George Ratliff and Tim Orr: Seeking Cinematic Salvation

Cinematographer Tim Orr agreed to shoot director George Ratliff’s Salvation Boulevard because he loved the quirky script, was friends with Ratliff, and had always wanted to work with him. The dark comedy, starring Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connolly, Ed Harris, and Marisa Tomei satirizes religious obsessions and hypocrisy in the world of mega-churches and wraps those concepts around an offbeat attempted murder mystery. Creatively, Ratliff wanted to use light thematically throughout the story and felt he needed a lighting wizard to assist him in this mission. When Benoit Debie, who shot Ratliff’s previous feature film, Joshua, was unavailable, Ratliff quickly turned to Orr, whom he considers to be “a master of light.”

Pierce Brosnan is Pastor Dan, whose inner turmoil is at the center of “Salvation Boulevard.” Photo by Mark Preston. An IFC Films Release.

“I’ve known Tim for years and am a big fan of his early work with [director] David Gordon Green,” says Ratliff. “What always made me scratch my head in wonder was how he captured the kind of naturalism you see in his films, especially outdoor light. I always felt there was a Terrence Malick sort of feeling to those kinds of shots. He’s a master with light and a good guy to work with. Plus, on a movie like Salvation Boulevard, which is a small movie, we had to work very fast, and Tim has the discipline for that sort of work. On this movie, we did it in a 26-day shoot, working very fast, and yet, Tim helped me get a big movie feel to it, and succeeded in attaining an amazing, crisp look, which is very much in keeping with the subject matter.”

Orr’s collaboration with Ratliff on Salvation Boulevard, an independent film from Mandalay Vision shot in late 2010 in Michigan, offers an example of when things go particularly right in the collaboration between director and cinematographer. Ratliff emphasizes that he and Orr were simpatico on most key creative issues going into the project, and then, Orr would routinely help him figure out ways to make the plan better in the trenches.

Cinematographer Tim Orr.

Director George Ratliff.

“Early in the process, we sat down and did storyboards and, luckily, we were feeling the same way almost shot for shot,” adds Ratliff. “But then, we’d get on set, and inevitably, more often than not, Tim would find a better idea than I storyboarded, and he’d give me that particular gift each shooting day.”

And Orr, for his part, raves about how smoothly his partnership with Ratliff went, using terms like “easy conversations in the prepatory phase,” “clear ideas,” “it was easy for George to articulate what he wanted the movie to look like,” “no micro-managing,” and “very collaborative” to describe how they worked together.

“I get his vision in those first conversations, and then I go off and develop further ideas about how to light scenes, what they should look like, what colors to use in terms of selecting gels, and so on,” adds Orr. “Then, I bring in my gaffer [Jonathan Bradley] and develop those ideas further. That’s when we get down to figuring out the best instruments to use. When we get to color, we look through our gel selections and try to find the right colors that are evocative of the decisions we need to make for particular scenes.”

Orr adds that the two men relied heavily “for inspiration and reference” on the work of the Coen Brothers, particularly Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

“We also looked at deep, dark, brown wood tones in movies like [the Coen Bros.] used in Miller’s Crossing, ” Orr elaborates. “But in terms of the modern contemporary look of it all, No Country for Old Men was a strong visual influence. Like that movie, this movie has comedy but I still viewed it as more of a dramatic thriller. So we wanted to shoot it with a predominantly naturalistic look, but also a rich look, using color in a vibrant, evocative way. No Country for Old Men was shot so beautifully by Roger Deakins [ASC], and yet, at the same time, the photography gave you the feeling that, at times, you were certainly not safe, which is something we wanted to bring into the world of Greg Kinnear’s character [Carl], who gets dragged into a murder mystery. We wanted a darker, richer drama. So, in that sense, we lit it dark, but tried to use contrast in color for a lot of different locations, whether to underscore what is happening with a character or a particular idea or moment in the script.”

Greg Kinnear plays Carl in “Salvation Boulevard,” shot by Tim Orr. Photo by Mark Preston. An IFC Films Release.

Filmmakers shot the movie on film (Kodak Vision2 5260 500T stock for day exteriors and Vision3 5217 200T), with a set of Panavision Primo lenses and, most of the time, a single Panavision Platinum camera.

Orr’s expertise with the manipulation of light and color was crucial as the story moves visually to the places where characters are mentally at particular times. When they feel despair or a fall from grace, as opposed to when they feel close to God or closer to attaining salvation, the lighting schemes change accordingly. This methodology commences with the story’s unintentional attempted murder—a point at which “a tonal shift occurs in movie, and along with it, a visual shift,” says Ratliff.

