Interview with Joseph White, cinematographer of “Repo! The Genetic Opera”
by Jason Coffman
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Well, it looks like the Repo Army is well on its way to completing its mission to make Repo! The Genetic Opera a bonafide cult classic— while Lionsgate gave the little industrial-rock opera that could a tiny theatrical release, director Darren Lynn Bousman and co-creator/actor Terrance Zdunich took the film out on a little trip called the “Repo Road Tour.” Every date on the tour sold out, and with that many packed houses things started happening. The theatrical release was widened a tiny bit, a second Road Tour was scheduled, and the film has already made two midnight appearances at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. The film itself has divided film fans, but it’s indisputable that the film looks like a film with a considerably larger budget than Repo! actually had— by all accounts, less than $10 million, which is tiny by big-studio standards. One of the principal reasons the film looks so great is the fantastic work by cinematographer Joseph White.
Jason Coffman: You’ve worked with Darren Lynn Bousman on several projects, from the “Zombie” short (featured on the “Saw 2” DVD) through his commercial work and now on “Repo!” How did you two meet and start working together?
Joseph White: My 1st AC Rich Pereksta went to Full Sail with Darren - Rich and I eventually became friends after working together on several projects, and eventually I met Darren when he was pitching his script for The Desperate which ultimately became Saw 2. We hit it off and have really enjoyed working together ever since. He’s a tremendous director and a dear friend, and I feel like our collaborations really make us both stronger.
JC: Watching “Repo!” I was convinced that it was shot on film, but I learned later that it was actually shot on HD. The movie looks fantastic, there’s no way watching it you would imagine it had such a relatively limited budget. Having worked with both formats in your work, which are you more comfortable working with— film or HD?
JW: Well thanks for the kind words! In terms of the great format debate, I really feel as though what you capture you is nowhere near as important as what you’re capturing. The reason I think Repo! looks like it does is because we lit it like we would have had we shot on 35mm, we just had the added benefit of the Genesis’ amazing look creation abilities on-set, so we always knew where we stood. If Darren wanted to see a more extreme look, say skip-bleach or something approximating reversal, our excellent DIT could pull it up or create it in moments, send it to Darren’s monitors, and the dailies would look identical. I really think the biggest difference is what work you put in front of the lens; if you don’t light the hell out of what you’re shooting, if your lighting doesn’t reflect the characters’ states and journeys, if your lighting doesn’t push the narrative, then it doesn’t matter what you shoot on. I think we’ve all seen really bad-looking films shot on 35mm and gorgeous films shot on even DV, so at the end of the day, it’s the way in which a cinematographer manipulates the tools not the tools themselves that defines him or her as an artist. I guess I feel comfortable with both.
JW: The amazing/scary thing about a film like Repo! The Genetic Opera is since we were doing something that hadn’t exactly been done, or at least not in the style we were approaching it, we had tons of influences but not a lot of references. We talked about more obvious films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Blade Runner, and Moulin Rouge, but we also took some inspiration from films like Jesus Christ Superstar, Perfume, Mirrormask, and Dick Tracy of all things. Darren is a man with eclectic taste, which I think in part accounts for his unique visual style as he never leans too heavily on one thing.
JC: What are some of your favorite films and biggest influences as a cinematographer?
JW: As someone who grew up in New York, it’s impossible to talk about my passion for cinematography without discussing such masters as Gordon Willis, Michael Chapman, and Michael Ballhaus. I also grew up being a huge fan of Woody Allen, since he was always shooting in my neighborhood (the Upper West Side of NYC), and later found myself exploring other filmmakers who collaborated with some of the cinematographers he worked with, like Carlo di Palma and Sven Nykvist (who lead to me falling in love with Antonioni and Bergman). Today, the work of Harris Savides, Ellen Kuras, Christopher Doyle, Seamus McGarvey, and Robert Elswit, along with many others, continue to inspire me and push me to tell stories with light and composition as best as I possibly can.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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