Director Alan Parker and cinematographer Darius Khondji, AFC add sophisticated shading an epic screen adaptation of the popular opera.
Given the jaded, seen-it-all attitude of modern film audiences, the task of bringing another musical to the big screen might seem foolhardy at best. In a world where most viewers consider the genre to be the cinematic equivalent of the Model T, a filmmaker bent on repairing the old jalopy for one more run must be a master mechanic indeed.
Director Alan Parker, however, has had better fortune than most in the realm of movie musicals. He took his first stab at the form in 1976 with Bugsy Malone, a fizzy spoof of 1930s’ gangster flicks that featured an all-kiddie cast (including a youthful Jodie Foster). Four years later, Parker hit paydirt with Fame, a rousing crowd-pleaser that tracked eight talented teen performers through the halls of New York’s High School of Performing Arts. In addition to fueling nationwide fantasies of curtain-calls in the footlights, the film earned Academy Awards for Best Song (“Fame”) and Best Original Score, as well as five other nominations, and also spawned a television series. Spurred on by that success, Parker took a darker turn with 1982’s Pink Floyd: The Wall, a surreal, angst-filled adaptation of the blockbuster rock opera. With its disturbing mix of Fascistic imagery and acid-trip animation, The Wall remains a cult favorite, particularly with its target audience of anti-Establishment teens. Parker’s most recent success with musical material was 1991’s sleeper hit The Commitments, a shaggy-dog story about a spunky Dublin band’s determined attempts to popularize classic soul music in their hometown.
With this estimable track record behind him (as well as his expert handling of gripping dramatic fare such as Midnight Express, Birdy, Angel Heart and Mississippi Burning), Parker was the logical choice to helm Disney’s epic screen version of Evita, which endured 20 years in the purgatory known as “development” before beginning production, at long last, in February of 1996.
Ironically enough, the project’s wrap date in May of ’96 marked the closure of a full circle. After hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s original concept album of the opera in 1976, Parker himself had approached the duo in the hopes of adapting the story for the big screen. That first overture fizzled, but the possibility of a film version was revived when producer Robert Stigwood capital-ized on the chart-topping album by collaborating with Lloyd Webber and Rice to create a stage version that took London by storm. After opening at the Prince Edward Theatre on June 21, 1978, Evita became a musical megahit; by the time it closed, it had been performed 2,900 times in the West End, and the subsequent Broadway adaptation earned seven Tony Awards at the end of its first season in New York.
In 1979, after the play’s smash debut in London, Parker was approached by Stigwood, who asked if he was still interested in the idea of directing a movie based on the musical. Says Parker, “I had just finished working on Fame, so I said no. Normally you don’t regret turning down films, but I regretted that one. I watched over the years as other people got involved, but it still never got made.” The director finally got his chance in the summer of 1994, when producer Andrew Vanja came back to him bearing the old chestnut. Bowing to Fate, Parker agreed to write and direct the project, which became a three-way effort involving Cinergi, the Robert Stigwood Organisation and Parker’s own company, Dirty Hands.
Although the music of Evita remains as popular and compelling as ever, Parker says that his primary motivation in making the film was to mine the story’s mother lode of drama, which is based upon the real-life tale of Eva Duarte, a peasant girl who rose to power after marrying politician Juan Domingo Peron, who later became president of Argentina. Narrated by Che (Antonio Banderas), a sardonic Brechtian Everyman, the screen version is both an inspiring and tragic account of Eva’s short but eventful life, which began in 1919 and spanned three turbulent decades.
The story, as related by Che, is classic tragedy. The illegitimate daughter of a penniless farmer in the tiny Pampas town of Junin, located west of Buenos Aires, young Eva (Madonna) dreams of escaping to the big city. She gets her chance in her teens, when opportunity arrives in the form of a popular tango singer named Agustin Magaldi (Jimmy Nail). After charming the traveling minstrel, Eva accompanies him to Buenos Aires, where she bucks long odds to become a radio and film actress of some renown. Wending her way into high-society circles, Eva soon strikes up a romance with rising politician Juan Peron (Jonathan (Pryce), but their relationship is scandalized by members of both the political establishment and the military, leading to Peron’s brief arrest and the populist revolt of October 17, 1945.
