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Take a ‘Walk Among the Tombstones’ with Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.

How Malaimare Jr. Shot 'Walk Among the Tombstones'

For cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” now in theaters, represents his first atmospheric thriller as well as his first experience shooting in New York City. Of course, in discussing the visual style with writer-director Scott Frank, they decided to go for a ’70s gritty, de-saturated look, recalling “The French Connection” and “The Parallax View.” But adding to the paranoia is the fact that it takes place during the Y2K craze in 1999.

In fact, one of the serial killers even points out the irony of people being afraid of the wrong things, which is how he and his partner are able to take their victims totally by surprise. What interested the Romanian cinematographer, who learned his craft collaborating with Francis Ford Coppola (“Tetro,” “Youth Without Youth”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master”), was trying to capture New York (Brooklyn, Hell’s Kitchen, Red Hook, Bushwick, and the Lower East Side) in a fresh way as a total outsider.

But then that’s the brilliance of novelist Lawrence Block’s bleak, almost Scandinavian style and his iconic detective Matt Scudder (tailor made for Liam Neeson), a troubled ex-cop living in self-exile, and operating in cold, grimy, wet New York. 

“Our first idea was that even though it’s the ’90s, how do we try and make it look like a ’70s movie and move the camera less unless it’s for a certain purpose?,” Malaimare says. He went digital with the Alexa and Red Epic for extensive shooting inside cars and vans. “And what type of lenses? We ended up using Panavision anamorphic from the ’60s. A huge advantage was a long prep and taking so many stills. It was a luxury.

“It was interesting for us because we had so many night scenes and it was one of those things where we are in New York and you have to see outside the window. And I was working with David Brisbin, the production designer, trying to find locations with giant windows, where we can see outside them, even if it’s the 13th floor and it’s a drag. We found Matt’s apartment and we fell in love with him seeing outside the window. But there were so many locations like that. We realized that now we have to shoot night for night because we want to see outside the window. It was hard for the actors but Liam understood it.”

There’s a voyeuristic aspect to it as well — seeing and being seen, similar to “Rear Window” at times. However, it was important to avoid showing the faces of the two killers, Ray and Albert, in the first half. That’s a challenge in daytime even if you’re in a van. So Malaimare shot straight through the windshield but didn’t light them, staying with glimpses of a mouth with light coming in from the dashboard or a dark silhouette.

The prime location, obviously, was Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, used first in the daytime during an encounter with the creepy grounds keeper (Olafur Darri Olafsson) and then at night during a tense exchange with the kidnappers/serial killers that goes awry.

“The most amazing location was the cemetery. Whenever you turn around, you find some great angle or some interesting stone. We had a thousand stills from the cemetery alone. It’s spooky and beautiful at the same time. The sequence at night was tough because it’s such a big scene with many characters and multiple action  Shooting HD is a huge advantage when you shoot on the street and you can use streetlights and you can enhance a few things, but when you’re in Green-Wood, it’s pitch black and you have to start from scratch and figure out how to light everything without it being a pool of light.
“Scott and I both agreed that we like harsh shadows and lots of contrast because that was the look of the ’70s. We used harsh lights without using any diffusion.And during the day, it’s so spread out and very easy to get distracted by such interesting headstones. You don’t want to dwell on the objects and distract what’s going on.

“For me, I’ve never shot an action movie and although this is not an ‘action movie,’ it was very exciting for me. A lot of times you tend to be so specific in choreographing the action that you forget to be artistic in a way. There’s so much technicality to it, that it’s hard to keep it in your range of visual style.”

But in the end the sharp-eyed cinematographer not only kept it in range but added something new to the cinema of loneliness and paranoia.

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