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Indie Auteurs Delve Into Gray Areas of Black-and-White Film

A trio of American helmers find cheaper costs, commercial hurdles — and a bold world of creativity

In this modern era of 3D, effects-laden movie spectacles, some of Hollywood’s most prolific indie directors are making a colorful splash into black-and-white.

Ever since the critical and commercial success of 2011’s Oscar-winning global hit “The Artist,” there’s been a resurgence of the age-old cinematic format that over the decades graced such classics as “Citizen Kane,” “Psycho,” “Manhattan,” “Schindler’s List” and “The Last Picture Show.”

This year alone there are four black-and-white pictures — Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Alexander Payne’s upcoming release “Nebraska” and Brit helmer Ben Wheatley’s “A Field in England.” Along with Tim Burton’s animated feature “Frankenweenie” and Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves” last year, moviegoers will have had more exposure to the throwback format in a two-year span than during any other comparable timeframe in recent history.

For the three U.S. directors, each film aficionados of the highest order, the decision to shoot in black-and-white represented a chance to use the format as a creative tool.

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“Most filmmakers, if you ask them, at some point would like to make a black-and-white movie,” Baumbach says. “It’s such a specific and whole other way to photograph a story.”

Payne adds that just as black-and-white still plays a significant role in the world of fine art photography, it should be a normal part of every director’s creative palette.

“It’s only for commercial reasons that (black-and-white) left our cinemas,” says Payne, “but it remains a beautiful form.”

The disappointing performance of Burton’s stop-motion toon, “Frankenweenie,” which grossed just $67 million worldwide, illustrates the challenge of releasing a B&W film for general audiences. Kids in particular just didn’t seem to get the retro format.

Meanwhile, the $135 million-grossing best picture Oscar winner, “The Artist,” points to black-and-white’s continued viability in the arthouse world.

Case in point: The first entry in this year’s monochromatic trio, “Frances Ha,” launched May 17 via IFC Films, and has so far collected north of $2 million domestically, a respectable sum for a microbudget limited release (shot entirely on a DSLR camera). “Much Ado,” from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, bowed June 7 with a strong opening per-screen average of $34,388 from five locations.

Paramount Pictures, which premiered “Nebraska” at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, will debut the film Stateside in limited release Nov. 22. Payne says that while the creative challenges of black-and-white were what interested him most, he was forced to also deal with its commercial roadblocks. For starters, Paramount had reservations about releasing “Nebraska” in monochrome. The studio ultimately relented after Payne settled for a reduced production budget of $13.5 million. The director also agreed to provide a color version of the film for the few overseas territories that require it for TV licensing deals. Normally, only if a black-and-white film fails theatrically will a color version be used in certain international markets.

All three American films were shot in color digitally then converted to black-and-white in post-production for no additional cost. Each of those stories have contemporary settings , and therefore don’t lean on black-and-white to establish a strict retro era. (To contrast, “A Field in England” is a period horror film.) Whedon says genre contributed to his decision to film “Much Ado” (shot in 12 days at his Santa Monica home) in black-and-white.

“It’s not a straight-up goofy comedy. It’s a noir comedy,” says Whedon. “But I wanted to make sure I captured both of those elements.”

The two films already in theaters — “Frances Ha” and “Much Ado About Nothing” — haven’t been entirely devoid of color when it comes to their marketing materials. IFC, which Baumbach says was supportive of the monochrome format from the beginning, used hot pink lettering on the “Frances Ha” poster.

Meanwhile, Lionsgate, in its one-sheet for “Much Ado,” uses bright red-orange for the film’s title and a martini held by one of the actors, strikingly set against a black-and-white background.

Whedon says he considered adding some color to his film, but found that would be too costly in post.

Payne says that learning the creative nuances of shooting in monochrome was challenging . “When you no longer have color, you’re dealing with tone and texture,” he says.

Baumbach agrees, but suggests that digital cameras create another level of complexity when filming in black-and-white. “If you shoot something in color digitally, and then take the color out, there’s something that looks synthetic about it,” he says. “It was about testing and learning how to use the cameras.”

The director also notes that there are varying shades of gray when enlisting black-and-white.

“The kinds of black-and-white films we’re getting evoke the historical black-and-white photography that we all love,” Baumbach says. But, he adds, those films also represent a fresh use of the format.

While Payne and Baumbach say it was always their intention to shoot in black-and-white, Whedon admits the gray-scale presentation of “Much Ado” was a result of both creative and practical reasons. For instance, black-and-white gave Whedon more fl exibility in filming outdoors, as well as with interior shots (he felt the walls in his home were too bright for color, and using monochrome saved him from having to re-paint his house).

“When I thought noir comedy, I thought, ‘What does that mean?’ ” recalls Whedon. “I wanted to give this movie some of that old Hollywood glamor, and I think we would have had more of a challenge if it wasn’t in black-and-white.”

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