Sunday, May 27, 2018
  • Friday, Feb. 5, 2016
Creating Different Worlds: "Mad Max: Fury Road," "The Revenant," "Spotlight," "Carol" and "Amy"
John Seale, ASC, ACS
DP, producer, director, editor and costume designer insights into their Oscar-nominated work

It’s been reported that John Seale, ASC, ACS came out of retirement to shoot director/co-writer George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, but the cinematographer regards that as “a running joke.” Seale quipped, “I’ve ‘retired’ each of the 10 movies I did prior to this.”

Circumstance is what brought Seale into the Mad Max world. When Miller’s DP Dean Semler bowed out for personal reasons, the director turned to Seale whom he worked with years earlier on the moving drama Lorenzo’s Oil.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” said Seale. “I enjoyed working with George and producer Doug Mitchell on Lorenzo’s Oil, and I knew Mad Max would be an iconic picture. There wasn’t a script at the time but the story was laid out all on storyboards. I had no choice but to say yes with the knowledge that we were talking about a standout movie.”

This month’s unveiling of the Oscar nominations put a punctuation mark on that “standout” assessment. Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.) finished second in the Academy Award nominations tally with 10: Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Editing (Margaret Sixel), Production Design (Colin Gibson, production designer; Lisa Thompson, set decorator), Costume Design (Jenny Beaven), Makeup & Hairstyling (Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega, Damian Martin), Sound Mixing (Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff, Ben Osmo), Sound Editing (Mark A. Mangini, David White), and VFX (Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams).

This post-apocalyptic tour de force earned Seale his fifth Best Cinematography Oscar nomination, the first coming for Witness in 1986, then Rain Man in ‘98, The English Patient in ‘97 and Cold Mountain in 2004. He won the Oscar for The English Patient.

For Seale the Mad Max journey had twists and turns. Seale noted that Miller initially set out to make a 3D movie, and had spent years developing and creating his own cameras to do so, particularly to accommodate scenes inside the tight confines of the cab of a truck. Seale wrapped his head around this, ascending a steep learning curve, one he welcomed for what was to be his first experience in digital cinematography. Still, there was some angst over limited sensor range with the 3D model.

Suddenly, though, Miller changed course. Just a few weeks after Seale came aboard the project, he recalled attending a pre-pro meeting at which Miller said he had instead opted to go 2D. “It was a bit of a shock but at the same time it freed us up,” shared Seale. “The 2D cameras gave us what we sought because the Alexa sensor was much better and the Alexas were battle proven digital cameras.”

Seale deployed 10 ARRI Alexa Plus cameras, four of the little Alexa M cameras, 10 or 12 Canon 5Ds, and a number of Nikons. The M cameras proved ideal for working within the cabin of the truck. “We were fortunate to be able to get four of the little M cameras that Roger Deakins had used on Skyfall,” said Seale who noted, “We did anything we could to break the image down so it didn’t have that electronic look. We gave the image grain and contrast and then George pushes the image a long way in postproduction. We didn’t want a standard post-apocalyptic look of desaturation of colors. Instead George wanted it an almost ‘scorched earth’ look. It didn’t matter what the apocalyptic event was—a meteor or a more gradual decay. Whatever it was, it resulted in this scorched earth.”

Initial thoughts of shooting in Australia, though, were thwarted by that scorched earth prerequisite in that heavy rains five or so years ago had turned the Australian Outback desert location into a landscape of wildflowers. “George didn’t want a single trace of green vegetation, not a blade of grass, so we wound up in Namibia,” related Seale who added that the interiors were shot on a stage in Sydney along with some in Cape Town. Green screen work was also prevalent. It was a major undertaking, said the DP, to move the massive crew, trucks and vehicles to the south Atlantic coast of Africa.

Among the massive hardware was the EDGE camera rig, a Toyota Tundra truck with a stabilized crane on the roof, which had a stabilized camera on the end of it.

Still, whatever the machinery and the logistical hurdles, Miller was always in control, affirmed Seale. “He had been honing this film for years in his preparation. This was a very choreographed film, mainly for safety. George is adamant about safety. It’s paramount to him. The stunt work is meticulously planned and choreographed. This was not a what-if film. You knew what the shot was, exactly how the stunts would play out.”

Miller never lost sight of the story in the midst of the heart-pumping action. It’s a tale driven by women seeking a place free of tyranny, sparking an adventure with dimensions that go far beyond an action film. “Eventually there was a script but we first worked off of George’s detailed storyboards. Amazingly the story and logistics were all mapped out in George’s head. He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with. He’s got all this in his head and sometimes you have to work to get it out of there. But in the end, you work it out. He’s an incredible collaborator.”

