American Cinematographer Magazine
January 2001 Issue



Pic caption: Fascinated by the Marquis de Sade and his perverse prose, chambermaid and covert literary courier
Madeleine (Kate Winslet) takes pen to paper under the watchful eye of Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix),
the enlightened priest who runs Charenton Asylum.


The Marquis de Sade was a bad boy and proud of it. "Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the likes of which has never been seen… Kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change," he defiantly charged in his Last Will and Testament. Sade invited trouble, and it came with a vengeance. His novels about perverse carnal pleasures led to three decades behind bars, the last in an insane asylum. During his final years under Napoleon's "Reign of Virtue," he was denied his books, his pens, pencils and ink, and finally his very clothes and dignity. What's more, he went to his grave distraught over the mistaken belief that the manuscript for his grand opus, The 120 Days of Sodom, had been destroyed during the storming of the Bastille.

Pic Caption: "Ready to roll?" Stoffers prepares a special "Guillotine Cam" to simulate a beheading.
On the other hand, Quills, the new film about Sade's twilight years, was blessed with good luck from day one. Fortune was smiling when director Philip Kaufman and crew arrived at their first location, the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England, whose grand hall was a stand-in for the Palace of Versailles. To the filmmakers' surprise, theChristopher Wren building stood completely enveloped in scaffolding. No one had told them it was being restored - but nothing could have been better for lighting its massive hall from the outside.

Luck also favored Rogier Stoffers, the 38-year-old Dutch cinematographer whom Kaufman tapped to be director of photography. "For me, [working with Kaufman] was a very frightening idea," Stoffers admits. "He has worked with [ASC members] Caleb Deschanel, Michael Chapman, Sven Nykvist, Philippe Rousselot - all of these famous people - and I had done one 'real' film!"



However, that film, Karakter, won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1997. By that point in his career, Stoffers had graduated from the Amsterdam Film School, shot a Student Academy Award-winning short, and shot 21 episodes of a popular L.A. Law-type TV series, as well as a Dutch version of Heimat. Karakter, his first 35mm feature, was directed by his filmschool friend Mike van Diem, and it demonstrated that Stoffers possessed a distinctive talent. The cinematographer infused the Dickensian story with dramatic pools of light that infiltrated a world of bleak darkness, and contrary to convention, the period film made liberal use of a Steadicam to throw audiences into the midst of class upheavals and father-son confrontations. "In Holland, people said, 'You used Steadicam on a period movie? Why would you do that?'" Stoffers recalls.

Kaufman got it, though. "I was highly impressed by the lighting [and] the kind of constant motion," the director says, adding that he sought just such a style for Quills. "I was looking for someone who could create a period look, yet move the camera in a way that had a contemporary vitality," he notes, adding that Doug Wright's Obie-winning play, on which the film is based, is "really meant to be a tale for our time." The story's underlying theme, according to Wright (who also wrote the screenplay), is artistic repression: "Does political oppression actually breed rather than stifle provocative art?" the playwright asks. "What happens when we silence our extremists? What happens when we give them voice?"

Kaufman was also aware of another parallel. He began working on the film during Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton, and thus wanted its underlying themes of moral hypocrisy to resonate. "[Kaufman] wanted that link to modern times," says Stoffers. "He didn't want [Quills] to become a beautiful, crafted period movie."

Pic caption: Director Phillip Kaurman confers with Winslet and Rush in the Charenton set.

After two meetings, Kaufman and Stoffers shook hands on a collaboration, and the cinematographer soon set off for England, where Quills was deep in preproduction. By the time he arrived at Pinewood Studios, where 90 percent of the film was shot, historical research was well underway. Production designer Martin Childs (Shakespeare in Love) had unearthed the blueprints for Charenton Asylum, where the marquis was confined and most of Quills is set. The filmmakers pored over reams of material detailing the period's architecture and insane asylums, and they also examined French paintings of the era. On a table was a 1/50 scale model of the entire Charenton set, then under construction. "The model had tiny little windows about the size of a thumbnail," Childs recalls, "Rogier and I spent a bit of time pointing [flashlights] into those windows to see how the corridors and cells would work."

