Directed by Ric Roman Waugh, Snitch focuses on John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), an owner of a construction company whose 18-year-old-son, Jason, is framed for dealing drugs by another kid who is trying to save his own skin. John, now devastated that his son will receive the mandatory minimum 10-year sentence in federal prison, looks for answers and is willing to do anything to reduce Jason’s sentence – including going undercover himself.As the story unfolds, U.S Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) works out a deal with John to cut down jail time if he produces evidence against someone else in the drug trade. As John infiltrates a violent gang led by Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams), he unexpectedly exposes a major player in the Mexican cartel (Benjamin Bratt) turning the already dangerous venture into something deadly, putting himself and his family at risk.
Inspired by true events, the screenplay written by Waugh and Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road, The Clearing) illustrates how far a loving parent would go for the safety of their child. Tapped to lens the film was cinematographer Dana Gonzales who sat down with us to talk about the project and how he’s evolved from camera assistant to fulltime DP.
You were born in the backyard of Hollywood in Los Angeles. When did you want to become part of filmmaking?
Growing up in Los Angeles, the film industry was always in the background. You kind of know it’s there, but it seemed when I was younger, it wasn’t as accessible. I got into the business in 1985, and it was pretty closed doors back then. Just an old school way of doing things. I always liked images and was into movies and story, but I didn’t know how to connect it all together. It wasn’t until I got a break in the film industry where it instantly clicked, and I realized all the things I enjoyed doing were right in front of me.Do you remember your first gig?Yeah. It was a low budget film. It started with about forty people and it was only supposed to be a month long. It ended up going about three months which was great. And only 10 people left on it which allowed me to help out in the camera dept. It took place in the summer between school. I started driving the truck that carried all the gear. I didn’t really know what was possible at the time, but I was there and happy about it. About a month into the film, I started loading film and have been in the camera end of filmmaking ever since.
You were an assistant for a long time. How often were you tip-toeing into the realm of full time cinematographer?
I worked as a camera assistant for thirteen years or so. I worked with some great DP’s and I actually thought I was going to shoot movies right away, but I met Paul Cameron (Collateral, Total Recall). He’s one of my best friends now. He introduced me into the commercial side of things and I stayed as an assistant to him for several years. I also started building my reel at that time, which wasn’t easy back then. You couldn’t just pick up a 5D and go off and shoot. I worked off 16mm film cutting when I could. I must have spent $100,000 making my first reel. I was shooting everything that I could get my hands on and eventually made the jump from assistant to operator/DP.
Sure you enjoyed that moment.
Definitely. Everyone around me knew I wanted to be a DP. I always enjoyed telling the story not just with the camera, but with lighting. I like the responsibility of controlling the image and how you can make people feel something.
You’ve managed to work as a DP in several formats: TV, film, docs and in different genres (drama, comedy). Have you started leaning towards a specific type of storytelling?
I am completely drawn into narrative feature work. I used to like commercials, especially with the storytelling they were doing in the late 90’s early 2000’s, but that has kind of disappeared. TV has some incredible work right now. The stuff we’re doing on Southland I’m really proud of, but TV is very fractured. You have to do an episode every seven or eight days and the story is never really done. With feature film work, it’s a singular focus. From the moment you prep till you finish, everybody is honing in on that one goal until it’s over. I’m just drawn into story. That’s something early on I thought about Snitch. It’s a movie about a father’s love – it was the thing I probably thought about most.
You worked with Waugh on Felon. How has your relationship grown over the years with the director?
We’ve actually been working together on a few projects since Felon, but Snitch was the one that fell into place. Ric enjoys seeing the collaboration between Christopher Nolan and DP Wally Pfister. They have been together for such a long time and continue to make great movies. He likes that idea of a close director/DP relationship, and I don’t blame him ‘cause the shorthand we have on set is invaluable. Movies are already hard with various studios giving input, less shooting days and tighter budgets. If you know who’s going into battle with you, it’s a plus.
How did you and Ric prepare for Snitch?
Ric is a meticulous planner, and his number one thing is authenticity. When we did Felon¸ he sent me this DVD with all this reference material of the prison system and various ideas he was thinking about. For Snitch, he did the same thing. He sent a couple different reels. One for tone. Even some Felon reference material. For me, I went down to a truck stop near Magic Mountain, even before we were in preproduction and shot a bunch of still photos to immerse myself into that world. I sent them to Ric and he would send me DEA stuff and imagery of drug cartels and their environments.
Production landed in Shreveport, Louisiana. Was that you first time there?
I’ve shot in New Orleans a bunch, but it was my first time in Shreveport. We were looking at other places like Detroit, but the tax incentives in place right now in Louisiana were one of the deciding factors. The city also allowed us to shut down the highway for five days to shoot our big-rig chase scene which was a big undertaking.
