The venom with which the battle of the sexes is waged in Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbors is offset by its clean, elegant visual style. The camera placement is typically stationary; the texture of the images is pristine. "It was not a gritty, downtown New York look that Neil wanted," says director of photography Nancy Schreiber, ASC. "He was interested in big, wide shots, tableaux where the camera didn't move a lot but the actors moved within the frame."
The director and DP turned to another cinematic chronicler of relationships, Woody Allen, for inspiration. "We looked at Manhattan, which is very theatrically framed," says Schreiber. "And we looked at the colors and serenity of Interiors." A three-week preproduction period allowed LaBute, whose 1997 feature debut In the Company of Men created such a stir, to rehearse and work out a shooting plan, which Schreiber followed closely. "We shot-listed the whole movie in advance and pretty much stuck to it," she says.
There are six main characters--three men (played by Ben Stiller, Aaron Eckhart, and Jason Patric) and three women (Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman, and Nastassja Kinski)--in Your Friends and Neighbors, which impassively studies the charged interactions between various pairs or groups. "Initially, Neil didn't think he was going to do any coverage, he was just going to hold these wide shots," says Schreiber. "But the emotions were so readable in a closeup on a wide screen that we ended up doing coverage." Unchanged was the shooting schedule, budgeted at a quick 23 days.
The widescreen format was unusual, "since there's not one exterior in our movie," the DP says. "Yet it did make sense, because we really wanted to explore the frame side to side." For budgetary and practical reasons--the production was filmed entirely on locations around Los Angeles, and in the heat of September--Super 35 was chosen over anamorphic, which requires a more open stop and hence greater amounts of light.
The locations kept Schreiber on her toes. "I wanted to keep the light soft and natural, but we were shooting with such wide lenses--17.5mm, 20mm--and it was hard to hide lights, so I put HMI fresnels and PARs through soft muslin frames or light grid. We found clever ways to hide Kino Flos, and as much as I could I kept the lights outside the rooms shining in. There were a lot of daylight scenes, so we had HMIs through the windows, with interior fill wherever I could hide Kinos or smaller HMIs."
It wasn't always easy. One house, belonging to Eckhart and Brenneman's characters, was an old Victorian on a hill, requiring scaffolding to be built for the first floor and Condors to be used for upper floors. The loft apartment where Stiller and Keener's characters live was shot in an 11th-floor apartment in downtown LA, and a nighttime lovemaking scene between them was lit from the roof of a building across the street. In one location, the rotunda of the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, the fragile ceiling precluded rigging, so an Airstar helium balloon was floated with tungsten light; in another, a theatre with similar limitations, an HMI balloon was installed.
The style of the movie, which Gramercy Pictures released in late August, is best characterized by an art gallery setup that is repeated several times. Kinski's character faces the camera, viewing an unseen artwork with, in succession, each of the other characters. The shot is static and identically framed every time it reappears. Opposed to this motif are two bookstore scenes filmed with unbroken Steadicam movements. One, featuring Keener and Patric, was particularly tricky, Schreiber says. "It was 360 degrees, so naturally I had to light from above, which isn't great for a person with deep eye sockets like Jason. So the gaffer was hiding with a small eyelight as Jason came through certain areas."
Though Schreiber keyed with sidelight on most of Your Friends and Neighbors, she says she made adjustments for each actor. "Neil wanted everybody to look really good, so I was careful to give Jason eyelight and to light Catherine softer and more from the front." Fortunately, the DP, one of four women members of the American Society of Cinematographers, has a fair amount of experience shooting celebrities. "I shot The Celluloid Closet, and for Turner, I've shot so many interviews--Shirley MacLaine, Goldie Hawn. They all know their light. Shirley said, 'Nancy, keep that camera high and key light low.' Some films I've done much more naturalistically, and yet an actor always wants to look good. You just have to learn an actor's face."