The cinematographer shares memories of making a movie that would become an enduring favorite.
In late October, Isidore Mankofsky, ASC traveled to Michigan, as he has done for at least 18 years, to the annual Somewhere in Time Weekend at the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. The event, which draws more than 500 fans of the romantic film, includes screenings, costume promenades and formal dinners. Isidore shot the movie there in 1979, and as an honored guest of the reunion, he makes a popular presentation titled “The Making of the Film.”
In the film, a playwright (portrayed by Christopher Reeve) reaches back in time to connect with an actress (played by Jane Seymour) whose vintage portrait hangs in a historic hotel.
Mackinac Island sits in Lake Huron near the northern tip of Lake Michigan, a few miles south of the Canadian border. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island, which has a timeless feel as a result. Getting there isn’t easy — the final leg of the journey involves a horse-and-buggy ride to the hotel.
Ironically, perhaps, the story does not take place on an island. In the novel from which the film was adapted, Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return, the setting is the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. But when the filmmakers scouted that hotel, it was deemed too busy and modernized. So, they opted for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, converting a large building into soundstages to house sets that augmented the practical locations.
Isidore had worked with director Jeannot Szwarc for a few days on other projects at Universal Studios when the director offered him Somewhere in Time. Isidore recalls that Szwarc said he could only pay scale, a union-specified minimum amount. “To myself, I said I’d do it for nothing,” says Isidore. “To him, I said, ‘Sure, I’d be glad to work for scale.’ It was nice that it wasn’t a cattle call, where they call in a number of directors of photography and interview them. After a while, I quit going to those. Either they wanted me or they didn’t.”
When Szwarc and a producer came to Mackinac Island on a scout, it was a cold winter day. Dan Dewey and others from the hotel were giving the filmmakers a tour on a snowmobile. At one point, the snowmobile drove over a snowbank to a flat, snow-covered area to give the group a better view of Grand Hotel. One of the scouting group asked where the lake was. With a smile, the locals pointed down to the frozen surface and informed them that they were standing on it.
“The new [answer] print was gorgeous; it was just like Jeannot and I wanted it.”
“The trucks all came from Hollywood in those days, and they allowed us to have some picture cars,” says Isidore. “They were brought to the island on a barge with the stipulations that we only move them once a day, before many horses were out, and that we didn’t drive any faster than a person could walk."
“Working on location becomes a companionship thing,” he adds. “The crew would go out after work and socialize. I was usually too tired for that, but the family aspect of the shoot was nice.”
Isidore’s presentation at the fans’ reunion has evolved over the years, and it now includes some clips of the film along with slides of photos taken during the shoot. “I normally start it out by asking if people know what a director of photography does, and more than half the audience raises their hands, but they don’t actually know,” he says. “I explain that a cinematographer has to do many things, and the most important is to capture the director’s vision of the film. Then, I share some stories about the shoot.” Later, everyone watches the movie.
“For the film’s 20th anniversary, Universal made a few new prints, and they called me into the lab to make recommendations, as they should,” says Isidore. “The new [answer] print was gorgeous; it was just like Jeannot and I wanted it. But at the same time, they were making a DVD, and they didn’t even let us know they were doing it. It looks awful. I can’t even watch it.”
One example: Isidore used Kodak negative for the contemporary scenes and Fujifilm for the period flashback scenes so that the latter would have a softer, lower-contrast look. “When they made the DVD, they said, ‘We made it all look consistent! How do you like it?’” says Isidore. “What a shame.”
Despite this misfortune, Isidore greatly enjoys the annual reunion. “Being there and having so many people tell me they’re glad I’m there makes me feel good. It’s a very friendly atmosphere. And it’s good to have your ego built up sometimes!”