Philip Hurn goes deep undercover to help expose the horrors of the child sex trade industry in Trade of Innocents
by Pauline Rogers
“Don’t discount casual conversation in coffee shops; they can lead to the other side of the world,” describes Trade of Innocents writer/director Christopher Bessette. “I was having coffee with a friend who helps orphaned children in Cambodia. After hearing of the history of the Cambodian people, I felt something should be done to bring resolution to their suffering and two of my characters were born in that coffee shop.”
In fact, just a few months after that coffee shop conversation a Canadian broadcaster Bessette had worked with 17 years earlier, called out of the blue to ask for help in telling a story in Cambodia about an organization that rescues children from the sex trade.
“My journey to Cambodia in 2008 served two purposes,” Besssete recalls. “To help the broadcaster raise awareness and finances for this organization, and to serve as research and location scout for this feature film already birthed in my mind. When I came home the story was burning in my heart.”
“Trade of Innocents is based on the real life-changing experiences of our co-producers,” adds producer Jim Schmidt. “In 2007, Denver-based Bill and Laurie Bolthouse and their three daughters ages 11, 11, and 9, traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when Bill was part of a specialty surgical team. During their stay, they hosted a dinner for an anti-trafficking team and several young women who had been rescued, and the experience stayed with them.
“Once Bill and I talked on the phone it was clear we were like-minded, and the concept they developed with Christopher would translate to film,” Schmidt continues. “Our goal has always been to raise the level of discussion about this horrible issue, and to empower people to act. Only with coordinated global cooperation can we really hope to turn the tide, but it starts with ordinary individuals who decide to make a difference.”
To bring the story of Alex Becker (Dermot Mulroney), a human trafficking inspector and his wife Claire (Mira Sorvino) to the screen, Bessette turned to cinematographer Philip Hurn, whom the director met through his 1st AD, who had been working with Hurn on a feature in upstate New York.
“I didn’t know that Trade of Innocents was on my horizon, but when it was, Philip was already on my mind.”
“After numerous discussions, it was clear we had the same vision,” Hurn adds. “We wanted to juxtapose the story against the stunning beauty of Southeast Asia, using lighting and camera movement to peel back the veil on this human tragedy. We wanted to include foreground elements, not only for depth, but also to highlight the idea that terrible things are going on in the back rooms of what appear to be normal shops and markets.”
A color palette was developed using red and yellow to depict innocence and green for evil. Production designer Mona Nahm wove those colors into the Thailand sets and locations. “We were lucky to have access to surveillance footage of a brothel that was dimly lit with stark green fluorescents and bare light bulbs hanging from the ceilings,” Hurn recalls. “I wanted authenticity wherever possible so we emulated that look.”
Although Hurn says he would have liked to shoot 35mm anamorphic, using a digital format in the many practical locations allowed for more coverage. “We decided on spherical lenses with Red One MX cameras in 4K 16-by-9 and cropped for 2.40:1,” Hurn continues. “The wide screen aspect ratio allowed us to see as much of the backgrounds as possible, even in close-ups. The Red camera has a custom frame guide creation menu, so we composed using an elevated top headroom frame guide to offer more sensor area and better protect for a 16-by-9 TV version. An added benefit was the ability to adjust the headroom in post.”
A shooting style was developed that allowed for A and B cameras to roll through a complete scene, giving the actors freedom of movement. “Some of the angles may not have been ideal but the trade off is that the B-camera operator could pick up wonderful nuances and details,” Hurn states.
Cooke S4’s, two Angenieux Optimo zooms (24mm to 290mm and 17mm to 80mm) and a full time Steadicam were all deployed. Depending on the location, the crew alternated dollies (Fisher 10 and 11). They also utilized the Arriflex GF-16 crane with a Matthews Power Pod Hot Head as well as the GF-8 crane. “The cranes gave a few key scenes scope and depth, and allowed a shot where we wanted to track Alex in an attempt to rescue Claire, running up very steep stairs of the temple,” Hurn explains.
“Using a Steadicam for that move would have been very dangerous,” he adds. “As Alex ran up the stairs, the grips pushed the base of the GF-16 down the track with the key grip holding onto the end of the arm and running up the stairs in parallel. The end of the crane was kept perfectly positioned and I think we got the shot on the second take. It was a good thing, since it was 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity.”
Like all indie shoots, Trade of Innocents faced a fistful of obstacles. Schmidt says he followed the philosophy of the late Laura Ziskin, who once observed that “movies aren’t made – they’re forced into existence.” Weather issues, and location changes due to what Schmidt describes as “opportunistic people changing their rates,” were among the challenges, as was the culture gap with the Thai crews.
“Happiness takes precedence in Southeast Asia,” Bessette reflects. “So whenever I asked for something the answer was always ‘yes’. When they couldn’t deliver and I was disappointed, they would win because I was happy 50 percent of the time – rather than disappointed 100 percent. They certainly meant well. But I tried to impress upon them that it’s better to hear a real ‘no’ because we can work on the solution.”
