Behind the Lens: DP Jo Willems & Limitless
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : Behind the Lens: DP Jo Willems & Limitless
Imagine you could take a simple pill that would give you easy access to 100 percent of your brain? That's the premise of Limitless, which the filmmakers describe as "a paranoia-fueled action thriller about Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper), an unsuccessful writer whose life is transformed by a top-secret smart drug that allows him to use 100% of his brain and become a perfect version of himself." Under the influence of the drug, Eddie can do anything, including learning any language in a day, and soon makes a fortune and has women falling at his feet. But he also draws the attention of shadowy forces that will do anything to get their hands on his stash of pills.
Directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Interview with the Assassin) from a script by Leslie Dixon (Hairspray, The Thomas Crown Affair), based on the novel Limitless (originally The Dark Fields) by Alan Glynn, Limitless, which also stars Robert De Niro, was shot by cinematographer Jo Willems.
Willems, who hails originally from Belgium, initially made his name with music videos and commercials and then burst onto the feature film scene with Hard Candy, directed by David Slade and released in 2005. He went on to shoot London (2005, director Hunter Richards), Rocket Science (2007, directed by Jeffrey Blitz), 30 Days of Night (2007, directed by Slade) and Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009, directed by P.J. Hogan) before landing Limitless. Creative COW's Debra Kaufman sat down with Willems to talk about the distinctive look he's created for Limitless.
How did you get on the project?
Neil [Burger] had seen a couple of my films. I had done a movie with the AD he was working with who also recommended me. Neil and I got together. Usually when you do these meetings on the phone, you've read the script and taken some notes, but there's not much to say about the language of the film. Straight away, we found we had some films we liked in common, and that brought us closer together in a creative relation.
(Left to right.) Director Neil Burger reviews a scene with star Bradley Cooper on the set of Relativity Media's LIMITLESS. Photo Credit: John Baer ©2011 Dark Fields Productions, LLC All Rights Reserved.
Which films did you both like?
We talked a lot about Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and the Dardenne Brothers, not necessarily films that were related to Limitless, but we got onto this tangent about those kinds of films. That got the spark going between us. I'm close to the Ken Loach style of filmmaking, which is honest and truthful. Even Limitless has some of that…a rawness, to have the audience dragged into something that's real, has some weight rather than being plastic.
You've had a lot of experience shooting music videos and commercials? What do you like about this work?
I started this when I was pretty young. Music videos were my early love, and let me develop a craft and work. Then commercials came around, and that became something else. You start dreaming about making movies. Long-form is something definitely that I like. You really get the joy of developing a whole visual language with a long-form piece. This film had so much potential because of the main character that changes and constantly changes back and forth. To develop a language and look, to try to make the audience feel what the character was feeling, was really fun.
How did your background prepare you to shoot Limitless?
I guess whatever you do, you bring it with you. I never work in specifics when I start a project. I work in a more intuitive way. Things come to me and are stored within my head of whatever inspired me. My experience in music videos and commercials…it's all one melting pot in my head.
Bradley Cooper stars in Relativity Media's LIMITLESS. ©2011 Dark Fields Productions, LLC All Rights Reserved.
Tell me about the visual language that you and Neil Burger created before you even started production.
First of all, from my point of view, I try to understand the script as best as I can. I'll dig in my head to find what I think could be a good starting point or I'll take something from Neil as a lead. There were some Nan Goldin photos that we referenced for example; we started going on that tangent. You look at locations and start thinking about the quality of the light and what each world can be. Neil came up with the idea that, when the Eddie Morra character is on the drug, to have a luminous feel. But I didn't want it to be too flat or cosmetic. Fashion photography came up, and I said, yes, but it's still a drama. It can start with a small idea, and then become philosophical or psychological. You sit down and talk. It's something that constantly develops as you go through the film. In this case, we had pretty sharp ideas for what I wanted the two worlds would look like.
By the two worlds, you mean the first world when Eddie Morra is down on his luck and broke, and the second world when he's taking the drug and become powerful and charismatic?
Yes. It was really important that both worlds looked very different. For the drug look, the freedom to do this can sometimes look over the top or garish. It is pretty pushed in the film; it almost has a synthetic look because the drug is synthetic. At one point, I wondered if I should shoot half the movie on film and half on digital.
Bradley Cooper (center) stars in Relativity Media's LIMITLESS. Photo Credit: John Baer ©2011 Dark Fields Productions, LLC All Rights Reserved.
So the movie was shot entirely in film? What camera did you choose and why?
We decided to shoot with ARRI film cameras. They're lightweight and that worked because we would do a lot of work handheld for the drug shots. We shot with Cooke lenses, which have a rounded feel--not a harsh lens but not soft either.
Actually, for certain things, we did use digital cameras. All the infinity scenes or fractal zooms as Neil called them were shot with the RED, and we had a couple of shots with digital DSLRs although I'm not sure how much of that was used.
One way I did differentiate the look was by the use of different film stock. When Eddie is not on the drug, it's on Fuji stock and all the rest is Kodak. We were looking for a different look, a different grain structure, and then we pushed it more in the DI.
Another way I differentiated the look was with lenses and lighting. When he's off the drug, we used a little bit longer lenses and the lighting was more uncontrolled. We tried to express the idea that his life is in chaos, that he's not getting anywhere. When he was on the drug, he had much more vision, in a way. So we wanted to shoot that with wider lenses so you have more depth of field. With the Kodak stock with a lower ASA rating, we had sharper film with a more 'lit' quality.
