Werewolf News Interviews “13Hrs” Cinematographer Jordan Cushing

Tom Felton and Gemma Atkinson are set to star in Jonathan Glendening‘s forthcoming horror film “13Hrs“, but beyond the cast, the presence of werewolves and what can be gleaned from a teaser trailer that came out half a year ago, no one seems to know much about it. So when cinematographer Jordan Cushing posted a comment here on Werewolf News confirming a mid-to-late 2010 release (I don’t know about you but I’m thinking Halloween), it was my duty as a werewolf nerd to follow up with some questions about his work on 13Hrs. Read on for Jordan’s gracious responses, which expound upon the challenges of the shoot, the “Jaws” approach to revealing the film’s monster, John Schoonraad’s creature effects, and the pleasure of working with Tom Felton and Gemma Atkinson. He even mentions a sequel!

How did you come to be involved with 13Hrs? After working with Jonathan on S.N.U.B!, was it a case of “hey, we like working together” or did he have to park a truck full of money in front of your house?

It was a little bit of both actually.  Jonathan and I had enjoyed working together on “S.N.U.B!” and this was a chance to take a bit more time and care (and earn a paycheque too).  It helped that the Producers of “13Hrs” had seen “S.N.U.B!” and needed people who knew how to stretch a penny, and we fit the bill.

You mention on your site that 13 Hrs was shot digitally. How did that affect the filming process? Do you prefer digital video over traditional film?

This was my first feature shot on RED One which was exciting, as my previous digital features had all been video. I’d used the camera on a variety of smaller projects so “13 Hrs” was an opportunity to apply that knowledge. It all went fairly smoothly, aside from some data management issues which cost us about a half day’s worth of footage altogether.  Fortunately nothing absolutely vital was lost but some great takes by Gemma Atkinson vanished into the ether which is a shame.  Of course with digital, the sort of sorcery of exposing film and then seeing it the next day has gone, and I fear the job of the cinematographer is diminished a bit by that because everyone now feels qualified to share their opinions about the image.  I suppose that just levels the playing field, because directors have always had to put up with that sort of thing.  The positive side of course is you get instant gratification and instant feedback on your work.

The Indieflicks interview with Jonathan makes mention of scenes that were particularly tricky to shoot. What were some of the biggest challenges on this project? Did you have to pull anything out of your hat that you hadn’t tried before?

Although the schedule and budget were definitely more realistic than they had been on our previous collaboration, there was also a lot happening in this film which meant it was still a struggle to accomplish everything.  Fortunately Jon was able to encourage Adam Phillips (the writer) to revisit some of the bigger action sequences to make them more manageable.  Adam is a bright guy and he trusted that if we said it couldn’t be done with the resources we had, that it really couldn’t and so he knew it was better to solve it on the page.  When we make the sequel with more money he’ll have some great sequences left over for us to tackle.

You had to shoot different parts of the film’s climax at opposite ends of the production schedule. I understand that shooting out of chronological order is pretty common, but how do you maintain such a critical scene’s visual style, lighting and atmosphere across three weeks and different locations?

We shot the climactic scenes in two halves which was a challenge.  We were in our grand house location for the first week but we couldn’t have the necessary special effects for the climax ready until the last few days of the shoot.  Consequently, we had to shoot half of the scene in the ball room looking one direction and then two and a half weeks later we brought all of our dressing to the stage to shoot in the other direction.  The whole sequence was storyboarded so there was a really clear plan to follow, and I lit the house with the stage in mind and then reproduced the look.  When I saw a rough cut, it worked seamlessly which was mostly good execution but also a bit of luck.

Many horror films involving “creatures” tend to shroud the creature in shadows or obscure it using angles and quick cuts, either to let the audience fill in the blanks with their imaginations or because the quality of the creature effects don’t really stand up to direct shots. Which approach do you prefer, and were you able to employ it here?

For a variety of reasons, we opted for a “Jaws” approach, showing little in the beginning and progressively more as the film goes on.  We were pushed in that direction by the special effects schedule anyhow, but once we really thought about it, it seemed a logical and natural way to tell this story.

For scenes involving the creature, was an animated prop used, or was it an actor in makeup / costume? Which is easier (or more fun) to shoot?

We used a bunch of different things depending on the requirements of the shot.  John Schoonraad, who had recently come off “Wolfman”, supplied all the various appliances and prosthetics and they were top notch.  He’s one of the best there is and his shop did some great work in a very, very short time.  I’m a big fan of practical effects, but the key to convincing the audience, which I think is too often overlooked, is the performer.  Whether it’s a puppeteer operating animatronics or a person in makeup, it’s the performer who ultimately brings it to life.

How does the UK film industry compare to the Canadian industry? There seem to be a lot of interesting projects cropping up in the UK, but do you ever miss working in Canada?

I think they’re both very similar in many ways, although the UK has more domestic production going on across the board, and particularly when it comes to television drama.  Both countries service big Hollywood films, which is great for doing work on a grand scale and for developing skills and keeping people employed.  Parallel to that there is a reasonably vital domestic industry supported in part by government.  Reading various articles about the death/vibrancy of British film, you could easily switch Manchester with Montreal and publish it in Canada and you’d never know the difference, the issues are the same.  The biggest difference is that people here do get to see films that are made here, which they don’t tend to in Canada because the screens are even more monopolized by American content.

I do miss some of the people I worked with in Canada, but there are great opportunities here.  The depth of the talent pool is remarkable too.  I’ve had the privilege of working with some really tremendous actors, on this film and others, and that is a real treat for me because I have the best seat in the house.  Gemma Atkinson, Tom Felton and Isabella Calthorpe, how can you resist that?

Over the past decade, improvements in technology have put some very sophisticated camera equipment into the hands of “amateur” filmmakers. There’s a lot of video floating around on the Internet, some of it gold, much of it junk. Do you have any advice for burgeoning cinematographers?

The deluge of high end production tools at reasonable prices has changed the way people think about making films.  Mostly they think they can be made for a lot less, and they can.  The trouble is that some expect that economy to spread across the whole production process.  Simply because the camera is cheaper, they want the crew to be cheaper and to spend less on production value.  I’d love to see the savings put back onto the screen, but I suppose that’s why I’m not a producer.  I think people have also lost sight of the fact that it’s not the tools that do the work.  Paintbrushes have been available for some time at very reasonable prices but let’s be honest, we’re not all Rembrandts.  As for advice, I would make a habit of studying the way light falls, in life, art and film.

On behalf of myself and Werewolf News’s readers. thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Jordan! We’re looking forward to seeing your work on the big screen later this year.