In Memory of Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (1956-2015)

Australian cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, most famous for photographing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and the Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014), has passed away from a heart attack at age 59. Lesnie, who won an Oscar the one time he was nominated (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001), also made his mark with two other Peter Jackson films, King Kong (2005) and The Lovely Bones (2009), in addition to photographing other films including Babe (1995), Babe: Pig in the City (1998), I Am Legend (2007), The Last Airbender (2010) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). His final film, The Water Diviner (2014), which was directed by Russell Crowe, was just released in American theaters – in IMAX, no less – this past Friday. In a recent Associated Press review of The Water Diviner, Lesnie’s cinematography was described as “so exquisite that sometimes it alone propels the story.”

(Peter Jackson and his director of photography, Andrew Lesnie, on the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2011.)

In honor of Lesnie’s wonderful cinematography in the Lord of the Rings films, I would like to highlight some of the scenes he shot in each part of the trilogy. Although this talented man has left us far too soon, his work will not be forgotten by legions of fans all over the world. His mastery of the camera will continue to inspire both viewers and makers of movies.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – Our introduction to Frodo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf makes the Shire look as lush and green as every Tolkien fan must have imagined while reading the book. It is easy to see how Lesnie won an Oscar for his photography here.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – The “Evenstar” scene is my favorite part of the film. Aragorn’s memory of an encounter with Arwen is dreamlike but it is not filmed in typical soft focus; instead it is clear, the light casting a goddesslike glow over Arwen’s flowing gown and pale skin. Half of the beauty is in Howard Shore’s score, but the other half is in the images, especially when they have a blue tint.

I spoke too soon: I have another favorite part of The Two Towers (it is, after all, my favorite film in the trilogy). The battle of Helm’s Deep, as shown in these two videos, is intense every time I see it. Even after twelve years, the combat is heart-pounding. From the dark blue shadows of the fighting in the rain to the bright white light of Gandalf’s victorious charge forth into the fray, the cinematography is a significant part of what creates the sense of “epic” storytelling.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – In the final chapter of the trilogy, the big heroic battle shows the scope of this heroic struggle for the soldiers of Rohan (“the Rohirrim”) to slay the invading Orcs. The monumental clash of the two armies is the essence of the excitement in Peter Jackson’s LOTR films: it has all the thrill and grandeur that we came to expect of Andrew Lesnie’s camerawork.

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Update: Wonder Woman’s New Director

Just days after the departure of director Michelle MacLaren from Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman film, the studio has chosen her replacement: Patty Jenkins, the director of the Oscar-winning biopic Monster (2003). A few years ago Jenkins had been attached to direct Thor: The Dark World (2013) before being replaced by Alan Taylor. This new development in the Wonder Woman production saga means that Jenkins is once more in the position of being the first woman to direct a Marvel superhero film. Exciting news!

Some More Thoughts on Women Directors and Action/Adventure Movies

In yesterday’s post I listed a number of women directors who might make good candidates for the newly open job opportunity at the helm of Wonder Woman. While it’s true that directors such as Mimi Leder and Karyn Kusama might well be qualified because of the action-oriented components of their work, it occurs to me that there is no reason why a woman director couldn’t succeed with Wonder Woman no matter what genre(s) she has been associated with. Male directors are constantly roped into superhero franchises regardless of what they have done in the past; the résumé of Marc Webb, for example, showed music videos, the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer (2009) and an episode each of “The Office” and “Lone Star” before he was signed up to direct The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Prior to directing The Green Hornet (2011), Michel Gondry was known for directing music videos and the romantic dramedies Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and The Science of Sleep (2006). And what about Kenneth Branagh as the director of Thor (2011)? Who made that decision? Because, of course, when you think “Marvel superhero” you definitely think of “the new Olivier” as the ideal choice for direction. Hmmm.

