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'Big Sur:' Beat Generation Tale Told with Next-Generation Tools

The filmmakers responsible for the indie drama Big Sur, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, faced a number of challenges inherent in transposing Beat Generation hero Jack Kerouac’s introspective novel of the same name into a feature film set in late 1950s California. The freeform source material traces Kerouac’s (Jean-Marc Barr) life in the wake of his enormous success writing On the Road and his attempt to escape the demands and constraints of romantic entanglements. The film co-stars Kate Bosworth and Anthony Edwards as Kerouac’s longtime supporter Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The small budget (even by indie standards) and 21-day schedule might have intimidated some filmmakers, but cinematographer M. David Mullen, ASC, and director Michael Polish have a history of finding ways to maximize limited resources. Michael, who with brother Mark formed the indie Polish Brothers team, has collaborated with cinematographer Mullen on visually rich, memorable movies on modest budgets—films such as Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot and North Fork. The Polish Brothers also had a great deal of success selling their no-budget DSLR feature For Lovers Only online. (For Lovers Only was Digital Video magazine’s Nov. 2011 cover story.) The key players were used to making the most of very limited resources.

Though Mullen and Polish wanted to shoot the feature mixing 2-perf 35mm and enormous 8-perf VistaVision film for the lyrical wide shots of California’s Big Sur locations, the cost of film and processing proved beyond the scope of the budget, so the filmmakers had to find a suitable way to shoot digitally. (The pair always prefers the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.) Since Polish wanted many of the general nature shots to possess the “epic quality of an Ansel Adams or Edward Weston print,” Mullen explains, the cinematographer sought out the highest resolution sensor that made sense in order to at least approach that VistaVision quality, even when projected on the big screen.

Michael Polish

This search led him to the then-brand-new RED EPIC and its 5K sensor. Mullen rented the package of two EPIC bodies from private owner Tonaci Tran. The lenses (primarily Zeiss Master Primes and an Angenieux zoom) came from Chater Camera in San Francisco. He used the EPIC primarily at its native EI of 800 but was also quite pleased with the results he got boosting to 1600 when necessary in dark, hard-to-light interiors.

Mullen and Polish wanted to give Big Sur a period feel, so Mullen adjusted the chroma settings on the camera to get a slightly desaturated image, with the intention of refining the look in post by adding a foggy quality to the blacks. “Sometimes, when we see old movies today that have been duped a lot, you end up with foggy blacks that sort of bleed into light skies,” Mullen explains. “That’s the kind of look we were after.”

The production spent about a quarter of its 21-day schedule in San Francisco, where Kerouac’s fame was at its height. Fortunately the famous City Lights Books, owned by Ferlinghetti, stands today in essentially the same form it did in the period, so the production was able to shoot in its ground floor store and upstairs reading room without having to build anything.

They made as much use of the city as possible, Mullen explains, by shooting from hotel rooms, a hospital and other interiors with views onto other buildings that existed in the late ’50s. “The thing about San Francisco is that, like most cities, the buildings look the same as they have for many years from the second floor up,” the cinematographer explains. “At street level everything is constantly changing, but the upper floors can still look like the 1950s.”

A significant portion the action in Big Sur takes place in and around the small cabin Kerouac fled to after attaining cult hero status. Mullen recalls the search for a location that could convey the mood of the rustic interior and majestic exterior of the area’s cliffs, oceans and giant redwoods. The team considered building a cabin in a field with removable walls so they could have a view of the scenic environment and the Pacific Ocean, but when they went on an expedition around some property in the Bixby Canyon area, they discovered unanticipated trade-offs.

“We realized that the trees by the oceanside were smaller pines and oaks,” Mullen recalls, “not the redwoods we were hoping for. We might as well have been in L.A. But as we went further up the canyon we saw more redwoods, and as we kept going, further up this little fire road, the area became this beautiful primeval forest with babbling brooks and ferns!”

This environment reflected perfectly the feeling Kerouac evokes in his novel. During the scout the filmmakers even found a long-disused hunting lodge at the top of the mountain. The owner of a vast swath of Big Sur property gave them the go-ahead to use the structure, which turned out to be a mixed blessing. Yes, the production had a nearly perfect cabin and breathtaking surroundings, but getting there required at least a 30-minute trek from the already rather remote area where they started scouting, and only a four-wheel-drive vehicle could hope to make the journey. “We had to cross the same creek about seven times,” Mullen says. “Some of the crossings were really pretty deep. But the cabin had this moss-covered roof and stone fireplace and just so much age and texture, and it was surrounded by massive trees. It was magical and we decided to bite the bullet and shoot there.”

The unit parked its trucks at the base of the canyon and crew members spent a day transferring the limited camera, lighting, grip and production design gear they needed to pickup trucks, with EPIC bodies and lenses placed on laps during the trek. DIT Dane Brehm remained at the base station they’d set up before the fire road. There, he imported .r3d files as the production was able to carry cards to him. He archived the original and used Colorfront software to create a dailies pass that approximated the period look that Mullen would later achieve in post.

A great portion of Kerouac’s novel is written in the form of an interior monologue, and most of it is rather light on traditional storytelling. Mullen made great use of the tools at hand to convert the interior states described in the book into cinematic visuals. In the cabin, for example, the writer awakens in an alcoholic daze to see his friends talking, making breakfast and moving throughout the tiny living quarters, but what’s really happening is that Kerouac is undergoing something of a breakdown.

“We had lost the light so I used some units from outside to provide a blinding white light coming through the windows and doors in all of Kerouac’s POV shots,” Mullen notes. “That made things look kind of nightmarish. And I shot his POV shots with a PL-mount Lensbaby to make everything he sees distorted.”

Mullen used the basic Lensbaby with the flexible tube that allowed him to turn the optic in any direction. “It was hard to operate because you have to have an HD monitor next to the camera while you’re adjusting this lens,” he explains. “So you pull it in and out to change focus side to side to alter the plane of focus. I was twisting the lens around, finding places where everything would snap into focus and then out again, but I had to make sure that I found focus often enough that the shot would be usable. It could be frustrating but I think the results were worth it.”

Mullen, who continues to mix indie work with bigger-budget TV shows and features, concludes, “It’s not the size of the crew or equipment that matters—it’s really the nature of the work. If you’re going up into the woods and shooting in a mostly naturalistic style like we did, you really wouldn’t benefit by having more equipment and more crew. Then there are plenty of stories you just couldn’t tell without a big crew and camera equipment and big lights and all the rest. The only thing I would have liked on Big Sur is more time. I’d love to have had twice as long to be able to capture changes in weather and nature. But you just can’t do a Terrence Malick-style show in 21 days.”