David Duchovny‘s Tribeca effort Bucky F*cking Dent is a riot. In fact, it was one of my favorite movies at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival (as seen here), mixing comedy and drama in a wonderfully deft manner. Duchovny writes, directs, and co-stars, but he didn’t do it alone. Behind the camera, cinematographer Jeff Powers was a major part of the effort. It’s the sort of film you want to talk about when you see, so an opportunity to chat with Powers was one I definitely wanted to pursue. We weren’t able to hook up during the festival, but we recently did via email. Today, our conversation comes your way.
In my review of the movie out of Tribeca (here), I said the following:
It’s really surprising that David Duchovny waited this long to direct another feature. That he’s chosen to adapt his own novel is a fitting choice, since there’s so much personality on display here. Writing and directing his adaptation of Bucky F*cking Dent is such an obvious choice it’s sort of surprising it took so long to bring this to the big screen. The book came out in 2016, after all. Luckily, it’s here now in 2023 and it’s among the best Tribeca Film Festival titles so far.
Bucky F*cking Dent mixes comedy and drama in a surprisingly deft way, considering how silly the humor often is. There’s a bit of Californication in this, so if you enjoyed Duchovny’s work and vibe there, you’re in a good spot here. Even if you didn’t, this is still a really effective movie, which actually sneaks up on you with emotion by the end.
Here now is my email conversation with Bucky F*cking Dent cinematographer Jeff Powers:
Joey Magidson: Thanks for doing this. I really enjoyed the film. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got involved with David Duchovny and Bucky F*cking Dent?
Jeff Powers: I’ve been working as a cinematographer for ten or so years now. I started out doing some indie films and shorts, but things didn’t really catch on until I found my way into commercials and music videos. The quick pace and turnaround of those kinds of projects allowed me to find my style and build up a body of work that represented my abilities. Feature films were always the goal, and Bucky is my first return to narrative work in several years.
David met a number of DP’s looking for the right fit and a mutual friend recommended he check me out. We scheduled a 10 minute phone interview which turned into an almost hour long conversation about how we were going to make the film so we really hit it off right from the start.
JM: What made this such a unique project to work on?
JP: I have experience shooting indie films and dark comedy and felt comfortable in those regards, but this film did present plenty of new challenges for me. Being my first period piece, it did take some time to find a balance between the 70s time frame and a more contemporary voice as a filmmaker. I drew inspiration from a lot of the American New Wave films from that time.
There’s a stripped-down, raw visual quality to films like Five Easy Pieces, Klute or The King of Marvin Gardens which makes the characters feel real and the drama immediate, and that is something I wanted to bring to our film as well. As I mentioned, I’ve been doing a lot of commercials and videos, which typically have a very polished and stylized look, so it was fun to lean into a more unvarnished approach.
David was clear he wanted the film to look as grounded and imperfect as the real world, so my focus was more on naturalistic lighting and photography as opposed to a more traditional buttoned up approach. I was able to tap into some of my past experience as an operator in the documentary world to give the scenes a vérité feel that compliments the story nicely.
JM: For anyone who doesn’t know, can you break down what the role of director of photography is and what specifically it was like on this particular project?
JP: There are the core skills of cinematography like composition and lighting that make up the fundamentals of what we do, but the true role of a DP lies in storytelling. Because David was acting in front of the camera as well as directing, I had to take on a bit more of the gray area between the traditional roles of a DP and the director. I’m forever grateful for David’s tremendous level of trust and support, but it was a heavy responsibility, and I took it very seriously.
My main focus during photography was to establish and maintain a consistent style and point of view. We’re all tempted to chase down the cool shots and exciting camera work, but on Bucky, I really had to check myself. I really wanted my work to serve the story and character development as opposed to my own whims or ego. A great example of this is a scene around the kitchen table where Marty and Ted are finally laughing and getting along before it takes a serious turn and Marty reveals the source of the rift in their relationship. I chose to keep it simple with static shots and realistic overhead lighting, which shifts the cinematography into a supporting role and lets the audience really dig in to these wonderful performances.
Another crucial part of the job is that enthusiasm and positivity is contagious on set. I try to show up every day with a fresh and renewed excitement for the film and the work we get to do. That inspiration spreads, and the whole crew is fully engaged and contributing creatively. That kind of positivity is transformational and absolutely makes it onto the screen. A DP is nothing without their crew, and I appreciate everyone I get to work with.
JM: How do you balance the comedic and dramatic aspects of the film from behind the camera? David is walking such a fine line, and doing it splendidly, I might add. What goes into supporting that vision?
JP: David made tonal references to the James Brooks films Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets for their ability to adeptly move from drama to comedy within the same voice. Bucky is as hilarious as it is sincere and I wanted a visual language that could translate to both.
