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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesDirector Series: Allen Coulter-Hollywoodland

Director Series: Allen Coulter-Hollywoodland

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Hollywoodland from Focus Features tells the tale surrounding the puzzling death of actor George Reeves, famous for playing Superman in the 1950s television series. Did he commit suicide or was he the victim of foul play? The cast includes Ben Affleck as Reeves, Adrien Brody as Louis Simo—a detective looking into the circumstances of his demise—and Diane Lane as Reeves’ long-time paramour.For Allen Coulter—known and honored for his directing work on HBO’s Sex in the City and The Sopranos—Hollywoodland marks his debut as a feature-film director. He was assisted in realizing the detailed look of the burgeoning but less self-conscious Los Angeles of 50 years ago by a talented crew. It included director of photography Jonathan Freeman, production designer Leslie McDonald, editor Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E., and costume designer Julie Weiss.Coulter recently talked with Below the Line about the making of the film which competes in Italy’s renowned Venice Film Festival at the end of August and hits US theaters in early September.Below the Line: Where and when did you film Hollywoodland, and how long was the shoot?Allen Coulter: We shot last spring and finished on July 4. It was a 40-day shoot. The first six weeks were in Toronto. That was followed by two weeks of filming in Los Angeles. BTL: The film went through a long gestation. Did that mean you had a lot of time to prep?Coulter: Not really, because Hollywoodland wasn’t a go until early this year. I and producer Glenn Williamson, who had acquired the property when he was at USA Films, were doing preliminary scouting in Toronto and then moved on to Los Angeles when we finally got the final green light. At that point I had already assembled the beginnings of a crew and had some of the keys like Jonathan Freeman, the director of photography, and production designer Leslie McDonald, on board. But we couldn’t go full force until we got the final word, which was February, soon after Ben Affleck was signed after many names had been bruited about to play George Reeves. So we geared up rather quickly. I was still casting some roles while we were prepping in Toronto.BTL: Your production team on the film combines people who’ve done a lot of television, and several who had mainly done movies. How did you assemble your team?Coulter: A lot of these things, as you can imagine, are a combination of recommendation, instinct based on a meeting and, resume. I had worked with Jonathan Freeman a number of times. I first met him on a television series for NBC called Prince Street—a project that barely saw the light of day. I liked his work a lot. I always thought the quality of his cinematography was extraordinary. We worked on several other television shows and did a few commercials in New York together and then maintained that relationship. So when Hollywoodland came up, there was no doubt in my mind that he was the cinematographer I wanted to work with.BTL: What about Leslie McDonald, your production designer?Coulter: Leslie I didn’t know. But she was recommended by friends of mine for her deep research and profound attention to details. So we got together in Los Angeles when I was meeting with a number of possible production designers, all of them impressive. She seemed to be the right choice. A big plus was she had done a number of period films over time as an art director—several for the Coen brothers, like Miller’s Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy.BTL: And Julie Weiss, your costume designer?Coulter: I knew of her and her work, but John Lyons, president of production at Focus, is actually the person who had worked with her and was the one who really recommended her. Julie had grown up in Los Angeles in the period; and though she was a young girl, she had vivid memories of it. [She has an] unbelievable grasp of what people wore and what it would say about people’s personality. BTL: Michael Berenbaum was your editor on a number of TV shows. What is it about his work that appeals to you?Coulter: I had worked with Michael on Sex in the City and we had a relationship that stretched over quite some time. That was a comforting thing as it was with Jonathan. When you know someone there’s a shorthand that develops between you that’s quite valuable.BTL: The movie has complex intertwined plots. Was that a challenge for Michael?Coulter: Michael had worked with me before and he knows I shoot from storyboards and a very detailed shot list. When I embark on any project on television, and now on film, I have the same modus operandi. From the very first day of filming, I know every shot I’m going to do—at least in theory—from the beginning to the end of the film. I generally don’t shoot more than I need so it’s not a mystery to Michael on how to put it together. It’s pretty easy to read my mind. When I saw the first cut, which ran two and a half hours, it looked pretty much the way I imagined it.BTL: Hollywoodland is a film noir shot in color. It was primarily realistic, but it also had