At the 28th annual ASC Awards events this past weekend, Peter Levy, ASC, ACS was one of the guests of honor, nominated for “The Runner Stumbles,” an episode of Showtime’s House of Lies. The nomination was Peter’s fourth overall, and his second consecutive for House of Lies. His first two nominations came for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2005) and for the pilot of 24 (2002).
All four of Peter’s ASC Award nominations, as well as the two Emmys he has won, have come on collaborations with director/producer Stephen Hopkins. Their other credits together include Beautiful People, Californication, Maggie Hill, Blown Away, The Unusuals, Lost in Space, Under Suspicion, Predator 2 and the one that started it all, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. The duo moves easily between features and television. And their newest project was recently announced: Race, a feature film about the political machinations leading up to Jesse Owens sprint into the history books at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Hopkins will direct. More on that momentarily.
Regarding House of Lies, Peter told me, “The piece started as a cynical comedy about management consultants and their world. I think over the course of the season, it sort of changed to something darker, more like a Greek tragedy, as you watch the downfall of Marty Kaan, played by Don Cheadle. Initially, I wanted it to look elegant and stylish, like it came from the world of management consultants. I didn’t feel a down, dirty, gritty look was appropriate, and so I went the opposite way. As the season has progressed, things got darker and darker, and I shot it more like I would a feature film. I tried to build as much contrast into it as possible and to use light more for its dramatic purposes, as a component in the story. It was a difficult exercise to maintain consistent contrast ratios when photographing Don Cheadle, a very dark-skinned man, and his co-star, Kristen Bell, a very light-skinned woman.”
Peter shoots on the Arri Alexa and color times every shot using an on-set Truelight color-correction system. “I’m essentially creating a LUT for every shot,” he says. “When it leaves the set, the footage looks pretty close to how I want to final look to be. Editorial sees a good image, and it sends a signal to my colorist that this is an expression of my intentions. Final color goes very quickly.”
Asked if digital has changed his thinking in other ways, Peter says, “It’s changed everything. The tools are so powerful. That’s why I want to control as much as I can on the set. I’d love to have even stronger control, to be able to vignette and defocus, for example. We’re fighting sharpness that is inherent in the format. It’s sharper because that pixel array doesn’t move, unlike molecules of silver, which are in a different place for every frame. With film, you get a beautiful, natural softening. With digital capture it’s the opposite. And the software that goes with it is also trying to make things look sharper and more contrasty, with over-sampled colors.”
“Meanwhile we’re getting sharper and sharper lenses,” he says. “And the first thing you do is put diffusion filters in front of them. You wouldn’t dare point a bare lens on a digital camera at an actress these days. You can’t do it to anybody. It’s almost cruel and unusual punishment.”
For Race, Peter is testing anamorphic combined with 4K digital. Shooting is set to start this June in Montreal, and at Berlin locations including the Olympic stadium where Owens won his four gold medals. John Boyega stars as the Alabama sharecropper’s son who shattered Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.
The story focuses on the events leading up to the Games. Owens was put under pressure from a strong movement pushing for an American boycott of the Games. Threatened with boycott, Hitler backed off his original insistence that no Jewish or Black athletes participate.
Levy notes that the script will also shine a light on little-known facts — for example, that Hugo Boss outfitted the German officers, and that the rival Adidas and Puma sports shoe brands were started by brothers who disagreed about Hitler’s policies. The games also were a proving ground for early television technologies that allowed the events to be seen live outside the stadium — perhaps the world’s first simulcast. The film will also touch on the story of Marty Glickman, a fleet Jewish runner who was prevented from competing by Goebbels and Avery Brundage (then the American team manager) in order to spare Hitler further humiliation. His promising track career ruined, Glickman went on to become the sports voice of Paramount newsreels, and the announcer behind more than two decades of New York Knicks and Giants broadcasts.
Of his long-running collaboration with Hopkins, Peter says, “Not everyone is lucky enough to meet someone like Stephen. When I look at my life, my circumstances and my history, I see Stephen Hopkins written all over it. When we work together, we seem to be of two bodies and one mind. We just seem to understand each other. We have the communication and the trust. It works. And it’s amazing that after 30 years, he still inspires and challenges me.”