900 Lights and a 50-Pound Lars-Cam

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle on creating beauty amid brutality

It'sone of the world's most expensive experiments," says cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle of Dogville. Lars von Trier's three-hour Brechtian parable on the unkindness of strangers was filmed on a single stage with chalk outlines in lieu of walls and doors but outfitted with 900 lights and a dozen digital-video cameras suspended from the ceiling above.

The division of workload proved somewhat experimental, too—von Trier shot about 75 percent of Dogville himself, while Mantle and lighting designer Asa Frankenberg huddled in the "cave" at one end of the stage. "We had a multimillion-pound dimming system for the lights, a set of HD monitors, audio communication with Lars," Mantle explains on the phone from his hotel near Trollhattan, where he is shooting Manderlay, the second film in von Trier's planned Depression-era trilogy.

Mantle also acted as relief pitcher when von Trier needed a breather from the 50-pound camera kit dubbed the "Lars-cam." "We shot with a tiny crew, ideally just Lars onstage with the actors," says Mantle, a longtime friend of the director. "Lars looked like Darth Vader with this huge rig across his back, with a bar going up over the top of his head, holding the camera on his shoulders. The actors would arrive and see Lars looming in his knee pads and his cycle clips, all sweaty. And then Lauren Bacall would ask what part of her back Lars would like to see today."

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Born in Oxford, England, and film-schooled in Copenhagen, Mantle helped shape the ascetic aesthetic of the DV-driven Dogme movement in the late '90s, as director of photography on Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration (1998), Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune (1999), and Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). "Dogme was about doing what you can with what you've got," Mantle says. "Whatever you do as a cinematographer, there are rules all the way down the line: financial constraints, directorial intentions. OK, Dogme was a bit more extreme, but it had happened before—the idea of shooting in available light wasn't new for documentary makers. It just makes you look at light rather than creating light."

Mantle shot both of Vinterberg's subsequent films: the ill-received It's All About Love (still unreleased in the U.S.), starring Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes as a husband and wife on the run—through gorgeous celluloid 'scapes—from a shadowy cloning consortium, and the von Trier- scripted Dear Wendy, another English-language venture, starring Jamie Bell and due out at the end of the year.

Recently, Mantle also worked as DP on Millions, his reunion with director Danny Boyle following the Dogme-influenced sleeper smash 28 Days Later, in which a coma patient awakes to find England decimated by a virus called "Rage." "Danny had the idea of a jolting camera movement to represent the Rage, which I could do on these small digital video cameras because you can throw them around and use special shutter speeds," Mantle says. The cinematographer had hesitations, though, about DV's fitness for the stunning scenes of an emptied-out Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. "I wasn't sure I felt at ease about closing London and doing historical images of the city that may never be made again, on tiny cameras and a tiny computer."

Working with DV on the bare-bones stage of Dogville, meanwhile, "is like a dare—can you make beautiful images of any kind in these conditions,"Mantle says. "We tried to do that with the shots from above, and by layering images in the post-production, to make a potentially brutal digital image more delicate." An exemplum is when Grace (Nicole Kidman) makes an ethereal but abortive escape from the town without pity, hidden under a burlap cover in the back of an apple truck. "We combined her image among the apples with a piece of sacking so it became like a painting. Even though it's a grotesque scene, it's stunningly beautiful too. In the context of Dogville's hardness, it's something you need very badly. On Manderlay we've had some budget issues, and I've been very adamant about holding on to these moments where the audience has a little chance to conjure up some of their own thoughts."

 
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