Director of photography John Seale is not in the habit of shooting remakes, particularly of renowned European films like Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. "I've been asked a few times to shoot remakes of French films," says Seale, "and I haven't done them, because I saw the original version and said, 'How can you beat that?' " But City of Angels, the American translation of Wenders' 1987 movie that Warner Bros. released last month, changed his mind. He liked Dana Stevens' script, which transformed the story "in interesting ways"; he thought director Brad Silberling's approach was original; he welcomed the opportunity to work with stars Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. But still, he realized, "how will we get it to work successfully without making it too American?"
City of Angels sets its story of a guardian angel (Cage) deciding to fall to earth because of his love for a mortal woman (Ryan) in Los Angeles rather than Berlin, and makes the central female character a soul-searching heart surgeon instead of a trapeze artist. The tone of the movie is more big-studio Hollywood than European art film; the pace, though somewhat languid, is of a steadier clip than Wings of Desire, and there are pop songs on the soundtrack.
More noticeably, the movie eschews the black-and-white stock that largely composed Wings of Desire. Though it's made clear that the angelic universe lacks a full color spectrum, City of Angels is set more solidly on terra firma, with Ryan's character more strongly the focal point than her counterpart in the German film. Not only is that strategy more commercial, it kept the Australian-born Seale, Oscar winner for The English Patient, from suffering comparisons with legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan's work on Wings of Desire.
Seale had his own ideas for representing a world inhabited by angels. "Nicolas Cage's character doesn't exist unless he wants you to see him," says the DP. "So I figured he had to be shadowless, that if he's not actually there, he couldn't cast a shadow on anybody. I think the biggest challenge for the movie was exactly that. In Wings of Desire, the angels threw shadows, because back then it was hard fresnel lighting, and they couldn't possibly avoid it if it occurred to them." Even now, doing so "was reasonably difficult," Seale adds. "Once it was known that Nic shouldn't have shadows, he picked that up, and he would say, 'I've got a shadow!' Which was awkward, because sometimes it was just impossible to get rid of it. There were times in the hospital set when he's walking down the corridor where I got caught with shadows. We also did a lot of multicamera work, because Brad wanted a lot of coverage, and that didn't help. But luckily, modern color lighting is a softer, bounce-type lighting, and that made it easier."
The cinematographer prefers bouncing his light off walls rather than the standard polystyrene boards, because "the color's nicer. I rarely try to use white light since there's not much in reality." In terms of instruments, Seale is a big fan of the up-to-date soft systems. "You've got these lovely new delights, the Chimeras," he says. "They're big and they're soft, and with the crates in front you can make them fairly directional. That was one of our favorites where we could fit them; unfortunately, they're very bulky. So then you shift to the Kino Flo Wall-O-Lites. I think the Kino Flo system is just phenomenal. It's obviously an adaptation of a standard bracket that's been made for 30 years, but by putting in color temperature, making walls of light, and making them different sizes, you can hide those things anywhere."
These lamps were most common on the City of Angels set, except during night exteriors. "Of course, there we'd have to use long-throw fresnel lamps, 20ks, 10ks, things like that," says Seale. "And we did have shadow problems. Whenever possible, we'd use them for wide shots, and when we cut in, we'd use either Kino Flos or Chimeras in closeup."
Another idea of Seale's was that "since angels are shadowless, maybe they glow from the inside, and have their own light." Accordingly, the DP generally used a camera light, either just over or under the lens. This not only highlighted Cage's "very powerful eyes," it effectively hid the actor's shadow. And "it gave him this glow and flattened him out, so he looked sort of eternally young," says Seale. "Later, when he becomes mortal, his eyes are shot to pieces because wind is on them, he doesn't know what sleep is, he starts to sweat, he gets stubble. At that point, we actually destroyed him; he now had hard shadows on him."
Like the cinematographer's last few pictures, City of Angels was entirely shot on Eastman Kodak's 500ASA high-speed film, 5279 stock, as it is currently designated. "I shoot day, night, beaches, desert, interior, exterior, anything with it," he says. "If you're shooting a film like The English Patient in the desert in the middle of winter, you've got a very short day. You start shooting when the sun comes up, and you're still shooting when it sets. You reduce the filter to get rid of color temperature changes, and you increase the ASA right when you need it. At night, I can force-develop the negative; it intercuts like a dream with non-force-development. I find this such an easy way: It means I've got one line of magazines, one batch of stock."
Unlike The English Patient, City of Angels is an anamorphic picture. The format was chosen to emphasize the gap between angelic and mortal worlds, but it meant Seale had to use more light, thereby increasing the shadow hazards. The high-speed film helped. "I am a zoom lens advocate, I dump a zoom on and leave it there for the whole picture if I can," he says. "Those damned things on anamorphic are so slow, they're 4.5 wide open, so shooting night exteriors or interiors, you're really bashing in a lot of light to get there. To pick up another stop or two for free by using a high-speed negative is an absolute advantage. But then when I'm using flat lenses, and I've got 2.8 zooms, I still use high-speed stock, because another stop on the lens will give the focus pullers more depth of field."
The film made use of several locations in the LA area, including a beach at Malibu, where the angels gather at sunrise and sunset, and the decommissioned downtown Terminal Annex of the US Postal Service, which production designer Lilly Kilvert transformed into the hospital set. In addition, the production made jaunts to San Francisco's Main Public Library, and to a cabin on Lake Tahoe. Both required big gelling jobs. "The library was a giant location with an atrium and skylight," says Seale. "There were hundreds of fluorescent lights, and there wasn't any way in the world we could afford to change those for a daylight look. So we had to gel every window on four floors plus the skylight, which took about three days for a big pre-rig crew and was very expensive. I heard the library was in fact keeping all the gels, so if anyone else wants to go shoot in there, there is a full package of daylight correction and fluorescent correction."
At Lake Tahoe, the gel helped create a day-for-night look. "We wanted to shoot a night scene with Meg Ryan in the house, with the lake in the background shimmering away," the cinematographer explains. "It was a log cabin with windows all over it, and we had to use hard gels on that. We wanted moonlight kicking off the lake, but to do one night of shooting in a five-day schedule at Tahoe upset the whole balance of the schedule, and the moon wasn't in the right position anyway."
The scariest location was a 38-story downtown LA skyscraper, on top of which Kilvert built a three-story girder set. Here, Cage and fellow angel-turned-mortal Dennis Franz sit, surveying the city. "We had to do this amazingly complex tracking crane shot, right up to Nic and Dennis sitting, over their shoulders and straight down to the freeway beneath them," says Seale. "We lit it from underneath with Kino Flo tubes, and got a nice soft glow as though from the city and freeway. But poor Nic Cage, if he's 3' off the ground, he's terrified."
Acrophobia or no, Cage made the kind of creative additions to City of Angels for which he is known. "One of his lovely ideas was that, when he was an angel, he wouldn't blink," the DP recalls. "He didn't have to, because he didn't have tears. Then when he was mortal, he blinked like crazy. We all had these little things we grabbed out of the script to be part of our contribution." For Seale, it was the attempt to blot out the actor's shadow. "I must say, it's a very subtle thing. One out of every 50 people might pick it up." For others, it will just be part of the texture the cinematographer invisibly gives to a film.