“War is hell!” Patton famously declared. Had he been a cinematographer, the general might also have viewed war as occasionally surreal or laced with black comedy and satire. And three strikingly different films — “Inglourious Basterds” (shot by Robert Richardson), “The Hurt Locker” (Barry Ackroyd) and “The Men Who Stare at Goats” (Robert Elswit) — illustrate that while all war is hell, it’s possible to shoot (pun intended) bloody conflict through the prism of widely differing aesthetic choices, tones and sensibilities.
For the dazzling cinematic collage of “Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s reference points were unsurprisingly eclectic — “Breathless,” “Les Biches,” “Navajo Joe,” “Army of Shadows,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” among them, reports Oscar winner Richardson — and the period piece’s retro-fresh look owes a lot to bold color choices, which the d.p. calls “a vital aspect of Quentin’s work.”
If the final chapter could’ve been photographed in Technicolor, we would have,” he adds.
It’s telling that no documentary influences invade the frames, while visually Tarantino explores “specific themes” for each of the five chapters of the film: “The opening chapter was meant to draw inspiration from the spaghetti Western, while the chapter in Paris highlighted elements within the French New Wave,” says Richardson. “Quentin’s design was to create a specific visual/tonal palette for each. But he dictated the majority of aesthetic choices through his dialogue, which had the greatest authority of all. War sets the stage, but the dialogue directs the action.”
With its ripped-from-the-headlines setting yet timeless themes, “The Hurt Locker” presented a very different challenge for Ackroyd, who was hired after Kathryn Bigelow had seen his jittery, tension-filled work on “United 93,” “and the kind of immediacy that could be achieved,” he says. “That was what the film required. So from our very first conversations it was clear that ‘The Hurt Locker’ would be visceral and physical.”
References included “Saving Private Ryan,” but the team set out to avoid making a film that had “the same feel as other war films — by that I mean ‘bomb disposal’ films that held the drama in the ‘which wire do I cut?’ style,” reports Ackroyd.
To bring the relentless, ever-present danger “into sharp relief,” Ackroyd shot Super 16mm, keeping a genuine documentary approach. “This allowed us to use up to four cameras on the scenes, giving maximum flexibility and allowing multiple perspectives,” he says.
This gives the film an intimacy whilst creating a tension between our subjects and their hostile surroundings, giving the editor maximum freedom to manipulate time and space within the story. I also thought that slo-mo shots of the explosions, which would be against my natural instincts, would help to inform the audience, showing how dramatic the destructive power of explosives can be.”
Exploding minds rather than mines is the theme of the New Age satire “Goats,” which follows the mantra of “Dr. Strangelove” and “Catch-22”: War is insanity. Tyro director Grant Heslov “wanted the violence to look and feel authentic,” reports Elswit, Oscar winner for 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” “but we didn’t use other movies as reference points. Rather, we decided to stay away from the ‘video reality/documentary look’ that was so well done in ‘The Hurt Locker’ and instead go for a more conventional, old-fashioned staged look.”
The d.p. was also constrained by a very tight shooting schedule. “We only had three days to do all the gun-fighting scenes, so our whole approach was what’s the most efficient way to shoot it? And how do we make clear what happened?” he says. “Even though we’re both big admirers of Stanley Kubrick and the way he created such realistic action pieces in ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ we simply didn’t have the time or resources to pull something off like that.”
War films face another challenge, says Elswit. “The bar is really high now for action and explosions. It takes a lot of thought to do something different like ‘The Hurt Locker’ or ‘Inglourious Basterds.'”