In “The Missing,” Salvatore Totino’s lensing plays the frostbitten highlands and boiling desert basins of 1885 New Mexico off the emotional heartaches of Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) and his daughter Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) in their quest for the latter’s kidnapped daughter.
Not only does the look heighten the gloomy tone of Ron Howard’s western, it’s 180 degrees from the romantic, windswept Dakota plains of 1990’s “Dances With Wolves” — the last oater to win a cinematography trophy for a genre typically snubbed by Oscar.
Unlike cinematographers who flaunt a visual style, Totino’s technique is influenced by the atmosphere on the set.
In one scene, Apaches coerce a traveling photographer to take a picture of their female teenage captives in a cave. At the time, Totino discovered a large gaping hole of light streaming from the ceiling.
“I thought it would be great to put a shaft of light in here as if the girls were being looked upon,” says Totino, “It was a desperate moment for them and a chance for the photographer to help. I thought, let’s lift this scene up and bring in some light.”
When Maggie discovers a bag containing her butchered boyfriend and his posse in the woods, Totino was quick to capture Blanchett’s dramatic process.
“She screamed and contorted herself in such a way, that the image made the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” says Totino.
A former Gotham commercial and musicvideo lenser with two features under his belt, “Any Given Sunday” and “Changing Lanes,” Totino initially worked with Howard on pre-production for “The Alamo.” When the helmer resigned from that project, he promised to work again with Totino.
While Howard had discussed “Days of Heaven” and “The Wild Bunch” as potential visual references for Totino, the lenser drew much of his inspiration from still photographers such as Josef Koudelka and Todd Hido’s “House Hunting,” a book of suburban house exteriors lit by streetlight and interior lamps.
“One might ask, ‘What does that have to do with 1885 New Mexico?’ I looked at these images not in a literal way, but the feeling that these images invoked in me.”
One catches a Hido homage in the dimly lit, blue-gray evening sequences at Gilkeson’s ranch — colors that Totino used to convey the harsh living conditions on the snowy plateaus of Valles Caldera.
All inspirations aside, nothing is more of a muse for Totino than his gut reaction at a particular moment.
“When I lived in New York and walked down the street, someone would pass and all these images would come flying at me, just from the look in their eye,” says Totino, “It’s that feeling that I get on a set which drives me in a certain direction.”
Key tools: “Mostly Cook S4 lenses with a Clearmark camera. I like the cinematic warmth of Cook lenses, as it enables me to capture the grand escapes and vistas.”
Challenges: “Locations. The New Mexico terrain was rough and hard to access. We shot the finale at a 66-square mile ranch known as Cerro Pelon outside Sante Fe. We would drive equipment in on dirt roads for a half hour and then switch to mules (golf carts). There weren’t many roads and we’d find ourselves carting equipment along the sides of cliffs.”
Aesthetic: “I don’t think the look of a film should take away from the story. I think cinematography often overshadows a story and that’s a bad thing. I’m there to tell a story.”