Magazine article American Cinematographer

Points East

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Points East

Article excerpt

Half Nelson Details a Schoolteacher's Gripping Dilemma

A film about a white teacher in a black public school could be rife with clichés, but Half Nelson avoids the pitfalls. Its drama is far from uplifting, its New York City locations are way off the beaten track, and its look feels closer to Frederick Wiseman's High School than the docudrama Stand and Deliver.

Naturalism was the name of the game for director Ryan Fleck and cinematographer Andrij Parekh. "Andrij wanted to shoot these high-contrast situations in a low-contrast way," says Fleck, referring to the double life led by Dan (Ryan Gosling), an idealistic history teacher who is also a crackhead. Parekh explains, "It's not a very light movie; I didn't feel we needed to make the drama any heavier than it actually was."

Dan, who teaches junior high school, relates well with his students both in the classroom and in the gym, where he coaches the girls' basketball team. One night after a game, Dan enters the empty locker-room to get high, and a straggler from the team, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him in the act. Because of her family history - her older brother is in prison for a drug-related offense - the girl is unfazed. The two subsequently strike up a friendship, and the film follows their relationship through various pressure points, including Dan's growing addiction and Drey's friendship with Frank (Anthony Mackie), the dealer for whom her brother worked.

To attract financing for Half Nelson, Fleck and co-screenwriter Anna Boden made a 19-minute version of the story (called Gowanus, Brooklyn) on MiniDV in 2004. The strategy worked; the short won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival. When financing came together for a Super 16mm production, Fleck, who was making his feature-directing debut, sought a cinematographer with some film experience. He and Andrji had known each other since their student days at New York University, where Parekh shot 35 short films before he graduated. "We met at the NYU student film festival, and I'd shot about half the finalist films there, which was a bit embarrassing," recalls the cinematographer. Many of Parekh's projects were shot handheld, the approach Fleck wanted for Half Nelson.

To gauge Fleck's color and contrast preferences, Parekh invited him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at 17th- and 18th-century European paintings. "It's a great way to share and understand a director's taste, and to get on the same page very quickly," explains Parekh. They zeroed in on a low-contrast look, with a muted palette and naturalistic lighting.

Half Nelson was shot entirely on Kodak VisionZ Expression 500T 7229. During the color-correction phase of the digital intermediate at Postworks NYC, Parekh added back some contrast and further desaturated punchy colors like yellows and reds, winding up with a painterly palette of soft blues, browns, and greens. (EFiIm in Hollywood transferred the color-corrected files to 35mm.)

Parekh handheld the camera, an Arn 16SR-3, for all but a few shots. He used a Canon 11-165mm zoom during day scenes and Zeiss Superspeed prime lenses at night. Long lenses predominated, echoing the look of vérité documentaries by Wiseman and his peers. Another influence was La Nina Santa, directed by Lucrecia Martel. "That film is shot mostly in close-ups, so you have no real sense of space," notes Parekh. He was usually maxed out on a zoom at 165mm, or used primes of 50mm, 85mm and up. "That allowed me to be farther away from the actors - I didn't want them to feel the presence of the camera. …

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