Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton helps director Lasse Hallstrom adapt the critically acclaimed novel The Shipping News for the cinema.
by John Pavlus
In the eight-odd years it took to bring Annie Proux's Pulitzer Prize-winning
novel The Shipping News to the screen, one of contemporary cinemas most
longstanding partnerships was slowly but surely winding down. Oliver Stapleton,
BSC had begun his collaboration with Stephen Frears in 1985 on My Beautiful
Laundrette and had since worked with the director on seven films. "I
love to work just with one person for a while...." says Stapleton.
Fortunately for Stapleton, a new relationship was beginning to blossom with Lasse Hallstrom, for whom Stapleton shot The Cider House Rules (1999). "There is a graph to your relationship with a director", he says: "On the first film, you are feeling each other out - second film, you are settling down - third film, you are probably really doing well. But Lasse and I pretty much skipped the initial phase. Within a few days of starting to work together on Cider House, we realized we had so much in common that we fell into a groove very quickly."
Scheduling conflicts prevented Stapleton from shooting Chocolat for Hallstrom, but when Miramax hired the director for The Shipping News, Stapleton signed on without hesitation. "Lasse and I have a tremendously shared sense of cinema, and we did Shipping News with a great feeling of familiarity. He has a very extraordinary way of working from the heart, not from the head, and that is fairly unique in my experience of film directors," Stapleton says. "It also helped that we had a very solid group of people who had made a lot of films together. This was my fourth film with Steve Dunn, the first AD, and it was my third with [production designer] David Gropman. Shipping News was a very difficult film to get together logistically, and the solidity of the team really helped."
The difficulties mainly sprang from the films plot, in which a burned-out New Yorker named Quoyle (played by Kevin Spacey) travels to his ancestral home in Newfoundland in order to reconnect with his past. Slippery actors schedules and unforgiving location work produced often-frustrating results for the filmmakers. For one thing, shooting began on a soundstage in Halifax, Nova Scotia, rather than on location in Newfoundland which goes against the logic of how to make a film. That was a travesty, because anyone who makes films knows that you should start with exterior scenes so that when you go into the studio, you know if the actors hair is blown, or if its a sunny day, if it rained etc. - all of those things that are known if you've shot the exteriors first," Stapleton says. "But sometimes you have to make films the wrong way round, and this was a case in point. We spent four to five weeks in the studio shooting interiors that were supposed to match something we hadn't shot yet.
I couldn't simply make guesses; that would have been pointless. In the end, I figured I'd just light each interior scene for what was correct dramatically. I lit some scenes with gray light because it suited that part of the script, and I lit other scenes to be sunny. The extraordinary thing was that when we went up six weeks later to shoot exteriors that had to match what we had shot before, about 99 percent of the time the light was perfect."
Unfortunately, beginning the shoot in the studio led to another complication: there would be no snow on the ground in Newfoundland when it was time to shoot exteriors. Miramax simply decided to remove all references to snow from the script, but Stapleton found this "solution" unacceptable. "The film is a journey, and one of the potentially exciting aspects of the journey is that you can have different seasons which should look and feel very different," the cinematographer explains. "I wanted Quoyle to leave New York in the winter, and as he drove north I wanted it to be snowy because that signaled a complete change in landscape." Fortunately, Stapleton wasn't alone in this sentiment. "I managed to figure out how to put snow into that sequence by using a hodgepodge of photographic techniques, and when I presented the plan at a meeting, the producers and Lasse were all very relieved that I'd figured out how to do it! It wasn't that hard, but it was the sort of thing that only a cinematographer can work out."
Stapletons scheme focused on a block of scenes that trace Quoyles journey from New York to Newfoundland. After a snowy drive, he arrives in Newfoundland via ferry; he then ascends a hill and sees his house attached by cables to the icy landscape below. Accompanied by Agnis (Judi Dench), he approaches the house, enters, and later goes to sleep. "We contrived that there would be a huge rainstorm during the night which washes the snow away, so when they wake up the next day and go outside, the snow is patchy," says Stapleton. "We did that because once the next day begins, we get into a whole block of scenes where it just wouldn't be feasible to keep the snow element going. In order to make those shots work, we had the second unit go up in a helicopter and shoot some plates during the period in March when there was snow in Newfoundland. They also shot plates for the driving shots: a rear view, two side views and a front view. Then we shot the actors driving in the studio to match those plates. That got us off the ferry and into the snowy landscape."
