54 is partly the classic tale of a young man (Ryan Phillippe) turned loose in the big city, and partly a portrait of life in New York as the 1970s give way to the 80s. But it's most distinctively the story of Studio 54, "the most famous nightclub in the world," in the words of director of photography Alexander Gruszynski. The feature debut of writer-director Mark Christopher, 54 casts Phillippe as Shane O'Shea, a rube from the suburbs who becomes a bartender at the fabled hot spot. Costars of the film, which Miramax will release later this summer, include Mike Myers as disco co-founder Steve Rubell, Jared Harris as VIP regular Andy Warhol, with Neve Campbell, Salma Hayek, Sela Ward, and Lauren Hutton as various club animals. But Gruszynski says that Studio 54 itself is as much of a character as any of these people.
Following the evidence of rudimentary blueprints, photos, and videotapes, production designer Kevin Thompson more or less reproduced the layout of the disco, as it existed in 1979, on stages in Toronto. "He stayed close to what the interior looked like," says Gruszynski. "Of course, the decor was one thing; what really created the club and gave it different looks was the lighting schemes they were playing with. They also had special nights, and every time the lighting was carefully redesigned, so it wasn't just your standard nightclub-disco strobing kind of lights, which get pretty boring after a while. Their trademark was amazing light shows.
"Unfortunately," the cinematographer continues, pinpointing a central challenge facing him on the film, "we are 20 years later, and what was cutting-edge and amazing back then is kind of lame today." One should recall that Studio 54's heyday was just prior to the dawn of the automated lighting era. "They had the standard theatrical lighting fixtures. It pulsated, but it didn't really move. They might project psychedelic images or oils, but by today's standards it was not very sophisticated. So the dilemma was how to stay true to the actual place, yet make it look exciting--a feast for the eyes--to the jaded audience of the turn of the millennium."
The fact that items like High End Systems Studio Colors(R) and Clay Paky Super Scan Zooms are prominent on the movie's equipment list should make it clear that the filmmakers decided to fudge period accuracy a bit. "As long as we didn't show the actual unit, we needed to take a certain license," Gruszynski concedes. "It's not that we decided to bypass history. But it would just be impossible to say, 'This is so unusual,' and then what you show the audience isn't particularly striking. So we took the period as a frame of reference, and added to it to sustain the visual excitement."
Thompson, whose collaboration with Gruszynski was very close, since so many fixtures were built into the set, emphasizes the cinematic needs the lighting had to serve. "There were two things we were trying to do," he explains. "One was to give the feeling when people saw it that it was familiar-- 'Yeah, that's the lighting that was in the club'--the other was to make it work for us cinematically." But he also points out another factor in the equation: Automated lighting can be useful even if one doesn't necessarily show off all its bells and whistles. "Modern-day instruments can facilitate quick changing in lighting schemes, create visual effects very quickly, change colors and patterns, and cover a large area," says the designer. He adds that, while viewing video footage of the club, he was struck by both the "low-tech lighting," and by how imaginatively employed it was. "There's still excitement there," he says. "It didn't seem old-fashioned or dated, because it was uniquely used."
Gruszynski, a native of Poland and graduate of the Danish Film School whose American credits include Tremors, I Like It Like That (for which he received an Independent Spirit Award nomination), The Craft, and TV films such as Kingfish (for which he won a Cable ACE award and ASC nomination), had very limited experience with automated lighting on music videos. Since the core equipment in 54 turned out to be "state-of-the-art motorized fixtures with cookies and color changers that are all hooked up to a computer board," a club lighting designer and consultant, Martin Kelley of Toronto's Christie Lites, was brought onto the film. He brought with him two automated programmers and console operators, Jeff Frood and A.J. Pen.
