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American Cinematographer Magazine
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Bailey: People often think there's a massive blueprint for what we do because there's so much equipment and personnel involved in filmmaking. Some cinematographers may work that way, but I think many essentially deal with emotion, character and drama - things that you can't really quantify. And the process of executing those things is intuitive and organic. I think that's something that a lot of beginning cinematographers need to think about more.

Deschanel: You need to be versed in the technical aspects of cinematography to do your job well, but at some point, you have to get past all of that. It's like being inspired by paintings; you can either copy them or use them to find your own inspiration and metaphors. If you copy them, you're going to be limited to what you copy. The same thinking applies to the equipment we use; you need to be familiar enough with the equipment that you can move beyond those considerations and into the philosophical aspects of storytelling.

At any rate, the answers are incomplete until you get on the set with the actors. You can sit there with an empty set and figure out how it should be lit, but your plans will often change when the actors arrive. The power that a great actor can bring to a setting is just phenomenal. When an actor is on the set, the presence of the character he or she is creating suddenly brings something else to the scene, and a cinematographer has to respond to that. It's easy to say, 'Okay, you've gotta hit this mark,' but the actors are ultimately going to determine what you do, and they're going to be your best friends in terms of telling the story.

Bailey: I've heard certain cinematographers or students talking about actors as though they're the obstacle rather than the instrument. Their attitude is that the actors are trying to subvert their vision. But as you point out, you can't have a real vision until you're committed to going through the process with the actors.

Deschanel: You can't tell a story without characters. How many films have you seen that are beautifully photographed but completely lifeless? You can sit there and say, 'Well, at least I got a great review,' but ultimately that's not very satisfying.

Bailey: I'd like to talk about the 'Ecce homo' scene, in which Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd after he's been severely beaten by the Roman soldiers. Pilate and Jesus are standing on a parapet above the crowd, and many of the shots are aimed up at them from very low angles. Even when you're close on them, the perspective feels removed. The irony is that you can feel the whole weight of the Roman authority personified by Pilate, who is actually completely helpless in this situation.

Deschanel: That was an outdoor set, and [production designer] Francesco Frigeri positioned it to face north so it was always in shadow. The low angles reflect the crowd's point of view, but I also feel that they recall those great ceiling paintings, where you're always looking up at these historical figures. The angles did help to create a floating sensation that conveys both Pilate's power and his helplessness. He's in an incredible proscenium, but his dilemma is palpable. Along with Jesus and Mary, I've always found Pilate to be one of the most fascinating characters in this drama. We started out letting that scene play out from down below, and as we worked our way up, we decided to stay low rather than get level with the actors.

Bailey: The Via Dolorosa sequence, when Christ is carrying the cross, features a lot of very hot, contrasty sunlight. Jesus takes three falls, and it's the most agonizing and painful part of the movie. Among the great central liturgies of the Catholic Church are the 14 Stations of the Cross; each depicts a specific moment, and each of the three falls is documented. I was absolutely mesmerized by the way you were able to keep a sense of the momentum of that journey up to the crucifixion site, yet still have each of the Stations fully realized.

Deschanel: I think one of film's most moving moments is when Simone of Cyrene is ordered to help Jesus carry the cross. He does it very reluctantly, but then he begins exchanging really meaningful looks with Jesus along the way. The beginning of that scene, when they leave Pilate and start off with the cross, was shot on the backlot at Cinecitta, and that footage ties together with material we shot in the town of Matera in southern Italy. Matera was founded 5,000 years ago, and it has white stone cliffs that have houses dug into their sides. It was a great place to film because we didn't really need to change much. The top part of the town was modern, but the bottom was ancient.

We shot the Via Dolorosa sequence with a combination of dolly, handheld and Steadicam work. We did a lot of Steadicam shots that moved in very close to the actors, and we also used some slow motion. For Jesus' first two falls, we dug holes in the ground to get the camera low enough for some of the angles we wanted. But our approach for the third fall was the complete opposite: we shot it from a crane up above. Mel had the idea that Jesus would be falling and spinning at the same time. It wound up being a very powerful image.

Bailey: I have to ask you about the crucifixion itself, and the difficulty you may have had controlling the gathering clouds and the wind.

Deschanel: We had laid everything out so that if we got weather, we could just move along to that particular part of the story. We knew we were finishing the picture digitally, so we filmed even with clouds. I lit that sequence as much as I could, but we're still working in post to get the skies to look the way we want. We've been darkening them, but we're still debating about how far we should go. Jim was virtually naked during those scenes, which were shot in Matera in November. He was up there on the cross with the wind blowing, in the cold and rain. A lot of that wind was real. Our biggest problem was that the crosses kept swaying and shaking, even though they were sunk into the ground. Mel didn't want to use most of the footage that showed the crosses moving, even though some of it looked great in terms of weather.

Bailey: Let me ask about the descent from the cross, when you recreate the Pieta with Mary holding Jesus in her arms. The Pieta is one of the great images in Western art. How did you approach that moment?

Deschanel: We were aware of the Michelangelos and dozens of other representations of that scene, but most of them tend to be much moodier than what we did. Mel wanted Jim in a very specific position, and we also had to deal with the Roman soldiers who bring Jesus down from the cross, so we played with the composition a bit. As it turned out, we did a shot from a wide position and completed that before moving in for a closer shot on Mary and a pullback. We did one take with a dolly and another with a Technocrane. We used the Technocrane a lot during that sequence - for overheads of the cross, images of the cross being raised and then falling, and shots of Jesus being brought down.

One shot of the Romans nailing Jesus' feet was inspired by a crucifixion scene painted by Salvador Dali. That painting has a perspective that's almost floating above the cross, and it's really amazing. Our image doesn't necessarily resemble the painting, but Dali's work did inspire our approach.

Bailey: The film's epilogue, which shows the resurrection, has a transcendent feel. Visually it's very ambiguous, but you get the sense of a stone rolling back and the light coming into a tomb and causing these moving shadows. As the move continues, you see the burial shroud on the slab and then a portion of Jesus' hand, which has a hole in it. I found that shot fascinating, because it's totally unlike anything else in the film.

Deschanel: It is totally unlike anything else in the film. We shot that sequence on a set with a painted backdrop. The shroud actually collapses, as if the body is disappearing, and then the camera arrives on Jesus sitting next to the slab. The shot didn't really work when we put the light in one place, so we put it on both a crane and a dolly; the light was actually moving up and down and dollying at the same time. We rolled the stone that was covering the tomb and then moved the light around until it arrived on Jim. For me, that's the moment when the film becomes religious.

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.