Some shoots are really hard and some shoots are really fun.  “The Beygency” was both.  This spot combined set builds on stage with multiple location moves along with night exteriors, stunt drivers, chase scenes and even a dance choreographer… plus the star of one of the biggest movie franchises in the world and a surprise cameo from one of the biggest stars on TV.  Best of all, this was a fake movie trailer satirizing my favorite of all genres: the suspense thriller.

Before I launch into this post, I want to acknowledge that the universe of paranoid thrillers, and therefore this parody of thrillers, owes a huge debt to a legendary cinematographer who recently passed away: Gordon Willis.  In addition to his more famous work on “The Godfather” films, Willis shot three films with director Alan Pakula that are sometimes referred to as the paranoid thriller trilogy: “Klute“, “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men“.  If you dig suspense thrillers, consider digging into Gordon Willis’ filmography a little deeper than the Corleone family and Annie Hall…

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Gordon Willis and Alan Pakula’s paranoid thriller trilogy

The writers of “The Beygency” were Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, the same scribes from our recent “Dyke & Fats” spot, along with “Girls Promo”, “Midnight Coterie“, “Twin Bed” and a bunch of other film unit spots.  Their inspired idea: combine the cult of Beyonce fandom with a Tony Scott / “Enemy of the State” meets “The Adjustment Bureau” storyline.  Andrew Garfied would play the “everyman” who just happens to admit that he isn’t totally crazy about that one Beyonce song, which suddenly thrusts him into a world of cat-and-mouse flight from a group of shadowy agents, led by Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah, known as the Beygency.  What can I say…you had me at “Tony Scott”.

Let’s just get this out of the way: who doesn’t love Tony Scott?  That guy was such an incredible visual storyteller.  Sure, he may have laid a few eggs but he also basically invented new cinema grammar with “Top Gun”, “True Romance” and IMO, his best work: “Enemy of the State” (“EOTS“) –  one the best paranoid thrillers of the last 20 years.  Hell – it even has Gene Hackman essentially reprising his “Harry Caul” role from another one of the founding thriller classics, “The Conversation“.

My first step on any spot is a concept conservation with our director, Rhys Thomas.  For this one, we talked about “The Adjustment Bureau” and a few other more recent thrillers but mainly we deconstructed Tony Scott. Now, if this were a feature film, perhaps we’d spend a week or two viewing Tony Scott movies together, digging into some deep cuts like “The Hunger” and “Beat the Devil“…really teasing out his influences…but we only get about an hour to figure this out before Rhys has to start making decisions.  In that brief chat, we identified a handful of signifiers for Tony Scott’s visual style: shooting with multiple cameras, compressing space on long lenses, bold saturated color palettes, slick contrasty lighting, constant camera movement, atmospheric diffusion (steam, haze, smoke, etc)…all of it evidence of his strong graphic skills and history in the commercial world.  Yet one of his most powerful techniques was far more subtle: his command of the visual component of LINE.  He understood exactly how to use lines when composing his shots to carefully control the visual intensity of the story.

Below is a snapshot from “EOTS”  and a great example of how Scott uses countering dutch camera angles to create contrasting lines and spike the visual intensity at just the right moment.  Rhys and I knew right away that this dutch-angle technique was something we should definitely emulate.

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Movie trailer spots are always the hardest spots to produce – they just require so so many locations, so many costume changes and so many shots to approximate the scope of a real movie.  Add the choregraphy of a chase sequence on top of that and you start to really stretch what can be accomplished in a single shoot day.

As always, the script was green-lighted late on a Wednesday evening and as Rhys was describing the spot to me, my first thought was: holy crap – how are we ever going to find – let alone shoot – all of these locations in one day?  The script called for: INT. LIVING ROOM, INT. DELI, EXT. ALLEY, EXT. ROOFTOP, INT. DARK CELL and MONTAGE…which actually doesn’t sound totally un-doable…except for that last part: MONTAGE – which of course is short-hand for: a whole bunch of other fun shots and locations, to be figured out...

The other challenge is that most of the script was set at night, yet we would have to start shooting Friday morning due to the live show rehearsal schedule (don’t forget: the live show has to rehearse those other 10-12 sketches at the same time that we’re shooting)…It became immediately clear that we would have to approach the interior locations as set builds while the night exterior scenes would of course have to be shot on location.

Rhys and Art Director Andrea Purcigliotti immediately identified the LIVING ROOM and DARK CELL as the most likely candidates to build on stage, and they got to work sketching out a basic layout.  Rhys wanted the living room to feel like a Georgetown-esque townhouse, riffing on the “EOTS” vibe.

