DoP Xavier Grobet on filming New Mexico and editing on-set
When Robert Carlock’s script for war movie satire Whiskey Tango Foxtrot called for Afghan landscapes, director of photography Xavier Grobet suggested Morocco as a substitute location, but studio executives weren’t keen on the idea.
“Afghanistan itself was out of the question,” Grobet explains. “Any other country where we could recreate the war-torn country was not workable. It is lucky we had New Mexico’s tax incentives and pretty similar landscape to work with.”
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on a journalistic war memoir by Kim Barker entitled The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and features comedienne and writer Tina Fey (pictured above) as Barker. A comic look at the conflict, the title has sometimes been cannily reduced to "WTF" as a sign of its satirical tone.
The production team chose New Mexico as a war zone stand-in and went on to have a “great shooting experience” with “amazing locations, great services and very professional and competent local crews.”
It was actually the weather that ended up putting obstacles in the way and testing Xavier’s patience. “It can be nasty” he explains. “We had snow, cold and warm weather, cloud and blue skies. Sometimes we had to change the schedule to be able to shoot - if it rains in the desert, for example, you don’t want to get stuck in the mud.”
The production's “real task was creating believable Afghanistan images and making New Mexico look like Afghanistan. We were going for a documentary look - as real as possible,” says Grobet (pictured above, on the right).
“The most challenging thing was trying to match a day exterior scene when there were clouds in the sky - this can be nerve-racking. We also hired DP Gelareh Kiazand abroad and instructed her on the plate shots we needed in order to compose certain scenes, or to shoot live street images to be cut into the film and blend our local sets into the real world.”
Grobet’s cinematography credits include Monster House (2006) and I Love You Phillip Morris (2009). He also shot Will Smith’s 2015 con-artist drama Focus, which was edited on location in ‘real time’.
“From early pre-production days on Focus, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa wanted to have the whole process of moviemaking in our hands - they are the ones who pushed for it,” explains Grobet.
“With the support of Light Iron (a digital creative solutions company), I had a digital lab next to me on set where I could work my images on-site and in the moment. We were able to time dailies pretty close to what I had in mind while shooting each scene. It gave me the chance to have everyone see what the final product would look like, at least very close.”
Reflecting on his evolving craft, Grobet describes new technologies as "radically changing how we approach our profession.” New digital cameras, he says "have given us the chance to shoot in conditions difficult to accomplish with film, such as shooting with moonlight.”
Grobet also embraces smartphone technology, using various apps "particularly ones that help me visualise where I’m standing - it's a case of using the right tools for the script."
For Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Grobet employed “a few different camera systems - GoPro, 16mm Black Magic Camera, Sony a7s and Alexa”, depending on what was needed for the scene. “It was fun but it was also exhausting to have the camera on my shoulder the whole time. I was tired at the end.”
To achieve the documentary feel they were looking for, Grobet used an Alexa camera with Angenieux short lenses and “used the Black Magic Pocket 16mm camera for all of the interior vehicles shots.”
In low-light conditions, such as night scenes, Grobet employed the Sony a7s with the Leica Leitz set of lenses.
Grobet’s prolific career has included features, documentaries, shorts and an impressive array of high-calibre TV work, including Deadwood, In Treatment, Scoundrels, Marco Polo and Enlightened, where he briefly collaborated with Todd Haynes.
“There are some very interesting television series out there,” Grobet concludes. “Sometimes even better than movies, but I still like shooting films best, where there is more time to imagine and create.”
For more on filming in New Mexico see our production guide.