Podcasting Them Softly is extremely excited to present a chat with cinematographer Steven Poster.Steven has compiled an eclectic mix of credits throughout the years, stretching over a wide range of genres and styles. He’s worked with maverick indie director Richard Kelly on the cult classics Donnie Darko and Southland Tales as well as the underrated sci-fi thriller The Box. He shot the provocative Los Angeles sexual drama Spread, Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me, Rocky V, Big Top Pee Wee, and 80’s classics Strange Brew and The Boy Who Could Fly. Early second unit credits include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, as well as camera operation duties on Robert Altman’s brilliant 1978 drama A Wedding. Steven also currently serves as President of the International Cinematographers Guild. His upcoming projects for next year include the horror sequel Amityville: The Awakening and the indie drama All Good Things. We hope you enjoy our discussion!
Veteran cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC has compiled a wide-ranging mix of theatrical and television credits throughout the years that stretch various genres and styles. After getting a start as a camera operator on Robert Altman’s brilliant 1978 comedy A Wedding, he moved into second unit work, getting a chance to cut his teeth on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China. In recent years, he’s developed a close working relationship with maverick indie director Richard Kelly on the cult classics Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, as well as the underrated sci-fi thriller The Box, which approximated the look and feel of the 1970’s in ways that few modern movies ever attempt. He shot the provocative Los Angeles sexual drama Spread from rising star director David Mackenzie (Perfect Sense and Starred Up), Ridley Scott’s 1987 neo-noir thriller Someone to Watch Over Me, audience favorite Rocky V, the subversive and totally wild sequel Big Top Pee Wee, and 80’s classics Strange Brew and The Boy Who Could Fly. In addition to his duties behind the camera, Steven currently serves as President of the International Cinematographers Guild, and in previous years, served as President of the American Society of Cinematographers. His upcoming projects for 2016 include the horror sequel Amityville: The Awakening, a new Richard Kelly movie, and the indie drama All Good Things. He’s an artist always looking to change it up with varying material and specific aesthetic choices, while always stressing smart control with imagery and a disciplined sense of camera placement.
Donnie Darko announced the arrival of the challenging filmmaker Richard Kelly, and the film became a calling card for the director, and for a generation of high school and college kids looking for something offbeat and unique. A big reason for the film’s overall level of success is the dreamy visual style that Poster brought to the project. Shot in 2.35:1 widescreen and frequently emphasizing the middle of the frame, the film has an ominous tone all throughout, with much of the story set at night, while Poster’s camera glides through one surreal cinematic moment after another, using slow-motion in a perfect fashion, heightening the emotional moments with force and purpose. Another Poster/Kelly collaboration is Southland Tales, the divisive, Dr. Strangelove-esque political and social satire that feels like 10 movies stuffed into one, with an aesthetic style that feels like a smart and logical extension from Donnie Darko, again maximizing the use of the widescreen space, filling the screen with hallucinatory images that wash over you like some sort of wild, psychedelic trip. The saturated colors favored by Poster in this film made the volatile world being presented in the narrative all the more seductive, while the final 30 minutes represent something of a stylistic freak-out on the part of everyone involved, with Poster emphasizing the otherworldly through lens flares, bold nocturnal images, with an exploding zeppelin and a floating ice-cream truck providing him with the opportunity to craft images that feel like nothing you’ve ever seen. And Poster’s work on Ridley Scott’s underappreciated thriller Someone to Watch Over Me is a clinic on how to shoot a neo-noir that never feels overly slavish to other genre entries, always taking cues from the past while imbuing it with a (for the time) slick and sexy visual style that feels oh-so-gloriously late 80’s in retrospect. Shadows, smoke, darkness, moonlight, neon, and all sorts of atmospherics played a big part in Poster’s overall mise-en-scene, and under the firm direction of Scott, Poster was able to craft one of the best looking films of his stellar career.
