Creative Analysis: Part 23 - Christian Rousseau On No Loss, No Gain

Filmmaking is not usually a weekend pursuit, but a sufficiently clever script can make a wide-ranging story happen in a very contained space.

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Writer-Director Christian Rousseau’s No Loss, No Gain, starring John Valley, Amanda Joy Erickson and Kevin McCarthy, is just such a production, taking place largely inside a bank during a robbery that quickly turns out to be something else entirely. Director of photography John Sedlack was faced with the requirement not only to keep the bank’s interior interesting for the duration of the production, but also to deal with the requirements of a real, working bank location with limited availability and special security requirements.

Initially, Rousseau had intended to collaborate with director of photography Kate Steinhebel on the production’s main unit. Scheduling issues eventually forced her to swap roles with Sedlack, who had intended to shoot second unit. That second unit, in contrast to conventional second unit work, would shoot most of the scenes not set inside the bank itself and push for a deliberately different look. Both cinematographers had worked with Rousseau before.

Sedlack attended Temple University in Philadelphia where he “focussed on cinematography more than directing or producing. When I moved to Austin to get my grounding I ended up meeting Christian through a mutual job. I’d been working through various companies doing camera operating, AC work, DPing. Christian said, ‘I have this job; my friend Kate is unable to do it. Would you like to step up?”

“What got me into film,” Steinhebel begins, “was that my parents wouldn't let me go to art school, so I went to film school! I started out in Austin and that’s where I met Christian. I know his timeline [for No Loss, No Gain] just got put further and further back due to funding, which happens on every project and unfortunately it happened to line up [with another job]”.

Happily both Sedlack and Steinhebel were able to collaborate with Rousseau on planning the production. “It helped that we were both together in the process of what the look's going to be. Christian had a good list of films he wanted to pull from… a lot of those gritty, 70s action films, classic dramas like Twelve Angry Men.”

Sedlack, meanwhile remembers discussing “Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. We were both in the process early on, with Kate as the first unit DP and me as second. The film has these two distinct worlds. The second unit world is more open, and the bank more closed. I was shooting in the bank location and the exterior of the bank, whereas Kate focused on the world of the bankers and politicians. She covered many more locations than I did.”

Production began around the end of January 2018, on location at – almost unbelievably – a real bank, the Pioneer Bank in San Marcos, Texas. “They were a functioning bank Monday through Friday,” Sedlack confirms, “and they didn't want stands and stuff left. We had a security guard hired there, to make sure we weren't doing anything funny, and we spoke with local law enforcement to let them know, ‘hey, if you get calls about this – someone just saw a guy going into a bank with a gun – you know it’s happening’. In pre-production we had all that ironed out.”

Equipment came from Austin Movie Gear, a company at which both Rousseau and Sedlack had previously worked. “The owner, Keith, is really supportive and let us have first dibs. He and I went through our inventory and we were able to give this movie a look as if it had a bigger budget than it did.” The main unit would work with two cameras – a Red Dragon A-camera, and a Scarlet for the B camera, both shooting on Canon CN-E 24, 35, 50 and 85mm lenses, with a Tokina 11-16mm zoom used on special occasions.

Perhaps the most visible piece of extra equipment was the Movi Pro gimbal, something which found extensive use during the bank scenes where it was used to create shots suggesting a human point of view, travelling from a conventional standing perspective to lying on the floor as the robbery unfolds. Sedlack’s Movi experience dates back to his rental house work with “serial number 74 of the original Movi. We had the seventy-fourth in the world, so I've been working with them since the release of the device. I'm familiar with the eccentricities of that piece of gear. Everyone who's worked with a gimbal knows how they like to behave. We had the Movi Pro which really was miles above the 15… having done four years of Movi work, I had a lot of experience with them.”

“For the majority of it,” Sedlack says, “I used the 50mm lens just because of the location, but I really enjoyed the 24mm. I did a couple of close-ups with that, to show one of the characters who has anxiety. I did do several POVs outside of people looking in. The congresswoman is very worried about her scandal being found out, and there a few people involved in keeping an eye on her. I used the Cooke 100mm and shot it through a crowd of people.”

Filtration was limited to infrequent use of a One-Eighth Black Pro-Mist, plus ND filters combined with a hot mirror to eliminate infra-red pollution on the Red cameras - “the NDs we had didn’t have built-in infra-red handling.” Sedlack and B-camera operator relied on the 5” Red displays alongside SmallHD 702 monitors, maintaining a video village with a dual-screen display to allow director Rousseau to view both cameras at once. Scenes relying on the Movi gimbal, given the extra visibility of the surrounding area created by such a mobile camera, were generally shot single-camera.

