“Atonement” has one of those sequences that keeps movie buffs buzzing long after awards season: a 5½-minute Steadicam shot that follows war-fatigued James McAvoy at the evacuation of Dunkirk. “It came about out of expediency,” cinematographer Seamus McGarvey says.
The sequence was scripted as a series of short scenes, but “when we realized how much we had to shoot in those two days,” McGarvey and director Joe Wright decided to combine all the complicated logistics into one long take. Still, they only managed three good ones. “On the fourth take, the light just dissipated and we abandoned the shot.”
More challenging, says McGarvey, was the first half of the film, which unfolds entirely over the hottest summer day of 1935. “Shooting in England over five weeks is not the hottest day of the year,” the Irish d.p. quips. “It pisses rain a lot. It’s cloudy, it’s sunny; it’s mercurial in the extreme.”
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However, shooting exteriors and interiors in one place and having the cast and crew all bunking on site meant “if the weather suddenly turned on us, we were able to dart inside” and allowed McGarvey to “maintain the integrity of the light and help create the illusion that it was sunny.” This marks a stark contrast to the second half’s WWII-torn European backdrop. “I went for a more austere, ascetic feel for that.”
Awards pedigree: Evening Standard British Film Award for “The Hours”; Irish Film Award win for “Sahara.”
Mentors: Kieslowski d.p. Jacek Petrycki was a film school professor; cult director Derek Jarman, for whom McGarvey worked as a camera assistant; and legendary Brit lenser Jack Cardiff.
Visual aids: Painters Hieronymus Bosch and Yves Tanguy informed “the waste of war” in the Dunkirk sequence.
Favorite tool: Christian Dior 10 denier stockings were attached to the back element of the lens for the 1935 section. “They create this lustrous glow that lends a nostalgic feel.”