Afterglow is not just the title of Alan Rudolph's new film, or a reference to the sexual haze through which its four principal characters wander. It was also a guiding motif for the movie's visual style. "In pre-production and through shooting, we talked about the title," says DP Toyomichi Kurita. "We came up with the color that was symbolic of afterglow, which was purple. We played with that color, whether lighting through filters or using filters on the camera. But it wasn't just colors, it was also emotions, and what was going on dramatically.
"My goal was that everybody was to glow, especially the women," he continues. The film, which was shot in Montreal, is a sexual roundelay starring Julie Christie and Nick Nolte as a long-married pair who unknowingly switch partners with a younger couple, played by Lara Flynn Boyle and Jonny Lee Miller. "I wanted Julie Christie to be radiant," says the cinematographer, who employed mostly soft light on the set. "I softened certain shots with filters on the lenses, and then lighting-wise I used a lot of diffused or bounced techniques."
Kurita, who hails from Tokyo but has lived in the United States since arriving in Los Angeles to study at the American Film Institute in 1980, liberally used what he calls "Japanese lanterns"--more commonly known stateside as Chinese lanterns--on Afterglow, along with Kino Flos and 2k zip lights. "Then when I needed a big source, like HMIs, I used some sort of diffusion, mostly Lee 216. For interior night or on the set we used all tungstens. Those were my main tools to produce a softer light."
The film's two most important sets are the couples' homes. Nolte and Christie's characters live in a modest house, shot on a practical location, while Miller and Boyle's tony two-level apartment was a soundstage set. "It has theatrical elements in it," Kurita says of this space, which is designed to within an inch of its life. "They can control the light from buttons, so we played with the dimming systems. It's a little bit artificial, and that reflects the characters. The older couple is a bit more organic, more down to earth."
Though Rudolph's entire story unfolds in Montreal's deeply autumnal October, the production started shooting in September 1996, "so we cheated some of the leaves," says the DP. Also, "exterior light is a little harsher in September than in October. I tried to make backlit situations as much as I could, or shoot toward the end of the day." Kurita adds that although he used Kodak 5248 on day exteriors and Vision 500 on some night scenes, "80% of the movie was shot on 5293, 200 ASA stock."
Rudolph often shoots in Montreal; in fact, when the director and Kurita worked together on The Moderns, in 1988, the Canadian city stood in for 1920s Paris. "Alan likes the city, he likes the people, he likes the food and wine," says the cinematographer, who understands how important such things can be. His first feature, Rudolph's Trouble in Mind (1986), was filmed in Seattle, a city Kurita was so taken with that he now lives there, far from the Hollywood scene. That doesn't keep the DP from working steadily on independent films, major-studio projects like Waiting to Exhale, and high-profile cable movies such as Crime of the Century, which earned him a Cable ACE nomination.
But he particularly enjoys his collaborations with Rudolph, a filmmaker who prefers spontaneity to rigid planning. "He's not a person who gets shots in his head beforehand," says Kurita. "It evolves with the actors in the morning when we rehearse, so I need to be prepared. Because he doesn't like to light specific shots, the master shot is very important. I try to light the scene to give him as much of a range as I can, which is very difficult, because you don't know what can happen on the take, and you just have to let it go. Most of the time, something magical happens."
Afterglow was released in December by Sony Pictures Classics.