Audiences will get their first look at Felony, a psychological thriller about guilt, conscience, punishment and forgiveness, at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. At the heart of the story is a moral dilemma. The central character is a detective, who after a few celebratory beers with pals, hits a boy with his car on the way home. He impulsively lies to the emergency operator and to law enforcement when they arrive. A friend tries to help him cover his tracks, but another detective isn’t quite buying their story. The ensuing three-way psychological struggle unfolds over the course of three intense days.
“I couldn’t dismiss (the detective’s) actions as simply being ‘wrong’ because I understood he was trying to protect his own family,” says director Matthew Saville. “In this film, nobody wears a white hat or a black hat, and if they're wearing a halo, it's a crooked halo – and I just think that's a closer reflection of life. It’s very honest.”
Felony was filmed over eight weeks on locations in Sydney, Australia. Saville, whose film Noise was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, teamed with director of photography Mark Wareham, ACS, reuniting after their previous success, the Showtime dramatic miniseries Cloudstreet. The Felony cast includes Joel Edgerton, Tom Wilkinson, Jai Courtney and Melissa George.
For the look of Felony, Saville and Wareham were inspired by the imagery in classic thrillers like Alan Pakula’s Klute (1971, photographed by Gordon Willis, ASC) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974, photographed by Bill Butler, ASC and Haskell Wexler, ASC). Also mentioned were other iconoclastic directors of the 1970s like Arthur Penn, John Schlesinger, Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. The challenge, according to Saville, was to depict the complex internal emotions of the characters. The filmmakers arrived at a classic approach.
“We tested film and digital, but film had the textural quality that we felt was right,” says Wareham. “Matt believes in film, and was looking forward to shooting celluloid again. Our shooting style was relatively straightforward. The story is about coming out of the shadow into the light, and we wanted to represent that in some of our scenes. Film’s ability to render blacks worked well with that.”
They chose a widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and shot 3-perf spherical, which gave them the additional flexibility to shoot longer takes, and some room to reframe in post. “Composition is a very important aspect of Matt’s sensibility,” says Wareham. “He has a real knack for using negative space in interesting ways to underscore the drama and the characters.”
The classic, straightforward approach extended to the camera movement, which often consisted of slow push-ins, combined with “deliberate and understated” editing. A handheld camera was avoided with the exception of a scene at the opening of the film.
The film stocks were KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207. Wareham often rated the 500-speed film at E.I. 320, and the 250-speed daylight-balanced film at E.I. 160 to achieve the textured look he was after. The camera package included an ARRICAM Studio with an ARRICAM Lite used for rig and Steadicam. Lenses included Cooke S4s and Angenieux Optimo Zooms.
One important scene is the nighttime car accident that the story is built around. The audience witnesses the events through the eyes of several characters. Wareham had to shoot the same event several times. The crew wasn’t able to control the intersection, which added to the complexity. “We didn’t have five Condors,” says Wareham. “We lit with existing sodium vapor streetlights and augmented where we could. That’s where the ability of the film and the lenses to handle mixed color temperatures really came through for us.”
“Shooting on film is so solid,” he continues. “With our budget and schedule, we had to be efficient. Shooting film restores autonomy to the cinematographer. The assistant director likes it because there are fewer cooks, which means we can move faster. We often shot two takes and moved on, with confidence.”
Wareham’s crew consisted of four electricians, three grips and a small camera crew. “We had a small, nimble team,” he says. “It’s ironic that smaller budget films like Felony are now more likely to be done on film. On a recent shoot I did with a digital format, we had a whole fleet of huge trucks. I found myself taking more time to light in order to create depth and separation with the digital camera. On Felony, the camera truck was a single van. It was the right scale for this project.”
The digital intermediate was done at Deluxe in Sydney. The colorist was Olivier Fontenay. “The DI was so easy,” says Wareham. “It actually took a week less than we had planned. We created most of the look in camera, and the images looked great.
“Cinematography is about creating a world,” Wareham concludes. “There are a million reality shows out there – we don’t need more reality.”