<I>Poolman</I>: Chris Pine makes his directorial debut
Marc Loftus
May 9, 2024

Poolman: Chris Pine makes his directorial debut

Actor Chris Pine makes his directorial debut in Poolman, an independent feature about native LA resident Darren Barrenman (played by Pine), who spends his days looking after the pool of the Tahitian Tiki apartment block and fighting City Hall to make his hometown a better place to live. 

A tip from a femme fatale (DeWanda Wise) alerts Darren to the truth behind a shady local business deal, leading him to enlist the help of his friends to take on a corrupt politician and a greedy land developer. His not-so-subtle investigation reveals a hidden truth about both his beloved city and himself.

The apartment complex is home to a number of quirky characters, including Diane Esplinade (Annette Bening), who is both Darren’s neighbor and therapist. Jack Denisoff (Danny DeVito) is Diane’s partner, an out-of-work actor who thinks he’s been blacklisted from the industry, while Susan Kerkovich (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a former actress turned yoga instructor, is Darren’s current girlfriend. 

Pine, who is known for his on-screen work in features and streamers (Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman 1984, Outlaw King, Hell or High Water, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond), co-wrote Poolman with Ian Gotler. Here, she shares with Post his experience in front of and behind the camera, and what he learned as a first-time director.

Chris, you decided to take on an independent film with a couple of past Oscar nominees, shooting film, appearing on-camera and working as a first-time director. What could you have done to make it harder on yourself? 

“Indeed…Maybe by having green-screen visuals or something? I mean, even the minimal amount of visual effects we had were so painstaking. I learned so much. I've been in this business for almost 25 years. I grew up in the business. I've never learned more about what it takes to make a film than I did in the two years that it took to put this film together. And I have now the deepest respect and admiration and compassion for so many more departments than I would have ever if I hadn't directed a film.”

So now you’re familiar with every aspect of the filmmaking process?

“Yeah. I had to actually really talk to Peter Devlin, my sound mixer, to really understand what he was dealing with, and his issues, and to understand from a production-design standpoint, can we shoot practically? Can we shoot at the location? Can we build in the location? What is it going to cost to transport the build? It was and endless the amount of information I was getting all the time. It was really profoundly illuminating.”

I understand that producer Patty Jenkins was very supportive of the idea of doing this film. What advice did she share?

“Well, all the directors said, obviously, come prepared. So one of the first things I did is, I went through my script and even before I had locations, I just shot listed the whole thing. My script [had] writing all over it. I think the exercise was to, like, just play pretend in your mind. You shoot the film in your head and see what it looks like, so you get a basic template from which you can work off of. That obviously changes once you go to locations and practicalities emerge. Really, what I leaned on her for, and what became more difficult is, the more people you have in a scene that you have to cover, the more difficult it is. My most difficult day, in fact, turned out to be one of my. quickest days, just by virtue of our schedule. It was shooting the city council. To really map out that day — how you're going to map out coverage — is like math! You have to make your board with all your little triangles and how you're going to move. I also had these flow charts of shooting that only made sense to me. It was quite wild, but that's shooting multiple people on a big day. It was very important.”

You chose to shoot on film. What was the dailies and development timeline you were working under?

“That's a very, very good question. Shooting film was a make or break for me. I wasn't going to shoot digital and I lost funding because of that. I almost nearly lost funding the day before we signed our deal. I prefer film. I prefer the experience of being on-set with film. I feel it makes the whole experience more sacrosanct. It's more special. FotoKem was fantastic. We were shooting in LA, so it's like Burbank's right there, so we didn't have much turnaround time. We had a we had a pretty great dailies system. I stopped watching dailies after the fourth day. My DP (Matthew Jensen) was obviously watching dailies all the time. Matt and I have known each other for like seven years. He knew what I wanted. We talked endlessly before we started. I’d say, ‘How do they look? Are we are we good? We're good!’ The person I lean on most [were the] script supervisors, who famously have the hardest job because they have to tell actors, when they're in major flow state, to remember to pick up the fork in a scene. It’s really annoying, but Julia Schachter, who's my script supervisor, just did Everything Everywhere All at Once, so she was an absolute fucking ninja. I would end up leaning on her for coverage of a scene. Are we sure we got everything? And in terms of performance, I basically just trusted myself. I would watch playback of my fellow actors a little bit, but I stopped watching playback of myself after the first week.”

There are a couple of scenes with Jack, Diane and Darren that are very dialogue intensive. Did you shoot that multi-cam, or did that come together in the edit?

