The real Manhattan shines through in the summer rom-com The Switch
“Manhattan on a budget” sounds like an oxymoron, but with movie studios wary of the gap between ballooning costs and box-office returns, it’s a mantra Union productions must embrace if they want to shoot on the streets of the Big Apple. A prime example is The Switch, Miramax’s adaptation of Baster, a short story originally published in The New Yorker by celebrated novelist Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides). The romantic comedy stars Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman, and was directed by the team of Will Speck and Josh Gordon, the duo behind Will Ferrell’s ice-skating comedy, Blades of Glory.
“We wanted to show what we call ‘New York B-side,’” Gordon relates of the philosophy he and Speck adopted for The Switch. Their approach, which emphasized Manhattan’s low-key public spaces over tourist-friendly landmarks, helped to ground a story that’s less about escapism than the real world trade-offs faced by Gen Xer’s approaching 40. “It’s the New York that New Yorkers experience,” Gordon adds. “Just as beautiful, but it doesn’t always get shown (in films). Most movies just shoot the same five monuments.”
Spanning seven years in the romantically tense friendship between two city professionals, The Switch pivots around one fateful night when Aniston’s desperate-to-be-pregnant Kassie commits to an at-home insemination (courtesy of a paid donor), a procedure Bateman’s lovesick Wally drunkenly undertakes to foil in unique fashion. As the plot suggests, The Switch earns its “romantic dramedy” stripes by weaving between emotional exchanges and tension-breaking comedy, something Gordon insisted be reflected in the film’s lighting scheme.
“The movie rides the line between comedy and drama, but visually (speaking) movies tend to get put into one category or the other,” the filmmaker continues. “Somebody just decides that they’re going to light a film as a comedy, and that it’s going to be bright and happy and there will be no ambiguity, and color will be pumped in so the audience knows it’s okay to laugh right out of the gate.
“What was interesting to us about this script is that it often switches, even sometimes within a scene. There will be a big laugh and then it cuts to something more poignant and emotional, and then sometimes it returns to a laugh again; so it was important to us to create a visual style that allowed for both of those emotions to play.”
To balance that dichotomy, Gordon and Speck turned to U.K. cinematographer Jess Hall, BSC, whose work on Edgar Wright’s much-loved Hot Fuzz, and Grindhouse trailer Don’t skillfully layered comedy onto a foundation of action and horror, respectively. Hall also shot the 2007 Sundance hit, Son of Rambow, a charming 1980’s period film that featured extensive use of home video recreations. Coupled with his experience handling quick and innovative commercial shoots, Hall was an ideal fit for a tonal parfait like The Switch. As he recounts, his “Britishness” worked well in his favor in getting the job.
“Josh and Will wanted to see New York in a different way, and I think that’s partly why they wanted me – a British cinematographer who has a slightly different eye on the city, rather than having grown up with it and taken it for granted,” Hall observes. “New York still makes me go ‘wow.’ I walk out of my apartment and there’s the Chrysler building looking straight at me. Moments like that still have an impact.”
Shot in 42 days, on 65 locations (partially in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood), The Switch was a studio project that more often resembled a guerilla indie. The slim-in-number, but hardworking crew battled time and budget constraints, regularly improvising in the face of the city’s sheer unpredictability.
Gordon, in fact, says the crew’s immersion in a chaotic shooting environment had a positive impact on the end product. “A lot of romantic comedies have a look that’s confectionary and produced,” he notes. “We wanted a reality-based version of this film, and we looked to 1980s movies like The King of Comedy and Tootsie – movies made in New York back when New York was really difficult to control – and there’s an energy that seeps in and you don’t want to totally cut that out.”
One force of nature the crew had to contend with was an army of paparazzi and lookie-loos trying to catch a glimpse of gossip mag perennial Jennifer Aniston. “She’s a hero in New York, and we couldn’t have her standing around on the street,” Hall says. “We had to be efficient at getting her in and out of locations, and we had to be well-organized in terms of what we were going to shoot and when.”
Second AD Jennifer Truelove and A-camera 1st AC Frank Rinato were two Switch crewmembers who had to learn to accept the outside presence, with Rinato labeling the paparazzi as “quite aggressive at times,” and Truelove recalling the nights she waded through 40 or so shutterbugs just to reach hair and makeup trailers. “The paparazzi would bring their own stepstools so that they could go vertical and create a wall of people on either side of the trailers,” Truelove remembers.
She cites a nighttime walk-and-talk scene on East 53rd St. with a Steadicam and a Western Dolly as an example of keeping the crowds at bay while the actors performed. “The challenge was in making Manhattan look like Manhattan,” Truelove states, “and that meant setting some decent background action and making sure no one was staring at our camera. But if you had an overhead shot during that sequence you’d see that we were keeping control of the north side of the street by corralling about 200 people on the south side.”
Once shooting was ready to commence, Hall utilized ARRICAM ST and ARRICAM LT 35 mm camera systems, Cooke S4 lenses, and some Steadicam – a package that emphasized portability for the quick setups required by numerous walk-and-talks and unpredictable shadows brought on by the extreme height of Manhattan buildings.
