By Randi Altman
To say that cinematographer Brandon Trost was born to work in the entertainment industry might not be hyperbole. This fourth-generation Angeleno has family roots in the industry — from his dad who did visual/physical effects, to his great uncle, actor Victor French (Little House on the Prairie).
Channeling his innate creativity, Trost studied cinematography at The Los Angeles Film School. His career kicked into high gear after winning the Best Cinematography award at the Newport Beach Film Festival for He Was a Quiet Man.
He has collaborated with Seth Rogen on several films, including The Interview, Neighbors and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, The Night Before and This Is the End. Additional credits include The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Disaster Artist and Can You Ever Forgive Me? His most recent project — now streaming on Netflix — Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the story of serial killer Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) but this time told from his girlfriend’s perspective.
We reached out to Trost to find out about his process and his work on Extremely Wicked.
You’ve worked on a range of interesting projects from different genres. What attracts you to a story?
A movie can be told 100 different ways, so I ask myself where a movie can go — what’s the potential for doing something different? Especially if it is a genre I haven’t done. I really love jumping around.
And, of course, it all starts with the script and who the filmmakers are on a project — and synergy among us all during the interview process.
Tell us about Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. How would you describe the general look of the film?
It’s a period movie first and foremost, but we wanted to elevate the production value as much as possible – on a tight budget. The director, Joe Berlinger, is a prolific documentarian. He really wanted to preserve his documentary sensibilities but with a cinematic, nostalgic quality to our approach. A lot of the film is shot handheld because we wanted to create an intimate portrait of the scenario, as horrifying as it is!
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses to achieve the look?
I chose Alexa Mini because of its size — I knew I’d be operating a lot, and Joe wanted a lot handheld. I also wanted to be able to make decisions on the fly and follow the actors as they tell this story. We had two cameras and mounted them with Panavision C Series anamorphics. I love these lenses. Each one has a specific characteristic. Plus, they are the same lenses of the era (made in 1968 and upgraded for today’s cameras), which matches the 1970s period we are depicting on screen.
Is there a challenging scene that you are particularly proud of how it turned out?
There is an extensive sequence covering the Miami trial, which was the first one ever televised. It was a phenomenon back then, and we wanted to capture some of that energy. We were strapped for time and lighting was built into a courtroom set. We also used a courtroom location that was augmented to mimic set. We had so many pages to shoot, so I chose not to bring in any additional lights.
Plus, the execution was challenging. With so many long courtroom scenes back to back, we didn’t want it to feel monotonous. With the cameras and lighting set up, I could stand in the courtroom with the freedom to follow a character. I was like an invisible fly on the wall. That helped get us through all the material and infused some energy into the shots.
The sequence ends with Ted Bundy’s statement after firing all his lawyers and ultimately representing himself. We did that shot as a slow zoom, capturing this emotional, impactful speech — even though he’s lying! We zoomed all the way to just Zac’s eyes. His performance was so great, and the results are very satisfying, knowing we could have used twice as many days to shoot these scenes.
I’m glad I had the freedom to make bold choices, and that closing zoom is the only time we broke from shooting handheld. It has a very ‘70s, voyeuristic feel.
How did you become interested in cinematography?
As a kid, I always thought I’d do effects like my dad, but he saw my creative side and encouraged me to explore it. When I went to film school, I learned I had a knack for cinematography. I loved movies, and coming from a family who has worked in all sectors of the industry for four generations, I grew up with film.
Finding a frame feels innate to me, but it’s taken a lot of practice to get to where I am now.
What inspires you artistically?
I love the challenge of finding the right image to tell the story and using the right light to achieve that image. As a crew, we all have a different job, but we are all building the same house. We all bring a piece of ourselves to what we do, and it becomes like solving a puzzle to tell the director’s story and create it collaboratively with everyone. Imagery can be so powerful; you can use it to push a scene and evoke a feeling, whether it’s loneliness, strength, optimism or sadness. Camera and lens choices, movement, lighting… it all feeds into completing the puzzle.
I also find cinematography to be very instinctive. If I design a rulebook with the director early on a film, I know it’s just the foundation, something to build from. I like to be reactive – and lean into what feels right in the moment.
How do you stay on top of advancing tools that serve your vision?
I read industry mags, but also through the DITs on set, or the camera houses. I get shown new things and how they work. Or I’ll ask if they have heard about something. This builds my awareness for understanding fundamentals of the tool in case I want to use it.
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
I’m a big lens guy. For me, the lenses make the movie, and I’m loving using vintage glass. Cameras are being designed with more and more resolution, and I’m always trying to add an analog softness. With every advancement in sharpness and noise reduction, I’m usually trying to take the electric edge off. I rely on lenses to help do that — or I’ll “stress” the camera at a higher ISO or do something in post with texture and grain. I’m usually trying to tear the image apart a little bit.
Panavision has even taken old lenses and customized them optically for me to create a more “shattered” look when it was right for the story.
And everything could go out the window if it serves the purpose of the story. It’s important as a DP to leave your artistic baggage behind if the story guides you to do something different. The story dictates how I work, and as a DP. I have to be flexible in my approaches. That’s what makes this work fun!
Has any recent or new technology changed the way you work?
The tool I use the most is my iPhone. I’ve got the Artemis app with the Director’s Viewfinder and the Cinescope app for adjusting aspect ratios, etc. I haven’t held a light meter in years.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.