Some Sundance regulars compared Right at Your Door to last year’s breakout thriller Open Water, but director of photography Tom Richmond notes that although both movies are low-budget thrillers by first-time directors, and both focus on a couple in trouble, Right at Your Door “has really got three main characters: Brad, Lexi and the house.” He adds wryly, “If there were another co-star, it would be plastic and tape!”
Right at Your Door, for which Richmond won the prize for Excellence in Cinematography-Drama, takes place mostly in a single practical location: a hillside house overlooking Los Angeles. Written and directed by Chris Gorak, an experienced production designer (Lords of Dogtown) and art director (Minority Report), the film examines what might happen if Los Angeles were hit by a series of dirty bombs. Leaving geopolitics aside, the story focuses on a young couple’s reactions to the crisis over those 48 hours.
Lexi (Mary McCormack) has already headed to work when her husband, Brad (Rory Cochrane), hears the news: multiple explosive devices have been detonated downtown, near Century City, and at Los Angeles International Airport. Commuter traffic was the target. After attempting to find his wife and being turned back by police, Brad stays home, glued to the radio. He learns that the bombs were biological weapons, and citizens must stay home, seal their houses, and avoid contact with people who have been contaminated by the toxic particles. He does as told, and soon, ash is falling on his lawn like snow. When his panicked, coughing wife returns, Brad follows the official line and refuses to let her inside. “Help is on the way,” he assures her through layers of plastic. As the story progresses and authorities start rounding up citizens at gunpoint, Brad tapes himself into ever-smaller portions of the house, allowing Lexi and a neighborhood boy refuge in other rooms. As conditions worsen, “help” becomes an ambiguous, even frightening prospect, and the couple deals with their past and uncertain future through a wall of plastic until the authorities — who have their own agenda — finally arrive.
Richmond (Palindromes, Little Odessa, A Midnight Clear) was intrigued by numerous aspects of Right at Your Door when he first read the script. “In our society, the home is the symbol of safety, security and family togetherness,” he notes. “In this film, that idea is shattered and turned upside-down.” Richmond had a hand in choosing the house, which had to have a view of the Los Angeles skyline, be in a somewhat isolated location, and offer multiple interior views from one end of the house to the other. “As much as possible, we tried to shoot from one room to another,” says the cinematographer. “We wanted to keep [visually] describing the space and blocking parts of the frame to make you feel [that the characters] were always closed in or closed out.”
As the story progresses, the house becomes increasingly subdivided by sheets of plastic. “The film was shot chronologically, and it really had to be,” notes Richmond. “Normally you’d do that for the actors — and it was great for them — but it was our other hero, the house, that demanded it.”
With cast and crew hemmed in by walls and plastic barriers, the production needed a free-roaming camera — two, in fact. From the outset, Gorak envisioned shooting the film handheld with two cameras, for the sake of speed and the actors. Although high-definition (HD) video was the format on the table when Richmond came aboard, the tangle of cables and monitors HD entails “would have made the situation nonfunctional by day three,” he says. Furthermore, with an 18-day schedule, no budget for an HD engineer, and numerous daylit shots featuring windows, he was concerned about maintaining visual consistency. He also was dissatisfied with the low-contrast, soft-edged look of the HD-to-film transfers he screened at two post facilities, EFilm and FotoKem. For all of these reasons, the filmmakers decided to use Super 16mm instead.
That approach triggered another commitment: a digital intermediate (DI) to create the high-contrast, desaturated look that takes over after the toxic ash falls. “We wanted to make it almost monochromatic — not necessarily realistic, but more of a subjective experience,” says Richmond. He decided to use a single negative, Kodak Vision2 500T 7218. “I underexposed everything a bit, so it was rated at [ISO] 650 or 700. I wanted the picture to deaden and fall to black sooner; white wasn’t important, but black was.”
He used two Arri 16SRs, mounting the A camera with Zeiss Superspeed prime lenses and the B camera with a Canon (T2.5) 8-64 zoom. Working with two cameras, the rule of thumb was “a camera had to be with one actor or the other, not both.” Gorak usually did three to four takes. “With every take, we moved the camera, even if it wasn’t a perfect take,” says the director. “That’s how we got all that footage. Not only were we moving the camera, we were also potentially changing the lens with every take. That gave us the feeling of being everywhere.” Richmond adds, “One camera would get the perfect shot and the other would hunt for an interesting angle. Shots on the wide end were made with a prime for better resolution and a more stable image.” Richmond operated the A camera, while Robert F. Smith, Joseph Setele and Rob Baird took turns manning the B camera.
“Everybody knows the disadvantages of using two cameras,” notes Richmond. “My work on this movie was more about learning the advantages and embracing them.” He saw some dividends early on. During the intense scene when Lexi returns home, she is at the front door, pleading with Brad through its window. “Normally I would have shot through the window, then shot him,” says Richmond. “But we were able to put a camera perpendicular to Brad and get an over-the-shoulder of Lexi. We got two crazy, emotional performances in the same shot that never could have been achieved had they been shot separately. That was fairly early in the shoot, and it was so gratifying it inspired me to keep trying as hard as I could in every situation.”
Making a disaster film on a tiny budget also meant being strategic with visual effects. Rather than creating a single spectacular sequence, Gorak chose to pepper the film with brief glimpses of the city skyline under a growing cloud of black smoke. To create these, visual-effects supervisor Joe Bauer layered footage of smoke generated by oil fires in Kuwait onto Richmond’s skyline shots. “We were pretty addicted to the idea of a handheld movie, and it blew me away that Joe didn’t have a problem doing a matte into a handheld shot,” says Richmond. “That’s something you couldn’t do a few years ago.” The falling ash was biodegradable paper blown into the foreground and supplemented by matte extensions. To achieve eerily beautiful shots of ash blowing in the wind, Richmond rolled while the special-effects unit was laying down the ash. (In the same vein of efficiency, Gorak avoided hiring a helicopter by stealing all those shots — he asked the camera operators to shoot the sky whenever a helicopter happened by.)
The plume of ash eventually blocks the sunlight from Brad and Lexi’s house. To lower the contrast and achieve continuity on these sequences, Richmond relied heavily on the DI. His five days with FotoKem colorist Tom Sartori largely involved fine-tuning contrast and desaturating the image. Even before the bombs hit, “we wanted a warm look, but not full color,” says the cinematographer. “Next we started draining out the warmth, and then after the ash hit, we lost the green, toning down the deep-background foliage. Eventually, the picture is almost black and white. It would have been virtually impossible to color-time this film photochemically — it had more shots per reel than any movie I’d ever worked on. The DI allowed us to frame-store, and we could look at 80 pictures at once. It was a kind of grid to grade by.”
In awarding Richmond the cinematography prize, the Sundance jury noted that he had worked wonders inside the house. “Sometimes we cinematographers are given a great gift: shooting in Tuscany in 17th-century palaces, shooting the neon of Vegas, or shooting the gritty streets of Newark,” said juror Nancy Schreiber, ASC. “And sometimes the script dictates shooting a 90-minute film almost all in one suburban house. Sometimes we have to light fear, frame panic and compose betrayal. Tom was incredibly inventive in making this house work in an emotionally diverse way. He did it with precision, skill, and beauty — and on such a low budget. It was masterful.”