Legendary Cinematographer of Predator, Mrs. Doubtfire and Moulin Rouge! talks exclusively about his career, and filming with Kate Winslet on The Dressmaker.
We go behind the scenes with Academy Award-nominated Director of Photography, Don McAlpine ACS ASC on the Australian period drama The Dressmaker ~ interview by Lindsay Coleman for Australian Cinematographer
On a warm day in the dusty Victorian outback town of Warburton a small Australian film crew stands silently as they watch Hollywood-actress Kate Winslet, dressed in an 1950's hand-picked regency dress, deliver her lines. Academy-Award nominated Cinematographer and industry legend, Don McAlpine ACS ASC (My Brilliant Career, Breaker Morant, Patriot Games, Predator, Mrs. Doubtfire, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and others) continues to push cinematic language, with Director Jocelyn Morehouse, to create what is being billed as a revenge/comedy/drama. The Dressmaker is Moorhouse’s first film as Director in nearly twenty-years. Australian Cinematographer sits down to talk with McAlpine to discuss his latest offering.
AC - You have worked with Jocelyn Moorhouse on a number of projects now, always with her as Producer. Has your relationship on The Dressmaker changed, now that she is Director?
DM - We have been working together since Peter Pan (2003). She was very much the confidant of P.J. Hogan, being his wife (chuckles), and the same thing happened on Mental (2012). We’ve got a very understanding relationship in that we know each other very, very well. We know what our strengths and our weaknesses are. It’s subtly interesting of course working with a woman director.
In the beginning you wonder what will be her collegiate approach to the job as opposed to the macho man thing of ‘my way or the highway’. It’s a different beat altogether. Once I adapted to it I realised the joy of it. I find, more than with many other directors, you’re more willing to engage in open and honest discussion about all aspects of filmmaking. I think that carried through to me, and to the actors.
AC - Are you allowed to talk about the budget on The Dressmaker?
DM - The truth is I never know what a film’s budget is. They never present it to me, and I never know. Not with a dollars and cents allocation anyway. I’ll have a serious guess, but you really don’t know. That’s the way I like it. I approach a film as if cost is not a problem, knowing that when I exceed the money allocated I’ll be very quickly told “that’s not in the budget, Don”. You make certain judgments; there are things you can and things you can’t do.
AC - I imagine your relationship with Roger Ford, the Production Designer, is very positive given that you’ve worked together so much?
DM - Roger Ford, from my point of view, is a Cinematographer’s perfect Production Designer. He comes through television. He’s totally aware that you need space for the camera. He knows that his designs need to produce good framing opportunities. I almost know where the best shots will be when just by looking at his drawings. He and Catherine Martin are high on my list. Those two are certainly the most brilliant designers. They really design well for shooting.
AC - You would have been around in Australia in the 1950s, when The Dressmaker is set?
DM - (Laughs) I sure was! I became the historical advisor endlessly on this film. So much of what was in The Dressmaker was engrained in my memory. I had to be careful though. A great yarn, such as this film, shouldn’t always be subject to factual details. I quickly realised the story was more important than history.
AC - Where do you find your inspiration? On the set, or elsewhere?
DM - First it comes from the script of course. But even more so from those moments where you’re not really sure how to solve a problem, and you get filled with the blind panic. In those moments, truly inspired ideas can come to you.
AC - What would be some examples?
DM - It happens so often. On Ender’s Game (2013) I arrived in pre-production and the six producers asked me what I was going to do about a reflection on the visors worn by the kids. They’re all wearing these visors so they’ve got to be lit. I’ve cleverly learned that you should avoid answers in such a situation. I said, “I’ve just arrived, I’ve heard your question, I’ll get back to when I’ve sorted out what the difficulties are.” I went down to the set, got a visor and stuck it on an electrician. It occurred to me that the patterns that were forming in the visor were a major asset to the film. So the concept became to light them all with practical lights. They were practical reflections. Then if you started to form them into lines the lights made the kids look like tattooed warriors. These light patterns were then ever-changing.
