By Koraljka Suton
We wanted to do New York at night in a way that would create a claustrophobic feeling, and I was aware that it would seem as if I’d already done that. When you take an ambulance call in the middle of the night, the siren goes on, lights flash and pop music blares. As you speed down the streets, you start to imagine that you’re seeing things in the blur of your peripheral vision. I was only out on the streets for a few nights, so I can imagine what that must be like for someone who has been on the job for years. —Martin Scorsese
Two years after having made Kundun, his serene contemplation on the unconventional life path of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, one of the most significant directors in the history of moviemaking decided to return to the streets of his hometown to yet again explore the never-ending depths of New York City’s underbelly. This time around, he did so through the eyes of a graveyard shift paramedic whose emotional world starts to crumble and unravel under the pressure of his psychologically-draining vocation. Bringing Out the Dead, Martin Scorsese’s last movie of the twentieth century, hit theaters in the fall of 1999 and flopped at the box office. With a budget of $55 million, it ended up earning only $17 million worldwide and although it was generally liked by critics, the film still managed to fly under the radar somehow, remaining the director’s only 90s film to have earned zero Academy Award nominations. Many a Scorsese movie has had the misfortune of being underrated and misunderstood upon its initial release (The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, After Hours, just to name a few), with the filmmaker always being ahead of the times, viscerally depicting the numerous facets of humanity and the many ways human consciousness expresses itself in, thereby both challenging and broadening the audience’s perception of reality—especially those aspects of reality viewers would rather not look directly at. But as our collective consciousness evolved, so too have Scorsese’s films managed to become recognized and celebrated in the years to follow, often gaining cult followings. But sadly, Bringing Out the Dead remains the unsung gem that has yet to get its long-overdue credit.
Why this is still the case might as well be anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain—the way Scorsese deals with themes of death, suffering, redemption and salvation is lightyears away from being a walk in the park. And if you asked general audiences, there is a high probability that they would gladly choose portrayals of mindless physical violence resulting in momentary deaths over a thoroughly though-out meditation on what it actually means to bear witness to another’s passing. Visual representations of sheer carnage we can stomach, because we are rarely asked to dwell on its implications or sympathize with its victims. But in Bringing Out the Dead, Scorsese asks us to do just that. He deliberately takes us on a ride alongside someone whose every waking moment is filled with trying to save the lives of New Yorkers during nighttime. In the director’s own words: “Some people keep asking, ‘Gee, New York looks a little different now.’ And I say, ‘But you’re looking at the surface. This is not about New York. This is about suffering, it’s about humanity. It’s about what our part is in life.’ This whole thing about how New York is changing, getting better. It goes in cycles. Some people are saying, ‘The movie is representative of New York in the early 1990s. It’s different now.’ I say it’s not so. We were there; we were shooting in that area. They were out; they were there… those people. And if some of them aren’t on the streets, believe me, they gotta be someplace. I saw some of the places where they are. You don’t wanna know. It’s like underneath the city in a hole. Under the railroads. It’s the end of life. It’s the dregs. It’s down. You can’t get any lower.”
And since death does not discriminate, the main protagonist does not get to choose whether tonight’s job will involve saving the same homeless alcoholic he had been helping every night for some time now, or a family man who had a cardiac arrest in his apartment. Scorsese did not want us to avert our eyes upon hearing the sound of sirens—a thing we would normally do in our day-to-day lives, because witnessing the suffering of those in need would bring us in touch with unprocessed pain of our own. Instead, he made a movie that would allow us to follow the ambulance and feel another’s pain, regardless of who the person experiencing it is. As the director said in an interview with film critic Roger Ebert: “I grew up with the homeless, and the alcoholics, and derelicts, and I was sort of split between a decent family and the bottom of the barrel. The dregs. They become non-persons. They just wait to die. There was a conflict in me, and probably still is, about how one feels compassion towards a person like that, but is also repelled by it. And that’s one of the reasons I did the picture.”
Ultimately, compassion is the aspect that not only prevailed, but also enabled Scorsese to make the film, for human suffering is presented in such a way that deep empathy becomes the only possible reaction we as the viewers are privileged enough to experience. But we are not the only ones who do. Our guide on this long, exhausting, emotionally-demanding, yet highly cathartic journey is sleep-deprived paramedic Frank Pierce, a man in the midst of a psycho-physical crisis who is clearly highly traumatized by the job he does. He can view the people that need saving through nothing other than a compassionate lens, which is one of the reasons why his mental health is in such a fragile state. And also why he is being haunted by the death of a homeless girl he accidentally failed to prevent. It is that loss that sends him on a downward spiral of guilt and self-blame, as he unsuccessfully tries to save other lives to atone for all of those that slipped through his fingers, with the girl functioning as their representative.
Still, there is another, even more interesting component to both Frank’s internal journey and the external one that follows suit. One fragmented aspect of Frank hates his job and would like nothing more than to run away from the demons that haunt his waking life, for he can no longer bear the pain and suffering he not only sees everywhere he goes, but also carries with him during the remainder of the day. It is this aspect of him that looks and acts like a dead man walking, drowning in constant agony, surviving only on coffee and cigarettes and running late on purpose, so his boss would have an excuse to fire him. Heck, Frank even begs him to do so. But his superior never does. So why doesn’t Frank just quit? The answer lies in his polar aspect, perfectly summed up in a narration provided by the protagonist himself: “Saving someone’s life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see. Once, for a few weeks, I couldn’t feel the earth—everything I touched became lighter. Horns played in my shoes. Flowers fell from my pockets. You wonder if you’ve become immortal, as if you’ve saved your own life as well. God has passed through you. Why deny it, that for a moment there—why deny that for a moment there, God was you?”
