Director John Frankenheimer teams with accomplished cinematographer Robert Fraisse on Ronin, a gritty action thriller that makes the most of its French settings.
The title of John Frankenheimer's latest picture, Ronin, refers to renegade, masterless samurai warriors who turn mercenary. The film's heroes, a loose-knit band of former Cold War intelligence agents and experts in such fields as demolition, weapons and extortion, are led by ultra-professionals Sam (Robert De Niro) and Vincent (Jean Reno). Their mission: to recapture a mysterious aluminum case for an unidentified client whose liaison is the beautiful but manipulative Deirdre (Natascha McElhone). What the case contains and why the client wants it remain a mystery throughout; as with the best suspense-film MacGuffins (a term which refers to a mysterious story element that drives a plot forward), it ultimately doesn't matter. The fact that people are willing to pay for the case with their lives says it all.
Having carved out a career that has known as many valleys as peaks, Frankenheimer himself has more in common with some of Ronin's outsiders than he might care to admit. The director stunned audiences in the 1960s with his suspenseful handling of Seconds (see AC Nov. '97), Seven Days in May and Birdman of Alcatraz, but his output over the last few decades has been erratic. His most recent feature, the controversial remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau (AC Sept. '96), divided audiences and critics who couldn't decide if it was a masterpiece or a mess. (Frankenheimer believes it will be an acknowledged classic in 20 years.)
Interestingly, Frankenheimer, who got his start in television in the 1950s, has had considerably more success since returning to the medium in recent years to helm several well-received movies for Turner Network Television, including the heartbreaking Civil War epic Andersonville and this year's multiple-Emmy-nominated production George Wallace.
Frankenheimer's deft handling of Ronin's taut psychological tension, split-second betrayals, and explosive action proves that the director is at the top of his form on the big screen as well. He describes his take on his latest cinematic thriller in terms of his recent television features: "It's got the same kind of style and photographic approach that I've been taking in some of my better cable work. In terms of camera movement, I was trying to create a heightened reality, which is the opposite of a stylized approach. Reality itself is boring; reality is an Andy Warhol movie, but this is heightened reality. There are a lot of wide angles and tremendous depth of field, and a lot of the shots have a pretty high key, which sometimes [required a stop of] f8."
Aiding and abetting Frankenheimer on the picture was French cinematographer Robert Fraisse, best known for his work with acclaimed director Jean-Jacques Annaud. The cinematographer's lengthy association with Annaud has yielded some unforgettable imagery, as seen in The Lover (for which Fraisse earned an Academy Award nomination), the Imax 3-D film Wings of Courage (AC Aug. '96) and last year's Seven Years in Tibet (Nov. '97 ASC website posting), but their output is a far cry from Frankenheimer's gritty domain. Not surprisingly, the latter was more attracted by Fraisse's work in Citizen X, a chilling real-life police thriller he had shot for HBO concerning the hunt for a Russian serial killer. After viewing the telefilm, Frankenheimer was convinced that the director of photography had the discipline to tackle the more than 2,000 individual setups he planned for Ronin. "I saw that Robert knew how to work within the confines of a schedule, and knew the demands of an American production," the director states. "While French filmmakers use a smaller crew and take a lot longer to film, we take these big crews and really have to move. We shot this movie in 78 days, and a lot of the schedule was devoted to the action sequences. We then had 30 days of åsecond-unit' work, which I did myself with Robert and [Steadicam operator] David Crone. There was no real second unit on the picture; we did it all ourselves."
Working with Frankenheimer was an eye-opening experience for Fraisse. The director had a very specific set of do's and don'ts in mind for Ronin. "When we started working on the movie, we talked about the style, and John said, 'I want a lot of setups, I want the shots to be very short, and I want to work with very short focal lengths,'" Fraisse recalls. "John wanted this movie to appear onscreen almost like reportage, as if we shot had things that were really happening, so we didn't want to be too sophisticated. Instead, we tried to convey an ambiance, an atmosphere. Also, he didn't want too many colors, so we avoided colors in the sets, exteriors and costumes as much as we could. Right from the beginning, we decided that we would never see something red. Nobody could be dressed in red, no car could be red there would never, be anything red in the movie! In fact, he said, 'I can't shoot this movie in black-and-white, but I would like to have the least amount of color possible.'"
Fraisse hit on a means of giving the director what he wanted through a clever use of film stock and lab work. "Since John didn't want any color, I suggested that we do a special process using Kodak's Vision 500T 5279," Fraisse says. "After rating the stock at 250 ASA, which overexposed it one stop, we then underdeveloped it, reducing the contrast and desaturating the colors. I also knew that we were going to shoot in France during the winter, when it gets dark at 5 o'clock. I needed to be able to shoot as late as possible, so I made the decision to use the 500 ASA stock for the whole movie. I generally use 5279 only for interiors on stages and on location, or when I shoot exterior night scenes. When I shoot outside, I use a slower stock. For instance, on Seven Years in Tibet, I shot all the exteriors with 5245, which is a very nice, very fine-grain stock. But I chose to shoot Ronin on the 500T stock because I knew that with the process we were using, the stock would be only 250 ASA, which is not a lot when it gets dark early and the weather is very gray during the day. Very often, I was shooting at almost full aperture T2.3 or 2.5. At those moments, I thought I had been very wise to choose a fast stock that normally isn't used for daylight exterior scenes."
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