Heat wave: DP Ellen Kuras helps Spike Lee recreate the scorching Summer of Sam


Like many of Spike Lee's movies, Summer of Sam is a collage of characters, storylines, music, and styles. In this case, the collage encompasses the New York summer of 1977, which saw the financially struggling city suffer the strains of record heat, capped by a 24-hour blackout that led to looting and riots in several poor neighborhoods. Even more unsettling that summer was the serial killer, dubbed "Son of Sam," who was preying mostly on women in an Italian-American section of the Bronx. That is where Lee's film, which Touchstone Pictures will release in July, primarily takes place, but punk rockers and disco divas are also thrown into the mix. "Mosaic" is director of photography Ellen Kuras, ASC's word for the movie, a term that easily includes the camerawork and lighting.

"It's pretty wild," says Kuras, who previously shot several commercials, an unaired segment of HBO's Subway Stories, and the documentary feature 4 Little Girls for Lee. "It draws upon our commercial experience. We weren't afraid to experiment, or to go against what would be conventional coverage or the conventional way of lighting something. We didn't have any of those kinds of constraints on our minds. We shot reversal and cross-processed it for certain scenes, where sometimes it doesn't logically make sense, but within the context of the movie it has its own definition. The film was 1:1.85, but sometimes we used squeezed anamorphic lenses; we did shutter changes and swing-and-tilt, used uncorrected fluorescents, and mixed cool and warm lights. I've never seen anything like it in a traditional theatrical release. Some people will probably say, 'This is too much,' and others will say, 'Wow, this is interesting.' "

Summer of Sam has its origins in a screenplay by Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli titled Anarchy in New York. Lee, after helping retool the script, decided he wanted to film it under its current title. The story focuses on tensions in the Bronx between traditional young Italian-Americans (played by John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, and Michael Rispoli, among others) and neighborhood weirdos, like the punked-out Ritchie (Adrien Brody). David Berkowitz is a peripheral character, a catalyst for the terror and rage that erupts during the scorching summer.

"I was growing up in New Jersey at the time," Kuras recalls about the summer of 77. "I remember my mother telling us not to go out, even though we lived in New Jersey. Nancy Savoca [director of True Love] actually grew up right in that neighborhood, and she told me how scary everything was. She was a teenager, and she would go out with a group of girls and hang out. Then there were other people who wouldn't leave their homes. I think the whole Son of Sam thing changed the way people thought about safety in their homes, in their neighborhoods. It was a violation--we always thought, 'Oh, you're safe in your neighborhood,' but it was no longer true. It was such random violence, and the fact was that he didn't strike only in the Bronx; he was also in Brooklyn and Yonkers. Anybody could be a target."

Kuras was interested in the project because "it was not so much a rehashing of the Son of Sam story as a reexamining of the neighborhood and relationships between friends, questions of trust and suspicion." And she was eager to see what Lee, "who pushes the envelope to the limit in terms of the look of the film, and of what he wants it to say," would bring to it. But the DP's schedule was very tight. She was in LA last spring shooting The Mod Squad, so Lee agreed to a short, non-consecutive prep for Summer of Sam. "My last month shooting on The Mod Squad, I was flying cross-country every alternate weekend. After we wrapped July 2, I came back to New York, had one down day between films, and then we went right into tech scout."

Though Kuras says the situation was not ideal, Lee's way of working and technical knowledge helped compensate. "Because we didn't have any prep time to sit down and storyboard, we would figure out the shots in the morning," says the DP. "We would meet 45 minutes before call, and he would tell me his shot list and what he wanted to get for the day. He already had it worked out in his head. So it was a matter of us going through the motions to execute that. We communicate very well. Spike understands about lenses, film stock, processes, and usually he's very specific. Oftentimes he would tell me the shot, leaving it up to me to decide what lenses I wanted to use, and I would talk to him about how I thought we could change a shot. Sometimes he would say, 'You know, I think the 100 is better,' and I would defer to that, because he has his own style. But lighting was totally my domain. The gaffer, Ray Peschke, is a very imaginative person; he and I would go off and say, "Let's try this.' "

Peschke, inventor of the 30k PAR Raybeam and proprietor of Rayteam lighting company in LA, had previously worked with Lee on He Got Game. "I love working with Spike because he does not ever reject anything experimental," says the chief lighting technician, whose other credits include JFK, Natural Born Killers, and The Usual Suspects. Having started The Mod Squad with Kuras, Peschke had to drop out because of another commitment, so he was also eager to work with her. "I shipped a 40' (12m) truck to New York with all my specialty lights--four Raybeams, four Maxicans (a big PAR can with seven globes), four 12-lights, and four of my lighting balloons." Peschke also sent his package of small Sunray HMIs. All other equipment, including Kino Flos and Arri 18ks and HMI PAR packages, was supplied by Camera Service Center in New York.

