Period Piece

Stephen Goldblatt Shoots FOR THE BOYS

Portions of this interview appeared in Millimeter Magazine

stephen goldblatt

A former still photographer for the London Sunday Times, Stephen Goldblatt has built an eclectic resume of feature film credits, which veers from the highly-charged immediacy of BREAKING GLASS and LETHAL WEAPON 2 to the colorful evocation of past eras in THE COTTON CLUB and YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES. In this September 1991 interview, Goldblatt discussed a project which harked back to the golden era of movie musicals and star vehicles: FOR THE BOYS, a 20th Century Fox musical with Bette Midler and James Caan which spanned three of this centuries' wars, and which was what Goldblatt referred to at the time as "probably the most enjoyable film I will ever work on."

Morgan: How did you develop the film's look with director Mark Rydell?

Goldblatt: He personally acted out the film for everybody. He's a terrific actor and he loves to act. Everything, he literally went through the film: What was happening, why the background period, so everyone knew what was going on. And from that point I could then feel the way I wanted it to look, which was softer, warmer and smoky and romantic for the Second World War, because in our story it was the romantic war, the Good War. And then into the '50s which was brash and everything you can imagine it was an enormous change in lighting style from very moody backlit and dimmed lights and smoke and all those kind of effects to harsh front light, very chromatic colors and no filtration for the '50s, and then going on to Korea it was more just straight photography without making any big points, and then going to Vietnam it was not documentary exactly but the look is much more raw. The light would get really hard.

Was there also a change in camera movement, say, going from smooth in the '40s to handheld during the Vietnam sequences?

Yes, we did do that. We did big, old-fashioned type of crane moves in the Second World War scenes. You'll see one very big move in the opening; it's at an airbase at night, and by the time we get to Vietnam it's handheld in a helicopter and so on. But none of this is too extreme, because with narrative photography I would be ashamed if everyone is just looking at the photography. It's a very naive attitude to think the cinematographer sets the mood; he doesn't. He sets the mood in conjunction with the production designer, the costumer, the makeup — one thing doesn't do it. It was all of us.

Sure, there were surprises but nothing we couldn't work around or fix. And there was no screaming or shouting or hysterics because it wasn't allowed! And everyone knew that.

for the boysWe did lots of research. I'm from England, I was born on the day Hitler committed suicide, but I've always had a great interest in the Second World War and coincidentally I have a lot of research material, and Assheton [Gorton, the production designer], too. We really talked a lot about what was correct.

I used a lot of photographs from the Imperial War Museum. I have stacks of the old Picture Post and Life magazines, and before the film I went around the old bookstores in obscure areas of London where there are piles of this material. Because people of that generation are now dying, so the estates have just been [sold off], you can just find all sorts of stuff.

Also the other little wrinkle was that it all had to be done within 30 - 40 miles of 20th Century Fox, or Vine and Sunset, whatever the studio map is. There were no overnight stays or anything. So instead of going to Thailand, we did it in California. I think we did it much better here because we really had the control. The Vietnam fire base was extraordinary. You would never in a million years believe you were about a 45-minute drive from Hollywood Boulevard. Not in a million years. If you said that you got permission from the North Vietnamese to go in and recreate this, everyone would buy it!

And as it happens the construction supervisor was a combat veteran, he was blown up twice and knifed and shot and exploded, he's got bits of shrapnel all over him, and he was very useful in advising what's true because he lived it.

There were other constraints, too. We had to work with making Bette Midler look younger than she is by quite a bit. And the same with Jimmy Caan. They go in the film from 30 or so, 30 - 35 to 80, 82, 92 years old.

You dealt with aging makeup before, in THE HUNGER.

Here, not only were they aging, but there were performances both dramatic and musical. It really had to work. I've worked with Dick Smith on two aging films now: THE HUNGER and EVERYBODY'S ALL AMERICAN, and Dick's the master but John Caglione apprenticed with him, and so it's a kind of reunion.