To get the shot in which the actors arrive at the summit of the hill, the filmmakers simply covered the immediate small area with fake snow and then cut to the actors POV to establish the view of the house. Creating this shot required more plate work. "First we had the second unit shoot a plate of the sea, the hills and foreground all covered in real snow; we had worked it out in prep with marks on the ground. But then the actors were there looking at the house, which was sitting on a hill that had no snow on it. So we then did the same shot as near as we could with the same lens, same height and same horizon. In the old days, that would've called for a very complicated lock-off for exact matching, but nowadays they can use digital tools to slide the image around and make it match in post.
The next element of the sequence required the characters to walk down the snowy hillside toward the house. “In order to achieve that, we needed a wide shot with doubles [for the actors] walking toward the house. But we snowed in a fairly big area behind them and shot it with a 400mm lens in order to minimize the width of the background," Stapleton explains. "The interior shots of the characters entering the house had already been shot in the studio on the first day of principal photography. After that, the only snow-related effects to keep track of were the post-rainstorm "patches-of-snow" which turned out to be challenging enough. Our refrain would always be, Oh my god, we need patches!’ - because we'd scan through the script and suddenly realize we were in a scene that required them," laughs Stapleton. "Every day the same 25 guys would be adding and removing snow. The locals thought we were completely nuts!"
Because Newfoundlands terrain was whited out during the prep
period, Stapleton was left with one more logistical hurdle to clear before
production. "Photographically, I knew that going and shooting a whole bunch
of white snow would tell me nothing. So I got a colleague to take my camera and
lenses down to the area of England where I live, which I knew would look
very similar to Newfoundland when there wasn't any snow there. We also
shot some tests in a fishing port near Halifax, because at least the snow
doesn't settle on the sea. I was able to get some tones of the sea and
the ships that weren't pure white."
According to Stapleton, Hallstrom is “like a collagist who loves to have things put in front of him that he can select from,” and the cinematographer worked hard to take advantage of that openness despite the obstacles he faced during prep. "When I do tests, they're pretty wild. They've nearly got me fired a couple of times," he chuckles. "Whenever I'm shooting somewhere, I think, 'Whats the worst possible light I've got to deal with?" I realized that the worst thing that could happen to me in Newfoundland would be that the sun would come out, the sky would go blue, the hills would look green, and we'd all be in the land of musicals. Of course, there's a good reason why you can buy a house on two acres of land in Newfoundland for $5,000! I wanted the look of the film to reflect the bleakness, rather than have it look pretty. I wanted to give it the beauty of a diamond: a kind of coldness - pure, hard and tough."
With that goal in mind, Stapleton leaned toward using the bleach-bypass process to desaturate colors, crush blacks and increase contrast. He tested Deluxes ACE (Adjustable Contrast Enhancement) process, but the results were deemed unacceptable on aesthetic as well as financial grounds. "Because of cost, labs have been struggling to get around the problem that so many cinematographers love bleach-bypass, which is a printing process," he says. "There were a lot of suggestions - one might say pressure - from Miramax to come up with a process that could be applied at the intermediate stage. I spent a lot of time looking at what Deluxe could offer at the interneg stage, but I didn't like any of it, and neither did Lasse or David. It made faces look a bit too rough.
Then I said to the lab, I like what you're doing with ACE, but can't you come up with something that's like that effect, but less so? That's when Deluxe manager Chris Severn and all the technical boffins put their heads together and modified it in a way that they decided to christen ‘ACE-Oliver,’ for want of another name. It had the effect of taking a lot of the color out of the blue sky, so that it was paler, while making the green in the landscape a bit darker and less rich. We all eventually agreed on this process, and it was applied to all of our rush prints."
Stapletons sensitivity to landscape also impacted discussions about the films aspect ratio. He felt that Newfoundlands rugged features deserved a widescreen format, but conceded that the height differences among actors could make 2.35:1 framing awkward. That Hallstrom had only worked with widescreen once before (on The Cider House Rules) also created concern. "Right up to the last week of prep, we were still tussling about which format suited the film," Stapleton recalls. "It's simply easier to shoot in 1.85:1, but that format doesn't give you the same kind of tension when you go out into the land. So I got Steve Dunn to produce both actors [Spacey and Moore?] and the child for me four days before we were to start shooting. We were lucky that the child was quite tall, and neither of the actors were. We went to the set with a viewfinder, and I kept switching it between 1.85 and 2.35 and handing it to Lasse. In the end, he said, "You know, 2.35 is just cooler!"
