Cinematographer Craig Kief was on vacation when producer Jonathan Buss – a guy he’s worked with on a few documentaries – sent him the script for “7 Days in Hell.” Kief had no idea what was coming, and by the last page he was nearly in tears from laughing so hard, he recently told Indiewire.
“7 Days in Hell” is a mockumentary about the longest tennis match ever at Wimbeldon in 2004. (Lest you think it’s real, we Googled it, and the longest match was actually 11 hours long over three days, in 2010.) Written by Murray Miller (“Girls,” “American Dad!”) and directed by Jake Szymanski who hails from the “Funny or Die” and “SNL” camps, the 42-minute HBO film stars Andy Samberg and Kit Harington (“Game of Thrones”) and includes cameos from Lena Dunham, Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Mary Steenburgen, Michael Sheen and Serena Williams.
With only four days to shoot the film, and three days after Kief was hired, he and his team began the production from hell – in theory. There were 100 scenes to shoot, four different time periods, 12 camera packages and so much of it in the 110-degree heat of Palm Springs. But funnyman Samberg was there to keep the set light, and who could deny that a little Snow would cool things down?
Indiewire caught up with Kief in between a Netflix comedy special and the start of a new Muppets show for ABC, and he told us how in the “hell” he was able to pull this shoot off (with no small thanks to his crew and the deft decision-making of Miller and Szymanski).
Samberg is well known for his antics, but Harington is a whole different game (of thrones; wink wink). What was he like on set and in this role?
Everyone is going to be shocked with how funny Kit is in this movie. He’s a really phenomenal straight man to Andy’s craziness. For me, on a production level the biggest surprise was his look! I’m a huge “Game of Thrones” fan and was so excited to be working with “Jon Snow.” During the first scene on the first day, Kit was on his own and it took me a good 10 minutes to realize that this clean-shaven guy wearing tennis gear and hair pulled back was him. I’d be willing to bet not one of the hundreds of people staying at our hotel recognized him either.
What was it like shooting in that heat in Palm Springs?
Since it’s Wimbledon, we needed a grass tennis court and there are very few in southern California. The only one that could work for our small budget and had the wide range of other locations to shoot all on one campus was a resort in Palm Desert. We had to shoot at the beginning of July because Andy and Murray needed to get back to their shows, so it meant we were shooting our tennis footage in 110-degree heat. Plus, our schedule was so tight we had to shoot two full days of it, working right through the worst parts of the afternoon. It was brutal. There was no escaping it. Extras were passing out in the stands – and all they had to do was sit. I have no idea how Andy and Kit survived playing full-out matches.
What went through your mind when you signed on to shoot a mockumentary?
My goal was to make it as real as possible. This was the core of my strategy when choosing cameras, lighting and techniques. Even when it came to the times I was operating, I would leave the room when Jake gave direction to Andy or Kit on a scene so I wouldn’t know what was going to happen, and have a more natural documentary cameraman reaction.
The film is set in the 1980s, ’90s, ’00s and 2014 and is visually told through archival footage from TV documentaries, news shows, home video footage and network sports coverage – all connected by present-day interviews. Tell us your approach for such an ambitious shoot.
Jake and I wanted to create a different look for each decade, of course, and didn’t want to rely solely on color correction to achieve it. He suggested early on that we use older formats, so I looked into finding video cameras and lenses to shoot vintage video. The cameras from these eras capture light and colors in a way that just can’t be duplicated in a grade, and we fully embraced the flaws they had.
I chose three 2/3″ Panasonic DVCPRO SD cameras, three Panasonic 720p HD cameras, two Canon pro-sumer cameras (HD and SD), a Red Epic for the interviews and a couple of GoPros and miscellaneous home video cameras to shoot found footage. Lenses were all Canon ENG SD and HD lenses, plus a 13.5-1161mm sports style box zoom lens and a 40-560mm zoom. Tennis gameplay was shot exactly as any sports network would shoot Wimbledon. The art department built an enormous three-wall set around a grass court in Palm Springs complete with signage, scoreboard and bleachers. The walls ended 15 feet above ground, and were extended with a CGI stadium and crowds.
Camera angles were carefully chosen to match actual Wimbledon angles, including the high angle wide master shot, for which we built three-story scaffolding. We also made multiple TV show and documentary looks that were shot with one-to-three cameras, and were a mixture of 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios, standard definition and 720 HD, and 24 and 30 frames per second. Home video and found footage was shot with the pro-sumer cameras.
Are you interested at all in how we managed all of this stuff?
We’re interested in this whole crazy operation.
It was pretty silly really. I had one first assistant cameraman and one second and about 60 cases of gear. No operators at all for the first two days. So for three camera setups, my AC would operate the wide and I’d run back and forth between the closeups when cues came up. When we’d run to a new location to shoot a bit we’d just grab whatever of the dozen cameras was appropriate off the cart and start rolling. It was the craziest camera department ever, but the madness was fun.
We kind of wish we were there. But okay, back to your look and lighting…
For interior scenes I used lighting techniques appropriate to the time period – with hard Fresnel light for the 1990s, softer sources including Kinos and LEDs for the 2000s and a high-contrast single-source cinematic style for the present day. For those interviews I deployed the Epic camera with an Alura zoom lens. We also ran the Epic at up to 300fps during tennis gameplay to capture slow motion shots.
What’s the advantage of going through practical application of getting the different looks that you describe as opposed to color correcting for it?
To me, digital cameras are like film stocks. Each one has it’s own distinct look with its inherent good and bad qualities. There will never be another camera that will have the same look, just as there will never be one film stock that looks like another. Just like film, with digital acquisition you can approximate the look of a different medium through post processing, but it’s never really the same. Frankly, it was really painful working with these old cameras. It was a stark reminder of how much better and easier the cameras we work with today are. The extra effort it took to deal with all of these formats and equipment was definitely worth it though, as is evident, I hope, in the visuals of the film.
“7 Days in Hell” premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. on HBO.