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Kalilah Robinson • American Murderer

Mar 22, 2023


By Michael Goldman

Director Matthew Gentile relied on an old chum, cinematographer Kalilah Robinson, to lens his first feature, a true story about a charming criminal on-the-run. 

As if it wasn’t cool-enough successfully making his first full-length feature film, complete with limited theatrical and full VOD release, director Matthew Gentile says making it with his longtime American Film Institute (AFI) classmate and best friend, cinematographer Kalilah Robinson, “was really a dream come true. And even better, it’s the exact film that Kalilah and I wanted to make all along, nothing changed or altered. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Not long ago, Robinson and Gentile were classmates in the AFI graduate programme. During that period, Gentile’s short thesis film, Frontman (2016), won him a special juried College Emmy Award for Best Directing. Shortly thereafter, he teamed with Robinson to direct her student thesis film, Lawman, and that project played at over 100 festivals and won her the ViZio + Dolby Vision Cinematography Award at the AFI Fest in 2017. 

Throughout the years. Gentile never forgot his long-percolating idea to make a full-length feature based on the nefarious adventures of conman/murderer Jason Derek Brown, who eventually rose to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list. And it wasn’t long before Robinson jumped on the idea, as well. The duo vowed to make the film together, and that dream came true in the form of Gentile’s debut feature, American Murderer, starring Tom Pelphrey as Brown and Ryan Phillippe as the FBI agent on his tail.

“I always knew Kalilah would be the cinematographer of this project – fate and my will would have it no other way,” Gentile recalls. “The origin of the movie was the creation of a proof-of-concept short of the same name, that I wrote on-spec. Kalilah read every draft, as did my editors Matt Allen and Chris Young, who also went to AFI with us.”

“In low-budget filmmaking, you constantly have to problem-solve to figure-out how to do ambitious things”

The filmmakers joke that they relied on “a scrappy attitude” to steer the project through various challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic’s arrival just as they were finally heading into production. Indeed, Gentile’s feature script languished for a while until his team produced the 2019 short film, basically depicting one key scene – an FBI SWAT team’s attempt to capture Brown. 

Approximately three years went by as they made the short film in 2017, used it to secure financing and distribution from production companies Traveling Picture Show and GiGi Films, developed the full-length version, pushed through the pandemic, and finally started shooting the feature in the winter of 2020 in and around Salt Lake City, Utah.

“But that time really paid-off,” Robinson recalls. “We got to spend an awful lot of time doing visual storyboards and shot-listing for various drafts of the story. We explored different ideas and debated how best to tell the story of Jason Derek Brown and the people whose lives he impacted. We were shooting at the height of the pandemic and could not bring a crew we were familiar with, but fortunately, we had lots of support from some brilliant Utah filmmakers. It was an anxiety-producing time to be making such an ambitious film.”

She elaborates that their prep time was especially important for mastering one of the unheralded challenges of filmmaking – schedule planning for the shoot. At the end of the day, the movie was shot over the course of 22 days of principal photography at 27 different locations in Utah. 

“One of the really fantastic aspects of being so well-prepared was that we were able to do breakdowns of what we thought we would need for each scene well in advance of even having a budget or locations,” Robinson explains. “So, we calculated that the bigger sequences, like the SWAT scene and the murder scene, were going to take additional time. There might be fewer shots on the list, but we had to figure out what hours of the day we would need to accomplish them. We figured-out an ideal wish list from the standpoint of days that we did not quite get, but we also worked out the bare minimum of days we could pull it off in, and we got very close to that.

“The great thing about having shot-listed everything, having storyboarded it, of having done animatics for the big sequences, was that we were prepared to say, OK, we might not get a full day to do the murder sequence, or a half-day to do the SWAT invasion, but we knew exactly what we needed to get editorially for those scenes. That allowed us to sacrifice what was unnecessary or superfluous and figure-out what we could accomplish in a limited amount of time.

“The great thing about having shot-listed everything was that we knew exactly what we needed to get editorially”

“The other thing was that we developed a plan that accounted for the fact that we could not afford to do a two-camera shoot for the whole film, but where we could have two cameras on particular days. We were able to specifically identify which days we would definitely need two cameras, and so, we worked with the producers to plan when we could get a second camera and a second operator in so that we could achieve bigger days in less time on those occasions.”