"I came on about a month and a half before shooting, and stayed through to the end," says Kelley, whose background is in theatre, rock and roll, and club lighting, but who has spent a good part of the last two years working on commercials and music videos, and consulting on movies like Blues Brothers 2000. "Alex and I figured out a design, went to Christie Lites, and did a demo of all sorts of fixtures, automated and otherwise. We settled on Studio Colors and Super Scan Zooms as our main wash fixtures." High End Systems Dataflash(R) AF1000s were also used, bringing the automated instrument total to about 100, all of which were kept "out of the scene." On-camera, "we tried to simulate what was there--the neon and the chasing lights.
"But we had a time problem when we got into the studio," Kelley continues. "We had to wait until the set was built. There was a lot of flying of set pieces, so our truss had to be split up. Each piece of truss was on two motors, and we had a fairly extensive rig that had to be flexible during the shoot. If we needed to change anything, we had to bring it down very quickly." Finally, about a week and a half before shooting began on the set, Kelley, Frood, and Pen started putting in 12- to 18-hour days programming the scenes. "We roughed things in, and Alex and I went through for two or three days, trying to picture where he was going to put the camera, and how we were going to light it," the designer recalls. "But on the actual day of shooting, with the club filled with people, we had to move a lot of lights around." By the end of the show, Kelley says the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console had almost reached the "2,000-channel mark."
Though traditional film units were used on foreground dialogue scenes in the basement VIP room and elsewhere, overall lighting in the disco came from the drama of the moving instruments. When Gruszynski says, "Studio 54 was different from any club that ever existed," he's referring to several interdependent elements. One was Rubell's famous choosiness about who to allow inside the disco. "He was careful to make it interesting by the sheer fact of what people looked like who were there," says the DP. "He liked to mix up freaks and outrageously dressed people with obviously beautiful women. The reason I'm mentioning this is that you want to create an aura of mystique and darkness inside. But at the same time, you want to be able to see the people. So you have a sequence of how these lights are moving around, leaving certain areas in darkness, sweeping the darkness with shafts of light, kind of like a lighthouse. And most of it was carefully choreographed to the moving camera."
The space was just as important as its inhabitants. "In a nightclub, if you only light the people," says Gruszynski, "then you basically end up in limbo, in a kind of undefined space--which we did not want to do, because so much effort went into rebuilding the club." The actual Studio 54 was a converted theatre with elements of the stage and proscenium blended into the space. "The dance floor was also the stage, so the center of the club was like an ongoing show where you couldn't tell who was onstage and who was the audience," says the DP. "That theatricality was something we definitely wanted to make a point of. There were these huge shafts that contained all the scenic machinery, and the cycs and backdrops that lowered and raised. Then there was a balcony which created a second level, where people went and did their drugs and debauchery."
One of the elements that lowered onto the stage was the disco's trademark lighting columns, defined by a series of chasing yellow and red lights; at the bottom were police beacons, which wailed and strobed periodically. "We recreated those in terms of the way they looked, but the wattage and the speed of the chasing bulbs probably varied from what it originally was," says Thompson. The six columns, highlighted by 75W lamps, were each wired separately, unlike those in the original club, which were configured three to a pipe. "We needed as much flexibility as possible," explains Kelley. "Each one had a motor, so we could bring it up and put a camera in."
Other examples of where, in Gruszynski's words, "production design and lighting meet" included lights that chase around the club's moving steel bridge, an internally lit glass block ornament on the bar, and the neon fan sculpture against the back wall of the dance floor. "It fanned out like a sunburst, with many, many tubes in five different colors," Thompson says of this famous fixture. "It would pulse to the rhythm of the music. We altered the colors from the original, because different colors read differently on film, and we also altered the configuration and size slightly."
Neon, in fact, had been a major component of the original lighting plan at Studio 54. "It was more of a colorful, flashy kind of thing than it was moving spotlights," the lighting designer says of the club's look. "They had some helicopters, they had a lot of rock and roll PAR cans with gels on them, chasing. And they had the columns. After going through the documentaries on the club, we brought down the design a bit. We did spin the Studio Colors around like the helicopters. We did do a lot of swinging and touching up, and used some gobos for some of the background scenes or on top of the crowd to manipulate and layer the light. We overplayed it to an extent, to fool the camera. But we didn't do a lot of the major looks like in rock and roll. Alex really enjoyed the lights; like most DPs, he loves toys. He knew how he wanted to work with them."
