Versatile director Ron Howard has forged a collaboration with Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) in pushing his vision in new creative directions. And he couldn’t find two more disparate fact-based movies about obsession than the racing biopic “Rush” and the survivalist, high-seas drama, “In the Heart of the Sea,” both written by Peter Morgan and starring Chris Hemsworth, which they started shooting this month in England.
“Rush,” of course, is about the notorious ’70s Formula 1 rivalry between drivers James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), while “In the Heart of the Sea” follows a 19th-century whaling expedition that turns into a nightmare, thanks to the infamous beast that inspired Herman Melville’s classic “Moby-Dick.”
In fact, with “Rush,” Dod Mantle introduced Howard to digital shooting and a more radical look for his first indie-financed movie in nearly 40 years. Although the Morgan script begins conventionally enough, setting up the contrasting backgrounds, flaws, and unstopping ambition of the long-haired British playboy (Hunt) and cerebral and cold-hearted Austrian (Lauda), the second-half flies as fast as its title. And despite their differences, Hunt and Lauda become kindred spirits.
“Ron wasn’t the first director that comes to mind for ‘Rush,’ and I wasn’t the first cinematographer that would come to mind for him either,” Dod Mantle admits. “Ron is a remarkably calm, sane, and pleasant person and I like how he’s brought out the humanity between these fierce competitors.”
But director and cinematographer were both drawn to Formula 1. The cinematographer fondly recalls watching motor racing as a kid as he sucked ice cream, smelled burning rubber, saw beautiful models and cringed at accidents. He found the gladiator-like exhibition strangely fascinating with these coffins on wheels. “I’ve loved sports and played sports all my life and motor racing has been an odd, unresolved chapter. Having now spent six months drilling holes in these cars and putting cameras up their exhaust pipes, I feel I now know a lot more about it.”
However, with a budget under $40 million, Dod Mantle didn’t have the luxury of scouting the famous locations on the Formula 1 circuit, let alone recreating them digitally. So he had to develop a way of creating his own unique production values. “And that meant we were dependent on certain archival material, which we would manipulate, ultimately, and take cars out and put our cars in.
“But to get that far, we had to go through hours and hours and hours of affordable archives, most of which was absolute rubbish. Or for me was too ugly or too unpleasant. We had to find the relevant races that provided me the beats of information and production values needed and were of a sufficient aesthetic and technical standard that could work, which was very hard in the ’70s. You’re talking not only 35mm but also 16mm, and telecine material where the negative was damaged. We took the best that we could and tested it and I took it through [various] processes with my own people and also the post house [Double Negative] to try and see what I could lift up and at what level.
“The aesthetic was a very painterly and, what I thought, an inspiring, visceral, sexy, color palette, and not the desaturated, golf ball grain, sadness of ’70s. In Monaco, I was particularly struck by the yellow, cyan, and red. It’s not pristine — it has grit. The drivers were eccentric and raggedy; they had dirty underwear and bad hair, in comparison to multi-millionaire motor racing drivers now and their entourage.”
For this, Dod Mantle combined modern technology (the Arri Alexa Plus and Alexa Studio cameras along with the Canon EOS C300) with old lenses from the ’60s and ’70s (particularly the Baltar that Gordon Willis used on “The Godfather”).
More than anything, though, the cinematographer created a language and lensing for personifying the cars, putting us right inside with these fearless drivers racing nine inches above the ground and at great speeds. He mounted very small helmet cams two to three centimeters from their eyes. “I wanted the audience to know what it means to put a helmet on and shut the world off; and when they’re racing, what it’s like inside the helmet looking out; and after an injury, when they pull that helmet back, you really feel the pain.”
Dod Mantle also customized the miniature IndieCam GS2K, which isn’t normally used for features, and mounted them all around the cars. He wanted the sensual feeling of color and light and moving across the framework and the struggle of the hand on the gear lever.
The Nurburgring race in Germany is riveting with a horrific crash in which Lauda nearly burned to death. The recreation went beyond accuracy in determining his car’s malfunction. Dod Mantle even stepped into the wreckage with a burn suit to shoot through the flames. Yet for the cinematographer, it’s all about narrative painting: a visceral, exquisite, random moment.
Now Dod Mantle is seriously at sea with the adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s ordeal about the Whaleship Essex, which was attacked by an 80-foot sperm whale in 1820, leaving 20 sailors adrift at sea in three open boats for 93 days, compelled to become cannibals to survive.
“This strange idea that these people who were obsessed with the sea were like our astronauts now,” Dod Mantle suggests. “In addition to collecting oil, they were explorers going beyond the final frontier. And what the whale symbolizes for me — and certainly for Melville — is that it was a signal that it was not necessarily our natural habitat. It’s ironic: you have people lying in a boat and starving and there’s nothing they can use or utilize out there, and an inch under the surface of their raft is a mosaic — a labyrinth of natural habitat, beauty, resources, water, and aquatic life that human beings are not used to.”
The cinematographer says it’s a pretty ambitious movie for Warner Bros., a $100 million drama that’s an antidote to the current glut of superhero movies (despite the presence of a CG whale by Double Negative). Like “Rush,” though, you can be sure that it’s all about narrative painting and will be a kindred spirit to Howard’s “Apollo 13.”