How can one accurately “review” Richard Kelly’s mind-bendingly crazy and divisive film Southland Tales? Kelly, whose debut was the incredibly enjoyable cult classic Donnie Darko, totally shot for the moon and back with his second directorial effort, which is filled with an insane amount of ambition and spontaneous sense of creativity. A sprawling, Los Angeles-based head-trip, Southland Tales feels like one of the most expensive experimental films ever made, bowing to zero concessions, devised by a mad scientist who often times feels like he’s making up new rules as he goes along. For some, Southland Tales will inevitably be a maddening viewing experience, especially upon first glance, but over the last few years, I’ve grown to absolutely love the movie, and I constantly feel compelled to revisit it. The film’s extra-packed midsection, at first, seemed purposefully meandering, but I’ve realized that it’s just extra dense, and requires some careful dissection. While some may feel that Kelly possibly bit off more than he could chew overall, it’s impossible to dismiss this film the way a majority of critics did, if for no other reason than it takes serious chances as a piece of storytelling, and because it’s a surreal, distinct vision that could only have come from a filmmaker with immense talent and a high level of chutzpah.
The film starts off in 2005, at a backyard, Fourth of July barbeque in Texas. Home video camera footage shows families playing with sparklers and eating hot dogs. Then, the unthinkable—a mushroom cloud can be seen in the horizon. An atomic bomb has been dropped in Abilene. The world is forever changed. We then jump three years into the future to Los Angeles; again, it’s July 4, but the world we knew is gone. Society stands on the brink of social, economic and environmental disaster. A fascist government is in control with big brother lurking everywhere. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is an action-movie star who’s stricken with amnesia. He crosses paths with a calculating porn star named Krysta Now (a sassy Sara Michelle Geller), who, among other things, is developing her own reality television project. The two of them concoct a movie idea that has Boxer set to play a cop. Meanwhile, good-guy police officer Ronald Taverner (an excellent Sean William Scott), agrees to allow Santaros to shadow him so he can get the feel for police life in an effort to turn in a convincing performance. But, it turns out that Taverner may hold the key to a vast conspiracy that nobody is ready to comprehend. There’s a lot more to Southland Tales than that. Radicals are stirring up a political uprising, using Venice beach and Santa Monica as their staging ground, while much of Los Angeles has been reduced to a DMZ. Armed soldiers monitor the beaches and streets with itchy trigger fingers. Then there’s the finale with two Roland Taverners, time-portals that open up into new dimensions, a floating ice cream truck, rocket launchers, and an exploding, futuristic zeppelin. There’s more…much more…but I’m at a loss to know how to summarize all of it. It’s a massive piece of filmmaking, going off on tangents and filling the frame with tons of visual detail (Kelly’s regular collaborator, the versatile Steven Poster, handled the aggressively stylish cinematography). This is a film that takes elements of political satire, post-apocalyptic nightmare, science-fiction fantasy, romantic drama, and movie-musical and throws them all into a blender and swirls them up into a wild smoothie of a movie.
Making all of these seemingly disparate threads add up to a cohesive whole had to have been a herculean task. This is a staggeringly original piece of work, filled with homages to classic films, while still operating as a unique vision all its own. While narratively stuffed at times, and with performances that veer this way one moment and the other way the next, Kelly’s film is never boring and is fascinating on many levels, mostly because Southland Tales is satirizing a world that doesn’t totally exist. Kelly created a frightening political and social landscape, one that in fact may not be too far away for all of us in reality. But by not basing his vision in any sort of fully realistic setting, the audience isn’t in on the joke as much as Kelly; he’s poking fun at a world that is removed from our own, and as such, the satire sometimes feels a bit esoteric. But that’s because Kelly truly KNOWS this world that he’s created. The performances are broad, and in many respects, over the top, but that was likely the directorial intention. The true acting surprise of the film was easily Sean William Scott, still best known at the time for his immortal role as “Stifler” in the American Pie franchise, and here, give the chance to be someone totally different from the lovable and immature clown that he so memorably portrayed. Granted, his character (much like the audience), spends most of the film in a fog of confusion, but the charm and ease that he brings to this zany movie is very effective and emotionally engaging. I always had the sneaking suspicion that there was more to him as an actor, and throughout much of Southland Tales, he makes good on that promise.