As part of our “How I Shot That” series, Indiewire asked cinematographer Brandon Trost about his work on Marielle Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which world premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and will hit theaters on August 7, 2015.
Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, the period film starring Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard, Chris Meloni and newcomer Bel Powley was shot on location in San Francisco. The film marked a shift back to independent films for Trost, who in recent years has been working on big-budget comedies such as “The Interview,” “Neighbors” and “This is the End.”
READ MORE: Marielle Heller, Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgad Discuss Creativity and Gender at ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ Screening
What camera and lens did you use? RED Epic, C-Series Panavision anamorphic lenses
How did you get involved with this project? It’s funny. I got involved with this movie because of another movie called “MacGruber.” It’s basically a very bizarre collection. Mari [Heller], who directed this film, is married to Jorma Taccone, who is the director of “MacGruber.” Because of that, we became friends and I knew about “Diary” years ago when I first met them. It’s kind of a strange connection to meet up through this weirdo comedy I did for her husband.
This was the most difficult shot on my movie — and this is how I pulled it off: It’s funny that sometimes a simple shot can actually be the hardest to do. There’s a scene in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” where our lead character, Minnie [Bel Powley], is walking down Polk Street on a sidewalk with a leading camera move. In the final shot she is walking next to an animated character from her imagination, which was laid onto the scene in post. That’s it, nothing fancy, but it was a testament to indie filmmaking to get all these moving parts to work together with so many obstacles.
It’s a period 1970s film, so all the cars parked on the street had to be vintage, background actors had to be dressed correctly, the few ADs we had were trying to hold back pedestrians and crazy Tenderloin tenants, all as the sun was literally setting on us. It was total chaos! The angle had to be low to block modern traffic and people across the street and hide unwanted signage, so I sat with the camera cradled in a rolled up furniture pad on a doorway dolly while being pulled backward over a rough sidewalk to get the shot. We couldn’t afford a Steadicam, so this was the best we could do. The shot is much less stabilized than I prefer, but we finally got the shot and the scene turned out great. I’m sure no one will think to notice how hard it was to pull this off in the end, but that’s just another day on set.
This is my favorite cinematographer, and why: I don’t think I could pick a favorite cinematographer. My heroes have always been the likes of Dean Semler, Andrew Lazlo and Dean Cundy. Their films shaped the way I learned to love movies and used styles that I continue to emulate today. Semler’s work with westerns and big-budget action movies has always blown me away. Lazlo’s ability to add natural or practical light to see into the darkness. He shot “The Warriors” and “First Blood!” Cundy’s ability to to move between genres yet retain that magical, nostalgic film feeling such as Carpenter’s horror films, the classic Zemeckis films or his work with Spielberg. All of these guys have one thing in common and that is that they shot all my favorite movies as a kid and they look amazing.
What’s the best film school for an aspiring cinematographer? Or is it necessary?) I’m not sure what the best film school is for an aspiring DP, I only know the one I went to which is The Los Angeles Film School in Hollywood. I went during the school’s infancy which was more like a trade school at the time but I had a great experience there. What worked so well for me was the attitude of learn by doing. On the first day at that place there was a camera in my hand and I was off and running. That’s how I remember film school. Not sitting in class, but shooting and working with friends and I believe that there is no better learning curve than experience. You can use that attitude with or without film school, I think it depends on the person and how comfortable you are with diving into the deep end.
Do you think the shift from film to digital is good? bad? (or just is?) I’ve always loved digital and I’ve always loved film, although at this point I haven’t shot a movie on film since 2009 and to be honest, I don’t care. I think digital looks just as great. You can make a film look cinematic on both formats, but digital just keeps getting better and more streamlined for all aspects of filmmaking. I like seeing what the shot looks like right out of the gate and so does everyone else working on it, allowing for more precise collaboration across all departments. I also don’t understand the stigma that the death of film means the death of cinema. Cinema isn’t going anywhere and digital continues to afford young filmmakers to make films in ways that weren’t always possible and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
What advice do you have for cinematographers who want to get to Sundance? No one should shoot a film with Sundance being the sole intention. Sundance isn’t a goal, it’s a reward for hard work toward a career and doing what you love. I’ve been asked for advice before, mostly for “how to make it” or “what did you do?” The answer is always that you can’t get anywhere in this industry without hard work, perseverance toward learning your craft and trusting your collaborators. I also believe in the saying that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
What’s the best career advice you’ve received? The best piece of advice I ever got was also the first. Right before I started film school, I reached out to a DP named John Leonetti, who is a family friend. He told me to look at the light. Watch it. He said that lighting will never look as good as it does in real life and you have to learn how to create it and apply it to scenes in the way that you remember seeing it. To this day, it’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten.
What’s the worst advice? I think that any advice can be bad advice when it is presented as if it were a hard fact. Everybody is different and needs to find what works for them. I’ve learned to take what works for me and run with it, and that not everyone’s opinion will be right.
Watch the trailer for ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl” below:
Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrate cinematography at Canon Creative Studio on Main Street. Read the entire series here.