Spike Lee Twists and Turns Oldboy Into Something New

Josh Brolin in Oldboy. (Photos Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. OB Productions, Inc. © 2012. All rights reserved.
Spike Lee and Sean Bobbitt block a shot in Chinatown.(Photos Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. OB Productions, Inc. © 2012. All rights reserved.
Sean Bobbitt, BSC at the viewfinder.(Photos Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. OB Productions, Inc. © 2012. All rights reserved.
Elizabeth Olsen in Oldboy (Photos Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. OB Productions, Inc. © 2012. All rights reserved.
Josh Brolin in Oldboy. (Photos Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. OB Productions, Inc. © 2012. All rights reserved.

In choosing to recreate Oldboy for Western audiences, Spike Lee made a bold move. The original movie, based on a Japanese graphic novel, won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and earned a passionate fan base. Lee completely reimagined the story, casting Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, a man who is released after 20 years of solitary confinement with no explanation. Thirsty for vengeance, he discovers that he has only five days to uncover his tormenters. The cast also includes Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley and Samuel L. Jackson.

Oldboy was filmed in a variety of atmospheric locations in New Orleans, Louisiana. The mostly local camera crew was led by Sean Bobbitt, BSC. The Texas-born cinematographer has been on a roll, with The Place Beyond the Pines, 12 Years a Slave, Shame, and Hunger among his recent credits. The latter three of those movies were done with director Steve McQueen. All were shot on film.

For Oldboy, Lee and Bobbitt decided to use a variety of film formats to visually distinguish the different threads of the story, including 2-perf and 3-perf 35mm as well as Super 16. The majority of the film was shot in 2-perf 35mm, which uses less vertical negative area per frame, resulting in a 50 percent savings in raw stock and processing costs compared to standard 4-perf, and facilitating longer takes and fewer magazine changes. The budget was reportedly under $1 million.

“From day one, Spike wanted to shoot film,” says Bobbitt. “I think this project lent itself to film because in a way, it’s a classic, and because the original was done on film. There were some concerns around budget, so I suggested 2-perf because of the cost savings. We shot some tests, and Spike agreed.”

“I’m old school,” says Lee. “Film is right for some projects, and this was one of them.”

The movie begins in 1983 and moves forward to present time, I which the character is released. “We wanted to differentiate, but we didn’t want to do it all within the DI,” Bobbitt explains. “We shot Super 16 and graded it to look like reversal. We found that we could get a very good match for the reversal look using DI techniques, and it seemed like an interesting way to start the film. We also shot some Super 8 material for flashbacks. For that, we used Spike’s own modified CANON Super 8 camera.” Additionally, some surveillance camera footage and television playback material was captured using electronic formats.

The lenses were primarily COOKE S5s. The aspect ratio was a widescreen 2.40:1. The film stocks included KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, which Bobbitt pushed a stop for nighttime exteriors, and KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 for day interiors. For day exteriors in the hot Louisiana sun, Bobbitt chose KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203.

“That 50 daylight stock is absolutely astounding,” says Bobbitt. “I love everything about it, especially its cleanliness. Even in 2-perf, it’s so grain-free. I love grain, but in some situations, it’s not as useful. With the 50 daylight, you get a truly exceptional image.

“From the creative point of view, it’s nicer to actually manufacture those looks from the beginning,” he adds. “Just by choosing the different stocks, we can make a very subtle visual statement. To me, that is the most important advantage in shooting film.”

For efficiency’s sake, Bobbitt usually shot with two cameras at once. On the set, the crew always carried two ARRICAM LTs in 2-perf mode and one ARRICAM ST in 3-perf. The 3-perf camera served as a backup, but was also used for shots where the additional negative area might be helpful for visual effects. The LTs were significantly more convenient for STEADICAM and crane shots — a 73-foot Chapman Hydrascope crane was used for some shots. Bobbitt says the two formats mix seamlessly.

The New Orleans locations included a sweat-stained bar in the Algiers Point neighborhood located across the Mississippi River and adjacent to the levee. “To try and get two cameras into some of these locations is very interesting,” Bobbitt recalls. “It does actually drive you in very creative directions. Quite often, you’re forced by the location to situate cameras in places that you wouldn’t normally think of, with unusual and interesting compositions, which can give an interesting feel to the film. A lot of people seem afraid of very small spaces. But I love a small space. There’s a reality to it.”

Bobbitt’s news and documentary background gives him an unusual perspective on lighting as well. “For me, everything comes from a reality,” he says. “In something like Oldboy, you take that reality and you twist it a little every once in a while. This film is not a representation of reality, but everything is based in a reality, so I used a lot of practicals. I used a lot of available light, where possible. My philosophy is if I can light it with one light, I’ll use one light. And if I need more, I use more. So often, if you can get a light in the right place at the right intensity and the right color, it’ll do the job.

“Of course, the story starts to dictate as well, where that light should come from and how,” Bobbitt continues. “The locations as well can be clues about where the light would realistically come from and, dramatically, where it would be best to put it. Using all of those considerations, you reach a synthesis, which hopefully gives you a look.”

Processing and dailies for Oldboy were handled at Cineworks in New Orleans. Bobbitt says that having the solid support of local partners like Cineworks and Fletcher Camera & Lenses– Louisiana are crucial to success, especially in a tax incentive state and with a format like 2-perf. “Cineworks here in New Orleans is fantastic,” he says. “They are set up for 2-perf. The dailies colorist Bradley Greer is a gem. I think this is the future — small boutique laboratories giving you a very specific, specialized service. I’ve done two films now with them and they’re as good as any other that I’ve worked with on a project. Fletcher Camera has a very skilled and dedicated team here as well, and they worked very hard to ensure we had everything we needed.”

While the new Oldboy pays homage to the original, it has its own unique twists and turns, and its own character. “I’ve always been a great fan of Spike’s,” Bobbitt says. “I think he’s one of America’s few true auteur directors, very original, and with humor, but at the same time, a great depth. The balance that he shows is what makes him such a great director.”

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