DPs are accustomed to a certain amount of preparation for a shoot. Mundane things like lining up special equipment or engaging a second camera. Rarely does pre-production involve instruction in Krav Maga (the official self-defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces) or a crash course in surviving hostile regions. Unless, that is, you’re Daniel Marracino and you’ve agreed to join documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock in his search to find the world’s most infamous terrorist.
Before heading out to the Middle East to shoot Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Marracino, went into serious training. He learned practical things like how to treat broken bones and burns, and do CPR. He also learned more valuable skills, like avoiding the mistakes others have made. “I literally saw a video of cameramen getting shot from being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says the DP. “It was hard to digest the gravity of the situation – usually I’m pretty free with jumping police lines and taking liberties.”
And that was just the beginning of a four-and-a-half-month journey around the world with Spurlock, who makes films that explore big issues in minute (and personal) detail. The Oscar nominated Super Size Me, which Spurlock wrote and directed, looked at the medical fallout from the director eating every single meal at McDonald’s for one solid month (it wasn’t pretty). Last year, Spurlock produced the documentary feature What Would Jesus Buy?, targeting the commercialization of Christmas.
“I’ll do research and learn a lot around an issue,” describes Spurlock. “But I really like to learn as we go. That way, it’s a vicarious journey we take together. When I learn, you learn.” When it came time to build Where in the World’s crew, Spurlock wanted a shooter who was a fast study, someone with the ability to get the shot, listen to the story thread and bust the right moves to get the coverage that’s needed for the scene to work. Enter Marracino, who had been second unit on Spurlock’s Jesus/Christmas doc.
Locked and Loaded
“There’s a fluid feel to Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden,” Spurlock explains. “We shot over 1,000 hours of footage and most of it was shot from Daniel’s hip or shoulder. That gives it a little shake – and it matters. It gives the film a little life and texture. And since we were on a quest to find somebody, that feeling of perpetual motion was translated.” Marracino’s primary camera was the Sony F900R, with a slow shutter board and an intervalometer board for time lapse. For about 95 percent of the film (minus some b-roll), he used a Fuji wide-angle (13x 4.5mm) zoom lens. “I also used the picture cache board for the 8-second buffer for those you-never-know moments,” the DP adds. “I had a big fat color viewfinder that gave the feeling I was watching the movie as it was happening.”
Because he needed a 360-degree sense of things, Marracino worked with Abel Cine Tech in New York to adapt his viewfinder. “They provided extension rods to slide the viewfinder 8 or so inches forward, which was great because I didn’t need to have my eye right in it.” For a sequence tracking Spurlock’s time imbedded with some U.S. troops, Marracino used Panasonic’s DVX100B, a 24P Mini-DV camcorder which offers FireWire transfers and a rugged magnesium alloy chassis. “On top of that, I had to do sound,” he recalls. “It was quite a task with a bullet proof vest and a helmet.”
Lighting their hunt for Bin Laden was kept to a minimum since the team was on the go. “I used a pair of 1×1 light panels when I really had to, but the HD cam does really well in low light,” Marracino says. “There’s a scene where Morgan is breaking bread with a family in Morocco that was lit with the practical fluorescent that was in the room. I thought for sure I was underexposed, skin tone was around 40- IRE, but in the end it looked fine.” Marracino says he created hyper-gamma scene files with Jesse Rosen, Abel Cine Tech New York’s Director of Technology. “They allowed me to dial in the gamma curve for the situation at hand,” he explains. “For instance, I had a scene file to take down the top end like a hot sky and one to bring up the detail in the blacks for low-light situations.”
Even traveling as light as they were, Marracino and Spurlock drew attention. As a result, there were several tense moments. A tank ominously appears nearby as Spurlock does a stand-up at the Gaza Strip. Gunshots and explosions erupt a few hundred yards away as they approach the Pakistani border. And in Jerusalem, several Orthodox Jews get in Spurlock’s face and the police have to intervene. “My issue was they were swarming, trying to shut me down as I was trying to shoot Morgan,” Marracino recalls. “In a situation like this I try to downplay what I am doing by glancing into the viewfinder for a fraction of a second to line up the shot then looking somewhere else to give the impression that I’m not shooting. I have to thank my Israeli soundman, Ravid Dror, for distracting them and getting amazing audio. Unless there is real life threatening danger,” he boasts, “my M.O. is to be calm and steady. I actually delight in those moments where things get a little uncomfortable.”
