Everybody who has read Peter Carey's 1988 Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda talks about its richness, its wealth of descriptive detail, and its skill at filling in a broad 19th-century canvas at the same time that it brings the title characters to emotional life. If ever a director was well suited to a project, it's Gillian Armstrong to this one. Her version of Oscar and Lucinda, which Fox Searchlight Pictures released on the last day of 1997, has all of the qualities one has come to associate with the filmmaker--a fluid interaction between character and landscape; a sensual appreciation of objects both living and inanimate; an almost tactile visual style. DP Geoffrey Simpson, the masterly Australian cinematographer who has shot Armstrong's last three films, clearly relishes the challenge of bringing her vision to light.
"Like all good directors, Gill works hard," says Simpson, who struggles to define that something extra the director, whose credits include My Brilliant Career, Starstruck, Mrs. Soffel, High Tide, and Little Women, brings to a movie. "She's incredibly passionate about her work, and her research into all aspects of the film, from the visual to the historical, is phenomenal. She draws rough little storyboards that look like the doodles of a child; they're quite loose and often tricky to interpret. But having worked with her three times, on The Last Days of Chez Nous, Little Women, and Oscar and Lucinda, I now see these little renderings and know exactly what she means. She virtually has the film in a few lined exercise books. It's wonderful working with a director who has a very clear vision of what she wants, and adding to it."
Simpson says that Armstrong's "great sense of style" is characterized by "a color and boldness in the composition, and a sense of fun attached to it as well." He adds that "Oscar and Lucinda in particular has her directorial stamp on it."
The story of Oscar and Lucinda, which has been adapted from Carey's novel by Laura Jones, and which is mostly set in the 1860s, is as elusive as Armstrong's style. Oscar, played by a redheaded Ralph Fiennes, is the sensitive and physically fragile son of a strict rural English clergyman. He escapes the pleasure-denying constraints of his father's world, studies at Oxford, and enters the Anglican ministry. Lucinda (Cate Blanchett) is a robust Australian farm girl raised into an independent-minded woman and left a fortune by her mother. She moves to Sydney, dons socially shocking bloomers, and purchases a glassworks.
Oscar and Lucinda are brought together on a sea voyage from London to Sydney: He has been assigned a mission in Australia, and she has been on a business trip. But something deeper, and more illicit, unites them--their compulsive love of gambling, an activity that makes them feel free and alive. The shared secret ignites a largely unspoken passion between the two, who are outwardly very different. To declare himself, Oscar bets Lucinda that he can transport a church made of glass across the outback, to a remote mission settlement in New South Wales.
Following Carey's blueprint, Armstrong, Simpson, and the other core creative personnel have crafted a work of shifting motifs and contrasts. Central to the visual and symbolic fabric of the film is the connection between glass, which Lucinda reveres, and water, of which Oscar has a deathly fear. Transparent and reflective, frail yet changeable, the twin elements are a constant presence in the movie. Then there is the historical dichotomy woven through the story--a portrait of the period as both caught at the height of Victorian propriety and reserve, especially in the British-set sequences, and in an early flush of the gritty Industrial Age, represented most clearly by colonial Australia.
"Our last film, Little Women, which was set roughly at the same time, was a classic-looking period film with a lot of warm lamplight sources and that sort of thing," says Simpson. "Oscar and Lucinda was very much a departure from that. Gill talked about having a gutsier, more contemporary look, and bolder colors. The industrial thing is very big in the novel; there's a rawness in England, but more so in Australia, where it was all developing, and there was smoke and dust, and factories and docks being built. So it was a very rich, gutsy, raw kind of environment, whereas Little Women was softer and more genteel."
The film's look and style evolved over a long preproduction process, and a series of meetings between the director and DP, production designer Luciana Arrighi, and costume designer Janet Patterson. "In our first meeting, we had a conference room with books spread out over desks," says Simpson. "We had all the early Australian painters there--Tom Roberts, John Glover, Charles Condor." These artists gave the team insight into the look of Sydney and its harbor 130 years ago, and the etchings of Gustave Dore provided similar service for the docks of Victorian London. "There were some photographers too, a couple of people that Janet threw into the mix that were quite influential," the cinematographer continues. "That gave us the starting point. Then when the production was up and running, we had a big warehouse in Sydney, and Luciana had the whole visual story of the film pasted on the walls. She had colors and prints from paintings and etchings; the whole room was this mammoth library of visual references, for each of the particular scenes. Amongst those things were location stills, as we gradually found the locations."
