feature film: downtown owl
New York based cinematographer Barton Cortright tells us about his experience shooting a feature film in Minnesota
Cinematographer Barton Cortright first came to CineMechanics in the Winter of 2022, fresh off of a flight from New York, to take first looks at lenses for an upcoming feature film. The film was called Downtown Owl, a screen adaptation of a Chuck Klosterman novel by the same name, set to be co-directed by actors Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe, and starring Rabe alongside some other familiar names such as Ed Harris and Vanessa Hudgens.
In the past two years, Cortright has had three different films shown at some of the most prestigious festivals in the world, including Venice, Cannes, Sundance, TIFF, and the site of Downtown Owl’s premiere, Tribeca. This summer, we reached back out to Cortright to catch up, talk about his reflections on the film, his creative process, and his experience shooting in Minnesota.
Hamish Linklater, Lily Rabe
Hamish Linklater, based on the novel by Chuck Klosterman
Rebecca Green, Bettina Barrow
"We knew we wanted to work with CineMechanics [...] Steve and Brian were just super knowledgeable— I kind of spitballed with them about which lenses to use, and they had a lot of great insights."
- barton Cortright
Crafting the look
The first time we met Bart was when he came to the shop to get a first-hand look at our lens collection. “We knew we wanted to work with CineMechanics, you know, you guys had the Atlas, the Cookes, the Technovisions,” he told us, “and Steve and Brian were just super knowledgeable— I kind of spitballed with them about which lenses to use, and they had a lot of great insights.”
In the end it was our vintage rehoused P+S Technik Kowa lenses that caught his eye. He continued, “I was really excited by the Kowas and how they have this kind of weirder, more spherical type of flare, which I really liked, and how they had a little fall off on the edges, and I liked that they were pretty fast; they just have a lot of interesting character.” Beyond their aesthetic qualities, Bart remarked that the Kowas lent themselves well to this project’s practical concerns as well. “I liked that they were lightweight because we had a lot of car work and handheld work, and I just knew that would just make us move so much faster, which is especially helpful with first time directors.”
He recalled that at the Tribeca Q&A session after the premiere, someone in the audience asked about what drove the choice to shoot on anamorphic lenses, and as he reflected he summed it up succinctly, “the movie is a very quirky movie with very quirky characters and a lot of just unconventional stuff, and it's kind of this slightly heightened world [...] it's very unconventional in ways, and I just thought that there were all these people with so much character, so I wanted the image to have a little bit of that character as well.”
Before principal photography began, Cortright, the directors, and production staff came back into CineMechanics for one last test so that they could see hair and makeup as captured by the exact cameras and lenses they were going to be using.
We got to talking about his experience working with co-directors Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe, and how he likes to prepare when going into a new project.
“[As a D.P.] I don't really want to have a style, I want to know what the director wants to do, and I want to find that style with them, and just embody that the whole time while we're on the movie.” He continued, “In an ideal relationship, you and the director both have ideas and both can bring things to the table that can make each other's ideas better, and that did feel like what Hamish and Lily and I had together.”
He told us half-jokingly that no matter how much you prepare, “you kind of don't really know what the movie's gonna look like until two or three days in. It's very hard to know how things are gonna feel until you're really there doing it, in my opinion.” He elaborated a bit, recounting that in his experience thus far as a D.P., he’s found that it’s only after those first few days that “you're like, ‘okay, well these things we've planned, that's working really well, but that's not working, so we're gonna probably gonna do more of this and less of that,’ but you kind of never really know until you find the flow.”
filming in the minnesota winter
The script for Downtown Owl came with its own set of unique challenges, particularly with respect to the weather, as a large portion of the story takes place during a blizzard. Thankfully, Minnesota film crews are no strangers to working in the snow, and the upper midwest is home to some of the industry’s foremost weather FX experts such as Dieter Sturm, who is based out of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. As Bart put it, “we needed this really large blizzard, so we called in [Dieter], who did the snow for Fargo—actually, he has a technical Academy award for inventing this truck, where they basically take a big ice cube and they turn it into snow. And then he also has foam snow, all these different kinds of snow.”
Sometimes the weather has a plan of its own, though, and is too much for even the experts to power through without calling a few audibles. “The weather in Minneapolis decided to go against us on our big day with Ed Harris crawling through the snow, where [Dieter’s] snow truck actually froze because it was so cold,” Bart chuckled, “so we had to improv a little bit and, you know… go with the flow.”
While telling this story, another memory came to mind. “A few days before we were supposed to start shooting it snowed, and the director got really excited and said, ‘let's go get the camera right now! Let's go shoot!’ because you know, the whole movie is about this snowstorm, and we were terrified we weren't gonna get any snow during the whole movie. So I messaged CineMechanics and right away everybody was, like, racing to put together the camera package list so we could get these snow shots before it melted.”
"A few days before we were supposed to start shooting it snowed [...] I messaged CineMechanics and right away everybody was, like, racing to put together the camera package list so we could get these snow shots before it melted."
- Barton Cortright
local crew highlights
Cortright spoke quite highly of Downtown Owl’s camera department— “I really did enjoy the crew in Minneapolis. Brian Suerth (“Sue”) was my First A.C. and he's just such a nice guy, and just took so much weight off of my shoulders. I'm normally a little micromanage-y with the first A.C., but I totally just trusted him and he put together a great crew.” He went on, “our 2nd A.C. Kyle Krause, and the DIT Gabe Broderick, they were really great too and both had really positive attitudes.” Cortright laughed a bit when he remembered that “whenever I was feeling down, I would go sit with Gabe and he would cheer me up, he'd be like, 'oh, this looks great, that looks great!'”. He went on praising the hard work of everyone on the Downtown Owl crew, and that he’s glad to know that next time he’s shooting in Minneapolis he’ll have a solid roster of people to work with.
In our conversation, Cortright also remarked that it was really helpful that “CineMechanics was really flexible with us coming and going, and switching out different stuff throughout the show like the Skater Scope, and we had an extra Alexa Mini package for drone stuff.” On shorter projects, filmmakers might not need to interface with their rental house other than during pre-production, but on long-form projects like feature films or TV series, where schedules can change unpredictably or where you may suddenly need technical support or a gear swap, having a dependable rental house on your team throughout the whole production can be a vital asset!
tribeca 2023 debut
Co-directors Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Downtown Owl