For Frank, bringing someone back from the dead becomes intoxicating, like a high that, once experienced, starts forming into an expectation he has out of life. Having lost the homeless girl called Rose (on top of numerous others) and not being able to save anyone in weeks marks his fall from grace and results in the occurrence of symptoms that resemble those one has when going through cold turkey. But although his motivation may seem self-centered at first glance, what it actually is is a coping mechanism: because he so willingly takes on the suffering of others and blames himself for the deaths he could not prevent, he needs a silver lining that will help alleviate the tremendous guilt that eats away at him. And that silver-lining is the God-like feeling he so desperately seeks. Nobody ever asked him to suffer—the fact that he is a highly sensitive individual who feels others deeply is the main reason why he does. Thus, no one else can, in fact, alleviate his pain and grant him forgiveness for trespasses he did not even commit, he is the only one who can. He just does not know it. That is why he sees the homeless girl everywhere he goes—not only do his guilt and self-loathing need a name and a face, but so does his self-forgiveness. The journey he must undertake is, therefore, one of internal transformation, wherein he has to find a way to let himself off the hook, albeit in a round-about way.
This transformation ultimately occurs in an unexpected fashion—through the realization that his job is not to bring people back from the dead so that he could feel like God, but rather to put an end to the suffering of another, even if that means being the cause of their death. Ironically enough, it is precisely by putting a person out of what he perceives to be their ultimate misery (and, arguably, playing God yet again) that he manages to finally find peace and feel that he has been granted forgiveness for failing to save Rose’s life and the lives of probably countless others. In his eyes, the score has been evened and he can finally get some much-deserved sleep—for he no longer needs to subconsciously punish himself by staying awake.
Critics have often compared Frank to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle—both insomniacs who roam the streets at night only to be brought to the brink of sanity by what they witness, Travis and Frank ingeniously represent two sides of the same coin. While Travis wishes to rid the world of those who he perceives to be the scum of society, Frank wants to heal the world by saving them. There is another difference that screenwriter Paul Schrader pointed out: Travis wants to be alone, Frank wants to be with somebody. And Schrader should know, seeing as how he wrote the screenplay for both movies. After having worked together on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese and Schrader had a ten-year-long hiatus, reportedly due to a clash of egos, before ultimately resurrecting their partnership to make Bringing Out the Dead. After accepting the offer and before writing the screenplay, Schrader went out on a couple of ambulance runs to get the feel of what the paramedics experience on a nightly basis. His first night out with them, he had to stomach the sight of a homeless man cut in half by a train. Schrader’s screenplay was based on Joe Connelly’s book of the same name, with the title being a reference to John Cleese’s line ‘Bring out your dead’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The author had previously worked as a paramedic for nine years and had thus infused his novel with stories and insights pertaining to his former job. Connelly would go on to serve as a technical advisor on the movie, which is an interesting case of life imitating art considering the fact that, in the book, his character’s dream is to do precisely that.
Schrader’s script is broken down into three chapters, depicting three consecutive nights in the life of Frank Pierce. Each night sees him accompanied by a different partner, all three of whom have developed specific coping mechanisms to help them deal with the intensity of the job they had chosen: Larry (John Goodman) gets through the night by thinking about what his next meal is going to be, Marcus (Ving Rhames) flirts with a female dispatcher and uses Christianity as a means of spiritual bypassing, while Tom (Tom Sizemore) demonstrates outright violent and psychotic behavior, making his patients into literal punching bags when he feels like it. None of these characters truly understand Frank—that way, they get to maintain their own sense of self, for sympathizing with him would only bring them in touch with the pain they themselves are trying to avoid, and that is a road they are unwilling to take. The only person Frank manages to form a connection with is Mary (Patricia Arquette), the estranged daughter of a man Frank brought back from the dead. This is the “being with somebody” Schrader meant when talking about the difference between Travis Bickle and Frank Pierce. But in the latter’s case, sexual intercourse is not the type of intimacy he strives for—his primary need is for a human being he can sleep next to, rather than one he could sleep with. With insomnia being a cloud constantly hovering over his head and the notion of sleep representing his personal Holy Grail, it is no wonder that finding someone he could sleep next to is the type of closeness he craves. And for him, that level of intimacy can be formed only with a person whose pain mirrors his own.
As Scorsese reveals, the ending of the movie, the part in which Frank finally gets the forgiveness he had been desiring all along, was not in the book: “And when Schrader wrote that, I said, ‘Oh—of course.’ And that’s the connection between us. We never really discuss it, but over the years, we’ve had this similarity to each other (…) We’re tied to each other with this sort of thing.” But the fantastic script that the screenwriter provided Scorsese with is not the only reason Bringing Out the Dead works on every possible level, managing to convey the neurotic atmosphere that perfectly reflects Frank’s emotional states, ranging from his caffeine-induced energy outbursts to the extreme lows that inevitably take over after the initial kick subsides. Robert Richardson’s oversaturated cinematography and high-contrast lighting made sure of that, as well as Thelma Schoonmaker’s quick editing, both of which contributed to the movie’s tone and pacing which leaves both Frank and us with shortness of breath.
