Cinematographer Isidore Mankofsky on SOMEWHERE IN TIME (1980)

Cinematographer Isidore Mankofsky talks with TV STORE ONLINE about his work in the lush and dream-like 1980 fan favorite SOMEWHERE IN TIME.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How did you come to work as the Director of Photography on SOMEWHERE IN TIME (1980)?

MANKOFSKY:  I had been working--very steadily--at Universal Studios at the time that I met [Director] Jeannot Szwarc.   Universal had about thirty-one shows shooting at any given time all at once, and you were bound to fall into shooting any one of these because of how any of the regular cameraman would get the flu, or need time off for a funeral or a wedding. 

  Jeannot Szwarc and Christopher Reeve
Whenever any of those regular cameraman was off--I'd be on stand-by and I'd get a call to go in and shoot a show for one or two days.    I got called in to fill in a couple times for Jeannot's regular cameraman.    On a Saturday, I got a call from Jeannot and he asked me to breakfast.  So I met him the next day.  He said, "I've got this script called SOMEWHERE IN TIME.  It's based on a book called Bid Time Return."    He went on to tell me that the shooting of the film would have to be done on a low-budget, because Universal really didn't want to shoot the picture.   So, he told me that if I was interested in shooting the picture with him--I'd have to do it for scale. 

Jeannot and the [Producer] Stephen Deutsch went all over the country to look for the shooting location.    I believe, in the book--the setting is based in San Diego, California.  They had wanted to shoot the film at the Hotel del Coronado--but it turned out that the interiors were too modern.    They saw the Grand Hotel in Michigan--and they decided that that would be the best fit for the film. It's never mentioned in the film that the Grand Hotel is on an island though.

We got everything around in Los Angeles and we all flew out to Michigan to shoot the film.   We arrived in the mid-winter, and the Lake was partially frozen when we arrived. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  What kind of discussions did you have with Szwarc regarding the visual style of the film?

MANKOFSKY:  Well, he had a very good idea of what he was after with the film.   He was very good at conveying his ideas to me.  He wanted the two sections of the film to be distinctly different in quality.  He wanted the early scenes in Chicago to be crisp and bright and he wanted the scenes at the Grand Hotel to be soft-toned and saturated not contrasting.   I was familiar with Kodak Film and I knew that their film was always sharp and crisp--so I decided that it would be the best stock for the shoot.   Fuji Film, which had barely been just available--tended to be more pastel and less sharp.  So we used Kodak for the present and then Fuji for the past tense in SOMEWHERE IN TIME.    It worked out great until they made the DVD of the film. When they did that--it destroyed my intent in the film.  They did everything they could do to make both parts of the film look exactly the same.  

Reeve and Seymour during shooting of film
They came to me--and they bragged about this to me!  If I had a shotgun I would've killed them! (Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:   It's one of those films where the image and the lighting communicate so much with the audience.  In the second half of the film--there is a hazy  almost dream-like quality to it all...

MANKOFSKY:   Yes, we talked about all that.  That was pretty much planned out.  There's an interesting thing that happens there--that you don't get the chance to do often.  It's the point where Christopher Reeve comes back to the present and he is so distraught that he starves himself to death.    From there to the very end of the film--the lighting changes almost scene-by-scene.  Reeve is sitting in that chair and then he's laying in his bed--it goes on that way until the camera moves up and over to the window and there is that dissolve to the white light where he walks into the next scene.    We shot that ending sequence on a sound stage on Mackinaw Island in Michigan.   It's still there today I believe.   It was built by a religious organization there on the island.  They built it there originally to produce religious films.  It turned out that son of the head of the organization died when he was trying to swim out on the lake--and the father [Rex Humbard] ended up selling it all and leaving there.    I don't know if it's the case any longer--but, when we shot that final sequence there--that sound stage was the largest of it's kind between New York and Los Angeles. 

Working in the hotel--it never closed.  It was open all hours of the day.   They were re-doing the dressings of the rooms for the film.   Our lights set two fires while we were shooting the film because the ceilings were so low and back then we didn't have the cool lights that they have today--so we had to tape these white cards onto the ceiling to reflect the lights and they would get too hot and catch on fire.  We never told the hotel manager! (Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:  And speaking of that final shot in the film...The shot that leads up to the camera moving to the window--the camera ascends out-of-body and looks down at the actors...

MANKOFSKY:   That's right.  We had to bring in a crane from Altanta, Georgia for that shot.  The final white light shot in the film and Christopher Reeve's death scene--where he is lying in bed were shot on that same sound stage.     The idea was to get the shot in just one move.    I set it up so that the camera would be looking down at Christopher Reeve in bed.    I set it up so that the lighting would change when the camera tilted up.  When the camera tilts up--that is when Christopher jumped out of bed and changed his clothes.   From there--he had to run around the wall of the hotel room on the sound stage and as the camera tilted back down and then cranes over to the window--the wall was supposed to pull apart and we'd be moving through it and into the white light.  Christopher then walked into the frame and met Jane Seymour in the final shot.  

