Interview with Cinematographer Tom Stern, AFC, ASC, about his work on Clint Eastwood’s film “The 15:17 to Paris”

At 186 mph

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An adaptation of the real-life event of August 2015 in which three young American tourists prevented carnage on board a Thalys train, The 15:17 to Paris is a strange cinematographic mix of fiction and reality. The movie stars the three heroes themselves, and the film transitions from an adaptation of a drama (about the three boys’ childhoods) to a sort of documentary-fiction style in which each element seems to have been drawn straight from reality, down to the integration of archival footage for the epilogue in the Elysée Palace. Tom Stern, AFC, ASC, the Californian director’s loyal cinematographer, explains the cinematographic issues facing this extra-ordinary film. (FR)

What was your reaction when you discovered the project ?

Tom Stern : When Clint Eastwood announced to me that he wanted to shoot with the actual guys from the Thalys, of course I was slightly surprised. It was during one of our technical meetings that I also learned that we were going to film in the real train at 300 km/h (186 mph)… that’s when I said we might be heading for a disaster !
I sometimes like to tease him, you know. I answered : “Clint, it’s one of the best ideas you’ve ever had !” He knew that I was making fun of him, and so he answered, “you know, Tom, I told myself that at that speed, our shooting days would be pretty short !” Since he’s always been so nice to me, I said, “O.K., Clint, no problem. We’ll find a way to make it work… !”

Clint Eastwood et Tom Stern - Photo Daily Movies
Clint Eastwood et Tom Stern
Photo Daily Movies

How did you get going ?

TS : A film with him means a lot of movement. We’re constantly moving forward and there’s not a lot of time to overly-intellectualize things. Most of the work gets done in preparation, with 35 days of shooting at the end, including a week entirely dedicated to that short scene in the train… It was a real challenge, given the number of locations the film covers. For the train scene, we did scouting by helicopter beforehand. That was so we could file for the flight permits we needed to get the aerial shots that we needed for the story, and it also enabled us to better visualize the line itself and anticipate the camera angles according to its direction.
The north-south or south-north axis suited me best. That way, you are always sure to have sideways light and you can position yourself more easily against the daylight if you feel the need to do so.

The scenes from the first part of the film are pretty classical, with almost Hollywoodian crane movements… Was that intentional ?

TS : We did indeed shoot some of the scenes with a crane, especially during the bootcamp training shots, but it fed off of the action of the scene instead of being motivated by a desire to suddenly make it feel more epic. We also shot a lot of the film with a Steadicam, for reasons of practicality and speed.

Did the fact that the film begins with a flash-forward to scenes in the railway station and then inside the train influence the way you photographed the entire movie ?

TS : Well, everyone knows the story already. Not in all of its details, of course, but you know what the outcome is before you even enter the theatre… As a cinematographer, knowing in advance how the film is going to be edited is, of course, a dream come true. Nonetheless, given Clint’s style, and his admiration for Kurosawa, which has had a longstanding influence over his career, it didn’t come as a surprise to me that he decided to include shots of the railway station and the train at the beginning of the film. It’s perhaps part of the spiritual aspect of the film, where some of the characters have a premonition that something exceptional is about to occur. Like the scene over the rooftops of Venice where they watch the sunset…

How did shooting go with these three neophyte actors ?

TS : Even though they became real heroes in the space of a few days, at the end of the period of intense media coverage, they had to go back to their old lives. When you get a phone call a few months later from Clint Eastwood telling you that he wants you to play yourself in a film, you can imagine the joy it caused. Alek, Anthony, and Spencer took their roles very seriously and prepared as much as they could. Nonetheless, they aren’t professional actors. One of the repercussions of this was that I was constantly worried about continuity, because Clint is constantly trying to get away from continuity. It might seem strange, but we work without a script supervisor, and it often falls on me to check that the costumes and scenography are consistent. Also, our method of cutting is to often make “reverse masters” alongside the narrow shot and classic wide shot makes things more complicated when the actors aren’t used to having to rather precisely repeat their actions from one take to the next…

What challenges did you have to overcome for the train scene ?

TS : For that scene, we had to be very flexible, very light, and of course, very reactive. The Thalys team rented us a trainset that we used for an entire week to make trips on the high-speed line, with all of the contingencies that implies in terms of adjacent rail traffic. A train is not a plane, it’s on tracks, and you’ve absolutely got to respect very precise schedules at each station, since the other trains don’t wait for Clint to shout “cut” ! The boarding scene at Amsterdam had to be shot within the space of 16 minutes… The inside of the train was filmed at top speed, inside of a trainset that had been specially prepared by my team, which replaced all of the inside lighting by optimized LEDs that were more powerful than the lights in a real Thalys. Moreover, each morning before boarding, we decided in function of the weather whether we’d place ND 3, 6, or 9 gels over the windows. It was a bit of a crapshoot, but we didn’t do too badly.

What was your choice of equipment ?

TS : We filmed almost everything inside of the train with Sony α7s II in “full frame” mode, outfitted with Zeiss CP.3 lenses that were fresh from the factory (Zeiss supplied the latest version of the lenses for our film). We recorded the images in S-Log 3 mode so that we could have as much latitude as possible during post-production, and I think that the images we saved ourselves on those little camera mesh well with the other scenes, which we shot with an Arri Alexa Mini. I’d already been able to test out something similar on American Sniper, on which at the time I’d been using a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, in extremely confined spaces, but we had a great deal of trouble splicing them together with the rest of the scenes from the film.
As for the lenses, the Alexa Minis were outfitted with fixed Master Anamorphic lenses or one of the three anamorphic Angénieux Optimo zoom lenses.
Only a few LEDs for the faces. It was impossible to use anything traditional in terms of lighting, because the train’s electrical supply is very limited in power and also because we had to quickly turn from one axis to another.

What was the feeling like on set during that scene ?

TS : Not only did the three heroes act in the movie, but Clint also asked a lot of the other protagonists to participate in the scene. Notably, Mark Moogalian, the American who was wounded by gunshot and who accepted to replay the moment of his life where he had a close encounter with death.
This was also the case of the train employees, the police officers, and first responders who meet the train when it stops. It was a cathartic experience for all of those people who agreed to play along with us ; it was a very unique working environment but never depressing or heavy. I think everyone had in mind the act of bravery that prevented a massacre that would probably have been worse than the one that occurred on Paris on November 13.

A point-of-view shot of the terrorist in the lavatory mirror shocks the viewer in the midst of the re-enactment…

TS : That was the only scene in the entire movie shot in studio. Given the shot, it was impossible for me to film in the train’s actual lavatory. It’s true that that shot is the only one where the viewer sees things from Ayoub El Khazzani’s (the terrorist’s) point of view. He is played by Ray Corasani, who is a handsome, athletic man and all of that play into a unique direction within the story. I think it engenders what, in the US, is called the “payoff” in a movie.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont on behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)

15:17 to Paris
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Dorothy Bliskal (based on the book by Anthony Sadler, Alek Scarlatos, and Spencer Stone)
Cinematography by Tom Stern, AFC, ASC
Camera Operator : Stephen Campanelli
Production Designer : Kevin Ishioka
Editing : Blu Murray