Billboard is set in my home town of Allentown, PA which is a part of the Lehigh Valley. The location definitely is a huge part of the film and reflects upon how the movie looks. The Valley has a hodge-podge of looks; early colonial, relics of a booming industrial age, new office buildings, miles of row homes, corn fields, mansions. There’s a beauty in the conflict of these locations which gives the area a special feel.
When my long-time collaborator Matthew Blum and I set out to create color palates for the story we broke it down into parts. We have many time shifts in the story and felt we needed to aid the audience in realizing these jumps. WTYT 960 would be slightly green - claustrophobic, corporate radio - sterile/bland, Wake-Up America - cold, flashbacks would be cold or warm depending on when they happened and the environment we would color correct for the season and shoot it over time.
I wanted a bit of a vintage feel, paying homage to the inspiration for the story, a real billboard sitting contest I recall from my youth. We decided to shoot with old lenses from the 80's which also gave it a softer feel. We shot in 4k on Red and Black Magic.
When possible I wanted the film to look dirty, gritty. Sometimes we’re looking in, in a voyeuristic way and other times I wanted to thrust the audience inside the main character’s head. Becoming an observer to what’s going on, then being a part of it. We’re all to blame.
I’m greatly influenced by the films of the 60’s and 70’s and started making films in the late 90’s where my peers were using anything at their disposal to make their movies, as was I. This time period has a scrappy aesthetic to it. Since the protagonist is a scrapper himself I felt employing the methods of my youth would make the story feel more genuine. The story is very grand in scope and scale, but I didn’t want to get trapped in its largess. This was a balancing act and as a director you need to make the hard choices to manipulate the story so it’s authentic.
The web series, The Billboard Sitters, was shot completely differently. We always had the camera’s locked down. We used three Olympus cameras with a wide array of lenses. We wanted it to have an observer feel to it. Like you’re removed from the story, viewing something instead of being a part of it.
I have to say that these Olympus OM-D MS Mark II cameras are the best bang for the buck. They can do so much with very little. We shot 140+ pages, outside, over the course of a 16 day shoot and had to raise all our gear 10 feet in the air. These little cameras held up amazingly well and we pushed them hard. Really hard
For the flashbacks of the contestant’s back story we removed the lens and used a magnifying glass. I really wanted this to have a dreamy feel to it which I feel we accomplished.
I’m a very big proponent of filmmakers being format agnostic, using whatever tool best suits your story and what resources you have at your disposal. At the end of the day it’s about story-telling, telling a great story that moves and affects people. Nobody gives a shit about what camera was used unless it takes you out of the story. Realize limitations and exceed your audience’s expectations.