In the edge-of-your-seat thriller Rust Creek, confident college student Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) loses her way while driving through very rural Appalachia and quickly finds herself in a life-or-death struggle with some very dangerous men. The modestly-budgeted feature from Lunacy Productions — a company that encourages female filmmakers in top roles — packs a lot of power with virtually no pyrotechnics using well-thought-out filmmaking techniques, including a carefully planned and executed approach to the use of color throughout the film.
Director Jen McGowan, cinematographer Michelle Lawler and colorist Jill Bogdanowicz of Company 3 collaborated to help express Sawyer’s character arc through the use of color. For McGowan, successful filmmaking requires thorough prep. “That’s where we work out, ‘What are we trying to say and how do we illustrate that visually?’” she explains. “Film is such a visual medium,” she adds, “but it’s very different from something like painting because of the element of time. Change over time is how we communicate story, emotion and theme as filmmakers.”
McGowan and Lawler developed the idea that Sawyer is lost, confused and overwhelmed as her dire situation becomes clear. Lawler shot most of Rust Creek handholding an ARRI Alexa Mini (with Cooke S4s) following Sawyer as she makes her way through the late autumn forest. “We wanted her to become part of the environment,” Lawler says. “We shot in winter and everything is dead, so there was a lot of brown and orange everywhere with zero color separation.”
Production designer Candi Guterres pushed that look further, rather than fighting it, with choices about costumes and some of the interiors.
“They had given a great deal of thought to how color affects the story,” recalls colorist Bogdanowicz, who sat with both women during the grading sessions (using Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve) at Company 3 in Santa Monica. “I loved the way color was so much a part of the process, even subtly, of the story arc. We did a lot in the color sessions to develop this concept where Sawyer almost blends into the environment at first and then, as the plot develops and she finds inner strength, we used tonality and color to help make her stand out more in the frame.”
Lawler explains that the majority of the film was shot on private property deep in the Kentucky woods, without the use of any artificial light. “I prefer natural light where possible,” she says. “I’d add some contrast to faces with some negative fill and maybe use little reflectors to grab a rake of sunlight on a rock, but that was it. We had to hike to the locations and we couldn’t carry big lights and generators anyway. And I think any light I might have run off batteries would have felt fake. We only had sun about three days of the 22-day shoot, so generally I made use of the big ‘silk’ in the sky and we positioned actors in ways that made the best use of the natural light.”
In fact, the weather was beyond bad, it was punishing. “It would go from rain to snow to tornado conditions,” McGowan recalls. “It dropped to seven degrees and the camera batteries stopped working.”
“The weather issues can’t be overstated,” Lawler adds, describing conditions on the property they used for much of the exterior location. “Our base camp was in a giant field. The ground would be frozen in the morning and by afternoon there would be four feet of mud. We dug trenches to keep craft services from flooding.”
The budget obviously didn’t provide for waiting around for the elements to change, David Lean-style. “Michelle and I were always mindful when shooting that we would need to be flexible when we got to the color grading in order to tie the look together,” McGowan explains. “I hate the term ‘fix it post.’ It wasn’t about fixing something, it was about using post to execute what was intended.”
“We were able to work with my color grading toolset to fine tune everything shot by shot,” says Bogdanowicz. “It was lovely working with the two of them. They were very collaborative but were very clear on what they wanted.”
Bogdanowicz also adapted a film emulation LUT, which was based on the characteristics of a Fujifilm print stock and added in a subtle hint of digital grain, via a Boris FX Sapphire plug-in, to help add a unifying look and filmic feel to the imagery. At the very start of the process, the colorist recalls, “I showed Jen and Michelle a number of ‘recipes’ for looks and they fell in love with this one. It’s somewhat subtle and elegant and it made ‘electric’ colors not feel so electric but has a film-style curve with strong contrast in the mids and shadows you can still see into.”
McGowan says she was quite pleased with the work that came out of the color theater. “Color is not one of the things audiences usually pick up on, but a lot of people do when they see Rust Creek. It’s not highly stylized, and it certainly isn’t a distracting element, but I’ve found a lot of people have picked up on what we were doing with color and I think it definitely helped make the story that much stronger.”
Rust Creek is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Google.