Denis Lenoir, ASC, AFC, shoots the mean streets of Righteous Kill; De Niro and Pacino’s first on-screen pairing in thirteen years

When Jon Avnet asked Denis Lenoir, ASC, AFC to read Russell Gewirtz’s script for Righteous Kill, the cinematographer was enthralled from the opening pages. The story takes place in contemporary times with a few flashback sequences. It begins with two New York City detectives investigating the murder of a criminal who has evaded the justice system. They notice similarities to previous crimes, and decide that the killer may be a self-appointed vigilante. A tactile feeling of tension builds scene by scene.
Lenoir had previously collaborated with Avnet on Uprising, a miniseries that earned ASC Outstanding Achievement Award and Emmy nominations for cinematography in 2001, as well as the pilot for the Boomtown television series, and 88 Minutes, a feature film produced by Millennium Films and Nu Image Films. The same companies were onboard to produce Righteous Kill. “When Jon told me that Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were cast to play the detectives,” Lenoir reflects, “I thought: how often do you get an opportunity to work with two Oscar-winning actors on an interesting story with a talented director?”

In fact, Righteous Kill is only the second time these two storied icons of New York City method acting have appeared together on-screen, the first being Michael Mann’s Heat, thirteen years ago. Their newest offering featured an eclectic cast that also included Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg and rapper 50 Cent joined De Niro and Pacino. Righteous Kill was shot in Connecticut [a few scenes were filmed in New York City to establish the setting for the story], primarily because the state offers attractive tax incentives. Lenoir conferred with production designer Tracey Gallacher while scouting locations in Norwalk, Bridgeport and Milford. The pair had worked together on three previous films so there was an established relationship.

“There was no formal color palette,” Lenoir says, describing his collaboration with the production designer. “Each location had its own spirit that defined the use of colors along with the content of scenes. We also discussed the need for windows, lamps and other fixtures to motivate light.”

Early in preproduction, Lenoir made a CD with images from different movies, including The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a 1976 film noir directed by John Cassavetes. “The cinematographers were Al Ruban and Rich Breit,” Lenoir explains. “They over- and under-exposed shots by four or five stops. I used some of those images to show Jon an idea I had for under-and-over-exposing faces at different times. Jon Avnet is a talented still photographer who understood the possibilities.”

Lenoir shot make-up and key light tests with the actors to see how their skin tones recorded on film when they were exposed properly and under-and-over-exposed by three stops and more. There was a six-stop difference between two sides of faces in some tests. Sometimes, parts of faces were in total blackness, and other times they were in shadows but still readable. The DP also shot tests under-exposing the tops of frames and over-exposing the bottoms as a way to enhance dramatic moments.

“I’ve used these techniques since I shot my first features in the mid-1980s,” Lenoir says. “Knowing exactly when you get a very dark image where the audience can still read all the information, and when you get deep velvety blacks with no info at all, is what gives you the ability to put actors in total darkness at exactly the right times. I also like to test for overexposure, as it has an interesting effect on the overall image. It allows you, by sheer contrast, to give the audience the feeling of darkness in some places just by putting too much light in other places.”

Righteous Kill was shot in three-perf Super 35mm format, and color-timed using a digital intermediate (DI) at Pacific Title. Lenoir says the 2.4:1 wide-screen aspect ratio provided flexibility for composing scenes with multiple characters against backgrounds that are integral to the story. He points out that the use of three-perf film trimmed both raw stock and front-end lab costs and also allowed for 25 percent longer takes before the cameras had to be reloaded. This paid dividends for lengthy dialogue scenes.

“There are many scenes where we had two people across the table talking for more than one page,” Lenoir continues. “We generally covered those shots with two cameras from opposing angles to give the editor [Paul Hirsch] freedom to cut and show reactions. Sometimes, the cameras were side-by side with one tight and the other one covering a wider angle.”

Avnet and Lenoir agreed that they would cover scenes with two cameras nearly all the time. Lenoir doesn’t refer to A and B camera crews, because that would imply that one is more important than the other. He calls them red and blue crews instead. The red crew camera/Steadicam operator was Duane Manwiller. The first and second red crew assistants were E.J. Misisco and Michael Paul Jones. The blue camera operator was Christopher Duskin, and the first and second blue team assistants were Craig Grossmueller and Scott Koenigsberg. The film loader was Scott Lipkowitz.

ARRI CSC in New York provided the camera package, which included two ARRICAM Lite (LT) bodies and a complete range of Cooke S4 prime and Angenieux zoom lenses. Lenoir limited his palette to KODAK VISION2 500T 5218 color negative film, which he over-exposed at E.I. 400 most of the time, because he wanted a slightly richer look. The DP estimates that they filmed scenes at more than 70 locations during a 35-day schedule, averaging about 14,000 feet of film per day. He emphasizes that each location was treated like a character.

A prime example was an interior night apartment scene, early in the film. Gugino’s character is a police officer who specializes in analyzing crime scene evidence. She’s also involved in a romantic relationship with De Niro’s detective. The scene was shot on the second floor of a house in Hartford, with walls a grayish green.  “I wanted her apartment to be her universe, where she’s comfortable and happy but at the same time I wanted it to look dark and moody,” Lenoir says. “We used no practical interior lights and created a golden look with sodium vapor illumination motivated by streetlights coming in through the windows. Your gaffer can be your best friend on the set, and I have known and worked with Elan Yaari for years. He understood what I was after and brought along a great rigging crew, who gave us the freedom to film scenes in every kind of light, at every location, without compromising.”

