In his new feature Dark Horse, writer/director Todd Solondz puts a unique spin on what he’s referred to as the “manchild genre,” one that’s familiar to anyone who’s seen a Judd Apatow comedy. But Solondz, the maker of dark, often controversial films including Welcome to the Dollhouse, Palindromes and Happiness, is more interested in the very real pain, anxiety and disappointments such a character might encounter in the real world.
Selma Blair (Miranda) and Jordan Gelber (Abe). Photo by Jojo Whilden.
Set in a strip mall-infested area of New Jersey, Dark Horse concerns Abe (Jordan Gelber), a middle-aged man who still lives in his parents’ (Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken) house, works as little as possible in his father’s real estate business and fills much of his spare time collecting action figures. When Abe meets the pretty Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding, it seems things might take a positive turn for him…until a series of Solondz-style complications send events off in a different direction.
Solondz has a core group of fans who never miss his work, but he admits, “Each of my movies seems to make less than the last one.” As a result, his financing—never in the range of a studio production—has gotten commensurately tighter.
Cinematographer Andrij Parekh is no stranger to movies about difficult subjects or to working within the limited budgets this kind of filmmaking commands today. He shot the uncompromising study of a breakup, Blue Valentine, and Half Nelson, the edgy, uncomfortable story of a drug-addicted high school teacher. Even so, Parekh says of Dark Horse, “I’ve never shot a film as fast as this one. We had 21 days with a lot to do. Twenty-one days is incredibly tight.”
Director Todd Solondz (left) and director of photography Andrij Parekh
Parekh shot with a RED ONE camera and decades-old Zeiss Super Speed primes—mostly the 35mm and 50mm—to bring to the look the kind of straightforward approach Solondz prefers for his subjects. There is a kind of deadpan quality to the director’s work that extravagant lighting or camera work could only interfere with. Even when Dark Horse leaves the world of objective reality and enters the POV of a character, Parekh reports, “there was deliberately no obvious demarcation from the style we established from the start.”
Parekh stresses the importance of careful planning on a project with such limited resources. For example, he carried only about five lights for most of the shoot. “You don’t want a bunch of lights on your truck if you don’t have the crew to set them quickly,” he says. “We had enough crew members to move fast with the amount of equipment we had. It’s always about finding the right balance—finding enough equipment and crew but not having too much.”
Aside from the script and performances, a great deal of the angst and oppressiveness the audience feels as Abe’s story unfolds comes from the boxy, lifeless spaces the production found for people’s homes and the real estate office. “The locations really helped tell this story,” Parekh says. “From there, I tried a naturalistic approach to lighting. There were already fluorescent lights inside the offices we shot in. I used that light and brought in a few Kino Flo units and gelled them to match the color temperature of what was there. For most of our daylight interiors we relied on the sun for illumination, and gaffer Bill Newell was very effective in helping me schedule our days to use our ‘main light’ to our advantage.
“Abe’s house was tricky because the windows were small and the strongest lights I had were two 6K HMI units from outside. But we made that work, and then I added some Litepanels and Kino Flo units sparingly. I lit this film in very broad strokes, but that made sense for the story and it helped us to move very fast.”
Parekh brought on a digital imaging technician to focus on the technical setup of the RED workflow so the cinematographer could concentrate on his lighting and operating duties. DIT George Robert Morse handled the hard drives and the transcoding of the R3D files to ProRes for editorial. (DIT Sam Kretchmar set up the initial workflow.)
Parekh recounts that it was very helpful to have the DIT there when issues cropped up with the RED camera. In one case, the cinematographer noticed a distracting strobing effect during shots inside Abe’s Humvee. The problem, which occurs in varying degrees with any CMOS sensor camera, causes unwanted artifacts in shots of fast horizontal movement. Parekh and Morse worked out that by using the digital equivalent of a 280-degree shutter angle, the strobing could be eliminated.
The cinematographer points out that in the case of Dark Horse, the limitations really didn’t prevent him from giving Solondz the kind of photography the director wanted. “He’s very conservative about camera work,” Parekh notes. “He definitely cares about the camera and lighting, but his primary concern is the script and the actors, and he wants the images to have a very natural, straightforward look.”