“Dead men tell no tales,” declares the law of the high seas, and in Cargo, the captain and crew of a decrepit bulk freighter go to chilling lengths to enforce this proverb. The tense psychological thriller boasts an unnerving ambience that makes its “damned voyage” memorably suspenseful.
The tale begins in the African republic of Ghana, where a brash young backpacker, Chris (Daniel Brühl), runs into trouble after stealing a bracelet from a local merchant. Relieved of his European passport while scuffling with a pair of policemen, Chris takes refuge in a seedy waterfront bar, where he meets the burly, hard-drinking crew of the Gull, a cargo vessel bound for Marseilles. Seeing his chance to elude the authorities, Chris sneaks aboard the ship but is quickly discovered. He soon learns that the boat’s brooding, inscrutable captain (Peter Mullan) has a very low regard for stowaways, but is strangely willing to cut Chris a break if he can co-exist with the crew — whose bizarre behavior makes the HMS Bounty look like the good ship Lollipop. Subsequent surprises complicate Chris’ attempt to survive the hostile environment and eventually force him to make some difficult moral choices.
The effective menace of Cargo can be partially attributed to its makers’ documentary backgrounds and handheld approach, which lend the action a realistic intensity. Director Clive Gordon honed his cinematic chops on a number of quality docs, including The Unforgiving and The Betrayed, while Texas-born cinematographer Sean Bobbitt cut his teeth as a freelance news cameraman for CBS in London, a job that allowed him to travel throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Bobbitt says he then pursued documentary work but always harbored a desire to work on dramatic features. “It’s quite difficult to make that transition, but I got very lucky,” says the 47-year-old cinematographer, whose big break came in 1999. “[Director] Michael Winterbottom was making a film called Wonderland and wanted a documentary cameraman to shoot it. That became my transitional film.”
Bobbitt’s blend of documentary and feature experience put him on good footing with Gordon. “I think one of the reasons Clive chose me for the project was our common background. I understood where he was coming from, and we shared a common vocabulary while talking about the film. He also felt comfortable that I had more dramatic-feature experience, because he knew I could bring something different to the film than a straight-ahead documentary cameraman could.”
The cinematographer’s previous work in Ghana gave him a working knowledge of that country, but he notes that the film’s waterfront bar was actually a set built at a studio in Barcelona by production designer Jordi Yrla and his crew. “The lighting was a combination of practicals, Kino Flos, China balls and Misers, which are 300-/500-watt Arri Fresnels,” he details. “That scene is the first time we see the captain, and to make him stand out I used a 1K Pup to give him a backlight rim. There’s a candle on the table in front of him, and to augment that we used a gagged-up practical inside a little wire cage — a 100-watt bulb on a dimmer — along with some F2 diffusion and 1/4 CTO on the table itself.”
The picture’s initial exteriors were shot in Ghana, which Bobbitt rates as “one of the easier West African countries to shoot in, and one of the safest and most civilized. There’s no real gun culture, and it’s a former British colony, so English is the major language. It also has a small, burgeoning film industry. In fact, Mission: Impossible III was supposed to shoot some scenes there, but the production pulled out at the last minute. We actually benefited from that, because a company called Planet Films had been set up to facilitate their needs, and they had all of the connections necessary to communicate with the government. Planet also helped us with location scouting, managing and permissions, and also with sourcing local actors, crew and equipment. They made our lives much easier.”
Nevertheless, the filmmakers still faced some daunting logistical issues that included securing the use of an actual cargo ship in Barcelona. Bobbitt observes, “Shooting at sea is always problematic, but in our case it was made even more difficult because the boat we found was an abandoned Bulgarian bulk freighter. It had been sitting untouched in Barcelona’s harbor for almost four years, so it was in a very poor state. Its electrical systems were dangerous, and the engines and generators didn’t work. It took a lot of effort to make the ship seaworthy and get the required safety clearances.”
