Tag Archives: cinematography

Filming Osmosis: A Conversation with Declan Quinn

Chekhov is about time—passing it, mostly.

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He never cuts to the chase, only hints at it coming from a long way off. Then there’s the waiting, the sitting around and rattling on; it’s old-country mumblecore. André Gregory’s workshop production of Uncle Vanya, performed sporadically through the early nineties for audiences of a dozen or so lucky guests at a time, got that just right. As delivered by Wallace Shawn and friends, Chekhov’s dialogue was stripped of formality, stripped of pomp, played at the level of room tone at 10 p.m., after the dishes are cleared. It took them years to get there—years of letting the time pass and waiting for something to happen. Instead of having his actors master Chekhov’s people with strong preconceived intentions, Gregory reversed the flow, allowing the characters the osmosis time to master his actors. Director Louis Malle was one of the lucky few to see Gregory’s Uncle Vanya. And he wanted to film it. But how would he touch the bubble without breaking it? It was a tiptoe situation, like dismantling a house of cards and putting it back together again, and it was up to Louis Malle and cinematographer Declan Quinn—further constrained by budget, time, and the crumbling New Amsterdam Theatre—to figure out. Here, Quinn reveals how a single camera, a few bungee cords, and some very long takes combined to bring about the ghost art of minimum impact filming, and make Uncle Vanya into Vanya on 42nd Street.

Sam Wasson: How did you get involved with Vanya on 42nd Street?

Declan Quinn: Fred Berner and Alysse Bezahler, the producers, introduced me to Louis. That was it, really. Obviously, it was very exciting for me to be meeting with Louis Malle. I was a big fan of his films. That first meeting may even have been a phone call. We discussed a fairly loose approach to the thing—that he’d like to run the scenes long and shoot Super 16, and that it was very low-budget. We had to approach it in very broad strokes in terms of lighting and camera. He said we were going to be shooting in this old abandoned theater, a decadent space for a play about decadent attitudes. He gave me some ideas about a natural soft look. We went into prep fairly quickly.

SW: With a space like that—a landmark literally falling apart around you—how free could you be?

DQ: We really couldn’t attach to any walls or anything, so we had to be freestanding with our lights. We would up-light certain theatrical features, certain plasterwork and interesting details in the ceiling or along the columns around the stage. Lights were on the floor for those kinds of things, on dimmers. And then for the actors, we tended to work on the floor more kind of movie-style, where we might have a 12×12 or 8×8 diffusion with a light pushing through it or a light bouncing, and then some bigger cloths to shape the light a little bit. The good thing was we had enough space to get back twenty feet or so and create a nice, soft, general light for scenes like the beginning of the first act, where it’s supposed to be dayish. And then when we got in around the table, it became a little more enclosed, and the lighting became more closed, as if it’s coming from lanterns, from practicals. The New Amsterdam was just a wreck at the time and had been leaking for years, as we discover in the beginning of the film. It was cold and damp in that theater, a real chill that gets into your bones after a while, but it was an exciting place to work. Originally, we wanted to work up on the stage, because it would have given us a bigger backdrop, but we weren’t allowed there because there was a lot of ironwork suspended above that wasn’t safe. God forbid anything fell we didn’t want to be under it. So we staged it over the orchestra pit and what would have been the first bank of seating on the main floor. [Production designer] Eugene Lee built a bridge across the orchestra pit so that we could make entrances and exits from the stage to the area we were working in. In fact, when we started shooting, Disney came in to take photographs and start planning the refurbishing of the theater.

SW: As the play goes on, you begin to lose a sense of the theater. It gradually disappears until you’re in a kind of limbo with the actors.

DQ: We wanted to create a more neutral space, more existential, in the void.

SW: The transitions are so elegant, often imperceptible, starting with the actors meeting out on 42nd Street and following them into the lobby, into the theater, and then suddenly you cut behind them to give us the audience, and suddenly you realize the play’s on. It’s beautiful.

