The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents October 2006 Return to Table of Contents
The Departed
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The Departed DI
Cin. Style
Production Slate
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Michael Ballhaus, ASC, and gaffer Andy Day illuminate their work on The Departed, a crime drama that pits Boston police against a brutal Irish mob.

Unit photography by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.

In the gangster genre, Martin Scorsese has few rivals. As the director of Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino (see AC Nov. ’95) and Gangs of New York (AC Jan. ’03), Scorsese is the reigning capo di tutti capi, or “boss of bosses” — especially now that Francis Ford Coppola, Don of the Godfather trilogy, has abandoned “family business.” Of course, no mob boss can function without a good adviser, or consigliere, and Scorsese has long benefited from his collaboration with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, ASC, who has shot seven films for him, including GoodFellas and Gangs.

Ironically, Ballhaus says he abhors violence, onscreen or off, and says he is only willing to shoot such scenes for Scorsese out of respect for his good friend’s cinematic prowess. “Marty is my favorite director because he’s the most visual filmmaker I’ve worked with in America, but if you have a philosophy about violence, you’d better put it aside when you work with him,” he says with a rueful laugh. “In general, I’m not a big fan of violence, but in Marty’s case, I accept it. If I had an offer from a different director to shoot this type of movie, I might not do it. Sometimes you can feel hurt or insulted by the violence, but the world Marty is portraying is violent, and the way he presents those scenes tells you something about the characters. So I see a reason for it in terms of the story.”

The Departed is rife with beatings, knifings and gunplay, all arising from confrontations between volatile characters. The story is set in South Boston, where the police are waging a campaign to stamp out an Irish-American crime syndicate led by the ruthless but cultured Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Young cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is assigned to go undercover and penetrate Costello’s gang, and quickly gains the older man’s trust. Meanwhile, hardened criminal Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has infiltrated the police department as an informant for the mob, and rises rapidly in the Special Investigation Unit. Both men gather inside information for their respective sides, but when the cops and criminals realize there are moles in their midst, Costigan and Sullivan find themselves in predicaments that are increasingly perilous — and potentially deadly.

The film is based on the acclaimed 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, directed by Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak and shot by Lau and Yiu-Fai Lai. (Christopher Doyle, HKSC, who prepped the picture and shot part of it, is credited as “visual consultant.”) Ballhaus says he “enjoyed that film a great deal,” but notes that he and Scorsese took their own approach to the material. “Infernal Affairs is a very fast-moving and stylish picture, but it has a very different style than The Departed. Marty’s version is much more character-driven, whereas the Chinese version, while very good, doesn’t have that same depth. It was good for me to see Infernal Affairs, because it helped me learn what to do and not do in our film. The original is lit very darkly in places and is rather mysterious, which is sometimes good; however, it’s occasionally a bit difficult to see the characters, and it’s also primarily action-driven. Ours also has a lot of action, but we took a more American approach to the material.”

In formulating a visual strategy, Scorsese encouraged Ballhaus to draw inspiration from a number of other films, ranging from the Forties noir classics T-Men and Raw Deal (both directed by Anthony Mann and shot by John Alton, ASC) to modern Asian fare such as the ultra-kinetic Old Boy and the neo-noir Bad Guy. “Marty wanted a noir feel, and Alton’s work is really wonderful and atmospheric,” says Ballhaus. “By asking me to also watch those wild Asian movies, I think Marty was pushing me to try something different. I tried to do that, but after a couple of days on the shoot I realized that although the styles of those movies were great for the particular stories they were telling, we were doing an American movie with American stars. In the end, I had to pull back a bit from those wilder styles; I couldn’t go that far with this movie.”

Of course, Ballhaus is no stranger to stylized images. When asked how his relationship with Scorsese has evolved over the years, he recalls working on their first movie together, the gleefully sadistic, surreal black comedy After Hours (1985), in which a hapless New York office worker ventures into SoHo seeking some late-night thrills, only to find himself trapped by a succession of screwball characters. “After Hours was made for $4 million, and it was right down my aisle because it was shot fast and almost entirely at night. Marty wasn’t used to that kind of speed, but I was very glad we could do it that way. We had to complete 16 shots every night, and Marty got every shot he wanted. He was very happy, and at the end of the shoot, he told me the experience gave him a new feeling for how you can make movies. Since then, we’ve collaborated whenever our schedules have allowed it. Over the years, of course, the projects and budgets have gotten bigger, and now we usually have more time in the schedule.”

The Departed is a case in point: the project began principal photography in April 2005 and wrapped five months later, after 104 shooting days. However, editing, as well as reshoots staged in the summer of 2006, pushed the film’s release date to this fall. Ballhaus adds that because the picture was shot in Boston and New York, the company had to travel back and forth, causing additional delays. “Normally you would go to Boston, shoot everything you needed to do there, and then go back to New York to shoot all of those scenes,” he says. “But we had some restrictions because of the actors’ schedules that forced us to commute several times. We had Jack for only five weeks, and it was a similar situation with Matt, who had to go work on another movie. Those restrictions were pretty bad for Marty, because he loves to shoot his films in sequence. He couldn’t do that this time.” A benefit, however, was that The Departed became one of the first feature productions to take advantage of the New York’s recently approved tax incentives.

Most of the movie was shot at real locations in New York and Boston, but a significant number of interior scenes were staged on sets built at the Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn. During AC’s visit to the set in the summer of 2005, the company had set up in South Boston at a triple-decker home in the Dorchester neighborhood. On the top floor, Scorsese, Ballhaus and a skeleton crew worked out a scene with DiCaprio and costar Kevin Corrigan in a cramped kitchen, while outside, the bulk of the company — as well as a group of rubbernecking locals — took cover from a driving rainstorm. A few others gathered beneath a tent to watch the scene unfold on monitors. After many takes, during which DiCaprio offered a variety of different spins on his dialogue, the filmmakers finally emerged onto the building’s front steps, where assistants awaited them with open umbrellas.

Later that night, over dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Ballhaus outlined his general approach to the film’s lighting: “I want this movie to have some darkness, but I want it to be a partial darkness that allows you to see the characters clearly. I’m always trying to break up the light to keep things contrasty and interesting. In general, the light in this movie is more direct, with less bounce light. Normally I like bounce light and soft light, but this movie is more about direct lighting than beauty lighting. The main characters are tough guys who don’t need careful, soft light around them. We’re using a lot of flags and cutters with hard lights.”

Ballhaus shot most of the picture on Kodak Vision2 200T 5217 (day exteriors) and Vision2 500T 5218 (day interiors and night exteriors), and he used the stocks to carefully delineate various characters and settings. “Scenes set in the Boston police headquarters are always more desaturated, not very colorful and on the cool side. For sequences involving Costello, I also want to keep things darker, grainier, desaturated and cool. On the other hand, I shot scenes involving Billy and his psychiatrist, Madolyn [Vera Farmiga], on Kodak [Vision2 500T] Expression [5229], which is softer, less contrasty, and more pastel in its rendition of colors.


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