By and large, comedies are not made to look cinematic. More often than not, the frame is flooded with light, the camera is locked down, and the actors are left to keep things interesting. That’s why cinematographer Brandon Trost has been such a breath of fresh air. Through films like This Is the End, Neighbors, The Night Before, and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Trost has gone to great lengths to create a dynamic frame with compelling camera movements. It never detracts from the comedy at hand, but it also makes the film feel downright cinematic and not at all disposable like some features in the genre.
Of course Trost doesn’t only work in the comedy genre, and he first popped on many folks’ radar with striking work on Halloween II and Crank: High Voltage, and recently he’s stretched with Marielle Heller‘s The Diary of a Teenage Girl and shooting the Foo Fighters videos for “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” and “Run.” Through it all, Trost has established himself as one of the most exciting cinematographers working today, which made the prospect of him shooting The Disaster Artist wildly intriguing.
Directed by James Franco, The Disaster Artist recounts the true story behind the making of The Room, one of the worst movies ever made. This posed an interesting challenge for Franco and Trost: they had to recreate scenes from this terrible movie, while also crafting an interesting look for their movie. The result is something unpredictable and grounded, with camerawork that underlines the impulsiveness of Tommy Wiseau.
With The Disaster Artist now in theaters, I recently got a chance to talk with Trost about his work on the film. He discussed the collaboration process with Franco, how they came to the decision to shoot the movie handheld, the challenge of recreating scenes from The Room, and what it was like to be directed by Franco when he was in full Tommy Wiseau-mode. Trost also talked about his work on Bill Hader’s upcoming HBO series Barry, which he teases as “insane and hilarious,” and what it’s like to work with Dave Grohl. It was a delightful chat to take part in, and folks interested in the wonderfully weird process of making The Disaster Artist will hopefully find it enlightening.
Check out the full interview below.
I know you’ve worked with James as an actor before. What was kind of the process that led you to be working on this one as his cinematographer?
BRANDON TROST: Well, I’ve been in the mix with Point Grey for years now, that’s Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s production company, so I guess we can blame them for introducing me to James. They hired me for This is the End and I’ve shot most of their movies since at this point, Neighbors, The Interview, The Night Before, Neighbors 2 and the pilot for their show Future Man. Anyway, we’re all friends and I think at some point during The Night Before they were like, “Hey we’re gonna do this movie about the The Room,” and I was like, “That’s fantastic, I want to do that.” The whole team was called together to build this movie around James and his strange idea for a movie so I was involved from the ground up. It was kind of a serendipitous thing for me.
That’s funny. So when it actually came time to kind of start prepping the movie, what were those early conversations with James like about how you wanted to approach this visually?
TROST: Well, good question, I feel like it was a real blank slate when we first started talking about it. I can’t remember if I brought up shooting it handheld, or if James did, but it became clear early on that we wanted to have like this kind of cinematic, realistic, almost documentary style to it. We had a lot of locations and not a lot of shooting days, and we started thinking, well maybe this whole style would not only fit the film thematically, but it would fit our production needs also. We just didn’t have a lot of time, the movie had a lot of actors, and there was just so much to do, especially once we started shooting The Room. So we found a way to reverse engineer a style that was not only fitting for the movie emotionally, but also still allowed us to accomplish our schedule since we knew this style would make us lighter on our feet.
At this point our touchstone film became Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, basically. We loved the style of that movie, how gritty and real it was, even though it doesn’t have your usual go-to look for a comedy, but we wanted to approach this movie differently. We were looking at the real drama between Sestero and Wiseau coming together to follow their dreams to make their movie. We wanted a real dramatic undertone for the story. Granted it’s very funny, but we never wanted to make fun of The Room or Wiseau, so we didn’t approach it with any kind of a wink, or a joke kind of style. The film itself is so strange and bizarre, I think all you can do is laugh, but it has a real heart to it. You feel for their journey together.
