Ben Richardson Finds Freedom with Film on Digging for Fire

  • May 12, 2015
Digging for Fire

Joe Swanberg and Ben Richardson have made three movies together – Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas, and now Digging for Fire. The film is a dramedy, co-written with Jake Johnson who also stars in it, about a man in a mid-wife crisis and a woman trying to figure out where mother/wife ends and she begins.

“We've got a good shorthand going at this point,” Richardson said, “which makes us pretty efficient with shot design. So, this time we decided to go all the way and shoot 35mm with the camera on the dolly.”

Digging for Fire was produced in 2-perf 35mm on KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213.

A formal shooting style isn’t what Swanberg fans might expect from the writer-director’s usual aesthetics, where there's a certain amount of handheld that goes on in order to remain responsive to all the improvised performances. But Richardson was able to maintain all those same reactive elements while still going for something different.

Swanberg always works sans script, using instead an outline developed in collaboration with his cast – one of the reasons that actors are really excited to work in his movies. Since this was a bigger scale production than his last two films, Swanberg and Richardson did have to involve a bit more prep in order to think about the practical aspects of production and lighting. Richardson adds, “Although much of the film takes place in one big location – a hillside house in LA – it was still contained, fortunately.

“In some ways Digging for Fire is more of a structured story,” Richardson continues, “The mystery component suggested we break with the pure naturalism of our previous films. We talked about landing somewhere between the ‘70s world, which is such a strong influence for Joe, and the great ‘80s thrillers and action movies of our childhoods.”

Using a dolly and having a bit more planning was a change in pace for the duo. “On most films you light a scene with a very strong idea of what the blocking and performances will be and then you structure the camerawork around that,” explains Richardson. “Whereas, in this situation, I had to figure out a way to allow the actors to make whatever choices they wanted while we were rolling, and still get great footage. That spontaneity is one of the keys to Joe’s films, and one of the reasons I’ll always enjoy working with him. It’s challenging, but a really fun way to work.”

The location came to bear on the assignment as well. “In this case, at the poolside for example, we lit from the sides and the roof of the main house, keeping a large area free for the actors to explore,” the cinematographer relates. “We laid track along the edge of the pool, and just went for it. I’d look for places to lose an actor out of shot, and then when we went again on a longer lens, I’d look for a way to pick them up again that would work for Joe’s cut. It feels like coverage, but no one ever does the same thing twice!”

Choosing to shoot on film for Digging for Fire was twofold for Richardson. Partly, it's aesthetic. “I don't want to say ‘tactile’ because that makes it sound like all you care about is grain,” he explains, “but there is a certain visual integrity to a film-derived image that is still lacking for me in most of the digitally-derived imagery that we see.”

The other aspect that Richardson is drawn to is the energy in the way a film shoot operates. “Because there aren't large monitors all around, everyone’s focus remains on the set, in the moment, and on the performance. And for me, I’m working from the image in my mind to improve a shot because you're not getting that instant feedback (that you get with digital).”

Given that they wanted a sense of solidity and confidence for the visuals in this film, shooting on film wasn’t really a question. From the early days of pre-production, Swanberg and Richardson knew they were going to have to figure out how to make it work on what was a very small budget. Between film stocks, processing at FotoKem, and the digital intermediate in Chicago with Nolo Digital Film, Richardson feels they were able to pull off something that looks tremendously high budget and high value with minimal equipment.

Shot in large part at night, another of Richardson’s challenges was lighting a large area with relatively little equipment, while still aiming for a more stylized, heightened version of night than is typical for an independent movie. “To be honest, we were aiming in the direction of Jurassic Park!” he notes. He used tungsten units bounced into muslins and beadboard and created edges with Lee Soft Silver and a little blue, while pairing the ARRICAM Lite camera with a small set of Master Primes supplied by ARRI/CSC. “With that wonderful 500 film stock,” he adds, “you can work at very low light levels, and still hold rich, detailed shadows.”