When word started trickling out in early 2012 that director Paul Thomas Anderson was shooting some, if not all, of his latest feature The Master with 65mm cameras, excitement among cinephiles was palpable. Though Terrence Malick and Christopher Nolan, among others, had recently captured selected shots and scenes in 65mm, the format hadn’t been used extensively on a major American theatrical release since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996, and before that there had been exactly one film shot in 65mm and released in 70mm (the extra 5mm is used for the soundtrack) in 25 years: Ron Howard’s Far and Away. (The 1993 film Map of the Human Heart was shot in 65mm but released only via 35mm prints.) Even the once-widespread practice of shooting on 35mm and blowing up to 70mm had more or less died after the 1997 release of Titanic, given that one of 70mm’s big selling points – the six-track magnetic sound – was no longer so unique in the age of digital audio. By the time The Master went into production, the American film industry hadn’t just moved away from 70mm, it was moving away from celluloid in general in favor of digital capture and exhibition – a transition that made the gossip about Anderson’s latest venture all the more intriguing.
Of course, we now know that it wasn’t just gossip – Anderson did in fact shoot the majority of The Master in 65mm, supplemented with some 35mm material that was seamlessly integrated into the overall piece. The news that Anderson and his ace cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (the visual wizard behind more recent Francis Coppola films like Youth Without Youth and Tetro) were working with the large-gauge format led movie buffs to speculate on exactly what kind of movie The Master would be – was Anderson suddenly working in the mode of epic auteurs like David Lean and William Wyler, who used the enormous 65mm frame for scope and spectacle? The first people to get the answer to that question were the lucky folks (of which I was one) sitting in the audience at the Aero Theatre on August 3, 2012 for a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; after the end credits rolled, programmer Grant Moninger stood up and announced that The Master was about to have a surprise premiere in 70mm, like God and Paul Thomas Anderson intended.
The film that unspooled over the following two hours and twenty minutes proved that the director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood had lost none of his audacity. The Master used 70mm not as a way of looking outward toward sweeping vistas and massive crowds, but to burrow inside the twisted, broken soul and body of one man, WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Whereas most previous filmmakers working in the format had exploited its tendency toward scale, Anderson went the opposite way and explored its capacity for minute detail and portraiture, a choice that both served the period (evoking the style of still photography of the era) and offered a counterpoint for his theme. The bulk of The Master deals with questions of faith and identity as Quell falls under the spell of a self-actualization guru named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a character loosely based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard), and as the characters’ beliefs, motivations, and comprehension of themselves and each other grow increasingly complicated, Anderson’s imagery retains a rock-solid clarity.
Most directors wouldn’t think of 70mm as the ideal format for close-ups, but its incredible resolution gives the contemplative shots of Quell an intense, unsettling power – we do feel as though we can look straight through his eyes and into his soul, an effect beyond what Anderson would likely have achieved shooting in 35mm or digitally. (In an interview with American Cinematographer’s Iain Stasukevich, Malaimare noted that the wide-angle lenses used for close-ups with the 65mm camera system created far less distortion than he would have had to deal with in 35.) Initially, Anderson figured he would capture on 65mm and release on 35mm and DCP, aside from a few exceptions like the Aero and whatever museums and revival houses were still capable of exhibiting 70mm prints. When The Weinstein Company decided to give the film a slightly larger than expected 70mm theatrical run, Anderson discovered that the rarer format was actually a marketing tool – a draw for audiences who wanted something to separate their theatrical experience from what they could get at home.
