Director of photography Declan Quinn explores social ambition in 19th-century England for Vanity Fair.

Written in 1847 and 1848 and published serially, William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair depicts the foibles of British society as its members scratch, claw, buy and marry their way up the social ladder. Teeming with characters, the book throws its spotlight on the most ambitious, Becky Sharp. The daughter of an impoverished painter and a French chorus girl, Becky uses her wits, singing skills and physical charms to wheedle her way into ever-higher social spheres. Thackeray charts her rise from charity case at a girls’ school, to governess, to wife of a dashing heir, to paramour of a powerful marquis, Lord Steyne. “She’s not just a social climber, she’s a mountaineer,” observes one woman, none too kindly.

The motion-picture adaptation of Vanity Fair, which stars Reese Witherspoon as Rebecca Sharp and Gabriel Byrne as Lord Steyne, is cinematographer Declan Quinn’s fifth collaboration with director Mira Nair. (Their previous projects were Kama Sutra, Monsoon Wedding, Hysterical Blindness and the “India” segment in 11'09"01 - September 11.) Born in Chicago to Irish immigrants, Quinn was schooled in Ireland during his teens, and returned there to work after earning a film degree from Columbia College in Chicago. Through Dublin’s Windmill Lane Recording Studios, he hooked up with U2 early in his career and shot several of their music videos and documentaries. Since returning to the U.S. in 1989, Quinn has photographed a range of features, including Vanya on 42nd Street, Leaving Las Vegas (see AC Feb. ’96) and In America (Points East, AC Dec. ’03).

Quinn’s bicultural background is one thing he and Nair have in common. Born in India, Nair was educated at Harvard University and maintains homes in New York and New Delhi. “We both live in two cultures,” says Quinn, “and our aesthetic is similar in that we’re able to look at things from two sides.”

Spanning 1802 to 1833, Vanity Fair depicts all social strata, from debtor’s prison to the royal court. The politics of the day, particularly Napoleon’s rampage through Europe, directly impact the lives of its characters. But so does a less dramatic geopolitical ingredient: Britain’s burgeoning colonial empire. Numerous characters go to India to seek their fortunes. “The money from the colonies is what created the middle-class wealth in this period,” explains Nair. “That’s why some had the money of the aristocrats but not the status. They were merchants, not titled. But they, too, had ambition for the titles.”

Money wasn’t the only thing flowing from India; there were streams of exotic goods as well. “If you look at the period, English society was beginning to feel the influence of the treasures of the colonies,” Nair continues. “Thackeray writes about it almost on every page: the paisley shawls that were coveted by the ladies; the native servants; the brocades; the chinoiserie wallpaper. Orientalism was everywhere, so we used that extensively in the production design.”

This Indian flavor is just one element that sets Vanity Fair apart from other costume dramas. “Period films really suffer from stateliness,” notes Nair. Preferring a more visceral quality, Nair and her collaborators looked to other sources of inspiration. Early on, she and Quinn happened upon an etching in a print shop in Bath, England, where all of the film’s exteriors were shot. The etching showed Bath’s main boulevard “with just with a few cows and somebody padding them along with a stick,” recalls Quinn. “That stuck with us as an aesthetic — dirty old cows mixed with grand new buildings. That mixture of dirt and the new appealed to us, so we show, for example, beautiful clothing with mud caked around the bottoms of the skirts and on the shoes.”

“We wanted to make Vanity Fair’s streets look like the streets in Salaam Bombay,” adds Nair, referring to her 1988 directorial debut. “London in that time was cacophonous, filthy and smelly. Then the aristocrats would come in with their boots and frills. That’s why at the beginning of Vanity Fair, we show Lord Steyne clad in a silk coat and fur walking through the pigs and mud. I wanted that kind of realism: heightened and visually interesting.”

Quinn introduced Nair to the paintings of John Grimshaw, a Leeds artist from the late 1800s whose images inspired their thinking about atmosphere and lighting. “Many of his paintings feature dusk light or moonlight mixed with candlelight on wet cobblestone streets along the docks,” says Quinn. Another source of inspiration was Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, for its handheld camerawork and its ability to see beyond the grandeur of the period to the frayed collars, unwashed clothes and ill-fitting wigs. Nair also referenced Pyaasa, a 1957 film by Indian director Guru Dutt, who was a master of song sequences. “Because Becky Sharp sings her way to the top of English society, I could make three full-on song sequences in that Indian tradition — not losing the plot, but going forward with it through song,” she says.

Unlike Quinn and Nair’s earlier collaborations, Vanity Fair was filmed in Super 35mm. “I had done very little in Super 35 or anamorphic, and I thought this was the film to do it in,” says the cinematographer. From Nair’s standpoint, the format suited the film’s sweeping scale: “I didn’t want to make a talking-heads movie; I really wanted to make Gone With the Wind.”

“There was a bigger issue, though,” adds Quinn with a chuckle, “and that was Reese Witherspoon’s pregnancy. We could keep her belly out of the frame more easily and get more characters into the same frame.”

Nair wanted to make much greater use of wide-angle lenses than she had in her earlier films. “I wanted a juxtaposition of really wide lenses, such as 14mm and 18mm, with intimate details. That’s the style I was going for.” Quinn chose Cooke S4 prime lenses, which in turn led him to select an Arriflex camera package consisting of an Arricam Studio (ST), Arricam Lite (LT) and Arri 435. He was quite happy with Arri’s newest models. “The LT is really great to work with; it has a bright viewfinder and is very comfortable to hold on the shoulder. The ST also has a bright viewfinder and can shoot up to 60 fps. It’s a good system.”

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.