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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
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Denault says his primary visual stimulus was Cambodia itself. Like Dillon, he was fascinated by its wild mood swings, which came to be reflected in the film. During the day, it's a land of lush, green jungles, decaying French Colonial architecture in beautiful pastels, and a rainbow of colors on the crowded city streets. When night falls, the palette turns candy-colored and molten black, and the mood becomes menacing as the underground economy springs into action. During 12 weeks of preproduction, Denault was also struck by Cambodia's different approach to everyday lighting: "It's all fluorescent. There isn't an incandescent lightbulb in the country, I think." What's more, the vogue was for garishly colored fluorescents. "People use colored fluorescent lights for mood, for effect, the way somebody here would dim down the tungsten in a fancy restaurant to create a warm ambience. There, they'd turn on some pink or yellow fluorescents."

This peculiarity helped the cinematographer create a contrast between the eastern and western worlds within Phnom Penh. He used incandescent sources only to light a European enclave: the Belleville Hotel and its bar across the street, run by Corsican expatriate Emile (Gerard Depardieu). This is Jimmy's first destination in his hunt for the elusive Marvin, and it's filled with details that signal its western sensibility, including Emile's dusty turntable with its Jaques Dutronc tunes and the bar's motley clientele of U.S. war veterans. "The Belleville is the one place in Cambodia where you do see an incandescent light, so it represents the European incursion," says Denault.

The complete absence of such lights elsewhere allowed Denault to whittle down his lighting package. He ticks off the final list: "A 12K, four 4K Pars, four 1.2K Pars, four Jokers, a bunch of Kino Flos and a bunch of open-faced 2K and 1K quartz lights. It was a pretty small package, but even if I'd had more lights, we wouldn't have had the means to transport them."

And there's the rub. Cambodia's ruined roads are impossible for big trucks - or much else - to traverse. However, because there are no equipment-rental houses in Cambodia, the grip and lighting equipment had to be brought in somehow from a rental house in Bangkok, the Hong Kong-based Cinerent. Fortunately, the production's crew included two Israelis who had just the right mindset to tackle such a challenge. One was line producer Rony Yakov. "He's a veteran of all those Cannon films, including Bloodsport and Delta Force," says Denault. "He decided that we had to invent just enough of the film business here to get the movie done, and not an inch more." Yakov brought in production manager Danny Ben Menachem, whose contributions included building the honeywagons and masterminding equipment transport. He procured some Cambodian army surplus flatbed trucks. The entire grip and lighting package had to fit into the two 20'-long shipping containers that could be ratchet-strapped onto the flatbeds. To make that possible, Don Balfour at Cinerent hired some Thai welders to build custom shelving. "They shelved out the whole thing inside, and there was literally one spot for each piece of equipment," Denault marvels. "It was a miracle of packing and really a work of art."

The equipment that couldn't be brought from Thailand was built in Cambodia. "On every street corner in Cambodia, there's some guy welding stuff onto the little motorcycles," says Denault. Cambodian welders became a constant presence on set. Key grip Johnny Erbes had them build the ramps and stairs that allowed the crew to haul equipment in and out of the truck, custom-made overhead frames, special rigging to fit certain locations and anything else that was needed. "We rigged lights everywhere," says Denault. "We rigged frames over alleyways to keep it looking like dusk during the middle of the day. We were so close to the equator, and a lot of the movie takes place early in the morning or late at night - like all good movies! So we ended up stretching silk or muslin over areas that we could control to keep direct sun out." The local welders were essential to making this work. "We had grip equipment that looked like it was from the Iron Age," Denault adds with a laugh. "But it was impressive. Danny was always saying, 'They can make you anything you want out of spare parts.' And it's true; the whole country is just spare parts."

That comment echoes a line in the film, as Marvin welcomes Jimmy to his dilapidated but genteel French Colonial palace: "The whole country needs a paint job, but that's part of its charm." Faded colors and flaking surfaces could be found everywhere, and Denault says the Cambodians seem to have no sentimental attachment to the lovely colonial architecture. "If you want to knock through a hole in a wall, they'd say, 'No problem!'" he says. "There's no sense of preciousness about any of it. Perhaps it's because they don't consider it their architecture, anyway."

Much to the filmmakers' consternation, however, the Cambodians began to use some of the production money that was trickling in to give some buildings a fresh coat of paint - before the shoot commenced. "Matt was always saying, 'They're painting the whole country before I can shoot it! It's driving me crazy!'" says Denault. In fact, one of the film's key locations was in danger of just such an overnight makeover. In Phnom Penh's old colonial section, the location scouts had found two buildings catty-cornered across the street. One was to serve as the Belleville Hotel and the other as the Belleville Bar. Near them was a post office, another flaking French Colonial structure. Word got around that the city was planning to give it a fresh paint job. "We had to pay them not to paint the building," recalls Denault. "Even as we were shooting, the place was changing around us. We were afraid that once we shot locations, the location fee would go into paint, and if we then had to go back to reshoot it would look like a different place." Denault laughs as he recalls the time the filmmakers left Phnom Penh for two weeks to shoot down south. "When we got back, the gaffer, Scotty Miller, said there were noticeably more cars in Phnom Penh. I couldn't tell, but it's possible."

But even as such improvements occur, much in Cambodia has a provisional quality. That includes living situations, like the abandoned casino, a key location that was housing dozens of squatters when shooting began there; it also includes the lighting. For instance, one scene in the film features several long, pink fluorescent tubes hanging vertically on the wall of a brothel. "That's classic Cambodian decoration," says Denault. "It's like, 'I need some light over here, so I'll tie one up with this plastic string.' Or they'll tie a light to a stick that they poke into the ground outside, or hang a light from a nail or a pipe."

What proved to be a real problem was the provisional nature of the country's electricity. As Denault explains, "Cambodia isn't on a national power grid. Everybody's running off of his own generator, and none of them runs at 50 cycles a second, which is their supposed standard. So any existing fluorescent lights people had in their houses would flicker on film." That created a considerable challenge on night exteriors, which, like the rest of the film, were all shot on location.

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