Michael Alden Lloyd digs deep for indie gold in the new Lionsgate feature, The Quarry.
by Pauline Rogers / Photos and Framegrabs Courtesy of Lionsgate
“It’s a classic setup – a stranger rolls into town, claiming to be someone he’s not,” explains Scott Teems, co-writer/director of The Quarry (available On Demand April 17, 2020) which was set to premiere at this year’s SXSW before the global COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel the event. Released by Lionsgate and Grindstone, The Quarry is an adaptation of Damon Galgut’s novel, “which dealt with big ideas – racism, religion, murder, redemption. But, at its core, it was a story of a man on the run from his past, dealing with the darkness in his own life,” Teems adds. Because stories of racial injustice are universal, Teems opted to tell the story in a more personal way, moving the setting from post-apartheid South Africa to 1980s West Texas.
The prime challenge was to bring an intensely dramatic story to the screen on a Tier 1 budget. When Director of Photography Rodney Taylor, ASC (who had shot That Evening Sun for Teems), introduced the filmmaker to Guild Director of Photography Michael Alden Lloyd, “the first thing Scott said to me was that we had to find a way to ‘marry the epic with the intimate,’” Lloyd, a two-time Emerging Cinematographer Award honoree, recalls. “I started thinking a lot about medium-format photography. It has that feel: intimate in that it puts you right there, and epic in the detail, the subject/background relationship, and the way everything falls around the focus.”
Teems and Lloyd began to think of the film as a fable, with the characters fated together, existing in a suspended reality of almost homemade quality. “It didn’t take us long to land on Roger Deakins [ASC, BSC] as a reference,” Teems states. “Anytime you’re making a Texas noir, you stand in the shadow of No Country for Old Men. It’s a perfect film. So that gave us a place to build from.” But there is also a dream-like feeling to the movie, which brought them to study the use of flashbacks and memories lensed by Deakins in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. They added bits of Paris, Texas and Three Colors: Blue, compiling a solid visual reference book in preproduction.
Anamorphic 35 mm was Teems’ first choice, but, as Lloyd recounts, “it was a tough sell. Not because of the cost of the stock. We had to carry a relatively light grip and electric package. Even if we could get the gear, we weren’t going to have the manpower to implement it, and our footprint had to be pretty small with all the location moves.” Choice number two was the large-format Alexa 65. So Taylor put Lloyd in touch with ARRI International Marketing executive Dana Ross, and after reading the script, Ross brought in Kelli Bingham, an ARRI Business Development executive based in New Orleans, and the two made it happen.
“I chose a small selection of Prime DNA lenses [45, 60, 80, 110 millimeter],” Lloyd explains. “They had the character we wanted. They’re nice on the skin, resolve well at the stop I wanted to shoot, and have some interesting vignetting. This particular set was already detuned in a way we liked, too. I also carried a Zeiss Compact Zoom [100-280 millimeter] for all the old-school in-camera zooms we planned for specific beats in the design.”
Add up the variables – a low Tier 1 budget, locations outside New Orleans with a long drive from base camp, and a large-format capture system – and Lloyd says the project offered an exciting challenge for the locally-based NOLA crew. This crew included Operator Louis Normandin, SOC, who says one of the most notable visual elements related to doing dolly moves with the large-format sensor “is that the parallax of the foreground and background really connect, and the visual impact hits twice as hard. This plays so well, as Scott and Michael planned all the specific story beats.”
The Local 600 camera team’s coordination was put to the test for a nine-minute “oner” at the opening of the movie that starts in a wide shot from about 350 yards and takes the story up to a murder in the film’s namesake location. Although no stranger to pulling focus on large format, 1st AC Ian Henderson admits, “This movie was a much bigger challenge. There would be no guesswork. When it’s soft – it’s undeniably soft. We did a lot of push-in and walk-ups. I ended up going off physical marks.” He credits 1st AD Andrew Shepherd for giving him the time – and actor Shea Whigham’s checking in before every shot. “And our life-saving DIT, Tyler Blackwell,” Henderson adds.
Blackwell knew he would have a few extra challenges. In addition to a heavy workload and pipeline, he also had to function as loader, post supervisor, and dailies assistant, given the massive amounts of data generated. “Thankfully, high-density encoding [HDE] had just recently been released,” Blackwell recalls. “This new process is an encoding technique optimized to take ARRIRAW files and reduce them to approximately 60 percent of their original size in a completely lossless manner. It made 140 terabytes doable and was exactly what the producers wanted to hear, as they had not budgeted for the down-the-line expenses associated with shooting large format.”
As for the NOLA-area locations doubling for West Texas, Lloyd, at first, was skeptical. “I’ve lived all over the South, and that area is rooted and rich in a much different way than West Texas. The weather is different, the way the diffusion in the sky is always moving and changing. But the Louisiana tax incentive was how we could stretch the budget.”
The movie’s main location was the slightly precarious-looking Garyville, outside of New Orleans. “It had the timeless charm we needed but would be a different take on West Texas,” Lloyd admits. “The only problem – an hour and a half portal to portal, which meant losing a lot of time on the drive in.
“Scott is very particular about spatial orientation,” Lloyd continues. “There wasn’t time, crew, or equipment for a second unit to shoot additional establishing shots, so I had to find a way to capture the whole town in a single frame. I had to visually connect all the dots – the church’s relation to the parsonage, the police station to the church, and so on.”
Lloyd’s approach was challenging for 1st AD Shepherd, who had to deter curious townies, place background and picture cars, and keep a sharp eye on safety as train tracks ran right through the middle of town. “We had to lock it down, all in just a few minutes because we were losing the light,” Lloyd remembers. “We only had one shot at it, and we got it. There was even this beautiful flock of birds that flew into the frame in perfect formation. It took a nimble crew with the right attitude to pull that off.”
