Tom Stern, ASC, AFC, rips out all the “bugs” in Clint Eastwood’s new biopic, J. Edgar

There are as many opinions of J. Edgar Hoover as there are his agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation,(FBI), which he helped create and led for 50 years. Lauded by some as a hero and patriot, reviled by others as a ruthless manipulator with unparalleled power within the U.S. government, Hoover is undoubtedly one of the most oversized figures of the 20th century.

Who better to bring his story to the screen than one of America’s most enduring icons, director Clint Eastwood? Working with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role (whose resume already includes the larger-than-life Howard Hughes), Eastwood turned to cinematographer Tom Stern, ASC, AFC, who has shot his last 10 movies. The Imagine Entertainment and Malpaso Production drama also re-teamed the pair with producer Brian Grazer, whom they had worked with on the Oscar-nominated Changeling.

Grazer is no stranger to true-life stories. He won a Best Picture Oscar for A Beautiful Mind and numerous Oscar nominations for Frost/Nixon, and Apollo 13. The much-lauded producer, who was honored by the Producers Guild of America with a David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award, says he’s always been fascinated with law enforcement agencies, particularly the FBI.

“It was created by somebody who was uniquely polarizing,” Grazer describes. “[Hoover] brought science to crime fighting and was a real patriot, yet he also gained access to so much information on so many different people that he became one of the most powerful men of the 20th century.”

To flesh out Hoover’s very private world, Grazer brought in Dustin Lance Black. The writer’s 2009 film, Milk, won an Original Screenplay Oscar for deftly chronicling the life and tragic death of the famed San Francisco human rights activist, Harvey Milk.

As Black notes of the conflicted FBI leader: “Here is a man who served under six presidents, and, as many people know, exerted a lot of control over those presidents. He was so brilliant in his youth. How did he go from that to being the example of ultimate power corrupting? I heard horrendous things about him [and yet] through my research, it became clear that this was a man who was denied access to a loving relationship.”

Black’s research, carried out over a year and a half, included not only published biographies, but also access to FBI files and first person interviews with people who had worked for Hoover and his protégé, FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer), who may, or may not, have been Hoover’s lover. [The rumors circulated for years bolstered by such things as Tolson inheriting Hoover’s estate, moving into his house, and upon his own death being buried a few yards from Hoover in the Congressional Cemetery.] Dame Judi Dench portrays Hoover’s mother in the film.

J. Edgar covers a vast part of Hoover’s life, from his early 20th century upbringing, just steps from Washington D.C.’s Capitol building, through the 1960s. Linking it all together was the dramatic thread Grazer and Black chose: the Charles Lindbergh trials. The ambitious film, which had a similarly short (40-day) schedule as Eastwood’s one-location intimate drama, Gran Torino, involved a week’s shooting in Washington, D.C., and extensive prosthetic make-up for DiCaprio.

“It was a challenge,” says producer Rob Lorenz, who joined Malpaso as a 2nd AD on The Bridges of Madison County. “The studio had some real concerns about the commercial prospects for a historical picture about the life of J. Edgar Hoover. They were only willing to spend a certain amount of money and we had to fit it into a real tight schedule. Unlike many of our films, we had constant changes of locations.”

Of course, one need only glance at the back-to-back World War II films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, one in English, the other in Japanese, to understand that the Malpaso team thrives in challenging production environments.

The secret, according to both Lorenz and Stern, who started in Malpaso as a lighting technician and gaffer before debuting as a DP on 2002’s Blood Work, is that Eastwood’s built an organization devoid of ego, where even the biggest stars are dutiful team players. [Lorenz learned after she had finished her sequences for J. Edgar, that Dench had broken her toe while filming her previous film, but didn’t want anyone to know.]

“I’ve worked with Clint for over 30 years,” Stern describes, “and he’s able to work in ways that a lot of people can’t, but that everybody responds to. His methodology is contrary to the freelance aspect of the business, the constant reshuffling of crews.”

