I recently connected with Tom Stern, ASC, AFC, who took time to speak with me as he was sitting near a church in a beautiful French village, watching the sun set and enjoying a glass of wine with friends. We talked about the cultural impact of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) and the project he was just finishing, Cessez-le-feu (Cease Fire), a film about a World War I veteran who goes to Africa to escape the terrible memories of the trenches.
Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, American Sniper is based on Chris Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History (co-written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice). To date, Kyle is the deadliest marksman in U.S. history, with 255 kills during four tours of duty in Iraq.
The film generated a lot of controversy. I asked Tom for his perspective on that.
“Well, I think society advances the more it thinks,” he says. “What I’ve found about American Sniper, especially since I live so much in France, is that it’s a little bit like a Petri dish: anything can grow on it. French people have come to me to say, ‘This is a celebration of American imperialism and religious racism,’ et cetera. And then I’ve met people who say it’s a triumph of patriotism. It’s intrinsically ambiguous. Because I’m kind of a quantitative guy, my approach to it was that everything has a cost. Rather than telling people what to think about it, it’s more about showing them what the cost of something like this is. The question of whether it’s right or wrong is another question. But it’s not a free lunch.”
I asked about the thinking that led to the bold imagery in the film’s sandstorm scenes, where the action is obscured nearly to the point of invisibility.
“One of the things I love about Clint is that he never underestimates the audience,” Tom says. “He feels that once you’ve given viewers enough threads of a story, if you’ve laid the foundation well, you can obscure things. I think the viewer takes it on in his imagination, and it becomes more like a novel rather than something that is being served up to his eyeballs. Clint really loves to work that way, and I must say that I’m quite fond of it, too. Ambiguity can co-opt the audience and really engage them in the story.”
Tom also talked about the use of the close-up in American Sniper. “We had a funny moment early on in the shoot,” he recalls. “I asked the prop master to get me the rifle, or something similar, and we went to Panavision and did some exploring and shot some film. Once a guy is in that sniper position, you’re almost by default in a pretty extreme close-up.
“But regarding close-ups, Clint’s view is that the fat lady only sings once,” he continues. “So I wanted to have a dialogue with him about being in tighter than we normally are. I felt it was serendipitous because it would let us get into the eyes and the character and express the studiousness and intensity that a guy like Kyle needs."
“Our shot of the sniper was on something like a 75mm lens, and we’d go from that to an extreme telephoto shot, something like 1600mm, of his point of view through the scope,” says Tom. “It’s alienating. There’s a coldness about the way Kyle experienced the world around him, through the scope. Once Clint saw that there was really no way around it in this case, he felt very comfortable, and it was never an issue. But it was good to explore the options in advance.”
Tom enjoys striking a balance between bigger projects like American Sniper and smaller European films like Cessez-le-feu, which he made with a first-time feature director, Emmanuel Courcol. A few days after we spoke, he was heading back to the United States to begin prepping Eastwood’s feature Sully, the story of U.S. Airlines pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who safely landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in 2009, saving more than a hundred lives.