Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award nominee Stephen Goldblatt about working with Richard Donner and lensing the first two Lethal Weapon movies…
Richard Donner, Danny Glover and Mel Gibson filming the original Lethal Weapon.
Teaming with Richard Donner (Superman), Stephen Goldblatt (The Help) captured the cinematic antics of Mel Gibson (The Year of Living Dangerously) and Danny Glover (Places in the Heart) in Lethal Weapon (1987) and Lethal Weapon 2 (1989). “Michael Riva [The Color Purple] who has unfortunately passed away was the designer of the two Lethal Weapons that I worked on, he made remarkable sets. For example the big sequence in Lethal 2 where the iconic Hollywood house comes down the mountainside, all of the interiors were shot on a set even though the place was large enough to have accommodated us. We built the set for various practical and safety reasons so we could tilt it and blow it up without anybody being killed. It’s the trick of shooting film which can seamlessly go from a real location to an interior set and back out again; that is part of the problem and excitement. There is no doubt that a great location has tremendous reality and flexibility.” Continuity can be problem with changing natural and practical elements such as clouds and sound. “I like shooting on sets and making them look real. Many directors have a negative knee-jerk reaction to filming anything on-set. Sometimes directors felt that shooting on a stage was too close for comfort to the studio and they preferred to be shooting thousands of miles away.”
A famous action scene moment occurs with Mel Gibson running down Hollywood Boulevard. “It was hard to get an exposure,” remembers Stephen Goldblatt. “There wasn’t much lighting. Now with digital it’s a piece of cake; you wouldn’t think twice. But then shooting anamorphic on Lethal 2 it was a problem to get exposure. One of the things I did was I flashed the film stock; it was called 5295 at the time. It was a contrasty and fast Kodak colour stock. To get exposure there were tricks to flashing and pushing the negative. It was difficult. Hollywood Boulevard has a lot of ambient light and then we added to it slightly. It did exercise my mind to get exposure there.”
Martin Riggs portrayed by Gibson incorporates an unorthodox approach to bringing a potential suicide jumper down from a building with the assistance of handcuffs. “I had moved to Los Angeles a year before that and I used to have breakfast in the coffee shop at the bottom of that white building [Emser Carpets]. When we were scouting locations with Dick Donner, I said, ‘Listen Dick I have this idea. Couldn’t we shoot this jump at the carpet warehouse? It is bright white stucco and blue sky on Santa Monica Boulevard. It looks beautiful everyday.’ I was coming out of the grey and rain of London and driving a convertible in Hollywood. It was wonderful. My enthusiasm got Dick’s interest and he went to look. He said, ‘Sure kid.’ What was good about it was that we could build that palisade in a parking lot at Warner Bros and get close-ups looking back up at the sky and the jumpers. It was a complete match. Then at the top of the building we used a big old Louma Crane, we didn’t have a Technocrane at that time. It all came from having breakfast there and admiring the white stucco against the blue California skies. It gave the sequence a graphic quality as well as great acting and stunts. By the way, those are real stunts. There is nothing digital about them. The stunt doubles really had to jump from that high into an airbag. It was dangerous.”
A quieter sequence features Riggs contemplating suicide in his trailer by putting a gun into his mouth. “Action sequences will have a number of cameras and this is obviously very different from shooting intimate scenes,” observes Stephen Goldblatt, “where we have to shoot with one camera, minimum crew and be very aware of the actor’s needs and difficulties. Mel was deeply into his character so we had to be sensitive to his feelings and to what he was going through. His performance is superb. You can feel his distress and not like television tears but heartfelt.”
Along with Richard Donner, the cinematographer consulted with other key members of the production team. “I was always collaborating with Riva and also with Stuart Baird [Skyfall], the editor. We would always talk about how sequences were going. Stuart famously would go to Dick and act out what he needed. He would be Mel, Danny, and the bad guys. Stuart would say, ‘We’ve got to have this shot.’ He was cutting all of the time. I don’t think it’s the difficulty of working things out which I remember. It’s the enjoyment of the collaboration between the different departments – the editor, the designer, the director and the actors. I did come up with the idea of the continuous helicopter shot going around the building and into a medium shot of the blonde girl on the chaise longue before she throws herself off the balcony to her death. This was the title sequence of Lethal 1. We had a stabilized helicopter mount. Once more I had the exposure problems of shooting film stock at night and with a slowish zoom lens. We ran the camera at 18 frames thus getting a half a stop more exposure, then as the helicopter came in closer to the building and the lens zoomed towards the girl’s lying on the chaise, I brought up the light in the room because we were slowly increasing our camera speed from 18 frames to the normal speed of 24 frames per second. I was hidden underneath that chaise watching the helicopter. As it approached the window I was slowly bringing the light level up, not only on the interior with the girl, but also on the exterior of the building. That took quite a lot of nerve as it wasn’t a common shot.”
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.