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Monday, 04 June 2012 17:45

Zielinski Reflects on the U.K. Filming of Private Peaceful

Written by  Bob Fisher
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The story behind the collaboration of Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski, ASC and Director Pat O’Connor on their film Private Peaceful reads like a script for a feel-good Hollywood movie where the good guys win in the end. Born and raised in Poland, when the nation was behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, Zielinski was an avid still photographer and movie fan during his youth. He studied cinematography at the state film school in Lodz and earned his first feature-film cinematography credit for Aria for an Athlete in 1979. After the film was screened at a festival, a British embassy diplomat made arrangements for Zielinski to visit film studios in England. It was there that he met O’Connor and Producer David Putnam.

About three years later, O’Connor and Putnam asked Zielinski to return to London to shoot the feature film Cal, starring the young Actress Helen Mirren. At the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Mirren’s performance won her the Best Actress Award and O’Connor was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Zielinski then moved to England where he and O’Connor collaborated on the films Stars and Bars, The January Man and Fools of Fortune. In 1993, Zielinski planted roots in Los Angeles after shooting a film there. He has since earned an eclectic range of narrative film credits, including Washington Square, Galaxy Quest, Bubble Boy, Fun with Dick and Jane and The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, as well as the pilot for the hit TV series “Monk.” “Pat and I stayed in touch,” Zielinski recalls. “We spoke about movies and other things. Pat was involved with the producers and writers of Private Peaceful for five or six years. When the film was almost ready to go, Pat called and said that he wanted me to shoot it.”

Produced in England by Fluidity Films, Private Peaceful is based on a novel written by Michael Morpurgo and stars George MacKay, Jack O’Connell, Richard Griffiths, Alexandra Roach, Frances de la Tour and Maxine Peake. The film adaptation, written by Simon Reade, begins in 1908 on a farm in Devon, England where 8-year-old Tommo Peaceful lives with his two older brothers and widowed mother. The story then flashes forward to 1916, when Tommo and his 18-year-old brother Charlie are soldiers on a battlefield in Flanders, France during World War I. The brothers survive poison gas, artillery attacks and hand-to-hand battles with the enemy with military injustice as the theme. Morpurgo wrote the book after visiting the graves of some 300 British soldiers who were executed after being accused of cowardice and desertion during the early days of the war. Two soldiers were executed for falling asleep at their posts.profile_jerzykielinski

“After I read the script, Pat told me that he didn’t envision it as a traditional period film,” says Zielinski. “He wanted a visceral feeling. ‘Energy’ was the word he used. I liked the idea of shooting a period film with a more contemporary approach. I went through piles of still pictures and some motion-picture news film from World War I. I found pictures that were very inspirational, which were helpful in defining the right look for the time and place.”

The decision to produce Private Peaceful in Super 16 film format was made before Zielinski joined the project. The producers originally wanted O’Connor to produce the project in digital format because of the modest budget. But after looking at tests and movies produced in digital format, O’Connor didn’t feel it rendered a look that was right for this story. “Pat convinced the producers that we could get the right look within the budgetary constraints by shooting in Super 16 film format,” Zielinski says. “I agreed and also felt that the texture of Super 16 film and the smaller, lighter weight cameras were right for the story.” After shooting tests were done, Zielinski decided to use Fuji Vivid 8647 500T and Fuji Vivid 8643 200T color negative films, which he rated respectively at E.I. 400 and 160 for a richer look.

London’s Take Two provided a camera package consisting of ARRI’s ARRIFLEX 416 Plus bodies and a range of Zeiss Ultra Speed lenses. Key crew members included Camera/Steadicam Operator Marc Covington, Assistant Cameraman Jason Cuddy, Focus Puller Alex Byng and Dolly Grip Ed Lancaster, a team Zielinski describes as “terrifically talented young filmmakers.” “It was an ambitious script with about 190 scenes, including many small ones at different locations,” Zielinski notes. “About 95 percent of the film was produced at practical locations in Suffolk. The main sets were the interior of the farm house where the boys lived before the war.” The sets were built in an empty warehouse that was close to the exterior locations.

“When they told me we were shooting in England in September and October, I anticipated miserable weather,” Zielinski says. “We didn't have a day of rain, but unexpected things happened every day. I research and shoot tests, but when I come to the set I am completely open to whatever happens and to what each day brings.” Zielinski estimates that they covered approximately 95 percent of the scenes with a single camera because O’Connor wanted the story told through the eyes of the main characters. “Pat is a terrific director who is especially wonderful with actors,” Zielinski adds. “We’d usually have a conversation at the beginning of the day about the different scenes. It wasn’t necessarily related to specific shots. It was more about Pat’s ideas for how he wanted the audience to perceive scenes. I decided how we were going to light and cover shots. Generally, it was what he wanted [but] sometimes Pat said that he had a different idea. It was a very comfortable relationship with open communications. We also gave the actors a certain amount of freedom and reacted to what they were doing.”

Some war sequences were covered with two or three cameras. “The camera had to be in sync with what was happening in each scene, so it was generally on a Steadicam or handheld with only occasional dolly shots,” Zielinski explains. He also occasionally used a GoPro Helmet HD digital camera, which is the size of a matchbox, for additional coverage of war scenes from a different perspective. “It’s a very emotional story,” notes the DP. “One of the challenges was transferring emotions from the script to the screen. I wanted naturalistic lighting with very high contrast. Glamorous lighting wouldn’t be appropriate. My gaffer, Johann Criuckshank, understood what I wanted.” 

During the shoot, the film’s visual grammar evolved with the story. “Tommo and Charlie lived in a very simple world on the farm during their boyhood,” Zielinski says. “When they went to war, their lives and the world around them became much more complicated, which is reflected in camera movement, composition and choice of lenses and lighting. I used longer lenses and different framing to create a look that feels much more chaotic. That shift in visual grammar will look and feel natural and transparent to the audience.”

The film’s dailies timer was Miles Anderson at Deluxe Soho laboratory and the DI colorist was Rob Pizzey at Company 3 in London. Private Peaceful is scheduled for release in late spring or early summer 2012.

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