The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Propositon
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The Proposition shot by Benoît Delhomme, AFC, presents a period tale in the brutal Australian outback.

Frame grabs by Framestore-CFC
Photos by Benoît Delhomme and Kerry Brown
The parched Australian outback is an inhumane place, even in the best of times. But back in the 1880s, when Australia was effectively a penal colony for the British Empire, man joined nature in making the outback particularly brutal. Political tensions between England and Ireland were mirrored in violent clashes between British settlers and Irish renegades, and Australia’s indigenous Aboriginals were brutalized by both.

This is the setting for The Proposition, an Australian drama directed by John Hillcoat and shot by Benoît Delhomme, AFC. The film opens with a bloody shootout that results in the capture of two Irish brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson), who are wanted for rape and murder along with their elder sibling, Arthur (Danny Huston). English lawman Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone) offers Charlie a proposition: he must track down and kill Arthur, who is hiding out in the hills, or Mike will hang from the gallows on Christmas Day.

Filmed on location in the Queensland outback, The Proposition offered Delhomme a new opportunity: to shoot a film with a preponderance of exteriors. He had worked mainly in studios on films such as The Scent of Green Papaya, Miss Julie, Artemisia, Family Resemblances, L’Idole and Sade. Although he has always enjoyed the control a studio affords, he also hankered to shoot more outside. “I love being able to wake up and say, ‘I’m going to make it a sunny day inside this place,’” says Delhomme, “but I’m a big fan of cinematographers who can just love natural light, like Bruno Nuytten, whom I assisted on Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. Natural light is very difficult because you can’t fight it, you can’t go against it.”

That’s certainly true in the outback under a blinding summer sun. Hillcoat knew The Proposition would be a grueling shoot, but so, too, were his previous films, Ghosts … of the Civil Dead (shot in a maximum-security prison) and To Have and to Hold (shot in the jungles of Papua New Guinea). “I love working in real locations and difficult locations,” says the director. When choosing a cinematographer for The Proposition, Hillcoat first sought an Australian or British cameraman because those countries were co-producing the project. When his initial choices were unavailable, “I just started thinking about my favorite cinematographers and who would bring a fresh eye to Australia,” he says. “I knew I wanted to give a different look to the outback.” Delhomme’s work in The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo “just blew me away,” says Hillcoat, and he was also intrigued by the fact that Delhomme always operates his own camera, in part to establish a rapport with the actors. “When he said that, suddenly a penny dropped and I knew I had someone really special,” adds the director.

For Delhomme, shooting a Western was a childhood dream come true. When prepping, he rescreened such favorites as Forty Guns, Unforgiven and Pale Rider, paying close attention to framing. For The Proposition, he says, “I liked the idea of people lost in a landscape, [but] I didn’t think of this as a Western or put it firmly in a genre. That’s always tricky because there are rules to respect. And I don’t think John [Hillcoat] came to me with those kinds of premeditated ideas.” Hillcoat’s only stipulation was that there be no aerial shots of the landscape — “nothing higher or faster than a horse,” he says. “[Camera placement and movement] were based within the technology at the time almost, to give it a feel that you’re going back in time.” Delhomme adds, “This is a film about Australia first, and I wanted to show the country. I wanted it to inspire me.” While scouting the outback, he found plenty of novel inspiration. “I took a lot of stills with my digital camera because the country was so strange to me. It took me time to understand how to frame it, how to find power and beauty in the emptiness of the landscapes.”

Because of the project’s modest budget, Delhomme had to shoot Super 35mm rather than anamorphic, his first preference. With the graphic compositions of Forty Guns in mind, he started to frame his stills at 2.35:1. “I wanted to see how much sky we needed, how much ground.” He also used the digital stills to develop the color palette of the film, desaturating the skies and saturating the ochres and earth tones.

The filmmakers originally hoped to shoot during Australia’s winter for perfect sunlight and crisp colors, but principal photography was postponed to early summer. “The summer was less contrasty,” says Delhomme. “In a way, the dust became one of the key characters in the film and gave it its look. We needed to show it’s difficult to live there — the human body is not made for it. John wanted the actors to be sweating and dirty and have yellowed teeth. So the heat was a big gift for me; it provided a lot of texture.” The only relief from this dusty palette is the small, blue oasis of England inside Stanley’s house, a world of porcelain teapots and blue-stenciled wall designs.

With temperatures soaring to 135°F, heat was a real hazard. “Sometimes the camera was so hot I couldn’t touch it — not outside, inside!” recalls the cinematographer. “We had to drink a glass of water every five minutes.” Medics were on hand at all times to make sure no one succumbed to the heat. To top it all off, flies were everywhere. “They were a cast of thousands,” jokes Hillcoat, who encouraged the actors to adopt a Zen attitude and imagine the flies were “butterfly wings grazing your face.”

Mindful of the need for robust equipment, Delhomme selected a Panaflex Millennium for the A camera and a Platinum for the B. “I originally wanted two Millenniums, but the technicians at Panavision Brisbane suggested that the ‘less electronic technology’ of the Platinum would be a good safety measure,” he says. “But we didn’t have a single problem in 48 days.” He shot most of the picture with Primo lenses in three focal lengths: 35mm, 50mm and 75mm. “I think it’s a very interesting discipline,” he notes. “Henri Cartier-Bresson used only one lens in his life. I can tell the actors generally enjoy the friendly and consistent distance from the camera. The idea of avoiding wide angles and telephotos was also to respect the real scale of the landscape.” The B camera was equipped with a 24-275mm Primo zoom, allowing for adjustments during takes for smarter coverage.

Delhomme chose time-tested lighting instruments over the latest equipment. “I took old lamps, 18K, 12K and 6K HMIs with large Fresnels. Par lights would have been easier to carry to difficult places, but they were much more sensitive to heat. We also had to change all the electronic ballasts for the same reason.” One of Delhomme’s most important lighting tools was a simple white bedsheet, which was either laid on the ground or walked with the camera. “For exterior shots, it’s often the quickest and best bounce you can get on a face,” he explains. “I’ve lit many, many shots like this. I never use polystyrene for an exterior. In all the scenes in the crevasse [where Arthur is hiding], I was bouncing 12K Fresnels directly on the rock to match the texture of the existing light.”

Delhomme achieved many camera moves with a small, lightweight crane and a remote head. “It was many times simpler than bringing in a dolly, especially in rocky locations. I improvised some strange, floating shots with it, but mainly we wanted something quite classical.” Furthermore, Delhomme didn’t want to ask his crew to haul nonessential equipment in the killer heat. “I did things more simply than I would have in the studio. You can’t make sophisticated effects because the crew is suffering every day. That rawness became part of the style of the film.”

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