Every so often filmmakers throw themselves a formal problem. Tell a suspense story where the main characters can’t see, or can’t make a sound, or are buried in a coffin with time running out. Stage a murder investigation using 10-minute film reels, make a war movie using a single tracking shot, choreograph the whole drama as a “oner,” tell the story backwards, have the jury reach a verdict in real time, film it in a lifeboat.
The Guilty has a couple of such conceits going on. It is set in the confines of two rooms featuring one main actor whose actions are driven entirely by the dialogue and audio we hear played out as it happens.
Director Antoine Fuqua’s remake of Gustav Möller’s Den Skyldige (Denmark’s foreign language Academy Awards submission in 2018) is an exercise in filmmaking discipline and all the better for it. This is a story stripped down to essentials, concentrating on Jake Gyllenhaal’s lead performance and letting the drama intensify because, like James Stewart in Rear Window, he (as the audience) tries frantically to prevent murder from a distance.
“Antoine advised me take a look at the Danish film and to tell him what I think,” says cinematographer Maz Makhani. “I’d never seen anything like it before. Formally there are other movies like Phone Booth (Joel Schumacher, 2002) and Locke (Steven Knight, 2013 — set in a car driven by Tom Hardy) but it’s a rare skill if you can keep an audience’s attention on one space for 90 minutes.”
Makhani has worked with Fuqua multiple times before, lensing the director’s Emmy-winning documentary What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali and Quibi series #FreeRayshawn, as well as operating second unit on The Equalizer 2, and is currently filming the director’s untitled LA Lakers docuseries for Hulu.
“So much of the script for The Guilty [by True Detective scribe Nic Pizzolatto] was dialogue, the suspense is driven entirely by what Jake’s character is hearing and saying. It’s pretty unique and I wanted the challenge of making it our own and still keeping the DNA of the original film.”
In the film, Gyllenhaal’s LAPD detective is on duty at an emergency call center and scrambles desperately to save an abducted woman while also reconciling his own guilty conscience.
Before the sets were built, Makhani had something in mind for how the film should look but couldn’t quite put his finger on it. The movies that stood out for him were Tony Scott films of the 1990s like Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State as well as Michael Mann’s Heat. It was another of Scott’s surveillance thrillers, Deja Vu from 2006, that had most impact.
“I was particularly drawn to scenes set in the investigation control room with banks of computer monitors and displays. I knew this would play a big part of our design for The Guilty.”
All these films, though, were shot 35mm, a media the DP and director discussed and discarded.
“The camera in these films is always moving, often shot with a long lens with dolly tracking. That’s not the film we were making. Plus, Antoine wanted to be able to shoot long takes of 20 minutes at a time and to roll three cameras. Having to change film mags every ten minutes wouldn’t work and we’d need to bring in film lighting for our dark sets which would have detracted from the realism we needed to make the story work.”
On top of that, Fuqua had to spend most of principal photography self-isolating in a van parked across the street from Manhattan Beach Studios on account of coming into contact with someone who was COVID-positive.
“The video tap on a film camera is nowhere near the resolution of seeing an actual 1080 4K image straight from a digital camera,” says Makhani.
To lend the story a filmic look, Makhani knew he wanted to work with anamorphic and with ARRI Alexa as his digital preference. Since the resolution of the Alexa Mini doesn’t meet Netflix criteria, he went with the Alexa LF paired with large format Hawk 65 Anamorphic lenses from Vantage.
“The lens had a real clarity and sharpness but without flaring easily which is what I wanted.”
Having the audience believe in Jake as a 911 operator in a call center environment was essential.
“I wanted the space to feel almost ambient so that the monitors, the ceiling lights light the space he is in. In close ups the monitor lights his eyes. I didn’t want to do film lighting. I come from 20 years of shooting music videos which is very theatrical and high contrast and it felt important here that less is more.”
In an editorial switch from the colder tones of the Danish original, Fuqua uses the backdrop of wild fires raging through LA to create an immediate feeling of heat and impending loss of control.
“The film opens at dusk and moves into night, so I was able to juxtapose different looks. The first part is little lighter when the sun is about to drop, it gets darker as night falls and work with the ambient blue tones of the monitor. Then when Jake moves into a smaller office and he shuts the blinds we get darker still while gradually increasing the levels of red light.”
The red call light illuminates when a 911 call is answered. When he hangs up, the red light goes off.
In keeping with the disciplined storytelling, Makhani keeps camera moves to a minimum. “I was racking my brain to come up with a way to move the camera to match the main plot twist. We did shoot a few versions of that but we ended up staying on Jake and not doing any overheads or pushing it elaborately. There wasn’t a lot of room for three cameras either so that also restricted us to some slight lateral moves. I tended to live on a macro lens to be really close in on Jake.”
Complex Audio Arrangements
Produced by Gyllenhaal’s Nine Stories Productions alongside Bold Films, the film shot for 11 days last November in the middle of the pandemic. That threw a huge curveball to the production management and sound recording teams. While none of the principal characters with whom Gyllenhaal’s detective interacts were going to be on screen, conventionally the actors would be giving their performance on or adjacent to the set.
That wasn’t possible here. Instead, actors Riley Keough, Christina Vidal, Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano and Peter Sarsgaard voiced their parts from their own homes with rehearsals conducted over Zoom two weeks prior to shooting. Since they were in various time zones in the States, Canada and, in one case, London, the logistics of scheduling each actor’s performance was a challenge.
The actors were issued with identical portable sound recording kits to record their vocal performance locally, with production sound mixer Ed Novick responsible for ensuring Gyllenhaal heard the right cues at the right time.
“I need to make sure Jake can always hear what he needs whether that’s the live actor or a pre-record or a surrogate standing in,” Novick says. “That includes cues that were essential for him to hear, like answering machines. I monitored the phone calls, the boom, the actor lavaliers, and my laptop, busily switching solo between them. I was very much the switchboard operator with all the audio coming in and out of me.”
To make the workflow more complex, Jake’s character was switching back and forth between two communications devices: a cell phone and a Bluetooth headset.
“I knew I’d have to coordinate with props and set decoration to make sure the devices worn by the officer would be practical and functioning. With that in place, patching the actor’s phone or computer into my mixing panel would be straightforward.”
Novick adds, “Jake’s performance is never filtered through a phone because we always see him. His sounds belongs not through a phone system but to the room he is in. On the other hand most of the other people in the movie who he talks to are not seen. Their audio of their performances is filtered and manipulated through a phone.
“Admittedly, day one of shooting was buggy. The issues we encountered were too many Zoom users, not enough bandwidth, as well as a lag that proved to be inconsistent, causing a varying offset between real time and ‘phone call’ time. I pivoted quickly to a cellular-based system, where everyone phoned into a conference call and remained muted until their turn. I had two cell phones in the conference, one for output (I captured the aggregate phone call on an isolated track) and one for input so I could provide sound effects and vocal cues to the actors in the conference.”
Multiple audio sends had to be used as well. For example, the lighting dimmer board operator, who needed to coordinate the illuminated call signal at Gyllenhaal’s desk with the calls occurring in the story, wore a Lectrosonics M4R receiver with pre-fade boom mic in his left ear, post-fade phone call track in his right ear, and channel one of the walkie-talkie in both, all routed through Novick’s Sonosax mixer.
“It’s not a workflow I want to ever repeat. I think we told our story well and in a way that no one need know what went on under the hood.”