Another aspect that makes Scorsese’s movie so gripping is the wonderful performances delivered by lead actor Nicolas Cage and the aforementioned supporting cast members. The director said that the first thing he thought of after having read Connelly’s book, were Cage’s eyes and face. Brian de Palma recommended the actor, claiming how good he was to work with, and Scorsese, being familiar with Cage’s filmography, concluded that he liked his acting style, which ranged from overtly expressive to eerily subtle. In Bringing Out the Dead, the actor looks as if he had been run over by the ambulance he rides in, his facial expressions conveying a perpetual state of agony that gives off the impression that he were dying a rather slow and painful death, both emotionally and physically.
Bringing Out the Dead bears some resemblance to yet another Scorsese movie that takes place in New York City during nighttime. His 1985 Kafkaesque mix of screwball comedy and film noir called After Hours follows a computer word processor who spends an entire night trying to get back home from a disastrous night in SoHo, which he only visited as a means of getting away from his boring and uneventful life. In Bringing Out the Dead, we follow Frank through three endless and repetitive nights that all blur into one, as he roams the streets in search of redemption. And for him, the sense of relief that accompanies redemption is as close to returning home as he will ever get. Hopefully, audiences will also get a chance to redeem themselves by finally giving Scorsese’s exciting, visceral and deeply humane film the recognition it never received—and although more than twenty years have passed since its release, we at Cinephilia & Beyond rest assured that receiving it is only a matter of time.
Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
“Marty and I had decided a long time ago not to work together any more and just to remain friends, and not press a situation which was becoming increasingly unpleasant in terms of ego clashes. We’d have dinner once a year and keep in touch. Then we were having dinner a year ago, and he brought it up to me reluctantly. And as soon as I read the book, I realized why he had. It was a natural for me and rather natural for us. There were a number of conversations, but with this kind of material, we can pretty much finish each other’s sentences, and we know how we’re each thinking. It’s just a matter that if we feel we’re on the same page, I take off to work. He was in post-production on Kundun at the time, which was fortunate for me, because he didn’t have time to micro-manage the writing, so after a short discussion at dinner and one ten-minute phone conversation, I just went off and wrote it.” —Paul Schrader
Screenwriter must-read: Paul Schrader’s screenplay for Bringing Out the Dead [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
‘BRINGING OUT’ SCORSESE
Bringing out Scorsese, by Roger Ebert, October 21, 1999.
The first things I thought of, when I read Joe Connelly’s book, were Nic Cage’s face and his eyes. His uncle Francis (Coppola) had us meet a few years ago. You know, you meet some people sometimes, you don’t wanna spend five months with them on the set, you know what I’m saying? Well, this guy seemed to be polite. He was a nice guy to be around, and then Brian de Palma told me he was great to work with. I know his films over the years. He’s inventive and he goes from an expressive style, almost like silent film, like Lon Chaney, whom he adores, to something extremely internal. So I thought immediately of Nic for this.
Some people keep asking, ‘Gee, New York looks a little different now.’ And I say, ‘But you’re looking at the surface. This is not about New York. This is about suffering, it’s about humanity. It’s about what our part is in life.’ This whole thing about how New York is changing, getting better. It goes in cycles. Some people are saying, ‘The movie is representative of New York in the early 1990s. It’s different now.’ I say it’s not so. We were there; we were shooting in that area. They were out; they were there… those people. And if some of them aren’t on the streets, believe me, they gotta be someplace. I saw some of the places where they are. You don’t wanna know. It’s like underneath the city in a hole. Under the railroads. It’s the end of life. It’s the dregs. It’s down. You can’t get any lower.
The Nic Cage character has three co-pilots, a different partner every night. John Goodman is probably in the best shape. Goodman basically worries about where he’s gonna eat, takes a few minutes off, takes a nap. Ving Rhames, he gets religion. But the thing about Ving’s character is that you can’t make him work more than two nights, or he gets overexcited. And then, of course, the Tom Sizemore character, he’s a paramilitary, he’s in there. He knows what to do when he gets there, but he freaks out from time to time.
The people they’re carrying in their ambulance, I saw it like that the Bowery. I saw it happening to some of the people in my old neighborhood. I grew up with them, in a way. Some of them, when they weren’t drinking, were kinda nice. They worked for people in the grocery store. But when they got drunk, there was no dealing with them. And people would just become frustrated and hit them. I saw it happen all the time.
That title, ‘Bringing Out the Dead’—Joe Connelly chose that title with a sense of humor. It’s based on a reference to ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’ You remember? ‘Bring out your dead,’ John Cleese tells them. He takes out one person, and the guy says, ‘I’m not dead yet.’ He says, ‘Don’t be a baby. Come on.’ Remember, he puts him on the cart? He says, ‘He’s very ill. He’s gonna die any second.’
