Hello everyone! Today, we have the pleasure of talking to Steven Holleran, a talented cinematographer, who will tell us about his latest significant work, “Sympathy for the Devil,” featuring Nicolas Cage, directed by Yuval Adler.
Steven’s built a reputation as an award-winning director and visionary cinematographer on blockbusters Creed II, Godzilla, and Missing, alongside continuing his life-long passion for global adventure and documentary work.
Below is the official trailer of Sympathy for the Devil:
Hello Steven! Before delving into your fascinating work, could you share a bit about yourself and how your journey in the film industry began?
I fell in love with cinematography as an outlet for adventure and travel. During high school, I ran across an Outside Magazine article about adventure filmmaking as the next ultimate dream job and that pushed me towards the concept that a camera could be a way to see a bit of the world.
This led me directly into documentary filmmaking where I began shooting small local environmental projects until I was able to put together an international documentary about overfishing in the South Pacific.
At 22, I spent an entire year traveling through Samoa and Chile cutting my teeth as a one-man-band documentary filmmaker, living in small fishing villages and towns, shooting interviews, and learning how to move amongst strangers with a camera.
It was on that journey I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life telling stories like this. Not just for the creative outlet but also as a way to meet people from various walks of life and continue to witness the magic of the wider world.
How would you describe the look of the project?
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, 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.
Were there any particular visual references you looked at for inspiration?
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 were the lenses used and what optical characteristics did you see in those lenses that made them the right match for this project?
Often when choosing lenses I start with two sets of parameters which often don’t overtly align. On Sympathy, for instance, my first set of needs were lenses that were fast, light-weight, and had a range that leaned towards the wide side.
This instantly cut out a large chunk of glass, much of it vintage, and 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 two prerequisites don’t exist together or were not readily available, so we turned to the modern Panaspeeds for their customizability and the ability to ‘tune’ a look into a set of lenses that matched my technical specs.
How does this project differ from others in your career?
This film was a tight-rope 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.
How was it working with Nicolas Cage? Is he a collaborative actor? Do you have any anecdotes?
From my first moment on set with Nic, it was clear he is someone who lives and breathes the craft of cinema. He is acutely aware of not just his performance but also how the rest of the filmmaking machine ties into what he’s doing and vice-versa.
Shooting with Nic is a natural and instinctive process since he can feel out where the camera wants to go, where the focus is set, and how to move for such a wide variety of angles we’d often set extremely quickly.
One example of this was a one-take sequence we did on the fly where his character takes a diner and its patron’s hostage which culminates in him singing and dancing to “I Love the Nightlife” by Alicia Bridges.
Often you’ll have to explain and walk actors and a crew through a sequence of that scale, but in this case, Nic and I just did it, flying through it in two takes. There wasn’t even a question at the end whether we’d captured it, Nic just said, “Steve got it,” and we were on to the next piece.
When everyone is in sync and on the same page like that, filmmaking becomes nearly as seamless and intuitive as dancing.
What are your upcoming projects? Do you have new challenges in progress?
There are a number of features in the works for 2024, nearly all include some kind of technological challenge.
Pushing the envelope with cameras has always been at the forefront of my work both out of necessity, for instance in the case of shooting Sony’s screenlife thriller Missing, or from creative intuition such as when I utilized Cinema Devices Anti-Gravity Rig to shoot the Sundance indie A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. as a ninety-minute one-take.
I also have a few documentary-series projects I’ll be working on that keep my feet in the adventure travel world.
Doing both narrative and doc keeps things fresh and I genuinely enjoy the interplay between the two worlds.