Cinematographer Todd McMullen talks about the challenges of filming the Sundance survival thriller Walking Out
Park City in January often tips toward the punishing side for those hailing from sun-drenched Southern California. With temps regularly in the low 30s and snow measured by the foot, patrons of the Sundance Film Festival often battle the elements traversing from screening to screening. Cinematographer Todd McMullen, on the other hand, isn’t a stranger to these conditions. Despite residing in Austin, Texas, his stint last year filming the new thriller Walking Out, which premiered last week at Sundance, found him filming in the most isolated regions of Montana.
“We started the shoot in Livingston, Montana,” McMullen said, “but we ended up shooting in the mountains outside of Bozeman, right in the dead of winter. I know the elements, and I was fortunate enough to shoot the first season of The Leftovers in upstate New York in the dead of winter. That place was also extremely rugged. So, I have some experience working in these conditions.”
A previous Sundance-goer, McMullen finally gets to experience attending the festival with a film in competition. The biggest difference?
“I think I’m getting better food at the parties,” McMullen laughed. “It’s been wonderful.”
A Connection to the Material… and the Elements
Directed by twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith, Walking Out takes a short story by David Quammen and elevates the father-son battle of the elements into a treatise on parent-child relationships and adulthood. The film stars Matt Bomer and Josh Wiggins as father and son, and early reviews praised the engaging acting, tight script, and – thanks to Todd McMullen – stunning cinematography.
“It a nutshell, it’s this really epic story with very intimate performances. I’d known Alex [Smith]… and he’d approached with ‘Walking Out,’ sent me the script, and I’d read it,” McMullen said. “There were a lot of things in it that I’d experienced too, especially with hunting with my father, that resonated with me.”
The story kept all members of the crew tightly connected to the project despite working in harsh terrain. McMullen’s challenges extended beyond his personal comfort. He ensured the cameras themselves received proper treatment against the frigid conditions. Avoiding drastic temperature changes and relying on special oils kept the lenses from locking up and the camera equipment in good working order for the limited shooting time available.
Varying the composition
More than just a travelogue, Todd McMullen’s Walking Out cinematography helps keep the audience engaged. Carefully choreographed fluidity, as great cinematography often does, helped define the relationships between the characters. McMullen wanted to capture the beauty of the rugged environment but, at the same time, wanted to keep his cinematography moving and flowing. He needed to keep the film visually interesting with complicated flows and continuity of shots.
“I love when you can go from the widest, most beautifully epic panoramic shot and then hard cut into this crazy close-up on your characters,” McMullen commented. “I think that’s visually intense and keeps you alive in the story. We would do a lot of those where it made sense. You’re out in this big wide-open space and then jump to this character’s head, and that worked well.”
The Smith Brothers’ screenplay also offered varied shooting conditions including night shots and flashback sequences. Even considering the isolated filming locations, the night shoots offered McMullen an additional exciting challenge. He relied on as much natural lighting as possible, including appropriate campfire scenes and candlelight. Some interior cabin sequences also provided great opportunities with limited amounts of electricity.
The flashback sequences, however, give reviewers and festival goers additional dazzling imagery. To tell the backstory of Bomer’s Cal and his father (Bill Pullman), McMullen kept his anamorphic frames and overlaid circle lenses to provide unique depths of feel and lush flavors. In post-production work, the Smith Brothers accentuated the images with a deep saturation of color to great truly breathtaking footage.
“We really wanted to avoid using the usual sepia tones and scratches on the images to give it that old-time look,” McMullen said. “Filming it the way we did gives another depth to the story that I’m really very proud of.”
And now for something completely different…
Before venturing into the Montana wilds for Walking Out, McMullen grew his career in television. His work shines on such high profile projects as The Leftovers, Friday Night Lights, and The Newsroom. His upcoming work, reminiscent of Conrad Hall’s lensing in American Beauty, also turns heads. So to speak… Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet, a dark satire starring Drew Barrymore, provided a much needed change of pace with its suburban zombie storyline.
“Well, I’d never thought about doing a half-hour dark comedy,” McMullen laughed. “I got the scripts and liked them immediately. It was great writing, and I thought we could do some fun stuff with it. I said ‘Yes’ because I wanted to do something that was a little lighter, a little less intense. It was good timing for me.”
Filming for Netflix mandated 4K delivery, so McMullen needed to change cameras to the Sony F55 with Panavision glass. The result provided a brighter, more vibrant image than his typical output. Camera and tonal differences aside, the experience of working on Netflix’s comedy series didn’t provide dramatic differences from his time on Walking Out.
“I didn’t find much difference between time, money and resources between Santa Clarita Diet and Walking Out,” McMullen explained. “Even though it was a feature length on Walking Out, we had shorter days because of daylight. We only had nine hours most of the time. It depends on the feature, but, this time, we really didn’t get as much time to film.”
In their own ways, both projects provided unique and exciting challenges for McMullen’s camera work. Here’s hoping next year’s awards season bears fruit for his accomplished work.