DP Frank G. DeMarco helps give John Cameron Mitchell's transgendered brainchild a movie makeover
Those who doubted that the transgendered, "internationally ignored" rock singer Hedwig could successfully make the transition from stage to screen must be made to genuflect: Fine Line Features has let the performer and her ragtag band the Angry Inch loose on the malls and multiplexes of America. Though her film debut will surely be a triumph and a vindication, Hedwig at one time could count among the skeptics none other than John Cameron Mitchell, her co-creator (along with composer Stephen Trask) and erstwhile embodier. Even though he had taken Hedwig and the Angry Inch from its modest drag-bar beginnings in 1995 to Off Broadway glory, Mitchell was unsure how to turn what was essentially an artful concert performance into appropriate feature fodder.
Enter the Sundance Institute's Filmmakers Lab and director of photography Frank G. DeMarco. The DP was invited to participate in the three-week workshop in June 1999, and Mitchell was one of two directors with whom he was paired. "Michelle Satter, who oversees the Lab, decided I would be good for John," says the cinematographer, an Independent Spirit Award nominee for his work on the feature Habit and whose numerous documentary credits include Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, The Johnstown Flood of 1889, and Wisconsin Death Trip. "All of the other directors had directed before, and John never had. He was looking for a strong DP who could work with a visionary director who didn't have any experience--yet."
Mitchell had already developed a Hedwig and the Angry Inch script in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab the previous January. The Filmmakers Lab is about "how you make that script work as a film," says DeMarco. The process was to break out several problematic moments--"scenes where you wonder, how the heck are we going to film this?" The scenes are shot on videotape, quickly edited, and assessed. "Equipment is minimal; the idea is not about fancy lighting or slick camera moves. It's about getting it set up in such a way that the director has time to direct, which is what I always push for."
Three scenes from the Hedwig script were staged, including one that made it into the finished film almost shot for shot: a delirious sequence of clothes flying around Hedwig's Junction City, Kansas, trailer when her protege, Tommy Gnosis, momentarily requites her love. An earlier scene between Hedwig and Tommy (played in the movie by Michael Pitt) was staged twice--once by Mitchell and once by Tom Kalin, the director of Swoon. "John was concerned whether he could bring this off," DeMarco explains. "A first-time director who's also the writer and also acting in it, singing and jumping up and down and going crazy under 30 pounds of wigs and makeup: Can this be pulled off?" Although Kalin did a perfectly fine job, the DP says, Mitchell clearly brought a creator's vision to his direction of the scenes. "He didn't care about the rules, he attacked it from the point of view of 'I want to shoot it this way, right or wrong; we'll discover what works and what doesn't.' It was so obvious to everyone that he should do it."
A CLOCKWORK HEDWIG
The movie fleshes out and enacts the title character's story--East German boy named Hansel, who becomes Hedwig during a botched sex-change operation, performed in order to marry and escape with her American G.I. lover, who dumps her in Kansas. There, Hedwig begins her musical career and is betrayed by young Tommy, who uses her material to become a teen idol. In the film, Hedwig and her band--named for its leader's genital remnant, and including Trask and Miriam Shor's similarly gender-defying Yitzhak, also from the stage production--are on a budget tour of the family-style restaurant chain Bilgewater's, always in the shadow of Tommy's stadium gigs.
This is no pedestrian filmed play, however. Mitchell shoots and cuts fearlessly, repeatedly bursts the fourth wall, goes off on flights of fancy and animation, and makes it all seem organic to the material. DeMarco, who continued to meet and discuss the project with Mitchell until filming began in Toronto in spring 2000, came up with a four-part visual scheme. "There are four timelines," he says. "There's the present, which is Hedwig and the band on tour, stalking Tommy; there is the recent happy past, when Hedwig and Tommy were together in Kansas; there's the distant past, in Communist East Berlin; and there is the transformed present, when Hedwig goes through her final catharsis."
For the latter sequences, in which our heroine finds a long-sought wholeness, DeMarco chose to shoot with Kodak's 5279, "the latest film stock: a clean, straight, rich, beautiful color negative, with no filters and no fancy processing." The other "timelines" are given a distinct visual vocabulary through various means. The present-day scenes of Hedwig and band on tour were photographed with Kodak 5298, an older high-speed film, pushed a stop and a half. "John was fascinated by the look of the movie Buffalo 66, which was shot on cross-processed reversal stock," says DeMarco. "But that's really hard to do, and the reversal's unstable." After running tests at New York's Jane Street Theater, where the live Hedwig was still playing, the DP found that the forced-processing technique approximated the textured Buffalo 66 style. "Kubrick did the same thing in Eyes Wide Shut; he took 5298 and pushed it two stops," says DeMarco. "The lab we used, Deluxe Toronto, could only push it a stop and a half, but that was sufficient."
The Kubrick reference is not coincidental; DeMarco considers the late director's visual aesthetic to be a major influence. "In a lot of his movies, he incorporated lighting into the set," says the cinematographer. "He did that on A Clockwork Orange, without high-speed film or lenses. I think it's more of an intellectual leap than a technical leap, to let the lighting that's on the set do the lighting. It gives the actors a tremendous amount of freedom to move around. He demystified lighting for movies. In early 2000, there happened to be a Kubrick festival at the Film Forum, and John and I live nearby, so we watched those films. I said, 'This is the only way we're going to be able to do this movie on the budget and time allotted, 28 days. If we have to light everything all the time in a very specific, mannered way, it will never work.'"
