February / 1999
LAST NIGHT -
Filming the End of the World
An Interview With Douglas Koch csc
“You know something weird is going on.”
by Don Angus
The eerie, surrealistic, never-ending light starts to get to you soon after Last Night illuminates the screen on the eve of destruction.
It’s the turn of the century, but the new millennium will never dawn because the world is coming to an end at midnight. Intriguingly, sometimes almost maddeningly, this Rhombus Media feature by first-time director Don McKellar sticks to the dryly humorous drama of how its characters prepare for their impending doom. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and earned 12 Genie nominations this year, never explains what is happening.
Why is it still light at 10 p.m., 11? Is it hot? Is this the Canadian version of Armageddon—a resigned farewell rather than big-bang chaos?
The challenge for DOP Douglas Koch csc, nominated for best cinematography Genie, was to create a suggestion of inexorable fate while keeping the wry and whimsical story centre stage. The approaching curtain is given a certain look of inevitability that enfolds the characters in empathy during their final six hours.
Toronto is deserted, the stores are empty, the streetcars have stopped, and gangs of punks roam the streets. A new wife (Sandra Oh) tries vainly to make her way back home to spend the evening with her husband, with whom she has made a suicide pact. A womanizer (Callum Keith Rennie) decides to put a few more notches on his belt, including his former French teacher (Genevičve Bujold) and a middle-aged virgin (Tracy Wright). At the 11th hour, an amateur pianist holds his debut recital in a nearly deserted concert hall. A suburban family decides to watch old home movies and celebrate Christmas one last time. A gas company executive (David Cronenberg) calls up all his customers to thank them for their patronage. And an architect (McKellar) just wants to be alone. They all interconnect.
Toronto-based Koch (pronounced Ko), who shot Last Night in Toronto in 26 days in September and October of 1997, told CSC News he was happy with the ultimate look of the film “because, particularly in certain scenes, it looks quite extreme—very stark and austere looking, which is what we were after.
“There were a number of things at play. One of them was that we wanted to create right away this concept of relying on the look of the film to try to put you in a special time, like you know something weird is going on. I was curious how long it would take people to realize that there’s this very obvious time clock, where it’s going 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., and it’s not getting darker—it’s just blazing daylight all the time.”
Koch, who did his own operating on a 35mm Arri BL4, used Kodak Vision 250D (5246) 98 per cent of the time, with “a tiny bit of 50D 5245 in a couple of shots that were in the title sequence to keep the grain from building up.”
‘We didn’t like how
healthy everything looked’
He said McKellar, who also wrote Last Night, wanted to evoke movies from the late ’60s and ’70s, “movies like The Omega Man (1971) that have a certain kind of starkness to them. Some of the look was in the art direction, very ’70s a lot of the time, but there was some pretty interesting garish stuff for which we basically used a bit of an odd process.
“We experimented with techniques. A lot of the look in the film is a sort of a bleach bypass, a sort of silver retention process. We tried it first in various ways, like in the original negative and in the print, and we ended up settling on doing it in the interpositive stage. This had the effect of lowering colour saturation and increasing contrast simultaneously, which is quite interesting.
“We ran a couple of tests with the lab, deluxe toronto, to sort of play around. The way in which you print will control how extreme the effect is going to be through the stages, but it’s a tricky thing because you can’t actually see the end result until you actually go interpositive, dupe neg, check print. You have to follow all the generations through to see the actual effect, which made it rather challenging.
“We assembled test rolls out of outtakes that were representative of all the different scenes, experimented with the various printing procedures that we knew we would be using, and then compared them. In a lot of the serious scenes, where the lighting was softer, we found we could push harder to get an effect that was heavier than say some of the other scenes that were interior and already a bit moody.”
Koch noted that late in the movie, McKellar’s character, Patrick, says, “‘There are times like this when I miss the night,’ and Don and I figured it might be nice if things appeared really faded and people were sort of overly tired, almost bleached out of it. As well, although we ended up having less of a view from Patrick’s apartment than we had initially anticipated, we had a concern when we were doing our tech scouting in August that from up high Toronto looks like an Amazon jungle.