Best Picture nods
Producer Steve Golin, founder and CEO of Anonymous Content, earned his second and third career Best Picture Oscar nominations last month—for Spotlight (Open Road Films) and The Revenant (Twentieth Century Fox). His first nod came in 2007 for Babel, which like The Revenant was directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Anonymous and Iñárritu have a collaborative relationship in long and short form. For example, Iñárritu’s first DGA Award win, prior to his scoring the Guild’s top honor last year for Birdman, came in 2012 for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials on the strength of P&G’s “Best Job,” which was produced by Anonymous Content.

Anonymous’ wide-ranging production portfolio spans multiple disciplines and genres, including spots, branded content, and TV series (including HBO’s True Detective, Cinemax’s The Knick, USA Network’s Mr. Robot, and the upcoming TNT series The Alienist). Anonymous also has an extensive track record producing and developing feature films, including The Revenant and Spotlight.

Anonymous’ development of Spotlight took some six years. The project was initially brought to Anonymous by producers Blye Pagon Faust and Nicole Rocklin who had the rights to the story from Boston Globe reporters behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation revealing cases of childhood molestation by some 90 local priests and the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of that abuse. Spotlight takes us through that exhaustive process of investigative journalism—the good steps and the missteps—which for this story began in mid-2001 and extended through early 2002. The movie’s title refers to the four person Spotlight section investigative team at the Globe—editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (portrayed by Michael Keaton), reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).

Golin and his compatriot, producer Michael Sugar, were drawn to the story and decided to develop it, bringing the project to director Tom McCarthy. “He [McCarthy] was busy,” recalled Golin. “He couldn’t write it at the time but wanted to direct it. We hired our [Anonymous talent management division] client Josh Singer to write Spotlight. Tom and Josh later went on research trips to delve more deeply into the story. Tom became so enamored with the story that he decided he would write along with Josh.”

As for why he gravitated to McCarthy for Spotlight, Golin related, “I loved The Visitor [which McCarthy wrote and directed]. It was a brilliant movie. I also liked his film Station Agent. I knew Tom had an affinity for journalism. He played a reporter [character Scott Templeton] in the show The Wire. His agent is a good friend of mine and it all ultimately came together. What also helped was that Tom and Josh involved the journalists themselves from the Spotlight team, adding to the film’s authenticity.”

Faust, Rocklin, Sugar and Golin are the individuals named in the Spotlight Best Picture Oscar nomination. Spotlight is up for six Oscars, the others being for Directing, Original Screenplay, Editing (Tom McArdle), Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo) and Supporting Actress (McAdams),

Meanwhile scoring twice as many nominations, 12, which leads this year’s Oscar pack, is The Revenant. The film also took 11 years to develop, nearly twice as long as what went into Spotlight. It started when Anonymous optioned “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge,” the 2002 book authored by Michael Punke and based on the true story of the American frontiersman Hugh Glass. Golin teamed with Anonymous cohort, producer Keith Redmon,  on the development of The Revenant. Anonymous brought Mark L. Smith in to write a draft of the script. Originally another director was attached to The Revenant but over an extended time that choice fell through with Iñárritu entering the picture five or six years ago. Iñárritu and Smith collaborated on several drafts. While Leonardo DiCaprio had been interested in the project for a long time, he went off to do Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, pushing the schedule back for The Revenant. Iñárritu segued during the interim to Birdman, which scored four Oscars, including for Best Picture and Director in 2015.

The Revenant is an epic story of survival and transformation on the American frontier in the 19th century. DiCaprio portrays legendary explorer Glass who survives a bear mauling and then the betrayal of a member of his hunting team, John Fitzgerald played by Tom Hardy. Fitzgerald was supposed to protect the seriously injured Glass but instead left him for dead—after killing his son. Glass refuses to succumb, undertaking a grueling 200-mile odyssey through the vast and untamed West on the trail of Fitzgerald. What begins as a relentless pursuit of revenge becomes a heroic quest to return home, resulting in a personal, spiritual saga of redemption.