Since so much of the movie takes place at the club, the filmmakers were intent on creating visual excitement and variety. "You'll very often see scenes in discos or nightclubs in a movie, and it's just the background," says Gruszynski. "Here the club itself is like a structural skeleton for the story. Like I said, you don't want to bore the audience with the same look."
Starting in early 1979, moving through calendar events like Thanksgiving and Christmas before climaxing on New Year's Eve, the movie's script revisits Studio 54 ten times. (Gruszynski says one or two may be deleted from the final print.) For each occasion, Thompson created "abstract collages"--made up of era reference photos and color samples--"of what I thought that evening at the club should feel like, in terms of tone and color. They were not at all literal; they were for a consistency of feeling."
"For every theme night, Kevin put up sculptural elements that represented the theme," says Gruszynski. "The first scene, for example, is a classical night with elements of Greek architecture. I took my cue from the spatial elements that he added, and translated the different moods into colors of gel on the lights."
The way the club is portrayed on each successive visit also serves a narrative purpose, charting the story arc as it follows Shane's progression through the New York nightlife scene. "The first night, he's this kid from New Jersey who enters this world, and he's overwhelmed by the spectacle and the lighting," says the cinematographer. "The key in this case was to make it as colorful and glittery, as dazzling and mesmerizing as possible. There's lots of color and upbeat music, and of course the lights move to the music. We see a carefully planned show with musical numbers--one with Thelma Houston up on the bridge moving back and forth while people dance on the floor. We covered this with three different cameras: I shot a handheld camera, walking through the crowd to catch different pieces of people dancing, and we had a Steadicam and a crane.
"The second time we see Shane in the club, he is becoming part of that world," Gruszynski continues. "He's been offered a job as busboy, and he's learning the shtick. Now it's more like a workplace; we've been dazzled once, now it's business as usual, a regular disco night. But as time goes by, he gets into drugs and loses control of his life. We bring up the tempo, so what initially was an amazing show becomes a scary world of nocturnal creatures that is slowly devouring him. I used some wider lenses to accentuate closeups on the dance floor--at first glance they are very exciting, but when you get tighter, closer to their faces, you realize they are demonic-looking. We also have a ceiling full of Dataflashes strobing, and as the story progresses, they get more and more hectic."
In the final club scene, set on New Year's Eve, confetti, glitter, and soap bubbles fill the air, and Thompson's scenic backing is covered with reflective Mylar strips. "Things basically go out of control," says the cinematographer. "The dancing becomes much wilder, and the way we cover it with the camera is handheld and more and more jerky. The Dataflashes crescendo and go out of sync. We also used lasers, because they can be very jittery and dramatic and even off-putting. But we used them only in green, the one color they had when they started coming out 20 years ago. As part of the research, I went to a couple of places that have cutting-edge laser systems, with patterns and every color of the rainbow. But we decided this was one place where people might say, 'Wait a minute--that's not period.' "
At the climax of the sequence, Gruszynski says, "the character of Disco Bobbie, based on a wacky older lady in her 70s who practically lived at Studio 54, dies on the dance floor. That's where the music stops, the disco lights stop, and the house lights come on." Big space lights comprising six 1k sources in each fixture bathe the set with diffused white intensity. "I had hundreds and hundreds of them," says the DP. "They put out a lot of light, and they all came up on-cue. This is the first time and last time where we actually see the place flooded with bright light, and it's ugly to look at. The spell is broken." Welcome to the 1980s.
