Sunday, March 4, 2007


Originally published in AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER,
June 1998

If you knew you had no more than two days to live, how would you spend your time? What would you do? What would you say? How would you change? That is the overarching theme of Bulworth, the 20th Century Fox film which reunites Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC and Warren Beatty for the fourth time. They both earned Academy Awards in 1981 (Beatty for directing) for their collaboration on Reds, an epic story that chronicled the role that American journalist John Reed played in the Russian revolution. It was a landmark film for Storaro, marking the first use of the E.N.R. process developed by Technicolor Labs.

In 1987, Beatty produced and starred in Ishtar, an unfunny comedy shot by Storaro that sank quicker than the Titanic. Three years later, the actor/director and cinematographer teamed up again on Dick Tracy. Storaro mimicked a comic book look on the big screen by visually punctuating the images with deeply saturated primary colors. Storaro received his first Oscar in 1979 for Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and his third one in 1990 for The Last Emperor, a collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci. He earned his fourth Oscar nomination for Dick Tracy. To put that into perspective, no other living cinematographer has earned three Oscars, and in the history of the Academy only Joe Ruttenberg, ASC and Harry Stradling, ASC received four statues.

Most of Storaro's early films were co-authored with Bertolucci, whom he met while working as an assistant cameraman on Revolution during the dawn of both their careers. They collaborated during the 1970s and '80s on such landmark films as The Conformist, Luna, 1900 and The Last Tango in Paris. Storaro's other notable narrative credits include One From the Heart, Ladyhawke, Peter the Great (TV miniseries), Tucker, Little Buddha (also with Bertolucci) and Taxi.

Bulworth was written and co-produced by Beatty, who also directed the film and plays the lead role. The story opens in Washington, D.C., in a 10-minute scene where Sen. Jay Bulworth decides to end his life. He has a wife and daughter, whom he wants to shield, so Bulworth hires a hit man to assassinate him. The contract requires satisfaction within two days, or the deal is off.

Bulworth then flies to Los Angeles, where he goes through the motions of conducting a grueling campaign schedule. The trailers released before Bulworth opened showed glimpses of those scenes. Freed of the burden of having to solicit money and seduce supporters, Bulworth does an extraordinary thing. He begins telling the truth. Step by step, Bulworth discovers that he has good reasons to stay alive.

Bulworth was produced in Los Angeles on a relatively modest $30 million budget. That in itself is news today. Only several scenes were filmed on stages, including the Washington, D.C., setting and the home of a campaign worker's grandmother. The rest of the movie was filmed at a variety of interior and exterior practical locations in and around Los Angeles, mainly at night. Following are excerpts of a conversation with Storaro:

AC: When did Warren Beatty first speak to you about Bulworth?

STORARO: The first time we discussed Bulworth was in a telephone conversation. I was in Rome, and Warren called from Los Angeles. He said that I probably wouldn't want to shoot his new movie because it was going to be an ugly film. He told me the story and said he wanted the audience to follow the senator's journey during his final days as though they were watching it on C-Span (a free cable channel whose content includes unedited and uninterrupted coverage of political events and activities.)

AC: Do you recall your first reaction?

STORARO: I had never watched C-Span, but I thought maybe Warren is planning to shoot this film using a Steadicam or a handheld camera once in a while, so the audience can see the images the way they would look if they were shot with a video camera for a TV screen. Warren sent me a copy of his script and two C-Span videotapes, one of the president and another of a governor. Then, we spoke a second time.

AC: What did he say about working together during the second conversation?

STORARO: He said, if we make this film together, he mustn't be Warren Beatty and I mustn't be Vittorio Storaro. We must turn a new page, because it was a time in both of our lives when we were ready to do something different and discover something new.

AC: How can you re-invent yourself and forget everything you have learned?

STORARO: Naturally, you can't forget everything you know, but I approached Bulworth as though it was my first movie as a cinematographer. One of my first decisions was that I would ask Garrett Brown (Steadicam inventor and first operator) to operate the Steadicam. He wasn't working on complete movies anymore, but I thought I could convince him to make one more film. We shot around 90 percent of this movie with Garrett operating the Steadicam.

AC: Why was the Steadicam that important? Why not dollies and cranes?

STORARO: I explained that Warren wanted the audience to see large parts of this film as spectators watching the story on C-Span. We also wanted to create a feeling of a lot of energy and movement around the main character as his journey progresses.

AC: How much of Bulworth was filmed as planned and how much was improvised?

STORARO: I had a clear idea of the structure after I read the script and spoke with Warren. I saw it as a journey that begins with Bulworth in a very deep, dark place in his life. He is so depressed that there is no opportunity to express emotions. In the first scene, everything is black. But, the moment he starts telling the truth, he begins a journey toward becoming a more balanced person. I felt we could use the colors of the spectrum to represent the different stages of this journey. You always change little things while you are shooting or after seeing dailies, but Bulworth is the film we planned to make.

AC: Is the use of colors symbolic, and if so, are there universal meanings?

STORARO: Color is part of the language we speak with film. We use colors to articulate different feelings and moods. It is just like using light and darkness to symbolize the conflict between life and death. I believe the meanings of different colors are universal, but people in different cultures can interpret them in different ways. In the opening scene, the camera is motionless and there is an absence of color, which is black. During Bulworth's first campaign stop in Los Angeles, he visits a church in a Black community, where the main color in costumes and props is red, a symbol of birth and life. From the church, he goes to a meeting with some Hollywood film producers in a private home. It is a rich setting, where he raises money. Orange symbolizes that feeling of comfort. When he visits an after-hours club, we used yellow, cyan and magenta, the opposites of the three primary colors (red, green and blue) that symbolize daylight. In this scene Bulworth is considering his subconscious feelings. The second day, he goes to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where he tells people in his own party what he is thinking. It is the first time he speaks honestly about his feelings in front of his party. They don't expect a politician to tell them exactly what he is thinking. The color yellow symbolizes that he consciously knew what he was doing. During a television debate, we used green to signify knowledge. That was the first time he revealed his feeling in public. One of his campaign workers brings him to her grandmother's house, where he feels safe, believing that the assassin won't find him there. We used blue to signify freedom. Next, he meets a drug dealer, who explains why he uses children to sell drugs. Indigo symbolizes material power. We don't use white in this film until he completes his journey and is a whole person.

