For Ellen is the story of absentee father Joby (Paul Dano), who is a struggling musician trying to make it big. In the process of pursuing his dreams, he has neglected his duties as a parent. When he has to finalize his divorce with his estranged wife, he is faced with the decision of having to give up his rights as a father to their 5-year-old daughter Ellen.
Director So Yong Kim and cinematographer Reed Morano felt a personal connection to the story, which Kim wrote. Both grew up not knowing their biological fathers.
“So wrote For Ellen because she was trying to understand why her own father wasn’t there for her,” says Morano. “We did a lot of research together for several months before shooting. We would meet and watch films, and she would show me photography that inspired the look she wanted. She wanted the movie to be shot in a vérité, intimate way — almost as if there was no presence of the camera.”
The story plays out over the course of four snowy days in an upstate New York town. Joby is there to sign the divorce papers, but before he gives up his rights as a father, he tries any way that he can to spend some last moments with a daughter he has never gotten to know. He struggles with whether or not he is making the right decision for himself, and for Ellen.
The photography of Robert Frank and Saul Leiter provided inspiration to the filmmakers. They also referred to films like Five Easy Pieces (Laszlo Kovacs, ASC) for color and tone, and Beau Travail (Agnès Godard, AFC) for shooting style.
“We wanted the ability to capture natural moments and small details,” Morano explains. “So and I are naturally attracted to the same compositions. Since most of the film was handheld, she was great about trusting my intuition about where I would go with the camera. She would just let me follow the scene in a vérité manner.”
The filmmakers controlled their color palette through format, costume design and production design. Morano says that production designer Ryan Warren Smith (Wendy and Lucy) was a valued collaborator.
“Together, we chose locations that had the earth tones that went along with So’s aesthetic,” she adds. “Joby’s motel room was all earth tones with beautiful, textured wood paneling, and the bar he hangs out in had slightly different wood paneling. These two main locations, combined with the snow and Joby’s muted, maroon-colored car, helped create the earth-toned, ‘70s color palette we were looking for.”
The format was 3-perf 35mm. Originating on film was an important part of the equation. “We wanted the audience to feel the texture of Joby’s surroundings,” Morano says. “The way film stocks render color is very different than digital. You can get a truer monotone ‘70s look simply by originating on film and choosing the right colors to be on the screen. Since this movie and our locations were so small and controlled, it was easy to make sure all the colors in the frame matched our look and aesthetic. When we couldn’t control all the elements, such as in wide exteriors, then we would desaturate the image and change the tone of the film in post.”
Their camera was an ARRICAM LT from TCS in New York. Morano chose a set of older ZEISS Superspeed lenses, and the film stocks were KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 and KODAK VISION2 500T Color Negative Film 5218.
“The 5207 [Film] proved to take the high-contrast wintery landscape very well during our day scenes, and the 5218 [Film] was an amazing stock for our night interiors and exteriors, which I wanted to light very low key,” says Morano.
“We wanted the audience to feel the texture of Joby’s surroundings. The way film stocks render color is very different than digital.“
The intimate, vérité shooting style was also meant to give the audience the sense that they are trapped with Joby in his screwed-up life.
“We chose to shoot with long lenses in the interiors and wider, more epic frames when he is outside and feeling lost,” explains Morano. “We shot most of the scenes with Joby handheld and a long lens, typically in one long take. For instance, there is a scene of Joby in his hotel room where he’s working on one of his songs. Eventually, his cell phone rings and he answers the phone. We played that whole five-minute scene in one shot with no cuts.”
Morano kept the crew small and intimate to help translate that lonely feeling. She had just two camera assistants and a gaffer.
In another important scene, Joby returns to his hotel after learning that by signing the divorce papers, he will lose all custody rights. The table in his hotel room is next to a very large window overlooking the snow-covered landscape. “The shot was tight on Joby, I think on a 65mm lens,” says Morano. “He enters, sits down and tries to look through the papers, and then goes outside to smoke and make a phone call. We did it all in one take, shooting through the window as he talks on the phone. Since we didn’t have a lot of gear or crew, our biggest light was a 1.2K HMI. We punched it through the window, just out of frame, to bring up the ambience in the hotel room. That enabled me to find a compromise stop that wouldn’t blow out the exterior or lose the very dark interior. Since we were dealing with bright white snow outside, it was a drastically different stop outside than inside, even with our additional light. Exposing at a middle ground stop that favored the interior enabled us to keep all the information, both outside and inside. My colorist at Deluxe New York, Steven Bodner, was able to ride the exposure, and the shot worked.”
When Joby does finally connect with Ellen for the first time, the camera becomes static and controlled. “Again, in the DI, we amplified the naturalistic color palette of the locations by further desaturating the colors to accentuate the monotone feeling,” Morano describes.
For Ellen was selected for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and will be in limited release this September. “It was a great collaboration because So and I share the same visual aesthetic,” says Morano. “Shooting film made it possible for us to make this movie in 18 days, and the blinding snow looks fantastic.”