Until this moment, everything in 54 that takes place outside stands in counterpoint to the party atmosphere of the club. "The world we are talking about is juxtaposed to the world Shane is coming from, which is a poor New Jersey neighborhood," says the cinematographer. "There is definitely nothing glamorous about it. It sets up the reason for him to escape from his everyday world to the fairytale land of Manhattan and Studio 54." Here, Christopher wanted to indulge his love for the gritty feel of 1970s cinema. "He wanted to echo the sense of spontaneous immediacy of Dog Day Afternoon and other movies from that era," Gruszynski explains.
The camera style outside the disco world lacks self-conscious movement, and stands in contrast to the planned, staged, and fluid movement in the club. As previously noted, Steadicam, an invention that made its feature debut in 1976's Rocky, but didn't go into common use until the 80s, was a major player in the club, but its distinctive glide is nowhere to be seen in the "real" world. Just as important is the demarcation of film stocks. Kodak's high-speed 5297 helped give the outside world its comparatively grainy quality, while 5274, the 200ASA stock in Kodak's Vision series, gave the images inside the disco a brilliant clarity. "I wanted to make it look crisp and dazzling and glamorous, almost like a commercial, up to the point where things start falling apart," says Gruszynski. "The whole philosophy was to try to seduce the audience to go inside, just like people were seduced to go inside Studio 54, and see something they've never seen before."
The emphasis on illusion in this world ultimately provides justification for the use of state-of-the-art 1990s lighting equipment in a 1970s setting. It's about capturing the essence of a place, a time, an experience. Gruszynski says, "People aren't going to sit there and say, 'This light fixture didn't really exist back then.' I'm sure that a few experts--you can probably count them on the fingers of both hands--could argue with it. But you don't make movies for those people; you make them for broader audiences. And as long as you can create something visually interesting, that's what matters."
As for Kelley, he says his experience during the shoot in the recreated nightclub mirrored, in a small way, the main character's. "When you first stepped in there out of the cold, it was kind of wonderful. But after three weeks of being in the pitch black with strobing lights all day long. . . . Let's just say I don't know if I'll be going to a nightclub for a while."
DIRECTOR/WRITER Mark Christopher
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY Alexander Gruszynski
PRODUCTION DESIGNER Kevin Thompson
CHIEF LIGHTING TECHNICIAN Scotty Allen
KEY GRIP Michael Kirilenko
FILM LIGHTING SUPPLIER Panavision Canada Ltd., Toronto
FILM LIGHTING LTM and Arri 18k and 12k HMIs, and 6k, 4k, 2.5k, 1.2k, and 575W HMI PARs Mole-Richardson Maxi Brutes, 10k Big Eyes, 10k Teners, 5k fresnels, 2k Juniors, Baby Tweenies, and Peppers Kino Flo 4-bank and 2-bank systems
CONSULTANT/LIGHTING DESIGNER Martin Kelley
AUTOMATED LIGHTING PROGRAMMERS Jeff Frood, A.J. Pen
LIGHTING SUPPLIER Christie Lites Ltd., Toronto
CLUB LIGHTING (45) High End Systems Studio Colors (24) Clay Paky Super Scan Zooms (15) High End Systems Dataflash AF1000 xenon strobes (1) Christie Lites Ltd. moving light distro system (30) ETC Source Four PARs (1) Robert Juliat Aramis 2,500W HMI followspot (1) Lycian Starklite II 1,200W HMI followspot (12) Altman 750W 3-circuit striplights (6) 100W clear police beacons (5) 18" mirror balls (42) PAR-36 ACL 4-bars (1) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II (2) ETC 96-way 2.4kW dimmer racks (1) ETC L86 96-way 1.2kW dimmer rack (1) ETC L86 24-way 1.2kW dimmer rack (26) Columbus McKinnon Lodestar 1-ton chain motors (4) Columbus McKinnon Lodestar 1/2-ton chain motors (50) 8' Christie Lites Ltd. 16x16 box truss (12) 4' Christie Lites Ltd. 16x16 box truss (1) Laserlite F/X 10W argon laser (1) MDG Atmosphere fog generator Kavanath Special Effects