When it comes to filming the screen version of a popular novel, memoir or play, cinematographer Michael Seresin has some advice: Don’t read it before, during or after the shoot.
“All you’ll do is drive yourself crazy,” Seresin says from his London home. “You’ll inevitably come across something that was left out that you’ll wish you had a chance to put in.” Seresin, a longtime d.p. for director Alan Parker (“Angel Heart” (1987), “Fame” (1980), “Birdy” (1984), “Come See the Paradise” (1990)) recently shot the director’s “Angela’s Ashes.”
As it turns out, Seresin bought the Frank McCourt tome in an airport gift shop months before Parker asked him to come and work with him again. Because he was so busy, Seresin never cracked open the book. “It’s always important to remember that it’s the script we’re shooting, not the book,” he says.
To get the look Parker wanted, Seresin started with the work of American photographer Dorothea Lange. Famous for, among other things, her documentary portraits of migrant farm workers in the 1930s for the Farm Security Administration, Lange also spent some post-World War I time shooting pictures of children in poverty in Ireland.
While Lange’s pics are black-and-white and “Angela’s Ashes” is shot in color, Seresin says the composition and unsentimental tone of the Irish photos influenced how he and Parker planned to shoot both exteriors and interiors.
“We wanted to give everything a monochromatic look,” Seresin says. “Ireland can be a beautiful place and given Frank’s experiences we didn’t want to make the film look like a travelogue.”
While much of the result was achieved on the set, the look also depended on Technicolor’s ENR film-developing process. In essence, ENR prints are developed in such a way as to leave some of the silver on the celluloid.
“It’s pretty tricky,” Seresin says. “I tend to shoot my stuff with lots of contrast.” And if you err too much on the side of a high-contrast ratio, during printing the fill side can end up more of a black void than an area of muted detail. “It’s the toughest film I’ve ever worked on.”
New England colors
While the cinematographer toiled away in the Irish republic shooting McCourt’s memoirs, fellow Brit Oliver Stapleton was in New England lensing John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules” with director Lasse Hallstrom. Like his d.p. colleague, Stapleton assiduously avoided reading the script’s primary source material, although the novelist did adapt his work for the screen.
“I just don’t find it useful,” he says. “Books are books and films are films. No one’s ever going to be happy with a film compared to a book. They’re two completely different forms.”
Though “Cider House Rules” has gritty elements to its storyline, it’s considerably more lyrical than “Angela’s Ashes.” As with Seresin, one of Stapleton’s jumping-off points was the work of an American visual artist. In this case, a book of Andrew Wyeth prints given to him by production designer David Gropman.
“They were a good start. It helped us reduce the wide array of choices we had and figure out what was going to work,” Stapleton says.
The d.p., whose recent work includes 1999’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Object of My Affection” (1998), tread a thin line on the pic, trying to make the orphanage rough around the edges but not Dickensian and the surrounding countryside inviting but not Disneyland-perfect.
After filming was completed, Stapleton went on an Irving-fest, voraciously reading nearly every book by the author. “More than anything else, I felt I was getting to know Irving the man,” Stapleton observes. And when he finally tackled “Cider House Rules”? “I thought we got the film right in relation to itself. I didn’t think ‘Oh my God, I should have read this before we started.'”
The exception to the rule, amongst the d.p.s interviewed for this story at least, is Robert Richardson (a three-time Oscar nominee for “Platoon” (1986), “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) and “JFK” (1991), for which he won). Richardson says despite the inevitable difference in tone between the novel “Snow Falling on Cedars” and the script, he derived central visual ideas from the book.
“I kept going back to it for pieces of poetry,” he says, “They often helped me get a take on an image we were going after.”
Richardson says as much as the ideas and issues in the story excited him, taking on the project was first and foremost about the chance to work with director Scott Hicks, the Oscar-nominated director of 1997 best picture contender “Shine.”
“Our tastes run on very similar paths. I think we were both very excited about how to solve the problem of visually representing the process by which we remember things and how we cover things up,” he says.