The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents November 2006 Return to Table of Contents
Flags of Our Fathers
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Short Takes
Books in Review
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ASC Close-Up
Cinematographer To Stern examines the high price of heroism in the World War II drama Flags of Our Fathers.

Unit photography by Merie W. Wallace
Although some war films find their drama in the spectacle of battle or the politics behind a conflict, “that’s not what our story is about,” says director of photography Tom Stern of the World War II drama Flags of Our Fathers, the fourth feature he has shot for director Clint Eastwood. “The invasion of Iwo Jima is just the backdrop of our story, which is about how that experience affected three particular soldiers, and how the country elevated them to a level of hero worship because the government needed heroes to help boost morale and win the war.”

On February 23, 1945, the seventh day of fighting on the Japanese stronghold of Iwo Jima — eight square miles of sulfurous island in the Pacific — a contingent of Americans climbed to the island’s highest point atop Mount Suribachi. There, they raised a flag to rally the thousands of troops on the beaches below. Recognizing history in the making, a U.S. Navy officer on an offshore ship requested that the banner be delivered to him so that a second, larger flag could be raised in its place. Hearing about this, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal readied his Speed Graphic camera, and as the soldiers struggled to push this second flag skyward, he captured what became one of the war’s most iconic images. (Nearby, combat cinematographer Bill Genaust simultaneously shot a color, full-motion document of the event.) Only three of the six soldiers depicted in Rosenthal’s photo survived the following weeks of combat, and their lives would be changed forever.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning image, aptly described at the time as “the soul of a nation,” was printed in every major newspaper. Noting its popularity, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the three surviving soldiers — John Bradley, Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon — to Washington, D.C., to serve as the centerpiece of his 7th Bond Drive, which raised billions of dollars for the war effort. The national tour transformed the trio into instant American heroes, but their sudden fame led to searing guilt about leaving their comrades behind and being celebrated for something relatively inconsequential. Hayes died of alcoholism in 1954, just months after reluctantly attending the dedication of the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, a towering sculpture based on Rosenthal’s image. Bradley and Gagnon fared better, but also were scarred by feelings of remorse and regret.

This dilemma is the crux of Flags of Our Fathers, which is based on a bestselling book co-written by Bradley’s son, James, that documents the feats and fates of the five Marines and one Navy corpsman who attained immortality atop Mount Suribachi. Eastwood was so taken with the tale of struggle and sacrifice that he decided to make a companion film, Letters From Iwo Jima, told from the Japanese perspective. (This second picture, also photographed by Stern, will be detailed in an upcoming issue of AC.)

Stern worked with Eastwood for many years as a chief lighting technician, and since moving up to director of photography on Eastwood’s 2002 thriller Blood Work, he has also shot Mystic River (see AC Dec. ’03) and Million Dollar Baby for the director. Before joining Flags, Stern photographed the comedic drama The Last Kiss for director Tony Goldwyn. “Knowing I was going to make a war picture, Tony gave me an incredible gift: a collection of photo annuals published during World War II that feature the finest photographs taken during each year,” says Stern. “I never realized it before, but the great still photographers we hold up on pedestals, like Edward Steichen and Walker Evans, all took pictures during the war. These annuals are full of stunning work. Not only did they end up being interesting research for me — especially the 1945 edition — but they influenced others on the production as well. In fact, one of those books is sitting in Joel Cox’s editing room.” Asked how the annuals helped inform the team’s approach to the battle sequences, Stern says, “Clint’s point of view always reflects the perspective of the protagonist or antagonist, rather than some ‘movie’ perspective. The power of the film is that it gets into the soldiers’ hearts and takes the journey with them. For me, the human element is always the most important aspect of a shot.”

One of the initial hurdles on the show was determining where to film the Iwo Jima sequences, as the island’s black beaches (where the “sand” is actually composed of particulate pumice and volcanic ash) are uncommon. “Everyone started rejoicing when this project came up, because we thought we’d be filming on black beaches in Hawaii — the closest approximation of Iwo we could imagine,” recalls the cinematographer. “Either that, or we figured we’d be shooting aboard a cruise ship anchored off Iwo.”

In 1945, the pre-invasion shelling and bombing of Iwo Jima turned the place into a charred landscape of blasted debris. Since then, however, the island’s flora has recovered dramatically, leaving the terrain lush and green. Reversing this ecological miracle was out of the question, and authorities in Hawaii were not inclined to let the production defoliate their coastal jungles. “We needed a post-apocalyptic look, and there was nothing like that in either place,” Stern says. “Instead, we wound up filming in Iceland, which not only has very similar volcanic beaches, but a harsh climate that prevents much foliage from growing. It was a perfect location for our needs.”

The black beaches also dovetail nicely with the chiaroscuro visual style Eastwood has been honing over the past 20 years with dramas such as Bird, his 1988 biopic about jazz virtuoso Charlie Parker. Stern relates, “When we first started talking about Million Dollar Baby, Clint called me up and asked, ‘Do you remember how dark Bird was?’ Well, he knew that I’d gaffed Bird [for Jack Green, ASC] — of course I remembered! But then he asked, ‘Do you think we can make this picture darker than Bird?’ And I thought, why not? Well, before we started Flags, he asked me, ‘Do you remember how dark Million Dollar Baby was?’ It’s like a comedy routine.”

Referring to Eastwood’s production entity, Malpaso, Stern describes himself as “Malpaso’s ‘custodian of the black.’ Clint likes darkness, really deep blacks, and I do as well. And because cinema is not only photography — it’s sound and writing and images, a whole collection of attributes — you can allow faces to go black. Sometimes the music is going to carry the story, sometimes the images, sometimes the sound; it’s like jazz, as the different instruments play off each other and sometimes go into solos. That interplay allows each discipline to be more experimental at times.

“The Icelandic beaches were perfect for this film because they go solid black even in full daylight, and especially when they’re damp. But when the surface dries, the ash becomes almost neutral gray. During camera tests, when we were trying out some pyrotechnics, I discovered something interesting about the terrain. When artillery or an exploding land mine disturbs the sand vertically, the material shooting up into the sky is jet black because it’s moist. So you can literally use some black powder and 100 pounds of sand to create in-camera dissolves, meaning you can use that shower of blackness as a perfect cutting point. Once we stumbled onto that idea, we began using explosives shamelessly.”

In describing the Iwo Jima sequences, Stern conjures up images of a monochromatic battlefield punctuated only by explosions, olive-drab uniforms and skin tones smudged with dirt. “After the initial amphibious landing, the combat became vicious and brutal, with soldiers often fighting hand to hand. Tens of thousands died. We tried to create a monochromatic world, a kind of über hell on earth. On the set, we came up with a word to describe this look: ‘Kodalithic.’”


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