Premium Rush is a film built around a simple idea: a New York City bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is given a package to deliver to Chinatown. A dirty cop (Michael Shannon) needs to intercept the package to pay off his gambling debts. And years of work done by a good woman hoping to get her son out of China are at stake.
Director David Koepp, who co-wrote the script with John Kamps, has an amazing list of writing credits that includes Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, Panic Room and Spider-Man.
Premium Rush employs a complex, time-shifting structure in which the same incident is seen from different perspectives at different points in the movie.
Cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen researched the project by learning about the bike messenger subculture. He discovered a world of adrenaline junkies who “surf the green wave,” streaking south through Manhattan, timing the lights all the way to Battery Park.
The bike chase material that makes up the heart of Premium Rush took some inspiration from online video shot by real bike messengers with helmet cameras. Amundsen’s assignment was to translate those daredevil thrills to the big screen. “These guys are crazy,” says Amundsen. “The movie is essentially one bitchin’ bike chase.”
Amundsen began his career as an intern at Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, where he had the chance to observe top directors of photography like Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC; Stephen H. Burum, ASC; and Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC. As a director of photography, he has shot many commercials as well as Transformers, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Jonah Hex. As a go-to second unit cinematographer, his resume includes The Bourne Legacy, The Bourne Supremacy, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Seabiscuit.
Sony Studios originally asked Amundsen to shoot Premium Rush with a digital camera. “It’s the streets of New York, from Columbia University all the way to Chinatown,” he explains. “We would own four blocks of Broadway at a time. I was going to have two units working, and three cameras on my unit. Working with a DIT would have been difficult. There was a lot of day exterior. I wanted to do overcranked shots, up to 120 frames. I wanted to be able to extend moments and then ramp it back to normal. I needed the latitude and versatility of 35mm film.”
Amundsen points out that while a new rule limits cars involved in New York City motion picture production to 35 miles per hour, that speed is pretty much top end for bicycles. That ensured that chases shown from the bicyclist’s viewpoint could be hair-raisingly realistic. “You can’t really do an intense car chase in New York City anymore,” he says. “But if you’re doing a bicycle movie, 35 mph is flat-out fast. You don’t need 50 mph. I realized that this was a really cool way to update the New York City chase — with bikes swerving in and out of traffic.”
To take audiences into the bike messenger’s world, Amundsen made extensive use of ARRI 235 cameras, small and lightweight but technically sophisticated 35mm film cameras, often mounted on motorcycles or dragged behind the bikes on trailers, capturing shots from kinetic angles. He also used ARRI 435 cameras in pursuit cars and on remote arms behind or alongside the bicyclists, and on a kind of improvised process cart adapted for bikes, which was often used for scenes that involve dialogue — Gordon-Levitt’s character carries on a continuous conversation with his dispatcher via radio.
“I would put a little lamp and a small generator on the electric cart just to clean him up and get a little light in his eyes,” Amundsen says.
“I wanted to do overcranked shots, up to 120 frames. I wanted to be able to extend moments and then ramp it back to normal. I needed the latitude and versatility of 35mm film.”
A-camera and Steadicam operator Dave Thompson, SOC says that the chase scenes will have audiences holding their breath, anticipating a collision. “We were pushing it every day,” recalls Thompson. “The French Connection chase is considered the classic New York chase scene, but I think this is going to push it a bit further. It’s hairy — bikes, cars, going against traffic. Mitch and David (Koepp) did a great job figuring out which pieces we needed, and our key grip, George Patsos, came up with great rigs, like putting the 235 on a mountain bike so we could chase the bikes down sidewalks.”
The format was Super 35 for a widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio. For dialogue scenes with no action, PANAVISION XL and PLATINUM cameras were used. The lenses were PANAVISION PRIMOS throughout. The main film stock was the daylight-balanced KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207.
“I wanted to use minimal filtration,” says Amundsen. “I needed the latitude at both ends, and the 250D [Film] has it. I didn’t want to have to put an 85 filter on it. I knew in the mornings I’d be closer to wide open, and at mid-day I could stop it down. I didn’t want it to look different over the course of the day.”
In a few tungsten-balanced situations — night scenes and interiors — KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 was the choice. Gaffer Andy Ryan says, “The can says 500 ASA, but we rate it at 1,000 all the time. That is a whole extra stop. It gets the first AC off the bottom — it can mean a couple of inches on his focus. It allows you to shoot when you might not otherwise be able to, and that makes an immense difference when you have 42 days to get it done.”
Ryan describes one nighttime shot he lit from inside a car with a single 1x1 LITEPANEL. The exposure was set for the lights outside on Broadway. The pursuit outside the car also needed to be visible. “It turned out gorgeous,” he says. “You put 5219 [Film] in the camera, knowing you have the DI, and you can do pretty much anything.”
Thompson adds that the decision to shoot film made the production nimble, which was extremely important given the circumstances. “We were definitely able to capture more with film,” he says. “Shooting on the streets of New York is tough. It was mostly day exterior, and light conditions were constantly changing. We were locking up big stretches of major thoroughfares. When it was time to go, we just turned on the camera and went. Mitch knew the stock and trusted what he was getting with the film. There wasn’t a lot of time to worry about exposure and finesse the image. Without the additional personnel and cables we would have had with video, we could move quickly, whether we were on the pursuit car, the motorcycles rigs, or handheld.”
Amundsen notes that the lack of control goes hand in hand with capturing a real sense of the city. “Between the buildings and down the streets, sometimes you get huge, hard light, and sometimes you’re in deep shadows, even during the day,” he says. “Passing through those urban canyons adds to the frenetic feeling, and it communicates New York City to the audience. At other times, you’ve got mid-day top light. We did two weeks in Central Park, which meant strong, dappled light. Control was almost impossible, and that was the whole reason I really insisted on film.”
Ryan continues, “In today’s production world, they don’t give you a lot of time, and they don’t want to hear any excuses. If they have to wait for you, you become the bad guy. I’ve seen it happen — the DP is in the DIT tent all day, communication breaks down, and it takes twice as long to get anything done. We have the greatest film stock in the history of man. It’s not ‘Let’s get the DIT and see what we can do.’ It’s ‘Let’s shoot!’”