A-camera operator Stephen Campanelli echoes that thought. “I’ve been working on his films for 17 years,” Campanelli says. “When we hear Clint’s going to do another movie we all get very excited and drop everything else to make sure we’re available to accommodate the schedule. The Malpaso family is a labor of love.”

And that long-standing creative rapport has translated into an efficient visual shorthand. “We don’t talk about what we’re setting out to achieve,” Stern shares. “When we were doing Flags of Our Fathers, I gave Clint four photo books on World War II in the Pacific theater. I put 14 or 16 post-its on images that I felt had a kind of resonance. I’ll stick the book under his nose. He’ll leaf through it, move one or two post-its, then we’ll go start the movie!”

Workflow is also devoid of drama. Using a Panavision Platinum for the A camera and an XL for Steadicam work, Stern describes the approach as decidedly old school. “With my background in lighting,” he begins, “I thought it would be simpler if we just had one set of lenses. Panavision has been very helpful over the last decade in evolving these lenses that are basically based on the Cs [anamorphic], which are the old lenses. They’re not particularly fast, but they’re small. I have shot with them around the world and Panavision keeps them aside for me. We probably shoot 85 percent of the films with three lenses, the 40, 50 and 75.”

Add 1st AC Bill Coe: “Clint wants people to see the environment the actors are in. He knows you can tell a lot about the state of the character by the actor’s body motion, so he likes saving the tighter moments for a really important part of the scene. He lets the audience know, OK, be prepared for this, because we’re going into a 100 mm close-up. And he’s always right. I can always tell when he feels something really special is happening because he’ll go to that one extra lens, tighter than he usually does. We did that on J. Edgar quite a bit, so I could tell he was really enjoying what was happening with the actors and they were giving something special.”

Stern says he chose Fuji Vivid stock – also used on Herafter – because his director “likes extremely deep and informed blacks,” he explains. But, at the end of day, the space Eastwood gives to his actors to perform towers above all technical concerns.

“I think it’s in Clint’s DNA,” Stern laughs. “He has always encouraged me to step back, and that’s the most challenging part of his films – keeping the technology out of the way of the performance. On the last day of the shoot, Leo said to me he never imagined doing a script like J. Edgar and having it done so unobtrusively. Sean Penn said the same thing to me after Mystic River. I think that adds a lot to the performance.”

Campanelli reveals that camera angles are often determined just prior to filming. He singles out a two and a half page dialogue scene between DiCaprio and Hammer.

“Clint said, ‘Steve can you go backwards through these two doors, then into this hallway, stop here, pivot around and let the actors go into this room?’ I said sure.

“It was really a tricky shot because the doors weren’t wide and I had to cut into them because the actors were walking fast. Clint likes actors to walk and talk quickly because it adds energy to the scene. We did it one time and it’s in the film, which makes me feel great. Sometimes you do these complicated Steadicam shots and they end up getting cut up by the editor, even though it’s all there.”

Another shot, illuminated by a 4 x 4 bounce card, involved Campanelli walking backward down the exterior steps of the Capitol Building. “It was 75 or 85 steps,” he recalls. “Clint asked if I wanted to rehearse it. I said, I don’t think I should because I might not make it back up! We added a little coverage and that was it.”

Campanelli says one of the reasons Eastwood’s camera teams can be so spontaneous is that Stern can do in 20 minutes what some DPs may take half a day on. Gaffer Ross Dunkerley says the credit goes to Stern’s own background in lighting.

“I’ve worked with two DPs who were gaffers, Michael Weaver and Tom,” Dunkerley says. “When you work with someone who’s been a gaffer, they really understand the most streamlined way of doing things.

“Of course, everybody works differently,” Dunkerley adds. “Some DPs like a ‘let’s-try-this’ approach. They’ll use a lot of time figuring out what they want to do. But with Tom, we commit to a play. It may not be the greatest plan, but we commit to it and we make it work. If it’s not great, we make up for it on the next setup.”

