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Conrad L. Hall page 2page 3
City of Ghostspage 2page 3
DVDpage 2page 3
A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
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In one critical scene, Jimmy visits a brothel called the Laughing Lotus in search of his boss. It's located down a dark, covered alleyway - a perfect set-up for a mugging. And in fact, after Jimmy leaves the brightly lit brothel and passes through the dark alleyway, he is attacked and beaten unconscious once he emerges on the far side. Denault intended to mix practical and set lighting to illuminate this scene, but those flickering house lights needed to be fixed. He foresaw one solution: the electricians could go down the street and rewire everybody's house into the production's generator. But that chore seemed too daunting. "I was looking for the magic bullet," he says. "One of our producers, Nicolas Simon, was also a producer on Cyclo [see AC Sept. '96], and I asked him how they dealt with those driving shots at night. He said, 'We had to rewire all of the lights on the street.'" Deflated, Denault realized there was no way around it. In the end, he notes, "Scotty Miller and Josh Van Praag, the best boy, had their work cut out for them. A lot of the pre-rigs on this production were about rewiring whole city blocks. We had a great crew, most of whom came from Thailand. There's no way we could have pulled this off as quickly as we did, and on such a grand scale, without such an amazing team. Sprite, our dolly grip, and the rest of the Thai crew were incredibly fast, always thinking ahead, and very pleasant to work with."

Like many of the night exteriors in City of Ghosts, the Laughing Lotus setup would be very dark, punctuated by pools of blue, pink and green light, reflecting the general feel of Phnom Penh at night. "At night, nothing exists - there's no such thing as available light," Denault remarks. "You have a street that's lit by one 15-inch fluorescent light, and that's it. You walk into a restaurant, and it might have a single two-foot fluorescent tube. The popular color of fluorescents there, called 'daylight,' has a bluish tint, so every place feels blue and dim. The exceptions to that are the brothel interiors, which have a lot of pink fluorescents." He adds that because the brothels are flush with money, they also have an abundance of lights.

Denault's main goal in lighting the Laughing Lotus exterior was to "recreate that feeling of darkness. I wanted the feeling of everything falling off into shadows." He started by putting as many lights inside the neighboring windows as he could. The covered alley itself was lit with only a single small fluorescent. An off-the-shelf mercury-vapor light was affixed to a utility pole in the street to light the action when Jimmy is mugged. "The front of the building facing the entrance to the alley was lit by an HMI Par from the roof across the street," he says. "We gelled it to match the fluorescents that we had mounted on the wall. This created some light at the end of the tunnel to silhouette the action against. The trick was trying to keep something in the background brighter than the foreground action and trying to keep much of the frame dark. The most important thing we did was put bright lights inside as many houses along the street as we could, so that it looked darker on the street. The Cambodian location person, Nuth Ly, was key in getting access to all of those houses."

Denault shot most of City of Ghosts on Kodak Vision 200T 5274 and Vision 500T 5279, but for the mugging scene he used Vision 800T 5289 and set his Cooke S4 lenses at T2.8. The Laughing Lotus scene, like many of the film's night exteriors, rides the edge of darkness, with a palette of pink, green and blue punctuating the night. Enhanced by rapid cutting and unusual camera angles - including a gutter-level POV shot from Jimmy's perspective - the sequence has a nightmarish, disorienting intensity. Denault was operating the camera that day because A-camera operator John Pirozzi was off shooting second unit. "Matt said that's when he knew I was really down with the movie: when I was lying in the garbage with him," Denault recalls with a laugh.

Throughout the shoot, he adds, "Matt's eye was the unifying thing. He is very good photographer; his eye is really alive. When we walked into a place, he'd often point out something that I hadn't noticed. It might have made the location scouting process a little bit harder, just because he was looking for a certain thing, but a lot of the film's look is really due to his taste."

Among the film's locations were Wat Oudong, the royal burial grounds and former capital of Cambodia; Phnom Chisor, an ancient Braham Temple; and the Bokor Hill Station, an abandoned casino built by the French in the 1920s. Situated atop a cliff overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, the casino was a Khmer Rouge stronghold in the 1970s; they fended off Vietnamese invaders who scaled the cliff to do battle. Even now, the army's graffiti and crude drawings remain on the interior walls - details left intact for the film.

Remnants of war that the filmmakers hoped were not still intact were the landmines. These had been scattered on the grounds outside the casino, where several scenes were to be shot. (Eerily, one such scene depicts a prisoner's forced march through the minefield and his explosive death). Even today, landmines kill two Cambodians per day; not so long ago, the toll was 200 a month. "Cambodia has the second highest penetration of cell phones, after Finland," notes Denault. "That's because it's so expensive to run wires anywhere - no one wants to go digging in the ground or cross fields that haven't been crossed."

In fact, the cast and crew were advised not to stray from the established path when filming outside the casino. At the same time, they were assured that the grounds were safe; because it's now officially a government park, the property had been swept for mines. Denault recalls, "Even though it had been cleared once, we had it cleared again. There's always this nagging chance that they couldn't have found everything. Mines are really hard to detect. They're mostly made out of plastic, and the amount of metal in them is about the size of a pen clip." Working in the area was "the most nerve-wracking aspect" of the entire production, he adds.

There were other challenges as well: intestinal parasites; a bone-rattling, two-hour drive up the mountain to the casino every morning, and back down again at night; and the fine, red dust kicked up on unpaved roads that got into everything, including a few film canisters. But for all the hazards, the country cast its spell on everyone. "It's so friendly and warm," says Denault. "I was so sad when it was time to leave. As a culture, there's much more of an emphasis on people instead of things, because they don't have things. The environment is all about hanging out and talking. When we'd scout locations, people would insist that we stay and have something to eat. We'd look around and see that there was nothing there, but they'd still insist - they'd share their last thing with you. It was eye-opening."       

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.