Cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC rejoins director Martin Scorsese for a harrowing look at the life of a troubled EMT in Bringing Out the Dead.

The streets are strewn with trash and the night is punctuated by squealing sirens, gunshots and random trash-barrel fires. Bedraggled drug addicts, underaged prostitutes and raving lunatics wander about in a somnambulant daze. Violence, obscenity, insanity and graffiti are everywhere, and to the city’s ambulance crews, it always seems to be just a few hours before dawn, with the life of another self-destructive person hanging in the balance.

Welcome to the world of Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, which presents a nasty vision of New York near the beginning of the 1990s, before the city was transformed from an X-rated cesspool into a more PG metropolis. This gritty film documents a few harrowing days in the life of an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) amid the after-hours insanity of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, where the area’s few upstanding citizens seem horribly outnumbered.

Based on the novel by former EMT Joe Connelly, the picture tells the story of the spiritually shattered Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), whose utter dedication to his life’s calling has sent him into a state of near-catatonia. He loves the high he gets from saving people nobody else wants to touch, but like all highs, this one never lasts; on those rare occasions when his help just isn’t enough, losing a patient rocks Pierce to the core of his soul.

When his regular, reasonably stable partner, Larry (John Goodman) calls in sick, Pierce is forced to work with two other men (Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore) whose eccentricities and terrifying recklessness hasten his disintegration. Pierce clings to a glimpse of a brighter future in his hopes of connecting with Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a man whose life he attempts to preserve.

Scorsese worked from a script by director/screenwriter Paul Schrader, with whom he had previously collaborated on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Because Bringing Out the Dead focuses on disconnected people who drive around Manhattan at night, Scorsese knew that comparisons to the classic Taxi Driver were inevitable. "We wanted to do New York at night in a way that would create a claustrophobic feeling, and I was aware that it would seem as if I’d already done that," he concedes.

In the hope of countering this perception, Scorsese took a different approach to his latest picture, immersing himself in the night world of EMTs. The filmmaker rode in ambulances for several nights, an experience that had a strong, direct influence on the film’s hallucinatory look. "When you take an ambulance call in the middle of the night, the siren goes on, lights flash and pop music blares," the director relates. "As you speed down the streets, you start to imagine that you’re seeing things in the blur of your peripheral vision. I was only out on the streets for a few nights, so I can imagine what that must be like for someone who has been on the job for years."

These wild visual kaleidoscopes inspired Scorsese to lead the audience into Pierce’s tortured mindset by "showing the things Frank might have thought he’d seen the streaks, shadows and flashes of light."

Cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC was a good match for the material. "Capturing the hallucinatory quality of these visions, and how they shape Frank Pierce’s experiences, seemed like a perfect job for Bob," Scorsese submits. "I also liked the work he’d done for me on Casino (see AC November 1995), especially the different layers of light he used. We’d gotten along and collaborated well."

Completed over several months of rigorous nighttime filming on the streets of New York, Bringing Out the Dead employed a mix of real locations and sets built by production designer Dante Ferretti. Occasionally, these real and faux settings were blended together. For example, an interior set of a hospital emergency room was built inside a large open space at New York’s famous Bellevue Hospital so that shots could start outside, at an unused ambulance dock, and continue uninterrupted into the intensely chaotic inner area.

When Ferretti and Scorsese visited the finished hospital set, the illusion fooled the director completely. Ferretti recalls, "Martin touched a wall in the emergency room and said, ’Dante, this is fake!’ I had to remind him that it was a set we had built!"

Some of the film’s other key scenes take place in a studio set depicting a high-rise drug lair that is garishly decorated and dramatically lit. When asked about the simultaneously wild and moody look of these scenes, Richardson proclaims, "Chalk that up to Dante Ferretti. He chose the colors with Marty; I just put the lights in there. Dante is brilliant. The production designer works on the film for months upon months, much longer than the cinematographer. Good work that people think is the cinematographer’s is often that of the production designer. We light their sets, and when their work is beautifully accomplished by which I mean well matched to the story the end result is vastly superior."

Ferretti confesses that he was initially at a loss in terms of finding the key to the look of Bringing Out the Dead. "Martin is from New York, and I am from Italy, so I had to try to get into his head," he admits.

Ferretti normally starts his creative process by reviewing paintings. "When painters make a piece of life on a canvas, they take out all the non-essential elements," he observes. "Seeing only the essentials helps me focus when I’m trying to devise a look for a new project."

In the case of gritty, urban Bringing Out the Dead, however, paintings did not seem to be the right place to start, so Ferretti immersed himself in still photography books about urban dwellers on the fringes of society. One title that Scorsese cites as influential was photojournalist Eugene Richard’s 1995 book The Knife and Gun Club: Scenes From an Emergency Room, which features black-and-white stills taken in a Denver trauma unit and on ambulance runs.

Ferretti also examined photos of underground tunnels where homeless people lived, and even visited several of them. "Those places are like another entire city," he marvels. "They are unbelievable, and they are like hell." Details from such real-life visits are sprinkled throughout the film. Ferretti elaborates, "Details are the most important thing to me in designing a film things like how homeless people arrange their belongings, how the trash looks on a tough New York street at four in the morning, how different types of graffiti appear in one part of town and not another."

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