The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents March 2007 Return to Table of Contents
ltrsFrom Iwo Jima
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Donald M. Morgan
DVD Playback
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For Letters From Iwo Jima, director of photography Tom Stern envisions a different view of one of World War II’s most famous battles.

unit photography by Merie W. Wallace, SMPSP
While “the victors write the history,” there are at least two sides to every story. With Letters From Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood sought to expand upon the history and themes he explored in his previous film about the pivotal 1945 clash, Flags of Our Fathers (see AC Nov. ’06), by seeing the action from the perspective of its Japanese defenders. “There’s an interesting balance between the two pictures, the ‘big one’ and the ‘little one,’” says cinematographer Tom Stern, who launched into Letters almost immediately after wrapping Flags. “Despite the fact that all the dialogue in Letters is in Japanese, some people find this movie more accessible — in part, I think, because of the terrific cast we had. The word ‘sushi’ was about as much Japanese as anybody at [Eastwood’s production company] Malpaso knew when we began this picture, but in telling this story we found that language wasn’t a barrier, because the ideas and characters are universal. We understood each other quite well by the end.” 

At heart, Letters is a classic wartime tale of sacrifice and survival. Faced with a sizable U.S. invasion force and no hope of reinforcement for his under-equipped troops, Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) mounts an unorthodox defense for the largely barren volcanic isle: dig deep into the black rock and sand to create a warren of fighting positions linked by tunnels. In fact, his overall goal was strategic rather than tactical — not to win the battle, but to hold Iwo Jima for as long as possible to delay the eventual U.S. invasion of Japan. 

Seeking to bring the audience into this claustrophobic, largely subterranean battlefield, Eastwood and Stern at first toyed with the notion of shooting on digital video (DV), figuring that the small camera units would suit the tight sets. “After Flags, Clint asked me to investigate the possibility of using another medium to photograph Letters, so we did about a month of tests in early 2006,” recalls Stern. “We re-used a tunnel set we’d built for Flags at Warner Bros., where we’d staged a scene in which American G.I.s discover the bodies of Japanese soldiers who’d killed themselves. As Letters would largely be set inside these kinds of caves, we wanted to see how MiniDV would work for us in terms of image quality, and how we could take advantage of the cameras’ size. Basically, Clint was interested in seeing how much we could make the image-gathering hardware go away. So we brought in some stand-ins and shot a scene on both MiniDV and 35mm. ” 

At Technicolor, Stern took the footage all the way through to a release print to see exactly what audiences would experience. “It was an interesting and productive exercise, and we decided to stick with 35mm film. I don’t want to speak for Clint, but the consensus was that the image was a little too different from what we’d done on Flags, and the films are thought of by many as companion pieces. In close-ups and even some medium shots, the image was quite astonishing in terms of what it conveyed, but totally different from film — not bad, just different. We decided the format could become a distraction, a forefront element of the picture instead of something that just disappears into the background, which is what I think good cinematography should do. It would have given the picture a strange voice. So we ended up wedging Panavision 35mm cameras into some very tight corners.” For some shots, the filmmakers used an Arri 235 in a Steadicam rig. 

Stern employed the same film stocks he’d used on Flags — Kodak Vision 250D 5246 and 500T 5279 — as well as the same C-series Panavision anamorphic lenses he’d used on Blood Work, Mystic River (AC Dec. ’03), Million Dollar Baby and Flags. He also continued his longstanding relationship with Technicolor, teaming with Technicolor Digital Intermediates (TDI) for the final grade on the picture. Also carried over from Flags for another tour of duty were chief lighting technician Ross Dunkerley, camera/Steadicam operator Stephen S. Campanelli, and 1st AC Bill Coe. “The crew was the same,” says Stern, “but instead of shooting in Iceland, we were near Barstow, California.” 

For Stern, two issues also informed the look of Letters. “On Flags, any shot that featured an 800-ship naval armada was a ‘wide’ shot, but in Letters, a ‘wide’ shot could be something with just a few soldiers jammed in a cave. So for our close-ups, we have much tighter shots than we normally might, often just faces. It’s almost like Flags looks out while Letters is a descent, an internal story; this reflects the mindsets of the two armies. The second thing was that we had a very tight production schedule, even for a Malpaso movie. We had full support from Warner Bros. to make this film, but it was always going to have a much smaller budget than Flags. We did Million Dollar Baby in 37 days, but we did Letters in 33.” 

Asked how the predominantly Japanese cast took to Eastwood’s speedy production tempo, Stern replies, “I think they kind of reveled in the fact that the technological end of filmmaking was not a character in the film, but rather invisible. It was really about the acting, and that’s a situation that’s only possible when you have a great team behind the camera.” 

Beyond the logistics of extensive interiors and a limited budget, Stern and Eastwood “didn’t have a lot of discussions about the look of the film,” says the cinematographer. “Actually making the film is what impacted its look.” 

In Flags, the impact of Stern’s stark, near-monochrome images of Iwo Jima was keenly preserved by a nonlinear storytelling technique; cutting back and forth between the desaturated killing zone and richly hued Stateside scenes prevented the viewer’s eye from adapting to the effect. In Letters, there is almost no such relief. “I’d call this film a noble journey to oblivion, so not having that kind of relief is appropriate, though there are short flashes back to Kuribayashi’s time in America, before the war, and the experiences of another character, Saigo [Kazunari Ninomiya], back in Japan,” says Stern. 

Some viewers might assume Letters is triumph of stage work, but Stern and Dunkerley attest that the cast and crew indeed made a real descent of their own. “The great thing about not knowing everything is that you don’t know that you can’t do something,” says Stern. “In a sense, we couldn’t shoot the movie in real tunnels 100 feet underground simply because nobody in their right mind would do it — but we did.” Dunkerley adds, “Some reviews have said this film was primarily shot on a backlot or soundstage, but it was definitely a location picture with a capital L. A good two-thirds of Letters was shot in actual mines, caves, lava fields, mountains and such. It was probably the hardest movie I’ve ever done in terms of the physicality.” 

The primary cave locations were found near Calico, an 1880s silver-mine boomtown in the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Light sources in the underground defenses consisted primarily of gun-placement openings and skylight cuts leading to the surface — allowing shafts of blinding daylight to penetrate the darkness — and simple electrical fixtures. “We built some practicals based on authentic Japanese work lights, just to try to be authentic,” recalls Stern. “But they had to be fabricated out of sheet metal and were expensive, so we only made 18 of them. We strung them up wherever we thought they seemed appropriate. We also exploited the notion that the Japanese would just run their electrical and telephone lines along the tunnel floor; we did the same with our cabling, so there was no need to really hide it.”

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