[Sundance 2022] Interview : Cinematographer Jordan T. Parrott on Sundance short Chaperone

Zachary Quinto appears in Chaperone by Sam Max, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jordan T. Parrott.

Chaperone, starring Zachary Quinto (J.J. Abrams Star Trek, American Horror Story) and Russell Kahn (Hundo), is one of the most visually and thematically striking shorts we caught at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

From first-time director Sam Max, whose previous work in theatre and playwriting has lead to the realms of filmmaking, Chaperone is an eerie, emotional journey of a young man and his black-clad chaperone as they embark towards a potentially final destination.

We had the pleasure of speaking to cinematographer Jordan T. Parrott, who worked closely with Max to establish the short film’s visual language of dread and mystery. Having shot a wide variety of commercial, music video and film projects, Parrott’s subtle use of naturalism is a key component of Chaperone‘s effectiveness.

This is Sam Max’s first short film, and it’s extraordinarily well-made considering that fact. How did you become involved in the project?

Katie Schiller, the wonderful producer (Shiva Baby, Dating & New York) put me in touch with Sam Max. We had an interview, it went great. I really wanted the position; I loved the writing, it was fantastic. 

I thought it fit my style really well, so I fought a little harder for it. I sent them an unreleased feature film that went to SXSW in 2021. I think they loved that, so we connected and I got hired on the project.

Having looked at some of your previous work, your visual style was a great compliment to the tone and ambiguity of the short. I spoke to Michelle J. Li (costume designer on Chaperone) earlier today, and we discussed how one of the strengths of the short is that in addition to a limited run-time, the deliberate lack of clarity gives you a lot to consider in terms of what to focus on within that limited framework.

Yes, exactly. For a short film, we met a good amount of times – four to five days of shot listing, for three hours at a time. It’s a lot for a short film. But that’s how detail-oriented we got.

We wanted to shroud the Chaperone character in mystery for the first two to three or maybe four pages. We’re not really showing or revealing him until this tender moment that he has with the client. So there’s a lot of conversation about leading into the mystery and not shying away from it, and not pointing things out to the audience. Letting them sit with it, and maybe come to the realization towards the end.

Even though the film does journey into tenderness, much of the visual language is that of the horror genre. Was horror the primary directive when it came to the look and feel of Chaperone, or was that just the logical result when aiming for mystery and ambiguity?

I think it’s both. We definitely leaned into the horror element; especially the Chaperone character: all black tones, very Grim Reaper-ish, leather kind of vibes. We definitely did both. But I would say we definitely turn on the suspense element, especially within the framing. Letting the actors do their thing within the framing and not tipping our hat towards anything. I think that also plays with the lighting. The lighting is very naturalistic for the most part, and with the night-time interiors and exteriors, that’s when we really detailed up the gravity of the situation, the horror elements.

You’ve worked on a lot of short films, which I really appreciate as somebody who adores the short form in general – short film, short fiction, anthologies, etc. A sentiment I see rear its head on occasion is the idea that short films are mostly just undeveloped features, proof-of-concept experiments. I don’t agree with that at all, but how do you view the short form?

The short form, yeah…I’ve done a lot of short films.

This film was very special. When I first read it, it was like, “okay, this is a special, rare gem” that I needed to jump onto. 

I think the short form really lends to putting questions out there, and not necessarily giving an answer. I think that’s the beautiful thing about the short format – and particularly short films – that you could go somewhere and not resolve it. 

I do agree with you, the proof-of-concept is not something I like to think about short films.I think it’s more proof-of-talent for the people involved. Short films should be their own thing. And even if it is a quote-unquote ‘proof-of-concept’ for a larger thing, the short still has to be its own thing. Maybe a place in the same world, or the same characters. 

I don’t necessarily agree with shooting a scene from a feature film and making that a short film. I think that’s too incomplete. It depends on the scene, how people do it and how it’s written. But the short form, it’s a beautiful arena to play with as a cinematographer. I always typically try to do something different on a short film as a little practice for me, whether it be different lenses, different kind of motivation for the movement of the camera, different lighting or a small filter trick – which is something I try for Chaperone.

Is that a particular shot with Zachary Quinto, where his face is somewhat obscured? Because I really enjoyed the subtlety of that. How did you go about achieving that? It’s a lovely, eerie effect, I actually wrote it down in my notes while watching.

That’s good. I’m always curious if the wider viewership will notice it, and I guess I’ll hear about that in a few months when it goes more public. 

I don’t know if I want to give it all away, but I did have a distortion filter over half of his face. And when you watch it in motion, it’s very nice. It’s split right down the middle, so when he does lean in and out of it during some lines, it really does encompass that scene perfectly towards the end of that moment. 

It’s a special trick. I’ve been playing with it more and more. Chaperone was the third time I’ve done it, and it just kind of hit it perfectly. 

Have you found that there are particular bits of gear that you’ve found to be an indispensable part of your technical palette to work with as a cinematographer over the years? 

I think a lot of my work is very naturalistic, and it takes a lot of work to get that naturalism. I could have giant lights off to the side and stuff like that. 

For this, it was very simple. We went with the natural light, I shaped it out with negative fill and stuff like that. I think for this film, a big part of its language was the anamorphic lenses and keeping the aspect ratio at 2:6. So a little bit wider than 2:39, but using the full sensor with the anamorphic glass. I think it helps set that stage of the mystery and the lingering questions throughout the film. 

The lighting was very, very simple. For projects like this, Sam’s a superb director. First-time film director, but they do a lot of work in the theatre, so they know how to the directing thing. For me as a DP, typically a first-time director has to keep it simple, so I try to give them as much time as possible with the talent without sacrificing too much on the other end. I think that’s a critical point, especially in the short format.

Is there anything you’ve been working on that you’re particularly looking forward to getting out into the world?

I have a commercial I shot right before the holiday break, and I’m excited for it to come out. That was a fun little thing. It was great. In New York, they’re playing all these commercials about sports books and betting, because now it’s legal in a lot of states. So it was a funny quip of comedic commercials, and it should be out soon.

The feature film I mentioned, See You Then, will have a theatrical release. I don’t know when, but I think it’s coming up soon. I don’t have the date, but I’m excited to see that in theatres and get that out in the world. 

It sounds like you try to make an effort to work on a bunch of different kinds of projects. It must be rewarding to be able to expand your horizons and experiment so much.

It keeps it fresh. A lot of my commercials are light-hearted comedies, and I shoot horror-ish, dark comedy films. So it’s a good branching-out for me!

Casting : Amell, Gordon-Levitt, Moretz, Butler, Jackson Jr, Mackie, Chopra

[Sundance 2022] Interview : Michelle J. Li, costume designer on Chaperone