The pair decide to marry, and with the ebullient and inspirational Eva at his side, Peron is elected president. Eva quickly establishes herself as an ardent supporter of Peronism, hawking democracy on her famed “Rainbow Tour” of Europe. With the birth of the Eva Peron Foundation and the Peronist Women’s Party, the myth of ‘Saint Eva” begins to grow, and she becomes the people’s choice to run as a vice presidential candidate. This development sparks dissent by the military and other politicians, who are alarmed by her increasing influence, but Eva is forced to renounce the vice presidency when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her subsequent death in 1952, at the age of 33, is mourned in heart-rending fashion by the masses, who deify her and thereby ensure the iconic immortality of their “Evita.”
In addressing this saga, Parker sought to avoid the usual expectations for a film whose narrative is told solely via musical means. There is no spoken dialogue in Evita, but the director approached the film as he would any dramatic picture. “This is a large-scale epic, a dramatic and political film that happens to be sung all the way through,” Parker says. “But the decisions that we made were always based first and foremost upon the dramatic elements; the music was just something that was there. We never compromised anything because of the music. In that regard, I believe Evita is different from most other musicals that have been made. If you look at the history of musical films — particularly in recent years, when they haven’t succeeded — it’s almost as if at certain points [viewers] must put a different computer chip in their brain that says, ‘Oh, now they’re doing the musical bit.’ That denies the normal instincts, which — if you come from a dramatic film background, as I have — involve questions such as ‘What’s dramatically truthful and powerful?’ and ‘What’s cinematically interesting?’. Those were the questions we had to ask and answer before we dealt with the various pieces of music.”
Parker’s strategy was enthusiastically endorsed by the cinematographer he recruited to shoot the film: Darius Khondji, AFC, who has risen to prominence with a string of impressive-looking films that include Delicatessen, Before the Rain (with additional photography by Manuel Teran), The City of Lost Children, Seven (which earned him an ASC Award nomination; see AC Oct. 1995) and Stealing Beauty (See AC June 1996). Parker initially approached Khondji because his most frequent photographic collaborators, Peter Biziou, BSC and Michael Seresin, BSC, were unavailable. He had been impressed with the cinematographer’s work on Delicatessen, and soon found that Khondji was both personable and willing to adapt his working methods. “Before I met Darius, I thought he was going to be very serious, but he wasn’t like that at all; he’s got a wonderful sense of humor,” Parker relates. “This project was difficult for Darius in that I always work with the same people, including my camera operator, Mike Roberts. Darius was very gracious in taking all of that in stride. Also, I always use the English system [in which the camera operator plays a prominent role in compositional decision]. I don’t think it’s necessarily better than the American system [in which the director of photography has more influence over both lighting and composition]; it’s just the way I’ve been doing things for 25 years. I speak directly to the operator with regard to the composition of the shot, but Darius was always involved in the discussions.”
Khondji admits, “When I received the script I didn’t know it was a musical; I thought it was just going to be a normal dramatic film. I liked the script, but when I found out it was going to be a musical I hesitated. I didn’t really want to do a musical at the time, but I wanted to work with Alan and our first meeting went really well. Alan gave me the energy and passion to do the project. He spoke about this woman with great enthusiasm, and his office was completely wallpapered with photos of Evita. He was totally possessed by the music, which he played for me. There was something really dark and moody about it; it was really beautiful. I have a tendency to prefer the dark side of things. Even with Stealing Beauty, I was looking for the more dramatic elements in the story.”
Asked if they had drawn inspiration from any previous musical films, both men expressed their admiration for Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1971), which was photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC, who earned an Academy Award for his atmospheric efforts. “That was a complete film, and not just a musical film,” notes Parker. “I’ve always said, in perverse jest, that the reason I get all of the musicals nowadays is that Bob Fosse is no longer with us. I really admire what he accomplished.” Parker also notes that West Side Story’s “powerful marriage of film and music” made a lasting impression upon him when he saw the picture in his youth.
