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Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer on Gideon Raff’s Thriller ‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’

TORUN, Poland – While Gideon Raff’s Netflix thriller “The Red Sea Diving Resort” shot largely in South Africa and Namibia, the project was a welcomed opportunity for cinematographer Roberto Schaefer due to his own memorable travels through Ethiopia.

The film, which screened in the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival’s Contemporary World Cinema section, is loosely based on an operation by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, to evacuate Jewish Ethiopian refugees to Israel in the 1980s using an abandoned seaside resort in Sudan. Chris Evans, Ben Kingsley, Michael Kenneth Williams and Greg Kinnear star.

“Story-wise obviously it moved me very much,” Schaefer said, speaking at the film’s screening in Torun, Poland on Thursday. “I had sort of a personal connection to it because in 1972 I visited Ethiopia with my sister and my brother-in-law. We travelled around the whole country and we went to three different Falasha villages – Ethiopian Jews are Falashas. It was a beautiful country; it was before the famine. Haile Selassie was still the emperor. I had a really good connection with the country – I loved the place.

“And then everything happened that happened: first the famine, then the communist government took over and most of the Falashas were being persecuted, so they did the boat-lifts and airlifts and all of that. When Gideon interviewed me for this I said, ‘I was there. I know what it was like.’ I had a real connection to it and I have a lot of photographs that I took there in ’72, so I had my own personal reference of what it was like and what it should look like.”

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Schaefer praised Raff’s direction, noting, “He thinks on his feet. He’s really great, he’s very visual and very quick. He knows when something’s working and not working, and knows when he has to fill in something to make a sequence work.”

The crew faced a number of challenges during production, one of the biggest being the loss of top action unit director Vic Armstrong, who was initially booked with his crew to shoot the necessary action scenes, but then cut in order to save some $250,000 in additional production costs. With the main unit handling all the action and no extra days to shoot or extra crew members to help, a big chase scene ended up being reshot multiple times.

“They probably spent a lot more money than they should have in the first place by doing that,” Schaefer noted.

While Schaefer is no stranger to action films – his credits include “Quantum of Solace” – he said second units were best suited to handle action scenes. “I’ve shot a bunch of extra action stuff that I don’t normally do – I mean I’ve done it – but this should have been a real unit, because we were doubling up and it’s very difficult to do that. It was tough.”

Another obstacle was the difficulty in finding accurate cars in South Africa for scenes set in Sudan and Israel. “In South Africa you drive on the other side of the road and steering wheels are on the right side,” he explained.

Looking back at some of the films that have inspired his own work, Schaefer said Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View” was a major one. “Gordon Willis shot it and he’s my premier hero DP. The camera movement and the framing are exquisite. It’s never obvious; it’s always very edgy. And it works for the story – it tells you about the paranoia and the alienation that’s going on in that story. It’s just very graphic. It’s a graphic image that I like. If I have to put something on my wall, it’s that kind of graphic.”

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