens. People! Turn the telephone on its side and stop television showing vertical pictures with out of focus sides! 

I already owned a small Blackmagic Pocket camera which was a good size for low-profile work, but not enough pixels for distribution. The new 4K Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera had recently arrived so we talked to Lemac and they purchased four of them especially for Lone Wolf. We shot Blackmagic RAW 4K DCI 4096 x 2160 and used Zeiss Compact Primes with an adapter for the Blackmagic mount. This made the camera a similar size to say a Canon 5D. The Anamorphic work was shot with a set of Cooke Anamorphic Prime lenses on an ARRI Alexa Mini, also shooting RAW. 

We wanted to get good quality images so we could muck about with them in post-production. Using visual effects creating grain, noise and other artefacts had been talked about. This in tandem with dirty glass in front of the lens to create the feeling of broken glass, paint or dirt, used mainly on exterior cameras. 

Diana Glenn as Kylie in ‘Lone Wolf’ – DOP Geoffrey Simpson ACS, PHOTO Mat Govoni

Our production designer was Beth Ryan who I had worked with doing some commercials earlier in Sydney. Ryan was fantastic and achieved a lot for very little money. Our main set piece or location was a disused pornographic shop taken over by some wannabe radical socialist environmentalists who still sell porn as well, because it makes more money than their Marxist Leninist books.

Every time I rang our producers Mat Govoni or Adam White I would always ask, “how are we going with the porn shop location?” “Still working on it,” came the reply. Ryan was a champion and just did not give up until she found the perfect location. It was on a corner in Lygon Street, with two stories, so our main characters lived above and had a kitchen out the back. This just perfect for what the script required. The place was a wreck with leaks in the roof, but it meant we could paint and dress to our heart’s content. Trams ran past outside to give another dimension, especially to our exterior night work. 

The colour pallet was worked out with Ogilvie and Ryan and bold colours were chosen. Red and black for the bookshop and orange and blue for their living spaces out the back. We tested the colour during pre-production. 

Ogilvie had done some storyboards, but only for a few scenes. He had a couple of painting references. One in particular, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Édouard Manet, stood out and became a big part of Ryan’s set. The painting features a bar maid in front of a large mirror. There has been much written about this painting and Manet’s struggle with reality and illusion, especially as photography had recently been invented and this painting does not seem to be a realistic point-of-view. 

For us, this painting gave Ogilvie the idea for using the reflection as part of our set, so with a single camera we could see Winnie (played by Tilda Codham Hervey) standing behind the bookshop counter looking out towards the camera. Then when Ossipee (played by Marlon Williams) enters and acts like a sleaze bag lizard, the audience can see both faces at once. Actual Winnie and the reflection of Ossipon. And sometime his profile. This is my favourite scene in Lone Wolf. Angelo Sartore, first assistant camera, made great decisions on where to focus. The actors looked like they were totally in character and their characters were really having fun. They knew how to play for the camera. A profile two-shot helped editing by being added to the mix. 

Actor Stephen Curry in ‘Lone Wolf’ – DOP Geoffrey Simpson ACS, PHOTO Mat Govoni

In pre-production we had a couple of days to build a simple pipe rig for the entire 7.5m by 5.7m set. This took a day and on the second day we rigged four cameras. It took a lot longer that we thought and was a very useful test. We came up with better clamps and tie down systems. However, it was still surprisingly slow. Working with a large camera on a dolly and laying track would have been much quicker.

We used Aspera LED dimmable tubes, some Kino tubes and small tungsten lamps combined with practical lamps placed in the set. The practical lamp on the counter corner became a key light for several people in various positions.  

My camera crew consisted of Satore who I have worked with on commercials for several years. He is a good friend and an excellent first assistant and our second assistant was Sarah Turner, also a good friend from several commercials. They were an excellent team and both incredibly supportive. Lemac were also a big help and very helpful in getting all the bits to make the Blackmagic cameras more user-friendly.

Our data wrangler was a young guy named Jim Cruise who did an outstanding job dealing with the pressure of independent filmmaking and keeping everything on track. Data wrangler rather than digital intermediate technician. I can’t thank my camera team enough for keeping this all together. 

My gaffer Richard Turton is a friend from several projects over the years. He brought key grip Brian Prebble along plus we had best boy Wilson Huang and third electric was George Husband. A great group. 

Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Winnie in ‘Lone Wolf’ – DOP Geoffrey Simpson ACS, PHOTO Mat Govoni

There were several exterior scenes as well as the day and night interiors in the porno shop, a beach scene, a car interior, a scene on the river in boats, a public bar and several others. It was a very different way to work setting up two or three or four cameras in so many different locations. Locking them off then walking away to video village with no chance of a quick tweak.

One scene had Weaving in bed with his computer which was the Blackmagic mounted on a small hi-hat. He receives a FaceTime call on the computer, gets out of bed picking up the computer Blackmagic camera and walks out onto a balcony where I am waiting to take the camera and position it on a stand for the conversation. At the end, Weaving’s hand reaches to close the laptop as I tilt the camera down into blackness. 

I think this was a very collaborative process of filmmaking with a lot of people making contributions. Though it all Ogilvie had a strong point-of-view. I happened to be shooting a commercial in Melbourne when he was doing the grade, so spent a few hours with him and our colourist. There was quite a bit of work done on the images to justify different cameras. So, images were degraded and desaturated to create some different looks. 

With hindsight… our cameras could be turned on and off by a WiFi remote switch which gave us a lot of heartaches. We also found ourselves on a night shoot and a wet down of Lygon Street in Melbourne. The tram starts getting closer, the actors are in place, we call roll cameras, then we hear the familiar expletives coming from Sartore as he scurries across video village, heading towards the large ladder next to the camera. 

Sartore is a big guy and a man on a mission. People are bailing out of his way. He clutches his ARRI WCU4 remote focus in one hand and uses the other hand to pull himself up the top of the ladder to the camera. Ogilvie shouts action just as Sartore reaches the top to hit the switch. The tram enters shot, the actors do their work, we watch it all unfold. Then all crack up laughing. 

Making a remote hard-wired on/off switch would have helped us a lot. 

Geoffrey Simpson ACS is one of Australia’s most highly regarded cinematographers known for his work on ‘Playing Beattie Bow’ (1996), ‘Shine’ (1996), ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ (1997), and ‘Romulus, My Father’ (2007).

Lone Wolf received its Australian Premier at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.

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