When I read the galleys of the book I told (producer) Scott Rudin, who gave me the book, ‘the only man who could write a script of this is Paul Schrader.’ (Schrader also wrote Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ.) The last scene that Paul wrote, it’s not that way in the book. Nic says, ‘Rose, forgive me. Forgive me, Rose.’ And she says, ‘Nobody told you to suffer. It was your idea.’ And when Schrader wrote that, I said, ‘Oh—of course.’ And that’s the connection between us. We never really discuss it, but over the years, we’ve had this similarity to each other. I said to him, ‘It’s so beautiful. And you’re right, because you can’t forgive yourself. You want everybody else to forgive you.’ We’re tied to each other with this sort of thing.
When you bring somebody back to life, you feel like God, you are God. But one has to get past the idea of the ego and the pride. Hey, the job isn’t about bringing people back to life, it’s about being there, it’s about compassion for the suffering; suffering with them.
Right after we finished shooting, another guy fell on a fence in New York. This happens all the time. Every few months there’s an impaling like that. We shot in the emergency room in Bellevue on the ground floor; we built the set down there. A few stories above, one of the doctors had a section of the fence they took out of the man, as a showpiece in his office. That was the incident that inspired the scene in the movie.
Helen (Morris, his wife, a book editor) told me last night there was a big deal on the Web about the New York Times walking out of the movie. But it wasn’t a critic. It was Bernie Weinraub, their Hollywood columnist. And I said, well, Bernie, I know him a little bit. He liked Casino. He hurt us very badly on The Age of Innocence in an article he wrote in the Times where he complained about us having a big budget on The Age of Innocence, and he hit Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer for not taking less than their usual fee. By the way, they did take less, I don’t know how much, but they did. We were compared unfavorably to The Remains Of The Day and pictures like that because they’re made for a good price, and we were wasting money. And that was it. They gave us $32 million; we went a little bit over, but not a lot, and $32 million was the average amount for a film being made at that time. If somebody wanted to give us $30 million, and somebody else wanted to give us $32 million, I’d take the 32.
Martin Scorsese on the difficulties of filming Bringing Out the Dead and his undying love for New York City.
“Well, I think he’s very aware of not pointing out anything unnecessarily, unless it needs to be fixed. If something’s happening organically, he’s aware to just let it happen and not call attention to it, so that the actors do not become self-conscious. Another thing that I discovered working with him, which in another set of circumstances I probably would not have been comfortable with, but because it was Scorsese, I was able to trust. And that is, you know he calls action, and we’ll do the scene maybe five or six times before he says cut. And that way, you can’t let the thinking process come in, and constipate—for lack of a better word—the scene or the flow of the acting. So you go back, back, back, and you’re just free. And then he’s in the editing room, finding whatever nuances, I’m assuming, had the reality of life and spontaneity.” —Nicolas Cage
ROBERT RICHARDSON, ASC
Cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC rejoins director Martin Scorsese for a harrowing look at the life of a troubled EMT in Bringing Out the Dead. Urban Gothic, by Eric Rudolph, American Cinematographer.
The streets are strewn with trash and the night is punctuated by squealing sirens, gunshots and random trash-barrel fires. Bedraggled drug addicts, underaged prostitutes and raving lunatics wander about in a somnambulant daze. Violence, obscenity, insanity and graffiti are everywhere, and to the city’s ambulance crews, it always seems to be just a few hours before dawn, with the life of another self-destructive person hanging in the balance. Welcome to the world of Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, which presents a nasty vision of New York near the beginning of the 1990s, before the city was transformed from an X-rated cesspool into a more PG metropolis. This gritty film documents a few harrowing days in the life of an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) amid the after-hours insanity of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, where the area’s few upstanding citizens seem horribly outnumbered.
Based on the novel by former EMT Joe Connelly, the picture tells the story of the spiritually shattered Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), whose utter dedication to his life’s calling has sent him into a state of near-catatonia. He loves the high he gets from saving people nobody else wants to touch, but like all highs, this one never lasts; on those rare occasions when his help just isn’t enough, losing a patient rocks Pierce to the core of his soul. When his regular, reasonably stable partner, Larry (John Goodman) calls in sick, Pierce is forced to work with two other men (Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore) whose eccentricities and terrifying recklessness hasten his disintegration. Pierce clings to a glimpse of a brighter future in his hopes of connecting with Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a man whose life he attempts to preserve.
Scorsese worked from a script by director/screenwriter Paul Schrader, with whom he had previously collaborated on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Because Bringing Out the Dead focuses on disconnected people who drive around Manhattan at night, Scorsese knew that comparisons to the classic Taxi Driver were inevitable. “We wanted to do New York at night in a way that would create a claustrophobic feeling, and I was aware that it would seem as if I’d already done that,” he concedes. In the hope of countering this perception, Scorsese took a different approach to his latest picture, immersing himself in the night world of EMTs. The filmmaker rode in ambulances for several nights, an experience that had a strong, direct influence on the film’s hallucinatory look. “When you take an ambulance call in the middle of the night, the siren goes on, lights flash and pop music blares,” the director relates. “As you speed down the streets, you start to imagine that you’re seeing things in the blur of your peripheral vision. I was only out on the streets for a few nights, so I can imagine what that must be like for someone who has been on the job for years.”