On The Dressmaker I can remember occasions of trying to make the film look beautiful and sophisticated. Often this panic I spoke of gets resolved by just moving a light two or three feet. Then everything is solved. You just don’t know what is wrong. You’ve got to get your brain into that mode of hyper -thinking and you find that solution which is very simple.
AC – After completing the film Ender’s Game you expressed that anamorphic would be used far less in the future. Is this something you still feel?
DM - Depends on what you mean by anamorphic. I don’t think anamorphic lenses will be used to the degree that they used to be. I do feel that films will continue to be released in the 2.4 format, however, shot as we shot this, and Ender’s Game and Mental. What we have now with a Super-35 reduction on the chip will become more and more conventional practice.
AC – You are shooting The Dressmaker digitally?
DM - Oh yes, if I had my way I would never go back to film. I am doing things on digital that I would never have dared done on film emulsion. Don’t get me wrong, film was the greatest show in town, there are no two ways about it. But it was a very imprecise tool. Digital is almost absolute precision. What you see, if you look at it the right way, is what you know you have recorded.
With film you have the scene, and you have to photograph it. But with digital, you record the scene with the knowledge that you’ve recorded the absolute full range of what you can within the latitude of the chip - most of the time the scene doesn’t see the full latitude of the chip – and I can take that information and manufacture whatever world I want in a very precise way.
Film, on the processing side, was a very inexact process. Processing on the first foot of a thousand foot roll can never be the same as the last foot. The chemicals are changing all the way through that, and that really is just a fact of life.
AC – I was watching the work of David Watkin BSC on in Out of Africa (1985) and noticed, during montages, that sequences set over a day were probably shot over a six-week period, given the variations in the lighting conditions. This was of course back in the old pre-digital, pre-DI days and I imagine reflects the type of issues you often dealt with.
DM - One good thing about digital prints is that you know people in Broken Hill are going to see a very similar product to what they see in downtown New York City. It is a very similar product. How many times have I been to a cinema and seen a green print, or a dark print? As a Cinematographer I knew that there were probably twelve great prints made of my movie. Most go to the major outlets in the US, a couple go to Europe or Canada. The rest of the prints are basically shit. Some might be good but a lot of them aren’t, and it was always so disappointing to go to a cinema and watch a film you’ve shot look nothing like what you set out achieve. It’s a disaster! That doesn’t happen in the digital world.
AC – Owen Roizman ASC recently discussed retiming The French Connection (1971) and the challenges he faced in getting the final product just right. Do you feel that way about any of your older films, that to go back and retime would enable you to get closer to your original vision?
DM - They’ve done reprints on about five or six of my movies, which is great of course, but they’ve reprinted them in a way that I never would have. It’s not really my work. So they went back to the negative and somebody in a back room made his film, not mine. I mean my name is on it, but it really not my work. I saw a print of Breaker Morant, and it was just middle-of-the-road. All of the subtlety that was in the thing was lost. From an ego point of view, and from a point of view of historical reference, it’s sort of sad. With digital, that wouldn’t happen.
AC – What are some of the cinematic qualities of The Dressmaker, as a story?
DM – The Dressmaker is one of those films which demand an audience’s attention in a way that really good cinema does. Look at what happened with The Mule (2014), it was released online and topped the charts on iTunes. It’s a horrible thought, something like The Dressmaker ending up on everyone’s tiny iPhone screen. I used these wide-angle lenses that will really be enhanced, massively, in a big cinema.
AC – Let’s talk lenses then. Do you feel the future is really with spherical lenses then?
DM – Probably, in that probably spherical lenses are less flawed than anamorphic. Once you’ve got an anamorphic the complications develop. But, the anamorphic lenses that are out are pretty damn good. I’ve just been reading about the next chips that will be put in cameras and offer twenty stops of latitude with a base feed of about 6000. The resolution of the chips is becoming amazing. People will keep shooting on film and on anamorphic lenses but the question to ask is why? Often the answer is that people were usually successful using those tools in the past, so they are going to keep using them in the future.
AC – When Jeff Cronenweth ASC was discussing shooting Gone Girl (2014) in 6K he mentioned that they wanted to go to 4K for image stabilization. Would that interest you as well?
