Schaefer Uses Rare Format, Looks to 70s Films on Paperboy

Roberto Schaefer, ASC, AIC recently used an unusual film format, chosen to give the images more grit. The film was The Paperboy, and the format was a 2.40 frame center-cut and extracted from a Super 16 film negative.

The Paperboy is director-producer Lee Daniels’ return to the big screen following the phenomenon that was Precious (2009). Precious took home two Oscars, and also earned nominations including Best Director and Best Picture. The Paperboy, based on a novel by Peter Dexter, follows a reporter who returns to his home town to investigate a case involving a death row inmate. The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman and John Cusack.

Roberto Schaefer, ASC, AIC

Schaefer’s previous film was Machine Gun Preacher, the tough, real-life tale of Sam Childers. Childers is a former biker-outlaw who experienced a religious conversion and gave up a violent life of drug abuse and dealing to dedicate himself to helping war orphans in the Sudan.

Schaefer and director Marc Forster chose to film Machine Gun Preacher in Super 16 anamorphic format, using Hawk lenses with a 1.3x squeeze and Kodak film stocks. Some wider shots were done in 35 mm. Schaefer also used ARRI Relativity grain management software to match the grain structure of the two formats. “We wanted it to have that immediate feeling of a real down and dirty story that people could relate to,” says Schaefer. “But it also seemed to want an epic feel, but without gloss. In Africa, there are the physical landscapes, and also a lot of big action sequences, with machine gun fights and burning villages. The wide frame would give us that real horizontal landscape, as well as the intimacy that anamorphic can bring.”

For The Paperboy, Schaefer considered a similar path, but instead chose to shoot spherical and extract the image. In this case, the smaller negative area would give the images additional texture.

“Lee and I went over film after film, and we looked at a lot of photographs,” says Schaefer. “We looked at old DVDs of films from the 1970s, DVDs that had not been remastered. We looked at films like The Graduate [shot by Robert Surtees, ASC], The French Connection [Owen Roizman, ASC], Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [Haskell Wexler, ASC], and The Landlard [Gordon Willis, ASC]. We looked at these films on a poor monitor. Lee wanted to deliver that feeling to the audience. I told him that in order to recreate that look, we’d have to degrade the image. We decided to try the 2.40 extraction, and to not prettify things.”

The other aspects of the cinematography were true to the late 1960s period – no Steadicam, and no remote heads. There are many master shots that move into two-shots and singles. Other scenes play out in a master. “In terms of staging and blocking, we took our cues from The Graduate, mostly,” says Schaefer. “In that film, there are so many wonderful master two-shots, with someone walking into a closeup. Or someone walks out of the master and a third person comes in. They did some beautiful blocking on that film.”

The story of The Paperboy unfolds in the American south, and in some cases Schaefer tried to communicate the oppressive heat with the character of his lighting. In one small garage location with an eight-foot ceiling, he pounded light through windows and through the garage door opening. “That scene was influenced in part by Richard Kline’s [ASC] work on Body Heat,” says Schaefer. “I remembered seeing those scenes where William Hurt goes into the diner, and you can feel and see the heat. It’s a little bit overexposed and it just feels burnt. So I wasn’t afraid of pushing it. We tried to make it authentic and strong, and to make a statement with it.”

Schaefer also took inspiration from a scene in The French Connection, and later had an opportunity to discuss it with Roizman, who shot that 1971 film and earned an Oscar nomination for his gritty imagery. The movie also took home five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for William Friedkin.

“There’s a scene in The French Connection where Popeye and his partner go into a bar and see the dealers, and it’s lit very red,” says Schaefer. “Later Owen told me that he’d put up white lights, some with red filters, some with yellow filters, and some with blue filters. Where they all crossed, it was white light. And you’d get shadows in different colors where they didn’t all cross. I didn’t know that when I shot our scene for The Paperboy – I wish I had – but I used a lot of red and blue filtering. It was fun trying to be authentic to those films from the 1960s and 70s.”

The Paperboy premiered at Cannes this past May, and is slated for a limited release in the US in October 2012. The film will screen in Europe later in the Autumn, with a wider release planned in early 2013.

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