That’s part of what Spurlock loves about Marracino. “He’s a bit nuts, but good nuts. And he’s got the best attitude of any shooter I’ve ever worked with.” Then Spurlock starts giggling. “Here’s my favorite Daniel story: When we went to get vaccines and blood tests – you have to verify your blood type and write it on your boots and bulletproof vest so if you’re shot they can help you — that’s a scary reality. Anyway, Daniel had to do it, too. So after the test, Daniel walks in the door, throws his arms in the air and shouts, ‘B-Positive!'” Spurlock cracks up. “That sums Daniel Marracino up. He’s always positive.”
Yeah, but did the pair really think they’d find the most-wanted man on the planet? “We went into it knowing the chances were slim,” Spurlock allows. “Nobody can find him but this little documentary film crew? May be, though. You buy a lottery ticket and one person wins!” And if they had located the fugitive? “I would have gone ‘woo-hoo’ and thrown a net over him,” Spurlock laughs. “Then Ed McMahon would pop up with a Prize Patrol check. That’d be cool, but probably I would have been scared to death.”
War on the Comfort Zone
In truth, Spurlock was looking for more than Bin Laden. The filmmaker says his goal is to kick-start a dialog people might not otherwise have. “If you approach serious issues in a humorous way, you tap into a broad audience,” the director notes. “I want to make movies that appeal to people who also want to go see The Dark Knight or Iron Man, not just people who smoke pipes and wear ascots.”
And he does. In Where in the World, Spurlock’s own sense of humor is evident in his frequent quips and interstitial animated riffs. He employs a recurring video game control screen, and most of the opening sequence could have been ripped from a popular action title found in any Xbox and PlayStation. “The video games are like a metaphor,” Spurlock insists. “It is a game. We’re playing a game overseas.” Maybe so, but the cut-ins also provide a break from the seriousness, prompting the clerk at one local video store to say, “I thought this movie would be a real downer, but it’s actually kind of funny.” Spurlock’s response, “I like that!” with a hoot, is typical. But critics have been less than convinced. “Plenty of reviewers said it was too over the top,” he concedes. “But I’m a child of the video game age. I had an Atari 2600 and Intellivision and then Nintendo, Sega and a PlayStation. So I like that kind of thing.”
As for Marracino, he was a generalist before teaming up with Spurlock, shooting everything from commercials to MTV’s Cribs and Beach House. Past credits also include large portions of Sicko and DMC: My Adoption Journey. Now he says he’s hooked on documentaries. In fact, he and Spurlock are currently working on a segment for the upcoming Freakonomics. Though not front and center before the camera, like his director, the DP definitely takes his role as a documentarian seriously. “I’m a conduit between the underground and the mainstream,” he says. “I think of myself as a hybrid between an objective journalist and a ninja thief. If you get out of the way [while shooting a documentary] everyone will reveal themselves.”
His methods are effective. Spurlock recalls an interview in Egypt that was not yielding much of anything. “The guy wasn’t forthcoming with anything of interest,” Spurlock recalls. “But then at the end, he turns and says, ‘you should meet Mahfouz Azzam [uncle of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s personal physician and closest confidant] – I’ll give you his number.'”
Those are moments Marracino lives for. He says he loves documentaries that put a lump in his stomach because he knows he’s witnessing the uncomfortable truth. “I’ve found my calling,” he declares. “Documentaries put me in situations that the normal every-day person might find uncomfortable – and I love that place. It gives my life meaning. My dreams are full of uncovering human trafficking rings and crossing borders with immigrant workers in the dead of the night. “[Docs] get to the bottom of some of the really important issues of our time and make you think.”