Magazine article American Cinematographer

Healing a Family

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Healing a Family

Article excerpt

Fred Elmes, ASC partners with Jim Sheridan on the wartime drama Brothers.

In the contemporary drama Brothers, an adaptation of the successful Danish film released in 2004 (AC May ?5), a young family attempts to heal after being torn apart by war. When U.S. officer Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is reportedly killed after being sent to the front in Afghanistan, his less responsible brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), tries to fill the void by getting closer to Sam's widow, Grace (Natalie Portman), and two young daughters. When Sam is eventually discovered to be alive, he returns home and has difficulty readjusting to domestic life, and tensions and jealousies soon boil over.

To bring Brothers to the screen, director Jim Sheridan turned to cinematographer Fred Elmes, ASC, whose recent credits include Synecdoche, New York, The Namesake; Broken Flowers; and Kinsey (AC Jan, ?5). The cinematographer found working with Sheridan to be a joy. "Making this film was a completely engaging, fascinating process," says Elmes. "Jim's focus is on the evolution of the characters, and all of our discussions and decisions grew out ofthat. He works very instinctually. Whenever an issue comes up on set, whether it concerns story or design or character, he spontaneously finds the creative solution; he has so fully internalized the lives of the characters, he is able to do that."

Sheridan's deference to the actors sometimes meant that the blocking would be altered at the last minute, requiring Elmes and his crew to adapt quickly. For interiors, Elmes began to light more with an eye toward adaptability; on exteriors, he sometimes had to persuade his colleagues to consider the practical aspects of shooting. "We made rough plans during the scout, but Jim doesn't like to lock into a plan that can't be changed," says Elmes. "He doesn't rehearse extensively with the actors on the set. His method is to talk about the scene with the actors and let them find the right way. He'll steer them but also encourage them to feel what is right. Much of what we did was driven by the actors' choices. Sometimes it worked out perfectly, and sometimes they went in different directions."

The filmmakers found loca- tions for both Afghanistan and U.S. scenes near Santa Fe, N.M., which offered the production a tax advan- tage. Filming took place over about 40 days from November 2008 to January 2009. The exterior of the Cahills' home was shot on location in Los Alamos, while the home's interiors were built onstage at the College of Santa Fe. The hovels where Sam is held prisoner were all existing structures. Other practical locations included a bar and military headquarters.

Elmes lobbied Sheridan to shoot the film widescreen. While deciding the issue, they watched and discussed Blue Velvet AC Nov. '86) and Wild at Heart, which Elmes shot for David Lynch; The Lives of Others AC March ?7), shot by Hagen Bogdanski, BVK; and a few other films. The basic plan was to lend Brothers' domestic material a lush color scheme. "We wanted richness there to contrast with the war scenes, which are harsh-looking and mostly devoid of color," says Elmes. "We kept warmer colors and much of the green out of the Afghanistan scenes mostly through the production design. If something popped, we'd throw dirt on it."

The Afghanistan scenes were shot in 12 days. Most of these scenes depict Sam in captivity; there are no elaborate battle sequences. Elmes' challenge was to keep those situations visually interesting with limited lighting and staging options. "The war is a backdrop for the drama," notes the cinematographer. "Jim's vision was of a family trying to fix itself, not of the war in Afghanistan. His research focused on the problems these soldiers have when they return home."

At high altitude in the mountains, the terrain made for rough going, but the sunlight and the real snow on the ground worked in the filmmakers' favor. "The atmosphere is different at 6,000 feet," says Elmes. …

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