Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole on Keeping an Eye Out in “Suncoast”

When Bruce Francis Cole got the gig to be the cinematographer on “Suncoast,” he had only ever been to Jacksonville and Miami, on the other side of the state from where Laura Chinn’s touching comedy was set in Clearwater. Production constraints would require the bulk of the shoot to occur in Charleston, South Carolina, so Cole had to rely on photos from Chinn’s youth for reference, but as someone who has had a habit of keying in on the emotional geography of how characters relate to one another rather than topography, this was surely more helpful anyway. (As for how accurate it ended up being, at the film’s recent premiere at Sundance, a graduate of Palm Harbor High School in Florida had prefaced a question by saying, “I’ve never seen my hometown on the screen ever in my life and I never thought it was very cinematic… but watching this film I thought it was really beautiful.”)

Cole found himself talking less with Chinn about lens choices or camera angles when they spoke about prepping the film than personal experiences, both having spent long stretches tending to loved ones in hospice facilities. In Chinn’s case, it came at a particularly strange time as her brother laid comatose at the same care center where Terri Schiavo resided for the final months of her life in 2005, drawing swarms of protestors both in favor and against taking her off life support when her husband and parents clashed in court over how best to proceed. The unique situation sets the stage for “Suncoast,” in which Chinn recalls with both humor and heartache the experience of staying connected with her brother as her on-screen surrogate Doris (Nico Parker) and her mother Kristine (Laura Linney) grapple with the inevitable, accepting of his imminent death as much as they can be but still unprepared to part with someone so young that they care so much about.

While “Suncoast” unfolds in a place no one would want to find themselves in either literally or figuratively, the film beautifully walks a fine line to invite you in to see the beauty, radiant when tenderness is expressed in the nondescript clinic that Doris and Kristine have to hole up in and takes full advantage of the tropical setting outdoors when Doris meets a pro-life protestor Paul (Woody Harrelson), who she may be at odds with politically, but finds an unexpected friendship flourish when they share a sense of loss and she can confide things in a stranger she wouldn’t feel comfortable saying around her mother. Cole, who has gravitated towards coming-of-age stories such as “Solace” and “Jinn,” has a gift for teasing out the light in the dark, with youthful pangs of emotion emerging from the staid surroundings Doris inhabits and has to hold in herself, not only having to process her brother’s plight but adjusting to a new school where she finds a way to ingratiate herself to classmates by opening up her home to parties because her mother is always out working.

Like looking back at a photograph where knowing the tough moment has passed tends to make the picture a little rosier, “Suncoast” has a natural glow about it, filled with life even as it concerns impending loss and Cole carefully crafts every frame as if it’s to extend a warm embrace. On the eve of the film’s release on Hulu, as well as in select theaters, the director of photography spoke about how he found a common language around grief with Chinn, the inspiration of vintage postcards and the film’s most moving moments in all respects of the word.

What got you interested in “Suncoast”?

My agent knows what kinds of material that I was looking for, especially regarding my current situation in life and dealing with the loss of my own mom, and she knew that I was always looking to find ways to bring my own personal experiences into projects that I do, so she recommended that I read this incredible script that was on the Black List that Laura Chinn wrote. I read it and immediately fell in love with it because I love coming-of-age films, as you know, and it dealt with loss and grief and all those things wrapped up into one. It felt like a really good fit for me. So I met with Laura and the producers Francesca Silvestri and Kevin Chinoy, and we hit it off. Then it was just a matter of trying to figure out how we were going to work together.

After a series of conversations, we started to dial in on what Laura really wanted this film to be. The more we talked about it, the more I realized what Laura was going for. It was a little bit different than what I had experienced in terms of loss, but it’s really interesting because when someone passes in a family, how everyone deals with grief so different. I tend to lean into darkness and Laura tends to lean into the light, and ultimately, it’s the director’s vision, so we leaned more into the light because Laura was very adamant about not wanting to have a film where you leave not feeling good about your loved ones or the passing, so we connected and just moved forward on that idea.

I’ve heard Laura describe the film’s color palette as having a flowery essence, but it’s really interesting the way that you see colors pop, even though there’s these beige or subdued backdrops, and I understand that some vintage postcards were also influential. How did you figure out how to bring that brightness into the film without being overwhelming?

With color, we were looking for the perfect reflection of Florida during the Late 90’s thru early 2000’s, and what Laura felt like her memory was of Clearwater as a child. It took us a little bit to try to figure out what that image looked like, but after a bunch of research we did, we landed on this photographer John Hinde, who did this series of postcards from the ‘50s called “Welcome to Florida.” There were these vibrant images that depicted the suncoast landscape that Florida was at the time and because they were vintage, the saturation had faded a little bit. Laura and I eventually figured out what we were looking for was this idea of vibrancy, but also a bit sun bleached.

