Creative Analysis: Part 18 - Cinematographer Johnny Derango On Fatman

Possibly one of the last features to wrap before the global pandemic effectively shut down production was Fatman, a dark action comedy directed by Eshom and Ian Nelms and starring Mel Gibson as the kind of Santa Claus who would probably exist in 2020 if one existed at all.

Opposite Gibson, Walton Goggins plays the Skinny Man, a professional killer hired by a frustrated child, Billy, to assassinate Santa Claus. Photographed by Johnny Derango, production on Fatman took place in Ottawa in early 2020, wrapping on March 14 and ducking a border closure by four days.

While a lot of people face some caution from family over the notorious unreliability of a career in showbusiness, Derango found exactly the opposite – perhaps because of his even more hazardous first choice. “Around the time of going to college,” he recalls, “when it came time to decide what I wanted to do, I was watching a lot of action movies. I thought I wanted to be a homicide detective, so I told my parents I wanted to go into law enforcement. I think they were a bit concerned for my safety! Movies were a bit of a Hail Mary.”

Bolex Storytelling

Attending Columbia College in Chicago, Derango initially pursued directing, studying under renowned documentary filmmaker Ronn Pitts whose background was to prompt a change of direction. “After my first hands-on class with a Bolex taught by Ronn, I knew I wanted to be a cinematographer. In that class I realised you can tell a story with a camera almost the same way as a director does, with the visuals. It was something I’d never really thought about, but I connected with it.”

Spending his last semester on placement in Los Angeles, at CBS’s Studio Center in Studio City, Derango “just packed up and I moved everything out here, because I knew if I didn’t just jump in I would go back. I moved everything and said ‘I’m here for good!’” Derango moved up through work as various as reality dating, underwater photography and eventually - “just by chance” - shot a feature on 35mm.

By 2010, Derango had encountered Eshom Nelms on several smaller projects and, learning of the brothers’ plans to direct, “said next time you’re doing one, you have to call me! So, jump forward to 2009 and I shot a short film called Hard to Swallow. Later, in 2010, they brought me a script for a feature they were trying to get together. So, I showed that script to everyone I knew and helped raise the budget.” That film, Lost on Purpose, would be followed by Nelms-Derango collaborations Waffle Street in 2015, as well as 2017’s Small Town Crime, which Derango credits as “the one that really set us up for everything. It got the guys in a ton of rooms and led directly to Fatman being made.”

Visualizing The Location

While prep notionally began as early as December 2018, as Derango puts it “for some reason it pushed an entire year, and we ended up not doing a real prep until December 2019. The guys had already settled on the fact that it was going to happen in Ottawa. We went up there in August or September 2019 and did a lot of scouting. A year prior we'd looked at Manitoba, and it wasn’t quite right. They want him to be in a rural area with some mountains around it, a secluded area. You're looking for these things, trying to envision it in your mind with no leaves on the trees and snow covering all the surfaces. You really have to focus on a scout like that.”

Unmistakably, the film’s key location is the title character’s homestead. With the story demanding several key buildings, the filmmakers cast a broad net. “We probably looked at fifty or sixty different homesteads. This one was almost in a residential area – we were thinking that there's no way it was going to work, there's houses around. But the road hooked back just far enough this property sat all by itself. We saw it and thought it was absolutely amazing. It had a barn, a stable, a garage and a house that fit the look.” Only the barn, required to explode in a late scene, would be dressed sufficiently to avoid damaging the real-world structure.

Fatman was, Derango recalls, a welcome opportunity to take a little more time over analysing the script than he previously had. “Early in your career, you're given the material and not a lot of time and you have to make the best of it,” he says. “On this one I had more time to prep. When I read the script, I thought that on one side you had the Skinny Man [Walton Goggins] and on the other you have the fat man [Gibson]. In that story Billy [Chance Hurstfield] can become either character as he grows up. I wanted to show the good and evil through lighting and lensing, and I wanted to tie Billy to both characters so we could show he could go either way.”

Depth Of Field Choices

With all this in mind, Derango needed the flexibility to control depth of field over a wide variety of focal lengths and chose Alexa LF. “The previous two movies we shot on Sony - we'd shot Small Town Crime on the F55. While that camera is fantastic, I spent a lot more time crafting a LUT. That film really had a different look.” Having chosen a large-format camera, Derango tested, as he puts it, “a ton of lenses, the Signature Primes, the Supreme Primes, even some Cooke S4s because I'm a huge fan. I shot Small Town Crime on the S4s. In testing I tried the DNA primes and they reminded me of the S4s. I know they're made from glass from all kinds of manufacturers and they were the ones I liked most. They were most like the S4s. The DNAs are not as warm as the S4s but they had a quality that I really responded to. I wanted something that felt lived in.”

