For most of Hollywood history, the romantic comedy was a staple of theatrical moviegoing. From the glory days of Ernst Lubitsch (“Trouble in Paradise”) and George Cukor (“Adam’s Rib”) in the classical studio era to the onslaught of Julia Roberts, Matthew McConaughey, and Reese Witherspoon vehicles in the 1990s and early 2000s, pretty people saying funny things while falling in love was a consistent and reliable form of big screen entertainment. In the last few years, however, the genre largely moved to streaming, with studio slates leaning disproportionately toward comic book movies and other preexisting IP while reserving slots devoted to more modestly budgeted fare for horror films.
Yet the theatrically released, well-resourced romantic comedy made a glorious return to the big screen in 2022 with “Ticket to Paradise,” director Ol Parker’s hilarious and sweetly moving George Clooney and Julia Roberts vehicle. The movie has many pleasures, from Clooney and Roberts’ return to swiftly paced light comedy after dour dramas like “The Midnight Sky” and “Ben Is Back” to a script (by Parker and Daniel Pipski) that uses that light comedy as a delivery system for an exploration of deeper issues relating to aging and regret. Perhaps the key aspect of why “Ticket” represents such a satisfying return to form for the genre is the luminous cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland, whose dynamic widescreen compositions and shimmering lighting transport the viewer back to the era when the big screen romantic comedy thrived. To revive the art of rom-com for contemporary audiences, Birkeland looked back at its conventions to examine what made them so effective. Here are four ways he applied those lessons to the photography of “Ticket to Paradise”:
“Ol and I talked about ‘His Girl Friday,'” the cinematographer told IndieWire, noting that one of the keys to Howard Hawks’ visual language in that film was avoiding excessive close-ups and allowing romantic sparring partners Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell to share the frame whenever possible. Birkeland applied that idea to all of his scenes with Clooney and Roberts as a divorced couple who clearly still have feelings for each other. “It’s usually two-shots, and when we do go over the shoulder, it’s a three-quarter angle so that we always see them interacting.”
Birkeland expanded on Hawks’ compositional techniques by shooting widescreen with anamorphic lenses, a format unavailable in Hawks’ day that provides even more opportunities for Clooney and Roberts to stay visually connected in a manner that reveals the delicate nuances of their expressions and gestures while still giving them space and context. The movie was shot off the coast of Queensland, Australia (doubling for Bali, which was eliminated as a viable location due to COVID concerns), and the photography constantly reminds the viewer of how beautiful the surroundings are — which subliminally makes us fall in love with the characters as they’re falling back in love with each other. “We were quite keen to avoid big close-ups,” Birkeland said, “so that the environment was always part of the story and part of the experience for the audience. You look at those beaches and seascapes, and you think, ‘Of course, you’d fall in love with somebody there!'”
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
The love for the locale that the movie inspires in the audience was a natural outgrowth of Birkeland’s own response to the landscape. “One of the great pleasures of the shoot was that we did spend a fair amount of time on the beach, so it’s the first movie I could ever go to work in barefoot with a T-shirt and shorts,” the cinematographer said. Which doesn’t mean shooting “Ticket to Paradise” was a vacation: “It’s deceptively simple. Logistically it was very complicated, because there’s a lot of water stuff and a lot of sunrises and sunsets, and we’re shooting in Australia at the height of summer when the sunlight is quite unflattering.” To counteract that unflattering quality, Birkeland carefully timed when and where he would shoot key scenes, which meant that a pivotal kiss was shot from one angle on day three and from the reverse on the second to last day of shooting on totally different beaches.
Ease of Movement
Aside from wanting to make the actors and their surroundings attractive, Birkeland also wanted to take advantage of the longtime friendship between Clooney and Roberts that aided their onscreen chemistry. “We shot at a relatively high stop, around 5.6, because I didn’t want to be chasing focus,” he said. In order to preserve the spontaneity of the actors’ performances and the ease they shared on screen, Birkeland opted to shoot most of the movie with what he called “invisible handheld”; the frames are relatively stable and classically composed, but Birkeland kept them on his and the second camera operator’s shoulders in order to keep the momentum of the takes going. “We tried to move fast so the actors would never be waiting around for an hour and a half while we changed setups. With handheld you can move quickly; as soon as you get all that metal around, it becomes a more cumbersome affair.”
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
Shooting in this way allowed Birkeland to achieve a balance between old-fashioned glossy romanticism and a more independent feel that mined the most poignant material from the film’s occasional serious scenes, in which Clooney and Roberts’ characters reveal the pain beneath their comic banter. At the same time, the lighting becomes subtly softer and more romantic as the characters let their guards down. In the end, however, Birkeland never wanted the audience to feel overly manipulated, and this speaks to the power of the movie, which is somehow both breezy and profound. “We felt that it was important to let the audience experience it rather than tell them how to experience it,” he concluded. “I know I keep talking about the audience, but in something like this, it’s all about how they respond to it. It doesn’t matter if you act your socks off if it feels alienating.”
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