Then we worked with our colorist to figure out a palette to shift all the colors in and we worked with a production designer to avoid certain colors, so if you look at the film, the use of yellows and blues stick out and we restricted certain colors so that we could then present them later in the film, such as green and magentas so that later on we could present those neon colors where it would show an emotional change. It’s like the first time Nico Parker’s character comes into this world of danger and ultimate youthful experience at a club, that’s the first time we introduced greens and vibrant pinks. Then we introduce a little bit of a more saturated pink when we go into the ritzy side of the neighborhood, which is Lacey’s house when they’re getting ready for the prom and her room is all in pink. For the interior of the hospice room, it’s a similar tone, but it’s more like a warm and flesh-toned pink. We wanted to make sure that the hospice room felt safe and motherly like a womb. At one of the Q&As, someone mentioned that it felt like the inside of a conch shell.

Generally, all the scenes that were filmed immediately outside the hospice where there’s a security checkpoint were pretty striking, but there’s one at night that looks like a Gregory Crewdson picture in how various parts of the background have a glow to them. What was it like filming that particular space?

It was tough because it was in the middle of a swampy forest and there were no lights, so we had to figure out what was going to be our light source. We also wanted to make sure that the background didn’t really get lost, so we were very conscious about making sure, even when it got to be nighttime that you still felt this presence of the Spanish moss in the background. Then at the same time you had all these hard lighting sources that the protesters brought mixed in with the exterior lighting of the hospice, and then we brought in some of our own fixtures to work in to make them feel like they were part of the hospice. But it definitely was a challenge and we didn’t want it to feel too dark and sparse. We wanted to feel these pockets of light all over the place.

There’s also a beautiful scene relatively early on in the film where Laura Linney’s character walks through the hallways of the hospice and arrives at the church. It’s really one of the first moments in the film after a lot of still compositions that there’s movement. What was it like to decide when to move the camera and when not to?

That move in particular, wouldn’t be as powerful if we had moved the camera a lot more throughout the film, and that’s the moment where Laura Linney’s character definitely releases energy that was being kept in a closet a little bit. At that moment is where she finally gives in to this other power that exists. We were careful about presenting what that power is, and that circle on the wall is an ambiguous symbol of spirituality, but we just wanted to mirror that character’s inner turmoil of pushing away this idea of death and ultimately accepting that it might actually be a better place for her son. Laura plays this very stoic character throughout the film, so at this moment is one where she finally softens and gives in.

Someone actually brought up a good point at one of the Q & As where they were asking us if we thought about our choices in relation to the socioeconomic situation of family dynamics when you have a working-class single mother, and the way Laura Linney plays her character. I feel its very spot on where in terms of tough love. She doesn’t have time to be soft or vulnerable, and I know that for my mom in particular, it was the same way. And that’s why we waited until that moment to show that she had a transformation. The choice to not really move the camera in general was to allow the characters to move within the frame and to play it more from an objective perspective because Laura Chinn was really clear about not wanting the filmmaking to overshadow the story and this young girl’s experience.

When this obviously is a personal project for Laura and for yourself, what’s it like getting it out into the world?

It’s been great. When we were initially shooting the movie, I think the idea was that it was going to go straight to streaming, which these days can feel a little bit like a tragedy because you spend so much time working on the image. When you’re going through post and sound design and color correction, you’re watching it on this giant screen, and you don’t know if anyone’s going to get a chance to watch it that big and you’re working on these small, tiny details. But in our minds, we were hoping that we would have some cool rollout outside of streaming, and when we were color correcting, this feeling just came over us in the room — and I think it was Laura, Francesca, my colorist, Alex Bickel, and myself — as the last scene came up, we all just started clapping together, and it was in that moment where I turned to Francesca, and I said “This is exactly what it’s going to be when we’re at Sundance.”

We started to envision us submitting to a festival and potentially getting in at that very moment. Two or three months later when we finished the film, we got the news that we were in Sundance, and of course, that was incredible, but then we still had bigger dreams. We were like, “We know it’ll go to Hulu after Sundance, but man, if we could just get some people to see this in a theater…” and then after the first screening at Sundance, we found out that Searchlight gave us a theatrical run. So that was the final moment, we were like, “There’s no better way to have your film roll out than to have it premiere in a space where it’s amongst film lovers and people who can appreciate the art form and your peers, and then to also have everyone have a chance to see it on the big screen, even if it’s for a limited time. When it goes to streaming, all the attention to detail that we put towards these films, ultimately sometimes might not even matter if someone’s just going to watch it on their cell phone and take a break and do something else. Its been very, very sweet.

“Suncoast” is now in select theaters and starts streaming on Hulu February 9th.

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