Furthering that lived-in feel, and with an eye on the huge resolution of the Alexa LF, Derango used Classic Soft and Black Pro-Mist filters. “I shot with filtration at all times. I'm a big fan of some sort of diffusion. There was no particular character for whom I used the Classic Softs versus the Pro-Mists, it was just whatever my gut said. I'd take a look at it and we'd go with those.”

“The directors trust me”, Derango continues. “They're very insistent and dialed-in on composition and shots but as far as lighting goes, they let me play and I appreciate that.” This freed the crew up to pursue Derango’s per-character lighting intent, which generally put the characters Billi and Chris in what Derango describes as “very soft, classical lighting. They were lit the same, but they were lensed differently. When I shot Billy I backed the camera off and use longer lenses, just as I did when I shot Walton - I backed off. If I look at my camera reports, when I was shooting Chris and his wife I was using a 28mm or a 35mm. I wanted to physically place the camera closer to them, and the elves, so we'd feel closer to them. I could put the 35mm on the Alexa LF and still have it feel homely and intimate. For Skinny Man and Billy I was using the 110mm. You didn't feel quite as connected to Billy.”

Character Lighting

Goggins’ character, the Skinny Man, was lit differently, using hard side- or three-quarter lights, something that initially gave Derango sufficient pause to test his resolve. “When I was shooting it I didn't always like what I was shooting with Walton. I had to take twenty years of experience and trust I was making the right decision. Now it's come together I love it, but when I was looking at the monitor I was thinking it looks like a different movie!”

At the same time, Derango describes Goggins as an enthusiastic collaborator. “There's some fun stuff I did with shadows,” Derango recalls. “He's led by a shadow. In the scene where he's about to shoot the couple you see the shadow first. And in daylight, where the kid is playing with the airplane in the car, you have this hard shadow. Just to show you how awesome these actors were, from Mel to Walton to Marianne, I came out to tell Walton, because he wasn't aware of the shadow, that I needed him to hit that spot and he got very excited – hell, yeah! It’s great when the actors are all on the same page.”

None of Fatman was shot on sound stages, a choice that often exposed the crew to the full freezing fury of a Canadian winter. The one significant set build was the elves’ toy factory, which was, as Derango recalls, built inside an abandoned factory - “a former Nestlé factory. It was a giant solid block of concrete! When you have the minus-thirty-degree weather, everything had to have propane heaters brought in. It was colder inside than outside.”

Keeping Kit Warm

Digital Imaging Technician Andrew Richardson experienced just one cold-related equipment failure before the decision was made to heat his blackout tent. Many of the crew were from Ottawa and Toronto, and therefore used to the meteorological conditions, but Derango “didn’t like to tell everyone I was in a heated tent about half the time. I’d come out between every take and they said I was blessed I didn't have to shoot Manitoba: if you think Ottawa is bad, Manitoba is worse. I have to give a lot of credit to the local crew. There were very, very infrequently problems caused by the weather. One day was so cold that the Steadicam sled started to bind up! They had to get a warm pad and wrap it around the gimbal of the Steadicam!”

Fatman shot for thirty-three days, with two cameras at all times. “We stack our closeup and our medium-closeup. The inside camera will do the CU and the outside camera will do an over-the-shoulder. That second camera becomes a lifesaver. If there's something that's an A-camera Steadicam shot we will always find a place for the B-camera. I had an Alexa Mini LF as the B-camera.”

“I want what every DP wants,” Derango states directly: “I want my rushes to match. I like to work with a DIT and have live grade on set. And I'm not doing major grading, I'm setting my exposure and getting everything where I want it. I'll have the DIT take down the black levels, raise the whites, put a little warmth in.” Fatman was shot with a single monitoring LUT created by colorist J. Cody Baker at Company 3. Derango describes himself as “not someone who has six LUTs for six different setups. I have one show LUT.”

Creating Interest

Baker had previously graded Small Town Crime at Company 3, to which Derango and the Nelms brothers returned for Fatman. “The most important thing for me,” Derango says, “was that it has that lived-in feel. The directors and I are not low-contrast shooters. We like to have an image that's a little more robust and a little more interesting. There's a lot of that low-con stuff out there but that's not something we've connected with.” The process was, happily, one of the shortest grades Derango had ever been part of. “That's one thing I pride myself on, I like to get in and out of there as quick as possible. For me a lot of it comes from me coming in and doing that live grade on set.”

With Fatman on release in time for the end of 2020, Derango looks back on the experience fondly. “They wrote that script fourteen years ago. I'd read it throughout the time we'd been friends. I joked with them that it'd been a long time and I was only working with them until I got to shoot Fatman. It was very different; it didn't feel like a movie that would definitely get greenlit. People would say it's a fascinating script and it's going to get made, but we're not sure who's going to make it! But it was just something we were all really passionate about. We weren't making The Santa Clause. We were making No Country for Snow Men!”

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