As for the on-again-off-again tropical rain, the streets were partially watered down just before the camera rolled to ensure continuity. “We had rain cover sets but we had a limited schedule with Dermot and Mira,” recalls Hurn. “It tends to rain in the afternoons for a few minutes followed immediately by full sun. The technique of partial wet downs of all of our exteriors aided in continuity and added a wonderful texture to the ground.
“I used a 20-foot by 20-foot white double net on some occasions to cut the intensity of the full sun,” he continues. “In overcast conditions, I frequently put in soft modeling from the side with an 18K through a 12-foot by 12-foot light grid and used a 12-foot by 12-foot black on the other side for negative fill to create a dramatic look.”
Bessette says Hurn was masterful at enhancing the inherent drama in the story. “Knowing when to drift the camera and feel the emotions of the scene playing out is very important for the camera team,” the director explains. “In these scenes you are engaging the audience to invest emotionally with the characters. The lighting and depth-of-field, the lenses chosen, all support the performances of these scenes.”
Schmidt says his favorite sequence takes place at the very beginning. “Alex is playing the role of a pedophile, riding in a skiff on the lake and headed to a secluded house on stilts, where a young girl waits for the next John to abuse her,” he recounts. “It sets up this terrifying premise, but also foreshadows the hope that can be brought to these young victims. It is among the most beautiful scenes in a movie I’ve ever seen.”
“The real stilt houses were too rickety to support equipment and crew,” Hurn adds, “so Mona built the interiors on stilts inside a vacant warehouse [which was also used for brothel interiors]. Backdrops don’t exist in Thailand, so I decided to place several 12-foot by 16-foot white griffolyns at about 8-feet away from the walls, which all had wide cracks. The art department encircled the set with greens and fake turf. The set was then covered with a 20-foot by 20-foot black. The main light inside was a single China Ball with a Maxi Brute placed a few feet away outside, blasting through one window and the cracks, reading beautifully in the smoke filled interior.”
One key story location was the famous temple at Angkor Wat. However, traveling to Cambodia was not practical. So, a replica was built with foam core and eucalyptus branches on a high school soccer field, an hour outside of Bangkok. “I nicknamed it Foam Kor Wat,” Schmidt laughs. “We got pounded mercilessly in a violent gale, washing off paint and ripping off sheets of foam.”
“We had three large sections, the first was in an L-shape roughly about 100-feet long, 25-feet high and about 70-feet long,” says Hurn. “The middle was about 30-feet high and had a steel frame to accommodate stairs where Dermot and Mira had to climb safely up to the temple that was placed on top with CGI. The temple interior was in the gym. It had an entryway and four windows and three hand-pained 40-foot by 15-foot backdrops of jungle and sky. The day exteriors had to match the hand-pained clouds on the backdrops.
“Each backdrop was lit with two 2.5 HMI Pars,” he continues. “An 18K was aimed through the doorway and a 12K through each window. Way above the top of the set a 20-foot by 20-foot griffolyn hung on a frame. The interesting thing about the temple interior was that after lighting the backdrops with massive amounts of light and bringing in hot steaks of daylight in the omnipresent smoke, we still wanted the temple interior dark and ominous. So a 575-Watt HMI was bounced into the 20-foot by 20-foot for a small amount of ambient light at around three foot-candles. We also bounced a hint of light onto the actor’s faces with white cards. This approach really allowed us to work quickly.”
While Hurn says one of the most gratifying moments on the foreign shoot was keying in the look for dailies using Redcine X. “I supervised transcoding at lunch and at the end of the day,” he explains. “Using a Red Rocket accelerator card [which enables real time transcoding], we could not only process ProRes files for editorial but also 720P H.264 files for our local area wireless network. Everyone was able to see almost instant dailies on their iPads and iPhones, and I could control the entire look.”
Final color grading was done with Damian McDonnell on a Luster with a 23-foot wide screen at Laser Pacific/Technicolor. “Damian did a fantastic job bringing out the nuances, especially when he added this horrific green cast to support the story where Duke (the bad guy) is trying to force the whereabouts of a little girl from her older sister,” Hurn recounts. “Knowing that I would have access to powerful tools in the final color grading allowed me to make decisions on set with lighting to save setup times. Better to take five minutes in the color correction to create a darker shadow on a wall then to do it on set with the whole cast and crew waiting.”
“It is fairly close to the movie I had in mind from the very beginning,” Bessette reflects of making Trade of Innocents. “There’s always the balance of getting the day and being as creative visually as possible within those indie limitations of time and money. I think we were more than successful with our aspirations to realize this story.”
Schmidt agrees. “Christopher and Philip had a clear vision for this story and I’m so proud to say the shooting fell in line with that,” he concludes. “We made a very deliberate choice – a tougher choice in my opinion – to convey truth about this topic in a feature context. There’s something about taking an issue like this to a feature film level that helps people connect emotionally, instead of just cerebrally. And we didn’t want to just ‘move’ people – we wanted to empower them toward action.”