These wild visual kaleidoscopes inspired Scorsese to lead the audience into Pierce’s tortured mindset by “showing the things Frank might have thought he’d seen the streaks, shadows and flashes of light.” Cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC was a good match for the material. “Capturing the hallucinatory quality of these visions, and how they shape Frank Pierce’s experiences, seemed like a perfect job for Bob,” Scorsese submits. “I also liked the work he’d done for me on Casino, especially the different layers of light he used. We’d gotten along and collaborated well.”
Completed over several months of rigorous nighttime filming on the streets of New York, Bringing Out the Dead employed a mix of real locations and sets built by production designer Dante Ferretti. Occasionally, these real and faux settings were blended together. For example, an interior set of a hospital emergency room was built inside a large open space at New York’s famous Bellevue Hospital so that shots could start outside, at an unused ambulance dock, and continue uninterrupted into the intensely chaotic inner area. When Ferretti and Scorsese visited the finished hospital set, the illusion fooled the director completely. Ferretti recalls, “Martin touched a wall in the emergency room and said, ’Dante, this is fake!’ I had to remind him that it was a set we had built!”
Some of the film’s other key scenes take place in a studio set depicting a high-rise drug lair that is garishly decorated and dramatically lit. When asked about the simultaneously wild and moody look of these scenes, Richardson proclaims, “Chalk that up to Dante Ferretti. He chose the colors with Marty; I just put the lights in there. Dante is brilliant. The production designer works on the film for months upon months, much longer than the cinematographer. Good work that people think is the cinematographer’s is often that of the production designer. We light their sets, and when their work is beautifully accomplished by which I mean well matched to the story the end result is vastly superior.” Ferretti confesses that he was initially at a loss in terms of finding the key to the look of Bringing Out the Dead. “Martin is from New York, and I am from Italy, so I had to try to get into his head,” he admits.
Ferretti normally starts his creative process by reviewing paintings. “When painters make a piece of life on a canvas, they take out all the non-essential elements,” he observes. “Seeing only the essentials helps me focus when I’m trying to devise a look for a new project.” In the case of gritty, urban Bringing Out the Dead, however, paintings did not seem to be the right place to start, so Ferretti immersed himself in still photography books about urban dwellers on the fringes of society. One title that Scorsese cites as influential was photojournalist Eugene Richard’s 1995 book The Knife and Gun Club: Scenes From an Emergency Room, which features black-and-white stills taken in a Denver trauma unit and on ambulance runs.
Ferretti also examined photos of underground tunnels where homeless people lived, and even visited several of them. “Those places are like another entire city,” he marvels. “They are unbelievable, and they are like hell.” Details from such real-life visits are sprinkled throughout the film. Ferretti elaborates, “Details are the most important thing to me in designing a film things like how homeless people arrange their belongings, how the trash looks on a tough New York street at four in the morning, how different types of graffiti appear in one part of town and not another.”
This early photographic research contributed to the monochromatic, desaturated look that Scorsese and Richardson eventually adopted. “Most of the photographs I looked at were in black-and-white, so that is how I began perceiving the look of the film, even though it was to be in color,” Ferretti says. Scorsese confirms, “I wanted the film to be less colorful, and Bob suggested skip-bleaching.” This process involves an either partial or total elimination of the bleach step in printing, which results in the retention of more silver in the image, creating desaturated colors and deeper blacks. “Bob showed me his upcoming film, Snow Falling on Cedars, in which the skip-bleach process was used effectively, and I said, ’Let’s do it!’” Scorsese enthuses. “My ideal of desaturated color is the control they got with the Technicolor [prints] of Moby Dick, a look that was designed by director John Huston and cinematographer Oswald Morris [BSC] in 1956. However, the skip-bleaching gave Bringing Out the Dead another flavor and tone that I also like.” This tone is especially apparent in some of the film’s driving scenes. While light motivated from road signs was occasionally played on the actors, Richardson tried to de-emphasize the signs’ warm effect in shots of the streets. “Part of the point of the bleach-bypass was to overwhelm the red and yellow tones, which tend to predominate from signs in Manhattan at night,” the cinematographer says. “We were trying to move the whole film to a cooler black-and-white feel.”
Bringing Out the Dead was shot in the anamorphic (2.35:1) format with Panavision’s older C- and E-series anamorphic lenses (although Richardson did utilize Panavision’s Super High-Speed T1.4 35mm anamorphic lens for many of the film’s ambulance-mounted shots). Richardson debunks the idea that a widescreen film shot on the street at night might be better accomplished in spherical Super 35. “Unless a zoom lens is critical to the film,” he avows, “there isn’t that great a difference between the speeds of spherical and anamorphic prime lenses, and I happen to like the look of an anamorphic lens wide open at T2; some people may not. My first assistant, Gregor Tavenner, is extraordinarily capable at maintaining focus at such apertures. As it was, we used no zooms, except for one shot where Marty wanted a snap pullout from the front of the ambulance.”
