Lucky Number Slevin is a thriller/comedy hybrid whose unexpected acts of brutality and moments of comic relief keep the audience guessing. The picture was shot by Peter Sova, ASC and directed by Paul McGuigan, who previously collaborated on Gangster No. 1 (see AC June ’02), The Reckoning and Wicker Park. Slevin echoes Gangster No. 1 in a handful of ways: it concerns a decades-long rivalry between two gang leaders (played by Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley), and it’s peopled with sociopaths who think nothing of killing each other. But Slevin unfolds on a larger canvas and offers a broader range of tones.
Set in present-day New York, the film concerns a mysterious young man, Slevin (Josh Hartnett), who finds himself caught in the middle of a war between the two gangsters, The Boss (Freeman) and Schlomo (Kingsley). The rivals live in sprawling penthouse apartments that face each other. Other characters include Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis), a hit man of questionable loyalties, and Slevin’s neighbor Lindsey (Lucy Liu), who gets caught up in the danger. The film flashes back to the 1970s to depict an event that has bearing on Slevin’s circumstances: a gambler’s devastating loss at the racetrack.
Sova says he finds it inspiring to work with McGuigan because the director is thoroughly involved in designing the look of the project at hand. “Paul has tremendous knowledge about filmmaking and a terrific visual sense,” says the cinematographer. “He did a lot of fashion photography before he started directing, and he has strong ideas about cameras, costumes and production design. When we first met, we established that we had similar thoughts about the way a camera should move to complement a scene, and by now we have a shorthand; each of us knows what the other will think of an idea.”
Although the filmmakers planned from the outset to finish Slevin with a digital intermediate (DI), Sova worked carefully to create as much of the look in camera as possible. This was partly because of his own preference, but also because he was concerned about how much time the modestly budgeted production would allot for the DI suite. His caution proved beneficial in ways the filmmakers could not have predicted; Sova and McGuigan were so dissatisfied with the look of their first DI that they moved to another facility, Technicolor Digital Intermediates (TDI) in Burbank, and started from scratch — with just six of the 20 allotted days left to do the work.
Slevin was shot in 3-perf Super 35mm. “Paul and I had made our previous two movies in Super 35, and we liked the visual excitement and dynamic of the widescreen frame,” says Sova. “Also, I knew the DI meant we wouldn’t have to deal with an optical blowup.” The filmmakers wanted to achieve visuals that were very rich and low in grain, and they wanted the 1970s sequences to have a slightly warm, more saturated feel. To minimize grain, Sova shot most of the picture on two emulsions in Kodak’s Vision2 family, 200T 5217 and 500T 5218; he overexposed both by a stop. He used two Fuji Super-F emulsions, 250T 8552 and 250D 8562, for the flashbacks. “I didn’t want to create the ’70s look with colored filters because I knew there was a chance some of that material might end up somewhere else in the story than where it was originally scripted, and I was afraid the transition might be too much. We also worked with the period costumes in a different way; they were more colorful than the present-day wardrobe. We achieved a different look, but it is fairly subtle.”
Sova also considered using period lenses, Super Baltars, on the production’s Panaflex Millennium and XL bodies to distinguish the flashbacks from the contemporary material. “Baltars were used on The Godfather, and I thought they might help give the ’70s scenes a certain feel, but the visual differences weren’t what Paul and I intended. I thought they’d fall off a bit on the side like other older lenses do, and they didn’t.” Instead, he decided to shoot the entire picture on Primo lenses — primes and 17.5-75mm and 24-275mm zooms — and distinguish the flashback material with light Schneider Black Frost filtration on the lens.
To create a good, dense negative for the DI, Sova strove to maintain a stop of T2.8 throughout the shoot. “If a shot done at T8 is cut in with a shot done at T2.8, there will be a big difference in contrast and color that you’ll have to take time to even out in the DI,” he notes. “The Primos have the best resolution between T2.8 and T4, so I tried to shoot right in that range, maybe going up to T5.6 for the exteriors. That way, I knew if we had very little time in the DI, we wouldn’t have to spend it making shots match”
In fact, Sova was loath to leave anything to the DI unless absolutely necessary. “If it’s going to take an hour and a Condor to take the light off the front of a building, and I could [achieve the same thing] with a window in a DI in five minutes, I have to be reasonable, of course. But when it makes more sense to do it in the camera, that’s how I want to work.”
One sequence Sova spent quite a bit of time on in the digital suite was the horse race, which is shown in several flashbacks and plays a crucial role in tying up the disparate storylines. He and McGuigan wanted to bathe the race action in golden tones, and although the cinematographer considered accomplishing that with colored filters, “we had the horses for a limited amount of time, and we had six operators working at different positions. I was concerned that even if they all used colored filters, it wouldn’t be a unified image.” Furthermore, all of the cameras were mounted with long lenses, and Sova didn’t think it appropriate to enforce his T-stop discipline on the focus pullers, who needed a deeper stop to keep the horses in focus. “Because of all the factors in play, this sequence was the kind of thing we really had to do in the DI,” he says.
Given that Sova was keen to build color and contrast into the negative, it’s no surprise he was very meticulous about lighting. But he acknowledges that McGuigan’s method, which allows for last-minute changes in blocking if a better idea presents itself, made this particularly challenging. “Paul doesn’t just go in and shoot a master and some close-ups,” says Sova. “I light for 360 degrees most of the time. I like that Paul will take time to consider new ideas. He doesn’t always act like he’s got the answer right away, and I’m like that too. Even if the blocking has been planned out, I want him to be able to change something without taking an hour to change the lights. I always try to do enough pre-rigging to make that possible.”
The two hero sets in Slevin are the respective lairs of The Boss and Schlomo. The Boss inhabits a lush environment of varnished wood, while Schlomo lives in a dark, sarcophagus-like suite of black stone. The production built The Boss’ home in a modest soundstage in Montreal, shot all of those sequences, and then dismantled that set and replaced it with Schlomo’s apartment set. The construction crew had 72 hours to change the sets, and Sova’s team had 24 hours to rig the lighting. Knowing that each of those 24 hours would be precious, Sova and his gaffer, Sylvan Bernier, tried to rig as many lights as possible for both sets using Photometric calculators, which enabled them to determine where the lights should go and how much gel or diffusion would be required to achieve the desired look.
Sova has high praise for the Montreal crew, especially production designer François Séguin. “François has done a lot of theater, and he’s fearless,” says Sova. “He will go all the way with an idea, and he came up with the really gutsy idea of an all-black set [for Schlomo’s apartment]. Nobody builds black sets, but he argued that the characters would stand out against it. After some discussion, we decided to go for it. He used a kind of faux stone that worked very well.”