I had twenty-six people working on the shot with me.    I had people pulling back the ceiling and rolling back the carpet of the set as we started to move the crane.  It was incredible.

But, when they edited the film--we lost it!  They did that dumb cross-dissolve in it!   I tried to get them to leave it in the way we shot it--but the editor wouldn't!   I said to him: "Why did you do that?"  He said, "You could see the window in the shot!"   I reminded him, "There was no window in the window frame!"   Then he responded with, "Well the shot went on too long!"   Can you believe it?

TV STORE ONLINE:  One of the most intriguing shots in the film is where Christopher Reeve discovers the penny in his jacket in 1912 and is then thrown back into the present--and the camera pulls back quickly for what seems like miles of distance...

MANKOFSKY:   What we did there was just reduce the lighting and we just started moving backward.  There was no wall behind us to stop us because that particular set was built on that sound stage for that exact reason.  Most of it had to be done optically in post-production because even being on a sound stage I couldn't track back far enough to achieve the end-result as it appears in the film today.   Gradually the lighting on Jane was reduced and before we started rolling--I had to put a giant black scrim around the walls of the set so that as we started to track out--the set went completely black around Jane.    From there--the optical department just had to continue the shot from were we left off.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Of course we also have the shot that everyone remembers from the film--that of Jane Seymour in the center of the frame after she's come off the stage in the past.  It's the shot of Seymour that will eventually become the photograph that Christopher Reeve will see of her when he first comes to the hotel...

MANKOFSKY:   What can I say?  (Laughing)    Jeannot and I worked together closely on the film and it was something that I'm very proud of today.  We were always on the same page.   I lit that, but Jeannot framed her.   Just the same--there are things in the film that I see all of these years later that drive me crazy.   A example: When Christopher Reeve goes up into the attic of the hotel to look at the guestbook.   He shines the flashlight into his face and not into the book.  I see that now and I say, "Jesus Christ Mankofsky!  You must be totally incompetent. Why did you do that?"     I did it because we needed a light in the scene, but in retrospect I should've just bounced some lighting in with a card.  

TV STORE ONLINE:   You lit that Hall of History Room at the hotel--that red room in the film with her picture is visually breathtaking...

MANKOFSKY:  That was a tough room to light.   Jeannot wanted it lit as if the light was coming from a sky-lite or something like that.    To do that--to see the light you'd have to have some sort of particulate in the air.   Whether it be smoke or vapor--to get what he wanted I had the grips build a fake ceiling and we put the lights down through it.  It was a nasty room to light though.   When we dollied through for the scene--we had a silk gauze on the lens so that allowed for the light to flare. 

  Did Richard Matheson have much input into the shooting of the film?  Was he there?

MANKOFSKY:  He was there.  He worked quite a bit with the actors.  He's in the film.

TV STORE ONLINE:    One of the best and understated shots in the film comes near the end --before he is sent back to the present.  It's where he is standing on the porch of the hotel with his head leaning on the white bannister and in the background we see a tiny little Jane Seymour running toward him yelling "Richard!"...

MANKOFSKY:  Right, I remember that shot.   You could never get that shot today.  All of that area at the hotel is now gone.  It's all grown up with trees.   It was done as a sort of trick shot.  We shot it with a split-diopter and Jeannot told me that he wanted them both to be in focus.  The line of focus in the shot is blended in with the white bannister on the porch.    There was supposed to be another shot in the film were we employed the split-diopter but we decided against at the last minute.   It was when Christopher Reeve is dancing with Jane Seymour and they go off into that back room to talk and Christopher Plummer is observing them.   Jeannot had wanted everyone and everything to be in focus--but in the end it just wasn't going to work.

TV STORE ONLINE:  With the framing and the focus--going in, one would expect a very deep focus all throughout but often times that isn't the case.   It's great because of how much it adds to the state of mind and being of the character...

MANKOFSKY:  Well, we tried. (Laughing)   Another scene that bothers me in the film is when Christopher Reeve is standing in the door and it's raining outside.   He is standing on the steps of the woman's home who is the old Elise McKenna's caretaker near the beginning of the film.   They go into the house.   It was raining in the scene and when he walks through the house and they begin to talk to one another--the sun begins to shine into the windows! (Laughing)  Another stupid mistake on my end!

TV STORE ONLINE:  You know..I've noticed that--but I've always chalked it up to the dream like aesthetic of the movie!

  Yeah, it didn't matter to me really. I just wanted the sun in there... (Laughing)

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung

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