Stoffers says his previous experiences in Holland helped him make the most of such preproduction exercises. "[Given those] low budgets and [the lack of] shooting time, I'm now used to planning everything out," he says. Kaufman, for one, greatly appreciated that trait: "We were right on schedule and under budget," the director recalls of the 61-day shoot. "A lot of that was due to Rogier being very well prepared. He thinks in advance, plans things out and makes his own little charts."

The Charenton model allowed Stoffers to troubleshoot. Childs had designed a curved corridor leading to the cell occupied by the marquis. This becomes the path of temptation for a virginal chambermaid, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who helps the marquis (Geoffrey Rush) publish his illicit works by smuggling his manuscripts out with the laundry. "We wanted the hallways to have real ceilings, and we wanted everything to be round," Stoffers says. "The models and the drawings of the set gave me ideas about where to add little places to hide my lights. [The hallways] were the hardest areas to light."

Pic caption: The randy marquis entices the virginal Madeleine with lascivious whispers.

Stoffers also spent preproduction time figuring out an appropriate palette for the film. If the foremost challenge was how to walk the line between a historical and modern tone, then color was one of the key solutions. At the outset, the filmmakers decided to avoid the sepia hues that characterize so many period films. They knew they wanted a desaturated look, but they didn't want to reduce the colors in processing. The cinematographer says he did not want to use a bleach-bypass or similar silver-retention process like ENR because those techniques would create a level of contrast that he doesn't like on actors' faces, and he knew there would be a lot of closeups in the film. Additionally, he didn't like the fact that the studio might do the process only on the film's "show prints" (those that go to major cities).

In sifting through the stacks of paintings, the filmmakers hit upon a solution. "I noticed a green that we really loved," Stoffers recalls. "Mainly it's in the varnish that has colored over time." This color was particularly noticeable in the paintings of Louis Leopold Boilly, as well as in some of Chardin's still lifes. "The fruit has different colors, but this green [hue over the painting] somehow takes the hard color out of it," he explains. "It suggests a period feeling to me. But at the same time, modern commercials very often have a cyan tone, and since we're talking about not making Quills a 'real' period movie, but rather as contemporary as possible, I went that way." In the end, he settled on a palette of white, warm tones and green.

Stoffers chose to work exclusively with Kodak Vision 500T 5279 stock for interiors and exteriors. "I love to shoot everything on one stock, if possible," he says. "The 500 ASA EXR 5298 is a beautiful stock, but it's a bit rougher and less polished, a bit grittier." He used an Arri 535 as his A-camera and a Moviecam for Steadicam work. "I worked with normal Zeiss prime lenses and Arri Variable Primes, because we wanted to be able to change focal lengths; the nice thing about Variable Primes is [that they] have about the same stop as normal primes, so you can interchange the two."

The filmmakers' method of achieving the green patina involved two complementary techniques, one in production and one in post. The simpler of the two involved adding a bit more green to the printer lights during color timing. "Normally, if you do that too much, it's something you lose, because your eyes get used to it," Stoffers explains. "But if you use it a little bit, while [keeping] the costumes in a certain tone and not changing the colors of the walls, it will work."

The greater effort came on set. This involved coating the asylum walls with a green slime created by applying tinted enamel varnish. "We wanted to give the impression that the walls were alive and dripping with madness," says Childs with a delighted laugh. "What was fantastically helpful to me - though probably not to anybody who had to schedule the film - was that Kaufman wanted to shoot the film in [continuity]. So we were adding green and decay as the story happened, a luxury we're normally never allowed. We were, for the first time in my experience, able to make a set live."

Pic caption: The incorrigible marquis (Geoffrey Rush), unbowed by the authorities' attempts to silence him,
stirs up trouble by provoking and manipulating his fellow inmates.