Before we go down that road, you looked to the RED Epic for the film. Any particular reasoning behind the choice?
We shot Felon on film, but what happened between that film and Snitch was the confirmation of the digital revolution. It was the combination of the 800 ASA and 5K resolution that made us decide on HD, We wanted to dig into the darkness of the city around us. We both came to love the way The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo looked (also shot on the RED Epic) and wanted to move into the digital realm. We were also attracted to the Epic as it had a little more bite to me than the Alexa. I don’t think Ric ever talked about using the Alexa actually.So does that mean you looked to Light Iron for a digital intermediate like Dragon Tattoo as well?
Yes, actually. We went to every post house in town to see our options. We knew we wanted to control the output and do our own processing on editorial deliverables. We wanted to control the color on set and have the offline look as close as possible to what the movie was going to look like. At the time, Light Iron was the only one doing a complete file based system which we liked a lot. We wanted to keep as much of the metadata as possible.
Light Iron also had something that no one else had that seemed pretty simple. They had a reel. Michael Cioni, who runs Light Iron, is at the forefront of digital cinema and was able to show us digital footage on a huge screen. They had material from an Epic, Sony F35, Alexa and everything in between, and we also were able to use colorist Ian Vertovec who did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo so everything just fit.
What about glass?
We looked to Zeiss Master Primes shooting on RED Camera RAW that we rented from the impressive people at Keslow Camera. We loved how they looked with the sensor on the Epic. We also shot 2.35:1 for its bigger scope. I’ve been toying around with 1.85:1 as I think it’s interesting for narrative storytelling – a little more personal format with the taller top and bottom. But our action sequences with the long trailer, 2.35 was the way to go. Plus, I don’t know any cinematographer or camera operator who doesn’t like composing a shot in 2.35.
We used the 27mm or the 40mm and two cameras for most of the film. We didn’t do a lot of long lens work. I’m not a big fan of the 100mm or 150mm. They have their place, and I try to stay off them even with the B camera. I’d rather get in there with the 40mm. I love the 40mm close up. I think that’s the most beautiful close up in Hollywood. With the 85mm or the 100mm, it’s a flat lens with a background that can go mushy fast. With a 40mm, you get to see production design and background. Plus, I feel like I’m closer to the actor than an 85mm or 100mm.
Looks like the film was handheld?
The majority of the film is handheld. I’d hate to say this, ‘cause more people in Hollywood would want him, but Geoffrey Haley, our operator, is the best in town. We met doing The Fighter. He’s a great filmmaker. He directs, writes. He’s really engaged in the story, and is really into his craft. We would shoot all day and then he would go workout at the gym. His steadicam and handheld work really showed it. It didn’t matter if it was take one or take ten, Geoff was constantly in the zone. I’m happy he is going to be doing our next film too.
I actually ended up operating a lot with Geoff. It didn’t mean to start that way, but it just evolved, and it seemed to work out. In editing, Ric mentioned he couldn’t tell the difference between our shots which meant we were telling the same story with the same style. Our focus pullers Greg Irwin and Joe Martinez did an incredible job keeping everything sharp as I shot at T2.8 most of the film and the camera constantly moving.
Dwayne Johnson is a tall guy. Like 6’5”. How did you look to keep him grounded in scenes?
(Laughing) We used every trick in the book to minimize the height of Dwayne. Ric didn’t want him looking heroic, and if that meant trying different blocking or staging a scene so he would come off the way we wanted, we did it. We had to constantly keep an eye out for our lens height. You go a little lower with a wide lens and Dwayne becomes Hercules.
Most of the film was shot practically. Was Shreveport’s natural light any different than Los Angeles?
Yeah. For me, there was something about the skies that were a little different. A little softer. We shot from November to February. It was full winter most of the time. I liked it a lot. You don’t get a bad part of the day. The sun is always low, you have clear skies, but it’s around 10 degrees. That’s probably the only downfall.
Speaking of lights, can you talk about some of the color pallets in the film?
There are three worlds. One being John Matthews’ home life. We made sure those scenes were always warm and had a safe feeling. We wanted the lighting to be perfect as well as the color correction. The drug world is different. If you go into urban neighborhoods, you see a lot of sodium and mercury lighting. Pretty much everything but tungsten lights. And if there are warmer lights, it’s usually a warm fluorescent. It’s never a perfect color tone. We looked to create those scenes with more grit, nothing flattering and only industrial tones.
The third environment was Susan Sarandon/Barry Pepper world. The scenes with her inside the DA building needed to have a harder edge to them. A little more stark, modern look. It had to be different than the other two because it was a separate world from them.