DQ: That was Louis’ masterful vision of it, a conscious thing on Louis’ part. He built all that into the dialogue before the play starts. All that talk about how tired they are, so the tone wasn’t broken. He wanted you to see how contemporary Vanya was. I think he was able to make that point really well by surprising us. There’s hardly any difference between 1990 or whenever we shot it and a hundred years earlier, in Russia.

SW: All that prerehearsal talk, was that ever put down on a page?

DQ: I don’t know for sure. I know they certainly talked about it before, but we didn’t shoot many takes of that kind of stuff. It was on the fly. We were like, “Oh, let’s follow Wally on that one” or “Let’s follow Julianne [Moore]” on that one, so I don’t remember there being a script for any of that stuff—of course, until the play starts.

SW: The long takes really bring out the collaborative nature of the production.

DQ: A 16-mil camera can hold a little over ten minutes of film, so the takes would be usually a full mag, ten minutes, so we would back up and maybe overlap something if we were moving on. Say, if we wanted to pick up five minutes into the second act, we’d probably back up two or three minutes to get up to speed and then run seven or eight minutes until the film ran out.

SW: Was the decision to go with Super 16 mostly practical?

DQ: Yeah, I think that was one good reason. You had a lighter, more agile camera that could do ten minutes per load. You could do the same with 35, but it would be two to three more times expensive for the film and the camera would require a heavier support, probably a dolly or a crane, and it just wasn’t that kind of film. We thought if we could make it handheld and kind of looser and not feel too rehearsed, it would serve the project better. And I also discovered about a year or two before a way to hang the camera off elastic bands—like a long, long bungee cord—that gave a weightlessness to the camera and allowed me to go for ten minutes of moving the camera pretty freely without getting too shaky.

SW: Bungee cord?

DQ: Basically, a couple years earlier, my key grip, Kevin Smyth, had worked on a music video with a Japanese DP. He came to me one day and said, “I gotta show you something.” He was using fifty feet of surgical tubing, which is what doctors in the hospitals use for clearing people’s stomachs and stuff like that, basically a latex, thick-walled tube that has an amazing amount of elasticity. Usually I’ll double or triple it for a 16-millimeter camera and then make it as long as possible. If it’s fifty feet long, it’s more like a hundred and fifty feet when it’s elasticized. Our key grip was able to get a piece of truss and arm it over the space we were working in and counterweight it at the back, and we were able to hang the elastic over front. We just used a carabiner to attach the tubing to the handle of the camera. So we had maybe a twenty-foot drop from the truss to where the camera was hanging. I’ve used it ever since.

The interview continues at Criterion.com

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Happy 80th Birthday, Mazursky!

Yesterday, the filmmaker Paul Mazursky turned 80. 80!

I’ve never shied away from an opportunity to write about this man’s work (for example: what I wrote here), but today I thought we would hear from Paul himself. Coincidentally – or maybe not coincidentally – I happen to be in the midst of editing Paul on Mazursky, my massive interview book with Paul, so I’ve been inundated with more hilarious Mazursky material than I know what to do with (really, I have to make cuts, and I just don’t know what can go…).

Yesterday I was revising my chapter on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and came across the following terrific anecdote. Let me set it up for you: it’s the first shot of the first day on Mazursky’s first movie. He’s panicked.

