Phil Spector (HBO)
Cinematographer: Juan Ruiz-Anchia, ASC
The professional relationship between Juan Ruiz-Anchia, ASC and writer/director David Mamet goes back to House of Games (1987), so the cinematographer well knows what it takes to craft visuals to match Mamet’s writing style. Their latest collaboration is the HBO movie Phil Spector, which portrays events surrounding the first trial of Spector (Al Pacino), in 2007, for the murder of Lana Clarkson, and focuses primarily on his relationship with his attorney, Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren).
Their highly personal interactions, most of which take place in Spector’s exotic mansion, a mock courtroom on a soundstage, and in an actual courtroom, had to be invented by Mamet because attorney-client privilege prevents the pair’s real conversations from ever becoming public. “One thing about David’s writing, for a cinematographer, is that he is very expressive,” Ruiz-Anchia observes. “His writing suggests many different images to the cinematographer, who then has to make a visual interpretation of the whole thing. I love that kind of challenge, which is why I enjoy working with him.”
For Phil Spector, Ruiz-Anchia’s challenges included the needs to highlight close-up imagery of his two potent stars, emphasize the flamboyant nature of Spector’s home and appearance, and visually contrast Spector’s insular world with that of his attorney.
The cinematographer’s first decision was to shoot with Arri Alexa Plus cameras, recording to SxS cards at 23.98 PsF (Progressive Segmented Frame) in 12-bit ProRes 4:4:4:4. Ruiz-Anchia says he never considered another camera system because experience had taught him the Alexa “had the right latitude and the right exposure at 800 ASA for this project. The latitude compared nicely with [that of] film, and I had established a DIT process [for the Alexa] that had worked well on another show.”
That “DIT process” involved the decision to have his digital-imaging technician, Peter Symonowicz, “help me control quality of the light right there on set. We recorded in Log C, but I wanted to see while shooting how the camera was responding to the lighting. So, for this project, the DIT was very important. We colored and made our interpretation of lighting with contrast and density and color on set, and that is what [Technicolor New York] used to make dailies with look-up tables we developed. So when we projected dailies, they were not Log C or Rec 709; it was my interpretation of the look that we made on set, and that was very important.”
Symonowicz performed on-set color grading using Iridas SpeedGrade. He points out that the graded image was available live at his DIT cart on set so that Ruiz-Anchia could review and adjust lighting temperatures and match pre-designed LUTs. However, while reviewing dailies footage on a calibrated 46" plasma monitor provided by Technicolor New York, the filmmakers discovered that LUTs created directly from the footage were more accurate than LUTs created from the live camera feed, and so they developed a process for making sure the most accurate version was saved for reference for the final grade, which was done at FotoKem in Burbank.
“Communication with the lab was crucial,” says Symonowicz. “Because [Technicolor dailies colorist] Tim Hedden was using [Blackmagic Design’s] DaVinci Resolve, we created 3-D LUTs at 33x33x33 so they could be read properly. But we reviewed and changed LUTs on a daily basis, and we eventually realized LUTs derived from the footage tracked more precisely. Regardless of whether it is 4:4:4 or 4:2:2 color space, the live camera feed comes prior to ProRes compression. Tim also noticed the slight difference, and that’s why it was important for us to [send] screen grabs with each shuttle drive. If Tim noticed LUTs tracking differently, the stills with the graded image would eliminate the guesswork.”
Ruiz-Anchia worked carefully to moderate skin tones, keeping them around 30 IRE in Log C during production. This was key given the intimate relationship between the camera lens and the faces of his two veteran stars. “Helen Mirren was very flexible, but she needed softer lighting than Al, so I used Chimeras to build soft light around her,” he says. “Al can take a harder light, but he was wearing the kinds of wigs Spector wore, and they had to be lit correctly. David and I were concerned that the wigs might draw too much attention away from the acting if they were not framed and lit properly. We had to be very careful about that.”
For lenses, Ruiz-Anchia relied on a package of Angenieux Optimo zooms (15-40mm, 28-76mm and 24-290mm, primarily) and a set of Cooke S4 primes ranging from 21mm to 135mm. Each of the three primary settings — Spector’s mansion, Baden’s work environment, and the mock courtroom — dictated different lens choices and styles of camerawork. “The mansion, which was a set we built inside a mansion on Long Island, presents Spector’s eccentric world, so camera moves there were more deliberate and calculated,” says Ruiz-Anchia. “We had more colorations as we moved through different rooms in the mansion. Spector hated daylight and kept his curtains shut, and his mansion was a maze of corridors. In some cases, our interpretation of the mansion was faithful to reality, like the room that has the portrait of Lincoln in it, where Spector shot the woman. His living room had desert oasis furniture; another room had a carousel in it; and another had a shrine to Lawrence of Arabia. There was also a room where he kept all his guns, and a room where he kept his wigs. It was a crazy challenge shooting all that.”
A key sequence shows Spector and Baden meeting for the first time in the mansion. She follows him from room to room while he delivers a series of long speeches. The sequence was accomplished with a mix of dollies, Steadicam and cranes and posed significant lighting challenges. “We had to pre-light the whole area — two floors, big rooms with very high ceilings,” says Ruiz-Anchia. “We rigged a combination of lights in the ceiling going from 2Ks down to 150-watt Fresnels, 2K and 1K soft lights and 4K space lights, and then we had to work fast to do corrections along the way with the dimmer board. We used a lot of colors on the lights because the rooms are so strange, and that coloration helped me make decisions.”
By contrast, the offices set up by Baden’s law firm look sterile. “There the camera is more free, and that is a point of balance in the story,” Ruiz-Anchia explains. “We go for a more monochromatic palette and move away from the rigid [visual] structure we used in the mansion. This is the world of Helen’s character.
But it is the mock courtroom where the most dramatic moment in the piece takes place. In the scene, Baden stages a mock cross examination of Spector to prepare him for possible testimony in the real trial. At a particular moment, she shows him videotaped testimony by his ex-wife that sends him into a rage. “The courtroom set was built in a small studio, and I decided to include some of our movie lights in the frame, sometimes flaring the lens,” says Ruiz-Anchia. “I also used handheld a lot, especially at the climax of the sequence. The scene starts out very formal in style, then it starts breaking rules as things get more dramatic, and finally, it ends in a surreal style.”