John Toll, ASC details his experiences on The Thin Red Line, an existential combat film that marks the long-awaited return of director Terrence Malick.

Interview by Stephen Pizzello

The Battle of Guadalcanal was one of World War II's pivotal conflicts. Early in 1942, Japanese forces in the South Pacific were advancing toward the Solomon Islands, which had been selected as the strategic site of an airfield that would extend the range of the Axis power's air force. When U.S. intelligence relayed this information back to Washington, America's military brain trust decided that the airfield, which would threaten Australian sea lanes, had to be controlled — at any cost. Mobilizing much more quickly than the Japanese had anticipated, the U.S. sent in the First Marine Division, which quickly took over the lightly defended airfield at Guadalcanal's Lunga Point. The Japanese soon mounted a counteroffensive that led to six months of brutal combat, during which the Marines managed to repel wave after wave of seasoned troops. After a gradual buildup of forces by both sides, the Americans finally hammered out a decisive victory.

The Thin Red Line is the story of a rifle company within the Army's 25th Division, which arrived on Guadalcanal in November of 1942 to reinforce the Marines. At that point in the battle, the thousands of Japanese troops who were still on the island had adopted defensive tactics, retreating into the territory's grassy hills. There, they would face a torturous attrition exacted by malaria, starvation and the Americans, who were ordered to flush them out.

This historical event served as the backdrop of James Jones's 1962 novel, a semi-autobiographical work which offers some searing insights into the human condition. Director Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven — see coverage of the latter film in AC June '79), who hadn't helmed a motion picture since 1978, made the book the basis of his screenplay, which generated a loud buzz in Hollywood. Malick's long-awaited return to active duty lured in some of the industry's biggest stars, including John Cusack, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn and John Travolta, as well as such capable but lesser-known actors as Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto and John C. Reilly.

In selecting a director of photography for his haunting, elegiacal war drama, Malick chose two-time Academy Award-winning director of photography John Toll, ASC (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, see AC March '95 and June '96, respectively), whose work on The Thin Red Line recently earned him both the New York Film Critics' and National Society of Film Critics' awards for Best Cinematography. Toll recently spoke with AC about working with the reclusive director and supervising the lengthy and often arduous location shoot.

American Cinematographer: How did you land the assignment to photograph The Thin Red Line?

John Toll, ASC: I knew one of the producers, Grant Hill. He's from Australia, and he worked on the first picture I shot, Wind, which was filmed there. After that project, he came over to the States, where he's been [a unit production manager] on films like Titanic and The Ghost and the Darkness. He'd been working with Terrence Malick on The Thin Red Line for about six months, and he called me when they began looking at directors of photography. Terry had already talked to several cinematographers when I finally got on the phone with him, but we just happened to hit it off.

Was that call your first encounter with Malick?

Toll: Yes, I didn't know anything about his personality. I'd seen Badlands and Days of Heaven, of course, and they're both great pictures. Whenever you see films like those, you always think, 'Well, it would be great to work with a director like that, because he's obviously interested in making films, as opposed to just commercial product.' Back when Terry made those pictures, there wasn't such a clear line between commercial pictures and 'thinking' pictures; nowadays, there's a real distinction between those types of films. I understand that the film industry is a business, but we don't all want to go through our careers just making commercial projects. The idea of making the type of picture that Terry seemed to be going for with The Thin Red Line was obviously desirable. I'm sure that the other cinematographers he spoke to were just as enthusiastic about working with him as I was, but I just happened to get lucky.

When did you finally meet Malick in person? What were your first impressions of him?

Toll: I was actually working in Tennessee, and I had to come back to L.A. one weekend. Terry was living in Austin, Texas, so I stopped off there and we spent a day talking about the project. I didn't know what to expect, but I found him to be very low-key, personable and unpretentious. He's a straightforward person, and he was extremely collaborative right from the start. It was always, 'Well, what do you think? Here's what I'm thinking.' He never said anything like, 'Okay, we're going to do this and this and this.' His approach is a bit more nonlinear. He doesn't have a precisely defined vision of things from the very beginning, but he's intuitive and knows where he wants to go with the material. The specifics are things that he finds along the way. He feels the direction, can see it out there, and knows that as he moves toward it things will become more clearly defined. He attempts to plot every stage of the trip before you begin, and then sort of fine-tunes his approach on the journey. It's a process of discovery, and he feels that it's a bit pointless to define the parameters any further until you're closer to your objective.

Did your director's 20-year absence from the industry have any effect on the production?

Toll: Not really. One of the great things about this project was that several key members of the filmmaking team [production designer Jack Fisk, assistant director Skip Cosper, casting director Dianne Crittenden and editor Billy Weber] had worked with Terry on his previous films. So even though it had been two decades since Terry had made a picture, he came back into this core unit. They just sort of picked up where they'd left off, and we didn't really feel that 20-year gap. Of course, there was 20 years of technology that he wasn't particularly familiar with [laughs], but he's a great filmmaker and he picked up those types of things very quickly and intuitively.

Were you immediately drawn to the script?