For the DARK CELL, we quickly researched different versions of prison cells: is it an interrogation cell? No – the Beygency are not cops…Is it an Abu Ghraib-style plywood torture cell?  No – the Beygency should not evoke the military…It should feel more clandestine…how about a Cold War underground bunker vibe?  Yes – something like that…How about a concrete cell?  Yes – that works.  What kind of concrete – cinderblock?  No – it’s not a prison – more like concrete slabs.  But not too clean – that will start to feel like a cool modern house…How about water-stained concrete…YES!  That’s it.

Andrea spends the rest of Wednesday night designing the two sets, handing over the blueprints to our set shop, Stiegelbauer Associates by 6:30am.  Stigelbauer physically builds the sets all day Thursday, delivering them to our stage on Thursday evening.  Our rigging grips assemble the sets Thursday night by about midnight and our scenic team somehow gets them painted in a few hours – including that stained-concrete treatment for the DARK CELL.  (Our secret weapon is our charge scenic, a true artist named Lyvan Munlyn).  By 5am the walls are drying and ready for us to show up and start lighting.

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Set drawings for DARK CELL and LIVING ROOM

BACK TO THURSDAY — here’s how the prep day breaks down: Rhys and I, along with our 1st AD Gabe Blom and producer Justus Mclarty, spend most of the day scouting for the many additional locations for all of the MONTAGE moments we hope to shoot.  As we were scouting the streets around the stage, we noticed a storage facility literally next door to our stage, which has lots of corridors and sparse fluorescent lighting – this could definitely work for a quick shot or two.  Meanwhile our set decorator, Ipek Celik, is racing around the city pulling set dressing and props as fast as she can.  Back at headquarters, our coordinators - Melanie Bogin and Tom Carley – keep the ship afloat through an ocean of gear pickups, crew bookings, location agreements and insurance certs…all while our crackerjack office PA, Louis Leuci, is pounding the streets near the stage to find a gas station that would allow us to shoot at their mini-mart counter for the INT. DELI scene – which we scouted next.

Finally we needed to find our night exteriors – a rooftop and an alley, along with someplace to shoot a bunch of other montage moments which at this point were just ideas: maybe a black car pulls up, maybe footsteps run across pavement, maybe Andrew pulls a hoodie over his head and hides behind a dumpster…Alleys are surprisingly difficult to find; you want something narrow enough to photograph as an alley and not just look like a barren street – and on our schedule, we need to find it within a block or two from our TBD rooftop location.  This was getting to be such a mission impossible scout that I was actually lobbying to build the alley on stage…

Then another (very welcome) curveball is thrown: Kiefer Sutherland and Mary Lynn Rajskub agree to be in the spot!  The premiere of “24: Live Another Day” was that Friday night but they would have time to shoot with us IF we can shoot the scene in about 30 minutes and IF we can shoot the scene Friday afternoon.  The aforementioned alley scene, originally written for another cast member, would be a great cameo for them so Chris and Sarah quickly rewrote the NIGHT EXT. ALLEY scene as an INT. PARKING GARAGE – and we were off to find a parking garage with a sufficiently dark and creepy vibe.  Think: Deep Throat from “All the President’s Men“.

CUT TO: Friday morning.  First up is the DARK CELL.  We wanted the location to feel subterranean so I had my gaffer, Keith Devlin and Key Grip, Mort Korn, light the scene with contrasty bounced light from below, using a 1k fresnel bounced directly off the floor and then diffused through a 4×4 frame of 216 diffusion.  We also had a small 2’ 2-bank Kino rigged over the set for some very dim fill light.  A 2K gelled with 1/2 CTO created the shaft of light through the cell door.  At one point I was going to place a light above the set projecting  through a steel grid to create a pool of hard contrasty light for Kate McKinnon to step into.  I decided against it and slightly regret not doing — she was wearing a contact lens that gave her a hilariously milky eye which didn’t read very well in the low-key lighting — but otherwise I think the scene turned pretty cool as is.

