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‘A Private War’ Cinematographer Helped Director Make Transition From Documentaries

Why did veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson, a three-time Oscar winner, agree to work on “A Private War,” the first narrative feature directed by documentarian Matthew Heineman?

It had a lot to do with Heineman’s courage and sense of purpose, says the DP. Heineman was nominated for an Oscar himself for his documentary feature “Cartel Land,” about the Mexican-American border drug wars. “City of Ghosts,” which took on the crisis in Syria, was also well received. “A Private War,” out Nov. 2, is based on the life of the late reporter Marie Colvin, who died in 2012 in Syria while covering the siege of Homs.

Prior to reading the script for “A Private War,” Richardson — who has lensed films ranging from “JFK” to “Inglourious Basterds” to “The Hateful Eight” — watched Heineman’s “Ghosts,” which at the time had not been publicly released.

“It had a profound emotional impact on me,” he says. “Marie was fearless, and I deeply wanted to be a part of showing that life. But perhaps most importantly, I thought that her work in Syria, which is still poignant today, needed to be voiced.”

Though Heineman had plenty of experience filming in war zones, shooting on a set and managing a crew of people were new territories to the director. The team he surrounded himself with was critical to the success of his documentary-to-narrative leap, and Richards, along with production designer Sophie Becher, were an integral part of that.

On earlier films, Heineman served as his own DP. “Matt shoots his own work,” says Richardson. “So we discussed how and why he composed as he did, the lighting he liked or did not, and how far was he willing to go to capture an image.”

Richardson and Heineman also talked about other artists he admired, not simply in documentaries but also in still photography: James Nachtwey, Joao Silva, Alex Webb and Susan Meiselas. They looked at narrative films Heineman respected such as “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project” — both by Sean Baker and made on shoestring budgets with nonactors.

“We collected images and shared them,” notes Richardson. “This pushed us deeper. The goal was to create a strong documentary look for certain sections of the film and then to polish that look to varying degrees depending upon the sequence, such as whether Marie was at home or at an awards ceremony. The dreamlike nature of a number of sequences was exactly that — moments that haunt the mind at the times you most do not wish for it.”

The shoot took 38 days in Jordan and England. One of the most technically grueling scenes was in a tunnel that Colvin and her photographer use to navigate underground in Homs. Shooting on Arri Alexa Minis in modern-day Jordan in tunnels built by the Romans, Richardson and his team closed off all openings to remove natural light, then switched to an ASA 1600 film stock since the long stretches of dark were lit only by actors’ flashlights. They used Arri/Zeiss Super Speed lenses on both Steadicam and handheld in order to gain a chaotic feeling but not lose the narrative.

Richardson says the film is important because it brings to light the awful fact that “entire generations” are being destroyed by genocide. “We need to speak up, and Matt was willing to make a film about the unspeakable,” he says. “That’s what made me want to work with him — a rare opportunity to \work on material that becomes rarer by the year.”

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