Khondji says that he forms many of his visual strategies for a project during his initial contact with both the script and the director. “That’s when I get a lot of my ideas about color schemes and imagery. Alan told me he wanted Evita to be not only a glamorous musical, but also gritty and real. He wanted a lot of dust, and a feeling for the Pampas and the little Argentine towns in the Twenties and Thirties. That was what excited me the most, because I’m never interested in shooting something that’s too polished and slick. Alan wanted the film to be Parkerized,’ which is a term we came up with to describe the look. That concept led me to my plan in terms of color and contrast.”
The duo briefly considered shooting the film in 65mm, but Parker rejected the notion because he “couldn’t see any great advantage to it. I shoot really fast, and we were also using two cameras all the time. I didn’t want the process to be cumbersome or slow, because the most important thing when I’m shooting a film is momentum. The best this film will look is a print from the original negative with digital sound, and I was never convinced that 65mm would be any better than that technically.”
Parker and Khondji eventually agreed that anamorphic would be the best format for the film, for a variety of reasons. The cinematographer explains, “There are lots of flat landscapes in the film, as well as large gatherings of people. This movie was not going to be shot in Super 35, like the one I’m doing now [Alien 4: Resurrection], or some films I’d done before [Seven, Stealing Beauty]. I really like to change things around from picture to picture — the light, the glass, the lenses, the format.
“If you shoot in true anamorphic, it’s not going to look the same as Super 35,” he points out. “I think it’s beautiful the way you lose depth of field in anamorphic; it makes the backgrounds look a bit like water. With Super 35 you have more depth of field, and the image is dryer. I would tend to use Super 35 if I wanted to do a more modern picture, or a more dynamic picture, and still keep the 2.35:1 ratio. It was a very good format for Seven, but true anamorphic works better for period films, classical films, or for smaller pictures that don’t have a hard, modern look.”
Despite these sound arguments in support of anamorphic, Parker still had his reservations. “I agonized about going anamorphic because I’m a real traditionalist, and I love the 1.85:1 ratio,” he says. “I’ve always avoided ‘scope because it’s harder to compose for really well. When it’s done right, it can be wonderful — particularly when the film is gigantic and the canvas is very wide. I must say that when I looked at Evita in its finished form, I couldn’t understand why I’d worried so much, because 1.85 might have diminished what we achieved.”
“The anamorphic format worked very well on this film because I was trying to create a somewhat Impressionistic look [for the backgrounds],” submits Khondji. “A reference from painting on this movie was George Bellows, an American realist painter of the Twenties and Thirties. He was a realistic painter, but realistic in a way that was close to Impressionism. That style worked very well for the early scenes in Evita, which are more idealized; a lot of the film was shot through a glow of light and dust.”
With the format decided, Khondji sought to fully exploit the opportunity to create picturesque widescreen images. His first step was to procure the best possible set of anamorphic lenses. He received ample support from London’s JD & C, a company owned and operated by Joe Dunton, BSC. “Joe provided us with two very beautiful sets of anamorphic Cooke lenses, which is a bit rare, because anamorphic lenses are not always so easy to get,” notes Khondji. “I was very grateful. My camera assistant had done very thorough tests to find the best glass for the picture. The quality of the glass is the most important thing when I shoot a picture, because it’s the glass that makes the image. This entire film was shot on Cookes, except for some scenes later in Evita’s life, when she becomes sick. I shot those darker moments with Zeiss lenses because I wanted a harsher, sharper look.
