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Freddie Francis on The Innocents

The following is a chapter on The Innocents from cinematographer Freddie Francis’s memoir, The Straight Story from “Moby Dick” to “Glory.” It is reproduced here courtesy of Scarecrow Press.

The last picture I worked on as a cinematographer in my first phase (with the exception of another in 1964 and my return to the craft in the 1980s) was Jack Clayton’s now cult classic The Innocents (1961). The film was, and still is, one of my favorites, and I consider it as one of the best-photographed films I have ever done. I was, and will always be happy with the look of the picture and so I never get bored with it. What has always surprised me is that of all the awards I have ever won, I have never received one for The Innocents. The film seems to have been overlooked by the various film academies and, for that matter, by just about everyone. However, it is now, after years of languishing in near obscurity, just beginning to receive the recognition it so richly deserves.

The film was based on the classic Victorian supernatural novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and tells of a governess who is looking after two children in a huge gothic house and how she slowly realizes that they are possessed by the spirits of the deceased former governess and gamekeeper. It is a dark, brooding story that was gently and lovingly handled by Jack Clayton. There were few effects and almost no visuals of ghosts, just the merest hint of them lurking in the shadows in and outside of the old, dark house.

The screenplay went through a number of hands, beginning with William Archibald (whose script Jack was not particularly happy with) and then Jack’s friend John Mortimer, whom he asked to do a certain amount of “construction” of the story. Finally Truman Capote had the last word, because Jack had of course worked with him on Beat the Devil (1953) and admired him very much. However, in Jack’s usual thoroughly professional manner, he beavered away on the script until it became Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. I remember that Truman wrote some additional dialogue during the production, and one line sticks in both mine and [Francis’s wife, script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis’s] mind: during the scene where Flora (Pamela Franklin) says to Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), “Oh, look, it’s a lovely spider and it’s eating a butterfly.” It perhaps seems a straightforward line but in context of the scene we see a seemingly innocent girl reveling in the gruesome act of a spider eating a butterfly. That was pure Truman Capote.

From the very early stages of the production, everyone was aware that it was going to be shot in CinemaScope because it was a Twentieth Century Fox picture (they wanted everything at that time to be photographed in the process because they owned it); everyone knew this except Jack. Of course, Jack knew, but he didn’t want to think about it because he really didn’t want to shoot it in CinemaScope. He was fighting against it all the time, hoping that it would just go away. Given the opportunity, he would have arrived on the morning we started principal photography and said, “No, it can’t be CinemaScope!” The film was always designed to be shot in black and white because he wanted it to be dark, extremely dark in some scenes, almost claustrophobic (there’s that word again) to make it appear that it was extreme darkness, and he felt that we couldn’t achieve this atmosphere in color or CinemaScope.

So throughout preproduction, Jack designed the film in Academy ratio (basically 4.3), which was the usual almost square screen. However, I always knew it would be shot in the widescreen process, and for everything we planned I kept in mind that it would have to be widescreen. Eventually I persuaded Jack that there was nothing he could do to avoid the inevitable, because if we didn’t think ’Scope, then Fox was likely to withdraw from the project. Because Jack had blinkered himself against the eventuality of CinemaScope, I had prepared an alternative to redesigning, in a photographic sense, the entire production. I devised a set of color glass filters, which had the effect of fading the picture out toward the edges and concentrating the audience’s attention on different sections of the large screen, normally toward the center. There were twelve glass filters; each was approximately ten by four inches and was clear at the center and then hand-colored gradually toward the edges, where they were very dark. The main set of filters (there were additional ones) were actually made in the farmhouse kitchen of two little old ladies in Chalfont St. Giles, near Windsor (the camera department at Kodak put me in touch with them), who between them painted the gradual color on the glass plates according to my requirements. I made the two additional filters while shooting, because on set the criteria might change, and I might want something that the set of twelve simply couldn’t give me. When I started to shoot the picture, it became obvious what exactly the initial set of filters would give me, so it was a simple matter of making one up on the cuff. I had some spare panes of glass, so if I wanted a filter to perhaps distort, I would roughly paint it myself to give me that effect. Apart from changing the exposure, they made the picture’s imagery more uneven. I have always been very proud of the filter idea and felt it subsequently gave the picture another dimension, almost framing all the action in a cocoon of darkness. Of course, Fox was totally unaware of this sleight of hand because it had the illusion of being a huge widescreen picture. Today I still have those filters in my garage, and I did use them for other ventures a little later. We didn’t use them all the time because, as the production progressed, Jack became more confident with the process of CinemaScope, and we came up with other ways of filling the entire screen.