“The light changes quite rapidly, and you get these very deep canyons where sunlight can penetrate briefly, and a lot of glass as well, which bounces and creates all sorts of refractions,” Hall explains. “One scene which I thought was very difficult was the end with Jennifer, where we shot on Park Ave. outside the Waldorf Astoria. It was two-and-a-half pages of dialogue, and the light was changing constantly in that canyon because it’s very deep and the sun was coming through. Controlling that and keeping consistent, complimentary light was a challenge.”
Creating a successful lighting plan for Aniston was critical, as her attractiveness as a romantic lead is the film’s raison d’etre. “I devised a scheme of lighting that involved large spans of very soft light,” Hall recounts. “It became a joke between key grip Richard Guinness and me because I would walk into a location and say ‘16 feet of soft light, or 40 feet of soft light!’ I would cram the largest frame that I could get into any location starting from the camera lens and wrapping around Jennifer. It would often be bounced first and then coming through a second layer of diffusion.”
Hall also used Lighttools Soft Egg Crates to prevent light from flooding onto the background and walls, and he’d count on Guinness and his team to further tease the light off the backgrounds. “I would often use black silks for this to grade the falloff very smoothly,” he adds. “There would usually be something else extremely soft over the lens.”
Rinato says using a remote focus control system throughout was useful. “I know it’s a matter of personal preference for focus pullers, but I personally feel it’s an advantage to use a remote because it gives you options,” the AC explains. “I generally like to be close to the camera so I can be in close contact with the operator, but with the remote I have the option to step away at times to see around obstructions if needed.”
When it came to visualizing a key transition where the story leaps forward seven years, a decision was made to largely forego noticeable aging makeup on Aniston. “We didn’t want there to be a sudden, massive difference,” Hall says. “Josh and Will made that decision. It was something they were quite specific about, in terms of how much they wanted the makeup and appearance of the actors to change.”
Gordon adds that Aniston, a seasoned pro of romantic comedies, was helpful and collaborative with the lighting crew throughout her scenes. “(Jennifer’s) pretty trusting and surprisingly easy-going for a star of her caliber,” he says. “She understands how production needs to work and she’s selfless in that way. Obviously, she’s a movie star, so there are ways you have to light her, but Jess was really good with that.”
Taking advantage of Manhattan’s “B-side” practical locations meant having less than full control on many shooting days, such as with an intimate scene set inside The Central Park Zoo’s penguin house. Pre-rigging the habitat was not allowed, and filming could only be accomplished in accordance with the facility’s strict guidelines on lighting and shoot durations, lest a boisterous crew disturb the routine of the sensitive birds.
“There were all these rules about how much light you can put in there because they’re spawning or whatever,” Gordon recalls. “You have four hours to shoot in that habitat a day. You’d show up early in the morning when the lights are off and the animals are in their nocturnal mode, and as you’re setting up the scene, the lights come on and you realize there are 300 penguins just staring at you.”
Even trickier were filming sequences on the New York subway, for which location manager Ronnie Kupferwasser and other crew had to convince the city to decommission an S train out of Grand Central Station and allow the crew to run shuttles between stations after 7 p.m.
“The only way we could get access was to shoot at night, so it added to what was already a lot of night work,” Hall says. “We had a couple of hours to shoot and augment the lighting marginally, but for all intents and purposes it was a practical working location.”
The DP says his most challenging location was The Apple Store in the meatpacking district, which is the setting for a shot that sees Aniston and Bateman walking into the store from the street and having a conversation while ascending the glass staircase.
“We wanted to put a TechnoCrane in there and do it in one shot, but the location wouldn’t allow it,” Hall recalls. “So, we broke it down into three parts – two Steadicam shots and a dolly shot with a large jib done off a raised rostrum. Dealing with the reflections was a real challenge; you’d put up a light and see it in five panels of glass simultaneously! I lit it using four helium balloons and an additional light coming in from the exterior through the windows.”
Hall adds that whenever possible, he followed his directors’ mandate to include “some darkness and contrast in the lighting” that enhanced the story’s subversive elements.
“We were interested in moving the camera to accommodate long takes, which is great for performance, and using the camera to signify the inner lives of these characters,” Hall concludes. “And we wanted to see New York in the frame, wherever possible, so we were constantly shooting straight into glass on our interiors so we could see the city beyond. We wanted the city to become a character.”
Capturing Manhattan’s visual splendor is a tall order for a production of any size, but Gordon expresses satisfaction with what his team accomplished. “There are always shots you dreamed of that you can’t get,” he muses. “At one point we wanted to get all the way across the street, like five buildings down, and shoot – off the side of a building – Jason’s character staring out of a window at magic hour. You have shots that you fight for, and then you have to lose. But overall, we were really happy at this budget level to both shoot the whole movie in New York, and get New York into the movie in unexpected ways.”
Dir. of Photography: Jess Hall
Operator: Craig Haagensen
Assistants: Frank Rinato, David Flanigan, Scott Lipkowitz
Film Loader: Kevin Walter
Steadicam Operator: Jim McConkey
Technocrane Operator: Craig Striano
Still Photographer: Macall Polay
Publicist: Amy Johnson
By Ryan Stewart / photos by Macall Polay