Creative Analysis: Part 6 - The Middle Man With DOP John Christian Rosenlund

Director of photography John Christian Rosenlund has at least a three-decade history with director Bent Hamer. Their most recent collaboration, The Middle Man, depicts a town in the northern United States during a post-industrial depression. It’s perhaps not a subject instinctively associated with Rosenlund and Hamer’s Norwegian roots, though when we learn that the production is based on a book by Norwegian author Lars Saabye Christensen, the link becomes clear.

Rosenlund’s own genesis owes much to the unique circumstances of Norway in his youth. “I've been shooting since I was a kid on super 8,” he begins. “Probably because I was dyslexic, I was much better with my drawings than my writing.” Camerawork, though, was not the young Rosenlund’s first love. “I became an actor when I was fourteen until I was seventeen, in professional theater in my hometown… all this together has created a framework for being a cinematographer. Especially drawing.”

Even then, Rosenlund’s career path involved a further dogleg. “I got in as a sound engineer, it was easier to get into the business as they needed sound engineers. When I was sixteen I was working in news and documentary, but I was doing my own stuff as a cinematographer.” The key to camerawork was a boom in the Norwegian oil industry drew American and British companies who, Rosenlund says, “needed films about searching for oil in the north sea, and they had money, so suddenly I was shooting on 16mm and 35mm. We did miniatures and matte paintings. I got jump-started into shooting 35mm. That's why I never became a good focus puller. I never did it – that's why I have great respect for focus pullers!”

Hamer and Rosenlund’s association began on the director’s first post-film school shorts; they have since collaborated on five features, beginning with 2005’s Factotum, starring Matt Dillon and Marisa Tomei. Rosenlund thinks of the setting of The Middle Man as “America in the time of Trump. It's probably Bent’s darkest film, in a way. His films are always funny; this one has that humor but it's darker. It's a depressed place where people don't have any work and people are dying but it's funny. With that kind of movie, it takes time to get money. I think after the last two years I've seen a big change because these kinds of movies are now becoming TV shows. They're made by Netflix and HBO, in good quality, but are made for TV.”

Making The Middle Man a reality would, the filmmakers knew, require shooting on location, and Rosenlund was involved from the outset. “The town that we're creating, Karmack, doesn’t exist. But it's kind of a city that could have been in the north of America. We knew it was going to happen in the States but we didn't know how to do it. We looked in Ireland, in Romania, the backlot there, to see if we could create something. We ended up in Canada and Germany and that was mainly down to the tax rebates in those countries.”

As such, the filmmakers were required to unify two very different countries to represent a single town, requiring a herculean effort particularly from production designer Diana Magnust, who Rosenlund says “did an amazing job out of a very small budget. She glued Canada and Germany together in an impressive way. To me it was so much to do with colors and textures more than other things. We found a direction, and of course after thirty years I know what Bent hates and what he likes.” Production began in late summer in Canada then moved to Germany.

It is, Rosenlund admits, “not the ideal way of shooting it… Germany was bombed to ruins after the war so there are very few old buildings left. It’s hard just to find buildings that had a look that isn't 70s or 80s. It's hard to find anybuilding, and then you had to find the right building. But on the other hand, I always get a very good crew in Germany.” In Canada, things were more straightforward, and the filmmakers eventually chose the city of Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, just across the border from the American city of the same name. “The big difference,” Rosenlund recalls, “is that in Canada there's a public system that cleans the road… what we had to do to make it look American was find a lot of garbage.”

On a tight budget, “you can't repaint the city. You have to find what's in the soul of this city that we can embrace and put in the movie, so we don't hide it, we love it. Diana blended those German and Canadian locations perfectly.” Rosenlund shot the film on the Alexa LF with Canon K35 lenses, chosen, he says, “because of the wonderful way they read the skintones and how they soften the image in a pleasing way,” but also because of Hamer’s liking for a wide field of view. “With the LF, you can shoot wider without the distortion of a super-wide lens… and with the depth of field, you can separate the foreground and background even though you're shooting on a wide lens. And it is absolutely needed to shoot 4K from now on, so also it's a technically practical decision.”

Alongside the K35s, which date from a Canon collaboration with Cinema Products in the 1970s, Rosenlund carried a set of Sigma’s cinema primes which he describes as “a neutral, very straightforward lens, I find them quite stunning because when you see the price tag it's nothing but the quality is very good. The K35s don't have resolution enough to do certain things. In some places you want resolution, you don't want distortion and flares. That's why I have two packages.”