The older lenses were tapped because they helped avoid an excess of contrast, and because the cinematographer is comfortable with them. “I’m accustomed to the C and E lenses,” he says. “I felt it was especially important to stick with those older lenses on this film. There’s a high level of contrast with the Primos, and given the deep blacks of the bleach-bypass printing, and the fact that the new Kodak print stocks are higher in contrast, we would have picked up enough contrast to bury the dead!” To scale back some of the extra contrast created by the bleach-bypass process, Richardson used a 1/8 to 1/4 black ProMist filter throughout the production. One of the crew’s biggest challenges on the show was preparing practical locations. In addition to following Pierce and his partners as they delivered people to the emergency room, Scorsese wanted to be able to show the medics racing into apartments from the street. Scenes set in the Burke apartment were therefore filmed in a real, occupied tenement apartment which the crew took over for a month. Six walls were actually removed in this apartment so the filmmakers would have more room. “It was a mess,” Ferretti laments. “We had to put everything back because people lived there and were coming back after spending a month in a hotel.”
Richardson details, “The camera was always coming in through a door, entering, exiting and moving up stairs and down and out to the street. However, when it came to the scenes between Patricia and Nic, Martin kept things more static. Throughout the rest of the film, which moves very rapidly, we were constantly following people speeding through the city, so it made a certain amount of sense to stop moving when we weren’t in the ambulance.” The composition and movement of virtually every shot was predetermined by Scorsese. “Marty tends to pre-design more than 90 percent of his shots,” Richardson explains. “Of course, there is some flexibility in those pre-designed shots, depending on what the location can or cannot provide. He may alter his preconception if he feels it is just not worth the time to stick to the storyboard. However, once he believes that something needs to be done a certain way, it will be done that way no matter what it takes.”
Richardson adds that there are always a small number of shots that have not been storyboarded, but he maintains, “It’s not like I come along and say, ‘Let’s do this or that.’ The shots that are not down on paper are defined by Marty once he arrives on set. There’s not a great deal of interaction with the cinematographer on what a shot may or may not do; there may be some small adjustments, but I emphasize the word ’small.’” Scorsese notes, however, that he left the actual job of photographing the streets from ambulance-mounted cameras to Richardson. “I would ask Bob to compose shots so that the ambulance’s roof lights were framed a certain way,” Scorsese notes. “He found streets that had the most light and took a lot of footage, much of which was undercranked, and some of which was overcranked. He improvised, getting extra images from setups similar to the ones I specified. Those extra shots proved to be handy in three or four scenes.”
When not approximating the EMTs’ hallucinatory point of view, Scorsese turned the cameras from the streets and onto the drivers, showing their various responses blank, caustic, bewildered and angry to the bizarre night city flying past them. To film these driving scenes, Richardson mounted up to a half-dozen lights around the ambulance on a process trailer. In almost all instances, the cinematographer avoided the use of constant illumination inside the ambulance cab, preferring to create an avalanche of lighting effects that were ostensibly emanating from the streets. “We turned the lights on and off and swished them to simulate the effect of driving by various light sources,” Richardson explains. “We’d go from front light to side light, simulate passing street lamps, and occasionally approximate the look of the actors being hit with car headlights. We sometimes matched our lights to road signs, which is all you read in Manhattan at night.”
As the story progresses and Pierce becomes more unraveled, the film’s visual landscape becomes progressively more chaotic. “There is a more aggressive visual quality as we move through the three different partners Nic has in the film,” Richardson notes. “As Nic’s character proceeds through his story, our lighting and camera angles become much more extreme.” The camera setups on the process trailer were straightforward, except when Scorsese wanted to use a moving camera. “Moving the camera during a driving shot is always very difficult,” Richardson acknowledges. To accomplish this goal, the filmmakers occasionally used dollies on the process trailer, which proved extremely difficult on Manhattan’s bumpy streets.
Known for his radical photographic style, Richardson often hits actors with powerful blasts of light from above, a tactic that leaves them overexposed by several stops. In Bringing Out the Dead, this approach was utilized frequently, and Scorsese made the most of the unsettling look. “If you’re speeding down the street at night, the light level is going to rise and fall,” the director points out. “We would constantly raise and lower the lights, letting Nic go dark and then occasionally hitting him with strong light. I thought it was especially powerful when we synched one of these hotly-lit images to a voiceover in which Pierce testifies that his role is to ‘bear witness’ to the plights of the victims. At that instant, the light blasts him, and the effect is emphasized by his white shirt. It’s as if his tormented soul is burning in the night.”
Richardson acknowledges with a chuckle that his powerful overhead blasts of light were “definitely present.” This striking overhead approach was often employed for exteriors as well as interiors. Maxi-Brutes were hung from Condors 30 or 40 feet in the air, parallel to the streets of New York. Asked to explain the motivations for this technique, Richardson maintains that the question is “difficult to answer. My approach to lighting varies with each film.” However, he does cite some examples where the strategy was directly keyed to the storytelling. Early on, when Pierce goes on the film’s first emergency call, the stricken Mr. Burke is on the floor, and in several shots the sick man is hit with strong overhead light. “There are several different emotions going on in that scene,” Richardson attests. “For Mary Burke, it’s a terrifying life-or-death situation fraught with father-daughter emotional baggage. For Frank Pierce, the stakes are high because he’s in a downward spiral, but at the same time he’s developing an interest in Mary.
