Photographed by Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, Ethan and Joel Coen’s Hail, Caesar! revisits the fictional Hollywood studio the brothers first presented in Barton Fink, Capitol Pictures, but is set roughly a decade later, in the early 1950s. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a production executive at Capitol whose job it is to keep the studio’s wayward stars in line and ensure that productions stay on schedule and on budget. When Capitol’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped while filming an expensive religious epic, Hail, Caesar! A Story of the Christ, the crisis becomes one of many Mannix must address before he receives his next phone call from New York.
As Mannix goes about his day on the studio lot, we glimpse a variety of productions in progress: a Busby Berkeley-style aquatic fantasy, a musical about Navy seamen, a tony drawing-room drama, and a Western that is mercifully light on dialogue. The visual variety gave Deakins an opportunity to re-create some classical Hollywood styles — albeit with a Coen brothers twist. The cinematographer with recently spoke with AC about the production.
American Cinematographer: The films within the film look and feel authentic. What research did you do on those different genres?
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: We watched a number of clips from movies. This wasn’t a hugely expensive production, so we were limited in what we could re-create, and we didn’t want to be strict about it. I don’t know how we could’ve been, anyway, because the film stocks they used back then don’t exist anymore. What we really wanted to get was the feeling. Our Western, Lazy Ol’ Moon, was shot with a locked-off camera, and it has a quality similar to early color Westerns, some of which were shot with a two-color process, I believe. For ‘No Dames,’ the number we see being filmed for the musical, we looked at some Gene Kelly films, and I think the camera moves in our scene reflect the feeling of those numbers.
It was great seeing all that old movie equipment on the film sets: the jibs, the dollies, the lights, and even a huge Technicolor camera. Did you and the directors engage in any specific research about the way films were made in the 1950s?
Deakins: We went to a rental company called Hollywood for Hire, which has the most equipment from the period we wanted to depict, and quite a lot of old equipment had to be reworked for our purposes, including a camera crane that our key grip, Mitch Lillian, had to repair in order to just make it usable. I don’t think it would pass health and safety these days, the way they did things back then! In the 1950s, they used almost exclusively direct light. When we pop out wide and show the sets with the lights, you can see that we were quite faithful to the way the lights were rigged and the kind of lights that were used. The 10Ks and 5Ks haven’t changed much, and if you’ve got a modern 10K or 20K up on a rail, it doesn’t look much different than a light from the 1950s. The housings for some of the smaller lights were bigger and bulkier back then, and we had a number of those, and some scoop lights from that period. We also had some Brute arcs that we used once for a Western exterior, but that bit of the sequence was cut out; we didn’t use them at all on the stages because it’s difficult to run them and they’re supposedly a fire hazard now. Otherwise, we used pretty traditional lamps.
The Biblical epic Baird Whitlock is starring in looks like a spot-on pastiche of the old three-strip prestige pictures.
Deakins: Well, we obviously couldn’t shoot three-strip, but we wanted to give it the rich colors in keeping with the style of those films. The interior sets were lit like they would’ve been in those days, especially the crucifixion scene, where we had a painted backdrop with predominantly blue and pink colors. I lit the backing with slightly blue colors and then lit the foreground in a fairly traditional fashion with a warm key and a lightning effect. The courtyard sequence was incredibly colorful and lit with very hard, direct light, something like 60 10Ks and a couple of 20Ks. I didn’t light it exactly the way they would’ve done it because I wouldn’t know how to. I just did it my way.
How did you approach filming the water ballet?
Deakins: We were lucky to shoot on the same tank at the Fox lot where Esther Williams actually shot her films. We were not only lighting the set, but also lighting off the set because most of the dialogue between DeeAnna [Scarlett Johansson] and Eddie takes place poolside, with the set in the background. I might’ve used something like 120 10Ks because I wanted a fairly high-key and saturated look. I was shooting on 200 ASA stock to get the fine grain, and you need an enormous amount of light to do that. Now I quite sympathize with the guys who had to do it back when the film stock was only 50 ASA. It must’ve been hot on those sets!
Not only that, but a lot of films from that era tend to have deeper focus as well.
