A conversation with award-winning cinematographer Andrew Wheeler and his AFI mentor, Stephen Lighthill, ASC

Youssef Alsheikh as “young Mehdi” in Thief / Courtesy of Andrew Wheeler

Cinematographer Andrew Wheeler shot his thesis film, Thief, while earning a Master of Fine Arts at the American Film Institute. The 24-minute short, which has racked up more than a dozen international awards, focuses on two periods in the life of Saddam Hussein, and is told in the Iraqi Arabic language with English subtitles.

The opening sequence takes place in 1959, when Hussein is a young man. The setting is a dirt-poor family farm made up of a father, mother and their teenage son. When a disheveled looking Hussein crawls out of the river nearby, he is befriended my Mehdi (Youssef Alsheikh), who brings him back to his dirt-poor family farm. After some conversation, Mehdi’s father (Ayman Samman) invites the stranger into the house, where he cleans and wraps a makeshift bandage around his wounded leg. They share a meal, and the father offers to drive Hussein to town. He repays the family’s hospitality by stealing their cherished truck. More than 40 years later, Hussein, now on the run from American soldiers, returns to the farm, where he is reunited with Mehdi, who has become a goat herder (Maz Siam).

Few thesis films have enjoyed as much notoriety as Thief: so far it has earned a Narrative Gold Medal at the 2011 Student Academy Awards and First Place Drama and Best Director at the College Television Awards, along with double top honors in the Cinematography and Student Film competitions at the 2011 Big Bear International Film Festival.

I talked with Wheeler and his mentor, Stephen Lighthill, ASC (Cinematographer in Residence at AFI), who brings a broad range of experience to his teaching duties. Lighthill began his eclectic career in San Francisco as a news cameraman for CBS-TV and 60 Minutes before segueing to network television (Nash Bridges, She Spies) and independent narratives and documentaries that include Always Been a Rambler, Surfing for Life, and Berkeley in the Sixties.

(R) Maz Siam as “Mehdi” and (L) Muneer Katchi as Saddam Hussein / Courtesy of Andrew Wheeler

ICG: Andrew, where were you born and raised? Were you a movie fan or photo hobbyist as a kid?

Andrew Wheeler:  I was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Pittsburgh. When I was five years old The Natural was released, and it [and still is] my favorite movie. It convinced me to be a baseball player. It was also the same year my parents won a video camera in a raffle, and I soon became obsessed with that camera.  Later on in high school, I took a video production class where my teacher, Dr. Judith Hulick, instilled confidence in me to pursue my passion. During my junior and senior years, I was allowed to attend cinematography classes at the University of Pittsburgh every Friday.

ICG: What other experiences influenced you as a filmmaker?

Wheeler: The biggest influence was playing guitar in a hardcore punk band. I spent five years touring in more than 40 countries. It was our mission to play where Western bands never went, including Borneo, Sumatra, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia, Finland, Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia.  I saw the sun set differently in so many places, and recognized that human emotion is universal. I also learned to deal with challenging situations and people in a diplomatic way. Sometimes I feel like my cinematography career got started late, but I wouldn’t trade the experience of meeting people around the world.

ICG: How did Thief become your thesis project?

Wheeler: I befriended [director] Julian Higgins during my first year at AFI. We teamed up with [editor] Justin Laforge before we had the script that Julian wrote in collaboration with Matthew Wieland. Julian and I walked around the Silver Lake Reservoir many times discussing the story and life in general. We must have walked 100 miles.

(F) Youssef Alsheikh and (R) Sana Etoile as Mehdi’s mother/ Courtesy of Andrew Wheeler

ICG: Tell us more about Thief. It’s been wildly successful for a student thesis project.

Wheeler: It’s a coming-of-age story about the moment in your life when you realize the world is a dangerous place and everyone isn’t well intentioned. Most of the film takes place at the same house. It was a nice family home in 1959, but over 40 years later, it has become a dilapidated, squat looking house.

Stephen Lighthill: Did you choose to shoot in an actual house or a set?

Wheeler: Erika Walters (production designer) and her team did a fantastic job building the house on a movie ranch in Acton, California.

Lighthill: The actors speak in the Iraqi dialect with subtitles. How did Julian find actors who spoke the language?

Wheeler: The cast is a mix of experienced actors and first-timers. Julian went to plays, film festivals, mosques and other places to find Arab actors. We were lucky to find the boy, as he was one of only a few young, Arabic-speaking actors in Los Angeles. The two actors who play young and old Saddam Hussein are both Iraqi. The actors playing the young and old version of the boy he meets are Egyptian and Palestinian. The mother is from Morocco, and the father is from Egypt. The actors were thrilled to be playing humanistic Arab characters just as much as we were to be making a hopeful film about humanity.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Kitchens

ICG: Tell us more about your collaboration with your director.

AFI emphasizes collaboration on all levels. I have an immense amount of respect for Julian (Higgins). He enabled everyone to bring their best to the table and he respected their craft.  Julian bounced ideas off of me. He trusted me to interpret them.

Lighthill: What films did you use for visual reference?

Wheeler: I was mostly influenced by the cinematography in There Will Be Blood, shot by Robert Elswit, and Hud, shot by James Wong Howe. It’s funny because they are both anamorphic films and Thief is 1.85:1.  It was just the tone of those films that I really liked.

ICG: Why did you choose to shoot in 1.85:1?

Wheeler: We tested 2.40:1 and 1.85:1 at our location. After long discussions, Julian and I agreed to shoot on 3-perf super 35 mm negative composed in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, because it emphasizes the steepness and secluded nature of our location. We used a Panavision G-2 camera with Ultra Speed Mark II lenses that AFI has on loan from Panavision. Kodak donated most of the film, and we received a grant from Technicolor to do processing, DI postproduction and prints.