Not only does being a man help in these matters, but it doesn’t always ruin careers when male directors make films that are critical and/or financial flops. Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit tanked last year but that didn’t stop his latest film, the big-budget fairy-tale fantasy Cinderella, from debuting last month. When female directors fail – or, sometimes, even if they succeed – it can take years for them to rebound, if they ever do. Kimberly Peirce had tremendous success with her Oscar-winning debut, Boys Don’t Cry (1999), but her second film was not released until nine years later (Stop-Loss, a 2008 drama about young veterans returning home from Iraq) and her next film, a remake of Carrie released in 2013, was so mediocre – not to mention only barely breaking even at the U.S. box office – that I’m guessing it will delay Peirce’s abilities to make another movie. Mimi Leder, whom I mentioned in yesterday’s post, proved that she had the chops to make entertaining action films with The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998), but the massive disappointment of Pay It Forward (2000) has resulted in her directing only one film since then, the straight-to-DVD action drama Thick as Thieves (2009). Leder has been able to find steady employment by directing for TV (“The West Wing,” “ER,” “Shameless,” “Nashville,” “Smash,” “The Leftovers”), but evidently being the first female graduate of the AFI Conservatory (1973 – a full twenty-four years before The Peacemaker) doesn’t mean enough to Hollywood to get Leder a feature film assignment again. These are things I keep in mind as I follow the Wonder Woman story, waiting to see who will fill in for Michelle MacLaren and whether the chosen director’s past work will have any bearing on the selection.

What’s Next for Wonder Woman?

Last night I was leafing through the April 2015 issue of Vanity Fair when I came across a profile of women directors. The written piece is only one page long in the magazine, while the other five or six pages are devoted to photographs of women filmmakers over many generations, from Ida Lupino on the set of Hard, Fast and Beautiful in 1951 to Ava DuVernay filming Selma in 2014. The article ended by mentioning the most recent additions to the canon: Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which broke records on Valentine’s Day weekend two months ago, and the upcoming comic-book-adaptation Wonder Woman, which has been surrounded by a lot of hype not only because it will be the first Marvel action film to feature a female protagonist but also because of the buzz surrounding its attached director, Michelle MacLaren. MacLaren cut her teeth on such critically-acclaimed and popular TV shows as “The X-Files,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” “NCIS,” “Game of Thrones” and “Better Call Saul.” Wonder Woman was scheduled to be MacLaren’s feature film debut, in addition to being the first Marvel film directed by a woman.

Imagine, then, my surprise and disappoint to find out early this morning that MacLaren has stepped away from the project, citing “creative differences” with the studio, Warner Bros. This development is reminiscent of what happened with Patty Jenkins, the director of the Oscar-winning drama Monster (2003). Jenkins was supposed to direct Thor: The Dark World before she was fired and subsequently replaced by Alan Taylor. In the twelve years since Monster, Jenkins has not succeeded in directing any other feature films; her only work has been sporadic jobs for TV – an episode of “Arrested Development” here, an arc on “Entourage” there. Even though Jenkins won an Emmy for her direction of the pilot of AMC’s “The Killing” in 2011, her most recent work in the years since then is another pilot, a drama called “Exposed” which ABC has not picked up and which may not see the light of day.

Because Warner Bros. went out of its way to hire a female director for Wonder Woman, my hope is that the studio can find a replacement with an equally impressive résumé who also happens to be a woman. Anyone who saw The Babadook last year knows that Jennifer Kent is more than capable of delivering thrills as well as nuanced direction of actors, while more seasoned directors like Mimi Leder (of the thriller The Peacemaker and the big-budget apocalypse blockbuster Deep Impact – though the flop Pay It Forward completely derailed her fifteen years ago), Catherine Hardwicke (she found tremendous box-office success with the first Twilight movie) and Karyn Kusama (the boxing drama Girlfight, the live-action film version of the animated MTV series Æon Flux and the horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body all had female protagonists) could do well too.

Lexi Alexander has actually directed a comic-book movie in 2008, Punisher: War Zone, so her name should be thrown in the ring as well, even though the film failed at the box office (likely the reason her career has slowed down since then). A newcomer to directing, Anna Foerster, has done cinematography and special effects for action films including Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, Kusama’s Æon Flux and White Down House and she is now attached to direct two action films, Source Code 2 and Secret Hunter. One might also look to the upcoming film XX, an anthology which will feature segments all directed by women, including Karyn Kusama, Mary Harron (American Psycho) and Jennifer Chambers Lynch (a Razzie winner for 1993’s Boxing Helena who has since shown skills in the thriller and horror genres with Surveillance and Chained in 2008 and 2012, respectively).