It was, Sedlack says, “a very small crew – myself, B-camera operator, gaffer and grip. It was a real all-hands-on-deck type shoot. Everyone helped out and everyone was instrumental. That’s why we also did a lot of rehearsals and planning. I'd send the gaffer to pre-light a scene when we were shooting another scene. It meant a lot of communication about what needed to be done and it was someone I worked with before I trusted, he'd get it to ninety per cent there”

With that sort of approach in mind, Rousseau and Sedlack were able to complete principal photography on No Loss, No Gain in six weekends. Kate Steinhebel’s second unit work took place almost a year later, during February 2019, allowing Rousseau to direct personally and take advantage of the opportunity to begin editing and examine his footage since the first unit had wrapped. Austin locations included the Austin History Center on Guadalupe Street and a private residence in the West Rim area.

“It was mainly inside,” Steinhebel says. “We had two exteriors and it was mainly daytime, only one night scene. In February, the short days were a bit of a bummer. We shot at a very beautiful mansion out in west Austin which overlooked the city… you could see downtown Austin. The museum looked exactly like you'd expect something in DC would look. We had to try not to touch anything in the museum while we were putting up lights!”

Steinhebel’s unit was, she says, “even more bare bones. I had a gaffer and a 1st AC. Thankfully I'm used to working in fairly low budgets where it's me and a first AC and it's all about planning. That's one reason I like working with Christian, he loves to be prepared.” The second unit used a single-camera package similar to the main unit’s A-camera but with Cooke’s S4 Mini lenses to lend the two story threads a distinct and separate appearance.

Second unit material covered, Steinhebel says, “a bank CEO, a senator, and a hacker. We can never know what it's like to be a politician or a CEO. There's a dreamlike state that they don't ever have to worry about anything because they're set. I thought Cookes would set things apart from what we perceive as the real world at the bank… I'd just bought a set of Cooke S4 Minis, and I pitched those to give it a very different look.”

Given the inevitable space constraints of real-world locations, Steinhebel made good use of shorter focal lengths, particularly “the Cooke 25mm, I did use that one a lot. There was one scene in particular with a shuffleboard inside a room. Trying to get back far enough to see the whole board was difficult. I was so glad I had an 18mm because the 25mm would not do. It was very think-on-your-feet. We chose that location on the fly... we thought it was better there because it set the story better for the psyche of the actors.”

“That goes again with Christian being involved with the character and the actors,” Steinhebel continues. “Christian would say ‘where do you feel you'd have this conversation, here or better here?’ He's very collaborative.” Steinhebel also credits Rousseau with an efficient approach to coverage: “Christian likes to get things done. Our first project together was a oner; he likes to get things shot with as little coverage as possible… when I say ‘we can do this in two setups’ he'll say ‘awesome.’”

Sedlack’s work at the Pioneer Bank had, he says, been based on “grandiose ideas where to set up, and then we got in there and realised it wouldn’t fit. It was more like, alright, we know we need this scene, how we're going to adjust. I think one of my favourite is the scene where the bank heist is actually starting, where they're busting in, guns out, and we're on the Movi, and we're following the commands they give to the talent. I'm getting down on the floor, I'm getting face to face with the actors who are now down on the floor.”

For contrast, the film ends more sedately. Sedlack describes “a scene at the end of the film where everything’s being resolved, it's night, you have the moon coming in, and we have this quiet, serene moment. After the chaos and the anxiety of the film it's nice to have this breathing moment. There's nothing crazy with the camera moves, there's this stillness. I used HMI for moonlight coming in, and gelled the 2K tungsten practicals in the bank itself for contrast.”

With production wrapping barely before pandemic-related restrictions were introduced, grading was necessarily by remote control. Steinhebel describes “watching the movie and giving notes - this scene at this timecode, it's a little too green, dial this area back a bit. I felt bad – I gave a lot of notes!” Perhaps most notably, the unusual scheduling ultimately turned out to be helpful, with the option to examine the footage in detail and establish requirements for second unit work – to “work around story and to see we need a connector here or there.”

“Immediately afterward I was working on a sitcom,” Steinhebel says, “but I do a lot of indie stuff, reality and sitcoms. I just wrapped Season Three of Tough as Nails and I’m about to start Big Brother.”

Since wrapping No Loss, No Gain, Sedlack has worked on commercials and short films, but says “my current project is fatherhood – I’m a new dad taking a bit of a break. It’s the best gig I’ve ever had!” He credits the Austin scene for its helpfulness as “a really tight knit community, everyone wants to see everyone else succeed. There's not a lot of gaming and negativity.”

No Loss, No Gain is available on Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and the video-on-demand services from AT&T, ComCast and Spectrum.

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