Anderson’s gamble paved the way for Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino to conduct their own experiments with 65mm capture and 70mm exhibition in Interstellar (2014) and The Hateful Eight (2015). As had been the case on several previous Nolan releases, Interstellar was photographed (by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema) on a combination of different formats: 15-perf 65mm Imax, 8-perf VistaVision, and 35mm anamorphic. For the theatrical release, Nolan used his considerable influence as one of our most commercially successful filmmakers to convince the studio to make Interstellar available a few days early to theaters willing to project in either 70mm or 35mm as opposed to digital. Nolan’s film, a philosophically dense sci-fi epic in the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is perhaps closer to what we typically associate with 70mm than Anderson and Tarantino’s more confined uses of the format, but it’s no less striking – in fact, because the type of handmade analog filmmaking that Interstellar represents has become so rare, the movie, particularly when screened in 70mm, inspires a sense of awe in the viewer that no collection of pixels can possibly replicate. The film elicits a spiritual response in the viewer that comes from the very texture of the celluloid itself.
“Spiritual” is probably the last word one would use to describe the other major 70mm release of the last five years, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. That film, a Western in which Tarantino rips the scabs off of America’s race, gender, and class schisms with enraged gusto, is as nihilistic a picture as the director has ever made, though I’d call it less cynical than realistic – virtually everything the movie foretold in late 2015 has since come to pass in Trump’s thuggish, divided America. With his ensemble structure and elaborately choreographed framing, Tarantino toys with a kind of dark mirror image of Jean Renoir’s philosophy that “everyone has their reasons”; as in Renoir’s Rules of the Game, the characters in The Hateful Eight all have their reasons, but the reasons reflect the darkest, pettiest, most avaricious aspects of human nature imaginable. Yet as vicious as their impulses are, Tarantino respects their individuality – and the audience’s intelligence – by a sophisticated compositional design that constantly shifts perspective among the characters and frequently provides multiple points of view within the same frame.
Tarantino and his cinematographer Robert Richardson do this by employing a very specific form of 65mm photography, Ultra Panavision 70. The widest format outside of three-strip Cinerama, Ultra Panavision 70 has an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 – wider even than the widest Cinemascope movies of the mid-1950s – and hadn’t been used since 1966’s Khartoum when Tarantino and Richardson revived it for The Hateful Eight. As in the case of The Master, Tarantino largely eschews conventional uses of the format; aside from some striking winter landscape shots in the first quarter of the film, there are very few exteriors and really only one interior: the refuge where the violent strangers who give the film its title assemble. Yet The Hateful Eight uses Ultra Panavision 70 every bit as brilliantly as Khartoum or Ben-Hur, as Tarantino utilizes the added width and depth to ratchet up the claustrophobia while also subtly conveying the relationships between the characters via subtle gestures and glances that can only be appreciated on the big screen. Furthermore, Tarantino packs his frames with so many simultaneous lines of action and minor incidents that they can’t possibly be absorbed on one viewing; he completely justifies both the large-gauge format and the epic length of his Western by teasing out every possible detail of character and theme that he can on what initially appears to be a deceptively limited canvas.
Ultimately, The Hateful Eight is as much a 70mm epic as Lawrence of Arabia, but its expansiveness comes, like that of The Master, from the breadth of its social, intellectual and emotional depth and its precise attention to detail rather than the number of extras or variety of landscapes. It was entirely appropriate, in my mind, for Tarantino to use his influence with The Weinstein Company to launch a full-scale roadshow release of the picture, complete with overture, intermission, and printed programs; critics who questioned why Tarantino needed the 70mm format to tell his stripped-down narrative weren’t looking very closely. The Ultra Panavision 70 frame actually changes the very nature of the story, as the interrelationships between characters and décor in the extra-wide frame complement, comment upon, and often contradict the dialogue and explicit behavior. The power of all three of these films – The Master, Interstellar, and The Hateful Eight – comes from the fact that their directors are not using 70mm as a fetish or gimmick but as an expressive tool that is integral to both their visual and thematic structures. For my money, Anderson, Nolan, and Tarantino are the three best directors of their generation, and their forays into 70mm represent some of their very finest work – work that preserves the glory of the theatrical experience and reminds many of us of why and how we fell in love with the cinema in the first place.
Jim Hemphill is the award-winning screenwriter and director of The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.