In fact, location scouting was a major chore for Simpson, who was operating within the confines of, among other things, the film's smallish $15 million budget. "The book has 111 chapters, and this giant patchwork of descriptive information, and the film is like that, too," explains the DP. Once shooting started, that meant "a lot of location moves for the crew, so the trucks were being continually loaded and unloaded, sometimes every day a new location." In England, there were four major locations--the Cornwall coast, Oxford, a horse-racing track, and the Portsmouth docks, where the HMS Warrior, Britain's largest surviving steam and sail vessel, stood in for the ship Oscar and Lucinda board for Sydney. In Australia there were countless exteriors, including the Sydney harbor and streets, Lucinda's Parramutta homestead, the New South Wales outpost of Jackadgery, where the historical town of Bellingen was built from scratch, and for the crucial climactic sequence, locations on the Mann River.
Many of the Sydney interiors were shot in historical and national trust buildings, which Simpson found very limiting. "We couldn't paint walls, we had period furniture and we had people with white gloves who would stand around and look at us nervously as we moved cameras around," he says. "We couldn't rig lights the normal way you do when working in a practical location."
Adding to the difficulties was the film's anamorphic format, which both Armstrong and Simpson felt was essential to give the story a large enough canvas. "I had done second unit on The Road Warrior, which was my only previous anamorphic film, as well as my focus puller Sally Eccleston's," says the cinematographer. "It was a challenge for both of us. There were a number of quite longish lens shots, 100mm tracking shots moving in on Oscar or Lucinda, and using the anamorphic we had problems with depth of field and focus. So I kept the light levels up higher than I would normally--I worked at about T4 pretty much for all the interiors, sometimes even higher. Some of the small locations, I think, in hindsight, I was a bit bold in saying yes, we could make this work. In the Cornwall house where Oscar was born, the ceiling was very low, and it was very difficult to hide lights and work, especially having to crank up the level and get a 4 stop."
Several Sydney interiors were set up in warehouse spaces, including Lucinda's glass factory. "That was a process of finding a location warehouse big enough that we could build the thing in, and then dealing with practicalities like the fact that it had no real windows," says Simpson. "So we came up with an end wall, a false wall, which we could hide light behind." Another warehouse space was a Chinese gambling den that Lucinda frequents, a startlingly red environment that epitomizes the bold look Armstrong sought. "That was a terrific set for us to work in," the DP continues, "and it was actually very simple, a series of Chinese screens in an old storage shed. Luci [the familiar term for designer Arrighi, with the "c" pronounced as "ch"] painted walls that you'd see through the screens a bright color red, and we'd light that so you'd have a slash of color in the background. We had fun with gels and hard pieces of light kicking off Chinese faces, and Lucinda in the middle of it, with a lot of smoke and justifiable atmosphere."
Little Women featured muted wall colors that worked well with Simpson's package of orange and yellow gel and warm light. The bolder set palette of Oscar and Lucinda meant that "to keep those stronger blues or reds working, I didn't use strong warm-colored light on the night stuff, because it doesn't work well with the wall colors," he says. "So some of the film is probably not true to source in the sense that it should have been warmer." Nevertheless, Simpson's gaffer, Peter Bushby, carried a standard tungsten package of 1ks, 2ks, 5ks, and 10ks, and normal nighttime colors. But the gaffer had to expand his daylight package for the film, says the DP, who adds that in Australia, it is customary to own one's equipment. "Peter had a truck with a lot of nice new lights, but I said to him, 'We're going to need a couple of big lights,' which he didn't have. He bought two 18k HMIs and a 6k HMI. By American standards, I suppose it was a fairly small daylight package."
Interiors and nighttime exteriors for Oscar and Lucinda were photographed on 5279 stock, part of Eastman Kodak's new Vision 500 series, while daytime exteriors were shot on 5293. "I quite like using 5245, which is veryfine-grained, for bright, sunny exteriors," says Simpson. "But we didn't actuall y get as much sunshine in Australia as we had hoped."