“We didn't have time and I didn't have enough money to shoot multiple cameras. I only had one camera. I had two cameras sometimes, but I mostly had one camera. It was all scripted, and it was scripted to sound like a chaotic version of if (David) Lynch had a baby with David O'Russell. Very difficult! I think Peter Devlin was one of my first hires. He's an Oscar-winning sound mixer that worked on Star Trek - the first one. I've known him for almost 20 years. He came on-board for this little film. He’s one of the best at his job in the entire world, so I was totally covered on that front.”

Stacey Schroeder was your editor.

“Schroeder is like one of the absolute loves of my life. She is so calm and facile, and so and so quick with what she can do. The scene in particular  —we call it the ‘first therapy scene,’ when it’s the only therapy scene now. A lot of that is editing. Some of that's ADR to punch up certain thematic moments. The first cut of that was really long and didn't have the pop, so we went back in and really chopped it up to maintain a kinetic feel that I wanted.” 

You were editing at Warner Bros. on Avid systems. How often were you able to check in on editorial, if at all?

“I think we had Stacey the whole time. I never got a chance to check in with her other than, like, you know, carrier pigeon. It was like, ‘How's the scene looking? [Did] we miss anything? She would say, ‘It'd be great to get an insert.’ So our last day we had the Olympic triathlon of insert shooting, which Patty ended up shooting.  (She was) super, super, super helpful. Between Julia Schachter and Stacey Schroeder, I felt completely taken care of.” 

You mentioned the visual effects. What are the visual effects in a case like this? 

“The one that comes to mind is I think a tableau shot of the Tiki apartment complex, where Darren, my character, lives with his makeshift family. There was a palm tree that I didn't want, because I wanted it to look dead, basically, so we had to take that out. Oh, my god - reflections and sunglasses were nearly the death of me. Micro reflection. Diane, who's played by Annette Bening, wears these Jackie O. dark sunglasses, which were absurd to take care of.”

Something that you might not even consider?

“That was a mistake. I should have been more aware of that, and was not. I just had other fish to fry.” 

Poolman has such an LA feel with it’s architecture and color. Can you talk about the look you were going for?

“God bless FotoKem and god bless Kodak. I, I had a love affair with Dan Sasaki, the lens extraordinaire guy at Panavision. My first experience with this whole thing was going to Panavision and playing with lenses. We did the C series and we did incredible old Bausch and Lombs. What we ended up using were these incredible Baltar lenses that are called the Gordon Willis lenses from The Godfather. What I hate about digital and what I really don't like about clear film is the clarity of it. I wanted to create an obfuscation kind of proscenium experience, where I wasn't giving the visual information that you get with a Netflix show. I wanted people to kind of want to creep in, so the lines are soft. There's wonderful, weird bokeh stuff happening with lights in the background. 

“In terms of that color grade, I'm a huge fan of Kodachrome and Technicolor, and originally I wanted to shoot it, but that's not right for this because we're telling a story about a drought, so I knew I wanted washed-out colors, but I didn't want it to be the khakis of Chinatown. I wanted it to be as if Kodachrome and Technicolor had been stripped in the sun, so you get a lot of pastels that were just washed out.” 

Was that done at FotoKem as well?

“That was all done with, initially, with a LUT that Matt Jensen came up with. I don't know if they call it a LUT? Whatever the kind of process they put initially on it to give it the vaguest sense of what you want. And then it was all done at FotoKem with my colorist.” 

What do you take away from a project like this as a first-time director?

“These are a great questions I haven't thought about. We had 21 days to shoot. That's really intense - especially on film is like mad intense. It'd be nice to have 30 days. (That) would have been really nice.”

So the time itself for the shoot? 

“The amount of production time. It would have been nice to have a bit more film. God, never underestimate the insert. It's like the saving grace of all things. Always know to cut away. There is a version of shooting that I would like to do at some point, which is what they used to do in the old studio system. Actually cut in your head. Like, actually shoot a film as lean and mean as you can, and cut your head. They used to be so intense back then.  They would only carry coverage of a person until the director knew that he wasn't going to be on the person anymore. There's something sexy about that, that I like. I also like the malleability and suppleness of pivoting on the day, but more time.”

What’s next for you? Do you see your career evolving into more directing?

“I don't have anything lined up. I had so much fun doing this. Man, the joy and exhilaration of having my hands all over it. I have an idea in mind that's so far from this film — you couldn't believe it — which I would like to work on, and I think that's where I'm going to spend my energy.”