Next up was the apartment set where Andrew first vocalizes his displeasure with Beyonce, only to have his house suddenly surrounded by helicopter spotlights and a team of shadowy agents kicking down his door.  This was the opening scene of the spot where we wanted to visually setup Andrew’s “everyman” quality with warm lighting and soft drifting camera moves.  We used a 4K ellipsoidal lighting balloon over the set to create a very large soft lighting source, with a black skirt to keep the toplight off the walls.  The balloon light is a somewhat expensive rental and I could have created a large soft toplight a number of other ways but the lighting balloon is exceptionally fast to setup.  When compared to the time and manpower it would take to rig a comparable soft lightbox from the grid above, I think the balloon is a great solution.  We dimmed the balloon way down to create a warmer look, and added small fresnels over the top of the set to add some additional warm backlight.

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On cue, the lights would all cut out while a 2K bounce gelled with full blue turned on to simulate a “lights out” moment before the helicopter spotlights pierce through the windows.  For the spotlights, we used two 4K HMI Molebeams – which were amazingly effective for this effect.  We also added atmospheric haze in the room with a DF-50 hazer so that the spotlights would create strong shafts of light through the windows.  If I’m being honest, I’ll admit that we stole this effect not from Tony Scott but his brother Ridley, à la “Blade Runner”.

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Influenced by both Scott Brothers: “The Beygency” versus “Blade Runner”

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While of course we’d always love to have more time to shoot these spots, for me this living room scene is the one I wish we could have spent a little more time with.  Looking at the final spot, I could have done a better job of shooting this 4-person dialogue scene and making it feel like real movie coverage.  If I could go back, with a lot more time, I would have lit and shot each eyeline separately.  As is, the camera doesn’t quite seem like it’s in the right place for a few of the angles and the lighting is a little unfocused.  But this is also a great example of the kinds of choices that we have to make a hundred times every shoot day: do we take the time to shoot this living room scene properly and sacrifice a few of our montage shots?  We always tend to favor adding more shots and greater scale versus getting stuck on any single scene.

Camera-wise, Rhys and I decided to shoot with the Epic Dragon.  At first glance this spot actually seemed more like an Alexa job — filmic with that subtle analog grain feeling, not necessarily as clean and crisp as I associate with the Epic —  but we both thought that the Dragon’s small form factor and lighter weight would help us move as fast as we’d need to on this one – not to mention that the improved dynamic range from the new Dragon sensor is really quite impressive.  For lenses, I had my 1st AC, Paul Schilens, prep a set of Leica Summilux-C primes, which are beautifully sharp wide open at T1.4 – and I suspected we would be shooting wide open for the night shots.  We also had an Optimo 24-290mm zoom, which would give us the telephoto reach when we needed that long lens, compressed space look so common in Tony Scott’s style.  And for those signature dutch-angle shots, we used a Tango Head, which is an ingenious low-profile plate that snaps between the camera and the fluid head, allowing you to rotate the camera on the optical axis at up to 45˚ in either direction with the swivel of a handle.  Much easier and more precise than setting up the tripod on a precarious angle.  For the handheld shots, I also used an Easyrig, which my lower back thanks me for.

With our two stage scenes in the can, we raced next door to the storage facility and shot the dialogue scene between Taran and Jay, accompanied with their posse of fedora’ed goons.  This scene is a great example of how sometimes constraint breeds creativity.  We shot this scene in the hallway of a storage locker facility but because it had a long strip of institutional-looking fluorescent lighting and by shooting low angle, you’d never guess we weren’t in a more appropriate, shadow-agency location.

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Next up: COMPANY MOVE – from our stage location in Long Island City, back to Manhattan and across to the Westside highway for the parking lot scene.  This was a hell of a drive through Friday midday traffic and we knew we would have zero setup time before we entered our very narrow window with Kiefer and Mary Lynn so we kept it extremely simple.  The parking garage already looked amazingly creepy – it was more like a parking dungeon with grimy columns and pockets of fluorescent light.  And the lights were not the normal “cool white” tubes that we’re all used to these days – these fluorescents had an extremely blue-green spike that we thought looked perfect for the vibe.  We brought in two Kinos, gelled them to match the existing tubes, and lit a single setup that we’d shoot with two cameras.  Kiefer, Mary Lynn and Andrew all showed up and we shot the entire scene in about 20 minutes.

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Then we lost all of our actors – Andrew had to return to the show rehearsals, and Kiefer & Mary Lynn were off to their premiere.  Luckily we had a stunt double for Andrew who was dressed in matching wardrobe so we could shoot a handful of inserts chasing his feet and the back of his head around the parking lot.