Deakins: I don’t know whether that was a deliberate stylistic choice, or just that the lenses in those days worked best at around T5.6. At that stop you get quite a good depth of field, especially if it’s a reasonably wide angle. But it wasn’t all like Citizen Kane, where Gregg Toland [ASC] was going for a particularly deep focus.
This was your first film shoot in quite awhile. Did you stick with your Arri 535B or use something else?
Deakins: I had the Arri 535B that I’ve used for years — luckily, Otto Nemenz still had it — and I used Zeiss Master Primes. I could’ve shot the film at a T1.4, but I think I was at about T4/5.6, trying to get a depth of field that was similar to what they achieved back then.
It was particularly fun to see the drawing-room drama, Merrily, We Dance, both in color while they’re filming it and then in black-and-white in the dailies.
Deakins: I think that scene looks better in black-and-white because that’s what it was lit for. The longest conversation we had about that set was about the white pillars and what color the walls should be. I suggested we paint them pink because reds come out darker [in black-and-white]. I just wanted contrast in the final black-and-white product.
Your mention of a two-color process for the Western is interesting because it really feels like there’s a color missing from the palette in that sequence.
Deakins: We deliberately went for a blue night, which is what they would’ve done back then. We had a couple of backings painted a very rich blue, and then I lit them with an even more extreme blue light, though the moonlight we had on Hobie [Alden Ehrenreich] was a bit cleaner. Then we had a warm practical inside the barn with the girl.
It seems like the one genre popular in that period that is not sent up in this movie is film noir, but I noticed that as the story goes on, some aspects of Mannix’s job start to take on mysterious, noir-like qualities.
Deakins: In his office at Capitol Pictures, I wanted the look to be a bit stylized, with sunlight always coming in. I had big lamps in three different positions for three different times of day so I could change the way the light hit the room, but always keep the light hitting the blinds for that noir-ish effect. Towards the end, the look of the whole film becomes more theatrical, like in the scene where Eddie and the lawyer go to Silverman’s office to try to solve the problem with DeeAnna.
The film plays up this tension between fantasy and reality until the two converge in the scene where Burt Gurney [Channing Tatum] defects to the Russians.
Deakins: As soon as you see Channing coming out of the fog in the rowboat with the moon in the background, and his pose is from [the painting] Washington Crossing the Delaware, you’ve moved into another realm, haven’t you? Then, with the revelation of the submarine, it becomes this Hitchcockian version of reality. Our production designer, Jess Gonchor, had two-thirds of the submarine built, most of the side of the sub and part of the conning tower, and we were shooting in the same tank where we’d shot the water ballet. I asked them not to build the conning tower full scale because I needed to get a moonlight effect coming over it. Then we had painted backings of a mottled, blue-gray sky that were quite stylized, and a painted backing to reproduce the shore. All the CGI involved the submarine surfacing and submerging.
How much of the picture’s look did you set in-camera?
Deakins: In the past, we would’ve done it all in-camera, but these days it’s so easy to change the color in the DI that I just shot it clean, took bit of saturation out and added a bit of blue. The only time we used a camera filter was for Hail, Caesar! I used a Coral filter to get those warm, red-yellow tones. Most of the DI work was little finesses. For the sequence where Hobie follows Burt to the Malibu house, the process work took a bit of matching because it was a combination of plates shot at dusk and plates shot at dawn down in Palos Verdes. We shot the police cars with their flashing lights going by in the plate work, and then onstage we shot with the same flasher on a dolly tracking past George and Alden and the car. For the footage from Hail, Caesar! I made the reds in the costumes pop a bit more. The whole submarine sequence was basically in-camera with some visual effects, and finishing that was just a matter of balancing the saturation from shot to shot and doing bit of windowing here and there. I think I did the DI in about seven days, which is not a long time. If you mess around too much, things end up looking synthetic. Sometimes the flaws are what make it feel real, anyway.
Given that there are so many different film styles in the movie, it must have been immensely fun to shoot.
Deakins: It was fun, but, as with all films, you’re also thinking about staying on schedule and just doing the work. You’re not really there to have fun, but I’m lucky in that I enjoy doing my job.
Watch a trailer for the film here.