Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay for “21 Grams” presented formidable challenges to the film’s director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and his cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto. The script not only cross-cuts between the lives of three people — an ex-con trying to straighten out his life with the help of his wife and kids, a young widow and a college professor in need of a heart transplant — it also leaps backward and forward in time to reveal how these three people are connected by tragedy and how the wounds from it are propelling them toward another catastrophe.
In pre-production, Prieto developed subtle visual cues to keep the audience oriented.
“Since the structure is so much like a puzzle,” Prieto explains, “when you cut between the three characters’ stories I wanted you to not only visually sense which story you were in, but where you were chronologically or emotionally. Mostly I was trying to do that with grain structure.
“I played with different film stocks. For example, with the college professor (Sean Penn), I started out using a grainier stock because his situation doesn’t look very hopeful. Then, when he gets his heart transplant, I played with a stock that is less grainy and lit it a bit brighter, because it’s a hopeful moment for him.
“With Jack (the ex-con, played by Benicio Del Toro), I went to a grainier stock after he has a hit-and-run accident. With Christina (Naomi Watts), I used a grainier stock when she starts going back to using drugs.
“I also used color and lighting to give you a sense of where you were in the story. I differentiated the college professor’s world with a white, cool feel in the wardrobe and production design but also in the lighting. In the world of Jack (the ex-con), we went with more vibrant reds and yellows and oranges. Christina’s world was in between. Then we started merging everything as the three stories came together at the climax.”
Key tools: A lightweight 35mm Moviecam SL. Film stocks: Kodak 5289, 800ASA; Kodak 5279, 500ASA; Kodak 5246, a medium grain daylight stock; Kodak 5277, 320 ASA.
Aesthetic: “We used a handheld camera throughout the movie, because we wanted the audience to have the feeling of being very close to the actors physically. We weren’t putting marks on the floor, so it gave the scenes a sense of immediacy and that anything could happen. In the static shots, we felt that a handheld camera allows the image to breath a little bit. It was part of the entire texture of the film: the camera breathes, the grain moves, so the image is always alive.”
Biggest challenge: “Every scene was shot on practical locations. Some of them were very, very tight — the jail, for example. Lighting (the cell) was very difficult, and having the freedom of panning the camera around and still having dramatic lighting in there and not just bouncing light off the ceiling — those were the sort of things that were a challenge.”