That was important to Kaufman, who wanted the characters' milieu to degenerate as their repression increased. The crackdown begins with the arrival of a hard-line moralist, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), who's assigned to beat back the progressive ideas of the asylum's enlightened priest, Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). "However horrible the asylum might be, you should initially feel that it's a place where there is a kind of beauty, and that things are working quite well [there]," says the director. Indeed, lunatics sing in a choir and paint, the marquis is in charge of an amateur acting troupe, there are dalliances within the staff, "and pornography can exist without making the asylum a horrible place," notes Kaufman.

He continues, "Once [the authorities] begin to repress the marquis and his writings, he responds in his kind of childlike ways. [At that point,] the story not only begins to get a big jagged and tense, but you begin to notice - subliminally, we hope - that the walls begin to leak. Water drains down, and things get dirtier and murkier. The camera [movement] becomes more Gothic, as if you are in a horror movie - a kind of insanity [creeps] into the structure of the building and the photography. There's a shot of the pit where the marquis is chained at the end, and even though we still hope that there is an element of beauty in that Pieta, something horrific is going on there. It's a sane insane asylum at the beginning of the film, and an insane insane asylum by the end."

Pic caption: Kaufman and company ready Rush for a close-up.

During production, Stoffers faced certain built-in restrictions. Because of the picture's time period, he had to stimulate pre-electricity light sources, such as torches, candles, moonlight and sun. In addition, the locations included some historic buildings, which had a number of "do not touch" provisions.

Such was the case with the Royal Naval College, where the production was using the very room where King Henry VIII had signed Anne Boleyn's death warrant. In the scene shot there, an incensed Napoleon listens to a particularly lurid passage from Sade's Justine and decides to dispatch Royer-Collard to Charenton to put an end to the author's writing. All the while, the emperor is posing for his portrait in a vast hall illuminated by shafts of light streaming through a dozen massive windows.

Fortunately, the room needed very little dressing. "We covered up bits of a painting [that virtually took up the entire back wall]; it gave away the fact that the room was at the Royal Naval College," Childs recalls. "Other than that, we completely emptied the room of everything but the essential pieces of furniture, because we realized that the best thing about the room was its size. Emptying it out and just having tiny little people in there - one of whom was Napoleon - seemed to be the way to treat it."

With scaffolding conveniently in place for the exterior's restoration, Stoffers could easily set up lights to create the beams of sunlight: he deployed an 18K HMI outside each of the 12 windows. But the torch-lit interior proved trickier. "Because of the paintings, we weren't allowed to bring in too many big lights. We ended up using helium balloons to get the warm lighting," says Stoffers, who placed a variety of 2K to 10K tungsten lights inside these devices.

The round or zeppelin-shaped light balloons were, in fact, a continual blessing in the historic manors and chapels of Quills. "If [you're filming in] old buildings or churches, you're never allowed to build any scaffolding, touch the ceilings or build any grip rigs," the cinematographer explains. "You can just fill the balloons with helium and float them in the air from the floor for a big source of soft light. They're hard to control, but they don't generate any heat because the helium cools down the light."

Since light balloons have come into wider use, "they're getting better and bigger," Stoffers adds. "They make lighting go faster, though it's not always the best way to light." For one thing, it is sometimes difficult to control the direction of the light; the cinematographer says he often spray paints paper balloons with colored ink (because it's hard to filter them) and builds iron rings around them so that he can hang black cloth in an effort to direct the light. For another thing, he says, "it's sometimes difficult to avoid fighting with the boom operator because you're both trying to be in the same place!"

He should know, because he was often the one dragging a small balloon around on a boom pole for Quills - that is, when he wasn't behind the camera the other 98 percent of the time. In Holland, this is a typical state of affairs. "We don't have operators there. On the movie I'm doing now [directed by Nick Cassavetes], I'm working for the first time with a camera operator, and I find it very hard," Stoffers admits. "I want to see lighting through a lens. Framing and lighting go so much together. When you're operating yourself, you can do exactly what you want, but sometimes operators are forced by the director or an actor to do certain things, and suddenly the whole balance of your light goes away."