a somewhat stylized look, in terms of the color palette emphasizing brown and dark blue. What were you going for?Coulter: Realism was the real driving force. But part of making it real was to give it a look that somehow reflected what we thought was stylistically accurate about the period. Our colorist described it as similar to a box of photographs that had been left in the garage over a summer. Jonathan and I somewhat laughingly refered to it as “nouveau noir.” We wanted to avoid obvious conventions, like shadows coming through venetian blinds. And we didn’t want it to look like Chinatown or LA Confidential. Those two films are so consummate in what they did. You can’t avoid comparisons, but you don’t want to play in the very same playground.BTL: That stylized sense distanced it in time.Coulter: Jonathan and I spent a lot of time talking about the look and the feeling of the film and what we wanted to do. We had collected photographs, color pictures that gave you a sense of the era. So I had a very clear picture that grew from those discussions, and later from conversations with Leslie McDonald and Julie Weiss.In addition, as everyone came onto the film, each person got a book my assistant had assembled, kind of a bible, which included historical documents, pictures of the real people, headlines of the times, and the autopsy report. And then there was a section just about the look. It included color reproductions from Americans in Kodachrome, which is a wonderful book of snapshots, largely from the 1940s and 1950s. These have a particular patina, and we wanted to give that feel to Hollywoodland.BTL: The attention to the specific texture of the times is also impressive.Coulter: We were all very demanding about being true to the furnishings and décor, whether it was a light switch or a lamp. There were also great details in the costumes. Julie has very profound understanding of the characters. She works from inside out. She tries to think about who these characters are and what makes them tick—and then carries it through. She even dressed the extras that were in the foreground herself, down to the shoes. I swear she would have dressed them all in the proper underwear if she could.Edward Hopper was also referred to a lot. His paintings have that dusky quality—you feel the texture and the dirt and the grime of history in his paintings and we wanted to give some of that quality to the settings.BTL: There were no fireworks in the cinematography. Instead, the camera kept with the characters and their situations.Coulter: We used a bit longer lenses in George’s world, which tends to bring you more into the foreground, and, in a sense, to enlarge the characters. We used a more straightforward framing there, in an effort to suggest a voyeuristic view of George and his world—that we weren’t participants but observers. So we tended to look past doors and windows, to give that feeling that youâ€
™re a silent and somewhat indifferent observer.BTL: The film takes place in a couple of time periods during the 1950s. How did you differentiate them visually?Coulter: I was interested in two different looks, one for the so-called modern world of Adrien Brody’s character, when he’s hired by Reeves’ mother to investigate the circumstances of his death; and one for the world of George Reeves, much of which takes place during the early 1950s. There’s an overexposed sense to Simo’s world: a little hotter, a little less friendly, a certain kind of desaturated and burned-out look. We wanted to feel it somewhat jangly and harsh.The George Reeves scenes look a bit different. George lived in a more old-fashioned world. So the camera was more stable and solid. The colors, though subdued, have a bit more saturation. Overall there’s a sense of comfort and solidity and steadiness, meant to reflect what it was like before the evolution into the modern world of rock n’ roll and fast food and shopping malls which are ubiquitous today but which were just coming into being in the early 1950s. George belongs to that earlier world, a soothing, quieter and shadier world.BTL: You found a way to show how Southern California looked in the 1950s, with an iconic apartment building that smacked of that era, where Simo had his pad.Coulter: We went out to Long Beach for that apartment building. We were constantly reminding ourselves that 1959 was the new world. We had to make an interesting, difficult choice. We wanted to make it look seedy, but not old. It had the sense that as new as it was, it was already a little run down. The pool was filled with some scum, so it wouldn’t reflect the blue sky.BTL: Did the film go through a digital intermediate?Coulter: Yes. It was great. Jonathan and I worked with a colorist to get that patina. We couldn’t have gotten it without the DI.BTL: What’s next for you?Coulter: I have a few things I’m thinking about. There’s a project, Bodyguard of Lies, at Landscape Films, an espionage film based on a real-life double agent. Also there’s Brighter Than 10,000 Suns, with a script by Howard Korder, that I’m considering. It’s a period film set in New Mexico about a relationship set against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

Written by Jack Egan

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