DP Matthew Jensen had to come up with two overlapping yet distinct looks for the oddball black-and-white indie Man of the Century. The main character, Johnny Twennies (played by co-writer and co-producer Gibson Frazier), is a 1990s New York newspaper columnist convinced he's living in the 1920s. Not even his hip art-dealer girlfriend (Susan Egan) can disabuse him of the notion; actually, she finds his archaic lingo and courtly manners rather sweet.
"Overall, we were trying to balance between how Johnny sees the world, and how the modern world sees Johnny," says Jensen. "The basic idea was to emulate a sort of Woody Allen-Gordon Willis approach to photographing New York whenever Johnny wasn't in the shot. The master on his girlfriend's loft is all in silhouette, and I used soft light and no fill on the closeups for a more naturalistic approach. With Johnny, I was trying to use harder light and more backlight--it was more conventional three-point lighting."
Early on, director and co-writer Adam Abraham decided against shooting in desaturated color, which Jensen says would have been "far more oppressive than a crisp and clean old black-and-white look." A range of film styles is employed for different sequences, particularly when Man of the Century enters a fantasy realm. The opening scene of Johnny rising and getting ready for work was done silently, on battered stock. Eisenstein and the Surrealists were paid homage elsewhere, while nightclub sequences were given the classical Hollywood treatment, circa 1930s and 40s.
The entire movie was shot on Eastman Kodak's 200ASA 5222 stock. Going into the film, Jensen, whose credits include the CD-ROM Phantasmagoria 2 and the as-yet-unreleased feature Starstuck, had little experience shooting in black and white. "I had only touched on it in film school," says the USC graduate, a former intern with DPs Dean Cundey and Stephen Goldblatt. "But those principles, as far as how to build up contrast and use light as separation, carried over into my color work, so it wasn't hard to do."
Getting the film processed was more of a challenge, and called on the participation of three labs. "The labs don't do much black and white anymore, so there are fewer and fewer people who really know the secret of it," says Jensen. "It's also a much longer process because the labs don't run black and white every day. It required a lot of experimentation and testing; eventually, even when we were doing the answer and release prints, we were doing them over and over again to get them right. It's a pain for everybody involved. But there is something incredible about working in black and white."
Man of the Century was released in October by Fine Line Features.