“It’s amazing how green it is, and we didn’t like how healthy everything looked. So when we were looking into processes, one of the major things we wanted to do was to suck the life out of the greens and trees so it didn’t look like everything was really healthy, but sort of faded or dried up. Also, once we had decided to go in this direction, this necessitated a lot more saturated and kind of goofy ’70s colours in the art direction.”
The 38-year-old cinematographer, whose made-in-Toronto credits include Patricia Rozema’s acclaimed I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), said that even though the locale of Last Night was obviously supposed to be Toronto, “it was fun to stay away from the more stereotypical images of the city. A lot of the exteriors were shot in Old Weston Road, and you get the sensation that you’re in this little town, which we liked, and it did have a lot of the old brick.”
A complication, he added, was that because of actor availability it was not possible to shoot on weekends. “I mean it’s not like we were doing The Omega Man where you’re not allowed to see anyone except for one lone character, the last man on earth. But we also wanted some control over what you saw on the street, and it had to look like it’s the last six hours of the world. Yes, you can see people moving around, but they should look like they’re going somewhere, or freaked out. They can’t just look like, oh it’s a Purolator Courier pulling up. And so it was much more difficult to control in the more urban setting, like around the streetcar.”
‘It’s almost the opposite of
what I would normally do’
He described a long scene in which Sandra Oh tries to board an abandoned streetcar, and then leaves on foot, walking hastily up a virtually deserted downtown street. It was shot in the morning, “and we were there for quite a while. That was very tough to do. One of the biggest challenges when you’re in these downtown locations is reflections. You’ll look at a place and say, ‘OK, this is what we’ll see, this is what we have to lock up,’ but what’s difficult to understand is that you see reflections off the store fronts. It’s late summer so lots of people are wearing white, and you suddenly realize that through the reflections you’re actually seeing around corners. You can actually look through the camera and see 100 curious onlookers all wearing white T-shirts.”
Koch said there was only one Sunday on which they were able to shoot—a crane shot at the end—“and what a joy it was to work downtown on a Sunday. It was perfect, so easy to control. We didn’t have that luxury with the other scenes, and I’ve never been in that situation before. But, well, we have to do it and this is when we have to do it.
“The biggest challenge for me, the spookiest thing, was the fact that the story all takes place in six hours, and you’re shooting this thing spread out over days and weeks. On a film like that, it comes down to—unless it’s raining—we’ve got to film. So Don and I did a fair amount of storyboarding and planning, as much as we could.
“Shooting with a process where the contrast is extremely high is a lot less forgiving than when you’re shooting normal negatives, so we attempted a lot of the time to shoot when the direct sun was not going to be an issue—either being blocked by buildings or very frontal so that you didn’t get such deep shadows. It’s almost the opposite of what I would normally do, when I would be trying to get the light behind the actor for texture and depth. But that’s not really the look we were after. We managed to plan that we’d be at the west of a building in the morning and have until 10 or 11 until the sun came around, and you could keep yourself working in open shade.”
Koch said he shot mainly from dollies and a couple of cranes, with little if any handheld shots and no Steadicam. Interiors were all on location; there was no studio work. Some of the interior lighting he described as part dramatic licence and part necessity.
“One of our toughest locations was a little penthouse apartment on the 20th-something floor, and there was nowhere to put any light outside except for this one balcony.” The idea came to the DOP and director that since the end-of-the-world light outside was not changing, they would have a continuous bright light streaming in from the balcony. “But first and foremost, this was the only way to light this place from the outside—to get any hard lighting in there at all. I would have liked to have come in the windows that were camera right, but there were 20 floors of air out there.” Koch said he used Xenon and HMI lights on the film “because of the daylight thing,” adding there was little if any tungsten lighting.
Koch, who called Last Night “different from anything I’ve ever done,” had some notable company in the best cinematography category at the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television’s 19th annual Genie Awards on Feb. 4. Also nominated were Glen MacPherson csc of Vancouver for Regeneration, CSC associate Gregory Middleton of Vancouver for The Falling, Alain Dostie for The Red Violin, and Jan Kiesser for Such a Long Journey.
Last Night, Regeneration, Rupert’s Land (also shot by Greg Middleton), Such a Long Journey, and The Red Violin were nominated for best movie. Don McKellar was nominated for best direction and best screenplay for Last Night, and shared a screenplay nomination for The Red Violin. We’ll have the winners next month.
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