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Credit: HBO

Emmy Contender: HBO's Fahrenheit 451 set its set on fire over and over again

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Aug 26, 2018

When director Ramin Bahrani started preproduction on the HBO movie version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in Toronto, he didn’t have a director of photography yet. So he started prep by shooting every scene on his iPhone, with stand-ins. Finally, he found the right DP — Kramer Morgenthau — who interviewed for job the over FaceTime and managed to join the production only 10 days before the shooting began.

“It’s like one of those dreams you have,” Morgenthau said, “where you’re like, ‘I have an exam tomorrow, and I haven’t studied. I haven’t even opened a book.’” His first response to Bahrani, when he asked him to consider the job: “I was like, ‘You want me to get on a plane now?’” Ultimately, instead of feeling stressed, Morgenthau felt liberated to “treat [the project] more like a jazz improv kind of thing.” He ended up, for example, bringing in a very light-sensitive camera to better capture the movie’s many fire scenes.

SYFY WIRE spoke to Morgenthau about his work on the project, which starred Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon.

Did you see François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Bradbury’s book prior to shooting this?

I did, years ago. But when I got hired, honestly, I didn’t have time to rewatch it in its entirety. I saw a bunch of pieces on YouTube. And I felt it wasn’t very good. I don’t know if there’s one entire shadow in that entire movie. We wanted to do it more vérité — indie, and gritty.

Did Ramin’s shooting the scenes on his iPhone help you, given the shortened prep time?

It’s pretty rare for a director to do that, and it gave me a shortcut to see how he saw the scenes. So there was less to figure out on the day. He had the whole movie in his mind already, like a sketch pad. And there was a constant give and take. I could pitch, “No, let’s try that from over here, so you can see more of the background,” or things like that. It was very important for him to be in Montag’s head, which meant staying very close to him with the camera, and wider lenses. A longer lens would have felt more like surveillance.

How did you plan the lighting scheme, because there’s so much fire? Is that why you did so many night shoots, to better showcase that?

Yeah, there’s a tremendous amount of fire, and fire looks a lot better at night. It’s definitely the most fire I’ve ever had on any project. A lot of it was real, and some of it was extended with visual effects. There were actual sets built to burn down, and some which were fireproof, or had fire retardant material, so they could be reignited, take after take after take. One of the big burns was the library set, where the woman self-immolates, and that set was built to burn down. We had a stunt woman who set herself on fire twice for that, which just an absolutely frightening thing to watch, and then we replaced her face added more flames in around the foreground and the background. I have a lot less fear of fire now, after having done so much fire!

From a photography standpoint, just exposing the fire and exposing the rest of the scene is very tricky, technically. Fire is so bright that if you expose the actors’ faces and leave it there, the fire will burn out and turn white. You always want to try and keep the color in the fire, the orange, as well as the detail, the flames bouncing and dancing. So I would have to constantly ride the iris, the exposure, to make sure the faces were still reading. The background would sometimes be going dark, so you need to kind of boost the ambient level and balance things for that intense brightness.

It must have been pretty difficult to shoot some of these scenes, also, with the intense heat.

It was definitely nerve-wracking. But a lot of it was smoke and mirrors, or rather, smoke and lights — hiding lights in places that are putting out a fire effect and that, and then adding the actual fire later.

How did you develop the looks for the various places we visit?

The world of the Ministry was very controlled, and Montag’s apartment had a lot of color. Almost an oppressive amount of color. I sort of built this theory that it was because of Yuxie, that she sort of controls everything that you’re seeing and hearing, depending on which mood she wanted to create, so there are a lot of deep oranges and blues in his house at night. And at the fire station, intense reds, blues, and greens.

With the Eels, they’re using a lot of improvised light that they’ve been able to salvage, so it’s more old tungsten fixtures, uncorrected fluorescents, and amber, for natural-feeling light. In some ways, it’s imprisoning, but in another way, they’re free. They’re free of the techno-fascism.

451 pic 3

Credit: HBO

Which is expressed through the drones, the surveillance cameras, the 360-degree shots…

We used 360-degree cameras which are meant for virtual reality, but we used them on a flat screen, so when you stitch it together, all those cameras set up a sphere, and they do a really weird distorted image. So we appropriated or misappropriated VR technology for that.

The cameras are also one of the ways that Fahrenheit 451 is updated and newly relevant for today…

There are a thousand reasons why it’s relevant today! [Laughs] I think Ramin came up with the idea to do this before Trump was elected, but we’re in a post-literate age. I’m sure I’m guilty of that myself. But we live in a world where facts aren’t facts, where fascism is on the rise internationally, and screens are everywhere. Books aren’t necessarily being threatened by people burning them, but by the Internet, and how 140-character diatribes are replacing real knowledge. It’s opening up a whole other world, and knowledge is accessible to everyone, but at the same time, it’s endangering print. So I guess the equivalent of burning books is people putting out fake news, or selling our personal information on Facebook, or whatnot.

There’s also a line in the film about certain books being banned because of people taking offense…

 Oh, yeah. That’s a really amazing line about everyone getting offended: “Huck Finn… the whites knew that you blacks were offended, so what did we do? We burned it. Then Native Son came along, and the whites didn’t appreciate that one all that much, so they burned it, too. Henry Miller, Hemingway, the feminists don’t approve, so into the flames they go.” So on the flip side of that might even be an argument coming from the right or the libertarians that you have to be so careful about what you say. So what the firemen are arguing is why not just eliminate everything? That way, you don’t offend anybody. It’s kind of a nihilistic statement, but an interesting one. Truth, knowledge, and freedom of speech are definitely threatened, but for different reasons than Bradbury feared. 

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