There have been so few musicals in recent history that have been cultural touchstones. There was Oklahoma, the first modern musical. Then West Side Story really raised the stakes. By the 1970s, A Chorus Line changed the rules of the game, while the British mega-musicals — Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables — set a new standard. When Jonathan Larson's Rent opened in 1996, after Larson's own untimely death, a new theatrical legend was born about a disparate group of New York City's East Village denizens who find love even under the most dismal of circumstances.

After winning the Pulitzer and a few Tonys almost 10 years ago, Rent is still playing on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre. However, moviegoers across the country won't have to travel to New York to see this 80s take on La Boheme, as Rent hits movie theatres everywhere the day before Thanksgiving. To bring Manhattan's gritty East Village realism to the screen, director Chris Columbus brought in Stephen Goldblatt as director of photography. Aside from his DP duties on such films as Batman & Robin, Batman Forever, Deep End of the Ocean, and many more, Goldblatt seemed ideal for the job because of his experience in working on movies based on theatrical works such as Closer and the Emmy-winning Angels in America on HBO.

However, despite the movie's theatrical pedigree, Goldblatt points out that Blake Burba's original Broadway lighting has nothing in common with the new lighting seen on the silver screen because for film, the most important components to concentrate on visually were the faces, since the film is so character-driven. “You're constantly aware of the faces, which are wonderful,” he says. “Shooting this film was to be dramatic and correctly so, depending on the scene. We never wanted to make it too glossy. We're shooting in super 35 which means there's a degree of blow up which makes it a little grainy and makes it what the Lower East side used to look like, whether we were [shooting] in San Francisco, New York, or on the back lot at Warner Bros.” He added that the music also lends itself to the type of camera moves that would not work in a straight drama but work beautifully within the emotion of the songs.

As the cameras move around the performers, the look does not appear arbitrary, according to Goldblatt, because the scene is rich with emotion derived from the song. “There is plenty of opportunity for some real beauty, and I was enthralled by the performances that I saw,” he says. The principals are mostly the original New York Theatre Workshop and Broadway cast — Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, and Tony-winning performer Wilson Jermaine Heredia. “They were so sincere and so heartfelt, and it meant so much to them, and it was a continuation of the melodrama surrounding Jonathan Larson's death,” Goldblatt explains. “Jonathan Larson's father and sister were on the set, and everybody wanted to do it justice. Chris Columbus was absolutely dedicated, and there was a tremendous atmosphere while we were shooting, and I just let myself go with it, and I think we have some pretty extraordinary stuff.”

Although Rent is a sung-through musical, it is a far cry from other recent movie musicals such as Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, Moulin Rouge, or the forthcoming musical version of The Producers. In fact, there are some pretty harrowing scenes that deal with AIDS, addiction, suicide, and even death. “For a musical, it's quite rough, but it's interspersed with a fancy sequence or something that lends itself to beauty,” Goldblatt says. “After all, the inspiration is from the musical, and that was the guide for the camera moves.”

Goldblatt wanted the film to have a strong look rather than to “just knock it off” so he could establish a definite style. To do this, he used two 20' × 10' muslin frames that he put three or four 20kW fixtures behind, with no filler light. “It would play as it played,” he says. “Where it was dark, it stayed dark, but where they were lit, it was gorgeous. I wanted to feel my and the director's reaction, and he loved it and appreciated the graphic feel it gives to the faces and to the set. And when I could, that was sort of the approach I would use which I felt was semi-brave.”

The only overt theatrical moment in the movie occurs at the very beginning when the entire cast is on a stage singing the show's signature anthem, “Seasons of Love.” The scene is a striking way to open the movie, and Goldblatt used very sharp ETC Source Four® spotlights aimed straight down to encircle each character. As the truss ascends, the audience is not sure what they are seeing until the circles grow larger and brighter, and finally, the entire cast is visible on stage.

For one of the outdoor scenes where Roger and Mimi are walking through the snow, Goldblatt enlisted gaffer Colin Campbell who would walk backward about 12' in front of the duo with a handheld 2kW Zip Fresnel with a Chimera extra small bag with a 60° handheld rigid control grid. The scene is filmed in a medium, two-shot close up, and Goldblatt's goal was to get the light in their eyes but not in many other places in the scene. “Sometimes Colin would let them get further away from him so that they would get dimmer,” Goldblatt explains. “The amount of light would vary according to their distance from the light. The light was always at the right place, just above eye level, just popping the eyes. For a two-minute track, they were lit with one lamp, and we did this quite a lot. It's a nice trick that's efficient and looks beautiful.”

Some of the instruments that Goldblatt has found himself relying on are 18kW HMIs which the DP says are very useful because they are consistent, and their color is good. But Goldblatt's favorite, as mentioned, would have to be 20kW tungsten fixtures. “With the sensitivity of film nowadays, you can use a 20kW way back, and you just have that sweet zone in which people can move around, and the exposure doesn't change,” he explains. “The old trick of using arc lights way back so that people can move around in the light 20' or 30' away, and the stop wouldn't change can be done with the 20kWs. I love that lamp.”

In one dimly lit scene in particular, for the “Light My Candle” number, Goldblatt used ellipsoidals because of their shuttering ability. “In this scene, there is virtually no light at all, so I deeply encouraged Chris to play against the windows with the night sky and street lighting on the windows,” he explains. “We see [Roger and Mimi] in silhouette, but on occasion, they had to come into slivers of light to see the faces, plus she keeps blowing the candle out. The ellipsoidals have controllable slivers of light with a believable night effect that also let us get something onto the faces.”

On November 23rd, Rent is due in theatres across the country.

Rent:The Movie

Equipment

2 Cinemills 18kW HMI Fresnel
2 Cinemills 12kW HMI Fresnel
2 Cinemills 6kW HMI PAR
2 Ianiro 6kW HMI Fresnel
4 Cinemills 4kW HMI PAR
3 Cinemills 2.5kW HMI PAR
2 Cinemills 2.5kW HMI Fresnel
2 1.2kW HMI PAR
2 Ianiro 575W HMI Fresnel
1 Bug-Lite 200W HMI
4 ETC Source Four® HMI Ellipsoidal
2 Cinemills 20kW Quartz
4 Mole-Richardson 10kW Quartz
4 Mole-Richardson 5kW Quartz
15 Mole-Richardson 2kW Baby Jr. Quartz
19 Mole-Richardson 1kW Baby Baby
9 Mole-Richardson 650W Tweenie
7 Mole-Richardson Mini- Mole
2 Mole-Richardson Teenie-Mole
1 Dedolight
2 2kW Zip Soft
2 750W Soft
2 400W Soft
4 Mole-Richardson Mighty-Mole
5 Mole-Richardson PAR64
6 Mole-Richardson 9-Lite Molequartz
3 One-Light Fay
3 Two-Light Fay
2 30 Light Raybeam
1 Lowell Light K5 P140
4 Lowell Light 1,000W Rifa-lite
1 Lowell Light 750W Rifa-lite
12 Chimera 60% Grid 4,000W
4 Chimera Lantern, Small
4 Chimera Lantern, Medium
6 Kino Flo 4' 4Bank
5 4' Kino Flo Double Bank
1 9" Kino Flo Car Kit
*Partial list, West Coast shoot