“I like the actors, consciously or subconsciously, to be involved in the progress of the light on their own faces, or those of their associates,” he continues. “I thought the effect of having the light [reflected onto Pierce from Mr. Burke] rise and fall in intensity, as Pierce went up and down massaging Burke’s heart, would help to emphasize the dual nature of Pierce’s experience. He’s burned out, and his patient is dying, so Pierce feels like hell. However, at the same time he is seeing a glimmer of hope for redemption in the man’s daughter.” Hot lights on the actors were also used to suggest the idea of the “resurrection of ghosts.” Richardson details, “Here I was most interested in the ethereal quality of the strong, overhead light. I find that usually this lighting approach is most interesting when the actor is on the fringes of the overhead light, when they’re just skirting the edges.” The result is a ghostly, otherworldly effect.
Richardson emphasizes that he sought to maintain consistency in the use of light on the ailing Mr. Burke, who is motionless through most of the film. “We had strong light on Burke as Pierce pumps his chest,” he remarks. “From then on, I altered the light’s intensity and hue as Burke’s life force goes up and down. I mainly used a cool light on Burke after the initial scene, switching to an emerald green color towards the end to indicate that he is dying.” While these lighting schemes were linked to story points, Scorsese notes that the other unusual film techniques employed in Bringing Out the Dead were not always as solidly justified. “Because of the distorted nature of the EMTs’ perceptions, we could get away with pretty much anything!” he exults. “We would get a wild idea and go with it, saying, ’That’s fun, let’s do it.’” This approach led to some wild fast-motion scenes in which the EMTs seem to speed around town as if trapped in a hellish drug rush they can’t escape.
Another compelling, technically-complex scene was accomplished entirely in-camera in one time-consuming take. During one of the rare times when Frank Pierce is seen at home, he walks to his apartment’s main window, which has a dramatic view of the Manhattan skyline. The camera moves in to fill the frame with the window view, and then shifts into a time-lapse sequence in which the skyline image rapidly progresses from midday to evening. The time-lapse then ends and the shot continues, panning across the room to pick up Pierce in bed. The execution of the shot began with Cage walking to the window. Once he was out of the shot, the camera was switched to time-lapse mode. When that sequence was completed later in the day, the camera was returned to normal speed and panned to find the actor in bed. (It’s one of the only moments in the film when Pierce is able to escape his hectic job and rest.)
Despite the melange of edgy cinematic techniques effectively employed in Bringing Out the Dead, the film does not feature another Richardson trademark that might seem to be a natural fit for a story with hallucinatory elements: the cameraman’s frequent use of multiple imaging formats, such as black-and-white, Super 8, videotape and 16mm film. Richardson has previously employed this grab bag of imaging formats to powerful effect in films such as JFK, Natural Born Killers, Nixon and U-Turn. Scorsese explains the absence of multiple formats by stating simply, “I don’t like to use different formats in my films. Bob has done an extraordinary job with that sort of thing, but I just don’t see the world that way. I also don’t have the subject matter for that, certainly not in Bringing Out the Dead. To me, the very act of using 8mm, video, 16mm and this and that, all mixed together and thrown onscreen in superimposition and madness, is a moral statement in itself, about the state of our culture. I find that idea interesting, but it had nothing to do with what I was trying to accomplish in Bringing Out the Dead.” Scorsese reiterates that his emphasis was the drama that results from Pierce’s internal spiritual numbness.
Of course, Scorsese has his own array of stylistic signatures, including the use of a moving camera on stationary actors, but he decided to tone down those techniques because of the intensely interior nature of the story. “I didn’t want to be distracting, especially in the scenes between Nic and Patricia,” the director says. “Neither of them knows how to reach the other; Frank doesn’t even know how to talk to a woman. All he can think of to say to her is, ‘Do you want to get some pizza?’ He’s reaching out, but how can he? He’s a complete, utter spiritual wreck all the way until the end, when he finally gains some perspective and says to Mary Burke, ’We’re all dying.’ “Something happens in that moment,” Scorsese continues. “All along, he’s been trying to reach her, but due to his response to the incredible stresses of his job, he’s cut off from people, particularly women. He has a great need for forgiveness, but first he must forgive himself. When you’re dealing with that sort of material, you don’t want to move the camera; you leave it alone, especially if you’re filming in anamorphic widescreen.”
Scorsese’s fondness for wide optics is highlighted in the aforementioned scene in which Pierce and his partner try to save the life of Mary Burke’s father. Wide shots taken low to the floor reveal the overall tableau of the ailing man, the medics, Mary and the other members of her family. These shots are dramatically cut against tight singles of Pierce performing his duties with great intensity. The wider shots were framed with a 35mm lens and the tighter shots with a 100mm; cutting between them visually emphasizes Pierce’s intense dedication by suggesting how completely he blocks out surrounding distractions. Assessing this scene, Scorsese submits, “These guys come into a situation where the relatives are battling and everyone is going through hell. But watch what Nic and John [Goodman] do. They go in like soldiers, which is the only way to handle the situation. They say, ’Okay, how long ago did he stop breathing?’ Then it’s bang get him on the floor and rip open his shirt. They’ve got to get their routine going, and to concentrate, they cut out everything around them. As a filmmaker, I felt I should go right into their world.”
