25th February, 2013
A film and TV cinematographer of many years standing in the US, Australian Rob Draper is directing the upcoming feature film - Nicaea. Being shot in Rome later this year, the film looks at the life of the Emperor Constantine and his role in the Council of Nicaea held in 325 AD - a key event in the early life of the church. He spoke with DAVID ADAMS via email...
First of all - congratulations on the job - sounds like a terrific project.
"Well, thanks David. It is a terrific project. A dream project to be honest. A film I feel will allow me to use all my years of experience to make a difference. A tall order for a film these days, but that is how I see it."
Is this the first film you've directed? How did that come about?
"Yes, this is the first film I have 'officially' directed. Sometimes as a director of photography you are thrust, unwillingly, into the director role during shooting, but yes, this is my first film as the director. It came about through a series of coincidences.
DIRECTORIAL DEBUT: Cinematographer Rob Draper who is directing Nicaea.
"Constantine...will, of course, be the pivotal character in the film with his actions and transformations driving us to the turning point, the Battle of Milvian Bridge and then, eventually, the Council at Nicaea. Of course, the council is seen as the point from which Western civilization really developed and was called by Constantine to force the developing church to decide on a pathway forward."
"Back in the late 1990s, I was one of the few people in Hollywood pushing HD (high definition) and a couple of producers - a father and son team, Richard and Stephen Payne - approached me to shoot some videos on the saints, in HD, for a series they were doing. I was recommended to them based on my work on The Spitfire Grill which won the audience award at Sundance.
"We did that shoot, got on great together and kept in touch. Then last year they called about me shooting a feature for a friend of theirs, Charles Parlato. They sent me the script and I loved the story and asked who was directing. At that point they had no director, so hiring a DP (director of photography) was a little 'cart before the horse-ish'. So I suggested I would work as a consultant and hopefully their director, when they had one, would want to have me on as DP.
"As time went on I was doing an enormous amount of research and work on the script and eventually MR Parlato asked if I would be interested in taking the director role. A little reluctant at first, but once I decided to do it, I was ready to go".
I gather you've been working as a cinematographer for many years. What are some of the films/TV films you've worked on while living in the US for the past 30 years?
"Gee, there are loads of them. I actually did not want to work in TV, I was more keen on features but I developed a style of shooting that was very fast and delivered feature film quality - a great combination for producers - so 25 years of primarily television later...here I am. I have shot nine features but my first Hollywood film was Halloween 5. Then Tiger Warsaw (starred Patrick Swayze and was released about the same time as Dirty Dancing - need say no more on that) and my best known feature The Spitfire Grill which won a bunch of awards and sold for the highest price of any independent film at Sundance. In TV, I have done just about everything: mini series, series and TV movies starring Martin Sheen, Cybil Shepherd, Michael J Fox, Mariel Hemingway, Michael Madsen, Kelly McGillis, Brian Dennehy - to name a few. I also worked on the TV series Tales from the Crypt which was produced by Bob Zemeckis and Dick Donner. In 2000 I shot The Three Stooges in Sydney for Mel Gibson's company starring Michael Chiklis and Evan Handler."
And in the last 10 years or so you've also been working on producing material for the internet?
"Yes, I got into that in a sideways fashion as well. I was shooting a TV series for Dave Letterman and NBC called Ed (about a lawyer who owns a bowling alley and is in pursuit of his long lost love). I had been on the road almost non-stop for about 12 years and both my sons were in highschool and I had spent very little time at home with them. I had been warned by other DP's not to let my job take over my life and here I was doing just that. I left the show in the middle of the second season. What I say was the easiest and the hardest decision I have ever had to make. It was a fantastic team and a great group of talented actors and a shame to leave the show but I had to face the fact I might not know my sons so the choice was a bit of a no brainer.
"Shortly after leaving I wanted to occupy my time with something and had been doing a lot of playing around with online video compression. Keep in mind this was in 2002-04, it seems like a million years ago when you look at where online video is today. But I knew this was coming and through yet another set of crazy coincidences I hit on the idea of doing an online series, very high quality, in HD, on Scotch whisky."
I gather this is the first time there's been a film directly about the Council of Nicaea - why do you think that is? What attracted you to the film and the story of the council?
"The story is quite amazing and, to be honest, I did not know the history of the period before joining the project. What really inspired me with this was the story, but more important (was) the passion of the man who's dream was to bring this to the screen, Mr Charles Parlato.
"He has had the story in his mind for more than 20 years and has been trying to get it made for the past six years. He has had an uphill battle trying to get it done as many have resisted the content. However he sees a similarity between what happened then, and what is going on in the world now, and sees this movie as an opportunity to have people question who they are, where they are from and where they are going. He is quite an inspirational guy.
"I have also wanted, for some time, to somehow use all my skills to do something that might make a difference. Something that would have an impact on peoples lives. I see Nicaea almost as a gift fulfilling that dream of mine."
The film will also be focusing on Emperor Constantine the Great - is he an historical figure you admire?
"Well, he was an historical figure I did not know much about, to be honest. My son, Paul, who loves the history of this period, was enraptured by the thought of making a film on this period. Over the five months since starting, I have done an amazing amount of research and Constantine is certainly a very interesting character and is going to require a stellar performance to bring out all the traits I see in his character. An incredibly complex man. He will, of course, be the pivotal character in the film with his actions and transformations driving us to the turning point, the Battle of Milvian Bridge and then, eventually, the Council at Nicaea. Of course, the council is seen as the point from which Western civilization really developed and was called by Constantine to force the developing church to decide on a pathway forward."
