Whether it’s the rough waters of the North Atlantic in “The Perfect Storm” or the scorching deserts of North Africa in “The English Patient,” man-versus-nature has been a visual thread in John Seale’s cinematography.
Seale revisits similar terrain in Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s novel “Cold Mountain,” in which a confederate soldier, Inman (Jude Law), journeys back from the Civil War through four seasons to his love, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman).
Like “Patient,” Minghella and Seale employed a similar camera technique so that their southern setting wouldn’t overshadow the drama in “Mountain.”
“One of the films that inspired us on ‘Patient’ was ‘Lawrence of Arabia,'” says Seale. “However, unlike that film, we never made a point of starting our scenes on a landscape and panning to the story. Rather we would start with a story and pan to the landscape. Landscape would not create the mood of our characters.”
One example of Minghella and Seale’s execution of feeling over form in “Mountain” occurs when Union soldiers arrive at Sara’s (Natalie Portman) cabin looking for war deserters. A single mother who sheltered Inman the previous night, Sara is victimized by the soldiers, who attempt to rape her and kill the baby. While Inman finishes off most of them, he lets one soldier, who shielded Sara’s baby from the others, flee. Sara shoots the last soldier without remorse.
“Everything was covered in that scene just to lead up to the close-up of Inman’s face after Sara kills the soldier,” says Seale, “Jude just looks out in shock. He can’t believe Sara killed this guy. Futility is on his face.”
“It would have been too easy to stage a gunfight in that scene, especially with a director who doesn’t stage gunfights, but Anthony writes emotion,” adds Seale.
Much has been written about how Romania stood in for the town of Cold Mountain due to its resemblance to the South before telephone poles and electricity towers. The country proved to be quite versatile in its terrain for Seale, who had to shoot several different climates.
What made “Mountain” an easier shoot than “Patient” for Seale was that all the pic’s characters, though in different scenes, were concurrently in the same latitude. In “Patient,” the lenser had to distinguish between two different time frames, one set in North Africa, the other in Tuscany.
“Charles Frazier had some questions that the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains couldn’t be duplicated in Romania, but when he came to visit the set he acknowledged that the scenery wasn’t detrimental.”
Key tools: “Panavision cameras. It’s an operator-friendly camera with an 11 to 1 zoom. They have a good range of zoom lenses.”
Aesthetic: “I don’t like the camera to be too obvious. I hide the camera as much as possible so the audience can sink into a film.”
Challenges: “The weather. During the summertime, in the plains outside of Bucharest, there were violent thunderstorms that drenched us. For one of the beginning battle scenes, we had to dig another crater because the first one flooded.”
Oscar pedigree: Won for “The English Patient” (1996); nominated for “Witness” (1985), “Rain Man” (1988).