Scorsese has always incorporated spectacular crane moves into his work, and Bringing Out the Dead is no exception. In one breathtaking shot, Cage’s ambulance speeds to the site of a drug-related double shooting. As the ambulance approaches the crime scene, the camera rides along, peering down from above the ambulance’s cab. When the ambulance stops, the camera continues moving, dropping dramatically to the ground to reveal the prostrate victim. Richardson reveals that this shot, which was executed with a Pegasus crane, was originally longer than the version that appears in the final cut. The camera’s perspective actually started out low, 40 feet behind the ambulance. Timing the long crane move, which then rose atop the ambulance and wound up on the actor lying on the sidewalk, proved to be one of the trickier aspects of the shot.
While most of the film was shot on Kodak Vision 500T 5279, along with some Vision 200T 5274, many of the ambulance-mounted shots were captured on Kodak’s then-new Vision 800T 5289. “I think I only got about 5,000 feet of the 800T,” Richardson says. “It was useful, though, especially when we were filming outside of the main midtown core. Downtown, the light levels at night get pretty low, and the faster stock helped us capture some of those streets. I was cautious with it, because I didn’t know what it would look like once it was finally onscreen, but it worked well for those shots.” In general, night exterior lighting was accomplished simply by using “the biggest instruments available,” including diffused Dinos, Maxi-Brutes and 20Ks, either as overheads or in more conventional placements.
While the vast majority of the film takes place at night and indoors, there are a few daytime exteriors, all of which occur after Frank Pierce finally succeeds in quitting the job that is literally driving him mad. In keeping with the off-kilter nature of the tale and to maintain a cooler feel, these scenes were all filmed with tungsten stock (mostly Vision 200T) that was not corrected for daylight with lens filtration. “That was part of our attempt to avoid the reds and yellows,” Richardson states. “Also, the scenes take place at dawn, when the light is cool.” The cinematographer tried to film the exteriors in shade, constructing shelters when that was not possible. He also underexposed his shots (by about one stop below key) to lend the scenes a bit of a day-for-night look that was appropriate for an early-morning scene.
Richardson’s A-camera was a Platinum Panaflex. While Scorsese often favors the use of multiple cameras to pick up improvised dialogue, the filmmakers used that tactic less often on this picture. “Most of those dialogue opportunities were in the ambulance cab, and we had problems hiding one camera from the other,” Richardson explains. The story also dictated what Richardson describes as a relatively “low-tech approach” in general. “Bringing Out the Dead does not have the look of a big, digital studio film,” he says. “It has a much rawer quality.” Some skillful digital work was utilized to great effect, however. Throughout the film, Pierce is haunted by the memory of Rose, a young woman whose life he was not able to save. Her phantom appears throughout the film, most chillingly toward the end of the story. As Pierce rides down the street, he passes a group of young women who are all about the same age and size. When the women turn around and glare at him accusingly, we realize that all of them wear Rose’s angry face.
Richardson compliments visual effect supervisor Michael Owens of Industrial Light & Magic for his fine work on the multifaceted shot. “Michael works very hard to approximate the lighting in the scenes he is manipulating, as do most good effects people,” the cameraman says. “In this instance, Michael asked me to light the scene however I wanted, and he assured me that he would work his machinery to accommodate that light.” Given that freedom to work, Richardson raised the light level on the building behind the actors about 1 1/2 stops during the shot, using Dino lights on dimmers to heighten the scene’s hallucinatory nature. He elaborates, “When you have freedom in lighting such shots, you can create a much more seamless feel. If cinematographers don’t have the freedom to light digital shots as they would any others, you can see it onscreen. Michael really did a lovely job with that shot.”
Scorsese concludes that the biggest challenge on the production did not stem from technical or artistic concerns, but from the difficulty of “staying sane at locations such as 11th Avenue and 54th Street” during 75 grueling nights of shooting. “That schedule was pretty rough, especially now that I’m older,” the veteran director acknowledges. “Working the way we did for 75 nights does tend to alter your view of humanity and life. It creates an oppressive feeling, especially when it gets to be about four in the morning. As Joe Connelly says in his book, ‘It is always four a.m., and it is crazy and dangerous and funny all at once.'”
“It takes sometimes ten years—it took ten years for Raging Bull to be recognized. It was not a success when it came out, it took ten years and now look how it’s looked at. It’s looked at like a benchmark film. That happens a lot with Marty’s movies. Maybe that’s because they’re unusual, they’re out on the edge a bit and people don’t know what to make of them, and then with time they just are relished. Bringing out the Dead is the one we’re waiting to be recognized. I hear all these rumblings from all kinds of people who tell me how much they love Bringing out the Dead, but it’s never gotten its due.” —Thelma Schoonmaker
THE UNLOVED: ‘BRINGING OUT THE DEAD’
“If saving a life is the equivalent of a fix for paramedics, [director Martin] Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader and star Nicolas Cage wanted to show a man slowly and painfully dying from the longest and ugliest overdose.” Such is the hook for Scout Tafoya’s 11th installment of his video series championing films he believed were unfairly ignored or scorned. Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead didn’t have many fans upon its debit in October of 1999, but in his four-star review, Roger Ebert hailed it as an antidote to “the immature intoxication with violence” portrayed in Fight Club. —RogerEbert.com
Martin Scorsese delivers the David Lean lecture on film where he talks about work that influenced him, the craft of editing and making Mean Streets, Raging Bull and The Irishman.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead. Photographed by Phillip V. Caruso © De Fina-Cappa, Paramount Pictures, Touchstone Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or click on the icon below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in