It is truly a technical problem, because things happen with makeup you cannot see by eye. It's not like photographing a normal human face; you can look till you're blue in the face through the camera and not see how it turns out. It's to do with the way the prosthetic materials respond to the color of the light, the subsequent makeup that is put on, reflections, and the kind of light changes the appearance of prosthetics tremendously. It's like when you're outside using prosthetics you're avoiding direct sunlight like Dracula! Truly, if you understand this, the sets have to be constructed so that whoever is in prosthetics could be backlit. But that meant where the stage was built, it had to be correct to the time of day where the sun is. Nevertheless we had problems; people's ears dropping off and stuff like that.

There were three makeup problems. The makeup we divided into period makeup, prosthetic makeup, and makeup that's — flattering or not — age-related makeup. When you work with Bette Midler or women of her nature, you know, they have a very specific request. That's part of the reason I was hired, that you'll be flattering, not only to her but to Jimmy Caan, too, to everyone there. I know her makeup people quite well. I've done three films with Don Mills now, and we work very closely together about what works, what doesn't, you know mistakes perhaps we've made with previous makeups with other artists, we can adjust and we did extensive tests and I think that really is the secret.

I was brought on six weeks before the real work, which is invaluable, the amount of money it saves, because you've really worked out your major problems in a situation where you don't have 200 people waiting. That kind of prep is just incredible, because you can also sit down calmly with the director, with makeup and hair and everybody and look at the results and make adjustments and go back the next day and do it again and so on and so forth. I suppose that's how we approached the cosmetic sides of the makeup, and also we're able to experiment with hair up, hair down, hair colors, so on and so forth. None of this is just the cinematographer and none of this is just the designer or anything. It really is a collaboration and FOR THE BOYS was a fantastic collaboration between all departments. This was unusual; there was no fighting in the sense that someone's fiefdom that [has been] interfered with. Which happens. There are a lot of prima donnas around, but not here.

For example, at one stage for production reasons we found we were photographing Bette at four in the morning and she'd been up all night (as we all had) in pouring rain, and the results were, kindly, less than flattering. So there was a bit of excitement about that but we all agreed amongst ourselves, we just can't do it. I would say my most successful piece of work in the early stages was just in preproduction, pointing out that the thing had been scheduled — because we were shooting at Van Nuys Airport, for three weeks of night work, when she was supposed to be her youngest.

And night work is typically grueling.

Very grueling. Major setups, five, six hundred extras every night, and it would have been awful from the point of view of imagery, and this [recommendation] was taken very well. You know, the tail's been wagging the dog here; [by scheduling scenes for night shoots] because we were having problems with aircraft noise, we were risking destroying the credibility of the movie.

Because aircraft noise can be worked around.

In sound we can do a lot. So in fact what they did was they split the sets — when we had to be at Van Nuys we were, and then we recreated backstage on a stage. It's this kind of preproduction way before, months before, that really, really helps.

This film is an enormous film, it came in over a million dollars under budget. That didn't make any headlines, did it? I didn't see anything in the Calendar section: "Absolute Miracle: Film comes in under budget!"

Can you tell me about the flashlights in the blackout scene?

It's always an interesting problem, that kind of night work, because we had to establish some light source and at the same time we didn't want it to look ridiculous. I used perfectly normally '96 high speed stock doing nothing unusual with it, just really playing with the film stock to the absolute, furthest extent it will go, from barely seeing anything to getting a pretty good full illumination on her face from a flashlight. Just one flashlight in an enormous space, one little pinpoint of light. And in fact I experimented, testing with just store-bought flashlights and then period-looking flashlights, and then once we worked out the light intensities that I needed, we built them. I can't remember how many but hundreds; each flashlight was powered by nickel cadmium batteries [that] could be recharged and every single flashlight had a proper lens system and diffusion system, so each flashlight was in fact a miniature theatrical light. And then we had three different varieties; the ones further away from the camera were much brighter, and coming up close where you see details they were much warmer and softer, so you had different kinds of beams. It didn't look like some prop master had just handed out a bunch of flashlights and said 'Turn them on, boys.' And then because each flashlight could be individually dimmed, I asked everyone to turn them on and [had] everyone vary them so that it looked as if they have different batteries and different colors so it looks more real. And in the end it looked spectacular, it really did work.

Was it shot in smoke?

A little bit. The scene is established in the rain and fog. So the amount of atmosphere is enough to get the feel.