ICG: Stephen, what were your impressions of Andrew’s work on Thief?

Lighthill: One of the things that I love about the movie is how they created two distinct period looks. They used nuanced images, much like words in the script. There is a scene that takes place by the Tigris River, which they shot at the Salton Sea. Other than that, the story evolves outside of and inside the house. Probably, because of my documentary background, I like narrative films that reflect the world around the characters.

Courtesy of Reid Chavis

ICG: Andrew, how did you make the two eras look and feel different?

Wheeler: I learned an important lesson from my first film at AFI.  Especially in a short film, you need to be careful not to make things look too dissimilar, or else the scenes seem like different films. Everything has a little more color and life in the 1959 scenes. The production design was a big part of that look. For the 1959 scenes in the house, I exposed for the interior, so you don’t see quite as much outside the windows. They are slightly blown out and it feels like you are watching memories. We wanted the 2003 segment to feel like the world was imposing on our main character.  I kept the exposure on the windows, so it was darker inside. The 2003 segments have a partial bleach bypass look. We shot tests with Erika, using different film stocks, wardrobe and background colors to find the right look. After testing, Kodak Vision 2 5260 500T, color negative film was the clear choice.  I also tested different types of color correction and decided on using a Tiffen Decamired (DMR12) filter during the 1959 scenes and a half Decamired (DMR6) filter for half correction in the 2003 segments. There was a difference in skin tones between the Decamireds and an 85 filter.

ICG: Tell us about the pivotal scene where Saddam steals the truck.

Wheeler: Early in the film, the father arrives with a truck he’s bought for the family, so they can take things to market.  Later, Saddam convinces the boy to help him steal the truck. It’s the only scene that is all handheld, which heightens the drama. Julian likes to direct near the camera and is always focused on the task at hand.  I have complete trust in him. If something isn’t right, all the way down to a tiny prop, he takes responsibility.

ICG: Share some memories about the scene you filmed at the Salton Sea, when Hussein comes out of the river and meets the boy.

Wheeler: The sunset was beautiful. The biggest challenge was that the boy was a minor. Children can only work five out of nine hours in a day, including travel time. We only had a few hours to film the scene. We used bounce cards and reflectors to light.

Courtesy of Andrew Wheeler

ICG: Tell us about the DI.

Wheeler: We did a 2K DI with the wonderful (colorist) Adrian Seery. We took most the colors out of the foliage in the 2003 scenes, because we wanted a dead environment. One of Adrian’s suggestions was a saturation fade during a 20 to 25-second transition into a 1959 flashback.  I don’t think the audience notices it on a conscious level, but they feel it.

Lighthill: You told me that Thief isn’t really a story about Saddam Hussein, the dictator.

Wheeler: We were originally fascinated with the idea about someone who had everything and lost it all. That idea helped inform how we would portray Saddam.  However, Saddam isn’t the main character, and the movie works whether you know it’s him or not.

Lighthill: For me, he has a dictator’s presumption of being welcomed wherever he goes. When he returns to the farm, Hussein helps himself to the family’s meager supply of milk, yoghurt and crackers. Then, he says to the main character, “have a seat.” It’s an implied threat, because he’s carrying an AK-47 gun. He’s a guy on the run that is willing to kill to stay alive.

ICG: Stephen, what is approval process at AFI for shooting thesis films?

Lighthill: During their first year, we let them shoot their films with relatively little input. We critique the films afterwards.  During the second year, they show us the script and we discuss their plans. There is a mentor for every person on the team.

ICG: What do you take away from AFI and your time there with Stephen?

Wheeler: I didn’t realize it while it was happening, but looking back, my first year at AFI was the most influential. It was a really brutal year. We were going non-stop seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. Your film is projected in a theater with the whole school watching one week after you have finished shooting. An amazing part of the experience was that almost half of the students were foreigners. During the interview process at AFI, I don’t know if Stephen remembers this moment, he asked me what I wanted out of AFI and I said that I wanted criticism of my work. During my time at AFI his way of communicating with me was effective in that he told me things I needed to hear and often without telling me directly. He had a way of giving advice that required me to look within myself to fully realize what he was trying to say to me.

I would also add that while I obviously learned a lot and had tremendous guidance from faculty members like Stephen, in some ways, for me, the best part was hanging out with my fellow students. We all had different experiences, perspectives and ways of working.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Kitchens

ICG: Stephen, what were your impressions instructing and working with Andrew?

He came into the program with a great deal of professional set experience, mainly in the electric department, but limited photographic/cinematographic experience and knowledge. To address this, Andrew kept a notebook of still photographs, and carried a still camera everywhere. And, he was diligent in our first year technical lectures, questioning us when he was unsure of something. Definitely his saving grace as someone wanting to become a cinematographer was a desire for criticism and feedback. He was never afraid to ask questions about his own cinematography. Each narrative short he shot was better than the previous one. Even during Thief, when the die was cast, production was done and he didn’t need to hear my opinions, we still had conversations about his approach to the piece. I think his two years at AFI were successful.

ICG: Andrew, what lessons did you learn while shooting Thief?

Wheeler: I think the most important lesson I learned was to trust my instincts. You have to prepare as much as possible, but ultimately you have to decide in the moment if what’s happening is right for the film. I knew Thief had the potential to be a very good film, but it was a wonderful surprise when we started getting calls saying we were winning awards.

Lighthill: For us here at the Institute, it’s so very gratifying to have our fellows receive this recognition. I really believe the AFI curriculum is infinitely richer because of the diversity of nationalities, genders and backgrounds in our classes.

By Bob Fisher