Writer-director Scott Wiper’s The Big Ugly is the best kind of genre film, a crime movie aware of the traditions in which it’s working but not beholden to them; combining elements of ’40s and ’50s crime fiction (Jim Thompson seems to be a particular touchstone) with the flavor of ’70s Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill filtered through the visual grammar of ’90s Tony Scott, The Big Ugly synthesizes its influences into a unique and compelling western noir. Its emotional power comes largely from Wiper’s richly textured script and the performances by his consistently riveting ensemble, which includes Vinnie Jones, Malcolm McDowell, Ron Perlman, Leven Rambin, Bruce McGill and Nicholas Braun as the players in an oil and money laundering scheme gone bad.
What takes the movie to a whole other level is the consistently innovative cinematography by Jeremy Osbern, who, like Wiper, incorporates a wide array of influences, then dazzles the viewer with inventive ways of reimagining them. Shooting with the new RED Gemini, Osbern creates images that have a classical solidity and resonance but a modern immediacy and impact; the result is one of the best American films I’ve seen so far in 2020. I spoke with Osbern about his work on The Big Ugly a week before its release; the movie’s set to open on Friday, July 24 in drive-ins and whatever indoor theaters are still operating, and on VOD on the 31st.
Filmmaker: One of the things I liked about The Big Ugly is that it contains elements of classic Westerns and noir films, but combines the traditions it’s drawing from in a unique way. What were some of your influences or visual references?
Jeremy Osbern: When I first talked on the phone with writer/director Scott Wiper, he asked if I’d seen The Outlaw Josey Wales, as he saw that as a visual touchstone for this film. I had literally just rewatched it that week, as my wife and I had decided that we wanted to revisit early Clint Eastwood movies. Eastwood’s DP on that film, Bruce Surtees, has been a definite influence on me, so from that first conversation on, Scott and I really felt like we were on the same page. In a lot of movies from the ’60s and ’70s, darkness was embraced in a way it’s not today. Even in something like The Sound of Music, people remember Maria singing on a mountaintop in bright daylight, but a lot of that movie is almost pitch black. A lot of movies from that time were pushing the boundaries of darkness in really interesting ways. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, there are whole scenes in which you can’t see a character’s face. It’s really bold and ambitious filmmaking that serves a dark story, and that was the starting point we created for The Big Ugly. Scott wrote a really great script, and the majority of these characters are flawed and are in some very dark places thematically. We wanted the visuals to echo the story, so we put them in deep shadow. It’s a little bit Surtees, a little bit noir, and some late ’80s/early ’90s Tony Scott thrown in for good measure. Cinematographer Ward Russell (who shot The Last Boy Scout for Tony Scott) showed me a lot of kindness when I was starting out in my career, offering me tips and buying me lunch when he’d swing through my hometown (we both went to the University of Kansas), so part of these visuals are also an homage to him. One of my proudest moments was on the first day of production, DIT Matt Mulcahey brought images out to set on a laptop and said he wanted to double check that this was the look I was going for before he output dailies, “since right now it looks like an early ’90s Tony Scott film.” I gave him a high-five and we instantly became good friends.
Filmmaker: How did you get the job on The Big Ugly, and what were your initial conversations with the director like once you came on board?
Osbern: I got a call from the film’s producer, Karri O’Reilly. She asked if she could send me a script. I read it and was completely blown away by how good it was. When I read scripts, I usually think in terms of paintings more so than visual references from other movies, and on the second page, Scott had written something like “Soft light through tiny airplane windows. The noir silhouette of a beautiful woman rises from a leather chair.” Instantly, I thought of a painting I had seen by the Argentinian artist Fabian Perez. His paintings usually feature starkly lit people dressed well, but there’s always a sadness behind their expressions, like there’s something missing in their life. Those images seemed to resonate with me as I thought of this movie, so I created a look book almost entirely based on his paintings, and I think it was very much in line with the visuals Scott had been picturing. I flew out that weekend and my first day in Kentucky, Scott and I drove around all day, just the two of us, getting to know each other, looking at possible locations and talking through the feel of the movie. Over the next several weeks, we continued to talk through every scene, visiting locations. A lot of the time, we’d just pull chairs out of a trunk and sit by a waterway, or in the woods, and did a lot of our preproduction outdoors one on one surrounded by nature.
Filmmaker: What kind of camera did you shoot on, and how was it chosen?
Osbern: We were actually the first film to shoot using the RED Gemini camera. RED had developed a new Low Light mode for that camera that I knew would be instrumental in being able to pull off some of our big night exteriors. It was difficult tracking down the very first camera bodies in time, but we got them just before production started, and I couldn’t have been happier with the images.
Filmmaker: What were some of the challenges inherent in being the first to shoot with the Gemini, and what were the pleasures?
Osbern: With the Gemini, I almost had to retrain my brain at times to light for 3200 or 4000 ISO. I feel fortunate that I was in the last generation of cinematographers who learned the craft by shooting on film. My first three features I shot on 35mm. At that time, 500T was the fastest stock available, so lighting for a big night exterior, for example, you might throw 20Ks in condors to establish your base backlight, then throw in some parcans to accent from there. In the Low Light mode on the Gemini, it became apparent in pre-production that I could get away with throwing a bunch of small lights in a condor, sending it high in the air and just dialing in lots of pinpoints of light, rather than big washes, which was even more beneficial for the dark visuals we were going for.