FILM STOCK FLAVORS
Therefore, DeMarco and production designer Therese DePrez worked truly practical fixtures into the sets, especially the maritime-disaster-themed Bilgewater's chain of restaurants where Hedwig and the Angry Inch perform. "We designed what I called 'Bilgewater lights,' which are on every table," the DP says. "They're little fixtures in translucent blue with seashells and fish. Therese put on a green gel that's capped by cresting waves, and we put a thin, 6"-tall 40W bulb behind it. That 40W is the lighting for the people sitting at the table--there is nothing hanging on the ceiling. That's where the artistic choice to push the film and give it a grainy look lent itself to how we were going to light: I was shooting at 1,600 ASA; you could shoot in a closet and have exposure. You do have to start worrying about cutting light down here and there. Suddenly, a simple light leak from windows or under doors has to be covered up."
Other considerations working at a high ASA are focus and depth-of-field problems. "If Hedwig leans too close to camera, maybe for a second she goes a little soft, before the camera assistant can roll that focus back to sharp," says DeMarco. "But I think John really didn't mind that things were soft; he felt that gave it a Gimme Shelter sort of "docu" feel." During the performance scenes, Hedwig always had a special light. "It's a 750W Mole softlight, with a 4'-long snoot I fabricated. I managed with this long snoot to get fairly close and project soft light on Hedwig when she's jumping around and singing."
DeMarco was somewhat concerned about the lab work on the push process. "Ours was the last film to go through the soup every day: Because of the push-processing, they had to run it more slowly," he says. "That means they'd already been bathing a bunch of other movies, so we're getting potentially the dirtiest, most used-up chemistry. But they were very careful, and they said, 'Don't worry, these are high-tech filtered systems.' Deluxe is a great lab."
During the East German section of the film, DeMarco did a bleach bypass on the Kodak 5298 negative, for a look not unrelated to the pushed footage, but with much more grain and a greenish cast. "I let there be bare bulbs in the set, so wherever there's a light it kind of blows out, and I used an old filter that nobody uses anymore called a Supa-Frost," he says, adding that most of the color on Hedwig was provided by Lee Filters. "What amazes me about Kodak film is, you can't destroy it. We tried to tear the film up chemically as much as we could, and it still came out beautiful--beautiful ugly."
For the Kansas scenes, the cinematographer decided to go with Fuji film, which he says "has a whole other look and feel and grain structure. We shot it normally, but I put a little bit of warm coral filter on, and I put the Supa-Frost on as well. That filter was used so continuously through the late 70s and early 80s"--the period, not so coincidentally, that inflects Hedwig's fashion and musical sense. "I used lenses of that time as well, old Zeiss standard primes. It's a really subliminal thing, but I think when I put the filters on, and the lenses, with the colors and film stock, it adds up--it gives it a flavor."
One of the movie's most ecstatic moments arrives in this section, during the "Wig in a Box" number, which begins ordinarily enough in Hedwig's Kansas trailer before developing into what DeMarco calls "this big, huge, shaggin', shimmyin' song." The staging of the sequence was worked out between Mitchell, DePrez, and the DP during the long planning period. "The idea originally was that when the song starts going crazy, the band is out in the yard and you can see them through the windows," says DeMarco. "The suggestion I had was, we'll get a crane and shoot from up high, and the ceiling of the trailer will fly away and the walls will fold down, and the whole thing is like a giant stage that they're on, and it's daytime. John was like, yeah, that's fantastic. Then we look over at Therese, who was holding her head in her hands. She says there's no time or money for that. John and I are sort of crestfallen--it was such a neat idea. Therese says, I could give you one wall. Then we're like, if one wall falls down, and it's nighttime, we can put footlights on it like a stage. And it's like the Berlin Wall falling down, and it reflects back on the story. So, suddenly it's this brilliant idea and we're congratulating ourselves."
Arri 12k and 18k HMIs and xenon lights were used in this big finish to "Wig in a Box," along with the footlights that were "just bare bulbs in porcelain fixtures." Although DeMarco had a full Mole-Richardson tungsten package and a Kino Flo package in addition to the HMIs, he says, "We didn't bring out the big guns very often. Again, on the interior of the trailer, almost all of that lighting was in the set."
On other numbers, lighting looks were sometimes borrowed and modified from the stage show. During "Angry Inch," theatrical-style strobes were created with Diversitronics DMX Super Strobes set to flash 15 times per second. "Almost all of the lighting in 'Angry Inch' ran through a dimmer board by the gaffer [Bob Davidson] or one of his assistants, flipping switches to keep it kinetic," says the cinematographer. The series of songs in the final movement is staged in similar fashion to the play. "It becomes underlit and sort of surreal, with a brilliant white diffused light coming from the floor," he says.
DeMarco describes his experience on Hedwig and the Angry Inch as "a beautiful thing," and gives most of the credit to Mitchell. "I got infused with his vision and listened to him and really grasped what he wanted. I also told my crew people, if you have an idea, and it's good, John will use it. Even if it was an enormous change at the last minute, he'd go for it. That's really tough for a director to do, especially in wigs and makeup and high heels."
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Read about the stage version of Hedwig in the November 1998 article "The Unexpected Kevin Adams," on lightingdimensions.com.