Male directors get all kinds of chances to direct big-budget blockbusters, no matter how small-scale their initial output was; female directors have to work much harder at “convincing” both the studios and the audiences as to why they would be right for the same assignments. (There is widespread agreement now that Kathryn Bigelow is a great director of action and suspense films, but the thought was only officially accepted after her Oscar win for The Hurt Locker “legitimized” this notion, and it always comes with the disclaimer of greatness for a woman in a man’s profession.) There is no reason why a woman director cannot be just as, if not more, qualified to direct a Marvel superhero film that any man, but it remains to be seen if Warner Bros. will do right by their original commitment to telling this particular narrative from a woman’s unique point of view.

RIP Kathrine Windfeld

Kathrine Windfeld, a Danish writer-director in film and television since the mid-1990s, has passed away from a brain tumor at age 48. Her two directorial credits for feature films are The Escape (2009), a thriller starring Iben Hjejle and Lars Mikkelsen, and Hamilton: In the Interest of the Nation (2012), a James Bond-type spy adventure starring Mikael Persbrandt, Pernilla August, Jason Flemyng and David Dencik. A short film by Windfeld, Little Man (2002), won a Jury Award at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. She also directed episodes of the popular Scandinavian TV series “Wallander” (2010), “The Killing” (2012), “Rita” (2013) and “The Bridge” (2013), as well as the miniseries “The Crown Princess” (2006). The latest show that Windfeld directed for, “The Team,” starring Lars Mikkelsen, is set to debut on February 22.

RIP Helma Sanders-Brahms

German director Helma Sanders-Brahms has passed away from cancer at the age of 73. While I have never seen any of her films, I have long been aware of her films’ tendencies to defy convention and push boundaries. Her works include Under the Pavement Lies the Strand (1975), a story about actors which won German Film Awards for its two stars, Grischa Huber and Heinrich Giskes; Germany, Pale Mother (1980), probably her best-remembered film, a World War II-era drama nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival; No Mercy, No Future (1981), a fictionalized portrait of a schizophrenic woman which is notable for its explicit sex and graphic, bloody violence; The Future of Emily (1985), a drama starring Brigitte Fossey and Hildegard Knef; and Beloved Clara (2008), a biopic about the composers Clara and Robert Schumann. Sanders-Brahms tackled many difficult subjects in her films and she will be remembered for her risk-taking, a commonality amongst the other adventurous European female filmmakers of the 1970s and 80s, such as Tatyana Lioznova, Lina Wertmüller, Agnès Varda (whose 86th birthday is today), Vera Chytilová, Márta Mészáros, Liliana Cavani, Kira Muratova, Larisa Shepitko, Margarethe von Trotta and Chantal Akerman. All of these women impacted the film world with their distinct narrative voices and styles. I’m sure that Sanders-Brahms’ contributions to world cinema and the cinema of female directors will not be forgotten.

RIP Vera Chytilová

Vera Chytilová (1929-2014), a director at the forefront of the Czech New Wave in the 1960s, has passed away at the age of 85. Her most well-known and well-regarded feature film, Daisies (1966), was shown in retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the summer of 2012. Chytilová was also known for her films Something Different (1963), the omnibus Pearls of the Deep (1966), Fruit of Paradise (1970), Panelstory (1980), Wolf’s Hole (1987), A Hoof Here, a Hoof There (1989), The Inheritance (1993), Traps (1998), Flights and Falls (2000) and Expulsion from Paradise (2001), among others.

As I have written about before, there are so few women directors compared to the number of men, something which I hope will change with time. Vera Chytilová has secured her place in film history, but there is a lot of room left for more female voices in cinema, especially those who are as interested in exploring the avant-garde as Chytilová was.