The Alexa LF was not, however, the only full-frame camera used. Rosenlund shot the film’s entire opening sequence on the then-prototypical Panasonic Lumix DC-S1H. “It's the first time I've had a camera that size, that small,” Rosenlund reflects. “I did a lot of tests. We color graded this camera up against the Alexa and when you expose it well it's very hard even for the colorist to see the difference. A lot of the opening of this movie was shot at 8,000 and 10,000 ISO and if you try to do that on Alexa it's just noise.” The more noticeable rolling shutter of the S1H is a limitation, but one Rosenlund could work around: “of course there are certain things you don't do on that camera; you don't do a lot of panning and frenetic camerawork but in the right place it opens up some possibilities.”

One of those possibilities was working with a small crew, or even solo, something Canadian locals might have found unusual. “In the Nordic countries, we're trained in a way of working when we have a very flexible crew, a small crew as a starting point and we add on where it's needed. In Canada, probably because they've done so many American movies, they tend to start with a higher number of people, and they’re trying to scale down. It's tough to say I just need a camera and me and a focus puller. Then it adds on and it becomes a big crew doing just a static shot at night.” Frequently, Rosenlund went out alone. “I even gave the camera to my Norwegian line producer Catho Back Christensen. He’s a former DP and did some great shots all alone.”

Elaborate grip and camera movement tools are often the first things to go when money is tight, but Rosenlund tells us that Hamer “isn’t a handheld guy at all. His shots should be precise. For this kind of movie it's important to have tools you can use for everything. On the last three films I've always had a gimbal with me and I've used it for longer traveling shots where people are walking in the streets, when we're doing even a simple train shot, or we're putting the gimbal on a car. All the shots where we're following a car on the road used a gimbal. It can never be as good as a great Steadicam operator, or a heavy duty stabilized remote head. But the low cost gives me the freedom to have it with me at all time. We had an Alexa Mini for the gimbal. We didn't have money to have two LFs so our backup camera was a standard Alexa Mini.”

Aiming for realism, Rosenlund outlines his lighting package as “a blend of classic 18K HMIs and LED lights. I love to work from the windows doing most of the work, then adding softer sources for the faces.” Although the entire production would be shot on location, those locations were often manipulated by production designer Magnus and her crew. “The kitchen of the house where the main character lives was the living room in the house and we made it into the kitchen. everything was made into the world of the movie and the color scheme of the movie.”

Some filmmakers might shy away from the inconvenience of real world interiors, but Rosenlund considers it a positive. “You can see out of the windows. You can see the ceiling. It makes it real. You can't take the ceiling away to put the softlight up there. It creates limitations, and in the end that makes the film look more realistic. Certainly the film didn't suffer for it.”

The Middle Man is, at the time of writing, very close to completion. “Everything is ready except final sound mixing because they still can't fly over the sound people from Canada to Copenhagen,” Rosenlund said – though at the time of writing, it seemed possible that this would soon change to allow the sound mix to be completed in July or August. The film was graded by Sebastian Göhs, “a really nice guy and one of the colorists who started in the analogue film industry working with negative for many years. He was also a flame artist and a colorist so he really knows the business. We managed to do the cinema version before everything was completely locked down and I did a remote grading of the TV version.”

Remote working, which has become much more common in the late spring and summer of 2020, requires that “you trust that you have a highly calibrated screen with the same values. The safest thing is to hook up with a local color grading company so you know that you are watching things through their calibrated display. This time I was working on my own screen. It worked but it's never optimal.” Nevertheless it’s a process Rosenlund enjoys. “I like to color grade myself. I'm not a colorist but after more than thirty years as a cinematographer, you know something about colors.”

This multi-disciplinary approach is something that clearly stems from Rosenlund’s own history both behind and in front of the camera.“Cinematography is so much about knowing a combination of so many crafts and putting them together into one,” he says. “The more I know about life in general and about other people's work the easier it is for me to prepare myself – and not to repeat myself. That's the most dangerous thing, when you get older, to think oh, no, I know how to do this. That's really bad. To move forward has to do with learning new stuff.”

The Middle Man was certainly an opportunity for, as Rosenlund puts it, new stuff. “When I do a show with Bent I do it because of the love of filmmaking. As founder of Drylab and Softlights, former leader of IMAGO’s technical committee, I consider myself a tech nerd. But for me, the most important for the DP is to create the best possible working space for the actors and serve the story. But it’s great when the show ends up to be something I am very proud of. The Middle Man is one of those films.”

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