We also wanted a really practical and realistic lighting scheme, so that made things easier. We would walk into a set and say, “Oh, that looks great. Let’s tweak these two bulbs,” and, “Okay, we’re ready to go.” It was really freeing actually. I could move anywhere with the actors.
I’m also a really big fan of your work in Popstar, which is documentary-like, and it has some of that handheld stuff, but it also looks really polished and fantastic. Whereas this, you can still feel it’s kind of your work, but it’s much more grounded and realistic, and I was curious if working on Popstar, working on that kind of documentary realm, did you take anything from that experience that you applied to this one?
TROST: You know, I’m sure that it did ultimately, but I was really approaching it differently. On Popstar, we were emulating fluffy pop music documentaries from the likes of Justin Bieber, One Direction and Katy Perry. Those are all really colorful, flashy and slick looking, and then when you have a big performance it’s a huge production with multi-cameras and this giant arena stuff. I would almost put it more with the likes of The Office or Parks and Rec. but with big production value. We didn’t use zooms in The Disaster Artist. I think we wanted it to feel a little more—realistic, you know? More like an indie dramatic doc that puts you into it as a character, within the scene as it’s happening. We wanted you to feel like you were a part each moment from a realistic standpoint right next to the action. Where I feel like Popstar was meant to seem like there was a doc crew following the story so it was seen more from a voyeuristic distance, like from a fly on the wall. I don’t know if that makes sense.
No, that makes sense.
TROST: So I guess in my mind, that sort of makes the difference there, because I never really thought of The Disaster Artist like a documentary, even though we were borrowing that style.
Well it leads to this unpredictable quality of it, which I think really underlines Tommy. Because it’s handheld, which gives the aesthetic unpredictability, but you also never know what Tommy’s going to do. He’s crazy. So it kind of adds this unease throughout as well.
TROST: I think you just nailed it. That was my reasoning. Lean in to The Disaster Artist as he is, the title of the movie. Wiseau really is a bizarre, unpredictable force and I think it’s the unpredictability of this character that drives this sort of holy shit nervousness that’s happening, and its really fun to watch. I operated a lot on this movie and it was super fun to just be in the middle of the action while the scenes were playing out. Especially when we were shooting the scenes in the studio when we were making The Room. At times, it actually felt like we were shooting behind the scenes for the real thing, and I tried to capture that attitude. I would put the camera right in the middle of the action and we would shoot each scene as a one-take master. They ultimately broke it up a little in the edit afterwards, which was the plan, but it really feels like you’re just a person there watching what’s happening, and we really leaned into that kind of style.
The whole process was just a unique experience. Especially working with James. He had the makeup on his face, and he was Tommy when we were rolling cameras, he was mostly James when we weren’t, but the accent was always there, so he was in character. I would talk to him about setting up the shot and it was like having Wiseau answer me back.
That’s what I was going to ask, what’s it like taking direction when your director speaks like Tommy Wiseau?
TROST: Strange to say the least. There was something incredibly meta to be working with an actor that was directing a movie about an actor that also directed a movie. I almost wondered if this was James’s story as much as it was Wisaeu’s. His performance was stellar and believable though that it actually got to the point where it was bizarre to see James out of makeup. I think there were two days on the schedule where he didn’t have to be in makeup, and he could just be the director, but that actually became stranger than when he spoke like Tommy. I don’t know why. I mean, we got used to it, but it was surreal. There were definitely times when we would stop a beat and just take in what was happening, just how strange everything was, but we loved it all every step of the way.
So what’s it like, especially as a cinematographer, when you’re recreating scenes from a movie that looks terrible? What was that experience like when you’re setting up these shots?
TROST: It was actually the hardest part of the shoot. We built these sets to be as specific as possible. You know, people love The Room. I think the love of that movie comes through in those recreations. Was it hard? Yeah. We would look at these frames, and line up every single shot with the same shadows, the same lighting, and nothing really seems to make a lot of sense. But I have to be honest, I loved the challenge, we wanted everything to be perfectly exact.