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A Killer Style For A Contemporary Noir: “The Killer Inside Me”

By Marjorie Galas

Sunday, January 24th: “The Killer Inside Me” premiers at the Sundance Film Festival.  Immediately the movie stirs up controversy for its graphic depiction of violence.  Based on the 1950s novel by Jim Thompson, director Michael Winterbottom defends his narrative decisions.  What is depicted on screen is necessary to revealing the psyche of main character Lou Ford, played by Casey Affleck.

Monday, January 25th: “The Killer Inside Me” producers Jordan Gertner and Chris Hanley participate in the 411 Publishing/PGA’s Live At Sundance Production Incentives Webinar.   Sharing the floor with Oklahoma Film Office Director Jill Simpson and Entertainment Partners VP of Bbusiness Development and Production Planning Joe Chianese, they discuss the many tax breaks that allowed the movie to be made, the help given by the film commission, and the benefits of shooting on location.  The locations, they said, enhanced the visual style and mood.

Friday, June 18th: “The Killer Inside Me” will be released nationwide. To discuss the visual style and the mood of this feature, 411 Publishing recently spoke with the man responsible for capturing every frame, cinematographer Marcel Zyskind.

411 Publishing:  I wanted to start off by discussing the approach you took in developing the look and style of this period piece, “The Killer Inside Me,” with director Michael Winterbottom.

Marcel Zyskind:  This was my ninth film with Michael.  Because we know each other so well, the amount of time we used on prep has become less and less through the years. The main thing was to find the right locations, and we talked about how we thought the 50s should look. Production designer Mark Tildesley came along with us for those meetings and scouts. I think it is more stylized than the films we did before, but that has a lot to do with the subject matter and the era.  When you have people in 50s clothes and 50s cars, I think it automatically begins to be more stylized than if you do contemporary things, you know?

411:  In developing that style and look, would you say you worked more closely with the director or the production designer?

MZ:  Michael has a very clear idea of what he’s trying to achieve.  He knows what he wants and we help him out with that.  I spoke a lot with the production designer about things like paint: which color to paint this and that.  We shot some tests with painted boards which were various suggestions for the bedroom and for the interiors of Lou Ford’s house.  That was our main location, so we did a few color tests.  We could easily see which ones we liked and which ones we didn’t like.  Lynette Meyer, the costume designer, had very good taste in clothes and they all looked very nicely on the actors, so it sort of came naturally, I think.

411: How long did you spend on pre-production?

MZ: In the end we spent much more time than we would have liked because there was quite a bit of issue with funding.  Actually, it is a little difficult for smaller films like that.  I think, all in all, we had maybe four weeks, which is kind of normal for this kind of film and this kind of budget, and they were sort of spread out throughout the period.  Maybe the last two weeks up to the film were quite intense, but it was spread out over a few months time.

411:  What type of cameras did you use?

MZ:  We shot on the 35 mm Arri cam.  I was very happy to be able to shoot the film on film, because I think it is the best format you can shoot films in at the moment.  For the period look I think it’s brilliant, really.

411:  Had there been the discussion, especially with a smaller budget film, to shoot digitally?

MZ:  Mmm, no.  I think Michael was pretty clear that this film needed to be shot on film.  But there have been various films in the past due to budget restraints that we had to shoot on various digital formats.  Thankfully this wasn’t an issue.

411:  How much work were you doing adjusting color during the DI process?

MZ:  We saw in the test there would be a fair bit of adjustment.  We wanted to move towards the magenta and the yellows.  We quite liked that look, because a lot of films at this moment tend to be very blue and orange.  A few years ago, with a friend of mine in Copenhagen, we thought maybe we should try that forbidden magenta look.  Everything used to be green, and then suddenly everything was cyan and orange.  When you put that magenta in the black, shadow areas it looks great I think. I think the DI process is nearly the norm today. It’s difficult to do a traditional film print these days because I think a lot of the people who used to do it are retired, and now it’s a new generation of people doing lab work.  We were working at a higher resolution than we would normally do we’ve only done it in 2K before  By being a smaller film 4K wasn’t really an option, but they gave us a good deal.  The warm, yellow-y magenta look and the high speed, there was no other way to do it.

411:  Can you talk a little bit about how you lit this movie?

MZ:  This was one of the biggest lighting jobs I have done with Michael on the nine films.  For the exteriors, we don’t use lights to be honest with you.  There are a fair bit of car shots where we had a process trailer and used some light.   Lou Ford’s house had quite a lot of wood inside, so it’s dark and a fair amount of light had to be pushed in.  We had some big 18k and 12ks outside just to fill from the windows.  I don’t bring lights inside the house; I keep everything outside because we like to be able to shoot freely and not have to do too many adjustment.  Obviously for nighttime interiors that’s a little different because you have to use practicals and add smaller fixtures inside that require a little more adjustments.  Michael doesn’t like to wait too long for lighting but he knew in this film, this needed a bit more finessing.  We just took our time.

411:  It sounds like the style you’ve developed with Michael is a bit more of a documentary shooting style?

MZ:  Well, yes, with certain films that we’ve done before; a few road movies, and “A Mighty Heart” which was shot with more naturalistic lighting and just the camera being handheld, and having a bit more of a sense of urgency.  I don’t think that was the case in this film.  I know it’s kind of cliché to say, but it is a little bit more of a noir-ish film, so we just went for what we thought would look nice and look good for the sets that we had and with the actors.  When you shake your dice and you put various people together you get a certain result.  With this case, I feel very happy with that result

411:  How were you moving the camera around the set to get that noir sensibility?

MZ:   We had a dolly, which is new for Michael and me to have on set.  And we had a zoom and a crane as well, for a few shots, which is highly unlikely with Michael because he doesn’t like crane shots.  We went for a little more standard film approach, where we usually like to cut to the bone and not have a lot of things.  So there is a lot of movement in the film, with the dolly combined with the steadicam which we used quite a lot, and a little bit of handheld for all of the bedroom scenes with Lou Ford and both Jessica Alba’s character and Kate Hudson’s character in bed. It frees you up to just be able to make it a little more intimate.


411:  You’ve worked with Michael on nine movies now, but you’ve also had the opportunity to work with people like Danny Boyle and Lars Von Trier.  What do you think you’ve learned from these different experiences that have really helped you as a cinematographer?


MZ:  Well, I’ve been very lucky I think to work with such good directors throughout the last few years.  When people know what they want, when they have a drive to go there and they have a certain technical knowledge of the medium and all it’s aspects as well, from the small things to the bigger things, costumes to the editing and everything: when they are aware of it and they know about it, it just makes it a great pleasure to work with these people.


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