Robinson shot American Murderer using ARRI Amira with a 4K premium license (the same camera system she used on the short version). And she relied primarily on Zeiss Standard Speed MkI lenses with focal lengths ranging from 14mm to 135mm. The short film was shot using Fujinon Cabrio 19-90mm Zoom lenses. 

“On the feature, we primarily used a single camera, and I served as both DP and operator,” she elaborates. “However, we did have that handful of two-camera days during principal photography, some of which consisted of Steadicam work done by a brilliant operator, Charles Unice, on A-camera, and a longtime collaborator and friend, Stas Bondarenko, on B-camera; and a couple of additional two-camera days without the Steadicam for which I operated A-camera and Stas operated B-camera.”

The production also took advantage of Constellation web dailies platform, provided by Daren Smith, CEO of a Salt Lake City-based company RadarDIT. The digital intermediate process was handled by Light Iron, LA, with colourist Katie Jordan. Gentile adds that a handful of VFX shots were created for the film by VFX supervisor Arthur Mesa. He got help from Sasha Korellis and Catherine Tate of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, who arranged for student artists to help create and clean-up certain shots. That was a fortuitous option that Gentile recommends as “a great resource for young filmmakers. Without them, we would not have made our deadlines.”

For principal photography, Robinson explains that the length of time the production had to prepare also meant, among other things, that filmmakers could strategically develop their approach to shooting, lighting, camera movement and style. 

“We talked a lot about the fact that the main character was obviously a real man,” she says. “But he disappeared. What we have left of him in actuality are photographs left with family members and friends, surveillance footage and other real-world video and physical evidence. But we know less about his motivations since he was never caught. 

“So, what we realised was that there are different versions of Jason Derek Brown that exist in the minds of people he influenced or affected. So, that is one thing we wanted to explore – do we have any real idea who this guy is?

“Because of that question, we used different visual approaches, not all of which are totally dissimilar from each other, but dissimilar enough. This led us, especially in scenes where we see Jason by himself, to a noirish element. There is much more contrast in those sequences. There is a certain darkness about him – we know his actions but not his motivations, where his head is at. So, in that sense, we sort of disjoint the visuals to portray a conman who, like any good conman, plays different parts for different people.

“An additional thing that was interesting to us was to allow our lead actor, Tom Pelphrey, the flexibility to move as he felt was right for the character. That obviously necessitated a camera that would be able to track and follow him. There was this sense of, hey, this guy is really dynamic and he has such great physicality, so we need to be fluid in moving with him.

“Therefore, there are scenes where we decided to go handheld with a wider lens that was physically closer to him, so that we could allow him the ability to move around the space as he felt necessary. How we moved the camera depended on whether the character was at the height of his power, where the camera is sort of a steadily moving dolly shot or Steadicam; or whether he is in more of a frantic, frenetic moment, where the camera is more animated, often handheld.”

In terms of lighting, Robinson says she and gaffer Ben Josephsen mostly followed this same philosophy. 

“We intentionally added some filtration to almost all the scenes between the lead character and his neighbour with whom he enters into a romantic relationship in order to make things feel softer, warmer, nicer, and more romantic,” she says. “On the other hand, when we shot Ryan Phillippe as the FBI agent, the one character who is very aware of the realities of who this guy really is, we intentionally made the light softer and bluer, like it was more of an overcast day, rather than the warm and directional light in other scenes. We wanted to make the visuals seem cooler, bleaker when dealing with Ryan’s character, because he was aware of what was really going on.

Now that the American Murderer has come to fruition, Gentile and Robinson agree that, as young filmmakers, the biggest thing they learned from the project was, as Gentile puts it, “to be prepared, but also leave room to be flexible, and know your story inside and out.” 

And, as Robinson adds, “be willing to embrace the collaborative process and the need to communicate. In low-budget filmmaking, you constantly have to problem-solve to figure-out how to do ambitious things without the resources or time you would normally want.”

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