In director Nathan Morlando’s second feature, Mean Dreams, Jonas Ford (Josh Wiggins) is a 15-year-old who spends his days helping his father run the struggling family farm, while his mother battles chronic depression. When Casey Caraway, a girl Jonas’ age, moves to the property next door, the two fall for each other fast. Casey (Sophie Nélisse of Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, shot by Ronald Plante csc) has lost her mother and is being raised by her aggressive, alcoholic police officer father Wayne (Bill Paxton). Having witnessed Casey’s abuse at the hands of Wayne, Jonas takes it upon himself to save her, at first seeking the help of a local police chief (Colm Feore), who brushes him off. Then one night, hiding in the back of Wayne’s pickup truck, Jonas witnesses Casey’s father’s involvement in a drug deal in which a pile of money is exchanged. Jonas impulsively seizes an opportunity to grab the cash, with the intention of using it to rescue Casey, but the teens are forced to flee when Wayne discovers Jonas’ theft.
The Great Lakes setting – with its gold-and-rust-hued woods for the kids to hide out in, its roadside motels and wide open skies – provides a picturesque autumnal landscape to juxtapose against the suspenseful, fast-moving narrative of Mean Dreams.
“As soon as I read [the script], I knew right away I wanted a camera that was always chasing, following or moving and that it was dreamy and had the feeling of youth on the run. That was Nathan’s feeling too,” cinematographer Steve Cosens csc says. “We were really synced up that way; we had the same interpretation of the script – it had a certain amount of darkness and was very minimal. We knew it was going to be sparse and stark and moody, and Nathan wanted it to be fable-like. Wherever we could, we tried to push the film into a slightly stylized naturalism.”
|The teenage runaways count stolen money in a burnt-out bus.|
Cosens introduced Morlando to the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, and Morlando has been quoted as saying he sought to evoke in Mean Dreams the painter’s same dark romanticism and modern gothic realism to express the “darkness that exists in Casey’s and Jonas’ world.” By contrasting the wide, expansive landscapes in the beginning of the film – symbolizing the hope that lies ahead when Jonas and Casey meet – with the more enclosed spaces the teens encounter when they go on the run, Cosens and Morlando mirror the dangers in the physical world encroaching on the youths’ innocence.
Mean Dreams director Nathan Morlando. Colm
The changing seasons of Sault Ste. Marie, where the film was shot, also echoes the physical and emotional transition in the teenagers as they come of age and enter into the adult world. “For every scene, we really wanted a specific landscape to help evoke the tone of the scene and we worked hard at finding those special places. It’s not coincidental that in the scene where Jonas and Casey first tell each other they love each other it’s in a wide expanse; it’s kind of the only time that we see that – vulnerability amidst emptiness,” Cosens says. Having shot in Sault Ste. Marie before, Morlando and Cosens were thoroughly familiar with the area and spent much of pre-production trying to find the perfect locations. “We were very particular; we just knew so much of it would be about having the landscape represent an interior space. It required hundreds of miles of driving around Sault Ste. Marie to find the right landscapes for each scene. It was really days and days and days. It would have been so easy for us to just shoot in one area, just go from one forest to another. For sure it would have saved money and time. But we were determined to find the perfect woods, even if it meant stopping and hiking a mile or stopping and taking a quad up in the hills,” he says. “We knew shooting in the fall we would have amazing colours with the leaves changing,” he continues. “We definitely knew we wanted to integrate the browns, grays and autumnal colours in their clothing with the set design and landscape. We chose the buildings and key set pieces that had great aged grays, ochres and rust, and then in postproduction, with the help of Hardave Gruel at Urban Post, we worked to finesse the look by playing with warmth and desaturation as needed.” For Cosens, the RED DRAGON was most suitable for the shoot and worked particularly well at capturing the ever present sky. “You can use the HDRx function where you can get extra latitude out of the highlights. I used that quite a bit on exteriors just to really get as much detail out of the sky as I could because the sky was always so dramatic and moody. And because it was the fall, there were often storms in the distance that I wanted to try to define a bit more,” the DP says.
