The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2009 Return to Table of Contents
International Awardee
Page 2
Just Not That Into You
Short Takes
Post Focus
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

McAlpine collaborated with Noyce, a fellow Aussie, on the spy thrillers Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and the cinematographer admired Noyce’s ability to work on star-driven blockbusters and keep the focus on storytelling. “Phil is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever worked with,” he says. Although McAlpine found a great deal to like about working in the Hollywood system, he acknowledges that he has encountered what so many creative people in Tinseltown must cope with: typecasting. “Hollywood tries to typecast everybody. After Down and Out in Beverly Hills came out, I received four different scripts for movies with dogs! But I’ve always tried to do something different. If I have to choose between two scripts I like, I’ll go with the one that’s least like something I’ve done before.”  

That interest in diversity has led McAlpine to take on comedies such as Parenthood (1989) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), dramas such as Medicine Man (1992) and The Man Without a Face (1993), and effects-heavy fantasies such as Peter Pan (2003; AC Jan. ’04) and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005; AC Dec. ’05).   

In 1996, Luhrmann, another Aussie, offered McAlpine a new creative challenge. Luhrmann’s directorial debut, Strictly Ballroom, had impressed 20th Century Fox enough to get them interested in his next project, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The project wasn’t a “go” yet, but McAlpine accepted a meeting with Luhrmann to see what the director had in mind. “I was between films, and I’d been impressed with Strictly Ballroom,” he recalls. “I met Baz in his offices above a defunct Chinese restaurant, and when I walked in, the place was full of, well, ‘hippies’ is too strong a word, but they were certainly very informal. I was old enough to be their grandfather! But Baz’s strength is his ability to sell anyone on his ideas. I asked him what age group he was aiming for, and he said, ‘We’re basically aiming it at 12-year-old girls.’ So I asked, ‘Who’s translating the language for 12-year-old girls?’ He said, ‘Every word will be Shakespeare’s.’ I started to lose interest at that point, but he’s such an enthusiast that he ensnared me.”  

Luhrmann told McAlpine Fox had the same concern about the language, and the studio wanted him to shoot a scene so executives could get a better idea of how it would play. “They wanted a properly lit scene on 35mm, and I told Baz that would be an absolute disaster because they would judge only that scene — they wouldn’t use it to imagine what the whole film could be like,” the cinematographer recalls. “Instead, I suggested we shoot video of big slabs of the script. What I wanted to prove to myself, I realize in retrospect, was the idea that this Shakespearean dialogue could be understood in the situations described in the script. I just couldn’t visualize it working, and if I couldn’t visualize it, I doubted the studio could. So Baz and the studio agreed, and we shot with a small video camera. I told him not to worry about the look and to put all the money he had for the test into the sound. Everybody wanted to know how the dialogue would work in context, so they had to be able to hear it!   

“We shot big slabs of the script in the rain, staying under a bridge to keep dry. We workshopped the scenes, and we had Leonardo DiCaprio [playing Romeo] and a great ensemble of Australian actors, few of whom made it into the final film. Then [editor] Jill Bilcock got hold of the footage and cut it using the frenetic style you see in the film. I realized there and then that it was enthralling and involving and the language was absolutely understandable, and that’s when I signed on.”  

Shot in Mexico, Romeo + Juliet “was probably the most rewarding film I’ve ever worked on,” continues McAlpine. “I was shooting another film up in Canada when Romeo + Juliet was released, and my wife and I went to see it on a Saturday afternoon in Calgary. I had to speak to the manager to get a seat because it was sold out, and we sat there surrounded by teenagers, and they were all talking and shouting before the movie started, as kids do. I thought we wouldn’t be able to hear any of the film, but as soon as the opening scene came on, everyone in the audience just shut up. It was one of the greatest moments in cinema in my career! The only noise I heard through the film was the sound of some girls sobbing at the appropriate places.”  

Moulin Rouge, his next collaboration with Luhrmann, was also extremely rewarding for McAlpine, who spent a year prepping the picture with Luhrmann and production/costume designer Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s wife. The film brought McAlpine his first ASC and Academy Award nominations. “Baz is someone who can get the best out of every grip, electric, cameraman and actor,” he notes. “He inspires everyone around him, and he has brilliant judgment.”  

Being honored with the ASC’s International Award “was totally unexpected,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve read in American Cinematographer about the other people who’ve gotten the award, but it never occurred to me that I’d be considered for it. I don’t really think of myself as an Australian or American cinematographer; I think of myself as a citizen of the world. I’ve never really considered my nationality as a brand.  


“The thing I love most about my job is the interaction with people,” he continues. “Next to the director, the cinematographer is the one on a film who interacts more closely with more people than anyone else. It’s very rare to find a field where 100 people are all working together to realize a single creative endeavor. When it’s working like that and I’m part of the team, life is pretty good.”



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