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Oscar winning/contender cinematographer John Seale has totally changed the way he shoots these days; he’s become “unashamedly a realist,” he tells Andrew L. Urban, talking about the making of Cold Mountain, with Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and director Anthony Minghella – who all became like family and partied a lot in the middle of Romania. Work fast, drive slow, he says, as he admits bribing his crazy driver to slow down.

Together with pre-production and the principal photography, John Seale spent eight months on the making of Cold Mountain, an epic story set in 1865. Some of it was shot in the wilds of Romania, some in the American South at and around Charleston.

The story: When Ada Monroe’s (Nicole Kidman) widower minister father (Donald Sutherland) moves from Charleston to a small southern village, she briefly meets young Inman Jude Law), and each senses an instant attraction. They barely have time for a first kiss when Inman is off to war as a Confederate soldier. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and although most of their letters never reach the recipient, they long for each other amidst the terrifying circumstances of the war. Inman is badly wounded, Ada is left poor and hungry when her father dies. Into her life comes young and pragmatic Ruby (Renee Zellweger), to show by example what a young woman can achieve besides knowing the gentle arts, with the help of nature and her own hands. As Inman tries to head home to Ada at Cold Mountain, the war continues to interrupt his journey, and the hatred bred of the war exacts its vicious price on all of them. 

You’ve shot close to 40 films in your career, ranging from Careful He Might Hear You in 1983, The Firm in 1993, and Cold Mountain in 2003, not to mention the Oscar winning work on The English Patient in 1996. Has your approach or philosophy changed over the years?
Oh, totally . . .totally changed. There was a time when we cameramen all strived for perfection in cinematography, and I’m slowly getting out of that. Well, I did slowly get out of it, and now I’m right out of it. Now I’m pretty rough with cameras and lighting; I tend to find now the less you light the better it’ll look, and the more realistic it looks. I am unashamedly a realist cameraman; that works for me. And I now love moving the camera a lot, using zooms, hiding them in the movement of the actors – and trying to get as much drrriiive into the cinematography as possible.

And you do like pace…
I love working fast, and now I’ve got multiple cameras on all films. Two or three…I get very frustrated if there’s only one camera and I can see another shot. The cost of putting another camera in is nothing compared to the cost of stopping and setting up the camera for that little shot.

What about hand held? That seems quite fashionable in features these days?
Yes, we did a bit in Cold Mountain, mainly in the battle scene as you can tell, when we were deep in amongst the guys. I’ll use anything that’s right . . . Steadicam, cranes, hand held, anything. But only if it’s right; I’m not one of those people who would use hand held for an entire film. There are emotional moments in a film that shouldn’t be hand held: they should be locked off so that the audience can just suck in that emotion from that actor. 

This is your third film with director Anthony Minghella (after The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley) and we’ve talked before about how you both like to collaborate; how much of that was there on Cold Mountain?
Anthony is a great collaborator; he’s a brilliant writer and director I feel, but still asks for collaboration. Sometimes once directors get the accolades at the level that Anthony has, they tend to be a sort of one man band; but Anthony is still a great collaborator – and requests that. It gives you an opportunity to put forward your own thoughts – and you have to get used to rejection early on because not every one of your ideas is going to be accepted. (laughs) But you can end up with this great little team in the cold, or the mud, or the rain, making the film, and you’re all in there together. You’re never quite equal because of your position, but you’re equal in the collaborative process.

Out of that, I was able to bring to the film the use of our equipment in a new manner, which meant the camera was on the move. It was on cranes the whole time, either short little ones, about four to six feet long, or big ones up to 30 feet long. Everything was on the move; if the actors moved, the camera moved with them. I was hoping it would have a sense of movement all the time; that Inman’s (Law) journey is forward moving. He knows where he’s going and he wasn’t going to be deterred. I felt the camera should move with him – even in a little scene around a fire.

And because I was operating the camera as well, I was able to facilitate that. And because of pre-production collaboration, I knew how Anthony might shoot certain scenes, I was able to stay with him on it, and once behind the camera, I was actually able to do things that he didn’t ask for – and I wouldn’t get fired (laughs). And I think we got a better film for it…. We never gave the actors marks. Just said ‘go for it’…I never had to tell them they missed their mark, and I loved that.

What are some of your best memories from the shoot?
There’s a million of them, Andrew. We had a lovely family feel about the whole shoot. We had lovely dinner parties, mainly over at Anthony’s house; there were lots of parties with the actors, parties all the time and you could just wonder down and have a party if you wanted. We were all alone, this little family, in the wilderness of Romania…

And what about worst moments…?
On the Bucharest plains we had these quite thunderous storms, and the tents, the catering marquee would be all blown away and ripped, and we’d try to hold them down. Lot of mud… and some of the Romanian drivers are crazy! I used to pay my man the equivalent of about $30 a week, just to drive slower!

Published January 15, 2004

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John Seale


... on the set of A Perfect Storm

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