Still, the question remained of whether to shoot the film with anamorphic lenses or utilize the spherical Super 35 format; the filmmakers opted for the latter. Says Stapleton: "“In some ways, I think I should have shot it in anamorphic. I spent the first two weeks seriously considering it, because the film has a lot of day exteriors, which suits anamorphic. But I was also very aware that Super 35 looks so much better than it used to. People often say the problem with Super 35 is that you see great rushes, but the print is a disappointment. I've not found that to be the case. For me, the crucial difference is in the perspective. A 50mm anamorphic lens is a wide lens, but it still has the perspective of a 50mm; you have a wide angle but a tight perspective. It's hard to get your brain around, but it's a fundamentally different look.
One of the most important considerations about anamorphic is that it's very hard to get a really good set of lenses. I had six weeks to prepare Shipping News in Nova Scotia, which is not exactly where the major rental houses of the world are located! There I was, four weeks from shooting the film, and I thought: "Do I go with Super 35, or do I spend the next four weeks in a total panic just worrying about lenses?" So it finally became a practical issue."
Shooting spherically allowed Stapleton to employ his trusted personal gear: a Moviecam Compact outfitted with Cooke S4 series primes. Once again, environmental concerns informed the choice. "I knew we were going to be exposed to some very harsh conditions, and with most lenses you have to have the grease changed in order to work at low temperatures, or else the barrel gets too stiff. The unique thing about the S4s is that they work on cams like a zoom lens, so no matter what the temperature is, the barrel moves in exactly the same way."
Stapleton prefers to use his own cameras whenever possible, and the unforgiving location of The Shipping News proved a perfect match for the two lightweight Compacts. (The production rented an extra one for B-camera work.)
"If you're a Formula One driver, when you go to a new track you don't want a different car. When you get in your car and its all familiar, you can really concentrate on the road. So when my camera package turns up, I don't even have to look at it. The assistants deal with it, and I look at the road. [The Compact] doesn't do what the [Arriflex] 535A can do with speed or aperture changes, but you don't need that for a Lasse Hallstrom film. This film was shot in what you might call pure classical mode: no fancy angles., no fancy techniques."
The filmmakers even resisted the urge toward stylization when creating the elaborate flashbacks and 'drowning visions' that Quoyle experiences while rediscovering his history. "“We considered a whole slew of things like handheld, Super-8 and digital [video], but in the end we decided to keep it simple," Stapleton says. "I realized that if I just made a coherent whole out of everything that was going on in Quoyles brain, it would be less confusing and more convincing. I really wanted to stay away from the Super-8 doco look. When Quoyle ‘remembers’ that his ancestors were bloody pirates fighting on a boat, you've immediately gone into something fake if you show it in that manner, because theres no way anyone would have had an 8mm camera on a pirate ship!"
Instead, Stapleton created a distinctive look by overexposing the flashback scenes by two stops and instructing Deluxe not to correct the look. "“Conventional cinema spends a lot of time using sepia tones or soft filters to constitute memory. I knew that a lot of our flashbacks were either underwater or in snow, and I thought that it would be good if they had a burned-out quality - a brightness so pronounced that you would almost need sunglasses to look at those memories, because they were so strong."
Stapleton shot the film mainly on Kodak Expression 500T 5284 stock, and ensuring that the overexposed scenes stayed that way required extra vigilance from the camera crew. "As with all things Kodak, the latitude was just astonishing." the cinematographer says. “"There were some misunderstandings with the second unit at one point, and they sent back some overexposed stuff but forgot to include the note with it. The lab printed it down, and I gasped when I saw it because it looked normal! If you really want to create a negative thats unusable except as a burned-out image, you’d probably have to overexpose it by about four stops."
Stapleton also found the low-gamma 5284 to be an ideal check on the contrast-increasing ACE process. "The most interesting way to print contrasty is to have a long tonal scale on the original negative," he says. "Otherwise you double up and you wind up with no tones." Judicious use of the 5284 with other stocks also allowed Stapleton to “ride the light” within the targeted range: Kodak Vision 320T 5277 (along with the 84) minimized contrast on sunny days, while Vision 250D 5246 bumped it back up when the daylight was overcast. Stapleton also used the 5284 for night scenes.
Printing, however, was done on Fuji stock. "Kodak supplies two print stocks: contrasty and more contrasty," Stapleton explains. "The Fuji stock is less so, and because the ACE process adds a lot of contrast, I found it better to use a print stock that wasn't quite so gutsy in the first place."