Was the film heavily storyboarded?

Mark had storyboards just on certain sequences like the Vietnam War scenes, as a basis for our work, but they were never stuck up on a blackboard in order to say, 'we've got 18 storyboard shots to do today.'

So he didn't stick with storyboards?

Well, if he did it was because it all worked; if he didn't it was because it didn't work! There was no religious element involved in this.

Is he more mercurial than some other directors you've worked with?

Yep, but it's not him deciding it. That's the point I'm trying to make. It comes from rehearsal, everything came from rehearsal in the most traditional sense. Yeah, we had some pretty good ideas about what we wanted to do but generally speaking the way it was rehearsed is what drove the way the scene was blocked out and shot. Sometimes the flow was so great we could just do a four-minute take with no cuts at all. And on other occasions it just didn't work; we might start off with that intent and then abandon ship. But it all came from rehearsal. We would have to adjust sometimes for makeup problems, and things like that but generally speaking the principle of actors rehearsing was sacrosanct. That suits me because then I know what's going on. I hate shooting with people who don't like to rehearse. I hate it, it's just nuts because you don't know what you're working on. I can do it, I've done it enough, but it skews everything towards the camera, because that's about the only concrete thing that's there — the actors don't know what's going on, the crew doesn't know what's going on, quite often the director doesn't know what's going on because there's a belief where 'We'll just see what happens.' It's not like that. It's not art — it's nonsense! Rehearsal is where you find out what a scene is all about, from my point of view, from the actors' point of view, everybody's P.O.V.

What was your happiest surprise, the scene which exceeded your expectations?

Oh, the death scene, there's a death scene towards the end of the film which is quite extraordinary.

The Vietnam soldier?

Yes. "P.S. I Love You," which is the flashlight scene, that was wonderful. Some very funny work, amusing work and lots of time you got surprises because you're working with great actors; they couldn't tell you what they're going to do, it's from the subconscious. And then of course there were some scenes that didn't work; they're not in the film, you're not going to see them!

How long was the shoot?

Six weeks of prep, and then 89 shooting days, and then we had about three second unit days. Operator was a young man named Steve St. John, who's a wonderful operator, also a wonderful Steadicam guy. Worked on three films with him.

How long did it take to develop a good working relationship with those you hadn't worked with before?

Oh, a couple of weeks. They're good, I'd be a fool not to work with them. I get on with those people, and I like the work. It was a great time.

How did this compare with PRINCE OF TIDES, and which came first?

I finished PRINCE OF TIDES, I came home from New York, and then I started preproduction about three days later on FOR THE BOYS. I had signed up to do NIGHT RIDE DOWN with Harrison Ford, but it collapsed. I didn't want to do another LETHAL WEAPON — I don't want to do those kinds of films anymore. But FOR THE BOYS was a very different experience from PRINCE OF TIDES.

But they're both directed by actors; was there any similarity, for example in the emphasis placed upon rehearsals?

They both gave rehearsals a good amount of prominence.

Was it as challenging an experience as this film?

Yes, but not as enjoyable. Equally challenging, certainly, absolutely.

That one's a contemporary piece?

No, again there's a good amount of period work in it. It's concerned with the childhood of many of the characters. Big sections of the film are flashbacks. It's a very good film. But I was run ragged on it.

Was that a long shoot?

Felt like it! 85 days or something. I didn't think FOR THE BOYS was a long shoot for what we had to do. I would call FOR THE BOYS a very happy shoot, and PRINCE OF TIDES a very unhappy shoot.

You attended the Royal College of Art Film School in London. How valuable was that experience for you?

I was the only one of the school who wanted to be a cameraman; everyone else wanted to be a director, you know — which suited me because I could shoot their films! And I think I fucked up at least 18 films and that was great because you can't just make the kinds of mistakes I made then; I mean, the worst that could happen to me was that they could hit me!


Goldblatt received Academy Award nominations for THE PRINCE OF TIDES and BATMAN FOREVER. His other recent features include THE PELICAN BRIEF, STRIPTEASE, CLOSER, RENT, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, JULIA & JULIA, and the TV film ANGELS IN AMERICA.

copyright 1991, 1997, 2009 by David Morgan
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