“In anamorphic, I love the 50mm and 70mm lenses very much, and also the 100mm,” he says. “Wider shots in anamorphic give you a bit of deformation in the image; I really don’t like to use wide lenses in anamorphic, especially if you have to pan or if you’re shooting in a small room. I can’t stand curvature in the image. It may work on certain types of films, but it would look vulgar in a film of this type. I don’t like anything that pulls the spectator out of the movie. A film is really beautiful of gritty reality and beautiful settings,” he says. “Buenos Aires at certain times has a contrasty, back-lit look, almost like in grading. It often just came out naturally without any tricks — shooting at the right time of day with all of the dust. We tried to shoot in warm daylight at the end of the afternoon. The ambience in Budapest is very ‘early-century Europe,’ and it matches very well with Argentina in terms of the architecture. In both places, it was important for us to understand that the light was going to be like a character in the film. Alan is a director who really understands that cinematography can be a strong part of telling the story. That sounds very obvious, but not all directors understand that.
“The big challenge in moving to Budapest was dealing with the difference in the light,” he states. “The light in Buenos Aires is very white, strong and harsh, the way it is in New York. It’s very warm and dusty there, and the buildings reflect the light; it’s a very luminous place. When we arrived in Budapest, we found ourselves in a very blue-green, sad, wintery European atmosphere. I had anticipated the difference, but it was still tricky to make it all look right. To help balance things out, I worked with Technicolor London, which is one of the best labs in the world. The two guys who really helped me were [sales manager] Bob Crowdey and the timer, Paul Swann. In addition to the lab work, I used filtering to balance the lighting between the two places. I used 85 and 81 filters combined, and I pushed the negative [mostly Eastman 5248 in Budapest] half or one stop to give it more saturation and density. Elsewhere on the film, I used the lightest Mitchell diffusion, as well as black and especially white Tiffen Pro Mists. I often used a combination of white Pro Mist and diffusion together with a net behind the lens — three layers of diffusion, but all of them very light. The most beautiful diffusion is behind the glass. Most of the time I work with a black net at the back.”
Khondji mixed his stocks fairly frequently, depending on the situation. As Parker notes with a smile, “Darius is very fussy with the film stocks; he’d be changing them all the time. That’s hard for someone like me, because I work very fast. I’d be ready to go and then I’d say, ‘Oh no, they’re changing the magazines again.'” Pausing for a quick laugh, he adds, “Later,
of course, when I saw the rushes, I knew Darius had been right.”
Khondji, like any cameraman worth his salt, ripostes that the end justified the means. He details,”I used 45, 93 and 48 on the film. The 45 was for all the exteriors in Argentina, 93 for all the interiors, and 48 for background war scenes, controversial scenes, some interiors and overcast scenes. The 48 reacts very beautifully if it’s pushed on overcast gray days. I don’t need the pushing for the stop, I mainly need it for the look. It changes the image structure.”
The cinematographer further enhanced the look of the film with what he terms “a new cocktail” of special processes, blending the anamorphic look with the ENR developing process and a carefully planned use of Arri’s VariCon system to flash the film.
The Technicolor ENR system, as students of cinematography will know, was pioneered by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, and is named after Ernesto N. Rico, the technician who helped develop the process at Technicolor Rome. In a “normal” Eastman Color Print process, a latent image is developed both in silver metal and in dye (cyan, magenta and yellow) in the color developer solution. While the dyes must be retained for image projection, a main focus of the remainder of the process is to remove the silver image from everything but the optical soundtrack. This is accomplished through common bleaching and fixing baths. Normally, 100 percent of the silver is removed from the picture area.
In the Technicolor ENR process, a proprietary black-and-white developing bath is used at the appropriate stage of the process so that a portion of the silver can be retained in an image-wise manner, to the taste of the individual cinematographer. As Technicolor London’s Bob Crowdey explains, “[The color positive] is basically put through a milder solution of pan developer. This greatly affects the shadow areas, making them more black. Cinematographers worldwide have always tried to get the blackest of black shadows; ENR gives the shadows a slight sheen, where a good shadow in normal developing has a sort of matte finish. It’s a bit like when you’ve just gotten your shoes polished and they’re nice and shiny. As a result, the rods in the viewer’s eye will pick out this deep, deep shadow. ENR literally makes things more contrasty.
