Cinematographer David McFarland’s latest film, “The Boy Next Door,” stars Jennifer Lopez as a high school teacher who unknowingly enters an emotionally twisted relationship with a seemingly innocuous younger neighbor, played by Ryan Guzman. The tension ratchets up as Claire (Lopez) tries to untangle herself—for her sake and that of her family—while Noah (Guzman) has different ideas. “The Boy Next Door” is directed by Rob Cohen and currently in theaters.
McFarland’s career in film stretches back nearly twenty years; and while it took a few attempts during college to get pointed in the right direction, once he found himself on set for the first time, he became focused on his goal of being a cinematographer. His credits include shorts, television, documentaries, and features.
Film Slate Magazine spent some time with the very busy McFarland, picking his brain about his approach to cinematography, collaborating with Cohen, and what techniques and what equipment he and the crew used to give “The Boy Next Door” its look.
Film Slate Magazine: First, how did you get interested in film? Was there a particular moment when you picked up a camera and thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’ or was it a more gradual process?
David McFarland: Although I was always a visual person growing up, I became interested in film in a roundabout way. I ended up in film school (at Boston University) after a few failed attempts at finding a major. Once in film school, I immediately gravitated towards the camera. Upon discovering what a director of photography was, I knew I was onto something. This was further solidified when I worked on my first feature (as an art PA/set dresser). I was enamored with the set and with the control of reality via light and camera. I knew then and there I wanted to be cinematographer. So, in some respects, it wasn’t a gradual process at all.
FSM: How did you become attached to this project?
DM: I became involved with ‘The Boy Next Door’ through my agent. Director Rob Cohen had reached out six months earlier with the hopes of me shooting another one of his projects. But sadly, our schedules didn’t align. Thankfully, Rob reached out again when this film rolled around.
FSM: You are someone who has shot a variety of different projects—shorts, TV movies, features, etc. Do you have an overall approach when it comes to cinematography? Or does each project offer up something different that you can say to yourself, ‘I can try something totally different this time out.’
DM: I don’t have one approach that I apply to all projects. I’ve worked on a variety of films over the years. Every director has his or her own way of working and it’s up to me to bend my way of working to fit within their needs. Some directors are concerned with actors’ performances and depend on me to discover the visual nature of the film. Others, like Rob Cohen, have complete command of cinematography as an art form and are totally immersed in designing each shot. It is my responsibility to remain malleable. This certainly keeps it interesting! That being said – my opinions are always heard and my connection with the script or character translates onto the screen.
FSM: In a film like ‘The Boy Next Door,’ given the nature of the plot, how as a cinematographer do you get the most out of the tension? Do you lean more heavily on the lighting, the blocking of the actors, or the framing of the shot? How do approach mixing all of these elements to get the desired result?
DM: ‘The Boy Next Door’ is the type of film I am drawn to because its heart is in the eyes of the characters. I am drawn to films which connect the viewer to the characters. In this case, the tension created from one bad decision ripples throughout every scene in the film. As a filmmaker who bases all my creative decisions (shot composition/lighting) on emotional motivation, I was able to use tension as a catalyst for my visual style.
Early on Rob and I had long discussions on how to derive tension. We studied films like ‘The Conversation’ where the use of telephoto lenses puts the viewer into the voyeuristic frame of mind right out of the gate. We also discussed color theory as a way of symbolizing an emotional state. As a DP, I am involved in shot composition and lighting. This project in particular had a strong marriage between the blocking and lighting. Rob and I were interested in creating a world where (as Rob put it) horrible things happen on beautiful days. I used a lot of heavily-cut soft light for the actors to play in and out of. I have a wonderful grip team (helmed by key grip Lev Abrahamian) who are skilled in creating hard contrast while maintaining soft light. Simply put – Claire (Jennifer Lopez) was free to pass through beautiful high key light into inky shadows as her character felt it necessary.
FSM: Was there any sequence or scene that ended up much differently than what you had planned or was on the page?
DM: Another scene I am really proud of came as a bit of a surprise. After dropping off her son at a high school dance, Claire follows puddles of water into the boy’s restroom, where a sink has deliberately been clogged to generate a flood and kill the electrical circuits powering the restroom. She is immediately confronted by Noah (Ryan Guzman) and has to fight her way to safety. On a whim, we decided to light the scene as though the only light available came from the dance happening outside the frosted windows of the locker room.
This gave me an idea to create a vast amount of tension through the pulsing/oscillating light. As the tension ramps up, the colors shift from pleasing primary color schemes to those of secondary palettes. This is a great example of the power of subliminal lighting that affects the audience on a gut level – as Claire tries desperately to get away, the color shift helps the viewer to relate to her mental state.
FSM: Any final thoughts on ‘The Boy Next Door?’
DM: We shot on two Arri Alexa XT’s. Initially I had planned on shooting with Arri Raw, but due to budget constraints, we went from 2k – shooting pro res 4444 to SxS cards. I rated the camera at its native 800ASA for day interiors and exteriors, and pulled back to 500ASA for night interiors and exteriors. Rob preferred to shoot with two cameras. Occasionally we would sneak in a third camera but usually we kept it to two. Rob and I liked the look of Cooke S4’s so we carried a full set, doubling up on the 40mm and 65mm. Joe Lomba at ALTERNATIVE RENTALS bent over backwards to supply all of our camera needs. On top of our set of Cooke s4’s, we carried an Angenieux Optimo 15-40 and 24-290mm. This is a very voyeuristic film so we also carried a Nikon 400mm, often paired with a 2x extender to double its focal length. We pulled that out whenever we wanted to imply the sense of a hunter stalking its prey. Early on, we talked about Bill Butler’s use of telephoto lenses in ‘The Conversation’ and agreed we wanted to imply that Claire was always being watched.
My DIT, Chris Piper, was set up with Technicolor’s COLORFRONT EXPRESS DAILIES SYSTEM, which basically turned the darkroom on the camera truck into an extension of Technicolor. Having grown up shooting film, I don’t really use a DIT for exposure – I’m still a slave to the meter! But our system worked well. I’d check with Chris throughout the day and make small tweaks here and there, but other than that, I tend to control contrast and color through lighting and filtration. I used a set of Schneider Maui Brown filters for everything except night exteriors. This produced a very subtle warming filter which is a great tool for skin tones. The Maui Brown 1 worked well for Jennifer.
We did our DI at Technicolor’s Tribeca West with the amazing Skip Kimball adding his expertise. We added a subtle film grain (5217) overall which helped solidify our film look.
Click here for Film Slate Magazine’s review of “The Boy Next Door”