Lenoir also credits his camera crew with responding quickly when the unexpected occurred. The cameras were mainly on dollies, with Avnet shifting to handheld shots when he wanted to create more visual tension. Manwiller covered walking and talking shots with the Steadicam. “We also had a crane in the camera truck with a small hothead that we made occasional use of when a shot called for a more objective look, as opposed to the more organic feeling you can get with handheld,” Lenoir adds. “Jesse Wayne Parker was the crane grip. He and all the dolly grips did great work.”

Avnet was generally in the video village with the main exception of Steadicam shots, when he was usually next to Manwiller. The director typically asked for six to eight takes of dialogue scenes until he was satisfied that Hirsch had what he needed. Avnet describes Righteous Kill as having “a lot of dialogue,” and a story that becomes increasingly dramatic, cresting to a prolonged showdown. “The suspense builds because you don’t know who the killer is until the final scene,” Avnet explains. “We wanted the cinematography to be right in tune with that tension.”

In fact, Lenoir describes his approach to lighting Righteous Kill as ranging from “natural to interpretive”, to echo the heightening flow of the drama. For a nightclub set, which offered high ceilings and changing colors of light that pulsated to the beat of the music, Lenoir decided not to build expensive steel trusses (typically used for live rock and roll shows) to hang lights from the ceiling. Instead, he asked the art department to build 4-feet high columns on the dance floor, on which he and Yaari could stand disco lights. The columns were in the middle of the dancers, with mirrors reflecting light back toward them. “The challenge was not to overexpose people who were closer to sources of light,” Lenoir notes.

The DP was equally adaptive in lighting a day-for-night scene that was filmed inside a church (where the serial killer is confessing his crimes) and lit through a stained glass window, along with a scene inside the church that takes places the following morning, where the two detectives investigate a crime. “The church was classical architecture with stained glass windows on both sides,” Lenoir says. “With a larger budget, I would have had one 18K on a crane, or a scissor lift, for every window. This time, I used what we had in the truck, a mix of 4K HMIs, 6K Pars and other smaller units. We were shooting wide-open with very little light at T1.3. The church was small and we shot there for just one day. There wasn’t time to re-light between shots, but I knew that, if necessary, we could adjust contrast or darken a wall in the DI, with the help of our colorist, Mike Eaves.”

One of the smaller sets was an office in the bank/disco club where they filmed a daylight scene with 50 Cent. There was asbestos in the ceiling, so it was sealed. Lenoir decided to put three PAR lights on the floor aimed at the ceiling, which overexposed the actors walking or standing next to them. The DP documented every setup with a Canon EOS 5D (12.8 megapixel) digital still camera, later manipulating the RAW image files with his laptop computer to indicate nuances in the look. He sent the digital stills to dailies timer, Joe Statarski, at DuArt Lab in New York City.

“We watched DVD dailies with the camera crew at lunch in Jon’s trailer every day,” Lenoir says. “The first dailies were much too dark and looked underexposed by two stops, but Jon trusted me and I trusted my meter. With another director, I could have been fired! We discovered that the problem was with the DVD player in the trailer.”

Lenoir brought a few of his own tools to Righteous Kill. One was a portable communications system that high school football coaches use. He used it to stay in contact with the operators, grips, focus pullers and Avnet. “It was especially useful in the crowded disco, where there were several hundred extras,” Lenoir points out. “It allowed me to get lost in the crowd and talk with my gaffer without having to yell for him. We also used OverKeeper. It’s a little track that is put between the camera and head. It allows you to slide the camera sideways for a foot or two, which is really useful when you are shooting over someone’s shoulder and an actor isn’t exactly where you want him to be. A female sound recordist invented the first model. Or is that just a Hollywood urban legend? The one I’ve been using was designed and manufactured in Vancouver.”

The final showdown between the detectives and the killer takes place at three successive locations. The first was a linen factory where there were rows of empty cylinders that once stored rolls of linen. Lenoir removed the bottoms from some of the cylinders and put shafts of sodium vapor colored light through them to visually punctuate the drama.

“We called the second location the white factory,” says Lenoir. “I asked Mike at Pacific Title to give those shots kind of a cold blue look, as if we’d shot it underwater. The third location was inside a big warehouse that had a little warmer look – the color of headlights. But it wasn’t as warm as the linen factory. Jon wanted the final confrontation lit as though there were freeways lining two sides of the warehouse with random beams of headlights and moving shadows from passing cars coming through windows. But that would have required four or five pickup trucks, each with its own generator, light and electric crew member,” he adds, which, due to time and budget limitations, was problematic. Lenoir and Yaari originally wanted tracking lights, then considered (electronically) chasing lights, and, after some tests, opted for two lines of lights on stands that electricians would pan back and forth in a planned pattern.

As Lenoir concludes: “On one side of the set, the lamps and their operators were outside the warehouse, lighting into it through the windows with four ARRI T12’s, spaced 12 feet apart. At the same time we had three or four smaller sources, also with their own operators, inside the warehouse on rostrums, lighting the other long side of the rectangle. For one of the shorter sides of the warehouse, I asked Tracey Gallacher to paint the windows dark blue and I was lighting them from outside (behind), to give a kind of glow, thinking that the painting would provide some nice texture. On the other short side, there was some classical strong backlight from where De Niro was entering the space.”

By Bob Fisher