Mott Hupfel wades into the ever-shifting waters of love and friendship for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s indie drama Jack Goes Boating

For those of us who feel like we’re drowning in our life (or lack of one thereof), the main character’s journey in Jack Goes Boating can be both inspiring and frightening. Questions like “Is this me?” or “Would I have the courage?” flash across the brain as we watch Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman) meet, fall for and then change his life for Connie (Amy Ryan), his true love. Writer Bob Glaudini, first on stage and then again in his own adapted screenplay, created a small yet perfect metaphor for Jack’s struggle – overcoming his fear of water so that he can take his beloved Connie for a boat ride. On stage, exploring Jack’s rigorous training to overcome his fear (of the water at least) was a metaphysical ride, conjured by script and cast; one man sitting on the edge of the stage with a blue water effect was about all that could be accomplished. But, oh what Hoffman (who also directed the film) did with a real swimming pool and no proscenium.

Determined to keep the film in New York, which inevitably becomes a character in any set-in-New York story, Hoffman turned to cinematographer Mott Hupfel III, whom he met when co-starring in Tamara Jenkins’ indie hit, The Savages. The two men built an intense partnership that conquers the stigma often associated with the stage-to-screen interpretation.

“And we did it on film!” says Hupfel, who lobbied heavily for shooting on Kodak 5205 and 5218 stocks, not only because it would still provide a DI finish, but more, as he and Hoffman agreed, “the story screamed film.” Of course, even with the tax credits in place, Jack Goes Boating was still done on a modest budget, which Hupfel worked hard to get the most out of.

“The issues that I feel most directly impact this kind of production are those of crew and equipment,” Hupfel shares. “There are less crew people in New York City that own equipment. Therefore, it’s hard for anyone to do a low-budget movie; when you get paid a lower fee a week and you can’t add equipment charges to boost that up, finding experienced crews is a challenge.”

Having said that, Hupfel is quick to add that he was able to land an experienced Union crew, including key grip Kurt Rimmel, 1st AC Dan Hersey, and, in his words, “an extremely over-qualified operator” in Craig Haagensen. “Once you get past the crew issue, the budget impacts everything else in smaller ways,” Hupfel relates. “The fact that the production team involved Phil and I in the whole process allowed us to chime in on those decisions and be aware of real numbers, putting the dollars where they would best serve the project.”

Hupfel says that being involved in the intensive rehearsal process was a big advantage. “The rehearsals made the blocking and shot listing transparent to me and the actors,” he explains. “The experience of going out on a limb to suggest something that would enhance a feeling you have about the script or a character, and then have that feeling acted on is exhilarating and opens the doors to more creativity.”

Jack Goes Boating is a character piece. It’s centered on a limo driver’s blind date, which sparks machinations of love, friendship, betrayal and ultimately grace to a pair of working class New York couples. In moving from stage to screen, Hoffman and Hupfel were careful not to overdo the changes. They took full advantage of shooting in New York, opened the swimming scenes into a fantasy world in a beautiful public pool, and of course ended the story at the Central Park Boat Pond. But they also kept fairly close to the stage style, maintaining the long dialog sequences in small New York apartments.

Hupfel says he loves shooting on New York City street locations more than anywhere else. “But they can be expensive,” he adds. “So you have to choose carefully. And, there is always the challenge you face with the weather – and we needed winter in New York to tell this story.

“Our night exteriors used ambient light from the street as a base and then a comparatively small amount of lighting for enhancement,” he continues. “I try to make my New York streets look as real as possible because you can’t make them look better than they already are!”

Not everything, however, was shot on New York’s streets or buildings – a certain number of days on a studio stage were required in order to take advantage of N.Y.C. tax breaks. That’s why Hoffman and team chose to build the apartment where most of the emotional clashes take place, as a railroad flat, with one caveat: the walls would be wild.

