Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Frederick Elmes on Filming HUNTERS and What They Learned at AFI
Growing up on the Texas/Mexico border in the ‘80s, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s (AFI Class of 1995) first introduction to the work of legendary cinematographer Frederick Elmes (AFI Class of 1972) was a worn-out VHS tape of BLUE VELVET. Describing Elmes’ filmmaking as “hypnotic,” Gomez-Rejon continued his initiation with other films shot by Elmes – ERASERHEAD, RIVER’S EDGE and WILD AT HEART. Gomez-Rejon went on to work with other master filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and Alejandro González Iñárritu, before establishing himself as a talented director in his own right, with the critically acclaimed ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, which won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
And now, years later, Elmes and Gomez-Rejon have teamed up on a pilot for the new Nazi-hunting TV series HUNTERS. Starring Al Pacino in his first foray into television, the series centers on a young man named Jonah (Logan Lerman) who is thrust into a new world of moral relativism and intrigue as part of a group of vigilante Nazi hunters dispensing justice against high-ranking Nazi officials who have infiltrated the U.S.
AFI spoke to Gomez-Rejon and Elmes about their collaboration on the pilot, working with Pacino and what advice they have for alumni and Fellows of the AFI Conservatory.
Alfonso, can you share how you became involved in HUNTERS and your creative relationship with creator David Weil? And Fred, what about the script resonated with you and made you want to join the project?
Alfonso: I read the script and was moved by a letter David included in which he told me stories about his grandmother, and how personal this story was to him. And then we met over breakfast with co-showrunner Nikki Toscano, and I realized how personal a project it was for me too. It’s a story that belongs to anyone that feels marginalized, or like the “Other.” I’m ultimately drawn to unlikely heroes and untold stories, in all sorts of genres and need to have a personal connection to every project I do, and with HUNTERS, I feel deeply connected to Logan Lerman’s character, Jonah, an underdog, and his journey.
Fred: I liked the idea of taking on a subject that had such weight but also figuring out how to treat it for a television show – with humor that seemed appropriate, but also with the gravity that it needed. When I met with Alfonso, one of the things we spoke about was the idea of trying to do scenes in long, continuous takes. That completely intrigued me – to find ways to block scenes, move the camera, find the location and work it all out in long, seamless takes.
HUNTERS is a hybrid of drama, historical tragedy, pulp fiction and dark comedy. Can you talk about your collaboration with each other, as well as with the other departments, in creating such a complicated visual style?
Alfonso: We strived for hyperreal naturalism. The pilot had to set the stage for the rest of the series and also allow for comic book flourishes. Fred and I worked with production designer Curt Beech and costume designer John Dunn in creating a “color theory” for the show during prep, so that every color meant something. For instance, yellow signified innocence, green was secrecy and red was the Fourth Reich, and they all helped define Jonah and Meyer’s world.
Fred: Color is really one of the things that drew me to the story, and Alfonso’s ideas about how to use it. The whole notion of doing a graphic novel was intriguing to me, and I thought color would be a good doorway into it – choosing bold colors, but also choosing a palette of colors that contrasted with each other and seemed to bring on some emotional value as well.
Alfonso: We tried to create a world that would allow for moments out of a graphic novel but also still have very real emotions. We looked at a lot of still photography, including the work of Saul Leiter, Bruce Davidson, Jamal Shabazz and Alex Webb. We were also inspired by creating panels within the frame like a graphic novel, introducing a lot of color and using Dutch camera angles to signify taking a step into a different genre. And at the same time, we wanted to treat the emotions and characters as real, so we could flashback and flashforward but still be grounded.
The ensemble cast of HUNTERS is anchored by Al Pacino, who plays Meyer Offerman. What was your collaboration like with him, especially since this was his first television series?
Alfonso: The conversations with Al started months before when David and Nikki would go to his house and discuss the character and approach to the world. There were lots of rehearsals. Because Pacino’s a director, when he was working on the character, if Fred and I had to change the blocking, he understood and never challenged us. He was so trusting.
Fred: As someone who’s been a fan of his for a long time and never had the opportunity to work with him, it was so much fun to watch him work. It was great to see his performance unfold in front of us. He’s obviously a real pro and could really do what we needed him to do – like changing his blocking around to help us with the continuous long shot idea.
Alfonso: We got to see him explore a scene over and over again in rehearsals before he was ready to film – until he kind of forgets it as it becomes second nature to him and then he is ready to shoot. Pacino is always present and he’s just such a great human being.