“With standard developing, the silver is removed completely from the finished print,” Crowdey continues. “If you think
of normal print developing as 0 percent [silver], and complete bleach-bypass [which Khondji experimented with on Seven] as 100 percent, I would say that on Evita Darius was about 38 percent towards a bleach bypass. The ENR work is most noticeable in night scenes or in scenes involving large crowds. In Evita, it really enhances the depth and the contrast in crowds, and it also affects scenes involving ticker-tape, flags, bunting, things like that. For scenes in which military personnel are wearing dark uniforms, the ENR really makes their costumes zing out, creating contrast against their white bandoliers and other accoutrements. In essence, the result of the ENR is a more contrasty look, with a very slight desaturation in color, mainly in the pastel colors.”
Notes Khondji, “I’ve used a color process on every movie I’ve done since my second picture. They have different names depending on the lab. I’ve used similar processes on Before the Rain (ENR, Technicolor London), Stealing Beauty (ENR, Rome) and Evita (ENR, London), and some different ones on Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children and Seven. It’s the only way for me to really increase the contrast and play with the colors before moving on to digital postproduction. Most directors of photography go 100 percent when they use a color process, so it looks like black-and-white, but I don’t like to do that. ENR works on a scale of infrared, which affects the depth and thickness of the blacks. You vary the degree of infrared according to the picture. It’s a process you can adapt to the type of film and visual style you’re doing.”
To ensure the proper balance for the film, Khondji and his cohorts at Technicolor London conducted a series of “straddle tests,” many of which focused upon Madonna (with special regard to her facial tones, hairstyles and clothing) and the film’s military costumes. Says Khondji, “I also had meetings with the production designer, Brian Morris; the costume designer, Penny Rose; the chief makeup artist, Sarah Monzani; and the chief hairstylist, Martin Samuel. They knew I was going to use a color process, and I explained to them how it would bring more contrast to the costumes, and how dark colors become almost black. If you want dark colors to survive, they have to be a little bit lighter, and the whites should be systematically off-white.”
Khondji also flashed the film to lend certain scenes a more lyrical ambience. To accomplish this, he used Arri’s VariCon, a compact, contrast-control system which slides into the dual filter stage closest to the lens of any regular 6.6″ x 6.6″ matte box. The VariCon differs from low-contrast filters in that it provides for a continuously adjustable contrast over the entire photometric range of the film without any loss of resolution, and without any effect on the highlights. It differs from standard flashing (pre- or post-exposure) of the negative in the lab or in the film camera magazine in that it adds a controlled, even amount of light during the exposure, and permits the cinematographer to set the desire contrast reduction while observing the results in the viewfinder, in relationship with the actual scenes to be photographed. The VariCon also provides for coloring of shadow areas in the image without affecting the highlights. This feature can be very helpful in situations when extreme contrast compression would result in extreme color desaturation.
Crowdey explains, “Evita is a warmish-looking film by design — it’s a look that suits both the period and the Argentinean setting. Darius flashed the film fairly consistently for scenes involving Madonna, who is in pastel dresses half the time. An example would be the scene in which she’s distributing leaflets from the back of a train in sunlight. That’s very different than the look of the funeral scene, which is lit quite normally. Basically, Darius created a worm, sunny feeling for scenes in which Evita was riding high. He flashed with a very pale lemon color, which edged most of the film toward a yellowish look. We later graded it to make it a more golden color. He changed his approach when things began to go downhill for Evita.”
The cinematographer’s lighting schemes also reflected his desire to infuse the film with a range of moods and tones. With his love of stark contrast, the cinematographer generally eschews fill light wherever possible, and Evita was no exception to the rule. “The architecture in the film is very early-century European, with lots of marble,” Khondji notes. “I lit it all with contrast on one side, but the contrast was still soft, with an extremely soft quality of light. Anamorphic by its nature is beautiful and kind of soft, and I could flash when I wanted to, so I didn’t need much fill light; I used a lot of black screens and flags to eliminate fill. On this film it was always my goal to bring out the architecture with my lighting, but the light was always rather unidirectional. I wanted shadows that looked almost like brownish charcoal. I achieved that mainly by pushing the film and then flashing it to achieve a slight tone.”