You look to any specific lamps for Snitch?
I always work with what’s in my toolbox for lighting. If I choose a certain set of lights for a look, I don’t deviate from them. I tend to stay away from gels and use industrial fixtures that have the color palette we are working with built in. I like trying new things. I tend to use lights with green hues in them for the urban worlds. They are tricky on faces and I’m always trying to balance the color and skin tone, but it works.
I looked to Westcott lamps which are made more for the still photography world. Mole Richardson soft lights, muslin, industrial bulbs. The collaboration I had with our gaffer Bob Bates was great. We built this LED rig for our traveling truck scenes which I’ve never done before. It was a great way to have controllable interactive light and it worked out well. We rigged it so we could operate the lights from a computer to motivate light while Dwayne was driving inside the truck cab.
Malik’s house had a great tone to it. How easy was finding some of your locations to work in?
Yeah, we tried to keep him kind of dark and mysterious. We knew we wanted an urban neighborhood, but we didn’t want it to be a crack house. It couldn’t be too high end and not too distressed. We went back to the original reference material and found a location with some middle ground. Even when Malik goes to John’s house, there’s some starkness that happens with the tone and lighting. We looked to make the viewer feel something that’s different from his normal life.
Was most of the crew local?
Pretty much everyone besides our key grip Manny Duran and production designer Vincent Reynaud, who both did Felon with us, were local. Everyone had a tremendous amount of experience. Our production sound guy, Steve Aaron, Ric raves about. He’s also doing our next film. We lucked out with the people we managed to get.
You mentioned the truck chase scene was shot in five days. That’s pretty miraculous.
It was an undertaking. At first, it seemed somewhat practical. Ric told me he wanted to shoot the entire chase moving. Which seemed fine, but that was before knowing the amount of days we only had to shoot it. Ric wanted Dwayne in the truck while the stunts were happening. He wanted it like a play. It had to happen live.
The film had no big CGI shots in it. Very low key stuff like adding bullets and what not. With Ric being a former stunt man, he knows everyone in town and brought in special effects coordinator Joe Pancake who I worked with on several Tony Scott projects. He and his crew were awesome making all the effects work perfect the first time.
Shreveport shut down the highway for us and we shot the scene in sections. It was great having 5 – 6 miles of road to work on. I remember operating on the back of the camera motorcycle for those five days and at one point Ric was strapped to the front of the big rig truck going sixty miles an hour.
Yeah. There’s a section of the chase scene were a car skids off and crashes into water barriers. Ric wanted to shoot the explosion and then immediately whip to a reaction from Dwayne’s character. So he strapped in and did the camera work. It was a lot of fun.
Did you guys get any second takes with your stunts?
Not at all. Any car or truck you see exploding or getting wrecked were one-offs. We didn’t have the luxury of a bigger budget. That’s why we were very happy to have Joe Pancake on board. When we eventually did flip the big rig Dwayne’s driving, I pretty much wanted to cry. Not only cause it worked, but because all the planning we did leading up to that scene paid off. After it flipped, we still had a half day of work ahead of us.
There must have been a lot of coordination there?
We did some timing stuff, but no real camera rehearsal. We just did it. And it was all safe. I never felt unsafe at any point. Ric and stunt coordinator Tim Trella had complete control of the action.
Now Chris Cavanaugh was your DIT. How much does having him on set help in the final grading process?
A lot. I’m very fortunate to work with a director like Ric. He’s very technical and he spends just as much time in the DI truck as I do. The fact that the offline has a certain look we’ve grown accustom to, gives you an advantage with your starting point. What’s happening in movies is they used to budget for 60-80 hours of color correction for a film, now it’s more like 50-60. If the DP can’t be there, they can always revert back to the chaser file from the off-line and use that as a blue print of how the movie is supposed to look. Having someone like Chris there completely streamlines the process to final grading.
The outpost system we rented from Light Iron allowed us to process our look on to the DNx 115 files for editorial and dailies plus gave our film as close to a final look as it could. Obviously, when you blow it up on the big screen there are always changes that need to be made, but important things like tone at least have been established.
Is there anything else you do in your spare time or do you just concentrate on your craft?Well, I’m married to a fantastic woman, Orna, and I have two daughters Isabella and Paloma. I’m a big cyclist actually. I love road cycling. I used to race in high school and I picked it back up again as an adult. Still photography is also a huge hobby of mine.
What can we expect from you next?
I have a film coming up you can look out for, Dito Montiel’s Empire State and I am currently shooting the awesome TV show Southland. Meanwhile, Ric and I are in early preproduction for our next film Currency.
S&P would like to thank Dana for taking the time to talk with us and share his story. Snitch is out in theaters now. You can watch the trailer below.