The BBQ opening scene – with the contrast between the seemingly idyllic suburban life and the horror that unfolds – is very shocking. Can you both talk about the approach to staging and shooting that scene?
Alfonso: We spent many days going over shots and how we envisioned every scene, and it was very deliberately and methodically planned. The first idea for the scene was the long, continuous take, but then we also changed lenses so that, perceptively, the world started getting tighter and more tense as the reality of who this character is really revealed itself. We had very limited time for that scene – we had a rehearsal a day or two before shooting it, so I could walk the cast through the geography and choreography in case any disagreements or better ideas came up. By the time we actually shot it, we knew exactly where to put the crane and how the stunts would factor in.
Fred: It was fun to see that scene come together because those were ideas that Alfonso and I’d talked about for a long time during prep. Alfonso loves that part of the process of getting a story right in pre-production, so that you have a plan for how it’s going to unfold and the work is easier when you arrive on set. For the opening scene, it was a matter of finding the right location so the blocking we had in mind would work. In a way, you take the notion of a continuous shot and you deconstruct it, and then on location you put it all back together.
Fred, congratulations on receiving this year’s ASC Lifetime Achievement Award. What initially drew you to the art form of cinematography?
Fred: From an early age I was very interested in still photography and went to school and studied photojournalism. I was fortunate enough to have a nice camera and a dark room growing up, and it became ingrained in me that’s what I wanted to do. Making images was very important to me. I was lucky to go to some good film schools after that and to meet with some talented directors early on in my career who helped get me started.
Alfonso, your credits cross genre and medium – from the indie hit ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL to AMERICAN HORROR STORY to national commercials played during the Super Bowl. For those who don’t know your path to becoming a director, could you talk about how you went from assisting directors to becoming one yourself?
Alfonso: When I was young, I fell in love with the work of Martin Scorsese and made it my mission to work with him. I applied to NYU because he went there, and I started working for him as an intern and then as a P.A. on CASINO. The biggest leap was going from assistant to directing second unit. And, for that, I have to thank Nora Ephron. On the second film that we worked together on, LUCKY NUMBERS, she made Paramount get me into the union because she wouldn’t let anyone direct second unit but me.
Little by little I gained ground, and I think it was my reel directing second unit on BABEL that got me my first agent. When I directed second unit on EAT PRAY LOVE, which was shot by Bob Richardson (AFI Class of 1979), Ryan Murphy liked my dailies and asked me to direct an episode of GLEE – which wasn’t quite a hit yet. I turned it down because I was a film guy, but my agent talked me into it. That was my first credit directing, which led to AMERICAN HORROR STORY and the Blumhouse movie THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. But it was my second film, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, that changed my life because I really went in the direction of more personal filmmaking.
For each of you, what made you originally want to apply to and attend the AFI Conservatory?
Alfonso: My dad was a bit more traditional. If there was a PhD in filmmaking, he would have wanted me to get a “Doctorate in Production.” I agreed to get my master’s and applied to Columbia and AFI. AFI felt more specialized and had great faculty like Robert Boyle and Jim Hosney – who ended up being one of my greatest mentors. I also grew up in the ‘80s in a Texas border town, and the only access to films I had was through VHS. But there was also American Film Magazine that I subscribed to that took me to this other world that I didn’t have access to. So AFI was always in the back of my head from the time I was a kid to when I was applying to film schools.
Fred: For me, AFI was really an extension of my education in terms of zeroing in on studying camera. I went to NYU graduate film school, and while I was there a film teacher said to me, “you should check out the AFI.” AFI was just starting out then, and they actually invited me out to see the place and have an interview. I was accepted and welcomed the opportunity to go try something new and introduce myself to Los Angeles.
Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for current AFI Fellows?
Fred: Hang in there! (laughs) AFI is a great calling card, particularly in the Los Angeles area, and it does open doors. But that’s only part of it. You really have to be dedicated. You have to be committed to going this route because at first it’s not easy, and there will be some degree of rejection and difficulties, no matter how talented you are. What I’ve realized in retrospect is that your path may not be what you imagined it to be. It’ll take turns and twists and you have no ability control that, but in the end it’s your talent that sees you through.
Alfonso: I feel the same way. My path hasn’t been as fast as I dreamed it would be when I was a kid, but it’s my path. I’m still incredibly close to my classmates from AFI. We still work together. They’re my best friends, and those connections have lasted. I didn’t really get a sense of community of my fellow colleagues and filmmakers until I went to AFI. Staying close with them, has really helped me through the ups and downs over my career. But it’s about sticking with it and hanging in there.