McAlpine on Small Films, Technocrats and 'Wonderful Disasters'

I spoke with Don McAlpine, ASC, ACS, on his day off from The Dressmaker, a feature he is shooting in his native Australia. The film stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth and is being directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. The story follows a glamorous woman who returns to a small town in Australia and uses her sewing machine to take creative revenge on those who once did her wrong.

Don says it’s a tragedy with a large dose of comedy, and that his brief is “to do nothing in a normal way.” He is enjoying the chance to shoot some significant day-for-night. The film is not without visual effects — there are some greenscreen shots — but in general, it’s a story told on a human scale, and therefore quite a different undertaking for Don, whose recent credits include Ender’s Game and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

“A small film like The Dressmaker is generally just all heart,” says Don, who received the ASC International Award in 2009. “I do get enjoyment out of both experiences. Something like Ender’s Game is more a challenge of organization and of managing complex situations; you’re constantly fighting the technical to keep it from overwhelming the film. On a film like The Dressmaker, you’re out there, totally exposed. You have to get it in the next half hour and move on; there’s no coming back. Small crews are wonderful because you’re in an intimate situation with a limited number of people. On the big movie, you’re always close to your little circle around you, but beyond that you’ve got a thousand people. There’s no two ways about it: small films are instantly more pleasurable."

“At the same time, the new world we’re in with digital tools enables us to tell stories that we couldn’t tell before, like [The Chronicles of] Narnia. On a film like that, you need a good director, and you need to stay interested in the storytelling and the core performances at a human level. It’s a more technical exercise, and you have to understand what people can do to expand the story and how you are going to be supported. But then, I just fundamentally forget about that — I’ve got enough well paid minders to remind me if I’m wandering down the wrong path technically! I try all the time to look at the interaction between the characters. I find the technical questions less interesting these days. When I started off, I was an absolute technocrat. I carried a densitometer with me, and I knew everything about the whole process. Over the years, I realized that knowledge has probably been an impediment.”

Don reports that he has had two “wonderful disasters” recently, both unique projects that were prepped to some degree and then fell apart for various reasons. The first was a major production in China that had virtually unlimited funding: September 18, set in the early days of the Sino-Japanese war that preceded World War II. Don put in eight weeks of work in prep, during which time he was “treated like a bloody emperor.” He says they shot for two hours, and then the director vanished. The project never recovered.

The second disaster was Broadway 4D, a production that leased an old Broadway theater on 42nd Street in New York with the intent of refurbishing it and using it as an event cinema with interactive capabilities. Don, who earned ASC and Oscar nominations for Moulin Rouge, was brought in to supervise the photography of live Broadway production numbers, and these were planned as content for the venue. The idea was to shoot in native 3-D at 4K at 30 fps. Massive sets were built in Brooklyn, and a top Broadway lighting director also came aboard. “It was going to be brilliant,” says Don. “But one day they called us into the office and told us to go home — the bankers had pulled out. I was devastated.

“Both of those jobs were wonderful unrequited loves. They still have value because I learned a lot.”

After those two experiences, Don was a little worried that The Dressmaker might “come unstitched.” But he was two weeks in at the time of our conversation, and all was going well. Once that production wraps, he will likely retreat to his home at Macmasters Beach, where he has about 40 acres of forest out his front window.

“My rule of thumb these days is ‘time off equals time at work,’” he says. “But work remains a massive part of my life. I am 80 years old, and I probably never feel better than I do at the end of that 12-hour day. The fantastic part is the opportunity to mix endlessly with young people; to me, that is a real life-giving and energy-giving force. They are young, brilliant, enthusiastic and over-trained to hell. They all have a force of hope, and it’s wonderful to be with them.”






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