The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Adjustment Bureau
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Career TV Award
Presidents Award
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
A promising politician discovers his path isn’t entirely of his own making in The Adjustment Bureau, directed by George Nolfi and shot by John Toll, ASC.

Unit photography by andrew D. Schwartz, SMPSP, courtesy of Universal Pictures.
“John, thank you. It looks beautiful.” George Nolfi, the writer/director of The Adjustment Bureau, is on speakerphone, addressing John Toll, ASC, the film’s cinematographer. Nolfi is at Technicolor New York, and Toll is at Technicolor Hollywood, and they have just finished watching a color-timed version of the movie from beginning to end for the first time together via Technicolor’s “Tech-2-Tech” link, which enabled them to view identical 2K images on both coasts in real time. 

It has been almost a year since principal photography wrapped, and Toll’s work on the picture is nearly finished. His involvement in post will eventually comprise four weeks’ worth of intermittent work at Technicolor, encompassing the digital timing, carried out with colorist Mike Hatzer and senior assistant colorist Chris Jensen, as well as subsequent adjustments to the answer print, the digital-cinema package for 2K and 4K theatrical presentations, and the HD master for ancillary markets. He invited AC to sit in on a number of these sessions, providing a glimpse of the minutely detailed work a cinematographer so often does in the final stages of a movie’s creation. As Toll scrutinized the picture in different color spaces and resolutions, the filmmakers’ considerable ambition was clearly evident on the screen. 

Loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s short story Adjustment Team, The Adjustment Bureau follows David Norris (Matt Damon), a New York politician who falls in love at a critical juncture in his career only to have his relationship with the woman, Elise (Emily Blunt),  thwarted at every turn. After David learns that what appears to be coincidence is in fact design — that mysterious men with unusual powers are working to keep him and Elise apart — he must decide whether pursuing the relationship will harm them both. 

With its blend of suspense, romance, contemporary politics and elements of science fiction, The Adjustment Bureau is not easy to categorize, and this made it an intriguing proposition for the creative team and a rather singular challenge for Nolfi, a screenwriter (Oceans 12) who was making his directing debut. Toll recalls, “Throughout the shoot, I would periodically ask George to describe what kind of film we were making. His answer would change at times, but eventually we settled on calling it ‘a romantic, political, metaphysical suspense film.’ It could be the first one of that genre! 

“This was a tough picture for a first-time director, incredibly difficult,” continues Toll. “When you’re working in a clearly defined genre, the answers to many questions tend to become self-explanatory once you fall into that genre. But because of the multifaceted nature of this story, it wasn’t obvious where the punctuation should be for each department: How beautiful is ‘beautiful’? How real is ‘real’? Those are not obvious questions, and the answers do come out of the writer/director’s point of view.” 

“I was besieged,” Nolfi recalls. “When you write a script, there are a lot of instances when you suggest something, and then many other people make decisions about how to use that suggestion, or whether to use it at all. But when you direct, you have to have a point of view on every decision; if you don’t, then it just drifts. That was the most overwhelming aspect of the shoot: making hundreds of decisions a day. The overall feel or tone of a film is irrevocably shaped by all those decisions you have to make ‘on the day,’ typically under fairly intense time pressure.” 

What helped to unify the visual plan was Nolfi’s concept that the Adjustment Bureau, the organization of men following David and, in fact, controlling everyone’s destiny, has mankind’s best interests at heart. “One of the earliest ideas I had was to use incredibly beautiful images to convey what the world would be like if the Adjustment Bureau controlled everything,” says Nolfi. “The world within the Bureau is perfect-looking, but even the real world outside is a little more beautiful because of the Bureau’s influence. That was one of the first things I talked about with John: how to create a reality that’s recognizable but slightly more beautiful than what you’re used to seeing.” 

“The goal,” says Toll, “was an idealized version of modern New York that wasn’t so cosmetically beautiful that it looked totally romanticized. We wanted to feel reality, but we didn’t want to create a gritty, grungy movie. It was a matter of finding that fine line.” 

This was accomplished mainly through a judicious and extensive use of locations throughout New York City — the production had to make 25 full crew moves over the course of the 70-day shoot to fit them all in — and an emphasis on formal compositions that showcased the grand architecture at such sites as the New York Public Library, which provided interiors for Adjustment Bureau headquarters; Madison Square Park, the neighborhood where David lives; the Waldorf-Astoria, where David and Elise first meet; and the old U.S. Custom House, which figures into the story’s climactic chase. “We wanted to use locations to suggest the Adjustment Bureau is guiding humanity to a more perfect place,” Nolfi explains. “I’m a huge fan of U.S. architecture from about 1900 to 1940, and New York has that in spades. It also has a lot of exterior and interior spaces that I knew could be tied together to suggest a single, majestic location.” 

One influence on the filmmakers’ approach was René Burri’s photo São Paulo, Brazil, which is explicitly referenced in the high-angle shot that introduces Adjustment Bureau agents Harry (Anthony Mackie) and Richardson (John Slattery), who are monitoring David. “George showed me a collection of photos that included the Burri shot and many architectural images of New York, and they suggested a way to handle architecture that would help us tell the story,” says Toll. 

“But our main visual inspiration was New York itself,” he adds. “It’s so rich visually that just moving around the city constantly exposes you to ideas.” 

Nolfi wrote several specific Manhattan locations into the script, and even before Toll officially came aboard the production, he joined Nolfi for preliminary scouts of those sites while he was in New York on another project. Scouting subsequently occupied much of their formal prep, which was almost eight weeks. “That time was hugely important,” says Nolfi. “John and I spent hundreds of hours in cars and vans, just moving through the city and looking at things.” 

The filmmakers also spent prep time storyboarding key action sequences, including a daytime chase that starts at Madison Square Park and ends at Union Square. The scene begins when David boards a bus at 23rd and Broadway and encounters Elise for the second time. Harry, who was supposed to prevent David from getting on the bus, gives chase on foot as the vehicle heads down Broadway. The scene ends when Elise disembarks at Union Square. “George and I walked that [nine-block] stretch of Broadway several times in prep, and all the various beats within the sequence were very carefully boarded, which helped us enormously when we shot it,” says Toll. “We filmed it in December, when days are very short, and it involved a lot of traffic control. We did it pretty much as boarded and even had time to expand on the boards. We never would have been able to do that without careful preparation, or without the very experienced New York crew we were very fortunate to have.”  

David and Elise’s dialogue on the bus was shot in a 360-degree greenscreen environment at Steiner Studios. Toll explains, “Working with gaffer Jim Plannette and key grip Mitch Lillian, rigging grip Jim Bonice built the greenscreen and, with rigging gaffer Clay Liversidge, built lightboxes that stretched the entire length of both sides of the bus onstage. There were 30 units on each side of the bus, all on a dimmer board, and they held 1K nook lights. They were on truss and could be raised and lowered, depending on the shot. We primarily lit through the windows, adding interior bounce fill as needed with a variety of small Fresnels.

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