Although of course it is a CinemaScope picture, the audiences don’t usually realize it was shot in the process. By this I mean that there are no edges to the film; most, if not all, the content of the picture is concentrated in the center with the remaining area going off into sets, foliage, and darkness. The effect was that the action and images usually take place in the center. As far as Fox was concerned, they had a negative that was CinemaScope ratio, and as far as Jack was concerned, he had a film that was framed in normal film proportions. We never had any complaints.

The locations for The Innocents were shot at a beautiful country house called Sheffield Park, in East Sussex, with other exteriors at the Bluebell Railway. All the interiors and exterior terrace scenes were shot at Shepperton Studios, which included the conservatory sequence that was photographed in the real conservatory attached at that time to the studio, a feature that has long since disappeared. As I have suggested, between Jack and me, we planned the film to the finest detail; specifically, the overall look of the production, including the lighting. The film begins in bright sunlight as Miss Giddens, the governess, arrives at the house and walks through the gardens, meeting Flora on the way. As the atmosphere and the story darken, and as she becomes more aware of the “ghosts” and their involvement with the innocents (the children), the film descends into a dark, oppressive, and claustrophobic vision, culminating with the night shoot (exterior on the back lot at Shepperton), where Miss Giddens challenges Miles and the ghosts. The final exterior, in which Miss Giddens returns to the house after the funeral, was shot on the silent stage at Shepperton.

Because of the subject matter and because Jack gave me a free rein to invent as I went along, [we used] other tricks in addition to the filters. There was an enormous garden set built on the stage at Shepperton, and to highlight the trees and foliage I had one side of the trees and leaves painted silver and white to create a false highlight, which was far more effective than working with just the lights at our disposal. The look gave the scenes in the garden an otherworldly feeling—if you like, a supernatural look in daylight. Also, all the interiors had to be lit with banks of lights because the capabilities of the CinemaScope lenses were so bad back then that we had to stop down the aperture, and use so many lights that the management of Shepperton was afraid we would burn down the studio. The process then necessitated two focus pullers: one for the ’Scope lens and the other for the ordinary lens. Nowadays this is not necessary.

We used a massive number of dimmers on the picture. Dimmers are known as a soundman’s nightmare, because they are prone to create a great deal of noise when they are turned up and down, so when we did use them (usually during Deborah’s wanderings around the old house with candles), we could only shoot the sequence silent and add the sound effects where required later.

The film was also a huge problem for the continuity, which, of course, was Pam’s job. Pam and I rarely worked together over the subsequent years, and she always refers to her work on The Innocents as a personal nightmare because of the complexities of continuity. The main reason for this despair was the candles. Candles, being candles, had a tendency to burn down, so Pam had to keep an eye on what height they were when the shot ended and make sure they were at the same height for the next shot, so that the candles didn’t seem to go up and down with each changing shot. Pam remembers, although I don’t, that there was a particular shot in the film where Deborah goes through a door and the candles are perhaps six inches or so, but in the next shot, where Deborah turns away, the candles are up around ten inches high. The reason for that was by the time we got to the take, I said to Jack that the candles should be replaced, but the props men didn’t have any spare candles ready. Jack turned to Pam and said, “No, no, no, it doesn’t matter” (the very words that any continuity girl does not want to hear), and so the shot remained in the picture, much to Pam’s shame and frustration. There was an old saying in the business: “They’ll never notice in the one and nines,” a quote used, I suspect, by directors and cameramen, not continuity girls.

Now, you might be saying, it was strange that the props men didn’t have any spare candles for a picture with so many candles in it. Well, the reason was that the candles were specially made. Each candle had up to four wicks in it, each made by the props. They were in fact ordinary candles but with the center made bigger to accommodate the extra wicks, to produce more light. This was an idea I came up with when Jack and I were planning the picture. We were going to have to photograph scenes where the characters wander around with a candle and a lot of deep focus, so I lit it for the stop (the f-stop), which meant that I had to stop down quite a bit on the lens. If you stop down on the lens, the light from an ordinary candle would seem insignificant and ineffectual, so I came up with the idea of multiple wicks to increase the light potential from the candle. In other words, if you decide to use a stock where you have to use twice as much light on the set, then you have to make sure there is twice as much light from the candle. I used this little trick several times during my career as a cinematographer.

