Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC revisits the backstory of Hannibal Lecter for Red Dragon, which retools a narrative that Spinotti first filmed for the 1986 thriller Manhunter.

In the sparsely furnished living-room set of a decrepit nursing home, Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC is keeping a close eye on the movements of a familiar character, Francis Dolarhyde, as the schizophrenic serial killer argues with the nagging voice of his sadistic, long-dead grandmother. Spinotti has crossed paths with Dolarhyde before, as he has with the FBI agent on the case, Will Graham, and Dolarhyde’s imprisoned object of admiration, Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter – all of whom are primary characters in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, the first novel in the deliciously descriptive Lecter series. Back in 1986, Spinotti partnered with a promising director named Michael Mann (who was fresh off the Miami Vice television series) to bring the novel to the screen in a film titled Manhunter. The visual impact of that film, which was hailed by critics, made it a benchmark among crime thrillers.

Spinotti recently contended with Harris’ characters again for Red Dragon. In this new version of the tale, Ralph Fiennes portrays the disturbed Dolarhyde, a film-lab technician who singles out families for slaughter. Fixated upon William Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed With the Sun, Dolarhyde is convinced that the source of his homicidal deeds is not his wicked grandmother’s voice, but a red dragon that lurks within him. Edward Norton plays Graham, who is lured out of retirement to hunt down the killer, while Anthony Hopkins reprises his role as the chilling Dr. Lecter. Graham has captured Lecter – and nearly lost his life in doing so – but he must seek the doctor’s help to track down Dolarhyde. Even though Lecter is imprisoned in a high-security cell, he still manages to manipulate both Graham and the killer.

Red Dragon would certainly appear to be a case of déjà vu for the cameraman; after all, how many cinematographers have had the chance to rephotograph a film that they had previously shot? But Spinotti, collaborating this time with director Brett Ratner, sees the new film in a different light. In one respect, he saw the project as "a chance to do a picture that I’d shot before with a very accurate, masterful filmmaker, Michael Mann – a movie that, in a way, has left a mark and told many people how to shoot those kind of movies. When I read the script, though, I discovered that while some parts of the story were similar to Manhunter, this was an entirely different movie."

Recalls Ratner, "Dante read the script, called me up and wanted to do it. I said, ‘Haven’t you done this before?’ And he said, ‘Brett, Monet painted the Rouen Cathedral over 30 times [and exhibited 20 of them]. What’s the difference?’"

"The strength of Manhunter," Spinotti observes, "was based on the language of the film – the use of the camera and the style of the movie. The movie that Brett had in mind, however, took a more realistic approach; it was less formal in a way, yet more classic. The strength of this movie is derived from a very good script [by The Silence of the Lambs scribe Ted Tally], a more accurately worked-out adaptation of the novel. On the killer’s side, it is an exploration of how he was raised, how his psyche became the psyche of a killer. Because of the cast and their performances, the solidity of the screenplay and the production design, Red Dragon is an entirely different undertaking."

Ratner, who had enjoyed a successful collaboration with Spinotti on The Family Man (2000), wanted the cinematographer to film Red Dragon so badly that principal photography was delayed until Spinotti finished shooting another project, Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio. Even with the postponement, the cinematographer had a scant three weeks to prepare, so his familiarity with the material didn’t hurt. "It made it easier to remember the plot, so I didn’t need to read the script 15 times," Spinotti says with a laugh. "I didn’t have time to explore as much as I would [have liked]. But with the guidance of Brett and the great team we had, including production designer Kristi Zea and costume designer Betsy Heimann, the answers came very quickly. Also, the actors were a turning point for me; they were so extraordinary. I did a number of tests before the movie started, and I had these great, fascinating faces in front of the lens. I watched Anthony Hopkins recite a short monologue in front of Edward Norton, and he was going through sensuality, madness, subtlety, intelligence and evil all at the same time in very few lines. To me, Red Dragon became a very important movie about faces, about actors, but I didn’t want to give this picture a pretty, smooth or lovely look – I wanted to do something harsh."

