Twin Falls Idaho is unusual among low-budget independent films in the amount of care that was lavished on its look. Director Michael Polish, who co-wrote and co-stars with identical twin brother Mark in this movie about conjoined brothers, wanted his debut feature to have a specific feeling and visual style. He shared his attachment to Vermeer paintings with director of photography M. David Mullen, and he in turn responded to the DP's ideas.
"They gave me the script for Twin Falls Idaho about two years before we shot the movie," says Mullen. "Michael kept sending me photos of artwork, and we talked about what he liked about Vermeer: mostly the soft window light effect." Mullen, a California Institute of the Arts graduate, brought other artists into the mix--Edvard Munch, for his psychological use of colors, and Edward Hopper, for his blend of natural and artificial light in urban landscapes.
Then came the testing. "We talked about ways we could give the picture a kind of somber and monochromatic look through processing," the cinematographer says. "Luckily, we got funding, and started shooting tests. He was very supportive of any kind of experimentation I wanted to do; if you don't have the backing of the director at any point, it could all be pulled away. If the producer says, 'Why is this costing so much?' suddenly you may find yourself shooting the film more conventionally."
Using Fuji stock--"I like that they have a 250ASA speed stock, and that the grain structure is slightly less sharp in the skin tones"--Mullen flashed the negative and tried out two of Deluxe Labs' silver retention techniques. He chose Adjustable Contrast Enhancement (ACE), a process similar to Technicolor's ENR procedure, by which the silver is developed at controllable degrees into the print. Mullen decided on 100% retention, but then Kodak discontinued the 5386 print stock he was planning to use, replacing it with the higher-contrast Vision line. "That sort of screwed me up, because I was already going for deeper blacks and higher contrast with the ACE process," he says. "So we ended up with a 50% ACE on the Vision stock."
The result is a painterly landscape of pale faces against rich, dark backgrounds, a look that perfectly matches the hushed atmosphere and offbeat storyline of Twin Falls Idaho. The bound-together brothers--one, Francis (Michael Polish), in failing health, the other, Blake (Mark Polish), comparatively robust--have left their carnival home and taken up residence in a dingy hotel in an anonymous downtown. Here, they become involved with Penny (Michele Hicks), an emotionally damaged prostitute.
"The budget was half a million dollars, and it was 17 days shooting," says Mullen. "We filmed most of the interiors at Lacy Street Studios, a converted old textile factory in downtown LA, where the windows on the stages really look outside. We shot the exteriors in downtown LA, trying to make it look not like LA. Outside, I shot out of the sunlight as much as possible, for an overcast, low-key look. Inside, I was using quite a bit of fill light, most of which disappeared through the printing process.
"The film has a color scheme that moves from cool blues and green tones to warm tones towards the middle, and then back to monochromatic," he continues. "When Penny first meets the twins, it's very bluish soft lighting in their room, which is painted green. The bathroom I lit with green-gelled light through green plastic curtains on the window. We wanted to give it a twilight, underwater feel, kind of dreamlike, but very dark and harsh also. Interiors were almost all lit with Kino Flos, especially the Wall-O-Lite, which gives you a big soft light without taking up much room." Daylight outside windows was provided by 4k to 18k HMIs, or a 4k xenon.
"I shot a lot of the early day scenes under daylight-balanced light, but with tungsten-balanced stock and without any correction filters, so the negative would be very blue," Mullen says. "You print out most of the blue, but you still get a lot of desaturation in the flesh tones, because your red layer is underexposed. Later, I shot more under correct lights." Night scenes were tungsten-balanced with quarter-CTO, which with silver retention results in more of a "parchment brown" than orange tint.
A party scene utilized ETC Source Four fixtures--"the only multicolored lighting in the film"--and a scene in Penny's apartment played off the warmth of her burgundy walls. A Kodachrome Super 8 dream sequence, projected and rephotographed on 35mm, leads the way into the final reel, which is neither flashed nor silver-printed. But the dominant mode of Twin Falls Idaho is tinged with surrealism, the product of a defined visual aesthetic. "In a low-budget film world, often you find yourself working with the same labs and camera packages and processes, all kind of cookie-cutter," says Mullen. "It's very rare to work with someone willing to push the budget in odd directions to get just what's needed."
Twin Falls Idaho was released in July by Sony Pictures Classics.