Once the production had permission to shoot aboard this rust-bucket, the crew gave it a major overhaul. After determining which cabins and corridors would be shown onscreen, they rewired the existing fixtures in those areas, augmenting the lighting with compact Kino Flo units that could be easily hidden in the cramped quarters. For scenes of the crew eating meals together in a small dining area, Bobbitt employed an overhead baylight that he dubbed a “Gordy box” (in honor of Gordon Willis, ASC, who made the technique famous with The Godfather). The bay contained 4x4 Kino Flos installed above 1/2 grid diffusion and had long skirts hanging from the sides to control spill. “It was an invaluable technique in that particular situation, where we had the camera working effectively in 360 degrees,” he says.
Bobbitt notes that from his first reading of the script, he envisioned the film in widescreen. To save money and also maximize options for a digital intermediate (DI), he shot the film in 3-perf Super 35mm. “The widescreen format helps emphasize the sense of claustrophobia on the ship, because you see more of the walls as you move through the boat. It also makes any sort of movement through the corridors much more dynamic.”
He shot most of the movie handheld, employing Arricam Lites equipped with Cooke S4 lenses. “I did a fair amount of damage in terms of bumping cameras against the walls and knocking light fixtures off them, but it was all good fun.” Although many scenes were shot on the real ship, “all of the scenes set in the hold were actually done in a warehouse outside of Barcelona. It’s physically impossible and extremely dangerous to shoot in the hold of a bulk freighter. There’s very limited access and all sorts of safety issues. So we built a set instead.”
The Spanish warehouse proved to be less than ideal for the production’s needs, however. “It was very important to convey the full scale of the hold, because we had to create the sense that a number of people could hide in there without being easily found. Our set therefore had to be nearly as high as the real hold, which was more than 23 feet tall. In the warehouse, that left me just 12 feet above the set to place my lights. I didn’t have a lot of throw, and without the throw, I needed to use more instruments and try to arrange them so that all of the light would be coming from the same angle.”
To solve this problem, the crew built a centrally positioned, overhead scaffold that ran the length of the set. “The idea was that there would be two settings in the hold: a daylight setting, where cracks of light were creeping in, and a nighttime setting, which would consist of the ship’s internal lighting,” explains Bobbitt. “To create the sense of daylight and maintain the correct angle of light without having a lot of throw, I was hoping to have four 18Ks with special Pyrex lenses, which would give me a very strong, very direct light. But we could only find two of those units in all of Europe, so I augmented them with a pair of Arri X-Lights.”
During the DI, which was carried out at Chimney Pot in Stockholm, Sweden, Bobbitt worked with colorist Mats Holmgren to fine-tune his images, which were shot primarily on Kodak Vision 2 500T 5218 and Vision2 200T 5217. “I’ve done a lot of work with Vision2 stocks, and because I knew we were going to do a DI I was looking for maximum latitude, while at the same time trying to hold the grain down. I think 5218 is fantastic in that regard. We shot our day exteriors on 5217, but the bulk of the film was shot on 5218.”
Bobbitt’s primary goal in post was to help convey the tale’s increasingly sinister tone by creating a progressive and evocative color scheme. “We start off in Africa with very warm earth tones, very saturated colors with almost no blue at all. As the journey progresses and Chris’ emotional state begins to deteriorate, we shift into a much cooler feel with various levels of desaturation. By the time we reach the end, the images are very cold and desaturated. To create that arc during principal photography, I used lots of CTO and amber gels for the African material, and then varying degrees of CTB as we worked toward the colder feel. We used the DI to enhance the saturated look of the African footage and to very carefully grade the shift from those scenes to the later scenes.”
The DI also enabled Bobbitt to erase all traces of a tugboat that was used to tow the hero ship out to sea for wide, establishing shots of the freighter in motion. He adds, however, that no special tricks were used to capture a shot of Chris being dangled precariously over the ship’s hull by vengeful crewmembers. “We captured an overhead shot of that moment by mounting the camera on a small jib arm, and the rest of the scene was shot handheld. Daniel was really being held over the side by six very large men, so I think his look of terror is fairly genuine!”