No one gets more out of less than Doug Torres. He became a 1st AD at the age of 25 by diving into New York’s vibrant independent feature scene in the ’90s, and then got a fast and furious film education in a wave of music videos with hip-hop artists Jay-Z, Nas, and Wu-Tang Clan.
Torres says he’s been lucky to work with the same small group of directors, including Griffin Dunne and James Gray, who, like Torres, are native New York-ers. “That, and my background in indie projects, has really enhanced how I contribute on the set,” he says.
Case in point was a car chase scene, shot in the pouring rain, from We Own the Night (2007), directed by Gray, with whom Torres has made three movies. “James wanted the entire chase, which was long and elaborate, told from the perspective [of Joaquin Phoenix] inside the car,” Torres explains. “But we were only able to secure a half-mile stretch, underneath the highway on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx—far too short to accommodate what James had [story] boarded.”
Torres’ solution was to create “different grids” within the scene that would maximize Gray’s coverage. “We had the repetition of the highway stanchions,” he explains, “and used the rain to obscure the fact that the backgrounds don’t change over such a short distance. It’s a trick I learned from
For the upcoming comedy, The Delivery Man, Torres had just five minutes to help his director, Ken Scott, stage a scene on the court at a New York Knicks basketball game. “Ken was up in the skybox and I was with the Steadicam guy on the court during halftime,” Torres recalls. “We had to maximize having 20,000 people inside Madison Square Garden, so I broke it all down with the announcer on the PA system. Each time I raised a finger for a new beat—we only had time for four—he would tell the crowd what we were doing and how to react, so they became a character in the film.”
Perhaps no New York location better typifies Torres’ approach than a scene in Gray’s upcoming romantic drama, Lowlife, shot in the vast main room at Ellis Island. “It takes place in 1921, and even landmark scenes, like from The Godfather: Part II, were not shot there because it’s so difficult.”
The scene, set during the day, could only be shot at night. And the room was a “fishbowl, with glass everywhere,” says Torres. Gray’s opening shot was as grand as could be, panning across the windows before booming down from the ceiling to see 500 period extras, “which, of course, we couldn’t afford to dress,” Torres laughs.
“I also have second unit experience on big VFX movies [The Amazing Spider-Man, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice], and realized that the windows, which [created] mirror images, would allow us to shoot one-half of the room.” Cinematographer Darius Khondji said he could emulate daylight on one side of the room, “so we used the lit windows as plates and stitched them over the dark side in CGI,” Torres adds.
“We broke up the benches into quadrants and, with only 100 extras, kept moving them around the room,” Torres concludes, “to create the feeling James wanted on-screen of this vast sea of immigrants at Ellis Island.” And that’s how less became more.