John Schwartzman, ASC phoned me from Belfast, where he is about halfway through the 70-day shoot for Dracula Untold. He says the film is nothing like True Blood or Twilight, but instead focuses on Vlad the Impaler, the Wallachian prince who saved his country from the Ottomans and formed the basis of Bram Stoker’s more well-known vampire.
“It’s really more of a historical war movie, with lots of big exterior landscapes,” says John. “It functions as an origin story for Dracula, but it’s a beautiful script with a father-son relationship at its heart. Today, I’m a bit wind-burned. We set a wheat field on fire. The weather comes in hard and fast from the north Atlantic, and challenges us every day.”
After shooting a dual-RED rig on The Amazing Spider-Man, John is now shooting 35mm anamorphic film on his second picture in a row. He says he’s done extensive testing that shows that the format is still top dog in image quality. Prior to Dracula Untold, he was working in Los Angeles on Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of author P.L. Travers and the long and rocky path by which her creation became Disney’s Mary Poppins. John predicts Oscar nominations for the cast, which includes Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers.
“Anytime you can work with John Lee Hancock, it’s a great opportunity,” says John.
John shot Hancock’s debut feature, The Rookie, in the early 2000s. For Saving Mr. Banks, they “got the band back together.” The reunion included almost the entire crew of The Rookie, with the major exception of the late Richard Mosier, who served as first AC on the older film. The cast and crew worked for scale to help get Saving Mr. Banks made.
“It’s fantastic,” says John. “You go in with a shared sense of purpose. There weren’t a lot of cooks. This was John getting to make his movie. There is no hidden agenda or second guessing like you get with a bigger project. We made the film in 45 days, and I’m very proud of the way it looks.”
John has photographed at NASA, Pearl Harbor and Alcatraz. He came to the Spider-Man project as the proud owner of a Spider-Man No. 1 comic book and more than 6000 golden-era Marvel comic books. But he says shooting at Disneyland might be the topper. Disney helped by shutting down the park and opening the archives for period-accurate posters, costumes and set décor.
Made in 1964, Mary Poppins brought home five Oscars, including a Best Visual Effects statue for a team that included Peter Ellenshaw, father of modern-day visual effects master Harrison Ellenshaw. The thirteen nominations also included a nod for cinematographer Edward Colman, ASC. Andrews earned an Oscar in her Hollywood debut.
John remembers his mom taking him to see Mary Poppins. It was one of the first films he saw in the theater, and he strongly connected with the music, written by Richard and Robert Sherman. On the set of Saving Mr. Banks, Richard Sherman was a regular. And John’s younger brother Jason portrays Sherman in the film. The rehearsal room where that music was composed was reconstructed for the film.
“Jason played all the great Mary Poppins music, and we recorded him singing all the songs to playback,” says John. “Getting to work with my brother on the movie was such a joy. Shooting a scene with my good friends Ian Fox and Robert Presley operating cameras on either side, with my younger brother playing piano, and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney singing along — does life get any better?”
John calls John Lee Hancock and Alexander Payne the Hal Ashby and Alan Pakula of our time. “It’s not that I don’t love making the big movies — I do,” says John. “But your blog is called Parallax View — that film, I’m afraid is not going to get made today. The American corporate structure doesn’t know how to market and brand a film like that. It’s a shame for adult drama — and as adults, we lose. The stories that I love to tell visually are getting harder and harder to get made.”
John is looking forward to October 20, when he’ll fly to London to see Saving Mr. Banks screen as the closing film of the London Film Festival. “I think it’s a masterpiece,” he says. “I’m very proud of the way it looks. I think it might be my best work.”