AC: How do you deal with the fact that people living in countries with different cultures might interpret the same colors in different ways?

STORARO: Each color has a specific wavelength of energy, which we perceive the same way that we feel vibrations. Even if they aren't consciously aware of it, the audience can feel a difference between high and low wavelengths of energy. They are reacting to that feeling in addition to what they see on the screen.

AC: How did you and Beatty decide upon a 1.85:1 aspect ratio for Bulworth?

STORARO: It was the right canvas for telling this story. I also used the older Technovision lenses and shot 99 percent of Bulworth with the Eastman (EXR) 5293 film because it is clear and sharp with no noticeable grain. Those decisions were based on the story and the mood we wanted to create. After this film, I shot Tango in Univision format (2:1), using the newer Technovision lenses and a combination of 5293 and Kodak Vision 500 film.

AC: How would you characterize this picture -- drama, comedy or what?

STORARO: It is a romantic film, a search for truth, and it is also a drama, since the assassin can appear at any time. Bulworth decides that he wants to live, but the man he paid to hire the assassin dies, so that suspense is there. Warren wanted his character to appear to be totally unpredictable. He also wanted the images to be realistic and believable, so the audience feels like they were watching the story happen on television. You want them to believe that what they are seeing is really happening but, of course, nothing is realistic in a movie since you select the angle, lenses and lighting.

AC: You said this movie has to feel believable and realistic. How did that jibe with the symbolic use of colors?

STORARO: In a movie like Dick Tracy, you have permission to use unnatural colors, because it is a fantasy. In Bulworth there is a balance between believability and some very surrealistic visual elements that are justified by the story. Dean Tavoularis (production designer), Milena Canonero (costume designer) and I have worked together on different films, so it was an easy collaboration. We discussed these issues, and they built believable color elements into the sets and costumes.

AC: How did you handle lighting with the camera constantly moving?

STORARO: I have been controlling light with a dimmer board since 1982, when I shot One From the Heart with Francis (Coppola). It provides an incredible opportunity for the actors and cameras to move freely, and it allows me to express myself without restraints. We used an AC generator for the first time (in 1986) when we shot Peter the Great in Russia. It is much more reliable, and the cables are less (cumbersome). During (pre-production) planning for Bulworth, we scouted locations, and usually had the art department make sketches for the riggers. During this time, you have to anticipate where the actor might make spontaneous moves, or the director might change a direction. If you anticipate the possibilities, you can change the light (interactively) during a shot. There were some exceptions, but most of the time we were shooting with just one camera.

AC: Is the main advantage of using dimmer controls an ability to do more complex lighting as the actors move through a set during more sophisticated moving shots?

STORARO: You can do whatever you can imagine. In The Last Emperor, there is a long, dramatic scene in a conference room. No one is moving. They are seated around a table. We used the dimmer to create the impression that time was passing and the sun outside of a window was setting. The dimmer board can also save time between setups. The gaffer, control board operator and I would arrive, and everything would be ready for us. The early dimmer consoles were made for the live theater and television. We designed a new dimmer board for Tango. DeSisti Lighting (in Italy) made it for our use.

AC: Is it easier doing your third film with a director than the first one?

STORARO: It is like we are making one long movie together, and each time we add some new things to our vocabulary. Warren knows how I think, and I understand him.

AC: Isn't it very difficult working with an actor who is also directing the film? That must be particularly true on this film since he's in almost every scene.

STORARO: Warren was doing four jobs on Bulworth, and that required incredible energy. One advantage today is that we have the video tap, so he can judge his performance on the monitor. Yes, it is difficult, but this film is so much of his personal vision that I don't see how another director or another actor could have seen and done things exactly the way that he did.

AC: Did you use any diffusion or filtration?

STORARO: No, absolutely not. Warren and I discussed this, and we agreed that it was important for the audience to see him as he is without creating a sense that (Bulworth) is hiding behind something at this moment of his life. They don't see him as Warren Beatty.

AC: Did you use the E.N.R. process during the making of prints?

STORARO: I have used E.N.R. for every movie I have made since Reds. It is a method that allows you to retain more of the silver in the print film, and gives you deeper, more saturated blacks. It is an alternative to making Technicolor release prints. I am hoping that the lab is ready to use the imbibition system for making Technicolor release prints in the United States when Bulworth is released. Once you have the choice of making true Technicolor release prints, I think there will be no reason for using E.N.R.

AC: Why do you prefer cinematographer to director of photography in the credits?

STORARO: Because we aren't directing. That is Warren's job. We are writing with light and motion to tell a story. That distinction is very important.

AC: Have you ever been tempted to direct?

STORARO: People have asked if I was interested in directing since The Conformist. My answer is always the same. Thank you very much, but I don't have a need for the power that a director has. I like being a cinematographer. My total instincts, my knowledge, everything I have learned, and my wish for myself, is that step by step, I am learning more about one specific area of creativity -- writing with light and motion.

AC: Does Bulworth survive and go back to the senate as a better human being?

STORARO: For the answer to that question, you must see the movie.

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