“I could remove any combo of walls or rooms, as well as the medicine cabinet and shower,” Hupfel explains. “In order to avoid the stage version’s theatricality, we used the railroad apartment in a more realistic way by having the characters use all of the rooms. In the most complicated sequences, Kurt (Rimmel) would remove all of the walls on one side of the apartment and the camera would follow people, seemingly ‘through’ the walls.”

The DP says much effort was taken to make Jack’s apartment seem real, both in size and design, yet still free the blocking from any semblance of a theatrical proscenium. “The lighting was a pared down version of TV lighting with softer units coming over the top of the walls and many practicals,” Hupfel states. “It was important to all of us that the light not affect the actors’ choices in any way, so things had to stay pretty general.  I knew I could spend time in the DI ‘shaping’ the light and doing some of the gripping that we were unable to do on the set.”

Of course, the water sequences inevitably shine the brightest in Jack Goes Boating. Hoffman’s idea was to create an idyllic and slightly fantastical location where Jack’s fears play out both above and under the water. “The cinematography, here, is basic in terms of lighting or gear, but there’s a great amount of creativity going on (story-wise),” Hupfel recounts. “At times, in the pool, we see what Jack is visualizing, which includes his imaginary actions. Seeing these things that Phil had in his head on the screen was an idea I floated early in our discussions. I’m proud of the way they came together and enhanced the story.”

Hupfel points to the final pool scene, intercut with Jack and Connie in the park, as an example of Hoffman’s strong direction. “I learned through (working with Phil in the pool scenes) and the rehearsals that you really have to let the characters create the film,” Hupfel remarks.

Operator David Knox was key in helping to realize the water shots. It took four days of shooting in a Harlem swimming pool and a variety of rigs to help play the story out.

“My introduction to Phil, Mott and actor John Ortiz was walking in and seeing the three of them swimming around in the pool wearing colorful swimwear and goggles,” Knox laughs. “It was quite a first impression.”

Hupfel and Knox initially talked about engineering an underwater remote control camera like the HydroFlex, but they opted instead for a standard Arriflex ST and lenses in a custom-built water box – “basically an inverted aquarium,” Knox points out. “A wooden exoskeleton protected the glass and made the rigging and handling easier. Video, focus power cables and the like were routed out the open top. It’s a great rig for working at the surface and just below, as it floats with the lens at water level.”The team did use the HydroFlex 435 deep water housing for subsurface shots. “Mott dreamed up one moving shot which required me to swim quickly backwards at the bottom of the 10-foot deep pool,” Knox recalls. “A combination of paddling with large scuba fins and a helpful tug from stuntman Chris Barnes’ rope proved to be the solution.“Most of the lighting came from poolside units pointing down into the water,” he adds. “When working below the surface, communication is essential, and rigging an underwater speaker lets the director and DP make suggestions (not the least is the timing of roll/cut). As Phil was also in the water for most of the pool sequences, he trusted Mott to keep a sharp eye on the video and orchestrate most of the elements.”

Hupfel says that trust, which filtered down throughout his team, went a long way on a short and intense shooting schedule. “Craig had the dubious pleasure of translating my crazy shot descriptions and making them into ‘masters’ that actually worked for the actors and Phil,” Hupfel recounts. “Dan (Hersey) has been with me for over 15 years and his management and focus pulling saved me multiple times a day. (Key grip) Kurt Rimmel was great – the hardest job was building and tearing down that apartment set multiple times a day for two weeks. Every time we switched sides of the room the walls had to come down and the platform for the dolly had to be built.”

Jack Goes Boating has been in the cultural waters for several years now – from script to hit off-Broadway play to screen adaptation and finally to its debut at Sundance this past January, where Overture Films was able to build some formidable buzz. As Glaudini’s funny and tender story hits the big screen, audiences will no doubt find the universality in Jack, perhaps coming away with a new insight as to how best to keep their heads above water in life’s never-ending series of swimming lessons.

By Pauline Rogers / photos by KC Bailey