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When lensers channel Norman Rockwell

'Sky,' 'Straight,' others depict time, space in America

The egalitarian sentiments of Woody Guthrie’s communal folk song “This Land Is Your Land” and Norman Rockwell’s detail-oriented paeans to the American experience might have been melded and twisted into a theme for four of the most unique movies shot in 1999 — rugged 1950s West Virginia in “October Sky,” 1950s Baltimore in “Liberty Heights,” Iowa farmland in “The Straight Story” and upper middle-class suburbia in “American Beauty.”

But in two instances — those of “Liberty Heights” and “The Straight Story” — the cinematographers of these depictions of Americana couldn’t claim kinship to the land.

Hong Kong-based Christopher Doyle lensed “Heights”; London-born and based Freddie Francis, who turned 82 in December, shot director David Lynch’s bucolic “Straight Story,” with Richard Farnsworth as the actual 73-year-old Iowan Alvin Straight, who drove a tractor 350 miles to see his ailing brother.

“We shot it in Iowa and Wisconsin,” says Francis, the director of many 1960s and ’70s horror pictures who also was director of photography on “Room at the Top,” “Sons and Lovers,” Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” and “Glory.”

“The thing that struck me was the straight roads with no bends in them — miles and miles and miles of great sameness,” Francis says. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and, of course, I used it in the picture. In Europe and everywhere else, the roads curve and bend.

Francis says he’s been with Lynch for so long he’s able to put Lynch’s mind on the screen. “If you see the same things as David, you have to be a bit weird,” Francis says. “We’ve been great mates since we met.”

Francis feels he has a unique perspective on America inasmuch as he didn’t grow up in the State.

“Whenever I’ve shot in America, I think I’ve brought a fresh eye to it. I probably see your country a lot differently than an American would see it.

“I spent a lot of time before the shoot lapping up locations, traveling in Iowa and Wisconsin.” Adds Francis, confidently, “I wouldn’t mind if someone would just recognize me for doing just this movie.”

Hong Kong-based Doyle had been used to a more organic and on-the-fly shooting style for many of the pictures on which he was DP in the Far East, including “Chunking Express” and “Temptress Moon” when Barry Levinson tapped him to make “Liberty Heights,” the fourth in the director’s quasi-autobiographical strain of pictures about his native Baltimore (after “Diner,” “Tin Men” and “Avalon”).

” ‘Liberty Heights’ was a real initiation into the American system with a bigger, broader collaborative group,” Doyle explains. “I was inspired by a bigger playground.”

But Doyle’s first problem was cultural.

“Barry would say, ‘Shoot the Dodge and the Plymouth,’ and I wouldn’t know which was which. We shot more cars than people sometimes.

An earlier Doyle shoot of a Hollywood film, Gus van Sant’s remake of “Psycho,” showed the cinematographer the importance of choosing the right film stock.

“For ‘Psycho,’ I used Fuji and almost got ex-communicated,” Doyle chuckles. In “Heights,” the stock was Kodak — “politically correct,” as Doyle puts it.

“This is definitely a cultural thing. Kodak looks the way it does because it came out of the legacy of the American culture and was perfectly fine for ‘Liberty Heights.’ Barry’s vision was of a specific time and place in Americana and Kodak was a valid choice.”

Size also mattered to Levinson.

“We were using two and three cameras all the time, which I’ve never done before except on big action scenes,” Doyle says. “So, you compromise lighting to get both images. Hopefully, since I’m not from the world that we were creating, I have a slightly different eye as an outsider. And thanks to Barry for putting up with me.”

For Conrad Hall, one of the American camera masters — who shot “The Professionals,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Tequila Sunrise” among others — finding fresh moves to depict the dark doings in everyplace suburbia in “American Beauty” wasn’t the way to go for the material.

“We decided to shoot widescreen and not anamorphic and the camera didn’t move a lot,” says Hall. “It’s very still and formal to take in all of this informal activity.

“Plus, Sam (director Mendes) had storyboarded the whole film, so there was a very clear vision coming from him all of the time. It made it easier for all of us to follow through and allowed the actors to have a sense of what they wanted to do way before we even set up the shot. It was rigid and controlled cinematically.

The common denominator in both “American Beauty” and “October Sky” was actor Chris Cooper as an intractable father figure. Fred Murphy, shot the latter film, directed by Joe Johnston, in the eastern Tennessee hill country, which was approximating 1957 West Virginia, for the autobiographical teenage story of Homer Hickman Jr., a coal miner’s son who became a NASA engineer.

“A lot of the effort on my part was to make the landscape slightly cool,” say Murphy, whose DP credits include Wim Wenders’ “The State of Things” and John Huston’s “The Dead,” as well as “Hoosiers” and “Enemies, a Love Story.”

“There’s smoke everywhere, dirt and wetness, so my shooting was very blue. We had beautiful weather, stormy and dark, and the picture is anamorphic, which I like a lot.

“The subject was very American. So the photography in that sense followed suit.”

Color has always been a key element to Murphy’s filming.

“What I’m really interested in doing is exploring the difference between orange light and blue light combined in the same scenes,” he says. “I’ve been doing this since ‘Hoosiers’ (1986). I somehow feel that this gives you a sense of period, with the warm lights extremely warm and the cold lights very cold.”

What may not come across onscreen in “October Sky” is the low budget.

“We had very little money to make this movie and we made it in about 50 days,” Murphy says. “Joe is a very visual director and the movie was very well organized with very little cutting inside of scenes. We had very good sets. The mine was a set, and people don’t realize that — they thinks it’s a real mine.”

Typical of these self-effacing lensers, Murphy passes the praise. “Barry Robison, the production designer did a wonderful job,” he says, simply.

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