The DP is referring to a rather confounding aspect of the Oscar and Lucinda production. In another of the film's contrasts, the grand scheme had been to posit the overcast gray light of England against the sunny brilliance of the New World, Australia. "In England, they were having one of their Indian summers, and we had a massive problem," says Simpson. "We went to beaches that were just packed with people, so we had to clear them off to get a shot. It was bright sunshine, and we had to filter it and cool it, make it look more moody. Then we got to Australia, and we had storms and rain and lightning. In one sequence, we almost got blown off a mountain." Sometimes the crew would wait out the weather, and sometimes "blaze on," but matching became the biggest problem. "You can silk people once the changes happen, and if the sun comes back out, you keep them silked," says the cinematographer. "You can maintain the overcast look much more easily. On closeups, you can bring in big lights and match, but on wider stuff, you can't really do much about the backgrounds. We did have some good days, too, and got some good stuff with the church in the sunshine."
The steel-framed glass church, which Oscar and his expedition move across the Australian wilderness and float down the river to its destination, was a logistical task for everyone, from Arrighi, who researched Charles Paxton's Crystal Palace and the work of Christopher Wren, Pugin, and Ruskin, to special effects supervisor Steve Courtley, who had to both float and flood the structure, to Simpson. "It was a fantastic lighting challenge," says the DP. "I've got photographs of the entire crew looking like Franciscan monks with black duvetyne hoods and cloaks completely covering their bodies, and the camera boat and Panaflex all draped in black. And this is in 100-degree Australian summer heat.
"There was a lot of working outside the church looking in, and inside the church photographing Oscar," he continues. "There was constant rigging of black duvetyne to hide reflections. One of the problems was that the glass was not perfectly flat, each panel was on a different angle. So you'd get one reflection surface fixed and then find that there were two more. We were seeing reflections of ourselves, or of the light sources we were putting in. I put in fill light to balance the sunlight, and there are extra lights rigged up to the top of church above the frame line, and we were getting kicks all over the place. Sometimes, we couldn't cope with it, and we actually smashed the glass and said, 'That fixes that reflection.' "
Simpson conducted tests on the glass (actually treated acrylic) by spending a day in Sydney Harbor with panels of varying textures and distortions, shooting dailies of his camera operator sitting on a stool. This individual actually came in handy elsewhere, even though the DP, who had an extensive background in documentaries before shifting to features like The Navigator, Green Card, and Fried Green Tomatoes, has operated many of his own films, including 1996's Shine. "I thought that not operating Oscar and Lucinda would give me more time to work with the grips and electrics, especially since we'd be moving quickly," he says. "I really like looking through the lens to see how things are working--having your vision focused by the darkness that frames the image. I think you have to train yourself to do the same thing looking at the light and at the actors, and try to imagine the composition. I'm getting used to the idea."
Despite the large-scale shots and landscapes he had to capture in the film, some of Simpson's favorite moments were more intimate and focused on the lead actors. "Ralph Fiennes has a wonderful face," he says. "You can use hard light or soft light, give it guts and shape. The light just rolls around it really nicely. The same is true of Cate Blanchett. They both have pale skin, much lighter than their wardrobe or the set, so they naturally stood out, and then we helped by giving them shape. There's a shot when Oscar leaves England, and he's inside the ship. We had a porthole in the background, and it was a wonderful opportunity to have quite stark light hitting one side of his face and dropping into shadow on the other.
"We really tried to mix hard and soft light," he continues. The film's varied settings meant the opportunities were numerous. "For the exteriors, we'd try to use backlight where we could. When Lucinda first arrives at the dock in Sydney, she's paying the man for the journey, he gives her a cauliflower, and she walks away. I'm not sure why, but it's one of my favorite shots in the film. It was a slightly telephoto lens, with the backlight hitting her and hitting the boat, and the buildings behind in shadow. It's a nice range of tones."
The closest thing to a romantic scene Oscar and Lucinda have takes place in a courtyard at night. "We had a moonlight source and a bit of warm light coming out of the door behind them," says Simpson. "That was a chance to use contrasting colors and a very soft light for the moon. You can contrast that with some of the harsh exteriors on the river, and softer interiors playing cards at night." Which is, finally, what the DP loved about shooting Oscar and Lucinda. "There were so many locations, so many excuses for a variety of lights, hard and soft, overcast and full flood: The full gamut of every kind of weather and interior light you can imagine."