Filmmaker: Elaborate on that a little more. I’m curious what your overall philosophy was when it came to the lighting on the picture.
Osbern: Overall, the key word on set was “darker.” Key grip Michael Stoecker was adding negative fill to every scene to block out ambient light, and it became a running joke for the gaffer, Michael Dickman, to ask me, “You want any fill light in this scene?” The answer to that was always no. A lot of the time, we would only use backlight, or just pound one light into the deep background and the actors would exist in the darkness closer to camera. For one daylight fight scene, we positioned the actors so that they would be backlit by the sun throughout the scene, then Stoecker and his team built me a 20’x20′ floppy, rigged off of a condor that we brought in over camera to block all camera side ambient light. The result is an outdoor daylight fight in which the camera side goes completely black, highlighting the tension of the scene.
Another day, we shot inside a $50 million private jet. We rigged a 20′ black solid frame to a condor and moved it throughout the day to block the sunlight, then rigged 18K and 6K par HMIs outside the plane windows to provide stark beams of light. This was all opposite camera, and everything camera side was blacked out to make an extremely contrasty plane interior.
Filmmaker: What kinds of lenses did you use, and how and why did you select them?
Osbern: This story harkens back to some of the character-driven action movies of the ’60s and ’70s that we don’t really see as much today. We wanted a hint of ’70s visuals to come through, and combined with my initial visual references being impressionistic-style paintings, I wanted to shoot this film on older ’70s Russian anamorphic lenses. I used a set of LOMO anamorphics—especially wide open, they really do have a beautiful, painterly quality to the images. Mechanically, they’re not as easy to work with as modern lenses, but 1st AC Rick Crumrine knocked it out of the park with being able to adapt quickly. He and the whole camera team made everything go really smoothly.
Filmmaker: You mentioned Kentucky earlier. Is that where you shot the movie?
Osbern: We shot on location in Kentucky. We used several small towns to double as the West Virginia oil lands in the story. The people of Kentucky were wonderful and welcoming, but our biggest challenge was that that summer randomly saw the most rain in the history of that area. Almost every day it seemed we had rain. One of our outdoor locations even flooded, and we had to wait for it to dry out before filming there. Eventually, we ran out of rainout locations and had to get really creative with the scheduling to make everything work, but thanks to producer Karri O’Reilly and 1st AD S.B. Weathersby, we were able to complete the film on time.
Everything in Kentucky that season was so incredibly green, especially with all the rain. Respecting the land is a theme that runs through the movie, and that part of Kentucky is beautiful and wild, and it really was a perfect match for the visuals of this film.
Filmmaker: Did you do anything significant in post to augment your work? Tell me a little about how you worked with the colorist—as well as the DIT on set.
Osbern: Matt Mulcahey was the DIT on the film, and he was the best I’ve ever worked with. When I’m working with RED cameras, I’m constantly dialing in look settings from scene to scene and even shot to shot to get it as close to the finished image as I can. Matt would then take that footage and finesse it to get it perfect before outputting the dailies. Our editor, Jordan Downey, was on location with us in Kentucky and started cutting as soon as we began shooting, so Matt made it a really streamlined workflow.
After the film was locked, we did the final color grade with Doug Delaney at Technicolor in Hollywood. Scott had worked with Doug previously and knew he wanted him to do this film. He had just come off of doing the color grade on Captain Marvel, so were happy that it worked out for him to work on our film. I spent a week at Technicolor with Doug and Scott, and we got through the whole film before I had to fly out to start shooting another project, so Scott oversaw the final pass with Doug. Doug is extremely talented, and he was a joy to work with, for sure.
Filmmaker: Another thing I really enjoyed in this film was the ensemble of great character actors. As a cinematographer, how do you see your role in terms of facilitating the actors’ best work?
Osbern: I would say Scott Wiper’s directing style is comparable to that of Robert Altman. I have several friends who worked with Altman, and like Altman, Scott enjoys the freedom to work with the actors in the actual space, to improvise, and create something organic while on set. Both of them like a moving camera that can change from shot to shot, and take to take. The actors would come to set, rehearse in the space, and once we knew the areas, I would light the location to fit the actors, and allowing for a little play shot to shot, take to take.
We had an all-star cast on this one. A Clockwork Orange was the film that made me want to become a filmmaker, so working with Malcolm McDowell was a dream come true, and he was a real champion of the bold look we were going for. I even tracked down a Kinoptik 9.8mm lens like Stanley Kubrick had used on A Clockwork Orange so I could film him with the same lens—it was the only spherical lens I used on the movie. He and I became friends; we would have breakfast together in the hotel lobby, and he even invited me to his 75th birthday party. Ron Perlman was the consummate professional, and is truly an actor’s actor. And Vinnie Jones is next level good in this film. He’s known for playing big, tough, impenetrable characters, but there’s a very warm, caring side to Vinnie. Scott and Vinnie have been friends for years, and Scott wrote this script specifically to showcase Vinnie’s wide range of talents. I think people are going to be really surprised by this film. Vinnie is an amazing leading man.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.