David wanted the camera to feel “buoyant,” which I thought was an interesting term to take as the approach. It’s wonderfully specific and completely open-ended at the same time. The film deals with themes of disappointment and death, but at its heart is an optimistic comedy. We don’t shy away from the dramatic moments, but we didn’t want the movie to sink into a heavy dark place. Ultimately, it is a hopeful story, and the camera’s POV needed to be that buoy to keep you afloat. In its literal interpretation, we decided to shoot a large portion of the film handheld. That gave a sense of subjectivity and immediacy that works well for a character driven story and was very adaptable to the tone of the scene we were working on.
At the end of the day, there are scenes in the film which are so funny– like a father and son having a conversation through farts–that it’s really hard to miss the mark.
JM: What were some of your inspirations going into this project or things you used for prep work?
JP: As I mentioned, one of the films David and I looked at to find a common frame of reference was Five Easy Pieces. There are the obvious comparisons of the 1970s time period and father/son theme, but Laszlo Kovacs’ beautiful, and often understated, character-driven cinematography is truly inspirational. I also looked at Paris Texas for similar reasons, and the common thread I found is that a simple approach photographically was the way to go. We skipped a lot of modern tools like gimbals, cranes and steadicam, which are all pretty common these days, and opted for dolly and handheld cameras only. That straightforward, unadorned approach kept the focus on character and story as opposed to flashy camera work.
I was also drawn to photographers Tina Barney (Home), Dawoud Bey (The Woman in the Light) and Larry Sultan (Pictures from Home). There is a tension between the candid versus the choreographed they manage to find a harmony in. Even when meticulously lit and composed, their frames contain a fleeting sense of immediacy I connect with. This sort of approach served the drama and comedy equally well and helped unify the two visually.
JM: Did your vision for the project change at all as shooting commenced? Does being in the midst of collaborating with David as he’s acting as well as directing impact things at all?
JP: David placed a lot of faith in me from the get go, and as we continued working together, I was able to take that freedom and put a lot of myself into the images. That can be a bit of a rare opportunity, and as that trust solidified I pushed myself harder and harder to do my best work.
One of the great things about making a small film such as Bucky is really getting to know the director and cast quickly. As the project progressed I got to know the timing and rhythm of David and Logan’s performances and was really able to get my operating in sync with them. There’s a lot of great visual comedy in the film and the tight relationships with everyone gave me the confidence to execute those shots.
JM: Do you have any favorite shots from the film?
JP: There’s a scene after Ted (Logan Marshall-Green) forgives his father for being absent, and he breaks down in tears in the hallway. The camera leans around him to reveal Mariana (Stephanie Beatriz) in the living room, who then embraces him and they share their first kiss. I decided to let the whole moment play out in silhouette. I love the weight this image brings to the moment. It allows the audience to focus on the emotion conveyed in the characters’ entire body language. You can’t see either of their faces but you feel it all.
Another favorite shot happens towards the end of the film, as Ted and Marty listen to the broadcast of Bucky Dent’s infamous home run ending the Red Sox’ World Series run. Marty announces it’s over, and as he gets out of the car we see him stumble off into the distance through the open door. This is an image I saw on my first read through the script. I can’t really articulate why it came to me, but it just feels so right at the moment.
One runner up is the last shot in the locker room scene, where Ted and Marty have been comparing penis sizes. The background actor gives such a stellar eye roll, it cracks me up no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
JM: I know some folks really like to know about the tech on a flick. What kind of equipment did you use for this one?
JP: We shot Bucky on Arri Alexa Mini’s with Zeiss standard speeds. The mini’s great color and latitude, plus the compact form factor, made it an ideal choice for the handheld style of the film.
I have a real love for Zeiss standard and super speed lenses. DP’s often pair older softer lenses with digital sensors, and it’s a move I’ve pulled many times myself. In this case, the standards brought the right balance of clarity and expressiveness to achieve our look. Most of the film was shot in the T 2 2/3-T 2.8 1/3 range, which is where those lenses perform best for me. The shallow depth of field also helped sell the period world on our schedule and budget.
I love the balance between the optical compression and field of view of a 40mm lens and it was hands down the go to focal length for the film. I also used contrast and classic soft filters night scenes and closeups respectively to enhance the halation and softness of the image.
JM: Thanks for doing this. Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers or people you’d like to shout out?
JP: One of the most satisfying parts of the project was getting to collaborate with Luke Carr (production designer) and Lou Schad (costume designer). They really worked some magic to create the world of Bucky, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. Also, they are wonderful people to spend a day with, which makes the often difficult process of an indie film enjoyable. Similarly, I’d like to mention editor Jamie Nelson, who really dug into the scenes and found some great shots which otherwise wouldn’t have made the cut. It was a great team all around, and I’d love to do it again any day!
JM: Thanks again!