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Greensboro’s Gregg Easterbrook shoots and scores with Rushlights

by Mark Burger

Billy (Josh Henderson) and Sarah (Haley Webb) are a young couple looking for a fresh start. When Sarah’s friend dies of a drug overdose, they learn that she was the only heir to an estate in Texas.

In desperation, they arrive in Tremo, Tex. (Pop: 2870) to claim the inheritance as their own, but are soon swept up in an inescapable whirlpool of paranoia, betrayal and murder.

The independent thriller Rushlights (see Page 38 for review), which also stars Beau Bridges and Aidan Quinn, marks the feature debut of director Antoni Stutz, who wrote the screenplay with Ashley Scott Meyers and is also one of the producers. It’s quintessential film noir, steeped in a mood of suspicion and meance that unexpectedly erupts into violence.

Greensboro native Gregg Easterbrook was the cinematographer on Rushlights, and his work has earned him well-deserved praise: “Cinematographer Gregg Easterbrook understands the kind of overheated, shadowy intensity the film wants to achieve…,” wrote John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter, while Debbie Elias of Movie Shark raved: “‘Superlative’ is the word for Gregg Easterbrook’s cinematography.”

This is not Easterbrook’s first brush with creating a menacing mood, having shot the shockers Southern Gothic (2007) and Tooth and Nail (also ’07) and the hostage thriller The Killing Jar (2010), all written and directed by Mark Young.

In an exclusive interview with YES! Weekly, Easterbrook admits that he’s always had a fondness for film noir.

“It’s hard not to when you’re a DP [director of photography],” he says. “So many of the visual/compositional tools we use are front and center in noir, and so directly linked to the story. Also, noir always stretches my skills and the capabilities of the gear I’m using because the style is so full of extremes: light and dark, positive and negative space, wide shots and extreme close-ups… it’s energizing and fun.”

His inspirations include classics old and new. “Touch of Evil, The Killing, Double Indemnity and lots of Hitchcock were favorites” during his youth. Then, “there was also kind of a noir revival that took off in the ’90s when I was starting out: Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, The Usual Suspects, Fargo, Se7en, LA Confidential, Reservoir Dogs. Some of the best directors ever — Fincher, Tarantino, the Coens — did their first work in noir. It was an amazing decade.”

Although set primarily in rural Texas, Rushlights was shot in Southern California, which required some sleight of hand. “The terrain and look are pretty different,” Easterbrook says. “Also, the suburban density of the LA area made it harder to sell the open prairie vistas of Texas. I had to use some well-placed greenery and photo-real backdrops to conceal suburbia.”

He and director Stutz were in agreement when it came to the specific look of the film. “Antoni is a visual artist himself: a painter,” Easterbrook explains, “so we shared some common ground and vocabulary. He’s also a big devotee of film noir and knew he wanted that feeling for this project, so we were on the same page from the start.”

Easterbrook came to the filmmaking game late. He considered teaching, then in his twenties managed a small mutual-fund firm, at which point he says, “I went through this premature mid-life crisis.”

Fortunately, “my wife has always been enormously gracious and supportive of me… she strongly encouraged me to do what I loved.”

He attended UNCG to earn his MFA in film. “It was a great program that really made you focus on what you absolutely needed to make a shot or a scene or a whole film because they had so few resources,” he recalls. “You learned to find the people and stuff and time to get your project made — which is exactly what professional film production is on a larger scale.”

In his final year, Easterbrook won the Eastman Cinematography Scholarship, which not only meant that Kodak paid for his last year of school but also gave him a four-week internship in Hollywood. He jokes: “It was cinema-geek nirvana!” Back home in Greensboro, Easterbrook plied his trade and worked on commercials, short films and the occasional feature, balancing his professional ambitions with the responsibility of supporting his family.

For those embarking on a film career, his advice is simple:

Take what comes. Learn from the experience.

“If you have the chance to put your mark on a project that’s original and challenging and resonant, but if means you’ll have to sleep on your friend’s couch and eat noodles while you do it, that’s a good trade. You need the creative credibility more than the money.”

Next, Easterbrook reunites with writer/director Mark Young and again displays his knack for noir in Wicked Blood, a thriller starring Abigail Breslin, Alexa Vega, Sean Bean and James Purefoy, due for release next year.

“It’s the first film I have shot in Louisiana, which was fun,” Easterbrook says. “It’s also the first feature film in the world to shoot on Sony’s new F55 CineAlta digital camera, which is a very cool distinction.”

Another distinction is that “my oldest son worked with me as a PA [production assistant], which thrilled me.”

For more information about Gregg Easterbrook and his work, visit his official website: burningeyefilms.com.

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