Magazine article American Cinematographer

HBO's and the Band Played on Explores Impact of AIDS

Magazine article American Cinematographer

HBO's and the Band Played on Explores Impact of AIDS

Article excerpt

After seventeen drafts and three directors, the landmark book reaches the screen.

It has taken six long years for Randy Shuts' landmark book on AIDS, And The Band Played On, to reach the small screen. Citing the sensitive nature of the material, the three major TV networks turned down the project; HBO had no such reservations and eagerly snapped it up. In November of 1992 - seventeen drafts and three directors later -filming finally began, with a cast that included such top names as Richard Gere, Matthew Modine and Sir Ian McKellen. But creative differences arose between director Roger Spottiswoode and HBO executives; smoldering through much of the shoot, they flared into the open when filming wrapped, generating a flurry of unwelcome publicity for the cable network. By June the differences had been ironed out, at least publicly.

Speaking about the picture, cinematographer Paul Elliott diplomatically skirts the issue of its fractious production history. Instead, he focuses on the challenge he faced in trying to fit a 127-page script - requiring 54 different sets - into a 34-day shooting schedule (in the end the production went four days over).

A 1992 ASC and ACE awards nominee for HBO's Citizen Cohn, Elliott had to find a way to transform an essentially talky medical drama into a visually interesting, scientific detective story. "Just making a film about an important and interesting issue doesn't make it dramatic," notes the English-born cinematographer. "It isn't a conventional story with a clear dramatic arc, but rather a lot of separate, interlocking pieces, so I felt that photographically we should try and tie it together and give it some emotional punch. I tried to push the naturalism towards a more dramatic but still reality-based style."

Elliott cites two scenes to illustrate his point; the first, shot at L.A.'s City Hall (standing in for San Francisco), is an emotional public hearing during which participants debate about whether or not to close down San Francisco's gay bath houses. Elliott, who began his career as a documentary cameraman in Britain, wanted a documentary feel for the scene. He decided to use two cameras, both equipped with long lenses.

"Roger and I decided that the most exciting coverage consisted of the rougher, less rehearsed camera moves, so the two cameras would whip-pan from actor to actor during the heated debate, letting the dialogue motivate the move. We also covered each actor conventionally, but the dailies were much more dynamic and immediate when the camera caught the action in flight."

The scene was lit with five 12K HMIs placed on scaffolding outside the hearing room's second-story windows. The windows' frosted glass created a soft light with a greenish-yellow tint. The interior fill lights had to be balanced to match; Elliott shot a gray scale under them and had the lab time it out.

A far more difficult sequence to orchestrate was a meeting shot at the Pasadena Blood Bank, in which more than a dozen medical personnel and hospital administrators huddled around a 30-foot-long table, arguing back and forth. "I thought it would be interesting to do the scene with the camera moving around the table, and Roger agreed. We did a 360-degree move which, of course, had to be very carefully timed to the dialogue; it took a few rehearsals to get it right. The camera is constantly moving, with the zoom lens changing to adjust for the image size; it ends up moving all the way around and then craning up to the top, at which point the lens widens out and [provides] a shot of the whole table."

The blood bank turned out to be an unexpectedly beautiful building, with a painted mural on one inside wall, tall French doors and windows along another, and a large mirror covering a third. The very features which made it so attractive, however, also created problems.

"We placed three 12K HMIs on towers outside the French doors," notes Elliott. …

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