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Behind the Scenes on Project Greenlight’s THE LEISURE CLASS

  • October 26, 2015

Jason Mann (director, co-writer) and Trevor Forrest (director of photography) were brought together by Project Greenlight, the HBO series based on a filmmaker contest. Founded by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, one finalist is given the chance to direct a feature film, while the entire process is captured.

This year, Mann was chosen as the winner, and Forrest brought on as cinematographer to shoot THE LEISURE CLASS. Here, in an exclusive Q&A to Kodak, the filmmakers offer their insights into some of the decisions they made as part of the creative team for the movie.

THE LEISURE CLASS is based on a 2012 short film written by Mann that premiered at the 2013 Raindance Film Festival. The comedy follows a man who is trying to marry into a wealthy family, and his unpredictable brother.

Project Greenlight airs Sundays on HBO, and THE LEISURE CLASS premieres November 2.


Q. What was your approach to making The Leisure Class?

MANN: We had essentially been given marching orders to make a comedy. But the most interesting comedies, from my perspective, are ones that sit outside of the realm of what we traditionally think of as comedies. So we approached the comedy of this film with a naturalistic style, embracing spontaneity and a feeling of crudeness in the manner of capturing the action. At the same time, we combined that with a kind of elegant formalism that was representative of the world in which the characters exist. So this chemical reaction, so to speak, was intended to have somewhat explosive results, just like the dynamic between the characters in the story. There is one character in particular, Leonard, who clashes enormously with this very rigid and affluent family, and like a classic farce, this is the primary basis of the drama. But we took this seemingly very light and frothy set up and continually let the rougher, darker elements reveal themselves.

Q. Tell us about your preparation for creating this style?

FORREST: We had only four weeks of actual prep. And due to circumstances, I came on board a little over a week before production. But the clarity of Jason’s vision made it possible for us to present a precise plan to HBO and the producers right away. I was very in tune with the idea of creating a world for the comedy to exist in, along with ways to bring elegant camerawork and textures from this wealthy world to life. This needed to be present to enhance the seriousness of the situation.

Q. Why was it so important to shoot this project on film? What was the criteria that informed your choice of format between film and digital?

MANN: We shot on film because I wanted to create a visual palette and a visual language that would completely support the world of this family in the story. We had to shoot on a format that would allow for this kind of raw and rugged style without undermining the formality of the family’s world. We needed to let the images fully support the characters.

FORREST: For me, we had this beautiful 100-year-old home and it was about capturing that world in the right way, in warm evening light as well as dismal, harsh interior lighting. Both characterized the family in their different stages in the story. And particularly for those darker interiors, the way that film rolls off the blacks so organically felt like the right approach. We also didn’t want to affect the look too heavily in post. We wanted to create the look in camera as much as possible.

Q. How did shooting on film ultimately affect the comedic tone?

FORREST: For me, it was all about the audience’s connection to the picture, for full effect of the story. When you use film, the way it looks draws you in. You can sit on a close-up for longer, like the way you view a photograph. You see the audience lean in to the screen to see the eyes and skins tones and want to understand the characters. We needed that for this story. The age of the interior gave a romantic setting, while also being visually tactile for this world. All of these things are simply available when you start on film.

MANN: In my mind, the most important thing is the audience’s subliminal connection to the movie. In part, this has to do with weaving enough of a psychological logic and reality to the movie that the audience can become sutured into it, even though occurrences in the narrative might stretch what would normally be considered realistic. The goal was to take this comedy into realms of absurdity, but to always keep it grounded. And shooting film has a way of helping to weave that spell on the audience, to get them fully engaged.

Q. Did you test creating the look of the movie digitally?

MANN: We did several tests. But it was my opinion that certain methods of processing celluloid couldn’t be accurately emulated in the DI (digital intermediate), whether you were shooting digitally or on film. Even when your final distribution format is digital. So I wanted to shoot on film and create our look photochemically as much as possible. The studio would only allow us to go so far with how much we could “bake-in” our look on the film negative in order to keep our options open. So we arrived at a look that would smear the blacks into the mid-tones in a very natural way with underexposure and push processing. Then, in the DI, we decided to not even attempt to emulate other film processing looks. When they’re not done naturally they feel affected, and the philosophy of the style of the movie was not to let the aesthetic of the picture feel forced upon the story. We wanted the look of the movie to feel like it was organically intertwined with what was being shown, as though the characters, the locations, and the look of the film were all one and the same.

Q. How did you both cope with the fast shooting schedule and short prep?

FORREST: We decided to meet and discuss the day two hours before call every morning during production. Jason would have his revised shot list that was a guide for how to tell the story, and I drew floor-plans that illustrated this shot list, and showed possible camera positions and groupings to make best use of the time, while ensuring we didn’t trip ourselves up. This way I knew very clearly where the lighting and production design teams needed to focus their efforts. This created a bible for the day which we shared with all the crew so they could be on the same page and ahead in respect to grip and rigging needs.

MANN: We had a 20-day shooting schedule, so this kind of preparation with shot lists and floor-plan maps was essential for us to be able to make our days. Also, shooting on film made it possible to work quickly because we could trust that film would be more forgiving than digital cameras. After production wrapped, we were actually under budget by nearly $200,000, which happened to be the same amount of money the studio put forward so we could shoot on film. So this might suggest that shooting on film is actually feasible within a low-budget situation. It’s all a matter of knowing how to prepare and balancing out the flexible elements of a budget.

Q. What were the main difficulties that you faced to create the film that you had imagined?

MANN: Almost the entire movie takes place within one house. So part of the criteria for finding our location was to find a manor home in Los Angeles that would not only have a style of architecture and design that suited the grandeur of the story’s family, but would also have a variety of rooms that we could use to evolve the interior spaces as the story progressed. Ultimately, we were forced to go with a location that had far fewer usable spaces within it than the story called for. The house also had a remodeled design that we had to hide quite a bit. So we ended up having to rely on shallow focus much more than would have been ideal.

FORREST: The design of the film and the way we chose to use the film was carefully tested and planned, even in the short time we had. [The KODAK VISION3 Color Negative Film 5219 was pushed by one stop and underexposed one stop to create a deeper fall off in the blacks on the film stock itself.] Some of our primary references were Harris Savides’ work on Birth and The Yards, which both used a bleach-bypass and had almost 90% grain reduction. Luckily, we had Stephen Nakamura who graded films with Harris and knew exactly what the process was. He was happy to tell us the whole story of how his low contrast, muted colors and deep blacks were created, which helped us a lot.

This process was going to work well for the dusk wedding reception into night interiors of a lush 19th Century house, full of sumptuous lighting and tungsten warm glows. But the toughest thing for me was when our schedule suddenly forced us to switch some of our night exteriors for day. We had to create our same lush feeling in blazing LA midday with little time for the grip team to prep and organize. We didn’t really have the resources to afford more man power to manipulate the light and adjust for the change during a very limited amount of time for shooting. This happens in some way in every production on all levels and it’s always the toughest when it catches you by surprise with no tools to react.

Q. What was the final effect of all the choices and plans that you made throughout the production?

MANN: The initial screening could hardly have gone better. We’re really looking forward to letting this very unorthodox, strange, and idiosyncratic movie unleash itself onto the world. And we’re very happy to have the Kodak brand as a badge of honor to accompany it.

FORREST: For me, showing the film to an audience is always the test of all of your hunches, decisions and hard work. The audience laughed consistently from the beginning to the end and afterwards they commented on the level of achievement on all counts. They were totally submerged into this unlikely farce that just keeps going deeper and deeper into the depths of dark comedy. We’re very happy.