Don Jon: A Car, Apartment, Church, Body, Family, Women…and Film

Published on website: September 11, 2013
Categories: 35mm , Independent Films , Focus On Film , VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219/7219
Writer/Director Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson star in Relativity Media´s "Don Jon". Photo credit: Daniel McFadden ©2013 Relativity Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Writer/Director Joseph Gordon-Levitt with DP Thomas Kloss. Photo credit: Daniel McFadden ©2013 Relativity Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Tony Danza and Writer/Director Joseph Gordon-Levitt star in Relativity Media´s "Don Jon" Photo credit: Daniel McFadden ©2013 Relativity Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Writer/Director Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in Relativity Media´s "Don Jon". Photo credit: Daniel McFadden ©2013 Relativity Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

A good cinematographer knows when a lighter photographic touch better serves the story. Thomas Kloss felt that the independent film Don Jon was a textbook example.

“It’s not a high-budget action movie that’s being driven by photography,” he says. “This story is being told by actors, and the subject matter and the photography has to support that with a simple, straightforward approach and no overcomplicated bells and whistles.”

Sure, the low budget and tight schedule might preclude most photographic pizzazz, but Kloss knew the visuals needed to get out of the way of the story, so to speak. “When you watch the movie, you’ll see the simple, light touch that the photography has,” the cinematographer explains. “We really focused on the essentials. Keep in mind, this was shot in 27 days with a lot of rehearsal and focus on good acting performance, so the photography had to support the acting.”

In the dark comedy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Jon Martello, who is all about appearances and objectifies all that is important to him: his car, his apartment, his church, his body, his family—and women, having casual flings with aplomb. And then there is the Internet porn fascination, which has skewed his views so much that even the best romp pales in comparison. However, two women (played by Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore) enter his life and change his outlook.

Written and directed by Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon also marks the actor’s feature film directorial debut. Kloss, whose credits include Pontiac Moon, Fear, Palmetto, Showtime and the Conan the Barbarian remake, had worked with Gordon-Levitt in 2009 on a five-minute promo for 500 Days of Summer. “When Joseph was looking for a DP, my agent was smart enough to mention my name!” says Kloss with a laugh.

The two hit it off right away. “Joseph is an exceptional performer and actor, and also a very good director,” he says. “He has very specific expectations of what he wants to fulfill. We agreed that the best way to address all the issues that come with acting and directing was to prep as much as we can. We clarified the details of what we were looking for and tried to sync that with expectations. It was never a problem because Joseph was very realistic and amazingly prepared.”

Even with a low budget, Gordon-Levitt was keen on a classic, slightly retro cinematic look, stylistically reminiscent of filmmaking in the 1970s, and he believed that shooting on film could achieve it. The cinematographer selected KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION2 100T Color Negative Film 5212, which he rated normally. He chose Panavision Millennium XL2 cameras with a set of Primo lenses and an Angenieux Optimo 12:1 (24-290mm) zoom, shooting in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

“From a budget point of view,” he says, “we agreed with the producers that the trick was to shoot with one or two cameras–most of the time just one. We were very selective with how much we shot and had a very simple support system with regular video assist—not even HD—just to view the performances and not concentrate on the look, and rather trust the cinematographer. With cheaper equipment, we didn’t get into that color control world on the set, and we saved a bunch of money that way. In this specific project, it really paid off.

“The natural choice was film,” Kloss continues. “It was about achieving a dimensional look on a 2D medium. The focus falloff and the separation between foreground and background are very important to give a three-dimensional sensation on a big screen. That was and always will be the quality of film.”

Shot on location in Los Angeles, New Jersey and New York with a limited lighting package to work with, Kloss chose to accentuate the existing environments. “I didn’t want to light against the locations,” he explains. “We let the interior dictate the light source. Joseph selected locations specifically for their looks and their lighting environments. We always went with the pragmatic, natural route.”

Kloss supplemented with Kino Flos and bounced light and shaded direct sunlight in order to keep the aesthetic natural looking. However, Gordon-Levitt had some instances in mind where he wanted reality to be heightened. Kloss notes, “When Jon is watching Internet porn, there’s the moment where we are in his mind and he is fantasizing about what he is watching. We overlit and lit the face to where it seems like he truly is affected by the porn.”

Another heightened instance is when Jon first notices Barbara (Johansson) in a nightclub. Kloss gave the location a basic, bluish color palette easily recognizable as a nightclub. But for Johansson, Gordon-Levitt wanted her to pop out of the scene. “All of a sudden the photography becomes a little more long-lens-ish with her, and she’s the only person in the club lit with a warmer and brighter light. She is the ultimate beauty in that scenario. That theme we kept going on her as much as we could without making it too hyper-natural. The only time we didn’t do that was when she was really reading him his rights as she breaks up with him. That was when we decided to give her more of an aggressive, top-lit look.”

Deluxe handled the film processing. “We had a neg report for the dailies,” Kloss says. “I went there for the first couple of days and set some looks. We got the dailies back pretty much spot on every day.” Modern VideoFilm facilitated the digital intermediate, D-Cinema mastering and film outs.

The choice of 5219 film did lend a big assist for the end of the movie, when Jon is driving with Esther (Moore) across the bridge to New Jersey. “We went a little bit too late and lost the light,” Kloss remembers. “I had no lights inside the car. I was sitting in the backseat in this car with black interior and just cranked the lens wide open. This was a scenario where I think film, even if you underexpose, gives you an organic look. On a small movie like this, we couldn’t come back and light it. We had to go with the gutsier choice, and I was impressed with what we got at the end.”

Don Jon will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept 10 and 11, and opens in theaters on Sept. 27.