Toll: The idea of this particular project was really interesting to me, and not just because it was a war movie. I remembered reading the James Jones novel when it first came out, and finding it to be just fantastic. I wasn't in the film industry at the time, but I recall thinking that it would make a great motion picture. A film adaptation was actually made in 1964, but it was a pretty low-budget version, and I was a bit disappointed with it.

The book is an incredibly realistic depiction of the experience of combat. Jones was a member of the Army's 25th Division; he was at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he also participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal, so From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line are both based on his firsthand experiences. The most interesting thing about The Thin Red Line is the way it gets into all of these soldiers' different personalities. While we were shooting the picture, Terry and I kept talking about how interior the narrative was; there's an enormous amount of material in the book about what the characters are experiencing internally — as opposed to what comes out in their conversations, which usually represents an entirely different aspect of their personalities. Terry wanted the viewers to know what was happening within the minds of the characters without necessarily presenting those thoughts through dialogue.

The characters in this story are very well-drawn and diverse. Some are heroes, some aren't, and some are just there to do their job and get out as quickly as possible. It's really a story about the tragedy of war. I got very caught up in the book when I read it, particularly the realistic aspects of being involved in that kind of experience. It was a very truthful story that presented all of the good stuff and all of the bad stuff. You just knew that Jones had been there.

From what you've said about Malick's personality, I'm assuming he isn't big on storyboards.

Toll: Actually, we did storyboard a few sections of the film. At the beginning of the picture, the troops are on a transport ship on the way to Guadalcanal, and there's a big landing sequence. We storyboarded that because we didn't have the resources to have the numbers of real ships and transports that we needed; we had to do some CGI, so we used the sketches to simplify our lives. Whenever you have a sequence on the water, you can immediately get into trouble if you're not prepared.

What other kinds of prep work did you do?

Toll: There were a lot of conversations, and we also scouted in Guadalcanal, which was an unbelievable experience. The place has changed, but not a whole lot. It's a beautiful island, but it's extremely tropical and not very developed, because the region has one of the highest malaria rates in the world. During the war, enormous numbers of people came down with malaria; it was worse for the Japanese, because they weren't well-supplied. That was one of the biggest drawbacks in their battle plan, and many of those crack troops wound up just starving to death. It was a basically a win or die situation, because the Japanese simply would not surrender.

One of the things that struck us immediately during the Guadalcanal scout was how loaded with color this tropical environment was; after all, we're used to seeing black-and-white newsreels of World War II combat. At one point, we did talk about shooting the picture in black-and-white, but that notion didn't really take hold. The idea of all of this violence taking place in such a rich and colorful environment was very striking, and we felt that representing the story any other way just wouldn't be accurate. We got a lot of ideas about tones and colors as we explored the area.

Eventually, you opted to shoot most of the film in Australia. What led to that decision?

Toll: We didn't want to work in Guadalcanal for all of the same reasons that you wouldn't want to go there during a war. There's still a 50 percent rate of malaria, and it just wasn't feasible logistically if we wanted to have the kind of technical support we knew we'd need. It's still a bit difficult to get on and off the island, and we had some scenes that involved 200 or 300 extras. We would have had to bring everybody to Guadalcanal, and financially it just didn't make sense.

The real battlefields depicted in the book basically consist of grassy hills, and we began looking all over the world for that type of terrain. When we went to Australia, which is just 1,000 miles from the Solomon Islands, we found the same types of terrain — beaches, beautiful coral reefs, and grassy hills on the north coast near Queensland. Australia also has some great crews and resources, and a good lab, Atlab, right there in Sydney. It made an enormous amount of sense to shoot there. I still knew a lot of people from my experience on Wind, such as gaffer Mick Morris and key grip David Nichols, and many of them were hired for this picture.

In the end, we wound up shooting for 80 days in Australia and another 20 in Guadalcanal.

Did you have any specific visual inspirations for the look of the film?

Toll: During the shoot, Jack Fisk brought us this book called Images of War: The Artist's Vision of World War II [1992, edited by Ken McCormick and Hamilton Darby Perry], which presents 200 paintings by many different artists. These were artists who spent time in the front lines and came back with this fantastic artwork depicting the scenes they had witnessed, including many combat situations. All of the artists had different and unique styles. We didn't necessarily try to reproduce these pieces of art, but they did give us good ideas about color schemes and so on. The illustrations basically served as a guide to the kind of atmosphere we were after.

We'd looked at many photographs from the war, but they seemed too detailed somehow, and I wanted the imagery of our film to be a bit less clearly defined. The paintings were great because they were much more impressionistic and abstract in a way that I found more interesting than the photographs. For example, there was one drawing of Japanese prisoners sitting on the ground, and the light they were drawn in — bright contrasty sunlight which left their faces in shadow — looked very similar to the light conditions we were shooting in. There was detail in the prisoners' faces, but the highlights of the background were bright and burned-out. I thought it looked fantastic.

In some scenes [that I'd shot to that point], I had lit the actors' faces or had used fill in situations with heavy contrast, but I'd begun doing it less and less because I started to like the way the film looked when I didn't use fill — overexposing quite a bit, getting detail in the shadows and letting the highlights burn out. It looked much less controlled in an interesting way. After seeing the drawing, which was a much more exaggerated version of what we'd been doing photographically, I went with less and less added light.

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© 1999 ASC