That harshness came about in the form of high-contrast imagery. During preproduction, Spinotti was reminded of an old technique he hadn’t used in years when he saw Ocean’s Eleven, directed and photographed by Steven Soderbergh, and read about its production in American Cinematographer (see Jan. ’02). Soderbergh had pushed the film stock two stops to create richly colored, high-contrast images that were printed on Kodak Vision Premier print stock. "I found the article extremely interesting," Spinotti recalls. "I’ve been pushing film since my very early experiences, and reading that piece brought the idea back to [me]. I really liked the principle Soderbergh had in mind; he explained that he was pushing two stops to be able to shoot at lower light levels."

Spinotti chose to work with Art Tostado at CFI for his dailies, as Soderbergh had done, but the cameraman altered the process to fit Red Dragon. Preferring printing lights in the high 30s, he exposed the Kodak Vision 500T 5279 at 800 ASA for interiors and night exteriors, pushed the development two stops and had his dailies printed on Premier. To maintain contrast in day exteriors, he shot Vision 200T 5274 without an 85 filter and pushed it only one stop. (The internegative, final timing and answer prints were done at Deluxe. All prints were made on Premier stock.)

Another deviation from Ocean’s Eleven was Spinotti and Ratner’s selection of the anamorphic 2.40:1 format. "The anamorphic format is more forgiving [than Super 35]," Spinotti points out. "It’s a bigger negative. You don’t see the grain as much as you would in Super 35, as was the case with Ocean’s Eleven. Anamorphic gives you something that you can really force and push heavier."

Panavision cameras and Primo anamorphic lenses were the chosen tools, and Spinotti tended to rely on lenses at the longer end of the focal range. When the occasion presented itself, Spinotti opted for multi-camera coverage. A-camera/ Steadicam operator Jimmy Muro, assisted by Michael Weldon and Paul Santoni, and B-camera operator/ second-unit director of photography Duane Manwiller, assisted by Glenn Brown and E.J. Misisco, Jr., manned the gear. Because of the low light levels, lenses were set between T2.8 and T4.

"We had some very special lenses on the show," notes Muro. "Dan Sasaki at Panavision made a 65mm anamorphic lens for us. A normal Steadicam walk-and-talk two-shot would be shot with a 40mm anamorphic. We’d shoot them on the 65mm, which took those two-shots into a closer perspective without forcing us to be 100 feet away. The 65mm was also a close-focus lens, which allowed us to get in there on a more intimate level. If you’re really hip to the format, you’ll notice a few surprises in the film. Somehow, we also ended up with a classic 180mm, which is the ultimate lens for close-ups in the anamorphic realm."

"Brett maintains a very classic, straightforward communication system in his movies, and Red Dragon was shot in a traditional, classical way," Spinotti reveals. "The Steadicam was used as a dolly to move with the actors into places that were not [reachable] with a crane or dolly. I tried to bring the cameras close to the actors; I wanted to maximize their space in the frame, to fill the frame with all the necessary information but to be selective [about] that information."

Ratner confirms, "I wanted to make a film that could be timeless in feel, similar in tone to The Silence of the Lambs and with a very Hitchcockian feel. Red Dragon isn’t stuck in any period. As a viewer, if the set design, the photography or anything else draws your attention, you feel as if you’re watching a film. I love Hal Ashby’s style; he’d let the scene play, and there was never a forced or contrived shot. Still, I did much more camera movement in Red Dragon than I have before, because we needed to generate suspense. I think Dante’s lighting is as important [to that suspense] as Anthony Hopkins’ performance, Danny Elfman’s score, or any of the other elements in the film. Dante’s style has a lot of classic European influence, but it’s still very modern. [His choice of pushing the film two stops] was brilliant; it increased the grain and the contrast and [gave the picture] a rawer feel. I wanted to lose the slickness and keep the ‘filmic’ look."

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.