Producers named in the Best Picture Oscar nomination for The Revenant are Iñárritu, Golin, Redmon, Arnon Milchan and Mary Parent. The Revenant’s other nominations are for Best Director, Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC), Editing (Stephen Mirrione, ACE), Production Design (Jack Fisk), Sound Editing (Martin Hernandez, Lon Bender), Sound Mixing (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Randy Thom, Chris Duesterdiek), Costume Design (Jacqueline West), Lead Actor (DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Hardy), VFX (Richard McBride, Matt Shumway, Jason Smith, Cameron Waldbauer), and Makeup & Hairstyling (Sian Grigg, Duncan Jarman, Robert A. Pandini).

Asked if he thought when he embarked on his career that he would one day have three Best Picture Oscar nominations to his credit, Golin said he wouldn’t have thought that as recently as last year relative to recently bestowed nominations two and three. “The alchemy of a movie is tricky,” observed Golin. “No one sets out to do a movie that’s not great—yet not many movies come out great. On both these movies, we were fortunate to have super talented people involved and that the alchemy worked out well. Still, we had one movie in development for 11 years, another for six. Who could reasonably think that both would come together in the same year to earn Best Picture nominations?”

The Revenant
Mirrione is no stranger to Oscar, having won the Best Editing Academy Award in 2001 for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, garnering his second nomination in 2007 for Iñárritu’s Babel (with fellow editor Douglas Crise), and now a third nom for Iñárritu’s The Revenant.

Babel and The Revenant are just part of the filmography shared by Iñárritu and Mirrione. Their first collaboration was 21 Grams (2003). Mirrione and Iñárritu also teamed on Biutiful (2010) and Birdman (2014), the latter with Crise. In terms of chronology, said Mirrione, The Revenant actually preceded Birdman—or at least it was supposed to. “Five years ago, Alejandro brought me the script but when Leo went off to do The Wolf of Wall Street,” recalled the editor, “the project was put on hold. So we did Birdman instead.”

Birdman was a formidable challenge in that the film played as seemingly one continuous take, meaning that “one false move and the whole thing would fall apart,” noted Mirrione. “We had to be disciplined and plan things out perfectly. In a way it was good that Birdman came first, serving as kind of a warm-up, helping us hone the discipline we needed to make The Revenant work.”

Just as The Revenant was a story of survival, so too did the filmmaking team have to endure harsh elements and terrain. Also hanging over them was a looming deadline, necessitating that Mirrione work 12 to 14 hour days for six months straight. “There were huge technical and logistical challenges,” said Mirrione. “The big storytelling challenge was that at a critical point we ran out of snow, meaning we weren’t able to shoot the final climactic scene of the movie as scheduled. And built into that scene were other scenes that would serve as the dreams of the character Glass, his memories from 10 years earlier. Since we ran out of weather [in Alberta, Canada], we basically closed up shop for a stretch and came back to L.A., putting the movie together, trying to do that job of finding the story, finding the movie within what we had done. We were hampered by if we show this to somebody, we would just be guessing as to the ending and a lot of Glass’ life as reflected in his dreams. But what would have been considered a big disadvantage we made work for us. We were able to incorporate a lot of the effects work while we waited to resume shooting—so we moved closer in some respects to the finished edit than we would have been had everything gone according to schedule . The circumstance forced us to be super critical of what we were doing, to solve storytelling issues before that reshoot.”

While his base during shooting was an editorial office in downtown Calgary, Mirrione said he had to be “super mobile. There would be times when I’d have to travel out two hours to the side of a mountain in case Alejandro wanted to work with me during a lunch break because that was the only time he had for the rest of the week. Or I’d just have to pick up and go to distant locations, setting up in a hotel for a week. We all had to be very nimble and fast as weather was changing. They had to switch up what they were shooting on a given day much more than they would have wanted to. We had to adjust. If they needed certain elements of a just shot scene cut in order to figure out what to do for another scene, we had to be immediately responsive. It was like Glass’ story. Once you climb that mountain, there are issues or problems. Sometimes you slide back down. Luckily we had moments of peace so we could create poetic moments in the film. The schedule was pressing. Everybody had to be completely focused. If Leo hadn’t been able to nail his performance, endure the elements, if the entire cast and crew hadn’t been so resilient, this film couldn’t have come together like it did. One false step would have been costly.” 

Among the other Oscar nominees on The Revenant is costume designer West. This marks her third nomination, the first two coming for the Philip Kaufman-directed Quills in 2001, and David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2009. West’s filmography also includes several pictures for director Terrence Malick, all shot by Lubezki, who also lensed The Revenant.

