Gregg Araki's Nowhere mints a new form of expressionism, one that is influenced by music videos and commercials, but also by talk-show confessionals and poster art. A kaleidoscopic portrait of various disaffected LA youths, the film, which Fine Line Features released in May, unfolds as a series of wildly stylized, often violent scenes in surroundings that are fanciful in the extreme.
The opening sequence, during which the tortured hero (James Duval) luxuriates in a steamy, whiter-than-white shower, is somewhat deceptive. Soon, we're propelled into a world where the colors seem to come out of the bowl of Froot Loops prominently displayed in one scene. Duval's bedroom is an emblematic all-over blue, but his fantasies can be just as brazenly cast in red. A teen hangout may be a chiaroscuro environment, but the characters who drift through go home to yellow and orange plaid wallpaper or furnishings that match their clothes. The light shining in windows may be mauve or green; actual exteriors are illuminated by ocher sunsets and deep-purple moonlight.
"Gregg said he wanted color," says Nowhere DP Arturo Smith. "He showed me his last film, The Doom Generation, and said, 'Can you do color like this?' I said, 'Yeah, I can do color like that and more. I can go anywhere you want to go with color; color's my middle name.' So we started experimenting. Even on the exteriors, we had these special polarizers that gave highlights in one hue, and then complementary hues. Those were not colored in the lab. It's a combination of the film stock, the gels, and, of course, the backgrounds." The film's production designer, Patti Podesta, contributed everything from polka-dotted interiors to blatantly artificial exterior backdrops to fake flower beds on bedroom floors. Clashing was not a concern.
Given such a style, says Smith, ideally he would have chosen to shoot on Kodak 5248 film stock, and push it. "I didn't propose that, because we didn't really have the money," he explains, adding that 5293 worked nicely instead. As far as gel, the DP chose to challenge his indie-sized budget by going all the way with Great American Market. "I think GAM is the best by far; I really fought for it," the DP says. "There's a consistency and quality control in the gel--you know what you're getting. You're not going to get a shock when you look at the negative."
But what was determining the colors in Nowhere? "The colors aren't arbitrary in any respect, but I'm not sure how to respond to that," Smith says. Visual references in the film follow in an often oblique fashion from pop culture. The famous image of John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their bed-in is one of the more obvious quotes; less immediate is the association of purple skies with heroin use, for example. "It's Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix, that's what came to mind," says the DP. "Gregg and I would look at swatches, and say, 'I like this, what about this, this one is better, let's do this one.' It's a question of offering a lot of choices at all times."
The Venezuelan-born cinematographer, who has earned degrees in both the computer and fine arts realms, learned his "easygoing" style during years working as a gaffer on commercials shot by Rolf Kesterman, and then as a DP in his own right. "I worked with Rolf for five years," he says. "He was so dedicated and concentrated. These were very, very high-end commercials for people like Herb Ritts and Matthew Ralston, super-beauty things. We traveled the world--Europe, Africa, Easter Island. The toys were great, and the experimentation. You're just burning film--sometimes you expose 180,000' of 16mm for one 30-second spot.
"Then I decided to start shooting, and that was a little harder," he continues. "But I had a lot of knowledge; I didn't just jump into being a DP. I knew the lighting, and composition is something that you have--it's there, or it isn't. Art school gives you a certain finesse." Besides commercials, Smith shot documentaries and videos, which he still does, for artists like Marilyn Manson. And he worked his way into low-budget features, shooting "cheap and fast" on such projects as Flesh Suitcase and After the Game. "The creative process takes on enormous speed, so your concentration has to be higher," he says. "I like it."
Nonetheless, these jobs didn't bring offers flying in; it was on the basis of Smith's commercial reel that Araki came a-calling. On earlier movies like The Living End and Totally F***ed Up, the director received camera credit, so collaborating with a full-fledged director of photography is a relatively new experience for him. "Nobody else operates on my movie, that's the most fun part," says Smith. "The other things are very studied, but once you're operating, it's more of an intuitive process." It's the immediate result that gets him charged up. "I love Polaroids because they happen right away," he says. "They're pure, instant, almost like improvising."
Still, Araki brings a definite sense of what one may term mise-en-scene to the party. "There is a visual thing he sees in his frames that I have to respect," says Smith. "Very cold and two-dimensional, that's how Gregg sees his work. But even within that framework, there are a million options." He adds that the director is always open to suggestions. "Most of his films before this were shot with tighter lenses," the DP offers as an example. "But when I was shooting wide, he liked wide. He actually listens to you; he doesn't have an ego in that sense. 'You've got a better idea, show it to me--surprise me.' "
Nowhere was shot over a 25-day period in the LA area, including locations and a studio with four rotating sets. "It was kind of fast," says Smith, "and we needed a great workhorse that would do the job." That turned out to be a Super America Moviecam system, with Arri lenses. The lighting package included Maxi Brutes from Mole-Richardson, PARs (particularly 4ks), and "a couple of HMIs, though I like tungsten more," the DP says. Especially for portraiture, Smith reverently describes incandescent light as "burning."
After finishing Nowhere, the cinematographer went on to a very different feature, Michael Lindsay-Hogg's Guy, which is currently on the festival circuit. This movie's conceit is that a documentarian is following an unwilling subject (played by Vincent D'Onofrio) around with a camera, recording his daily activities. The frame is strictly confined to the filmmaker's point of view, which means that Smith effectively takes on the role of this off-camera character. Guy is shot entirely handheld, in Super 16 format.
Nine months later, Smith got a call from Araki: " 'Hey, are you in town? We're going to color the film now.' Gregg takes a long time to edit," the DP explains. "He has an Avid next to his bed." Though the director's intentions during production may have sometimes been mystifying, the DP found in the final edit that "ultimately, it all connected."
Nowhere is the kind of comparatively abstract project Smith adapts well to, given his extensive background in non-narrative forms. "My work in videos and commercials was always more experimental," he says, "and now I think the gaps between the different areas are becoming much smaller." But he values film for its unique properties. "When you do TV or commercials, you have a computer to control things, and the sky's the limit. But film captures texture like nothing else. And when you sit and watch something projected, it's not the same as sitting at home and watching a movie. It's just the way it's hitting you."