The new film Alexander charts the short but extraordinarily distinguished life of Macedonian King Alexander III (Colin Farrell), whose stunning military conquests during the fourth century B.C. earned him the title “Alexander the Great.” Framed as the recollection of Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), one of Alexander’s generals, the film touches upon Alexander’s childhood, when he was taught by his mother to believe he was a son of Zeus; goes on to survey his formidable achievements on the battlefield as a young man; and ends with his very early death at age 32.
Alexander is director Oliver Stone’s fourth collaboration with Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC, but it is their first narrative feature together. They first teamed in 2001, when Stone signed on to direct the drama Beyond Borders and tapped Prieto to be his cinematographer; after several weeks of prep, Stone departed that project, freeing Prieto to sign onto Frida (see AC Oct. ’02). The pair subsequently reunited for the documentaries Comandante and Looking for Fidel, about Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and Persona Non Grata, about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Prieto recalls that Stone first mentioned Alexander to him when they were en route to Ramallah to interview Arafat in 2003. One of Alexander’s victories had been the Siege of Gaza, and “Oliver said he’d had a dream about actually being there in Alexander’s times, what it was like to feel the temperature, smell the atmosphere,” says Prieto. “Of course, I was intrigued, but the project we had in front of us at that moment was quite daunting and scary. When we reached Ramallah, they handed us bulletproof vests, and then we got stuck in our hotel because of the Passover Massacre bombing. Oliver gave me the Alexander script that night, and it was strange to read it in that state of mind, with that feeling of imminent danger. But the very next morning, we started to talk about our ideas.
“Being around Oliver is always very intense, very exciting,” he adds with a smile. “You wake up each morning and wonder what the day will bring!”
Prieto discussed Alexander with AC last spring, during a short break between wrapping Stone’s film and prepping Brokeback Mountain for Ang Lee. At the time, the cinematographer was anticipating several weeks of digital-intermediate (DI) work on Alexander at Éclair Laboratories in France; over the course of this interview, he discussed some of his plans for the DI, and we subsequently asked our Paris correspondent, Benjamin Bergery, to follow up on that angle while Prieto supervised the lab work in August. (See Digital Timing Q&A.)
Throughout preproduction, Stone’s primary instruction to Prieto, production designer Jan Roelfs and costume designer Jenny Beavan was, “Be bold.” Prieto recalls, “A line in the film says, ‘Fortune favors the bold,’ and we took that to heart and consistently tried to go beyond the conventional. We approached the story on two levels: the real and the mythic. The film focuses on what makes Alexander tick, the intense relationships he had with his parents and others, but paralleling that is his perception of himself, instilled in part by his mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie), as a mythic figure like Achilles. Alexander saw himself as godlike, and he really believed it was his destiny to be great. He wanted to reach the end of the world and know everything. His was a quest for knowledge as well as greatness.
“We wanted to be faithful to the period, especially in terms of light sources, but because of this emphasis on Alexander’s perspective, Oliver and I agreed there were certain opportunities in the film to be almost surreal with imagery,” he continues. “I was always trying to maintain a balance, to create images that felt real but could also express the emotional moment for Alexander from his perspective.”
On a practical level, Prieto’s cinematography also needed to help orient the audience to the time and place of the action, given that Alexander cuts from present to past and covers a tremendous amount of terrain. The visuals encompass the pure, rich colors of Macedonia; the desert battlefields of Gaugamela; the exotic majesty of Babylon; the earthy warmth of Baktria; the chill of the towering Hindu Kush; and the extreme heat and difficulty of the Indian jungle. “It’s such a long journey, both geographically and emotionally, that we wanted to separate the look and feel of each place to reflect not only something about the place, but also where Alexander is emotionally at that point,” says Prieto. “Another objective in establishing such diverse looks was to suggest what it was like for the Macedonians to confront environments that were totally foreign to them.”
Some of these differences were established by the locations exteriors were filmed in Morocco and northern Thailand but Prieto enhanced them with a strategy that incorporated six film stocks, a variety of filtration and a selective use of bleach-bypass processing. He firmed up these choices after several weeks of testing at Éclair, which processed all of the production’s footage and generated 35mm dailies and high-definition (HD) video dailies throughout the shoot. (The production’s financing arrangement mandated the use of a French lab.)
The varied visuals the filmmakers had in mind were one reason they decided early on to finish Alexander with a DI. Prieto had used the process on four prior features (Frida, 8 Mile, 25th Hour and some scenes in 21 Grams) and knew the more precise control afforded by digital tools would enable him to finesse diverse looks into a visually coherent whole. In addition, two major battle scenes called for extensive day-exterior photography shot by multiple cameras. “With all those cameras rolling, I knew I’d have very little control over framing and lighting conditions,” he says, “and I knew a DI would enable me to reframe a bit in post as well as smooth out variations in contrast and color saturation.”