“We start with a fairly naturalistic look early on, but when the [apparent murder] takes place in the office of the professor [played by Ed Harris], it’s a key moment in the story because it kicks off sucking the Carl character into the lie that the Pastor Dan character [Brosnan] cooks up to cover up the shooting,” Orr elaborates. “So, at that point, we try to steer it toward a darker tone, a darker atmosphere, and use a fair amount of decently heavy contrast, not only in terms of light values but in terms of colors. I tried to use a warm lamp lit key light motivation, and then exterior light was a reasonably deep cyan color that just filters into rooms from one side.”

Soon, Pastor Dan comes close to losing his faith, and a key sequence shows him in his study and, eventually, watching TV where the color palette of a latenight movie about the devil starts to take over his world.

“In the study, I tried to exaggerate whatever natural color was in there, but in a subtle way, so that it doesn’t take you out of the movie,” Orr adds. “I would use a sodium vapor look and uncorrected cool white so that they kind of collide with one-another. Although there are natural colors in this world, they appear unnatural at times, underscoring the turmoil inside the character.

“Then, when he finds the devil staring at him from the TV across the room, the initial motivation was firelight, but I tried to turn it slightly redder as the personification of the devil right in front of him. As he begins to sense that feeling, he’s overtaken by it, and at that point, I try to overtake the room with a fairly red light. Those are examples of pushing color in hopes of underscoring the emotional tones of a scene.”

Another example comes near the end of the film after the pastor is stabbed, and lies bleeding in the rear of an SUV, presuming himself to be dying and hoping he’s about to enter paradise. Again, the scene starts stylized, dark, and red as he lies in the back of the vehicle.

“But then, the Carl character stumbles on the vehicle and opens the trunk, and when the trunk opens, there is a blast of white light seen from the eyes of Pastor Dan as his salvation,” Orr adds. “To him, it’s the white light of heaven. Then, we filter through that white light and gradually come back to a more natural exposure as we see it is the face of Carl he is looking at, not the face of an angel.”

Throughout production, this kind of work was often particularly challenging because the movie was shot entirely on locations. Thus, executing thematic lighting was, occasionally, tricky.

“There is one scene where Pastor Dan is in the shower and he is praying and an almost God-like light shines down on him in the shower,” says Orr. “That was a practical location and, of course, bathrooms are not known for their size, so that was a bit difficult. We rigged a mirror up into the ceiling and used a 4k HMI with a dimmer shutter on it, and bounced that light into the mirror at the correct angle to produce the shaft of light. That’s an example of how to deal with things when you do not have the ability to put a lighting asset exactly where you want. So the movie wasn’t so much about getting too crazy in terms of instruments that we used. It was more about being creative and collaborative about how we used them.”

This kind of approach is seen throughout the movie. The mega-church sequences, for instance, were shot in the Ford Center of Performing Arts in Dearborn, Michigan, constantly utilizing old-school camera and compositing tricks to make the auditorium mimic a modern church, fill the place up, light it, display appropriate imagery on giant video screens, and film seemingly fervent religious rallies there.

“We had one day in the auditorium,” says Ratliff. “It was crazy, but you just work it out when you are all on the same page. We only had about 150 extras to film and composite together to fill the place up, we had to arrange fake video for the video screens, and we had to film in a fake AV room on a different day in a different location. To work on such a short schedule, Tim and I and his gaffer and crew had to be in alignment. Everyone just pitched in together to get it done—that was the collaborative nature of this movie.”

Orr suggests the plan worked so well because he, Ratliff, and Bradley “share similar tastes in terms of lighting. And yet, we all bring new ideas to the table. Filmmaking is such a collaborative art, and on a film like this, the more you make it a collaboration, the experience of making the film, and the film itself, are richer for it. That was certainly the case on this movie. I think we were all pretty much of a like-minded spirit.”

That spirit helped make happy creative partners of Orr and Ratliff, who are likely to work together again, both men suggest. Ratliff says “we were already friends, and on this movie, we found our working relationship.” In fact, the director chuckles, the only concern he has about Orr is when he approaches him with the words “I’m going to try and sell you on something.”

“He does that a lot,” the director says. “But that’s OK, because I’ve come to have such implicit trust in his eye. He’s a really fine DP.”

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