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Lessons From Legendary ‘Donnie Darko’ Cinematographer

Lessons From Legendary 'Donnie Darko' Cinematographer

When “Donnie Darko” burst onto the scene in 2001, audiences didn’t know what to make of it. Amidst straight genre pieces released that year—”The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Fast and Furious,” “Hannibal” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” to name a few—Richard Kelly’s thrilling masterpiece was conspicuous, identifying itself as part horror film, part cerebral sci-fi, part ’80s coming-of-age drama and part dark comedy. It offered up more questions than answers, ushering audiences on a mind-bending journey into metaphysics and selfhood, at once a critique of American suburbia even as it explored the mechanics of time travel. Not surprisingly, it was a massive domestic box office flop. But ultimately “Donnie Darko” reached the right people: today, it’s a sleeper hit and modern cult classic. 

Though the film is generally hailed for its originality of vision and undaunted performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze, there’s more to it than Kelly’s superior direction. In order for a thematically complex, esoteric movie like “Donnie Darko” to coalesce into an entertaining experience, it must be visually interesting. That’s where Steven Poster, ASC comes in.

How it all began

“I remember walking in, and Richard was pacing back and forth,” Poster recalled of his initial meeting with Kelly. The director was 23 years old and fresh out of film school; Poster was 57 and a seasoned DP, having worked with Ridley Scott and numerous other large productions. “It was obvious he was kind of nervous to meet me,” Poster continued. “I said, ‘Richard, from this point on, you and I are the same age. Don’t think of me as being more experienced than you. My experience is yours.’ What he didn’t realize was that I wanted to be his age.” If Poster did have reservations about Kelly’s inexperience, they were assuaged after the two embarked on an intense dissection of the script. “Richard was fully formed from birth as a filmmaker — I agreed to do the movie based alone on the first day of prep,” said Poster. “We read every word, every sentence, every page, every scene in the movie. I made him justify to me why he wanted that in the movie. I wanted him to be able to tell me what each scene was going to tell the audience. I have a deep belief that every element of every frame informs the audience. We talked and argued. Once we got through that, we understood what we needed to do to make this movie.” 

Managing expectations

There’s not a lot of wiggle room on a $4 million dollar movie by a first-time director. That’s why a good DP knows how to manipulate producers and manage a director’s expectations. For Poster, “a lot of bringing my experience to this had to do with tricking the producers into letting us do what we wanted to do.” First there was the off-color choice in film stock. “This was the only film shot entirely on the Kodak 800 ASA stock. It had just come out, and people were saying it looked terrible and grainy. But I like grain.” Kelly had already convinced the producers into letting them shoot anamorphic, which is significantly more expensive than using a regular lens because it requires twice as much light. It was there that Poster saw an opportunity. “I offered the 800 ASA stock. I knew that would cut the amount of light we needed in half. Plus, I knew we were shooting in this location in Long Beach with fairly low ceilings, and with anamorphic we wouldn’t have to worry about seeing the lights on the ceiling because of the format. The producers said, ‘Oh, wow, I guess that make sense.’ It was more that I wanted to use the 800 stock anyway, and that just became an excuse for the lenses. I would constantly trick the producers into letting us do things.” 

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Kelly came to the project with a grandiose vision, and Poster served as translator to a more practical production mindset, paring down ambitious sequences where he could. One of the most technically adventurous scenes in the film follows the main characters through their high school building. “Initially, Richard wanted this entire scene of introducing the school, from exterior to interior, all in one Steadicam shot,” said Poster. “He was going for a ‘Touch of Evil’ look. The producers came to me and said, ‘You have to tell him no.’ But I am not in the business of telling the director ‘no.’ I’m in the business of saying, ‘If you want this, we can do it. This is the time it’s going to take. You have to make that decision.'” In a cunning move, Poster staged a rehearsal with Kelly and the Steadicam operator. Knowing full well that Kelly wanted to time the scene to a particular piece of music, Poster asked Kelly to keep an eye on the stopwatch while choreographing the camera movements. Twenty minutes later, Kelly emerged from the rehearsal with a changed mind. “It wasn’t a matter of saying no,” said Poster. “I just knew what it was going to take in terms of screen time to be able to do that, and I knew that we couldn’t do what he wanted to do.” Poster also talked Kelly down from overusing the film’s now-iconic 360 Dutch angle. “I was able to convince him that if you do it more than a couple of times in a movie, it becomes a conceit that will take away from telling the story.”

