Ramin Bahrani is both an established New York based award-winning independent filmmaker, and also my brother. His latest film, 99 Homes, starring Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spiderman, The Social Network), Michael Shannon (Superman, Boardwalk Empire) and Laura Dern (Jurassic Park, Blue Velvet) just premiered to universally rave reviews and Oscar buzz at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals, and so I thought this would be a good time to talk a bit about the background of the three primary photographs that are being showcased to promote the film.
The film is a humanist thriller, almost a gangster film, that tells the story of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a construction worker who is evicted from his family home and then tries to win it back by striking a "deal with the devil" and working for Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the corrupt real estate broker who evicted him.
I'm a professional photographer and last winter I spent 6 weeks with the cast and crew in New Orleans as the on-set still photographer. A still photographer on a feature film has the unique job of trying to capture images that tell the story of the film in a way that can be used to market the film and tell a story to the audience, while also staying out of the way of the film crew, and not interrupting actors. That leaves very little time to set up photos outside of actual filming. Often, we need to set up photos that are needed to convey the message of the film for both print and online media, news and marketing.
For 99 Homes, Ramin and his financiers picked three photos out of thousands to use for media and press releases. The first two images were set up by me and the final image was taken during actual filming.
This was the second photo I took on the first day of filming. By the time I arrived on set, they were already a few hours into filming, and the crew was making some quick changes. Ramin came up to me and said that this was a great location and asked if I could I get something. He emphasized the need to make sure we capture the vibe of Orlando, Florida and to emphasize Andrew and Michael in the photo. And you've got 2 minutes.
Working with actors of the caliber of Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield makes all the difference. It makes getting the shot in 2 minutes possible. It's important to say very little, and to be deliberate with the words you choose. They didn't know me, and were in the middle of a scene on day #1, so I had to be quick and unobtrusive.
For this shot, I used a 24-70mm 2.8 lens. Shot at 26mm, ISO 400, f4.5 and 1/500 it would be wide enough to get the palm trees, all of the house and some sky. That would take care of making sure this New Orleans residence had the feel of Orlando.
The second part was positioning Andrew and Michael. Having read the script and knowing the characters, I had Michael stand in front, camera right and Andrew a few feet behind but centered in the frame. This allows the image to show Michael's dominance over Andrew in the film, but with Andrew centered, still keep Andrew's position as the central character. Leaving the cabinets where they were allows the photo to have some balance, and the space between the two actors allows the Porsche to be visible.
The second photo was also staged, featuring Andrew cleaning up a foreclosed home that the former tenants had vandalized by backing up the sewage. This photo was also shot with the 24-70mm lens at 35mm, ISO 6400, f2.8 and 1/200. Andrew and I spent about 5-7 minutes at the end of a long day to get this shot. Earlier in the day, Ramin emphasized the importance of this image which he felt captures the visceral energy of the film and the country. It also represents what Ramin had seen in real life while researching the film in Florida.
Andrew's position gives us some great light and shadow, which helps reflect the moral conflict his character goes through in the film, and his pose creates some nice leading lines from his arm to the words on the wall behind him.
The final photo was taken during actual filming and I was allowed in the house behind actor Tim Guinee (Iron Man, Homeland) during a take where I wouldn't be in line of sight of any of the cameras. Multiple takes allowed me the freedom to try different positions and shots. Ramin had mentioned Dog Day Afternoon to me, and so all the photos from this scene were taken in the spirit of news photojournalism. It represents both the reality of what we're seeing in the film, as well as the spirit in which the movie was directed and filmed.
Shooting this time with a 70-200mm 2.8 lens at 90mm, ISO 1000, f/3.2, and 1/1000, we're able to draw the viewer in by shooting over Frank's shoulder to crop into Andrew. Frank's rifle and the sheriff's gun not only tell the dramatic story of the scene, but also bring balance to Andrew's presence on the right side of the frame.
In addition to the framing, lens selection with the 70-200 for this photo was important. The compression the lens gives us helps bring the foreground and background right on top of Andrew, as well as allows the viewer to be an active participant in the scene.
Ramin not only directed and co-wrote 99 Homes, but he also edited it as well. And he also was heavily involved in the edits of the still photos. On average you're seeing what is about the 9th or 10th version of the photo, after my initial edit. Ramin's notes included everything from cropping to adjusting highlights, temperature, and contrast - all adjusted multiple times with very fine tweaks. As a final note, all images were edited in Adobe Lightroom 5.4 and photos were taken with a Nikon D3s.