Capturing the proper ambiance was one of Kuras and Peschke's most important tasks. Both interiors and exteriors on Summer of Sam were shot entirely on location along Randall Avenue in the Bronx, with a few side trips to Manhattan and elsewhere. "It was supposed to be the hottest summer on record," says the cinematographer. "But it was very difficult for me to maintain some sort of continuity with the exterior lighting, because we had a summer that was unpredictable in terms of weather. Day exteriors were hard to control, because a lot of times we would have the six or seven primary actors, the neighborhood gang, hanging out and talking on Randall Avenue, and moving around. The blocking was quite extensive. So there was no way I could fly anything overhead, like a silk. I had to go with whatever sun was out, and if the sun wasn't out, I had to try to put edges in, to make it look really hot. But when you put hard edges in, and you have seven actors moving around in a scene, they're all moving through each ot her's light, and you see hard shadows falling on their faces."

Lee's method of running two cameras at all times in such scenes made lighting even more difficult. "He does it for the actors," says Kuras. "Since we had six or seven people in the scene so many times, to run coverage again and again would kill us. He always wanted to keep the scene fresh. The camera would be almost like a documentary camera, catching certain dialogue by moving back and forth. To me that was really exciting, like trying to get something in a one-shot deal, where you try to catch the essence of a scene without overcovering it. But it does make my job much harder."

Exterior day scenes required meteorological guesswork. "Spike would ask me, 'Which direction do you want to shoot this morning?' and based on the weather I would try to make an intelligent consideration of where and how we would shoot," says Kuras. "But in the morning we could be shooting in bright sun, and then in the afternoon it was completely overcast and would start to rain. We didn't have the schedule to move things around, and I didn't have a Condor to throw a big light, because there was no place to put it--with the blocking and the two cameras, we would see the Condor in the shot." Therefore, a combination of 18ks and 6k PARs were used in improvisatory fashion. "I was trying to get the 6k PARs as much like a kicker lightas possible, and then use the 18ks to be softer and wrap around a little more. We were not always successful, because we couldn't get the lights in the places we needed without seeing them in the shot. Sometimes we were looking 300 degrees with both cameras rolling. Where do you pu t a backlight? You don't. Sometimes you just have to go with it."

To convey the sense of heat and humidity on night exteriors, Kuras wanted to use the Arri Varicon, "because it exudes a haze over the film." But that tended to create double beams from car headlights on the street, so another solution was needed. The cinematographer wanted to reduce the contrast as much as possible to suggest the mugginess of the air, but she was dealing with Kodak 5279 negative film, a high-contrast stock. "I would have had to stick a lot of glass in front of the lens just to bring down the contrast level. We tried sandwiching the filters and using a tilting matte box, but because we had so much camera movement, I couldn't count on the filters to be consistent. Without using filters, I was kind of stuck, so I figured I'd run a test on flashing the film." That worked. "I pre-flashed all the film for the night exteriors."

Certain scenes in Summer of Sam are shot on reversal stock, which creates a hyperreal, blown-out quality. "We were using two reversal stocks, 5017, which is 50 ASA, and 7239, which is 160 ASA," says Kuras. "Both Spike and I preferred the 5017, but the limitations of the slow stock sometimes required me to use the 39. For example, we wanted to use the 5017 on a night exterior shot where we had Larry McConkey on Steadicam on a Titan crane. The camera tilts down and finds John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino in their car driving to this club, and we go all the way down the street with them. Larry steps off the Titan, they get out of their car, and the camera walks with them into the club, where they have a conversation. You're literally looking at the world of the Bronx, and it's huge to do something like that with 50 ASA. So this was a situation where I said, 'Spike, if we shoot it with the 5017, it will take us this amount of time and cost us this much money. Can we use the faster reversal stock? I can work much faster to get it done, and you'll have much more shooting time with your actors.' " Lee decided to go with the 7239.