While Garyville became the story’s façade, The Quarry opted for complementary interiors closer to New Orleans. Lloyd says they could not find the police station or jail cell anywhere, “so we had to build them in an empty warehouse. Production designer Erin Magill made that happen with next to nothing.”
And director Teems was thrilled with the results. “They were nearly perfect realizations of how those scenes were originally conceived,” Teems describes. “Michael’s rich photography and controlled camera perfectly captured Erin’s detailed set.”
Lloyd says he, Teems and Magill walked those scenes together before the designer had to expend any of her budget building set walls. “We found a room inside the warehouse with a large-enough window that I could push big M90 sources through to do the heavy lifting,” Lloyd adds. “Then, I could just shape it with late breaks, muslin bounce, and negative fill as we moved around the chief’s office on the dolly. Erin brought in this big rust-orange-colored blind that gave it such a unique feel. [See opening image above.] It felt lived in, with layers upon layers of life, like the chief’s fishbowl. I love that level of detail.”
Another recurring visual theme is darkness, which Lloyd says Teems loves, “but dark doesn’t necessarily mean not lighting when you’re making a motion picture,” he explains. “Actually, it’s quite the contrary if you are doing it well. The darkness in The Quarry says something, though. It’s very intentional. The form, the body language in silhouette – it all has this visceral feeling.
“You see it a lot with Celia [played by Catalina Sandino Moreno],” Lloyd continues. “She’s trapped by circumstance. Pinned in, outside the parsonage at night within the vertical lines of the screened-in porch, inside in the narrow hallway and her bedroom, framing her within the mirror of her vanity. We used edge lighting with small LED units and covered wagons to augment practicals to light the environment. We then brought in some subtle cooler sources from the outside to give some color separation.”
Fire is also a big theme, as Lloyd describes: “Your new life costs your old one. You have to burn it down to start over,” he explains. “One of my favorites is when the wanted poster of The Man [Shea Whigham] and David Martin’s [Bruno Bichir’s] driver’s license melt into each other. It communicates that The Man is assuming this new identity.”
Although Lloyd calls it a “simple visual idea,” it was extremely difficult to execute in the tiny practical location (a bathroom). “We rigged the camera overhead on the dolly with an offset,” he reveals. “My key grip, Jay McCann, had to make it safe and as comfortable as possible for Shea, because it was a lot of weight over the top of his head. Then, SFX, the boom op, and dolly grip had to be in there as well and light a fire in the sink. It’s a funny thing to see just how unglamorous making movies can be!”
Lloyd says The Quarry articulates impressions of people, whether it’s up close with a character or elements framed in windows and mirrors. “The Alexa 65 format allowed us to be in intimate spaces and capture the moment without forcing the perspective,” he relates. “It puts the viewer in the room. It sees what your eyes see. You can get close to faces without the distortion, close to the hands.
“It’s surreal and completely immersive,” Lloyd adds. “Like when Michael Shannon is lying on the couch in his office. I shot that on the 45 millimeter – just quickly put the camera on a sandbag on the floor. It took no more than a minute or two, but it’s one of my favorite shots in the film. Or the close-up of Shea on the boat in the end. That’s the only time we’re allowed to feel The Man’s vulnerability, see his desperation to be forgiven. Ironically, we shot that intimate moment on a Technocrane, with the camera inches from his face.”
Speaking of Whigham’s character, Lloyd says another interesting challenge was having to film the actor in a box, ensuring he was seen from head to toe, top to bottom. “How to light it, how to physically get the camera in there, how to get the dirt to fall through the cracks, when he bangs on the lid, that was all fun to do,” Lloyd recalls. “We shot one long take that panned 180 degrees. The lighting feels like it’s coming from his lighter, but it’s augmented by an LED rig that my chief lighting technician, Keith Morgan, made on the spot. We brought some cyan in the shadows by bouncing some light from outside the box just above camera. I didn’t want it to feel lit, but it still needed that dreamy quality, which took some nuance.”
The Quarry’s extended courtroom scene was a further testament to the skilled Local 600 camera team. It was shot single-camera and involved the entire cast and a large group of background players. The practical location was tight with no room for traditional movie lights. Morgan and Lloyd devised a flying lighting schematic that would give Teems as much time as possible with the actors. Given the small budget, they sourced market lights that Morgan had bought from Home Depot and Big Lots! stores, and, Lloyd laughs, “they turned out to be my favorite top-light source I’ve ever used to date.”
Lloyd can’t say enough good things about his Quarry crew.
“I always expect a lot, no matter the size or scale of the project,” he describes. “I expect everyone to show up and go hard, and, boy, did this group do that. [Operator] Louis Normandin was the complete team player. He helped anywhere he could with absolutely no ego. I threw my focus puller, Ian Henderson, into the deep end, sometimes shooting at a 2/2.8 split with Prime DNA’s on the Alexa 65. These aren’t the actors to blow takes for tech, either. Ian completely accepted the challenge.”
Lloyd says it was his first pairing with DIT Blackwell.
“We initially wanted to do some live grading on set since we couldn’t afford a dailies colorist,” he continues. “But there just wasn’t enough time as I had to be all over the place. Tyler was fantastic at managing the dailies with Light Iron and Production. He was also familiar with the camera, so he could tech it on the spot. Our 2nd AC, Chase Lowenstein, brought a fantastic spirit. He kept everything moving. And I got to work with my longtime collaborator, Corinne Bogdanowicz, at Light Iron Hollywood. Corinne has such a deft hand, leans into what’s intended, and makes everything better. Working with her allows me to make choices on the day that can save us time and money. You can’t make a film like The Quarry without a team like this. It’s really their achievement.”