There is one particular sequence in the film of which I am very fond, and indeed proud. It is the appearance in among the bulrushes of the dead governess (played by Clytie Jessop, who would become one of my regulars when I became a director). The scene is one of the most effective and chilling in the film, and it all happens in bright daylight. The figure, or ghost, is seen across the lake, giving the whole scene a stark contrast between the dead and the living. The shots of Clytie were photographed from the lake itself, on a platform or boat, which were both somewhat precarious. During the filming of the scene, Jack acquired the nickname “Skulls” Clayton (I think the credit goes to Ronnie Maasz, who was the camera assistant), not because the film was a ghost story but because Jack was extremely adept at rowing back and forth across the lake.

One of Jack’s innovative ideas was the sound of a fly buzzing around during some of the appearances of the ghosts. The sound heralded the appearances and conjured up decay. I don’t know where Jack got the idea, but at some time during the screenplay he had realized it was a good idea. Jack would get hold of something that happened in his life and slip it into a film if it created atmosphere, whether it had anything to do with the story or not. In this case it was a wonderful addition. Another touch by Jack was the almost constant presence of white doves or pigeons. Whereas the flies had heralded death, these beautiful creatures symbolized life and purity. It was on this picture that Jack began his passion for these birds, and they became the “extras” in the movie. As the writer John Mortimer has said, “Towards the end of his life he seemed more excited by the triumphs of his homing pigeons. Somehow he acquired them, bred from them, and they changed his life, as did Haya Harareet, with whom he lived so long.” I never quite understood Jack’s passion for pigeons, but his passion for Haya, his wife, I could more than understand.

Of all the horror films I made as a director, none I think came anywhere near the fear of the supernatural or unknown as The Innocents. The horror element in the films I directed always had to be displayed graphically; that’s the way the audiences like them. But The Innocents contained no blood, gore, or graphic violence—the evil was all suggested. The kids in the film were far more horrific characters than any of the people portrayed in any of my films. Not, of course, the children themselves but the atmosphere that surrounded them. It was when I initially read the script that I saw that lurking, unseen element, and I pursued it in that way as a cinematographer.

Jack was wonderful as a director, and there were never any problems working with him. I knew there wouldn’t be. He handled the cast, especially the two children, with great respect and patience. On the pictures I worked on with him, Jack was always calm and never shouted; you never saw him jumping on his hat if things didn’t go well, unlike some directors I know. He was always gentle and mild, but he did have a positive, and at the same time tough, voice, which provided him with authority.

Deborah Kerr was also wonderful. Not just in the role of the governess but as a person. She was an absolute sweetheart and adored Jack. The two children were exceptionally good, especially Martin Stephens, who played Miles. Jack spent extra time with them and handled them very well, even though, sadly, he had no children of his own. In my opinion, the only actor who doesn’t quite fit the part is Michael Redgrave. I always felt that Jack was so satisfied with Deborah’s performance that he slightly overlooked Redgrave and what he was delivering. Although I admired Michael, he now seems very wooden in the role of the uncle.

The Innocents was, and still is, an exceptionally good and stylish film, and as I have mentioned, it is definitely my favorite. But it also holds so many good memories. There was Jack, of course, and this would be the last time we would work together. Pam was working on the picture, and we had reestablished our relationship; there were also Maurice Gillett and Ronnie Taylor, so I had all my mates around me. The icing on the cake was that the nominations for the American Academy Awards were announced during the making of the picture, and I was surprised to see my name up for a possible Oscar for best black-and-white cinematography for Sons and Lovers. I received a telegram from the producer, Jerry Wald, saying, “My heartiest congratulation on your Academy nomination Best Cinematography Sons and Lovers with deepest appreciation for your stunning contribution to the success of the film.” It’s not often you get notes like that from producers. In the event and to my delight, the film did win me my first Oscar.

I can’t remember if my winning the Oscar at that time encouraged producers to ask me to photograph projects in the United States—probably not. In those days, winning an Oscar didn’t automatically mean that people in Hollywood were clamoring at your door.

Somewhere around this time, the American film critic Pauline Kael kindly remarked, “I don’t know where this cinematographer Freddie Francis sprang from. You may recall that in the last year just about every time a British movie is something to look at, it turns out to be his . . . in each case with a different director.” That is praise indeed from such a lady. I don’t mention it to blow my own trumpet but to express the fact that I felt at that time (and everything is dependent on the time and opportunities) I had reached my peak as a cinematographer and was looking toward a new direction in my career.

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