For anyone shooting a single-location movie with an extremely short schedule, The Guilty (2021) is an excellent film to study. Plus, a majority of the film focuses on a single character having “one-sided” phone conversations. On top of those constraints, the director was quarantined in a van and directing the film remotely. Here’s cinematographer Maz Makhani on how he overcame these limitations and created an emotional thrill ride while filming The Guilty.
Watch: The Guilty (2021) Trailer
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DP Maz Makhani
Maz Makhani’s background
Maz was a cinephile from an early age. When he was eight-years-old, the first movie that captured his imagination was Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. The aesthetic, the lighting and the cinematography brought an emotional response out of Maz that he didn’t fully understand at the time. From that point on, however, he knew he needed to become a filmmaker.
Cinematography came naturally to Maz. His father bought him an early JVC camera, which in turn allowed him to make hundreds of home movies. He took classes in high school, largely taking over campus productions. When he graduated, he decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue his career instead of going to college.
Maz on Becoming a Cinematographer
I wanted to move to LA and I wanted to be Spielberg...I didn’t know what a director of photography did at the time. I thought I wanted to be a director. I didn’t understand what it was I was responding to; it was camera, lighting, lensing, camera movement, blocking. The stuff that a cinematographer does, it was sort of innate in me.
His first breakthrough came in the form of music videos. He worked on a show called Friday Night Videos. Over the course of 15-20 years, he made a thousand or so videos, honing his skills with the camera, lighting techniques, types of lenses, film stock and more.
Here is one of Maz’s most renowned music videos:
Lil Wayne - Mirror ft. Bruno Mars
Transitioning into feature films took a while. It was a different medium, forcing Maz to take on new challenges, such as smaller budgets. Perhaps the biggest lesson he learned was how to tell the story through cinematography. Since he started in the world of music videos, he was unfamiliar with the “rules” of cinematography in feature films, such as key lighting and scene blocking.
This was not a disadvantage however, as this allowed him to take risks and create a unique look that other cinematographers are incapable of.
The Guilty Film
The Guilty (2021) Summary
The Guilty is an American remake of a Danish movie called Den Skyldige. The story is about a police officer named Joe (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who has been demoted to a 911 operator and dispatch. He receives a phone call from a woman named Emily, who has been kidnapped.
Joe must make a series of difficult decisions if he is going to save Emily’s life, as well as confront his personal demons.
Maz and Antoine Fuqua’s Partnership
Production of The Guilty movie was not easy. Shot on a single location. budget limitations and the constraints of COVID-19 meant primary filming had to be done in 11 days. To make matters worse, director Antoine Fuqua came into contact with someone that had tested positive for COVID, forcing him to quarantine in a van.
Fortunately, having worked together in the past, Maz and Antoine had a strong, trusting relationship. This partnership allowed Maz to have some creative control on set while Antoine gave instructions with a walkie-talkie.
See how proud Antoine is of the lighting and cinematography in this interview:
Antoine Fuqua Clip Breakdown
Antoine Fuqua was able to achieve visuals he needed because he trusted and worked with Maz Makhani. The results speak for themselves.
A Single Location
Shooting in a single location
In keeping with the original, Den Skyldige, The Guilty was shot in a single location. This is intentional, as this makes the viewer feel like they are trapped with Joe, the main character. However, this also made cinematography more difficult. How do you keep your visuals fresh if you are filming in one location?
Lighting and framing were the tools Maz Makhani used to keep the movie engaging. The story starts with Joe in the restroom, where the shots are a bit wider and the lighting is flat.
On set for The Guilty
When Joe returns to his desk, the shots start to get a little tighter. The lighting is low-key and Joe is often illuminated by his computer screen. A red light illuminates whenever there is an emergency call, reminding us how tense the situation is. As the story progresses and Joe is doing everything he can to save Emily’s life, he moves into a secondary office to isolate himself. The lighting is darker and the shots are even tighter.
The cinematography reflects the tension in the story. At one point, Joe is framed between two computer monitors with a closeup. Maz said this was intentional, because “we deliberately went wider and as close to him as possible…because now you’re really in his space.” This shot makes the viewer feel just trapped as Joe.
Maz’s camera work helped to bring out the best in Jake. Together, they created a suspenseful story that is definitely worth a watch.
The Guilty • Joe is trapped
When we reach the end of the story and Joe is ready to confess his own guilt, we return to the restroom. The lighting, flat as it may be, provides a stark contrast to the rest of the movie.
Joe is illuminated now, ready to face his demons.
The Guilty • Joe faces his demons
Makhani proved that filming in a single location doesn’t have to be handicap if you use the right lighting and framing.
The Guilty Tech
Shooting film vs shooting digital
In the early stages of production, Maz and director Antoine Fuqua considered using film to shoot The Guilty. After some deliberation, Maz felt that using film was the wrong choice for several reasons.
First, while film gives your picture a more “timeless” look and feel, digital makes it feel more real. Since The Guilty movie was taking place in real time, this made digital the superior choice.
Second, the set used ambient light to create a dark and claustrophobic setting. Using film in this scenario would make the picture too “noisy.” Digital is more effective at shooting in low-light scenes.
The Guilty • Behind the Scenes
Finally, Antoine wanted to use long takes to give Jake time to run through all of his lines. Film runs out quickly, forcing unnatural stops. Digital made allowed for much longer takes.
Here is the camera and lens package they ended up using:
Cameras: Three 4.5k ARRI Alexa LF (primary) and an ARRI Alexa Mini (for wide shots)
Lenses: Hawk 65 anamorphic lens, Hawk 400 mm spherical zoom lens, and a 12 mm lens for the Alexa MiniSee how effective Maz’s choices were in this clip:
The Guilty Clip • Emily, don't hang up
Since the story relies entirely on Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, the cinematography needed to drop viewers into the room with Joe. You feel his tension and anxiety, his sweat and nervous ticks. Digital puts you in the movie in a way film would not have.
Best Cinematography Techniques
Looking to get into film making? In this article you will learn 30 tips that will make you a better cinematographer. From your opening image, to your final shot, to finding work, you will read about what it takes to be a great filmmaker.
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