Not that 160 ASA film is so easy to light for, either. When Berkowitz is stalking and murdering his victims, Kuras used the reversal stock as well as shutter changes--switching from a standard 180-degree to a 90-degree or even 45-degree--for a separate sensation. "A 45-degree shutter takes two stops right off the bat," says the DP. "I convinced Spike to use the faster reversal stock because I had such incredible light loss through the shutter changes. Doing night exteriors, you would have to put in so much light that it's ridiculous; it would look lit." Kuras brought out the big guns--Maxi Brutes and 18ks--for the night exteriors, but since reversal stock is daylight-balanced, she relied on the 18ks and 6k PARs for those scenes. "If we were using tungsten sources, we would have to gel them, which makes you lose a lot of stop," she says. The shutter change gives the Berkowitz scenes a "strobing feeling," which is enhanced by Kuras' decision to take the HMIs off flicker-free mode. "I wanted the lights to pull as a background element," she says. Sometimes, a third camera on the murder scenes would be equipped with a swing-and-tilt lens to abruptly shift the plane of focus.

Both Kuras and Peschke say that the most challenging parts of Summer of Sam were the blackout scenes. "How do you light a blackout, you know what I mean?" posits the cinematographer. "We had to make sure we didn't see any visible light sources in the shot. We asked houses in the location to turn out their lights." Says Peschke, "Spike expected us to do this without lights at night, with hundreds of extras. So we came up with ideas, such as a street where they used their own little generators and strung up some lights. Plus you always have fires going, and rotating police lights on top of the cars, which we did with xenon lights moving through the crowd. We had a little bit of ambient moonlight and car headlight gags."

"Sometimes we used lights during the blackout scenes that were non-motivated, but that you wouldn't think were street lights," Kuras says. At times, Peschke flew two of his custom-made lighting balloons, containing eight 1k tungsten globes on dimmer, over scenes for general exposure. Kuras recalls using two Condors with eight space lights for fill on a looting scene shot in Brooklyn, and then supplemented with 6k PARs with the lenses removed to sweep through the location like police spotlights. Every shot seemed to bring a new challenge. "There were shutter changes, and slow motion," says the DP. "I was losing stops all over the place because of the stylistic changes."

Many of the experimental techniques, such as squeezed anamorphic and mixed color-temperature sources, came together in a scene that finds Brody's character in his room, grooving to The Who's "Baba O'Riley." "We pulled many of the lights, used uncorrected fluorescents and yellow bug lights and all different kinds of sources," says Kuras. "I was like, 'How are we going to mix colors to create a certain effect, and not worry about having all the lights balance, with everything at 5600 or 3200?"

Color was a big element for Kuras in both The Mod Squad and Summer of Sam. "The Mod Squad was primary colors, reds, yellows, and blues," she says. "Spike really likes colors, but I used a different palette for Summer of Sam. The gaffer created a swatch for me--Soft Golden Amber [Rosco 321], Flame [Rosco 18], Mayan Sun [Rosco 318] for the flares in the blackout scenes. Plus a lot of green from the fluorescents. In the not-so-distant past, timers in labs would attempt to take out every little bit of green. For some reason, it was a bad color. But the whole idea of the right way to do something is open to interpretation. Used in certain ways, green is quite beautiful. Shakespeare in Love uses green really well."

Kuras loved the latitude Lee provides for playing with forbidden colors, for ignoring rules of balance, or for suddenly pulling a "Bob Richardson" effect of hot downlights into a scene. On the other hand, "I tend to like anamorphic lenses. I tend to like very shallow depth of field. I like long lenses, and Spike tends to like wide-angle lenses, to get the whole action in. Working with him has enabled me to see in a different way."

LD last looked in on Kuras at the time of Tom Kalin's ultra-low-budget Swoon (1992), a film that remains her favorite in terms of the way it was shot. Since then, she has photographed independent projects such as Postcards From America, Unzipped, and I Shot Andy Warhol, the Nancy Savoca segment of HBO's If These Walls Could Talk, the Emmy-nominated Century of Woman, and many commercials. She has also continued to work on a personal project, a documentary about Laos. This spring, the DP got a bit of great news: She was invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers, becoming its fifth female member. And this summer, she embarks on Lee's next film.

"Directing would be interesting, but I really enjoy my relationship as a DP with directors," she says. "I'm kind of enjoying what I'm doing." And she's picking up fans along the way, like Peschke, who says, "Ellen is a joy. She's exactly what I'm about--experimenting, trying out new looks, new ideas, making things different. Step into the 21st century, set new examples, and just keep going."




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