Oliver Stapleton, BSC is known for his sensitive, sympathetic work on literary, humane dramas like The Shipping News, The Cider House Rules, Restoration, My Beautiful Laundrette and Absolute Beginners. But his resume also includes rock documentaries like Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll, caper films like The Grifters. Directors seem to return often – Stapleton has made eight films with Stephen Frears, five with Lasse Hallström, and four with Michael Hoffman.
Stapleton’s most recent assignment, The Guilt Trip, was also a return engagement, his second film with director Anne Fletcher. Their first effort was The Proposal.
Looking back at his experience on The Guilt Trip, Stapleton says, “On the page, we thought we were making a comedy, but in reality, I think we’ve made a drama. I think it took Anne by surprise in the cutting room when she suddenly realized that it’s more of a Barbra Streisand movie than a Seth Rogan movie, in the sense that it’s very heartfelt, and the relationship is very strong and very deep.”
Rogen plays an inventor who invites his mother, played by Streisand, on a cross-country trip as he tries to sell his new product. His secret plan is to reunite her with a lost love along the way.
Stapleton’s major concern at the outset was creating an authenticity while shooting extensively on a process stage. “It’s very important to me that the cinematography is invisible, because then you’ve achieved something,” he says. “You’ve kind of broken the disbelief and you’ve got the audience involved with the movie.”
Almost half the film takes place on the road, in a car. With daytime back projection and the complexity that realistic daylight requires, he says, “It’s very easy to end up with something that looks like a Clark Gable movie, where two people are pretending to drive.”
After testing various techniques, including a sophisticated multi-screen wrap-around LED system, the filmmakers chose a more traditional green screen approach. Stapleton directed the second unit and shot the plates out on the road. He says the key to selling the illusion is good lighting.
The format was anamorphic, shot on KODAK VISION3 Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film. The lenses were Vantage Hawk anamorphics. Fletcher, according to Stapleton, swears by 35mm film and the widescreen anamorphic approach. “I agree with her,” says Stapleton. “If you want to make actors, and particularly a woman, look good, shoot anamorphic. There are optical reasons for that advantage. It’s a slightly softer lens, which helps you.”
Streisand has directed three films, and obviously knows her way around a set. “Barbra is a perfectionist, and she is an extremely good filmmaker,” says Stapleton. “You can’t pull the wool over her eyes. It was amazing to have this multi-talented, extraordinary woman involved. The strength of my relationship with Anne carried us through it. There wasn’t any way to separate us, and that is absolutely key. I tell students, ‘Look, if your relationship with the director is anything less than 100% solid, somebody is likely to try and drive a wedge between you. It’s a really great thing to trust each other on a film set. That’s why I like to work with the same people over and over.”
Shooting on film comes with a certain discipline, Stapleton believes. “When the actor knows he might only get three takes, it has an incredible effect,” he says. “I think there’s a lot to be said for that – where you don’t do many takes and it’s very concentrated. The unavailability of the image is a magical and totally empowering thing for the imagination. People’s imaginations have to work harder. Where, when you stick all these monitors all over the place and you say, ‘Well, that’s what we’re doing,’ it makes everything easier. It makes things comfortable, and comfort is sometimes the enemy of art. Generally, most great art gets made in conflict or with difficulty or in poverty or whatever. Comfort and art have not much to do with each other. I think the film set in terms of technology and atmosphere is a simple place. It’s clean, uncluttered, and simple. A digital set is full of techies and equipment. I mean, there’s a much bigger crew. There are tents all over the place. Nowadays, there’s all this talk about editing and grading on the set. It isn’t what you should be doing, I don’t think.”
Any tool that is less than 100% reliable has no place, according to Stapleton.
“When I hear about cameras breaking down on set, and causing delays, I go mad,” he says. “There is no reason for that to happen. It should never happen. It’s unforgivable to be using cameras that break down, absolutely ridiculous. If the producer says to you, ‘I want you to use this camera that my cousin just bought for me,’ and you don’t trust it, you just have to say, ‘If you want me to shoot it then we can’t shoot on that.’ And if the guy fires you and gets somebody else, that’s his business. It’s a very important responsibility for cinematographers to have the equipment that they know will make the film the director wants to make. It’s part of the job description. It’s a bit of a ‘stand up and be counted’ time. Because when the camera breaks down, the cinematographer is blamed. All that money that somebody saved on equipment rental goes out the window in about 10 minutes of delay. It’s an important time in history for cinematographers to make sure that people understand their job.”
The Guilt Trip is slated for a December 19 release in North America, and will open in the rest of the world in early 2013.