Scene from The Normal Heart
Danny Moder didn’t set out to be a cinematographer, but filmmaking is in his DNA. His grandfather, Dick Moder, was a director and his father, Mike Moder, spent nearly four decades on the production frontlines of films like Jeremiah Johnson, Beverly Hills Cop, and Crimson Tide. And it was on that 1995 Tony Scott action flick that Moder got his first taste of life on the set, after nagging his father “enough that he let me try it out for a summer job, working as a production assistant.” From there, he was hooked.
In the nearly two decades since he began his career, Moder has amassed nearly 40 credits, most recently as the cinematographer on Ryan Murphy’s The Normal Heart, which stars Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, and Julia Roberts, who also happens to be Moder’s wife of a dozen years.
The film is based on Larry Kramer’s Tony Award-winning play about the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City. Murphy, best known as the creator of Nip/Tuck, Glee and American Horror Story, approached Moder about shooting the project shortly after he had acquired the rights, saying “he wanted my ‘gritty handheld style,’” says Moder. “I said sure, but didn't believe we’d get this far.”
Moder’s skepticism was warranted. Not long after Kramer’s largely autobiographical play made its debut at The Public Theater in New York City on April 21, 1985, there was interest in adapting it to the big screen. John Schlesinger, Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes were all interested or attached at some point, but Barbra Streisand was the project’s biggest champion. Yet even with all of this star power backing, no film ever materialized, which made getting it right the primary goal of everyone involved in the project. “The impact was felt with every crew member I hired,” says Moder.
Equally important was getting the look right. It was immediately clear that film was the only choice. “There really is something tangible about film—the chemical process, the way the colors combine,” says Moder. “A film set in the early ’80s really calls for it, and everyone on the project was excited about getting it right… Fortunately, Ryan spoke to the heart of any cinematographer, relaying that he really wanted to shoot 35mm and make it look like a Sidney Lumet film. Ryan has such an arresting sense of style and he coupled that with his passion for this historically significant story. Ryan hired a great production designer, Shane Valentino, and they created the guidebook of colors and imagery that informed so much of the style.”
To bring their vision to life, Moder chose a two-pronged film stock approach with KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207. “The 5219 has such incredible range and tight grain; it was reliable to keep a clean image, but also handle digging into shadows and maintaining highlights if we wanted to push it one way or the other,” Moder explains. “The 250D is great for the variances outside, in the shadows of New York’s gritty ’80s look or the bright saturated sunshine where we started the movie.”
To further ingrain this sense of history, Moder outfitted his ARRICAM with ZEISS Super Speed lenses, and old-school Baltars. “Shooting film, coupled with these older lenses, helps with transporting the audience back to this era.”
It was up to Moder and his team to communicate this sense of disconcertion. “There was a clear arc where the movie started in bright saturated colors, and as the disease and the struggle sets in, darkness and desaturation take over.” This progression is established in the opening sequence, which was shot on Fire Island and is “bright and somewhat front lit,” according to Moder. “By the end we were reaching into the deepest shadows. The actors were all on board and allowed themselves to be seen in less-than-perfect light.”
In order to pronounce the grain of the film, Moder pushed the camera “a stop or two on occasion.” But it was the DI that “allowed us to create the color arc of the story.” Moder enlisted the help of colorist Tony Dustin at Technicolor Los Angeles, with whom he has collaborated on three other projects. “He understands a good image and finds the range in the negative. We are both very happy with the results.”
For Moder, The Normal Heart reinforced an ideology he had set forth in the earliest days of his career. “My meter case has the word ‘Trust’ on it,” he explains. “I put it there long ago as a reminder to take chances because filmmaking is an art and the boundaries need pushing. Shooting on film places a reliance back on the DP, because not everyone can trust the monitor like you do with digital. There was a classic and respectful system in making this film where all producers and crewmembers cared deeply about the story.”
As for what he hopes viewers will take away when the film premieres on HBO, Moder concludes, “It's worth fighting for the ones you love. And that the fight against AIDS is not over.”