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American Experience: Fusing New and Archival Footage for the HBO Film ‘All the Way’

“It’s an amazingly dense story of how Johnson was able to play the political system to his advantage,” says DP Jim Denault.

All the Way started life as a critically acclaimed, multiple award-winning 2014 Broadway production that took audiences behind the scenes of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s tumultuous first year in office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. With Bryan Cranston reprising his Tony Award-winning turn as LBJ, HBO Films is bringing All the Way to television. The film, which debuts May 21, was directed by Jay Roach (Recount, Game Change, Trumbo) from a screenplay by Robert Schenkkan, who wrote the original play, and shot by cinematographer Jim Denault, ASC (Trumbo, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Silicon Valley).

The production follows LBJ as he cajoles, maneuvers and powers the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into being, with a large cast of historic figures including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Gov. George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Stokely Carmichael and other figures involved in the struggle for civil and voting rights in the United States.

Bryan Cranston as President Johnson. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle.

All the Way, produced for HBO by Amblin Television, Tale Told Productions, Moonshot Entertainment and Everyman Pictures, reunites Roach and Denault, who have worked together five times before, most recently on Trumbo. “While we were shooting Trumbo, Jay and Bryan started talking about All the Way and if it would happen,” Denault recalls. “My prep started with the script. It’s an amazingly dense story of how Johnson was able to play the political system to his advantage, with the overlapping storylines of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act and his southern Democratic supporters. It’s a really fascinating story.”

Doing his research, says Denault, he began to realize just how important a president Johnson was. “He was also the first president to hire a staff photographer,” says Denault. “Johnson was incredibly media savvy.” His staff photographer, Yoichi “Okie” Okamoto, and photojournalist David Hume Kennerly also happened to be some of Denault’s strongest inspirations when he was shooting still photography in high school. “They used very graphic framing, bold and strong,” he says. “The way they composed shots and captured moments was up there with Henri Cartier-Bresson. They always managed to find an unusual angle in ordinary situations.”

Cinematographer Jim Denault

Roach “didn’t come in with a huge graphics treatment,” says Denault, but rather a list of the shots he wanted. “His lists are little narrative descriptions to make sure he doesn’t miss any beats,” says Denault, who says he showed the Okamoto photographs to Roach when they were doing hair and makeup tests. Because a fair amount of black-and-white news footage is integrated into All the Way, there was even some talk about shooting in B&W—but, says Denault, “there was a resistance to that.”

During those hair and makeup tests, Denault came up with a couple of “look files” (LUTs), which, he says, is one of his favorite features of the ARRI Alexa. “With the look files you create, everything you see on the monitor is color corrected the way you think you’re going to do it,” he says. “Everybody on set gets used to it, and the dailies colorist’s job is to match what I did on set.”

In creating those looks, Denault says he paid special attention to skin tones. “In the older photographs, the skin tones are much cooler,” he says. “I feel like our taste in skin tones has shifted to warmer. So, taking inspiration from the research, I pushed the skin tones cooler.”

From left, cinematographer Jim Denault and director Jay RoachFrom left, cinematographer Jim Denault and director Jay Roach

Although the production was shot in color, all those colors are muted, making for less of a jolting contrast with the B&W archival footage. When there is color, it stands out. “There’s one scene where Johnson is driving an [aquatic] car in a bright turquoise,” says Denault. “It was such a pretty, sunny moment, but even then we knocked the color down to make it more like the rest of the movie.”

Preproduction was about five weeks, and much of it was focused on preparing for the first three weeks of shooting in the Oval Office set, built on Stage 6 on the Culver Studios lot. “The set was huge,” says Denault. “On Stage 7, we had the dining room, bedroom and sitting room in the White House. Figuring out how to light the sets within the budget we had was the first task. I wanted to not have to move lights around on the floor, so I had to light from the ceilings, but [I also had to have] hard ceilings because I like low angles, too. One of Okamoto’s framing devices was to have a huge amount of headroom, which made a statement about the space people were in.”

Part of the solution, says Denault, was to use a large piece of bleached muslin, stretched tight, to cover the Oval Office. “Because there were no lights on stands on the floor, we could move the camera around quite a bit without touching equipment,” he says. “[The muslin] was expensive, but you see the results on the screen. Jay [Roach] likes cross-coverage whenever we can get it, so we shot a lot of it with two cameras.” Denault’s two operators, George Billinger and Rob Stenger, “really got on board with the Okamoto framing,” he says.

Bryan Cranston on Air Force One set

Lighting was straightforward, says Denault, who notes that the production was able to use photo backdrops from the TV show The West Wing. “Normally you’d light those backings with skypans,” he says, “but with 5,000-watt lightbulbs, 90 percent of the wattage goes to heat and only 10 percent to lighting.” Instead, Denault chose Mac Tech Ladder Lights, which, as LEDs, are much cooler and more efficient. “My overall approach was that I wanted it to look not lit,” says Denault. “That’s why, as much as possible, I used light coming from places you believed it would come from. I didn’t go for any glamorized lighting but kept it rougher looking. That made me feel it was very much like Okie’s photographs.”

Although All the Way takes the viewer back in time, Denault didn’t choose vintage lenses that have become popular of late, relying instead on Leica Summilux primes. “Sure, I could have found an old set of Baltars, but there would have been only one set, and if something happened to it, it would have been a problem,” he says. “The Leica lenses are very clean. They don’t have a ton of personality, but sometimes you don’t want that. If you look at the still photos, you don’t see many weird distortions. I like the fact that, afterwards, if I see something is a little too sharp, we can defocus it digitally. In still photography, I liked working in the darkroom. The digital intermediate has given the darkroom back to me.”

Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle.

The story takes place largely in the White House and Congress in Washington, D.C., as well as LBJ’s Texas ranch and environs, but the entire movie was shot in the Los Angeles area—a treat for Denault, who got to spend time with his family over the 42-day shoot. About 50 percent of the shoot was on the White House, Senate and House of Representatives sets on the Culver Studios lot, as well as “odds and ends” such as the office of the governor of Georgia. Locations included Shadow Oaks Ranch in Thousand Oaks, Puddingstone Lake near San Dimas, the steps of Los Angeles City Hall and the Nixon Library, which houses a reproduction of the White House’s East Room.

Denault did the digital intermediate at Technicolor with DI artist Skip Kimball. “We did a fair amount of what I would call ‘burning and dodging,’” he says. “In the old days I would have used grad filters, but now you can do it with power windows, such as darkening the edges of the frame—very similar to what I would do with a still photograph. We did a little shading in ways that aren’t exactly ‘natural’ and would be difficult and time-consuming to do on the set but that draw the viewer’s eye to what you want them to look at. I believe in using every creative tool available. I am definitely not a purist.”