Cinematographer-director tandems find comfort zone of creation

When the great director-cinematographer collaborations are discussed, many invoke the names of Bertolucci and Storaro, Fassbinder and Ballhaus, Spielberg and Kaminski.

But this year’s crop of films highlights some tandems that have borne fruit for decades but might have been overlooked by anyone outside the profession, such as Istvan Szabo and Lajos Koltai (“Being Julia”).

Then there’s the still-growing kinship of Clint Eastwood and Tom Stern, who has worked on Eastwood’s crews dating back to 1982′s “Honkytonk Man.” Stern has d.p.’d for the actor-director on his last three features, including “Million Dollar Baby.” Roberto Schaefer and Marc Forster have collaborated on pics including “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland” in their ten years together. Schaefer is shooting Forster’s current project, “Stay.”

Stern, who has worked beside such lensmen as Bruce Surtees and Conrad Hall, is a sterling example of Eastwood’s team loyalty. “We’ve been colleagues for a quarter of a century,” says Stern about their relationship. “I’m there to help Clint make his film. It’s not a package from an agency, and it’s not a contractual commitment to a studio. We get to do everything independent filmmakers dream about. At the same time, we’re at Warner Bros. and we have the full faith and credit of the studio and all their resources. He has artistic autonomy that you can’t even begin to imagine, and he’s earned it.”

The comfort zone that Eastwood creates for his actors extends to the whole creative team, with the blueprint first and foremost the script. “Clint is a storyteller,” says Stern. “I always try to absorb the original material, to understand the original creator’s intent, the context and nuances. Then Clint, editor Joel Cox and I have some sort of short conversation, very general, which usually includes a discussion about the aspect ratio. It’s a little bit like a poker game: ‘What’s in your hand?’

“Clint has definite ideas,” says Stern, “but he doesn’t want them to become concrete until the last possible moment. He doesn’t come in with hard instructions. It’s more, ‘We’re going to tell this yarn.’ There are no hard and fast lines between responsibilities.”

In pre-production for “Million Dollar Baby,” Eastwood referenced the look of “Bird,” a 1988 film lensed by Jack Green. “Like a musical scale is defined by middle C, for Clint, the visual scale is defined by the color black,” says Stern. “We build the visual structure on top of that black foundation. You struggle to maintain that, and you never do anything that’s going to degrade it.”

Creative partners

Cinematographer Schaefer and director Forster first made their mark in 1995 with “Loungers,” a film that won awards at Slamdance but then vanished. They followed up with “Everything Put Together,” and then made “Monster’s Ball,” a critically acclaimed drama that resulted in the 2001 Oscar for actress Halle Berry.

“Our collaboration is a wonderful thing for me, and I know Marc feels the same way,” says Schaefer. “I don’t feel like I’m working for somebody or merely doing his bidding. I feel like we’re creative partners. I get to express myself, and I feel that it’s also mine up there on the screen. That’s the most fulfilling thing I can imagine.”

Schaefer and Forster were introduced by Jean-Philippe Carp, a set dresser and production designer whose credits include “Delicatessen.” “We talked and I liked him,” says Schaefer. “Later he called to ask if I was interested in a no-budget project. That was ‘Loungers.’ I’m glad I said yes.”

“Finding Neverland,” with a budget of around $20 million, took the duo to a higher level. A digital intermediate (see story on page A1), which was done at EFilm, was planned from the start.

“The visual design of the film had to do with the fact that it was a period piece, and also with the reality and fantasy sequences, and how to tie them together,” says Schaefer. “We talked with the effects people about how to give the fantasy sequences an old feel, like a 1900s illustration look. At the same time, we wanted to keep it from being too staid. We wanted to keep the camera moving, a little bit crisper and more playful.”

Schaefer calls Forster a total filmmaker. “Marc has matured incredibly fast,” he says. “Our way of working together has ripened and become easier because we have a kind of shorthand. We know what the other person wants and how they like to do things. We spend a lot of time in prep.

“You see teams like Tim Burton and Emmanuel Lubezki, and you can see the benefit of a long working relationship in their films,” says Schaefer. “You have to keep it fresh and keep challenging each other, but there’s a good reason why such collaborations work.”

‘Like a marriage’

Koltai and Szabo have been making films together for 25 years. The two Hungarians first met when two amateur films made by Koltai won prizes at a festival where Szabo headed the jury. Szabo later helped Koltai get into the Hungarian Film Academy. Their first film together, “Confidence” (1980) was nominated for an Oscar for foreign-language film.

Since then the duo have collaborated on more than a dozen films including “Mephisto,” which won the foreign-lingo Oscar in 1981, and 1985 nominee “Colonel Redl.” More recent credits include “Sunshine” and this year’s “Being Julia.”

Looking back on his work with Szabo, Koltai says the essential nature of their interaction has not changed. “Our relationship has deepened over time,” says Koltai. “After 25 years, it’s like a marriage. We seem to see the world in the same way. We learn from each other. We never do anything without talking to each other. When we start a new picture, we talk about why we want to do it, what we want to say to the audience, and what is important.

“We prepare for months and months,” Koltai adds. “In filmmaking you have to make hundreds of compromises every day. Doing your homework before you get to the set allows you to make the best compromises. Our preparation serves as a foundation that we refer back to every day as we make decisions.”

For “Being Julia,” they devised a visual strategy to portray the elegant world of theater owners and managers. “We shot in beautiful, old Budapest locations to represent period London,” says Koltai. “Often these rooms have rich wood paneling, and I used lighting in conjunction with this wood as a way to add warmth and elegance to the scenes.

‘Illusion’ vs. reality

“It’s a very human film, with lots of close-ups,” he says. “It’s partly about how an actress ages, which can be a serious problem for a woman in this profession. The audience has an illusion of how a famous actress looks. We designed our close-ups to be sympathetic, very nice and soft, while at the same time a true human portrait.”

Technically, that translated into careful lighting and framing, but very little on the lens in terms of diffusion, sometimes an almost invisible Schneider filter. Koltai often depends on a Cooke zoom lens that he usually uses as a variable prime.

As Szabo was doing post work in Toronto on “Being Julia,” he was tracking Koltai’s progress on “Fateless,” the d.p.’s feature directorial debut.

“It’s a little strange for me to talk to him as a director,” says Koltai. “But he is totally behind me on this project. He has seen an early cut and given me encouragement.

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