Michael Seresin continues his extraordinarily varied career as a director of photography with Gunpowder Milkshake, a feature directed by Navot Papushado. It’s an action-thriller, but there’s much more beneath the surface, including a conflicted mother-daughter team of assassins, and a sometimes tongue-in-cheek approach to action tropes that adds humor to the mayhem.
Visual tone is fundamental to the success of this mélange. The project obviously required sure-handed cinematography. Seresin’s credits include Midnight Express, Birdy and Angel Heart with Alan Parker, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Paris, je t’aime with Alfonso Cuaron, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle with Andy Serkis, and two Planet of the Apes films with Matt Reeves.
"GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE IS SORT OF LIKE A COMIC. I’M SURE THAT IF YOU TOOK THE KEY FRAME OF EVERY SHOT IN THE MOVIE, YOU’D HAVE A PRETTY GOOD 30-PAGE COMIC BOOK."
“I like to have a cross-section of stuff to do,” says Seresin. “Gunpowder Milkshake is sort of like a comic. I’m sure that if you took the key frame of every shot in the movie, you’d have a pretty good 30-page comic book. It’s a very physical film. Navot gravitates to this type of filmmaking, and I think the humor and the female leads are elements that make the violence more acceptable. It’s not so serious, and that’s why it works. Film is totally open now – anything goes, which is healthy. It’s not just male heroes anymore.“
“Navot has a good heart, and he seems a supremely confident young man in every area, whether it’s directing performances or the look, but not aggressively so,” says Seresin. ”It was a significantly bigger film than he’d done before. He’s open to suggestions, which I would offer when appropriate – for example, the lenses, which I did have some quite strong ideas about.”
Production designer David Scheunemann was also a key collaborator. “It was a digital film, and one of the first I’d done where so much of the lighting was built into the set,” Seresin says. “Shooting digital, I could use that. It makes the sets come alive. Plus, I gave him a lot more freedom than I might on a more conventional film, where you light scene by scene. We would often shoot in different directions without any major changes – which directors love because they catch a lot more material in the day.”
The lenses were ARRI Master Primes, with ARRI ALEXA LF cameras. The images were Captured on CODEX in ARRIRAW format and delivered in a 2.39 aspect ratio. Seresin saw some tests at X2X Creative in London that emulated the ENR bleach bypass process used in film development. X2X Creative also provided secure access to production content including dailies via PIX.
"IT WAS A DIGITAL FILM, AND ONE OF THE FIRST I’D DONE WHERE SO MUCH OF THE LIGHTING WAS BUILT INTO THE SET"
“The tests were all to do with low light and contrast and darkness,” he says. “This film came along, and I felt it could be pretty dark. I did a few more tests in London with the colorist. That educated me a bit about the look and contrast ratios. Even if I shoot digitally, I want it to look as much as possible like film, because I’m not a big fan of the digital look. To contradict myself, Gunpowder Milkshake could have been a film which had a strong digital look. I don’t think it does. But it probably would have worked just as well.”
In the end, Seresin skipped the ENR emulation and lit and exposed to achieve a moody, low key look that is also cold and flashy. “I love ENR going back decades,” he says. “I used it on Birdy, Angel Heart, and Angela’s Ashes. But those are more dramatic and realistic films, and I didn’t think it really added anything here. I decided it was wrong to try to impose a cinematic culture that was pretentious or inappropriate. And the praise I get for the film is often about the balance of style and content.”
"YOU DON’T NEED A MILLION-DOLLAR CAMERA AND LENSES AND EVERYTHING ELSE. IF YOU’VE GOT A POWERFUL STORY, YOU DO IT WITH A HAND-CRANKED CAMERA AND A LENS"
Seresin avoids getting too deep into the technical aspects of the job. “Like many in my generation of cinematographers, and even the generation after mine, I love and believe in storytelling with composition and camera movement,” he says. “You don’t need a million-dollar camera and lenses and everything else. If you’ve got a powerful story, you do it with a hand-cranked camera and a lens. The principle of storytelling remains the same regardless of camera and lenses. It’s lovely to have the latest technology, and you can do certain things that you can’t do otherwise.
“Most filmmaking – not all – is sort of long shot, medium shot, close shot of people doing stuff – whether it’s talking, laughing, crying, arguing, moving, sitting there,” he says. “And free-lighting the face appropriate to the scene can be the most difficult. I’m often focused on making it three-dimensional, even though it’s a two-dimensional medium. And beyond that, we’d just as soon get on with it. A lot of your day’s work is just getting through your day’s work. It was a full 50-day shoot, but that was not a lot. But we did it, and I enjoyed it.”
Gunpowder Milkshake was released in theaters in July 2021. Typically for Seresin, his next project is completely different – White Noise, a Noah Baumbach-directed drama about a college professor, based on a novel by Don DeLillo.