The American Society of Cinematographers

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J. Edgar
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Presidents Desk
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ASC Close-Up
Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, shot by Tom Stern, ASC, AFC, puts an infamous American center stage, but not exactly in the spotlight.


Photos by Keith Bernstein. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Warner Bros.
It’s March 2011, and director Clint Eastwood is consulting with cinematographer Tom Stern, ASC, AFC; A-camera/Steadicam operator Stephen Campanelli; and gaffer Ross Dunkerley before making up his mind about a complicated Steadicam sequence for the period drama J. Edgar. The men are standing in a corridor built on Warner Bros.’ Stage 16 that is designed to look like a hallway in the Department of Justice in the 1920s.

With a couple of brief comments and a few nods, the filmmakers reach agreement on how to execute the scene. Eastwood has decided not to line up the 50 extras playing FBI agents all the way down the hall, which was the original plan. Instead, he orders the extras to face each other in two lines, and asks Leonardo DiCaprio, who is playing J. Edgar Hoover, to walk between them. Campanelli is to weave between the actors to shadow DiCaprio and capture multiple POVs for Hoover and the men he is addressing within the same fluid shot.

All of the crucial Department of Justice/FBI office scenes in were shot on this opulent set, designed by James J. Murakami. These scenes range from Hoover’s takeover of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation as a young man in the 1920s, to his final moments in office 50 years later.

Stern, like Eastwood, didn’t see the need for much talk about the logistics of the scene at hand. Everyone agreed it would be shot with the Steadicam, and that the lighting wasn’t going to change. The set had a hard ceiling, and for 1920s scenes like this one, Murakami’s team built practical Hyperion lights fitted with delicate 250-watt bulbs into the ceiling, and Dunkerley’s crew rigged them to a dimmer to help extend the bulbs’ life, since each lasts only about three hours.

“In terms of a shot like this, Clint delegates the specifics, and we know what he likes and we do it,” Stern says of the corridor scene. “He likes the spontaneity of things — figuring it out on the spot — and he doesn’t want to dilute that with too much discussion. He has confidence in us, and for this scene, once we knew how the actors.

Eastwood calls this “constantly being in a flexible state, able to make adjustments,” but adds that he largely had the sequence, like the rest of J. Edgar, in his head. “I knew what I wanted to do; we just had to figure out where to put [the FBI agents],” he says. “We wanted to give the scene a big feel, make it as ‘scopey’ as we could, and yet get the head shots we needed. Lots of people would spend one or two days on this, but we don’t feel the need to do that.”

In many ways, J. Edgar is a typical example of how tightly Eastwood’s visual sense is intertwined with his veteran crew’s abilities. The film is a period piece/psychological drama that unfolds in a non-linear fashion, and it is characterized by a noirish lighting aesthetic. But the story also called for aging DiCaprio and other actors using practical techniques to an extent never before seen in an Eastwood film, and the picture also features more soundstage work than is typical for the director.

The filmmakers accomplished these things on a shooting schedule (39 days) and budget (just over $30 million) that were far closer to those of Gran Torino (2008) than today’s tent-pole fare. Thus, despite some CG set extensions and the strategic use of the digital-intermediate process, producer Rob Lorenz suggests that J. Edgar represents “the way they used to make movies. It’s heavily dependent on proper art direction and practical techniques.”

Not much has changed in Eastwood’s camera package over the years, and for J. Edgar Stern once again employed Panavision cameras and C-Series anamorphic lenses. “We used to use the E-Series, too, but we don’t use many of those anymore,” says 1st AC Bill Coe. “We’d have the C-Series primarily because they were smaller, and we would use them only on Steadicam. But Clint and Tom loved the quality of the C-Series so much that they have become our primary lenses. We’ll only use a 135mm or 180mm out of the E-Series because those focal lengths don’t exist in the C-Series.

“We used just about the full range of C-Series on this picture,” continues Coe. “Clint starts with a big wide shot on something like a 25mm to get the whole room, and then he moves in. For the close-ups, he’ll usually end up on a 75mm, but on this movie he even used a 100mm or 135mm to get in really close and capture that fantastic acting.”

The filmmakers relied on production design and subtle lighting tricks to visually separate the story’s various time periods, but this work was taken a step further in the DI suite by Technicolor Hollywood colorist Jill Bogdanowicz, who significantly desaturated the 1920s sequences to contrast them with the later eras.

But more generally, Stern’s noirish lighting scheme stands out — faces half in shadow, low-lit rooms and the like are omnipresent, particularly in the office scenes, many of which feature even less fill light than Eastwood usually uses. In fact, Campanelli says, Stern and Dunkerley “went all the way with dark lighting, so much so I sometimes had a hard time seeing through my viewing system. But it looks fantastic.”

During scenes involving the younger Hoover, Stern’s crew would occasionally use 2K and 4K Mole-Richardson Ziplights for fill and nothing more. Dunkerley notes that this created just enough soft light to prevent Eastwood’s beloved shadows from being too hard or over-the-top.

When asked if he had in mind some of the stylized lighting he’d done as a gaffer for the late Conrad Hall, ASC, particularly on their final collaboration, Road to Perdition (AC Aug. ’02), Stern says there was no direct connection. He notes, however, that there is always a philosophical or emotional connection to his relationship with Hall when he lights for Eastwood.

Road to Perdition wasn’t in my mind, but Connie’s approach was,” he explains. “One of the things I learned from him is the importance of serendipity, to not get too locked into anything. His approach was like Clint’s: see how the actors feel, see their skin in the room and the volume in the room, and then figure out how to light it. We therefore use very few lighting plots or plans; we just go and do it.”

This was complicated by J. Edgar’s nonlinear structure. Throughout the film, says Stern, “we pretty much wanted Hoover’s office to stay dark. As we went along, I became more confident about throwing things into black, as Clint loves, and letting people come out of it. We wanted to create a credible noir-esque environment inside a federal bureaucracy. It’s about levels, how far to push it. If the scene was more emotionally noir, I typically ramped up the visual noir. I’d get it about three-quarters where I wanted it, and then we’d go even further and finish it off in the DI.”

To light the hero corridor for the 1960s sequences, Dunkerley brought in practical ceiling fixtures that were modified to accommodate Kino Flo tubes, and added Arri T-12s at both ends of the corridor to “make a brighter statement, just give it some snap. We were mainly filming there when it was supposed to be daytime.”

Ambient light was created in all of the rooms adjacent to the main corridor, including Hoover’s office, with overhead soft boxes comprising two 6K space lights going through bleached muslin. These were skirted with black Duvetyn to prevent spill.

 

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