Director Yuval Adler’s Sympathy for the Devil is a road movie designed to subvert expectations. The story depicts one extremely long night for one sorely unsuspecting man (Joel Kinnaman) who’s forced to drive a gun-wielding maniac (Nicolas Cage) through the neon-clad streets of Las Vegas. Cinematographer Steven Holleran was tasked with capturing the nighttime tour of Sin City’s darkest corners, placing viewers inside the car’s claustrophobic confines. In this Q&A, he outlines his creative approach and technical solutions, which included shooting with Panaspeed optics sourced from Panavision Woodland Hills.
Panavision: How would you describe the look of Sympathy for the Devil?
Steven Holleran: Sympathy is a surrealist pop-nightmare thriller set on the forgotten edges of Vegas. It’s got melancholy and rage fighting for space in front of the lens. We’re exploring the in-betweens of good and bad, truth and lies, past and present, right and wrong — both in the script and with the cinematography. It has upside-down, head-turning relativity at its heart, with who is good and what is true coming into question, and so the film’s look leans into asking these questions of the audience subjectively through composition, movement and color choice.
Did any particular visual references provide inspiration during preproduction?
Holleran: Modern fine-art photography was a starting point for me, photographers like Henri Prestes and Christophe Jacrot who work heavily with surrealistic, hazy textures. I wanted there to be something akin to a soft veil across the image, as if we were in a nightmare upside-down world. The other reference was Las Vegas’ Neon Museum, which is a great boneyard of old neon lights from the city. Walking the museum at night was a wonderful playground for color inspiration, say the way primaries fade and turn strange with time. Then ultimately, it’s the themes in the film that have the final say.
What brought you to Panavision for this project?
Holleran: No two movies are the same, and so my approach to cinematography is rarely static and always evolving. Panavision has proven to be a wonderful place for optical discovery, which I find to be so critical to putting a distinct stamp on the image as cameras continue to develop and see farther into the shadows and highlights. It’s like working with the world’s greatest sommeliers when you’re looking for a specific feeling out of a wine but you’ve never tasted it before. That’s the magic of Panavision.
What considerations went into your choice to shoot with Panaspeed lenses?
Holleran: Often when choosing lenses, I start with two sets of parameters which don’t overtly align. On Sympathy, my first set of needs were lenses that were fast, lightweight, and had a range that leaned towards the wide side. This instantly cut out a large chunk of glass, much of it vintage, some modern. Then I wanted a specific creative look, for instance a set of glass that bloomed the highlights, had heavy halation, lifted blacks, with a cat-eye effect. Those prerequisites didn’t already exist together or were not readily available, so we turned to the modern Panaspeeds for their customizability, so we could ‘tune’ a look into a set of lenses that matched my technical specs.
How does Sympathy for the Devil compare to other projects you’ve shot?
Holleran: This film was a tightrope walk — a car movie to be shot nearly entirely in an LED volume. It’s rare to do a film set in a car; it’s even more rare to do a car movie on a volume, particularly at night on desert roads. So there were a lot of firsts requiring a high amount of research, experimentation and testing running simultaneously during production. In some ways we were fielding two productions at once, shooting everything that happens outside of the car while testing plates in volume, knowing we’d need it all to match what we were going to do during the last week with the car on stage. Luckily I’ve grown comfortable with being off the edge of the cinematic language, and technology continues to be at the forefront of my work and the direction of the cinematography industry as a whole — and there I feel at home.