Because J. Edgar covers so much of the 20th century, some unique approaches to lighting were required. Eighty year-old James J. Murakami first worked with Eastwood as a set designer on Unforgiven. Murakami, whose art direction credits include Apocalypse Now, One From the Heart and The Natural, became Eastwood’s production designer on Letters From Iwo Jima, assisting the filmmaker’s long-time collaborator, Henry Bumstead, who would pass away that year. He cites the recreation of the Justice Department interior, including Hoover’s offices and several hallways, on the Warner Bros. soundstages, as the film’s most complex set.

“The scale was just huge,” Murakami recalls. “And I worked very closely with Tom on helping create places to hide his lights – one of the biggest considerations when designing a set. We added some shallow beams, cut some holes just beyond the beams so he could get lights up inside. The holes could later be plugged up and then they were also able to bounce lights through the doors.”

Dunkerley says he had to swap out period fixtures for fluorescents to accommodate the time change to the 1960s and 70s. “We also used six to eight ARRI T12 Tungsten Fresnel lights on a sliding rail system that we could point into any of the windows,” he explains. “This allowed them to look straight out the windows without seeing any of the lights. Additional T12s were on the ground. 6K Spacelight softboxes were built above the ceiling. It was one of the only real significant rigs we built for the movie.”

Because of the spontaneity of Eastwood’s direction, key grip Charles Saldana, who has worked with him since they met on Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz, maintains a 48-foot trailer of equipment, just in case the director has a moment of inspiration.

“Whenever I come across something that we need, build or manufacture,” Saldana notes, “I put it in this trailer and keep it with me because I know, maybe years later, Clint will say, let’s use that. So I have what I think he’ll use and has used over the last 30 years.”

Was there ever a time when Saldana was caught unprepared? “On Million Dollar Baby, in the hit pit,” he grins, “there was a piece of exercise equipment that you stand on and pivot. It was like a turntable. Very smooth, very heavy, I guess it’s for your lats. Clint said, ‘Charlie, this would be great as a lazy Susan.’ I said, ‘Clint, we’ll put it on the truck.’ Lo and behold we get to Iceland for Flags of Our Fathers and he says, Charlie, this would be a great shot for that lazy Susan. But I had left it in storage! He’s never asked for it again, but you know, I carry it.”

DI Colorist Jill Bogdanowicz at Technicolor is a more recent addition to the Malpaso team. She says creating three separate period looks, per Eastwood and Stern’s requirements, was the most challenging, and fun, part of her contributions to J. Edgar.

“Each period required a defined look so the audience would quickly know where we were in the story,” she recounts. “For the 20s, when J. Edgar is young, the color is very desaturated. It is a little bit higher contrast than in the rest of the movie. When you get to the 60s, it has a little more color and contrast. It’s more subtle and elegant. I used DaVinci Resolve, a color corrector.”

Bogdanowicz, who has worked with Stern on several past films, adds that she supervised the dailies on J. Edgar, while another colorist did the day-to-day work. “I worked with Tom very early on to establish the look,” she describes. “Then when we got to the digital intermediate work, I was well versed in what it should look like so I did my own pass. From there, Tom came in on a weekend and a half, because he was shooting another movie, Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games, and he spent time with me going through the whole thing. Then Clint came in and he wanted a much stronger look for the 20s. He said, ‘Jill, think of Iwo Jima,’ which were the first films I worked on with him, and I said, ‘O.K.’ and pushed it even further.”

Stern says Eastwood’s approach to filmmaking – akin to a long-standing theatrical players company, with an ever-growing list of return collaborators – is what helps the director, who turned 81 this year, to continue to make outstanding and relevant adult-oriented films. “It’s much easier these days [for the studio] to fund a comic book sequel than an adult drama,” the cinematographer reflects. “So Clint is very economically responsible. He’s not going to say, give me $150 million to make my J. Edgar movie, because if you want to play in a $150 million dollar sandbox, there’s going to be a lot of people telling you what to do. If you want to do a fine oil painting, nobody’s going to bother you.”

By Ted Elrick / photos by Keith Bernstein