Stapleton supported this delicate tonal balance with his studio lighting strategy. In order to mimic the wraparound quality of Newfoundlands wintry daylight, he set units to bounce off of a giant white cyc that was erected around the house. "The feature of snow is that you get a lot more light bouncing up and everywhere than you would with regular daylight, so we made sure that each window also had diffusion frames at the top and both sides, with Blondes, Nine-lights and Six-lights positioned around them. When I showed up, David Gropmans carpenter had put shutters on each window, which left a 1/8-inch gap between each one. I got David to make more holes in the roof and remove some of the shutters, as if they'd fallen off. That way I could model the light and lend it much more character."
"I did cheat a little bit," he admits, "in that I realized that it would be much more dramatic if there were actual stripes and pools of light in the house. A stripe is only created by sharp sunlight, not dull daylight, so I took a bit of poetic license and created an ‘in-between’ sort of light. It didn’t quite look like sun, but it was pooled. I shined 10Ks and 12Ks through Hampshire Frost diffusion and a little bit of smoke. It wasn't direct, but it had a nice, strong contrast so that it could pick up the actors as they walked through the pools."
Despite the inherent darkness imposed by the production design, Stapleton decided to base his key sources for night interiors on candles and lanterns instead of traditional electric practicals. "Initially we thought that the characters should arrive at the house and flip on the electricity, but I had a problem with that. I live in the country and am aware of things like generator use, and I thought electric light seemed weird if the house hadn't been lived in for 40 years.
I looked at some old documentaries made in Newfoundland. Candles and oil lamps were expensive, so there was a strict routine about your light: you lit the lantern in the kitchen when you ate, and if you went to the bedroom, you’'d light a candle and put the other one out. We were a bit concerned that the candles and lanterns would look too romantic, but I convinced everyone that we didn't have to make it look that way —- it could just look functional. I put three small units on dimmers nearby, one above and a couple to the side, shaded off and gelled with half CTO."
The filmmakers remaining challenge was the extensive marine work required to create Quoyles 'drowning visions'. Because these sequences contain shots from both surface and underwater perspectives, shooting was divided into two phases. The underwater shots, supervised by marine specialist Mike Thomas, were done in the 'swimming pool' in Halifax. "Mike Thomas had just come off of Pearl Harbor, and I left a lot of the underwater lighting to him," says Stapleton. “"I'm not scuba-trained, but I spent a whole day in the pool paddling around with a snorkel, looking down. The underwater set was lit with reflected light and with strong diffused light from above. We used HMIs reflected off polystyrene and silver. I wanted a sunnier feel for some sequences, so we then used heavy spotlights coming in at 45 degrees. With underwater work, you need quite a lot of strong light that can penetrate the water."
The surface work proved much more vexing. The filmmakers initially planned to shoot practically- off the Canadian shoreline, but they were told that the frigid water was unsafe for actors. "Luckily," says Stapleton, "we stumbled across the fact that St. Johns, Newfoundland, has one of the biggest wave tank facilities in the world. It's an absolutely enormous tank, measuring 160 feet long by 100 feet wide, which is used for testing Americas Cup yachts and such. I tentatively suggested that we shoot Kevin Spacey in the wave tank. There was a lot of skepticism in the beginning, but after consulting others who had dealt with this sort of problem, including crew members who had worked on The Perfect Storm, I convinced everyone that there would be too many problems trying to make realistic waves in the studio swimming pool."
The advice from Storms veterans also helped Stapleton achieve a particularly difficult move in which the camera rises from beneath the waves and ascends over the action in one smooth motion. "You just couldn't do this move with an underwater cameraman. He can come up to the surface, but then he's subject to whatever the surface is doing and— if it's very rough, he's going to get knocked about. We rented a device that's like a remote head on a crane under the water. You can crane right up out of the water and look down, which also gets you over the horizon problem. Instead of having to digitally matte the horizon onto every shot, you can actually come up out of the water looking down and avoid it altogether."
Such a consistently difficult production could have strained even the most solid collaborators, but Stapleton insists that his second experience with Hallstrom was a delight. He is already eager to start on their next project. "I certainly feel Lasse and I can make more films together and it will just get better. We had our share of problems on The Shipping News, but I don't think I ever heard a voice raised once against anybody. He can make the process of filmmaking a happy one."