Cinematographer Sean Porter Lenses Jeremy Saulnier’s ‘Green Room’

Director Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is an unapologetic savage horror film that blends grit with gore in a perfectly attuned way. The narrative follows the punk band The Ain’t Rights which includes singer Tiger (Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) and drummer Reece (Joe Cole) as they unsuccessfully tour the road living off of what little funds they’re paid for shows.

Just when the band is about to quit they book a gig at an isolated venue deep in the woods of Oregon – a neo-Nazi club. What starts off as a seemingly innocent show takes a calamitous turn as they unexpectedly witness the murder of a female club patron. Trapped with the girl’s best friend, Amber (Imogen Poots) they lock themselves in the backstage green room to devise an escape plan from the club’s decadent owner, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), who wants to eliminate all witnesses.

Visually depicting the director’s vision was cinematographer Sean Porter – the two working for the first time together. “We never met before this project but during our initial meetings we discovered we were traveling in similar work circles,” says Porter. “Jeremy is a totally accomplished DP in his own right and going into an interview with a DP turned director can be a little nerve-racking. Clearly there’s this moment where you think ‘what on Earth can I bring to the table that he couldn’t do himself’. But in a lot of ways I think Jeremy ultimate went with me because we both have significant roots in indie filmmaking. Green Room had a much bigger budget than his previous film Blue Ruin and I think he wanted someone who would get down and dirty with him in that indie way – he knew I’d turn around and fight for things.”

Sean Porter (left) with Jeremy Saulnier

What allured the cinematographer to the project in the first place was the subject matter and detail of the script. “When you read the script you can see how dark and crazy it is, but what ultimately drew me to the material was the peril the kids go through,” says Porter. “I feel like kids going through extreme physical circumstances gives you so many creative opportunities in storytelling. When you’re telling stories with adults everyone knows what the stakes are. When you’re a kid, everything gets elevated. It could be this very small thing that can be taken to mythical proportions. Green Room feels like it’s going one way but it turns for the worse and it never comes back.”

Filming for thirty-three days during October and November in 2014, the film used a mix of Oregon exteriors and studio work where Darcy’s venue was built. “We looked at so many different places to try and find a location that would work for both the exterior and interior, but there wasn’t one that matched the intricate nature of the story. A lot of it is very sequential and procedural with people moving from certain areas to another – it’s about the missed connections between characters and Jeremy had a calculated plan about how everyone should be moving,” Porter explains. What ended up happening was production built a large set for the venue and used a combination of three different exteriors to make the outside of the venue work.

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The film opens up with us meeting the band who’s dead asleep in a van, stuck in a field and out of gas after driving off the ride. “We tried to keep things visually light and airy in the beginning. A little more road trippy feeling but still play with the darker tones so there’s this gritty, underbelly vibe,” says the cinematographer. “This way when the horrible things start to take place the audience will be a bit more prepared.”

To shoot the rather chilling story they shot ProRes on an Arri Alexa using Cooke S2/S3 glass with an Angénieux zoom lens for a few shots. “I have a set of these old vintage Cookes that were rehoused by TLS in the UK. They have something magical about them. About how they were made – hand carved in the fifties and sixties. They can add this subtle layer to a digital image that can be somewhat clinical that you can’t cheat in post. It was important for us to take that digital edge off the look,” says Porter.

Deeping the visual story a fixed frame using dolly, sticks and jibs were preferred over handheld. “When Jeremy and I talked about the visual language of the film I had to applaud him. A lot of directors probably would have picked up the camera in a very handheld way to push this kind of storyline, but it’s kind of a cop out. It’s much riskier to shoot this film straight and let the actors bring more of the drama within a scene. It’s not like we didn’t take moments to use handheld, we did it very sparingly, in a planned way.”

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An early obstacle the cinematographer had to face was the realization that a big chunk of the movie was located in just one room. “We were very observational when the band is in the green room, but we also had to mix it up because so much of the movie takes place in there,” says Porter. “There’s some slight evolution to how the camera behaves in the room. We would look at each scene and think tonality and thematically to what was happening. Some scenes played out more in chopped up singles or reactions shots with others being long fluid takes only catching little moments to put more stress on the audience where they’d have to fill in the details.”

When moving to other parts of the venue Porter looked to the hardly known Z-Jib. “When we were outside the green room, Jeremy wanted the camera to feel like it was spiraling around the building like a pack of wolves or vultures waiting for the kill,” notes Porter. “Steadicam can feel too dreamy and a little floaty, and Jeremy wanted every frame of the film to be rigid to some extent. During prep I was visiting a grip rental house and in the back, covered in dust was this Z-Jib. It’s an articulating arm that has several pivot points but it’s all counter-balanced. You can set it on a dolly and use it normally like any other jib, but you can also hold and move the camera in your hand. I could go anywhere within a range, allowing us to do moves you can’t get any other way. But it always felt like we were on a dolly – which was the look we wanted.”

Lighting cues elevated the intensity to the storyline as well with every space having its own personality and roll in the film. “No punk venue is lit well. We looked at a lot of different black and white photos of these fantastic punk venues, but we had to find a happy medium with the spaces. We wanted the lighting to be a little ugly and imperfect. About 85-90% of the lights were built in the set to keep it a natural, real space,” Porter notes. The cinematographer’s lighting also evolved in the story through key moments in the script like when the band tears down the fluorescent lights or when the power goes out, allowing Porter to add natural contrast and shadow to the extreme moments of terror.

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As the body count rises you realize Saulnier doesn’t shy away from showing us the gore. “There’s a lot of shock in this script, but the way Jeremy handles the violence is never arbitrary. It’s for a specific reason – we were always balancing that fine line of what to show and what not to show,” says Porter. “The special effects make up team was so good and so fast. They’d rush over and have it all mocked up and it didn’t matter from what angle you looked at it. It looked really good.”

One of those gore-like moments happens by the bar where one of Darcy’s henchmen gets shot. “We originally had planned the majority of a day to shoot that. VFX told us we were going to have to shoot a certain way and tackle all these different elements to comp – it was very complicated. But as we were working chronologically to that moment Jeremy and I thought if we could bring the camera to a stop and cut and paste everyone with some old school tricks it should work. There was a little bit of resistance because it was a seemingly less complicated shot but it absolutely worked,” says Porter. “It was an ‘indie strikes back’ moment for us.”

Production set aside three days to shoot the final sequence to the movie which takes place in the nearby woods. “It needed to feel as if we were at dusk so my first instinct was to shoot sunrise and sunset and spend the rest of the day rehearsing and testing, but there was no way we could get all of what we needed going that way.” Porter ended up doing serval light studies at different times of the day at various angles to figure out the trouble spots of the location. After finding them he used a Condor with a fly swatter to control stray sun and planned the wides when the light worked. “It was super successful. In the thirty or so shots we needed to get there was only one where I didn’t get what I wanted.”

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In the final grade Porter stumbled upon something new to give the film its final look. “I had a really great DIT on set and we were getting great images all along the way. With digital you know exactly what you’re getting on the day but when you go to the grade somehow it never quite feels or looks as good as it did,” says the cinematographer. “While we were grading I noticed this reference monitor that had this incorrect color space. There was something about it that struck me as truer to the original intent. After we finished, I actually emailed Jeremy and the colorist about it and suggested to adapt the look of the film to this incorrect monitor. My colorist, whom I’ve done many pictures with, teased me a bit about it but they ended up going back in and applying the idea and it turned out exactly how it was supposed to be.”

Photos: Broad Green Pictures

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