The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Revolutionary Road
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Revolutionary Road
Benjamin Button
Jack Green, ASC
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
For Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, finding a visual style for the domestic drama Revolutionary Road was a matter of simplicity.

Unit photography by François Duhamel, SMPSP
Great novels pose singular challenges to those who seek to adapt them for the screen, and some would say Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, poses more than most. Spare and unsparing in equal measure, the portrait of an unhappy marriage in suburban Connecticut in 1955 is a mainly interior drama whose characters and conflicts are rendered with piercing clarity and little sentiment. The novel’s observational stance was, in fact, an early concern for cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, who reunited with director Sam Mendes to help bring the story to the screen. “When I read the book, I was concerned the audience might not be drawn into the characters because there’s a sort of distance from them,” says Deakins. “It’s an interesting problem, really, and Sam and I talked about it a lot.”  

The key, says Mendes, lay in staying close to the main characters, Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), and telling their story as simply as possible. “The novel is about a marriage, a period and a community, and I wanted to make it primarily a story about a marriage,” says Mendes. Referring to his previous films, American Beauty (AC March and June ’00), Road to Perdition (AC Aug. ’02) and Jarhead (AC Nov. ’05), he continues, “I’d directed an original screenplay and [adaptations of] a graphic novel and a memoir, but I’d never done a film adaptation of a great novel, and I was wary of that. After all, a novel can be great for the opposite reasons a movie is great. But I was drawn in the end to the simple center of the story — a man and a woman in a room. I knew the heart of the movie was going to be in the close-ups, and I’d never done a movie in which that was the case.”   

In form and content, Revolutionary Road could not be more different from Mendes and Deakins’ previous collaboration, the Gulf War drama Jarhead, but Mendes notes Deakins “is a master at cutting a suit according to its cloth. Just taking his oeuvre with the Coen brothers as an example, you can’t believe the same person lit Barton Fink [1991] and Fargo [1996]; one is highly stylized and the other is totally observational, and yet they’re both perfect. Roger’s ability to morph himself, to shape his style according to the requirements of the script, is extraordinary. I suppose there are parallels amongst directors; some have a single style and impose it on whatever material they’re dealing with, and others adjust their style to the requirements of the story. I’m in the latter category, and Roger is, too.”  

On Revolutionary Road, the requirements of the story, and Mendes’ desire to tell it in an “unadorned” style, led to a visual approach Deakins calls “very straightforward.” The cinematographer notes, “It’s a film about a marriage falling apart in this supposedly idyllic suburbia, and when you’ve got two great actors in a story like that, you don’t want to do much with the camera. You just want to photograph it as best you can to let the audience see the characters and the performances that give you the characters.” The close focus on Frank and April also led Mendes and Deakins to make decisions about shots only after the director had thoroughly rehearsed DiCaprio and Winslet in the space at hand. “It wasn’t like working with the Coen brothers, who decide in advance exactly how something will be staged and shot,” says Deakins. “This wasn’t the kind of film where you were going to impose anything, really, on what the actors were going to do.”  

The filmmakers were united in their desire to extend the mandate for visual simplicity to their depiction of the period. (See sidebar on page 36.) “One of the great dangers of period design in movies is that for many of us, our notion of how something looked in the ’30s or ’50s is a received notion based on what we’ve seen in movies,” observes Mendes. “I thought it was very important to try and unlock some [reference] material that wasn’t other movies’ versions of the ’50s.” Researchers for Mendes and production designer Kristi Zea assembled a variety of still photographs from the era, and Zea brought in a copy of Saul Leiter’s Early Color, which proved to be a key reference for the film’s overall feel.  

In addition to his general concerns about period design, Mendes believed presenting the ’50s with any kind of flourish in Revolutionary Road would take the emphasis away from “the heart” of the story. “There’s a way of reading the novel which is to say it’s actually about the ’50s, but I don’t agree entirely with that,” he says. “The period obviously serves as a backdrop, but I felt the period details should be almost thrown in, observed as though from a distance. When there are big shots that show a lot of period detail, like Frank making his way through Grand Central Station or through the crowded streets of New York, I was ruthless with them in the edit. They’re not lingered on or fetishized; they’re simply our character on his way to work. I didn’t want to have any shots that said, ‘The 1950s: weren’t they extraordinary!’ I simply wanted it to be where these characters live.”   

That was fine with Deakins. “I hate the idea that you have to make the photography colorful because it’s the ’50s, or you have to make it gauzy and sepia because it’s an earlier era — I’ve never seen the point of that, really,” says the cinematographer, whose recent period credits include the current release Doubt, set in 1964, and last year’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (AC Oct. ’07). Deakins shot Revolutionary Road clean and had the negative (Kodak Vision2 200T 5217 and 500T 5218) processed normally at DuArt Film and Video in New York, a favorite lab when he is working in the area.   

Keen to create as much reality on the screen as possible, Mendes decided to shoot the picture on location and, with few exceptions, in continuity. “It was good for the movie that we committed to shoot on location, but it’s a merciless decision to make on a period film, especially one set mainly in a small suburban house,” the director acknowledges. “I wanted the atmosphere and claustrophobia of a real house, and I was willing, for the first time, to occasionally sacrifice the ‘look’ of a scene for psychological accuracy and mood. We were often twisting ourselves into pretzels and cramming ourselves into corners, but I feel the reality of the situation is there onscreen.” As for shooting in continuity, he continues, “My job was to help Leonardo and Kate create a convincing marriage and then, as the story progressed, watch them gradually, bit by bit, destroy each other. That seemed, for obvious reasons, to be anathema to the idea of shooting the end of the story at the beginning.”  

Frank and April’s arguments grow more intense as the story progresses, and Deakins notes that shooting in continuity facilitated “a subtle evolution” in the camerawork, most of which he accomplished with the Power Pod remote head/Aerocrane Jib Arm combination he has favored for several years. “Sam and I originally thought of shooting the whole movie static to give it the same observational feel as the book, but once we started shooting, we agreed that felt a bit dead,” says Deakins. “So [the style] starts off static and gradually becomes more fragmented. Films like this have their own organic way of progressing; you can fight it, but that’s the wrong thing to do.  

“We tried to stage quite a bit in single takes, with the camera going from one character to the other as they moved within the space, and I shot quite a bit with the remote arm,” he continues. “By the end of the film, when things get really intense between April and Frank, [the camera is] mostly handheld.” Mendes adds, “I wanted a real rawness in Leo and Kate’s performances in the last half-hour of the movie, and when we reached that point, I told Roger I didn’t want to make any decisions [about shots]; I wanted it to be handheld, and I wanted to let the actors be explosive and unpredictable. Roger is a brilliant operator, and I think he was excited by that, and that’s very much there in the film; the transition to handheld has quite an intense emotional impact.” 

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