The director of photography found his “less fill” philosophy to be well suited to the natural lighting conditions he faced in Argentina. “I love using very natural light as much as I can. I don’t relight exteriors very much unless I’m doing a picture where I want a different look, or if I’m relighting exteriors with primary colors and then timing it in a different way. This film was more naturalistic because there were a lot of situations with very strong backlight. My, concern was to play with the process and go into very deep shadows, while still making the details visible. Because I used very little fill light, we were working with strong lighting ratios. Also, the dust was flashing the image a bit in a natural way.”
When forced by circumstances to boost existing light levels, Khondji’s strategy was fairly straightforward: for day exteriors, he used HMIs; for real interior day shots involving windows, he deployed large HMI sources, such as 12Ks or l8Ks; for other situations, especially interior stage setups and night scenes, he opted for incandescent fixtures. “The crew was fantastic; they really helped me with the setups,” he says. “In addition to the camera operator, Mike Roberts, I had a fantastic gaffer in Peter Bloor. The rest of the team was also very good: the camera assistants, Bill Coe and Alan Butler; the grip, Colin Manning; and the second camera operator, Ted Adcock, contributed immensely.”
Gaffer Bloor maintains that Khondji was “very brave” in adapting to the methods of Parker’s crew. In addition to using the Moviecam system with which they were familiar, the cinematographer also sacrificed his preference for Chinese lanterns, lighting most of the picture with a series of softboxes. As Bloor details, “We really had to keep going, and this system helped us to move quickly. The lightboxes we use are built from aluminum tubing welded together and attached to screens covered by a thick white diffusion called 129; these frames are then enclosed with Styrofoam. The boxes we used on Evita usually measured about eight feet by four feet, but you can make them any size you want. You can also clamp two or three of them together, or hang them up. For close-ups, we might place a Mini-Brute inside with 129 over that as well, creating a kind of double-double-diffusion. We often used very soft Brute bulbs that you can only obtain in America; they create a very lovely, natural-looking light. On longer shots, we’d use bigger lighting units within our boxes to create more punch.”
Extra punch was certainly needed for the film’s re-creation of Evita’s famed address from the balcony of the presidential palace. After much haggling, the production finally convinced the Argentine government to allow the crew to film at the actual location. Recalls Khondji, “We were given the real balcony at the last moment. We only had one day’s notice, so we had to light the scene in a very minimalistic way. I’d watched a lot of newsreels of Evita during her speech, and I tried to reproduce that documentary, gritty, real kind of lighting. Peter Bloor helped me by getting our cranes in exactly the right position.”
In addition to using a Wendy light positioned fairly close to the palace, Bloor mounted masses of Maxi-Brutes on four cranes to provide the long throw required. The sequence was filmed over two nights; on the first, the filmmakers trained three cameras on the balcony, and on the second, they shot reverses aimed out at the crowd. Khondji and Bloor later matched the look of the exterior sequence while shooting close-ups of Madonna at Shepperton Studios, breaking the Wendy light’s modular grid into four smaller units and placing them as far as possible from the stage.
Another of the film’s massive sequences — Evita’s funeral — allowed Khondji to use his lighting for symbolic impact, to recall an earlier dream sequence of Evita and Che dancing in the large, marble interior of a Budapest museum. “The dance is a very dreamy, extremely silhouetted sequence with almost no detail in the shadow areas,” the cinematographer says. “It’s very Impressionistic, with the characters isolated under a single 18K light placed above them. Later, for a funeral scene that takes place in the same museum, we lit in a similar fashion so the audience would recall the dance. We were mainly using one strong 18K on the coffin, with other 18Ks providing very soft fill. There were hundreds and hundreds of extras gathered, and they were almost in shadows except for this harsh light.”
