Federal Hill (1994) was the first feature I shot of any substance. It was also my first film to be released in theaters nationwide. As you can imagine, that was a thrill that remains with me to this day.
It was made for very little money – $85,000.00 to get it in the can! Digital technology didn’t exist at the time, but that didn’t hurt us in any way. Director Michael Corrente and I agreed that it needed to be originated on 35mm black and white negative because it was perfectly reflective of the world the characters inhabited. As a small independent, it also helped us stand out from what at the time was becoming a very crowded field.
Prior to this experience I had never shot B&W to any appreciable extent. My knowledge of that medium grew mostly from 16mm reversal stock and years of shooting stills, and I found that the aesthetic crossed over easily. I had also worked as an assistant cameraman on one of Gordon Willis, ASC’s monochrome efforts for Woody Allen – Broadway Danny Rose. The lessons I learned there gave me a head start in how to approach the new challenge.
For this scene – thanks to the assistance of the Rhode Island Film Commission – we were able to commandeer a nighttime stretch of highway in order to shoot a road rage encounter. The main problem revealed itself as soon as you opened your eyes at the location: There wasn’t a foot candle of light to be found in any direction. No lamp posts, no street lights, no ambience from nearby structures…nothing. It was like being under triple-canopy jungle – at midnight. I couldn’t rely on headlights from other cars to help as we couldn’t afford them! Beside, at ISO160, they wouldn’t have provided enough pop for an exposure.
Federal Hill was also the movie on which I perfected my begging, borrowing and stealing skills. A call to the extremely generous Brian Heller at Boston Camera secured a camera car for a few hours and we were off to the races, so to speak.
There was no way to light the principal vehicle from on or within itself. It was a convertible carrying five guys and the units would have been seen in plain view. Even allowing that, the exterior would still have gone dark. Instead, I mounted a borrowed Mole Richardson 10K Fresnel on the camera car so that it served as a mobile light stand. I used it where I needed to, when I needed to. As long as the drivers maintained consistent distance and speeds, I got what I needed without too much stress…but that’s another story.
The camera sat on baby legs in the bed of the director’s pick-up truck. We positioned ourselves according to the demands of the shot. The Jeep driven by the preppy was my own personal vehicle. If anyone has a doubt about my commitment to cinematography, watch the clip and see the great sacrifice I made for my art.
This may not have been the ideal way of shooting this scene, but it was the only way possible. In the context of the movie it works extremely well, fitting as it does with the prevailing style. The 10K covered enough of the road and surrounding scenery to give a sense of where we were. The light also reads like ambience from other, oncoming cars, even though there was no one on the road at the time except us.
Please excuse the aspect ratio of the clip. We originated in 1.85 but the video distributor neglected to release it in such, choosing 4×3 instead. For further tales of the senseless idiocy foisted upon this movie after its release, see my blog post of December 1, 2020, The Abomination.