Three Oscar nominees step out from behind the curtain
Ask anyone in Hollywood and they'll agree - it takes a small village to create a movie. But with the exception of an occasional breathless "thanks to my dedicated crew!" during an awards-show acceptance speech, most cinemagoers hardly give a second thought to the talented teams that labor behind the scenes of their favorite films. So on the eve of Sunday's Oscars, the Monitor turns the spotlight on a few nominees whose faces you might not recognize, but whose creative work you've certainly seen.
It's said that the Irish are born storytellers, and Claire Simpson is no exception - even if her craft is visible only to those who understand film editing. Nominated for her work on "The Constant Gardener," Simpson says she regards her business as a form of "rewriting." Making a film is a vast collaboration of many talents, she says, "and I'm basically the last one in line. I inherit all this raw material which I try to piece together into a coherent narrative."
While she accepts and actually prefers her position out of the limelight, she will fight for a storytelling point that she believes in. "Gardener" provided several such moments, Simpson says, pointing to a particular scene that she and many others regard as critical to the story and its finale.
"There is a scene where Ralph Fiennes is on the computer and he sees an e-mail which suggests that his wife, played by [Oscar nominee] Rachel Weisz, might be having an affair," Simpson says. Just following that, she emerges from her bath and walks with Ralph to a nursery that they are preparing for their baby. "She's hanging a mobile, they talk, and it's very intimate and sweet," says Simpson. "There's this lovingness between them that erases, for a moment, any idea of infidelity."
The director, as well as other men on the production, wanted to drop the scene. "They saw the film as a thriller, not a love story, and said the film had to move forward," says Simpson, who has worked on many other high-profile projects, including Oscar-winner "Platoon" and "Wall Street." "I laid my body on the rail tracks and said, 'Over my dead body,' because if that scene [is taken out], you don't understand the entire end of the film, when he goes to find where his beloved wife was killed." The scene stayed in.
When another scene arrived in her studio that she said was "uneditable," Simpson put her foot down again. This time the director had taken on-set suggestions from the novelist, John le Carré, on whose work the film is based. But, says Simpson, it was a disaster. "It wasn't rehearsed, so the actors weren't good," she says. "Every department, from costumes to makeup, failed." Simpson says she brought everyone into the screening room to convince them. "We all wept," she recalls. "Everyone begged the producer to reshoot the scene." The producers found the money and reshot it.
Being in the spotlight isn't important to her, Simpson says. Neither is pulling back the curtain so audiences will understand what she does. "It's like the old story about sausage," she says with a laugh. "You can't enjoy it nearly as much if you know what went into it."
"There are two ways to tell a story, beside the written word," says Terry Porter, nominated for his work mixing sound on "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." One is visual; the other is through sound, he says. It's easy for audiences to underestimate the importance of sound in the moviegoing experience because the visuals are so demanding.
Porter and his team (he shares the nomination for his work on "Narnia" with Dean A. Zupancic and Tony Johnson) had the unusual opportunity to portray the familiar world of World War II London as well as to create a new, imaginary world inside Narnia. The sound landscapes for each world were radically different.
"In London, we're playing with authentic sounds - trains, war sirens, as well as crickets and rain once the children go to the farm," says the man who has worked on more than a hundred films, including "Rain Man" and "When Harry Met Sally." But when the Pevensie children go through the wardrobe and explore Narnia, "nothing is familiar," says Porter, whose team had to create a new sound palette for that world. "The first way to create a difference is a lack of sound," he says. "There are no crickets, just a light wind and footsteps in the snow." As the story progresses and Narnia starts to come back to life, "We started to bring sounds back into it."
Big films with many sources of sound present particular challenges - such as wrangling all the elements of a vast battle in "Narnia." But Porter says that if he has enough time to experiment with different approaches, he can come up with some unusual but extremely effective sound choices. In "Narnia," as the two armies collide, Porter says they had "lots of sounds in there originally, but then we came upon the moment when the sword comes out and all you hear is the heartbeat." He says he learned the value of less-is-more from his work on the Sam Peckinpah film "The Osterman Weekend," which ends with a big bang. "I had done all this work on the explosion of a motor home," says Porter. "Peckinpah listened and said, 'This isn't working.' " Ultimately, he asked the sound team to use nothing but the sound of an actress singing a lullaby as the fireworks go off. "It was totally eerie, and completely effective. That's where I got my big lesson: Don't be a sound guy - be a filmmaker."
"Good Night, and Good Luck," the Oscar-nominated film about TV journalist Edward R. Murrow, may look black and white, but it was actually shot in color, says cinematographer Robert Elswit. That's because black-and-white movie film stock (designed some 60 years ago) isn't "fast" or technically sophisticated enough to pick up the naturalistic lighting necessary to deliver the director's vision. None of this may matter to the average filmgoer, but the final effect does. And that comes from understanding light and the way it is used to tell a story, which, Elswit says, is the cinematographer's job.
Light as a visual metaphor harks back to the glory days of European painters such as Rembrandt, he says. "These very simple canvases about nothing more than sewing or pouring milk are full of life and drama, all because of the way light is used."
This 400-year-old legacy shows up in such things as the lighting for actor David Strathairn, who plays Murrow. It subtly evolves throughout the film to reflect the underlying tension and drama of the story, says the cinematographer, whose first love was the stage (his parents were theatrical agents). "We wanted to set the on-air moments apart from the rest of the film," says Elswit, "so we imitated the style that came from photojournalism of the '40s and '50s, with stark, contrasty images that intrinsically feel rich with meaning." Over the course of the movie, he says, every time we see Murrow on-air, he becomes brighter and brighter. "I overexposed him so the last time we see him, it's almost like a flashbulb in the face, as if this was a metaphor for truth and understanding."
Elswit, who has worked on films such as "Boogie Nights" and "Return of the Jedi," says moviegoers generally don't understand what he does. "My relatives think I operate a camera," he says with a laugh, adding that his work may be one of the least understood of the film crafts. "In the end, the public really doesn't realize that with a movie, there is this much lighting involved."