For Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, shooting on 35mm film is all about capturing the authenticity of performance and setting. In “The Girl on the Train,” it enhanced Emily Blunt’s alcoholic voyeur who gets entangled in a murder mystery, and in Denzel Washington’s Oscar-contending adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences” (a Christmas release), it sharpens the focus on the former baseball player’s struggle with the American Dream in ’50s Pittsburgh.
“Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I can always find the reasons for why you should shoot on film,” Christensen told IndieWire. “It does a lot things. It’s not only the look and the texture, but it’s also the way you work, the way you focus.
“My biggest reason for shooting ‘Girl on the Train’ on film was because this is not a pretty story, it’s not a beautiful backdrop. We are on a train, which is an ugly space. It’s got some green top lighting and some horrible colors. And Emily Blunt is a very beautiful girl, but her makeup is very rough and it’s all about no makeup and red skin, split lips and a red nose. That’s a lot of makeup to make somebody look like that. And film is going to be much more gentle to it, and you can do what you want with the makeup and it’s going to be more truthful for a rough-looking movie. With digital, it’s just too clean. And we didn’t want gloss. This is not ‘Gone Girl.'”
However, it was a struggle justifying 35 mm film instead of digital for the New York thriller based on Paula Hawkins’ bestseller. “It was a tough sell,” the cinematographer said. “I was alone and director Tate Taylor was supportive of me. But there were cost issues and the producers were concerned about the sets. But it was a DreamWorks movie and Steven Spielberg being a film guy was a big benefit.”
Christensen used the ARRICAM Lite with Master Prime lenses with soft filters. Since the story focuses on Blunt’s obsession with two neighbors she spies from the train (played by Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson), Christensen set up a pattern for looks and camera movement.
“For Rachel [Blunt], we play with what she sees and cannot remember and what she perceives as the truth and later on is revealed to be [a deception],” Christensen said. “So she had a lot of hand-held camera and wider lenses close to her and different speeds. And Megan [Bennett], who’s basically running away from the past, has a Steadicam move that’s much more floating, like her feet aren’t touching the ground. And Anna [Ferguson], who’s caged in the house with a baby, is locked up in a different way with static shots.”
In terms of color palette, Christensen went for blue-green on the train for Rachel, a misty softness for Megan and warm yellow for Anna. “It’s a very difficult story to tell visually,” Christensen said. “Rachel sees something and then she reacts in the extreme. This is when we start introducing the flashbacks. How do we make this enough of a moment for her to go so crazy?”
By contrast, “Fences” was an easy sell on film for actor-director Washington, who insisted on going anamorphic as well for the story of an embittered former Negro league baseball player-turned sanitation worker.
“It was all about supporting the dialogue by August Wilson and making it cinematic,” said Christensen.” It was shot on location in Pittsburgh and film was so right. It’s a period piece and it’s claustrophobic and it has a colorful look that’s truthful to the environment and the actors. We’re in a small house and in a backyard and it doesn’t go broad. But the reason why Denzel wanted to go film and with anamorphic lenses is because he said again and again, it’s an axis lens, and when you pull focus, the distortion makes you focus on the face.”
Christensen used Panavision XL and C Series Anamorphic Primes, but there were challenges shooting interiors. They shot in a row house that was about 10-feet wide with low ceilings. “We could only light in through the kitchen and that’s a lot of light inside when you can’t remove a ceiling,” she said. “You’re basically lighting two feet away from the actors. But having seen the movie, the fact that we’re on location gives it that honesty.”
Of course, it helped that Washington and Viola Davis were so intimate with Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about changing race relations, appearing together in the Tony-winning revival in 2010. “My work was about being minimalistic — making choices about what we do not do,” Christensen said. “For instance, when not to move the camera. There are a lot of long takes and wide shots— pacing up and down to break the stillness.
“And we didn’t add to the period. It exposes the bitterness of Denzel’s character, Troy, and digs into it. You understand but you also get very angry with him, like his wife [Davis]. He’s blinded to the truth because he’s set in his mind. It’s a universal story but played out in an African-American culture in the ’50s about bringing up your family and the choices that you make.”