“I don’t want to do a film unless I’ve got a chance to create a mood and an atmosphere, which is what I think my job is. Anybody can photograph a film — you can just put lights on and make an exposure. I want the challenge of creating an atmosphere and the right frame for the director.”
Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis (1917-2007)
Interview with David Morgan on shooting Cape Fear (1991)
In Jim Mercurio’s DVD Complete Screenwriting From A to Z to A-List he has a section where he mentions that screenwriters should think like filmmakers, meaning some of the key roles people physically do working on a film—the director, the director of photography (DP), and the editor.
Mercurio like many screenwriting instructors says that you shouldn’t write camera direction overtly like “Using a 200mm lens…” or “a Stedicam follows the cop down the stairs…”, but that there are ways to cheat your vision in your screenplay.
“One of the most effective ways to get at mood and tone is with light. In fact, here are a couple of sentences from the first Mission Impossible, just little pieces of action description where everything is done with light;
A bare bulb shines down the contents of a shabby hotel room.
The American Embassy glitters beside the Vitava River.
‘Glitters’ is the suggestion of light…I think about the scene in Cape Fear where Max (Robert De Niro) is harassing them (Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis) and he’s smoking a cigar, and the smoke is wafting up with the light through it—now that’s a DP. That’s how a DP thinks; ‘How can I make this visual?’ ‘How can I make this beautiful?’ ‘How can I tell this story with light?’“
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio
Here are some more screenwriting examples I found piggybacking on Mercurio’s ideas which could be see as any combination of the roles of the director, the DP/cinematographer, or editor.
Example from St. Vincent screenplay by Theodore Melfi that suggests a wide angle lens:
EXT. ST. FRANCIS DE SALES – CARPOOL – LATER
School pickup. Oliver’s an ant amongst the THRONGS OF KIDS waiting for a ride home.
Example of camera position from Gone Girl screenplay by Gillian Flynn:
INT. BEDROOM – SOMETIME
We see the back of AMY DUNNE’S HEAD, resting on a pillow.
Example of a close-ups inferred from The Verdict screenplay by David Mamet:
Gavin twists tea bag around a spoon to extract last drops of tea. His hand movers to his felt pen lying on the table. He moves his hand to the paper, open at the obituary section. We SEE several names crossed out. He circles one funeral listing.
Suggestion of a tracking shot from Nebraska by Robert W. Nelson.
INT. DOWNTOWN BILLINGS —DAY
Woody walks down the sidewalk toward the BUS STATION. David pulls up alongside him in his car and rolls down the window.
Use of color from Promised Land script by John Kransinski and Matt Damon:
EXT. FARM —EARLY MORNING
In the first minutes of a cool Spring day we see a idyllic landscape of blood orange colored sky hanging above the tree covered mountains of McKinely, a small town at the foot of a mountain.
Here’s a description from The Artist screenplay by Michael Hazanavicus which could be done with a complicated crane shot or a sequence of wide, medium, and close-up shots.
INT. MOVIE THEATER –“TEARS OF LOVE” SCREENING —DAY
There’s hardly anyone in the theater. The people that are there look bored more than anything. At the back smoking a cigarette George takes the failure on the chin.
And circling back around to lighting, here’s an example of getting at mood and tone on an exterior shot from the Flight script by John Gatins:
C’mon sweetheart, show me the sun.
Suddenly, clouds –we see a beam of light breaking through the black 12 o’clock high. A God ray.
And in Flight you could even say that ray of light is symbolic of the overarching theme of the entire movie where Whip (Denzel Washington) moves from darkness to light, from living a lie to living the truth.
P.S. The above Cape Fear (1991) clip, written by Wesley Strick (reportedly 24 drafts) and directed by Martin Scorsese, shows how cinematographer Freddie Francis employed a few lighting cheats himself. Can you see the cheats in this shot taken from that scene?
I’m no Freddie Francis, but I’ve shot several short films and won a Regional Emmy for location lighting so let me take a guess at the lighting cheats in the above shot of De Niro.
The key light appears to be coming low because it’s brighter on his shirt and lower face than on his forehead and hair meaning the light is coming low from inside the car. (Something like a Kino Flo Mini-Flo would do well if you were shooting this scene today.) It’s a cheat because car dash lights (even on old Mustangs) aren’t bright enough to light up a faces. (At least with the older technology Francis was using. (I have used my iPhone flashlight and pushed the ISO higher for similar effect on videos I’ve shot digitally.)
In the background there is separation in the tree and the wall background so there are at least two lights there. Maybe more and gelled (or a TV) to add some color. And there is a slash of light hitting the side of the car and mirror. And finally when De Niro puffs on the cigar that is back lit which could be yet another light or spill from one of the other lights hence doing double duty.
All that work done by a film team for a series of shots that are on screen for a total of about 10 seconds. Think of the layers of just De Niro sitting in his car: cars moving in the foreground and background, he’s smoking a cigar which adds some movement as the smoke blows in the air adding visual interest, and there are extras walking in the background. That challenge for the screenwriter is to peel back the layers of their story using a few words and sentences.
Francis won two Best Cinematography Oscars (Glory, Sons and Lovers) and also four BAFTA Best Cinematography awards (The Elephant Man, The French Lieutenant’s Woman). And I should mention that he also shot a film in Iowa—David Lynch’s The Straight Story.
P.P.S. To see how editors cheat go to the 1:56 mark of the above video clip of Cape Fear and you’ll notice that the car that crosses the frame is a Chrysler convertible, but a few frames later on the closer up shot there is a SUV or mini van. It’s an intentional jump cut to add tension/disharmony to the scene.
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)
Cinematography and Emotions
Cinematography and Emotions (Part 2)
Lighting ‘Friday Night Lights’
Professor Jerry Lewis (The Total Film-Maker)
David Lynch in Iowa
Study the Old Masters
Cinematographer Roger Deakins
Helpful link: ASC, The Society of Cinematographers
Scott W. Smith
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