Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein's mysterious science-fiction flick Jonathan is heading to a cinema near you on November 16. The film follows the titular Jonathan, played by Ansel Elgort, who goes to bed after work each day, at midday, and then wakes up in the morning to a video of the second half of his day. We talked to Zach about his favorite shots from the film, what it's like working with his crew and an even more in-depth look behind the film.
PH: How'd you first break into the industry?
The first film I became known for was The Eyes of My Mother. Before that, I had been shooting music videos, commercials and short films as well as camera assisting on features. I had many great mentors out of school and was fortunate enough to work for them as soon as I graduated. This made my start in the industry very smooth and I've been working ever since!
PH: Can you talk a bit about Jonathan and how you became involved?
Line Producer, Billy Mulligan, saw The Eyes of My Mother at Sundance and when he got involved in Jonathan, he thought I would be a great match for Bill Oliver. When I read the script and met Bill, we hit it off right away and were on the same page creatively.
PH: Were there lots of collaborative efforts with the crew on-set? Can you talk a bit about that?
I've been extremely fortunate to have a fabulous crew on each of the movies I shoot and we've come to rely on each other. I can put my entire trust in 1st AC Ben Dewey to set up the shot exactly as needed. Or I can look to my key grip, Austin Castelo, to carefully shape the light. Clearly, the dolly work in Jonathan is substantial as well and I owe that brilliance to Evan Childs. He is a master of the Chapman.
PH: What techniques did you lean into for this film?
Going into this film, I knew that duality was going to be an important visual motif, but Bill suggested that the main theme should be loneliness. I thought that was a very interesting way to think about Jonathan and it led to leaning into the use of reflections. They're sort of isolating, but bring the character to terms with himself.
PH: What was one of your favorite shots from the film and why?
Speaking of reflections, in preproduction, there was much discussion about the table in Jonathan's dining room. Production Designer Lisa Myers and I settled on a black glass table. This provided a strong contrast in the room, but lots of opportunities for reflections. With this, we made one of my favorite shots, where Jonathan sits on the couch and the camera is behind him, with the TV and his head reflected in table top in the lower part of the frame.
It was so simple but so evocative of exactly who this guy is. It also presented a fun challenge because the miniDV camera was live and shooting back toward Jonathan's face. So we had to hide the camera, crew and lighting in both directions. We were able to do so by blocking the camera with Ansel's head and stripping the camera down to the bare bones.
PH: What was your go-to equipment? Why?
We spent most of the time on the Chapman dolly, whether for a move or just to precisely position the camera. However, lighting-wise we leaned heavily on a pair of 6-bank Quasar units, pushing through a 6x6 of light grid. This provided our soft key light in most scenes and was easy to control.
PH: Can you think of a shot, either throughout your career or in the last few years, that has been particularly challenging and was very satisfying when you completed it?
On my most recent film, The Climb (in postproduction), the whole film is conceived as a series of oners. Each of those scenes was particularly challenging, but the entire last week of production was focused on a sequence that occupies about 25 minutes of screen time and consists of only four shots, stitched together. From the conception of this sequence to the execution it was very technically demanding and required a ton of choreography on set.
For the daytime portion of the scene, we invented a way to move lights outside of the window during the shot with a pulley system, then with a very long timelapse move, blended into a scene that transitioned from handheld to dolly using electromagnets and rode on a length of track over 200 foot long around the entire house. When we wrapped that week, I was ecstatic that we had pulled off what I had previously thought impossible.
PH: What other projects are you looking forward to working on in the upcoming year?
Aside from the excitement of films I've shot being shown to the world, there are several movies of long-time friends of mine that we've been waiting to see to fruition and when any of them happen, I'll be thrilled to collaborate with these directors on their first features. Currently, I'm about to start work on a horror movie set in the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. And hopefully, after that, I'll be doing an ultra-stylized bio pic of Alan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Secret Service in the mid-nineteenth century.
Watch the official trailer for Jonathan.