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Time Traveling in Style

'Thirteenth Floor' depicts both present-day L.A. and the Los Angeles of 1937.


If the masters of the German expressionistic cinema of the '20s such as F.W. Murnau ("The Last Laugh") and Fritz Lang ("Metropolis") were alive today, they might have made a film that looks like the new cyber-thriller "The Thirteenth Floor," which opens Friday.

Those legendary directors' visual and stylistic influence permeate the Columbia release, which stars Craig Bierko, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Gretchen Mol and Vincent D'Onofrio.

Not so surprisingly, the director, cinematographer, composer, star, two of the producers and two of the executive producers of "Thirteenth Floor" are, in fact, German.

"Style is very, very important to me," says director Josef Rusnak, who recently directed the second unit on "Godzilla." That monster movie's director, Roland Emmerich, is one of the producers of "The Thirteenth Floor." Emmerich's sister, Ute, is also a producer. Famed German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus ("Goodfellas," "Age of Innocence") and his wife, Helga, are the film's executive producers.

"What you see on the screen is basically what was designed in our heads," notes Rusnak. "After constructing the treatment and writing the script, the next thing is how you design the whole environment of the movie."

In the case of "The Thirteenth Floor," Rusnak created two environments: contemporary Los Angeles and L.A. circa 1937. The contemporary Los Angeles depicted is cold, harsh, isolated and sterile. The 1937 Los Angeles, however, is pulsating, bustling and optimistic.

"The Thirteenth Floor" is set in a corporate tower in downtown L.A. where technical visionaries Douglas Hall (Bierko) and Hannan Fuller (Mueller-Stahl) have taken virtual technology to a new level by creating a living, vibrant simulation of 1937 L.A. on a computer chip. After Fuller is murdered and Hall finds himself the chief suspect, Hall is pulled into the 1937 world and discovers there is a dangerous double-life that veers between the two parallel worlds.

"In the 1990s," says Rusnak, "you have a lot of establishing shots--the camera is not moving. You have a very two-dimensional kind of feeling. The people sometimes just seem to be the ornament of the structure of the rooms and the colors behind them. Sometimes you just see the people in silhouette."

For 1937, Rusnak adds, "there was a lot of depth in lighting and color to have a more three-dimensional kind of feeling."

Rusnak wanted the 1937 L.A. to be much more real than the "real" world. "What you usually see in simulations in movies are just simulations," he says. "The colors are not right. I wanted to create a computer simulation which is completely vibrant and completely alive."

The director had his artistic staff screen Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1966 classic "Blowup" in order to give the contemporary sequences a '60s style "where you have skyscrapers, glass refections and, again, two-dimensional pictures."

"The '30s for me was very much inspired by Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in America' and also Bernardo Bertolucci's pictures where he moves the camera [a lot]."

Rusnak brought over his longtime cinematographer Wedigo von Schultzendorff from Germany to help him achieve his vision. "We basically, almost mathematically, defined the camera lens," says Rusnak, "and if we were going to have the camera move or not move."

Schultzendorff says Rusnak originally wanted the 1937 sequences to be shot in black and white. "I said that's too much. Let's do a system where we can desaturate colors and make it look a little monochromatic," says the cinematographer.

"What you see on the screen we shot in color and we made a dupe negative [in color] and a black and white negative," says Rusnak. "What we did was sandwich the black and white and the color negatives together so we were in control of how much color got in the picture. What we did basically was add black and white contrast to the colors."

The dominant color in the 1937 sequence is brown. The director's color palette for those scenes was inspired by picture postcards from that era.

"What happens is that in old postcards, certain colors stick out," he says. "The green will always dominate the picture. It doesn't fade as fast as other tones. So this is what makes [the movie] look a little bit unique. We made some very, very early tests and adopted the lighting concept and colors for the costumes."

Production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli, who previously worked on "Murder in the First" and "Blade," looked at old postcards, old newsreel footage and "everything we could get our hands on" to re-create the Los Angeles of six decades ago."

Petruccelli found several vintage buildings in downtown Los Angeles. "Down at Fourth and Main [streets] we found a major intersection with a really beautiful vista of original buildings," says Petruccelli.

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