Passion in the Desert is such an unusual film that it is no surprise to learn that its production took more than two years. Based on an Honore de Balzac novella and directed in her feature debut by Lavinia Currier, the movie is set at the turn of the 19th century and centers on an officer (Ben Daniels) in Napoleon's Egyptian campaign who is stranded in the desert. He develops a sustaining relationship with a wild leopard, an eventually tragic bond that carries metaphoric weight in its ideas about nature, civilization, and colonialism.
For director of photography, Currier chose Alexei Rodionov, a Russian veteran of 12 features and numerous TV movies who made his name outside his native country with Sally Potter's Orlando, in 1993. "We agreed that the visual style should be natural, without exaggerated images, but with a magic touch," says Rodionov.
Principal photography commenced in autumn 1994, in the Jordanian desert and at the ancient city of Petra. Weather conditions only allowed four weeks of shooting, after which the production broke off until spring of 1995, when 12 more weeks of shooting were completed--but still with no usable footage involving the leopard. Finally, filming moved to Moab, UT, where the stark American landscape was matched to the stark Middle Eastern landscape. Here most of the scenes between the soldier and his feline inamorata were captured.
"The leopards were very unpredictable," says Rodionov, who adds that three of the animals were used. "I don't think they can be trained, although we had a great trainer in Rick Glassey. He just got what the movie needed from them step by step, keeping it absolutely safe."
The desert presented its own problems, primarily involving wind, heat, and sun. In addition, the DP says, "Direct sunlight in the desert is boring. The only way to manage it is the right choice of location, position, and movement of the camera. Shooting closeup and tight medium shots, you can help yourself with overhead black scrim or silk." Promist was used extensively, as was a polarizer for daylight exteriors. At night, the DP mostly relied on two 12k HMIs. "We had no skylifts," he says, "so we could only get them high enough by using mountains and rocks."
Arri supplied cameras and lights, including 4k and 2.5k Arrisuns and 2.5k and 575W HMI fresnels. A set of Dedolights, two Kino Flo units, and a few tungsten instruments were also in the lighting package, but overall, the project was as much about shaping or reducing light as adding it.
In the course of shooting, Rodionov managed to complete two other films--Nick Hamm's Talk of Angels, and V. Chotinenko's The Muslim. Passion in the Desert was released by Fine Line Features in June.