Casting Murder in a New Light

By Oppenheimer, Jean | American Cinematographer, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Casting Murder in a New Light


Oppenheimer, Jean, American Cinematographer


Director Gary Fleder and cinematographer Aaron Schneider bring a unique modus operandi to Kiss the Girls, a thriller that tracks the path of an amorous serial killer.

After earning two consecutive ASC Awards for his work on the TV series Murder One (see AC May 1996 and '97), director of photography Aaron Schneider was eager to shoot his first theatrical feature. He got his chance with Kiss the Girls, a suspense thriller about a police forensic psychiatrist and a young medical intern who join forces to track down a serial killer.

Set in North Carolina, the picture was shot in just over 50 days; the production spent two weeks of the schedule in Durham, and the rest in Los Angeles. The story begins as Dr. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman), a Washington D.C. detective, arrives in the Raleigh/Durham area to investigate the disappearance of his niece. Several other college-aged women in town have also vanished, and two have turned up dead. Shortly after Cross arrives, a young doctor, Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd), is abducted and taken to an underground lair. Her masked kidnapper, who calls himself Casanova, tries to seduce her, apparently believing that he can make his victims fall in love with him. McTiernan manages to escape, running through a forest and jumping into a river that carries her downstream to safety. She informs the police that Casanova is still holding several other women Cross' niece among them - but has no idea where the killer's lair can be found.

Schneider and director Gary Fleder (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) kept in mind that Kiss the Girls was following on the heels of two fairly recent thrillers of a similar vein, Seven and Silence of the Lambs. Both pictures made unusually strong impressions on audiences, and the filmmakers wanted to avoid any comparisons. "Seven was an incredible film, but every frame of it seemed to express the inevitability of doom and decay," says Fleder. "I wanted to make a film that was dark and moody, but which felt inherently hopeful, as if there was a chance of redemption for humanity."

With this tack in mind, Schneider had to help Fleder capture the excitement of the action genre and the grimness of the subject matter while still presenting the emotional depth and richness of a character-driven story. The cameraman remarks, "There was constant effort to balance between lighting for the visceral twists of a thriller and lighting for a grounded, reality-based human drama."

After studying mechanical engineering at Iowa State University, Schneider transferred to the USC School of Cinema-Television, where he befriended fellow classmate Fleder. After graduating in 1988, Schneider shot a low-budget straight-to-video slasher picture. "I was trying to make art, but the other guys involved just wanted to sell it and get some distribution," he recalls with a laugh. Sidestepping the traditional climb from assistant to operator to director of photography, Schneider somewhat sheepishly admits, "I was a bit arrogant. I thought, 'I'll just graduate and call myself a cameraman.'" Several lean years followed, during which Schneider took any production job that would help him learn his craft. As a result of this dedication, he began landing assignments to shoot commercials and music videos.

Schneider's big break came after Carl Bressler, his agent at the time, sent the cameraman's reel to producer Steven Bochco, who was then preparing the series Murder One. The director of the series' pilot, Charles Haid, was impressed with Schneider's reel and offered him a job as director of photography. "Charlie took a real leap of faith, because I had little to no narrative filmmaking experience," admits Schneider, who wound up shooting 10 episodes of the series.

Kiss the Girls allowed Schneider and Fleder to indulge their affection for the suspense movies of the 1970s. One of their visual influences was The Exorcist (photographed by Owen Roizman, ASC), a film that creates an effective sense of unease and the unseen presence of evil via camera movement and point of view. …

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