The Revenant reunited West with not only Lubezki but also production designer Fisk, an Art Direction Oscar nominee in 2008 for director Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and now nominated in the production design category for The Revenant. West has worked on multiple films (Malick’s The Tree of Life, The New World, To the Wonder) over the years with Fisk who in a recent installment of our The Road To Oscar Series credited her with making major contributions to The Revenant. Fisk said, “Jackie West’s costumes were omnipresent, like portable settings unto themselves.”

West noted, “The Revenant marks the eighth time I’ve worked with Jack Fisk, the sixth time with ‘Chivo’ [Lubezki] and of course the first with Alejandro. I was in Italy on the first night of a long-awaited vacation with my husband when I got an email from Jack Fisk who said I have to come home and meet with this director. He told me it was Alejandro whose movies I love. I always wanted to work with him. But I told Jack I could not just leave my vacation. It’ll be instant divorce. My agent got involved, one thing led to another and a Skype call was arranged between Alejandro and me. We had an initial call, then another one in France when I was visiting my daughter. Each time Alejandro and I talked for about two hours. I could hear his passion about the film. He was wonderful to talk to. After we Skyped, it was pretty soon that he said he was hiring me.”

West described Iñárritu as “an auteur, a metaphorical, metaphysical director who responds to things viscerally, especially costumes. His career is about delving into the inner workings of characters psychologically. This journey of Glass is marked by enlightenment through pain and suffering. And part of what I had to do was metaphorical, portraying all that in the costumes Glass wore. Alejandro responds to costumes; his body language changes when he likes something. I had to work to get that feeling from him. It goes beyond historical detail, which he cares about very much. But he also cares deeply about the emotions that he feels a costume is portraying, reflecting the character’s inner being, what his path is, his backstory—in the case of Glass what he encountered in the wild.

“Alejandro had the poetic idea that Leo [Glass] would wear a bearskin that’s left behind in camp when his fellow trappers abandon him,” continued West. “There’s a wonderful irony that the thing that almost killed him, a bear, ends up saving his life in the wilderness. The bearskin keeps Leo alive, protects him, gives him buoyancy down the river. Glass is not a mercenary like Fitzgerald who’s only looking to make money from the wilderness. There’s a scene where Glass climbs out of a horse’s carcass which protected him during a brutal storm. It’s almost like Glass is reborn. He can stand up again and touches the horse in a tender manner, thanking it. He’s thankful for the animals. For Glass, wilderness is his cathedral. For that reason, I chose an almost spiritual monastic costume for him, with a hood. Alejandro responded to it—it was one of the first costumes I showed him.”

Every costume choice, related West, is important to Iñárritu “who wants things to be subliminal. He wants the costumes to spark something the viewer feels. While this is an epic movie, Alejandro is a very subtle director who shares little details that shed light on the interior of each character. This was a very spiritual journey for Glass—as it was for Alejandro, and he wanted it to be like that for all of us who were making this film.”

Carol (The Weinstein Company) landed six major Oscar nominations. Directed by Todd Haynes, the film tells the story of title character Carol Aird (portrayed by Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belvit (Rooney Mara), two women who fall in love in New York City in the early 1950s. Phyllis Nagy wrote the adapted screenplay based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, “The Price of Salt.”

Nagy scored an Oscar nomination for Carol as did Blanchett (for leading actress), Mara (supporting actress), Sandy Powell (costume design), Carter Burwell (original music score) and Ed Lachman, ASC (cinematography). 

Carol marks Lachman’s second career Oscar nomination, the first coming for Haynes’ Far from Heaven in 2003. The director and DP have collaborated on four projects over the years, the others being the feature I’m Not There and the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.

Lachman observed that Carol in a key respect was “kind of an outgrowth of Mildred Pierce,” for which he earned nominations for the ASC Award and a Best Cinematography Primetime Emmy. “For Mildred Pierce Todd did not reference the cinematic language of the 1940s, film noir or Hollywood melodrama. Instead the look came out of trying to capture the reality of what that time was like. Similarly for Carol, we did not reference the cinematic language of that time. Todd’s approach was to look at the cultural and social fabric back then. Patricia Highsmith wrote the book in 1949 and it was published in 1952. We didn’t want a romanticized view of New York at that time. This wasn’t a time of optimism. It was more a retrenchment, a muted time between World War II and the Eisenhower years. It was the beginning of the Cold War, paranoia about McCarthyism. We looked at art photographers and photojournalists whose work at the time showed a more lived-in idea of what that world was. That sense of place and presence of the time period fit in with the story of Carol and Terese’s romance. Terese feels an emotional isolation. Carol has a certain hesitation about this relationship with a younger woman—the cultural difference, the age difference, the sacrifices that would have to be made.”