Our next move was back across the river to Brooklyn for the night exteriors – to Greenpoint Terminal, where we also shot “British Movie Trailer” and more recently, “Dyke & Fats“.  I had sent my grip & electric team ahead of us to get the location prepped since we didn’t need much help in the parking garage.  One of the most time consuming parts of any big night setup is laying all the cable out from the generator to your set, which in our case was two hundred feet in one direction and then 7 flights up in another direction.  I provided very specific overhead diagrams and our producer, Justus, was able to jump ahead of us and supervise the whole pre-rig before we arrived.

We were now playing a waiting-game with the cast.  We had a couple hours before Andrew, Taran and Jay were done with the live show rehearsals and could return to us on set, so we shot as many montage moments as we could without cast members.  There’s a reason that so many shots in the finished spot are in silhouette, or are just shots of feet or backs of heads…

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For one of my favorite shots in the whole spot, we found a construction scaffolding-tunnel that we filled with fog.  The temperature difference between the warmer internal tunnel and the very cold outside night created this unexpected swirling-vortex effect with the fog, which we blasted with the 4K Molebeam straight back at camera.  Our director Rhys turned out to be a pretty spot-on double for Andrew as well and that’s him running in the tunnel away from the goons.

Rhys!

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For the quick shot of the suburban barreling through a wall of fog, we stepped right outside the tunnel and setup the same fog machine around a corner with a 10K backlighting the scene.  We brought in our ace stunt driver from the “Dyke & Fats” spot, Tony Guida, and he pulled a perfect fishtail around the corner, through the fog and skidded to a stop right in front of the camera.  Then he did it three more times hitting the same mark.  Please don’t try these kinds of shots without real precision drivers!

We got the call that our cast was leaving the studio – about 20 minutes away – so we made the move to the rooftop of the nearby building, where my grips had already setup a full circular dolly track.  This is where we depart momentarily from the Tony Scott aesthetic and my background as a former camera assistant on Michael Bay jobs betrays me.  Yes: we shot the signature full-circle, slow-motion, “Bad Boys”-style stand-up shot of the Beygency agents.  No: it didn’t make the cut.  Yes: it was totally bad ass.

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We stayed on the circular track for most of the scene between Andrew and the little boy, who rips off his “mask” to reveal that he’s actually Taran in disguise – a fun lift from “Mission:Impossible 3“.  We lit the scene very simply: I had a 9-Lite Fay, gelled with ½ CTO and ¼ Plus Green to give it a slightly dingy street light look, diffused by an 8×8 Unbleached Muslin very close for a large, soft key light, with a 2K on a high stand backed way off for a back light.  When Taran, Jay and the fedora’ed agents finally reveal themselves and then break into a choreographed Beyonce dance, Rhys’ idea was for this to be our suspense thriller version of a Beyonce video, so we cued our 4K Molebeam “helicopter spotlight” effect to ballyhoo behind them like a circling chopper, all staged with the NYC skyline behind them.

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FINALLY…for our last location move, we head back to Long Island City where our day began to shoot the gas station for our INT. DELI.  Once again I had my grip & electric team move ahead of us, where they added a few Kinos to augment the existing fluorescent lighting.  In this case we were dealing with a mini-mart full of the traditional cool white fluorescent tubes, so we simply put matching tubes in our Kinos.

By this point we were all exhausted and to top it off, our star, Mr. Garfield, was starting to feel under the weather – not a good thing when he’s got a live show to host the next day!  We had to shoot this last scene between Andrew and Bobby Moynihan in two setups: one setup on Andrew, then let Andrew go home and shoot the reverse on Bobby with Rhys once again standing in for Andrew.

This is also a great example of how shooting 5K resolution with the Epic Dragon really helped the scene.  Because we were in a time crunch and needed to release our actors ASAP, we shot the scene in loose medium shots, knowing that Rhys and editor Adam Epstein could zoom in and reframe the shots in post as needed.

The post production story behind this spot is just as frantic and exhausting.  The edit officially kicked off at 4pm Friday afternoon as the footage started to trickle in to Adam in the edit room…was derailed at 11pm Saturday night when THE WHOLE SYSTEM CRASHED just as Rhys and Adam were trying to export the final version and which they barely recovered from in time for the broadcast…and ending at 1:30am on Saturday night.  Yes — that is 30 minutes after the live show is over…what gives??  Well, don’t forget: the West Coast broadcast is 3 hours later — which means the live broadcast may be the “final” version but with those 3 extra hours, the West Coast gets to see an even more final version…and even then there may have been a couple tweaks before the “final-final”: the online version.

For a warp-speed view of the entire post process, check out Adam’s timelapse screen capture, covering the entire edit from Friday afternoon until the very  last export on Saturday night.