Is it a story that many Christians are familiar with or do you think this will help plug a gap in the knowledge of many?
"To be honest I am not sure. I suspect it depends a little on your religion how much of the story would be common knowledge. I think many people may vaguely know what Nicaea was about and hopefully this film will, in dramatic form, paint a clear picture of what it was about and the significance of what was decided. Having said that, this is not a documentary, it is a feature film, so whilst we do want to 'educate', we also need to entertain so there is a delicate balance I have to achieve in the storytelling. But as I mentioned earlier, the important thing is to give the story relevance so the audience can draw parallels with contemporary society and ask themselves some fundamental questions. If I can do that we will have a powerful film."
I gather that - as you mentioned - some of the themes in the story reflect some of the issues the world is facing today?
"Well, yes. The main theme of the film is really the intersection of church and state and we see that non-peaceful confluence all over the world at present. More important(ly), however, I really believe many people feel lost. With the rapid growth of technology, communications and the feeling we are on an accelerating treadmill it is almost as if we are all headed down a vortex with no knowledge of what is on the other side. A little like being trapped in the final 'light tunnel' scenes of Kubrick's 2001. Whilst the film does not try to solve those issues it does attempt to draw parallels and force you to ask questions."
TOP: (L to R) Charles Parlato, executive producer; Cristina Giubetti, sales manager international productions for Cinecitta Studios; and, Rob Draper, director, standing on temple steps in Cinecitta Roman Forum set in Rome.
BELOW: Part of the Roman Forum set on the Cinecitta backlot in Rome.
Are there any actors attached we may know?
At present we have a long wish list of great actors we would like in the film but none attached yet so it may be prudent not to mention names at this time. I can tell you we have started assembling an amazing production team. My long time friend, Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond will be director of photography. Francesco Frigeri (The Passion) is going to be production designer and we have line producer, Enzo Sisti and first assistant director, Sergio Ercolessi, both of whom worked with Mel Gibson on The Passion as well. So we are building an incredibly talented group of people. We will also be shooting in Rome at the historic Cinecitta Studios, the home of Italian cinema."
There's a currently a few religious-related films being made in Hollywood at the moment? Why is this, do you think?
"I believe there are two reasons. First, the one outlined above - people are looking for stability and some sort of truth and direction in their lives. Second, and this also follows on from the first, I really believe we are being fed a diet of irrelevant films at the moment and, as much as all the major producers like to think that is what the audience wants, the audience actually craves something more. I do not mean that audiences want to go to the movies to be lectured but I really believe people are looking not only for escapism in a theater, but for answers. They may not directly feel that going in but appreciate it coming out. At the moment there are nine Biblical-themed films being made or ready for release - that seems like a lot. There is also a little bit of copycat syndrome as well - no one wants to be left out, so everyone makes the same type of film. However, I truly believe the real reason is audiences are turning to entertainment that is slightly more fulfilling. The box office will tell us if that is the case but I suspect it is."
What's the most challenging thing about making a film like this?
"There are several elements that make this challenging. First the scale. We are talking about the Roman Empire, so scale is vitally important. Locations, structures, number of extras, battle scenes, etcetera, all require scale and that is expensive. So getting that scale cost-effectively is a major challenge - and we do not have an enormous Hollywood budget, so it will require a lot of creativity to make it work. I also do not want to rely on CGI too heavily as I am growing tired of all the obvious CGI these days. I will be looking at ways of giving breadth to the scenes without a lot of graphic work.
"Evoking the sense of 'being there' is also a challenge. I want the audience to feel they can reach out and touch the atmosphere on the screen. I want them to feel they need to go home and take a shower after watching the movie to remove the grime and dust. I want them to live the film, not watch it.
The biggest challenge however, is to make a film with a message without it feeling like a film with a message. That is it has to be entertaining and deliver a message without being preachy or didactic. I want the message to be buried in the film and be slowly revealed, like peeling away layers of an onion. That doesn't mean there is going to be a blinding flash of light at the end and all will be revealed. Rather, it requires the story to be structured to evolve slowly through the course of the whole film. Some people may not see the point after viewing the film but the goal is to have every member of the audience, regardless of beliefs, come away asking some fundamental questions, having been thoroughly entertained. That is the real challenge."
Does making a film like this impact your own faith?
"Quite honestly I am not a religious person at all. I would guess all my collaborators on the film would say I am a spiritual person. I guess, like everyone, I look for answers but have never really turned to religion. In a way, it gives me an interesting perspective in telling this story. I am not coming at it with any preconceived notions and I really believe for this film to work for a general audience, that is very important.
"It has been an interesting journey so far. Mr Parlato is a man of very strong values and a firm grounding in his faith and it is quite inspirational working with him, in particular when discussing my interpretation of some of the story elements. His knowledge of the period and everything surrounding the council is astounding. I am constantly awed by his understanding and depth of knowledge. I also think his faith has driven him to make this film and I draw inspiration from that as well. He does not waver, his focus is like a laser beam so there is always a constant, stable force I know I can go to when I need questions answered on the material.
"It is quite interesting really - with (Australians) Martin Johnson and Gordon Moyes I shot three documentary series (in the 1980s) - Discovering Jesus, Discovering Paul, and Discovering the Young Church. Now with Charles Parlato, I am directing a film on Constantine and the Council of Nicaea - maybe there is a message there...or at least some questions that should be answered."