Adds Bloor, “For wide shots of the coffin, we took advantage of a line of windows in the building. We covered the windows with 129 and basically blew them out with Dinos mounted on towers outside. That gave us a hot beam of light which established a logical source for the single light you see on the coffin in closer shots. But the film is a musical, which gave Alan and Darius a bit of license to exaggerate things a bit and make them more dramatic — by using really heavy backlight with smoke and diffusion.”
However, as Khondji continues, “We also did some exterior footage for the funeral, shot very clean with very little diffusion. We shot on one of the big avenues in Budapest over two days, and we had about 4,000 extras. We covered the scene mainly with two cameras, but sometimes with three, and we changed positions a lot. In real life, there were two separate funerals for Evita — one day was overcast and raining and the other was very, very sunny, and we actually had the same type of weather. That made our recreation accurate, but we had a big challenge trying to make everything match. We had it backlit at certain points, but then later it became completely overcast. The light kept on changing, and we shot a few things that weren’t in perfect light. I had to trust Alan not to cut in shots that didn’t match at all. I didn’t re-light things to try to compensate, except on some closer shots where I used big lights.”
The director of photography also used shadows to hint at the darker sides of the film’s central characters. Khondji explains, “Each of the main actors was lit differently in individual shots. They all had their own way of taking the light the best. Madonna was lit in a more straightforward, glamorous light, but she actually takes different types of light quite well; she’s very photogenic. Evita was a very generous person, but she also had a certain duality. I played with that in the way she was lit — straightforward, or from the side to create a more half-lit look. But I saw her as a more straightforward person, so the lighting was less extreme on her than on Jonathan Pryce, whom I often lit from the side. I did a lot of research on Juan Peron, and he also had a lot of duality, even more so than Evita. He was very generous with the people, but he was also a very clever, devious man. Subconsciously I began lighting him from the side, so that one eide of his face was in darkness. He was more shadowy, maybe a bit like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and I always used less diffusion on him. Antonio Banderas was also sidelit. I find that most men look better and stronger in this type oflight.”
Bloor notes that despite the film’s epic scale, the toughest lighting setups were often smaller-scale scenes that focused on these characters. “One of the most difficult setups for any cinematographer to deal with is any scene involving more than two characters sitting around a table,” he says. “You can’t light it all perfectly, and someone is always going to lose out — especially if there’s a track involved. But the toughest sequence in this picture was a shot of Madonna coming down this one particular staircase, which was quite large and had lots of pillars alongside it. She started out high up on the staircase, with the camera in a low position and tracking backwards as she came down. Eventually she reached the bottom of the steps and moved into a close-up. It was one long shot, and it was hard to keep her looking nice all the way down. That situation was just a nightmare, and it took us about 2 1/5 hours to light it. We tried to find a different staircase, but we ended up having to shoot with the one we had.
“We had to keep the lighting even; we couldn’t just put toplight down the staircase and hope for the best,” he details. “At the top of the stairs, we used some Mini-Brutes through light diffusion, and everything was heavily flagged to prevent excess shadows. We lit the middle part of the staircase with heavily diffused 5Ks, and we had the bottom area pre-rigged for her close-up.”
Asked to sum up the strengths of the finished picture, director Parker is quick to salute Khondji and the rest of the crew for helping him to achieve his goal of an uncompromising period musical. “The scale of the film lent itself beautifully to anamorphic, and Darius’ lighting was very daring and naturalistic. The grading toward a warm, amber feel also helped to create an authentic period feel,” he says. “But the success of a film like this depends upon many other elements as well — particularly an attention to detail in costume design, props and art direction. Everyone who worked on this film contributed a great deal. I think the finished product is an interesting mixture of cinematic forms. It has elements of Impressionism, but it also has an incredible energy in the form of camera moves and handheld work. After being in this business for a while, you develop a box of tricks, and if you know all the tricks you should use them — as long as you don’t overuse or draw undue attention to them.”
Offering his own assessment of Evita, Technicolor’s Bob Crowdey submits, “This is one of the finest-looking films I’ve ever seen photographed, and I’ve been involved with timing for 30 years.” •
© American Cinematographer