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“An Iconic Evita” : American Cinematographer

Madonna - American Cinematographer / January 1997

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