The camera also inadvertently creates a striking effect in the film in which the sun appears to be almost symbolically burning a hole in a dense canopy of trees sheltering Casey and Jonas. “That was just the fact that the RED sensor couldn’t handle the heat of the sun,” Cosens reveals. “That really is what allowed it to eat through the trees like that. I really just liked the graphic quality of those trees with the sun fighting to get through them.”
He outfitted the RED DRAGON with Zeiss Master Primes because he “knew for the night scenes I really needed to be able to shoot wide open, and I love the look of Master Primes. You can shoot 1.3 wide open on them and they just have a nice soft look because of absolutely no depth of field and the image starts looking anamorphic,” he adds.
He kept his lighting package sparse, employing primarily natural light but with a 6K and 18K on the truck if ever needed. He recalls a scene in which Wayne man handles Casey down a flight of stairs in their house. “I needed to bounce a light in the living room in order to provide enough interior ambiance to balance out the brightness of the exterior seen through the doorway behind the father, so I bounced an 18K in the house, and it practically melted the old house down,” he says. “But I really needed that much fill in order to compensate for how much light was behind the dad.”
For virtually all interiors, he manipulated natural daylight and lit with practicals at night, whether it was in the motel where Casey and Jonas seek refuge or in the characters’ homes. For instance, in one scene the only light in the room comes from a TV that Jonas’ depressed mother is watching. “I just used the TV light itself on the actors and moved the TV around for the close-ups to get a bit more out of it. I went through a DVD beforehand and picked scenes that were a little brighter just to get a bit more kick out of the TV light. I also used the orange bug lights out on the patio at night because I was interested in a more discordant or artificial look for the scene where the father and son can’t come to terms,” he says.
The scene in which Jonas hides and travels in the back of Wayne’s truck at night was shot in a studio with the use of a swinging light rig. “There were four lights gelled with different colours swinging on each side of the truck – two Kinos and two Peppers – and we were just making the truck vibrate a bit. And we had some fishing line on the flaps to make it look like it was flapping in the wind. And then we took the truck out and did all the exterior shots of the truck driving through similarly tinted light and stitched it together,” Cosens says. “Because we were shooting widescreen, we knew that looking from the back of the truck into the bed of the truck would work so nicely for our 2:40 frame,” he adds. “And then when they stop and the drug deal goes bad, that was just two practical sodium vapour lights to light the bikers and to rake some light into the back of the truck, and then we had a few strobe lights for the gun shots.”
For exteriors, he relied on a bit of muslin bounce and negative fill. “It was pretty minimal and a lot of the shots were moving so it wasn’t like I could set up bounces and just let them live somewhere. The camera’s always moving, so it was hard to just get something up and put it in one place and leave it,” he explains. “A lot of what we did was I worked with Nathan to just structure the scenes knowing where the sun was going to be, so we just played with the sun the whole time and we were able to move quickly enough that we could situate scenes in the right backlight or sidelight or use the breakup of light through foliage. I think that as you age and get more experience you grow braver and you start to have the confidence to use and manipulate natural light fluidly and to your advantage.”
Morlando and Cosens took advantage of the horizontal landscapes, which lend themselves to widescreen shooting, and they took care to keep the camera fluid. “We didn’t want the film to be jagged with loose handheld. We wanted to keep the camera moving but we also didn’t want to be obtrusive; we wanted the focus to be on the kids, and I wanted the journey of the kids to lead us, not the camera,” Cosens says. “And also we were depicting a love story too, so we wanted a bit of grace,” as Casey and Jonas wander the golden fields surrounding their properties getting to know each other.
Cosens says Steadicam operator Michael Heathcote was a key asset. “The whole film is
Steadicam, and Michael was running through the woods on Steadicam,” he says. “He was definitely part of making it a fluid, floating film. He’s an amazing's camera operator, and he’s got a beautiful eye. He and I just really see the world in a similar way. I could just say, ‘This is the shot,’ and he would just really finesse it. I have so much trust and faith in him and our professional relationship continues to evolve.”
Cosens was also mindful of supporting the performances of the young actors. “One time, I remember – Josh is an amazing actor and he had so much potential – but I could tell he was kind of nervous, and at one point early in the shoot we were just walking across a field and I said, ‘You know, man, you’re really doing great work, and I really want you to feel safe.’ That really works; just big brother kind of stuff. And they really respond to that because that’s what actors need to feel ultimately – safe.”