Visual language

“The visual quality of what we were doing needed to have, by title, a darkness to it,” said Poster. “Even though we were shooting in sunlight a lot of the time, it needed to have a sense of bringing the audience forward to squint to see into it more. One of the big things that Richard came up with in pre-production was the idea that there was so much strange stuff going on in this movie that it didn’t need an additional layer of photography to take away from what was happening with the story. So ‘Donnie Darko’ was shot very straight in terms of where I was putting the exposure and the quality of darkness. I don’t remember any front light in this movie. It was all heavily backlit so that you could force the image down deeper and darker and still have it look like daylight.”

The duo determined their shot priorities ahead of time. “We had to understand what we needed to do to make the scene work, and what were the bonus shots. When we were coming up to eleven hours and had an hour left before wrap, we knew that we were covered for the scene. If we needed to drop stuff, what we were dropping was not essential for the cut. You always get into that situation. Your eyes are bigger than your stomach. You want more than you can do. You have to be able to make those determinations. And I don’t like storyboarding. I think it locks you into stuff that you never use anyway.”

Shooting anamorphic

Poster and Kelly decided to use the Panavision PanaStark camera package with primo anamorphic lenses. “When you shoot anamorphic, you don’t need as much coverage,” said Poster. “You can use the frame to tell the story in a much different way than in a 16:9 frame. You’re restricted in terms of height, though, so we were always asking Patrick [Swayze] to kneel down. You don’t have to move the cameras much, because you have all of that real estate. People would always ask why I wanted to use anamorphic indoors in a claustrophobic movie like this. Because it’s the perfect format to be able to shoot a close-up and have someone else in the frame at the same time.” 

Ramping

One of the classic features of “Donnie Darko”‘s visual style is the liberal use of slow-motion and fast-motion, otherwise known as ramping. This element is essential to the visual poetry of the story as it relates to the manipulation of time. “It was difficult,” admitted Poster. “We had four remote heads and there was also a Dolly move in that shot. It took 5 hands to operate that shot, one turning the camera, two panning and tilting, then there was a handoff to another operator.” In 2001, before the digital camera revolution, ramping was a physical act. “We had to have a camera that could ramp. These are things that we do so easily now with digital, but then, it was a new thing. We didn’t want to do it in post. We wanted to do it live. It was a technique for introducing each character. Every ramp except for one was done in real-time.”

Cinematographer = problem solver

The biggest problems Kelly and Poster faced on set were lighting the large auditorium for the Sparkle Motion sequence and lighting Frank the Bunny. “We used smoke in the auditorium,” Poster said. “Smoke is a great lighting trick. It allows you to light areas that you don’t necessarily have to put light in– you light the smoke and it gives you that appearance that there’s light there. It’s tricky to use, though, because if you get a backlight on it, it shows the smoke and it doesn’t look great. That was one trick that I used to be able to see the shapes of the audience in the background without having to light too much. That also helped silhouette the girls onstage.” As for Frank the Bunny: “Richard gave us the drawings for what he wanted Frank to look like. Me and the designers all thought it was terrible, too evil. Richard insisted. Once we saw it we knew he was absolutely right. But it was impossible to light. It scared the hell out of me. I was so angry. But we ultimately used a long lens and took some of the glare off. It was shocking on set, because I hadn’t thought of the way the silver would catch the light.”

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“The bane of a director of photography’s existence is asking to shoot an outdoor scene at a specific time. Nine times out of ten you will never get the time you want. That’s what happened in this particularly important courtyard scene, which we shot midday. It was very harsh and ugly. I had grips carry a 12×12 overhead softener to soften the sun. We had to choreograph that with the moves. As filmmakers, we’re problem solvers. You are confronted with a set of problems in every shot that you do. Once you can define what the problem is, you can come up with a solution.”

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