Our choice to shoot The Master in 65mm was very trial-and-error. I’d been thinking about VistaVision cameras and how they were used to get that great color look on classic pictures like North by Northwest, Vertigo and some of the old Westerns I remember. I was curious to find out what was going on in those movies technically. I never considered it something we would actually do because I saw The Master as a smaller story. It really started to come together during all of the testing we did at Panavision. Dan Sasaki was the first person who said, ‘Why don’t you use the 65mm studio cameras we have here?’
We started testing the 65mm equipment, and we looked at 35mm reduction prints. They just looked so right, not only in terms of clarity or sharpness, but also because the format seemed right for the story. At that point, we started asking ourselves, ‘Are we really going to do this with these big cameras that are potentially risky to work with?’ We never really answered that question; we just started shooting, and then gradually started shooting more and more. Next thing you know, we were doing almost the entire movie that way.
The 1.85:1 aspect ratio sprang from how I saw things in my mind’s eye while I was writing. The nature of the story is more ‘chamber drama’ than anything else, and the format felt like a way to sort of downsize it. The irony, of course, is that we were downsizing in 65mm!
We pasted photos and research materials up on the walls around the preproduction office and let them soak in. There’s a really nice book of photos about World War II sailors called At Ease: Navy Men of World War II that informed a lot of the shots we did on the beach. We were lodging a bunch of stuff in our memories and then seeing if any of it came out while we were on set.
The closest I can come to citing any particular film influence is classic noir. I find those kinds of movies very evocative of that post-war era. Of course, any of the ideas you might have during the writing phase tend to go out the window pretty fast once you get to the actual locations, where you just wonder, ‘What should be on and what should be off?’ Eventually, you end up saying, ‘That looks right.’
Our approach led to some happy accidents. Toward the end of the shoot, Panavision offered us a fisheye lens. When we first put it on the camera, we thought, ‘There’s no way we should use this — it’s just too bizarre.’ It felt like you needed a tremendous amount of light to get it to look halfway decent. But then we had a bright, sunny day on the beach, so we threw the lens on, and we liked the way it looked for that particular moment in the story.
The dolly shot when Freddie approaches the yacht is another example. We started shooting scenes on the boat on a Monday, and we were scheduled to do that shot on Friday night, but I still hadn’t figured out what we were going to do. I kept getting off the boat each night to search for a shot. At one point, our dolly grip, Jeff Kunkel, saw me standing 100 feet down the dock, and he started to panic a bit, thinking about how much track he’d have to lay down. We decided it was worth trying, though. I huddled in a corner with Erik Brown and Colin Anderson, and Mihai went off to another corner with Mike Bauman and the key grip, Michael Kenner. We sat around scratching our heads for a while, and then we ordered more gear!
You can’t do things that way too often, only as much as the schedule allows. Our main mandate was ‘Keep it simple’ or ‘Be straightforward.’ We were already fumbling around so much with these big cameras that trying to do anything acrobatic with them would have been a drag, especially as our actors were trying to, you know, act.
We justified using 35mm if a scene was longer or felt a little more intimate, or if we needed to use a smaller or quieter camera. I never wanted it to feel obvious that we were switching formats. We just wanted to delicately dismount whenever we made that change.
I was sorry to hear Fuji will stop manufacturing film stock, but maybe film will become like vinyl records: popular among connoisseurs. I’d like to think there’s always going to be someone out there with a basement and some chemicals, and wherever they are, we’ll try to find them.