The only time Stoffers wasn't operating the camera on Quills was during Steadicam shots, for which John Ward, Vince McGahon and Alastair Rae were employed. But given the style of Karakter and Kaufman's goal of creating long, fluid shots - "in a sense, to keep the sentences long," as the director put it - Stoffers wound up using the Steadicam less than expected. The reason owes to a different working method. "In England, they never dolly on tracks," Stoffers explains. "The great system of England is that they have many standbys - standby painters, standby carpenters, standby plasterers - but they all are grips. They all can lay dance floors and do construction. And they were laying dance floors all the time [on Quills], so a lot of shots where I normally would think about a Steadicam shot suddenly could be done with a dolly."

Such was the case in the scene where the hard-line doctor inspects his newly acquired estate, walking up the grand staircase and through its long corridors and salons. "Stephen Burum [ASC] used to avoid using a Steadicam because he said dollies could do everything," Stoffers muses. "I always thought, 'How is that possible?' But now I understand."

There were instances, however, when the filmmakers didn't anticipate using Steadicam but found that the rig solved a sticky problem. One such moment occurred during the filming of a climactic scene in which the priest, angered over Sade's surreptitious publishing, storms down the curved hallway and into the writer's cell. They confront each other while aides strip the cell of its books, wine collection and pornographic knickknacks, and the argument then spills back into the corridor. Stoffers notes that "Phil said, 'We could spend three days shooting a scene like this because there's so much happening.' I said it wouldn't have the energy [if we did that]. Up until then, [the priest] had been quite passive in his treatment of the marquis, [but] now he's getting really upset and he starts doing something. We therefore wanted to get that energy into the scene."

Kaufman and Stoffers decided to film the sequence in a 2 1/2 minute Steadicam shot that would bring the camera down the hallway, around the cell, then back out again. Stoffers choreographed the camera movement using a viewfinder he had built, which has a built-in video assist and small monitor beside it: "You can screw the lens in, walk around with the lens in your hand, see the framing and find your shot." The advantage, he explains, is that "you can rehearse the scene several times without tiring the Steadicam operator." In the end, says Stoffers, "we worked for the whole day, then we shot it. And that put us a day ahead!"

Pic caption: The cinematographer captures a heroic close-up of the principled priest.

Because the camera moved 360 degrees, Stoffers had to choreograph the lighting as well. This task required six assistants turning, dimming, and changing handheld lights while dodging out of view when the camera turned. Here, as in many scenes, Stoffers relied on his collection of Chimera lightbanks, which were often supplemented with a honeycomb grid. This combination "allows you to direct quite a lot of soft light to a very specific place. You can turn it around with people when they're walking, and at the right angle it won't show up on walls. You can keep it moody and dark, and at the same time have soft light in places where you want it."

Chimeras supplemented the candles and torchlight in numerous scenes, such as those set in the inmates' smaller cells, each of which was ostensibly lit by a single flame and a tiny window. Stoffers offers, "You can hide Chimeras in all kinds of small places, and when the [actors] moved near a candle, we used small handheld Chimeras with a grid." These cut down on the overall number of lights required.

One of the more difficult setups was a sequence in which the marquis stages a provocative play that mocks Royer-Collard and his young, nubile wife. Stoffers had few places to tuck away his lights because the theater-in-the-round was not originally designed for this scene - it was built to be the asylum's laundry room. What's more, he was using a 270-degree Steadicam shot with actors darting everywhere. "We had four fires on the corners of the stage. To simulate that lighting, the only thing we could do was put Kino Flos on the floor with heavy gels, which melt down in the end."

To enlarge the effect of the torchlight, Stoffers pulled an old trick out of the bag: a woman's stocking. "We wanted to do something to soften the image. We ended up using a net behind the lends and a Black ProMist in front of it."

"Rogier has a good eye, and he's an enthusiastic guy," Kaufman concludes. "It's great to see your director of photography running up and down stairs, scrunched over a camera, dying to do an extra take, staying up late nights thinking of the next day's work, planning in advance where he's going to put his lights, and making little diagrams, so that when he shows up you're ready to work. I've worked with many great cinematographers, and I feel he's in that league."