Sunday, April 20, 2003

Interview: Behind The Scenes With Robert Elswit

Adam Sandler and the French New Wave are not often discussed in the same breath, but according to cinematographer Robert Elswit, they both figure in his new collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Elswit explains that Anderson's latest feature Punch-Drunk Love, which stars Sandler and Emily Watson, takes some of its visual cues from the early color films of nouvelle vague director Jean-Luc Godard. That is not to say that this new Anderson release attempts the heavily intellectual approach Godard was known for. Punch-Drunk Love, promises to be lighter and more straightforward than anything Godard, or even Anderson, has done in the past.

Elswit, who shot all three of Anderson's previous features, explains that the content of the film is more like an early Peter Sellers comedy centered on a main character that we love despite his extensive eccentricity. But the inspiration for the look, he adds, came from Godard's early color films, particularly A Woman is a Woman starring Jean Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy, and Anna Karina.

Raul Coutard shot many of those early films, including Woman. "[He] created interiors that had a very unique look for that era," says Elswit. "In A Woman is a Woman, Jean-Claude Brialy wears this electric-blue suit and it stands out in these rooms with white walls. This was kind of a starting point for the look of this movie. Paul wanted to find a way of realizing these clean white walls and then having just one or two main colors. The costume designer Mark Bridges came up with this blue outfit for Adam Sandler then a few very specific colors for what Emily Watson wears. The rest of the design is a kind of monochromatic version of one tone."

Goals & Challenges
Early on, Elswit and Anderson decided Fuji 125T would best render the palette they were after. "It's a contrasty stock," says Elswit. "You have to fill it a lot. When you light, the set doesn't look right to the eye or on the monitor. I generally rely on a one-degree spot meter made by a company in Vermont called Zone VI. It's unbelievably accurate. With that meter I can essentially do a one-light work print and be very consistent throughout."

Elswit shot Punch-Drunk Love with Panavision cameras (primarily older Panaflex models) and Primo anamorphic lenses—0, 50, 75, 100, and 180. He set the aperture as wide as he was comfortable going in an anamorphic show—between T 2.8 to just under T 4. Even so, interiors still required quite a lot of light for exposure, as well as a great deal of control because of the stock's inherently high contrast. This was particularly challenging because Elswit, like Coutard in 1960s Paris, had to tailor his lighting for location shooting.

Coutard, Elswit explains, built lighting rigs that allowed him to encircle the interior of a Parisian apartment with Photofloods all aimed at the ceiling, which had been rigged with aluminum foil. The bounced light hitting the actors in the room provided a soft feel to the images while bringing the overall light level up enough to almost match the generally overcast view outside the windows. For Elswit to approximate this effect in Southern California's notoriously sunny San Fernando Valley, he needed instruments far more powerful than Photofloods. "You always want big lights far away," he says. "The hard part in locations is it's big lights really close. So part of the trick is finding a place to put them."

A lot of Punch-Drunk Love, takes place in an industrial strip mall where Sandler's character runs an import/export company of cheesy novelty items. The location is one of countless non-descript, industrial-looking areas that exist throughout the San Fernando Valley. The 100x180-foot warehouse space consists of a long concrete building where Sandler's character keeps an office. The entire interior was painted white, and glass walls within the massive space defined his office. There are giant doors leading outside the warehouse to reveal a giant, white cinder block wall. "The hardest thing," Elswit recalls, "was getting the exposure level of the office bright enough and still feeling like it's natural light."

The design suggested an overhead fluorescent light fixture in the office, but instead of a real fluorescent fixture that could never have approached the exterior levels, Elswit used a dozen 6k Pars aimed at a sheet of bleached bounce light down on Sandler's desk. "We had more lights in there than I've had in almost anything I've ever shot," Elswit says. "That gigantic amount of light let us balance—not quite perfectly—the exterior. At least it was close enough that you could get a nice full exposure inside the office and have it fall off somewhere toward the back of the warehouse and still have the outside be only a stop and a half overexposed."

In scenes where the lights are all daylight-balanced, Elswit debated whether or not to use an 85 filter. "You always get different points of view from the lab people," he says. "Some tell you to always use an 85, others say to make the adjustment in timing. Paul just said, 'I don't like filters. Let's not use any.' Now, with Panavision, you put your 85 filter in back, so it's not even a real filter. But Paul just didn't want to use any filters so we didn't and the lab was, in fact, able to make the necessary adjustments in the timing."

The effect of matching interior and exterior exposure, however, was less than seamless, Elswit admits. But Anderson, who is open to the unusual and unpolished, had Elswit alter the aperture in the middle of a shot if a character walked from a really bright exterior to the interior or vice versa. The effect, not unlike what happens when someone takes their auto-iris home video camera from one kind of lighting condition to another, is not something Elswit would push for himself. But he has worked with Anderson long enough, and he respects his vision to the point that he went with it.

"Of course, we've done f/stop pulls on other movies," he says, "but generally you try to be subtle about it. We came up with the idea of not trying to hide them here. We thought, 'Let's have somebody walk in from a bright exterior and, while they're standing there, go from an f/11 to an f/4 and just see the character and the background change so that it's part of the film.' It was always in a transitional moment. It was never in the middle of a piece of dialog or something like that, but there's no attempt made to conceal it."

In this way, too, Anderson's approach resembles that of Godard, whose films gleefully break all cinematic conventions—though not for the Brechtian, artifice-exposing motifs attributed to the Parisian intellectual. "Paul's esthetic," Elswit explains, "is to say, 'Let's try this, it might be neat.' If accidents happen, we don't turn the camera off. There are no marks for actors. He wants to rehearse on film, which puts a particular strain on camera assistants, but he knows there's a certain magic when the actors have that freedom and are doing a scene for the first time.

"The hard thing for a cameraman," Elswit continues, "is that something that can serve the movie isn't always the thing that impresses you as a cinematographer or your cinematographer buddies. But Paul has very definite ideas about what he wants and it can be really freeing sometimes to just do things that you would normally reject. It can keep the whole process of filmmaking fresh."

At one point Sandler's character is being followed by the Steadicam as he talks on the phone. During a take, the front of the camera bumped into a table and knocked the camera briefly, causing the shot to jump from Sandler to an image of an out-of-focus piece of the set and then quickly re-adjust. "Most directors would probably not even print that take," says Elswit, "but Paul loved the effect and wanted to do it again. So we did more takes and right at the same point in the dialog, I'd sort of smack the front of the matte box to re-create the look." Though a final cut wasn't completed by press time, Elswit believes the shot, for which no other coverage exists, will remain in the final film.

The resemblance to Godard ends, says Elswit, with the look and the occasional convention-bashing effect. "I don't know if Godard ever involves you emotionally in a movie, and Paul is all about emotion," he says. "So much of Godard is about a kind of cool irony. Paul's the smartest guy in the world, but when it comes to his work there's not an ironic bone in his body."

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