Tell us more about the different stocks you used.
I used Fuji 500 Tungsten, which we ended up pull processing one stop to get a slightly softer feel. The Kodak stock was 5217 Tungsten at 200 ASA. Actually, there was some 5219 used for the fight scene in the tunnel because there really wasn't enough light. I even pushed the film one stop and went for a grungy, grainy raw feel, which suited the scene perfectly well.
What other ways did you play with the look of both of these worlds? I've heard about this illusion of a 360-degree vision you created.
Yes, to demonstrate Eddie's rapid assimilation of all the information around him, we ganged the cameras together to show 360 degrees.
When everything starts to fall apart, Eddie starts having blackouts and time-skips. We wanted a broken up feeling, so we pushed the look a lot in the DI. We made the digital files almost fall apart and look a bit messed up. In a way, we didn't want it to be pretty.
Bradley Cooper stars in Relativity Media's LIMITLESS. Photo Credit: John Baer ©2011 Dark Fields Productions, LLC All Rights Reserved.
Where did you do the DI?
At Technicolor, with colorist Michael Hatzer. He did a fantastic job and he brought a lot to the project. When we got really into it, he put a lot of love into it. I couldn't thank him enough.
Going back to how you created the look during production, what about the use of camera moves to create both of these worlds?
When he's off the drug, everything is handheld. It was never on sticks. We wanted to accentuate the slightly chaotic imbalance of his life. There's a harshness, unfinished look to it.
When he's on the drug, we shot on dollies, on cranes, on Steadicam to make it very smooth and controlled. He feels like he's in total control, so the camera is much more controlled.
Robert De Niro stars in Relativity Media's LIMITLESS. Photo Credit: John Baer ©2011 Dark Fields Productions, LLC All Rights Reserved.
Was lighting also part of this differentiation? What kind of a lighting package did you have?
It was pretty extensive. On stage we shot everything Tungsten, particularly when we shot his apartment, which was built on stage. We had a translight but we used these Mole beam projectors to really pierce through the windows and put a harsh light on it. I wanted it to feel as if we just turned up at a location. That's why there's such a range of exposure, to make it feel almost like documentary photography. When Eddie isn't on the drug, we started with lighting that was hard and fractured, kind of uncontrolled. In some of the opening scenes, you'll see flares. When Eddie is on the drug, the light is much softer, more controlled, diffused with 12xframes. Nothing is over-exposed or really under-exposed. It's more at ease, a more controlled, perfect world. The visuals are much more polished. The lighting is softer. We used wider lenses, and it's all a bit more precise. It's as if we're inside his head.
It seems like this movie must have a lot of VFX in it. Did that impact your workflow?
It's got quite a lot of visual effects. There were certain things that were developed later in time that didn't affect me much. There was a fair amount of green screen. When he's on the top floor of the building where he ends up living, that was all green screen. To be honest, post people have become so great at keying stuff in that I just shot it as if it were at that apartment, as if the sky were there. We had a lot of handheld movement and they did a great job of it. So when it came to the visual effects, we were aware of it, but we always had a VFX person on set to supervise that. It wasn't too complicated for us.
What was the film's workflow? Did you have digital dailies?
Yes, we had dailies out of Technicolor in New York. They'd put them put the website and we could watch them online. Nobody got DVDs; there are issues with security. We did have a DigiBeta copy on set so I could check things. But we never printed or projected dailies. Our hours were long and our schedule was tight; there was no time to look at projected dailies. You have to go with your gut feelings that you're going in the right direction.
You mention it was a tight shooting schedule.
We started with a 44-day schedule and then we added a few days in Mexico and a few reshoot days. I'd say we're coming to close to 50, maybe 48 days. It was pretty tight. Most of it was in Philadelphia standing in for New York City. We spent two weeks in New York City to shoot Central Park and some of the buildings. We shot in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico when he goes on this trip with friends. It's supposed to be an exotic location where he goes and parties with his rich friends.
What ended up being the most challenging aspect of shooting the film?
Staying within the schedule and keeping the movie going within that time frame was the biggest challenge. It was 200 scenes in over close to 50 locations. It was a very fast schedule. But the most challenging for me, when I start a movie, is to make the audience believe in the reality you put forward. If the audience doesn't believe in the spaceship--or, in this case, the pill--then the movie falls apart. So the challenge for me was to keep the audience involved and give them an experience that allowed them to get into the story.
Is there a scene that embodies the look and the work you did? What should we look for in this scene?
It was exciting for me to work with De Niro, and there's a scene where he has a big monologue My favorite scenes are when Eddie is off the drug or coming off the drug. In one scene, he's grubby, in his apartment going through paperwork. The lighting hits the paperwork and bounces back on his face. It has a real beauty that I'm very proud of. I achieved what I wanted to do and I got it right. For me, that's my favorite scene.
Bradley Cooper stars in Relativity Media’s LIMITLESS. Photo Credit: John Baer ©2011 Dark Fields Productions, LLC All Rights Reserved.
I had a great experience on this film. I'm picky about what I do; I only do a movie a year. I'm definitely happy I did this movie. Bradley Cooper was fantastic to work with and Neil [Burger] is great.