Though he’s best known for his work as an in-demand cinematographer, Stephen Goldblatt has also worked as a magazine photographer and portrait-taker of rock ‘n roll superstars. After studying moviemaking at the Royal College of Art in London, Goldblatt segued into shooting documentaries and commercials and lensed his first feature-length narrative film in 1984. In the years that have followed, Goldblatt has subsequently earned two Oscar nominations—for Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides and Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever)—and Emmy nominations for “Path to War,” “Angels in America” and “Conspiracy.” He has collaborated with some of today’s most important directors—including Francis Ford Coppola (The Cotton Club), Barry Levinson (Young Sherlock Holmes), Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon), Taylor Hackford (Everybody’s All-American) and the late Alan Pakula (Consenting Adults, The Pelican Brief).
In 2003, Goldblatt teamed up with director Mike Nichols to shoot the highly acclaimed HBO miniseries “Angels in America.” Two years later, they worked together again on Closer. So when Nichols asked Goldblatt if he was interested in collaborating once again—on Charlie Wilson’s War—the answer was a no-brainer. Not only was Goldblatt intrigued by the story (Nichols had recommend he read the book the film is based on several months earlier during lunch) and impressed by the cast (Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams among them), but he had found his previous outings with Nichols truly rewarding experiences. Goldblatt immediately said yes.
MM sat down with Goldblatt as he caught his breath after a whirlwind 2007: In addition to the release of Charlie Wilson’s War, Goldblatt was the recipient of the Hollywood Film Festival Cinematographer of the Year Award and the Lifetime Achievement Awards at both the Starz Denver Film Festival and at the Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland.
Bob Fisher (MM): Tell us about Charlie Wilson.
Stephen Goldblatt (SG): There is nothing more fascinating than telling stories about real people. Charlie had a reputation for being a playboy and heavy drinker. About 80 percent of the film takes place in Washington, D.C., where we follow him through the back corridors of government while he gets the CIA involved in a secret war to aid rebels fighting the Russians. They saw it as an opportunity to win an important battle in the Cold War, but Charlie was touched by the plight of the people of Afghanistan.
MM: How did Mike Nichols describe his intentions in your early discussions?
SG: Mike described it as a serious drama with some humor linked to Charlie’s escapades. He wanted the audience to get to know him on a personal level.
MM: How much preparation time did you have and how was it spent?
SG: We had about three months of prep time. It began with Mike and me speaking about the script and working out a visual style with the rest of the creative team. It was like a family reunion, because we had worked with many of the same people on our previous films, including Albert Wolsky (costume designer), Michael Haley (first AD), John Bloom (editor) and Richard Edlund,
ASC (visual effects supervisor), to name a few.
MM: Were there any surprises during pre-production?
SG: We discovered that in the wake of 9/11, we weren’t going to be permitted to shoot at locations in the nation’s capital. We scouted those locations, and designed and built sets on stages at Paramount Studios. Richard Edlund shot background plates at locations in Washington, which we composited with live-action foregrounds.
MM: How about scenes that take place in Afghanistan and in the refugee camp?
SG: A decision was made to film those scenes in Morocco, because the backgrounds felt right for the time and place. I went to Morocco twice to scout locations. We thought about shooting those sequences in Super 16 format to get kind of a documentary look. After I shot some tests in Morocco and took them all the way through a 35mm film out, we decided that look was too in-your-face.
MM: What format was chosen for production and why?
SG: Even though backgrounds are important elements of the story, we decided to produce the film in (35mm) 1.85:1 format, because it feels more intimate.
MM: What other preparation was done?
SG: We shot hair and makeup tests, and also costume tests with Albert Wolsky. The costume tests helped us choose colors, which helped to define personalities of characters and to amplify moods of scenes. For instance, we choose a particular shade of green for Amy Adams, because it looked and felt right. Mike also had everyone, including my crew, at rehearsals with the actors. He encouraged everyone to contribute ideas, and was open to considering all suggestions.
MM: He is a legendary director. What is it like working with him?