Mazursky: Charlie had been nominated for sixteen Oscars, and won one [A Farewell to Arms, 1932]. He was sixty-seven years old. He wore a shirt and tie everyday. No blue jeans or sneakers. A gentleman. He did a great thing the first day working with me. Before shooting began, I was full of confidence. I had shot rehearsals for two and a half weeks and before the movie began, I had shown much of it to Charlie and about ten other people. Since there were no fight scenes or chases they could see seventy or eighty percent of the movie right in front of them. They were on the floor. I knew it was going to work! So, you see, I was very confident when the first day of shooting came around. I had it all in my head. As I hit the set – the interior of Esalen – I saw the entire cast of extras facing me. “Good morning, Paul! Good morning! Hi Chief! Hello Chief! Where do you want to start, Chief?” The whole movie went out of my head. I thought, “I don’t know what the fuck to do.” Charlie says to me, “You know Paul, I think there’s a really good shot on top of the crane.” I had never been on a crane. I said, “Okay! Let’s take it!” And then they tied me into this crane – I don’t like heights. He sat down on one seat and I sat down on the other and we went way the hell up, looking down on the set of the interior. Charlie said to me, [Low, gravelly voice] “There’s no shot from up here, Paul. I just thought we could talk about what to do in the scene. Let’s start with an establishing shot panning past the crowd and get a few close ups of our stars and then we’ll begin doing twos and threes to cover.” I told him I thought that sounded great, and then I shouted out, “Take us down please, we’re ready to shoot!” And I got cocky in a minute. And we did it and it works.

Wait, just one more.

This one’s about Shelley Winters and the filming of Next Stop, Greenwich Village.

Mazursky: You could talk about technique, you could talk about casting, you could talk about many, many things, but it all adds up to dishwater in the end when you’re talking about that unknown thing, that mysterious thing that makes certain people great. They have an instinctive understanding of what’s going on in the role. And they have charisma. Shelley could even be sexy. It’s hard to find it sometimes, but it’s there. I don’t know anybody else who could have played the part as well as she did. She was very demanding about what she wore and props. In that scene when she brings Larry food, Shelley demanded that I use actual Ratner’s rye bread. I had given her a loaf of regular commercial rye bread, but she wanted the real thing. She went nuts. The crew was staring at me, waiting to see what I was going to do. So I took the bread, opened it, smelled it, and said, “That is a Ratner’s rye if I ever smelled one!” and then I said, “Shelley, I find it difficult to believe that you, who studied at the Actors Studio, can’t find the right sense memory from your past.” That’s when she said, “Of course I can!” And away she went.

Mazel Tov, Mazursky! Happy Birthday!

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Blahteurs in Love

I can’t say I’m surprised to learn that Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes split. Without Conrad Hall or Roger Deakins, there’s no way Mendes could make anything work.

Today, people deny ever having liked American Beauty, but I was there when it came out. I saw the reactions. Audiences of all kinds went either nuts or mildly nuts for this mildly courageous appropriation of independent film that was, after all, just a bigger version of what had come before it. Openly gay, openly surreal, down on suburbia, and hard on family, American Beauty took everything we once loved about edgier, low budget features and stuffed it into a friendly, nicely conceived package. Alan Ball’s package. (Which now looks like a rehash of Nicholas Ray, fifty years later: Rebel Without a Cause? Bigger Than Life? Johnny Guitar? They’re all in there.)

American Beauty flattered our intelligence without challenging us; it got aboard the pitch-black comedy bandwagon that had been running at full speed for years; and it crossed star performers with a new breed of disaffected youngsters, the kind that tell of street-cred beyond the studio walls. Well done, suits!

Adding cinematographer Conrad Hall to the production was a brilliant move, though, admittedly, it doesn’t take a genius to spot a genius. When it comes to Hall, if you have eyes, you will see it. Which brings me to Roger Deakins, which brings me to my point.

Mendes followed American Beauty with Road to Perdition. Conrad Hall again. Then Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. Deakins, Deakins (genius, genius). The films were not universally loved, but they were taken seriously, and dismissed tenuously. In other words, they were given the auteur treatment, even as they were denied. To be fair, the pictures were carefully, and sometimes beautifully made, so it was only fitting Mendes received undue patience. But so did William Wellman in his day. They both fall under the heading, “blahteur.” (Their films feature the distinct stamp of other people’s distinctive stamps.)

Of course, I too could be mistaken for an auteur if I had Hall or Deakins shoot my pictures. And perhaps Kate Winslet, God love her, made the same mistake. But that’s okay. These things happen. Now it’s time to heal. If I were her, I’d call up Alfonso Cuarón. He’s single.

And brilliant.

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