With a last minute shooting fill-in position and a limited schedule, Michael Goi, ASC recalls a seamless production with on-set innovations and teamwork.
When Everything Goes Right
Filming, “Words on Bathroom Walls”
By Michael Goi, ASC, ISC
The movie, “Words on Bathroom Walls,” based on the best-selling novel by Julia Walton, is about a teenaged boy diagnosed with schizophrenia during his senior year in high school, and his efforts to keep his condition a secret while pursuing a relationship with a brilliant girl in his class. It’s the kind of film that presents many possibilities to visually depict the world the way the main character experiences it.
Director Thor Freudenthal and I had worked together previously on an ABC television pilot. He called me three days before filming on WOBW was due to start because he needed a cinematographer to step in at the last minute. Though I had been working as a director for most of the last five years on multiple television episodes and the feature film, “Mary,” with Gary Oldman, I had never said that I would not shoot again. With the understanding that production would need to have someone shoot the final two days due to my already being booked to direct another show, I got on a plane that night for Wilmington, NC, for two quick days of prep.
I read the script on the flight and immediately saw the visual potential in the material. The intention was not to be visually flashy, but to present images which got to the heart of what Adam (Charlie Plummer), the main character, was going through in real life and in his mind. Since this is what I essentially did on every show I’d ever shot, it was a perfect melding of approach to subject matter, much like my work on “American Horror Story.” As long as you stay true to what the character is feeling, the audacity of the visuals will ring true.
An example of this would be when Adam has a minor mental episode while talking with his mother Beth (Molly Parker) and her boyfriend Paul (Walton Goggins) after dinner. Thor had suggested using the technique made famous in “Fight Club” of shaking the camera violently and re-stabilizing the image using the eyes as pick points. The effect is of the center of the subject’s face being stable, but the world around is vibrating violently. I knew from past experience that using slightly wider lenses would create a more prominent effect and also protect the aspect ratio of the image, since you would be blowing up the frame to accommodate the widest shake of the camera. Digital Imaging Technician Andy Bader was able to do a quick demo of the effect on his laptop computer, which gave us a good sense of how the final effect would look.
The movie was captured digitally using ARRI ALEXA Minis, which were already part of the package when I arrived. Though my personal preference is to shoot film whenever possible, the ALEXA performed well with the extremes of contrast that I like to work in. The crew was well-versed in the handling of the equipment, and aside from an occasional tech check, shooting was issue-free.
A scene where Adam has a mental breakdown in chemistry class employed multiple innovations from every on-set department. As he starts to hallucinate that “The Darkness” is coming for him, our special effects department blew open the door of the closet with wires, camera operator Rick Davidson walked with the camera from the floor onto a lab table toward the actor while being safetied by dolly grip Scott Frye, camera operator Mike Repeta rolled on psychotic off-angles important to the sequence, gaffer Will Barker was flickering the overhead fluorescents to the edge of blowing the ballasts, 1st AC Patrick Borowiak was tracking focus from a wide shot to a closeup on the run, and Andy Bader and 2nd AC’s Darwin Brandis and Roy Knauf were furiously twisting the remote iris controls to accentuate the chaos. It was one of those kinds of shooting experiences that I love, when everyone has an important piece of the puzzle to contribute, and the shot doesn’t work unless everyone brings their “A” game, which they did.
Producers Pete Shilaimon and Mickey Liddell, and executive producer Alison Semenza were on set every day and epitomized the kind of producers who were hands on for all the right reasons – because they cared passionately about the material and had spent years obsessing about the proper way to make the film version. The fact that they trusted me so completely, someone who was being air-dropped into their movie two days before filming, speaks to their respect for creative artists.
As my deadline for leaving the shoot to go direct fell on the day of one of the biggest scenes, when Adam takes his girlfriend Maya (Taylor Russell) to the school prom (with fantastic production design by Brian Stultz and art director Brian Baker), I set up the scenes until I literally had to get in a car and go to the airport. Derek Tindall, who is an accomplished cinematographer himself, stepped in as I stepped out the door and took over shooting the remainder of the scenes for the next two days, including important scenes in the school bathroom set.
With the spread of Covid-19, “Words on Bathroom Walls” was a bit cheated of its theatrical premiere on August 21st, 2020. Though it did open theatrically in several cities, Los Angeles was not one of them because the theaters had to remain closed, and so even I could not see the final film on the big screen. But I think the movie will have a long life and be revived at future screenings because of the excellence that all involved brought to it. It was a fun experience to take out my light meter again.
Michael Goi, ASC, ISC, was born and raised in Chicago, where he established himself in the fields of documentaries and commercials. As a cinematographer, he has compiled over 70 narrative credits, four Emmy nominations and four ASC Award nominations. As a director, he has helmed multiple episodes of “American Horror Story,” “The Rookie,” “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and many others. He wrote and directed the dramatic feature film, “Megan Is Missing” about the subject of internet predators, and directed and photographed the feature film, “Mary,” starring Gary Oldman.
A three-time past president of the American Society of Cinematographers, Michael served on the Board of Governors of the ASC and is the editor of the 10th Edition of the “AC Manual.” He is the co-chair of the Directors Guild of America’s Asian American Committee and the DGA Diversity Task Force. Michael has appeared as a guest speaker at the American Film Institute, the University of Southern California, served as Cinematographer-In-Residence for UCLA in 2018, Walt Disney Animation Studios (demonstrating ice and snow lighting concepts for animators working on the film, “Frozen”), Cine Gear, IBC, NAB and many other international industry events. He is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the National Executive Board of the International Cinematographers Guild.
A recipient of Kodak’s “Mentor Of The Year” award in 2014, Michael regularly mentors emerging directors and cinematographers, and sponsors movie nights for his mentees in his home theater to screen selections from the over 19,000 films in his collection when he isn’t riding his railroad train on the track he built around his house.