Suicide Kings, an edgy indie directed by feature first-timer Peter O'Fallon, opens with an ambitious six-and-a-half-minute Steadicam shot through Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel that gave DP Christopher Baffa one of his momentary panic attacks. Fortunately the sequence came at the end of production on the movie. Baffa says, "I can only liken it to being a veteran of combat. After being overseas for a few years, you come home, and there's not going to be a lot that rattles your day."
The shot first follows Christopher Walken as he enters the hotel. He walks through the lobby and alights in the bar, where his character, a former Mafia capo, is approached by the rich kids (Henry Thomas, Jeremy Sisto, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Jay Mohr) who will later kidnap and hold him for ransom.
"I learned to break it down," Baffa says of the shot. "We had a hotel liaison, used a lot of the practical lighting, and color-temperatured everything. Then we set up our units, soft sources in corners we didn't see, and ended up in the bar with a big soft source, bleached muslin with lights going through. As Walken was coming through an area, we'd see the hotel sconces glowing in a certain way, and that he was silhouetted in front of the wall. It was a much nicer quality than if we had lit him on top of that."
The bulk of Suicide Kings takes place in a mansion where the boys hold Walken overnight. Though the movie is set in New York environs, this was also a Los Angeles location.
Lighting inside the house was primarily soft tungsten sources. "Peter and I had talked about what we called a Dutch Masters approach," Baffa recalls, "which was the idea that the backgrounds would fall off into darkness, and the faces sort of pop. Whenever we could, we'd do our little Dutch Masters master, then we'd go in for our coverage. We had a 4x8 frame of material that was like bleached muslin, but it had a more velvety outer surface. I just went to a fabric store with a flashlight and held it underneath these different fabrics until I found the quality I was after."
The crew nicknamed this piece of diffusion a Buslin, since it resembled muslin yet it was essentially Baffa's creation. "We'd bring in the Buslin for closeups, and put two small lights through each end in such a way that the softness would combine the sources, but it would also wrap around for a nice sidelight and a sort of backlight as well."
Baffa got his start as a DP at Roger Corman's Concorde Studios, where he photographed low-budget films like the remake of Piranha. "It was a great place to be weaned," he says. "I learned to adapt and work in improvisational mode. With somebody like Peter who loves to move the camera, we were flying by the seat of our pants a lot. I'd panic for a couple of seconds, and then say to myself, you're back at Concorde, find a way."
Suicide Kings was released in April by Live Entertainment.