SG: Working with him is kind of like riding a roller coaster, because his films are always changing as you are shooting, but the demeanor on the set was always calm. That was important, because the actors need to concentrate. We were like a family working together with everyone contributing to the total picture.
MM: Can you give us an example of what that means?
SG: Gaffer Colin Campbell always had great ideas for using light and shadows to enhance scenes. If an actor didn’t hit a mark, he would intuitively sneak a little handheld, soft, edge light into the shot. I’ve worked with key grip Charlie Saldana for around 20 years. Amy Adams has a fair complexion. If she got too close to a light, I didn’t have to tell him to use a single or double net while lighting her face. I can tell you stories like that about contributions made by everyone on the crew.
MM: We take it that you don’t buy into the auteur theory of filmmaking?
SG: I’ll answer that question by saying that Mike Nichols is a great director who consistently makes films that touch people’s souls. He brings out the best that everyone around him has to offer, because he loves the collaborative process.
MM: You have a non-traditional background for a cinematographer.
SG: I think it helps that I was a news photographer and that I shot portraiture and 16mm documentaries at the beginning of my career. In all of those mediums, you are choosing to use wide, medium and close-up shots to tell stories. I also learned how to manipulate light, darkness, contrast and colors, and to be sensitive to the people in front of the camera, who are wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
MM: Did you create a 1980s period look?
SG: That would have been pretentious in my opinion. My memories of the 1980s aren’t faded, desaturated or grainy.
MM: You made an early decision to time the film in a digital intermediate (DI) suite at EFILM, in Los Angeles. Did that influence your cinematography?
SG: I learned while using Photoshop with still photography that you can bring more emotions to scenes by manipulating colors and contrast, but I never think I am going to save time while we are shooting by doing something later in DI. If you don’t have great images on the negative there is a limit to what you can create in DI.
MM: Give us an example of manipulating a shot in DI.
SG: Amy Adams was wearing a green costume that I felt was too bright in a particular scene where her character is in the shadows. I asked DI colorist Steve Scott to put a window around her costume and bring the green tone down until I was satisfied. It seems like a small thing, but the eye is drawn to the brightest thing.
MM: Choosing camera negatives for a movie can be compared to an artist selecting the right types of paint for his or her palette. What did you use?
SG: I used a relatively new 50-speed daylight film (KODAK VISION2 5201) for daytime exteriors, because we wanted the richest possible look in tones and colors. Most interiors and night scenes were recorded on (KODAK VISION2) 5218, a 500-speed negative. Sometimes I used (KODAK VISION2) 5205, a 250-speed film for daylight scenes in darker areas. For instance, I used it to shoot a scene inside a tent that was relatively dark with no sources of artificial light. We wanted it to look natural.
MM: Many moviemakers are using digital dailies. Why did you want film?
SG: We had DeLuxe lab make film dailies in Los Angeles, because we were making subjective decisions every day. Mike and I believe it is important to see film projected on a big screen, so we could accurately judge that it looked natural and evoked the visceral responses we wanted. Film dailies can also be a communal experience. There were always people there from different departments, including the script supervisor, sound mixer, production and wardrobe design.
MM: How about the scenes that were filmed in Morocco?
SG: We were scheduled to shoot about 20 percent of the film in Marrakech, Rabat and the Atlas Mountains, where we built the refugee camp. We lost the big camp set to a landslide caused by a storm. We were lucky that no one was hurt. The set was re-built at Mystery Mesa near Los Angeles, where we filmed most of those scenes.
MM: Did you get to meet Charlie Wilson?
SG: He was often on the set while we were shooting in Morocco, but as an observer rather than as an advisor. His presence, body language and facial expressions were inspiring as he re-lived his memories. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War, but no one foresaw that it would spark the rise of the Taliban.
MM: What did you learn while filming Charlie Wilson’s War?
SG: Every film is a learning experience, because it is a different story, working with different people in different places. Over time, you learn to draw on all of your experiences working and to trust your instincts.