This visual approach led to the decision to shoot on Super 16mm film with the Arri 416 camera, using older lenses. “The grain structure of Super 16 referenced the way photographs looked back then,” explained Lachman. “I was trying to reference early color film. If I shot on 35mm, I felt I would have lost the look of that time period. If this had been shot digitally, the picture would have played much differently and not supported the characters, their story and sense of place nearly as well.”

Lachman noted that Highsmith was a crime novelist and psychological writer who delved into the subjective viewpoint of the criminal mind. “What Todd found interesting about ‘The Price of Salt’ was that though the book wasn’t written in the crime milieu, it dealt with the subjectivity of the amorous mind,” said Lachman. “Love was in a sense the crime. It was a taboo love at that time. We see the struggles of realizing that love against the backdrop of the struggles of the times. Yet ultimately both women come of age through their love for each other.”

It’s said that one discipline informs another. And for director Asif Kapadia, his narrative feature chops have certainly impacted his documentary filmmaking as reflected in Amy (A24 Films), which earned an Oscar nomination as Best Feature Documentary just days after landing him his first career DGA Award nod.

Amy peers into the life of Amy Winehouse, an extraordinarily gifted vocalist and songwriter who died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27. Her story is made all the more poignant by Kapadia who rather than a typical talking heads approach has fashioned a documentary that thrusts us into Winehouse’s life as if we are there and along for a first-hand ride. Audio captured from Kapadia’s interviews with assorted subjects serve as narration/voiceover which accompanies home and personal videos of Winehouse, performance footage, news coverage and other relevant imagery. We see Winehouse’s budding talent, a stretch of career floundering between her first and second albums, and then the attainment of fame which makes her prey to not only the tabloid media that relentlessly hounded her but also a number of people in her trusted inner circle who were preoccupied with cashing in on her talent, casting a blind eye to the fact that she needed help.

Amy also delves thoughtfully into Winehouse’s music, sharing lyrics she wrote that are akin to a diary. Winehouse’s words reveal her life’s roadmap, the triumphs, lost love and the downward spiral of substance abuse and addiction.

“My background is in narrative films,” related Kapadia whose early credits included The Warrior, which in 2003 won BAFTA’s Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film. “Instinctive from my narrative background is telling a story from the central character’s point of view, showing what he or she is experiencing and feeling, putting viewers right there in pivotal moments when key choices are made. I interview a lot of people for a documentary, get their informed opinions, what they saw and experienced. As a filmmaker I have to be invisible, to get under the skin of characters. I try to show the audience what a character is thinking. I show them. I don’t tell them. I do that when writing and directing a narrative feature—as well as for a documentary. I let the characters tell the story.”

However, attaining that for Amy proved to be a major challenge. “Building up trust in people to talk openly about Amy’s life was difficult,” said Kapadia. “They had seen what the press had done to her and there was an understandable distrust of journalists, the media, paparazzi. No one wanted to be a part of the film at first. There was so much pain around Amy. People didn’t want to relive that pain. So we had to give them time. This film was about three-and-a-half years in the making as we slowly built trust and relationships over time.”

Ultimately through that trust we meet in Winehouse a consummate artist who might have flourished without pop music fame and all the baggage that went with it. While her career skyrocketed with the breakout hit “Rehab,” deep down the music she felt the most kinship to was jazz. Winehouse had the stylings and creative sensibilities of a jazz vet and among her childhood idols was Tony Bennett. We see her in a recording session with Bennett and after a slightly rocky start, she finds the rhythm and is clearly happy performing with him in a soulful rendition of “Body and Soul.” This was just a few months before her sudden death.

Kapadia’s incisive approach to Amy was first showcased in a prior documentary he directed, Senna, which explored the life of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna. That film won the Audience Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Fast forward to today and Kapadia just returned to Sundance, this time with a narrative feature. (For more on that film, see this week’s Sundance feature story.) The Sundance gig caps an eventful month for Kapadia, following the Oscar and DGA noms. “I never thought it [Amy] would come this far,” said Kapadia. “Three-and-a-half years of struggling to make the film, to gain the trust of others—there’s no way I would have predicted that this would result in an Academy Award nomination. It’s very gratifying. And for me the DGA nomination is the ultimate honor. To gain that kind of recognition from your peers, the people you look up to and respect, means everything.”