DM – It would, but not on The Dressmaker. We shot basically 4K. It will be reduced to 2K. The quality is amazing. I did Ender’s Game on exactly the same system and I saw it on an IMAX screen in Los Angeles that was amazing in what they got out of that chip. The resolution and colour was simply mind-blowing. I managed to get a Blu-Ray of Moulin Rouge! and watched it at home on a big screen.
It was probably the best version I’ve ever seen of my work on that film. It was just amazing; the colour, the resolution, the brilliance. I think in actual fact that we keep forgetting that cinema is theatre.
AC – You spoke in the commentary for Moulin Rouge! (2001) about the very specific light you shone on Nicole Kidman due the reflective nature of her skin. Kate Winslet is quite famous for her own complexion. How did you determine what lights to use on her?
DM – When you’re dealing with someone like Kate whose face, I would never say, is her fortune, but is her trademark at least, you look at the rehearsal and adapt your lighting, or introduce whole new lighting for that scene so that most of the time she is going to look glamorous. You can make anyone look ugly on camera, but glamour is harder. With someone like Kate you have to structure your lighting. Having done that you have to adapt it back to the whole storytelling process. In doing that you often have to make compromises both with the lighting on Kate, or the lighting on the situation. Most of it becomes pretty organic. It seems to work out.
AC – After Patriot Games (1992) you stated that you didn’t like using filters. Is that still the case?
DM – I’ve always had a phobia about filters. On some films, for stylistic reasons, I have used polarizers. Except for the polarizers everything you hang in front of the lens you can do in the DI. Why corrupt the image so early in the process?
AC – There is also the problem in digital of noise in the blacks. Does this still persist or has the technology moved on?
DM – Mostly it has. The Red camera has a reading of what you could say was ‘noise in the blacks’. It has what I call the two goal posts. It’s burnout in the whites and noise in the blacks. In actual fact with the range of the thing I expose it to avoid getting noise in the black. What this means is when I expose it I don’t crush the blacks. I normally expose it and take it down later. If there is a dark scene, on my monitor it looks pretty normal. Later on I know exactly where I want to go. If it’s a bright scene I never let it burn out. In post I’ll take it to the point of burn-out that I want.
AC – In regards to The Odd Angry Shot (1979), it’s amazing how much you didn’t need to work out coverage given that your Camera Operator was John Seale (AM ACS ASC), who was zipping around with the camera making sure he got everyone in the one shot. I’ve realized how often editing shortcuts can be achieved with the right camera moves. With an ensemble like The Dressmaker how important has that been to achieve?
DM – Very important. A lot of shots have been staged where we have eight people in the frame. That’s why we’ve used the extreme wide-angle lenses. In comedy the interaction between all these people is superb, and needs to be captured in these individual shots, without editing. Jocelyn and I always try to go back and produce possibilities with close-ups and individual shots which we feel can create more options, but we both hope that it is the wide shot that will be used most of the time. That was about the only trick we used. I did have David Williamson on the camera. He has a fantastic rapport with the actors.
AC – Finally Don, would you say that you have a signature, or a personal style that link your films in some way?
DM – There are films out there where the Cinematographer’s style dominates the film, and this limits the film quite extensively. Vittorio Storaro (ASC AIC) was one such Cinematographer. A fantastic artist, but he became his films; and that was a massive limiting factor on them. Directors point out that certain shots are out of the style of the film we’re making, and I point out that in sometimes departing from that style the overall style will be much more lively. That variety, that variation, will enhance what we are basically trying to do, to achieve. It is not about hitting a wrong note, it is a note to make them realize what the tune really was. You have to be careful not to do just what you want to do, because you destroy the vision that is so wrong.
Interview by Lindsay Coleman for Australian Cinematographer.
Coleman is a film academic and independent producer. Scarecrow Press has recently published his book, The Philosophy of Pornography. Coleman is presently working on four books on contemporary cinematography, two of which are collections of interviews. He is also currently working on documentaries about Cinematography, film editing and film composing.