The gaffers all call him “Flamethrower.” Michael Grady doesn’t mind burn spots, and he’s not afraid to blow out the windows or plunge deep into shadows. The look and equipment change with every film, but one constant remains: the pursuit of contrast.
“I like the idea of a pure white and a pure black within each frame, so the whole scale is very stretched,” he explains. “I think that’s a key element to create the illusion of a 3-D space.”
Grady grew up in Rockwall, Texas, not realizing his interest in moviemaking until his senior year at Texas Christian U. He followed up his undergrad with a summer stint at NYU, loading up on film classes, then headed off to the American Film Institute.
He shot “a ton of shorts,” several TV series (including the pilot for “One Tree Hill”) and a handful of low-budget indies, grateful for the practice. But it was his roller-coaster handheld camerawork on the turbulent John Holmes biopic “Wonderland” that got Grady noticed. “For ‘Bug,’ (director) Billy Friedkin saw that movie, and that was all. He called me and said, ‘You want to shoot this movie?'”
“Bug” is visually divided into three parts. It begins with the oppressive desert heat, then shifts to the tobacco-colored look of the characters’ flypaper-covered hotel room once the bugs appear, before finally descending into the paranoid, otherworldly purple palette cast by actual bug zappers. “We wiped out every Home Depot in Louisiana” looking for lights, he says.
On December’s “Factory Girl,” about Warhol “superstar” Edie Sedgwick, Grady and director George Hickenlooper wanted a “found material” feel, interviewing characters on camera and re-creating actual Warhol films. The actors themselves shot Super 8, while Grady used almost 20 different stocks, some of them vintage.
“Early on, Andy’s stuff is more static and composed, a nod to pop art, while Edie’s world was always handheld and chaotic,” says Grady. “We played with the shutter and stuff so she’s in constant motion.”
Favorite tool: Likes shooting hand-held with Panavision’s Millennium XL, but prefers to mix things up. On “Bug,” “Billy’s approach was try to never repeat a frame — completely breaking lens continuity” with every shot.
Preferred film stock: Chooses from Kodak’s Vision2 stocks to suit the project.
Inspirations: High-contrast hero Robert Richardson’s multiformat approach to “JFK” as a direct model for “Factory Girl.” Also Conrad Hall for embracing lens flares and other “mistakes.”
What’s next: “The Dead Girl,” with Toni Collette and Brittany Murphy. Grady and director Karen Moncrieff emulated a bleach-bypass finish in post using a digital intermediate to desaturate color and boost contrast.