Magazine article American Cinematographer

Triangle of Mistrust in Tequila Sunrise

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Triangle of Mistrust in Tequila Sunrise

Article excerpt

Produced by Thorn Mount

Written and directed by Robert Towne

Conrad Hall, ASC, director of photography

Along the coast of California near Los Angeles is an area known as the South Bay It is a locale well known to writer-director Robert Towne and cinematographer Conrad Hall, ASC. Towne spent his childhood in the coastal community of Redondo Beach and Hall spent his afternoons riding the waves at Hermosa while studying cinema at the University of Southern California.

It is in this small stretch of beach front property between Terminal island and Santa Monica that Robert Towne set Tequila Sunrise. MeI Gibson plays Dale McKussic, a guy who makes a good living as a middle man in the drug trade but who wants to get out of the business. Kurt Russell plays Nick Frescia, McKussic's best friend since high school. Nick also happens to be a cop. Nick, who was recently made a lieutenant in the narcotics division, is forced to either bust his friend or help him. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Jo Ann Vallenari, the owner of an elegant restaurant which McKussic frequents. When Nick stakes out the restaurant, Jo Ann gets caught in the middle.

"Tequila Sunrise is a story told primarily in words rather than images." Conrad Hall explains. "The story comes out through the dialogue between characters. Robert wrote such exquisite words for the characters to use. I felt that it was a-picture that should be shot from the waist up - or even tighter. It's basically people talking to one another. We began to see that the action scenes had no effect in this picture. There was no need for anyone to chase anyone else. The idea of trying to pin a rap on McKussic was all the action you needed.

"Robert wanted a romantic film," Hall continued, "and I of course wanted to give it to him. I thought it should have the tone of a film like Casablanca. Robert is an incredible storyteller. He acquaints you with a certain story and setting and opens up your juices so you are able to give it back to him with appropriate images."

"Conrad would always say to me 'Tell me what you see,'" Towne remarked. "The nature of our relationship was extremely non-technical. We spoke about shading the dialogue. It was a question of how much light. We needed to see the banter in the dialogue and at the same time see and feel the element of danger.

"You know, I always felt that the South Bay was like a different country," Towne continued. "I felt that these characters belonged in that setting. Conrad has a fantastic love of landscape. He's extremely sensitive to it."

In order to re-acquaint themselves with the beach front communities they grew up in, Hall and Towne drove the streets along the coast. "Amongst the weathered beach houses we noticed a strange type of plant life," Hall recounted. "The whole area down there is undipped. It was very beautiful yet unattractive at the same time. It comes from people not mowing their lawns. I'm talking about things like weeds growing through the cracks in the sidewalk. That kind of thing. The people down there concentrate on other things they find more important. They aren't concerned with forcing something to look beautiful."

Hall felt that it was important for the audience to feel the essence of the landscape in the cinematography rather than to always see it. You feel the heat along the beach. You hear the surf. "Landscape and environment are not necessarily something I can consciously translate through my camerawork and lighting.

"In Tequila Sunrise the landscape becomes more of a feeling that comes out of these two high school buddies who have grown up and gone in different directions. First of all, most of the picture takes place at night - in darkness. In this sense there is very little to see. But at the same time, I wanted to see what was in that darkness. I had conceived the nights to be black, not blue. I did want the firm to be dark yet quite visible in its darkness. …

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