2nd Unit DPs – Pete Romano by Pauline Rogers

ICG MAGAZINE

October 2010 Issue

“Permission to redeem myself” underwater Director of Photography Pete Romano said as he broke the surface of the water tank. For a moment Romano forgot that he hadn’t quite got the shot his director wanted for a crucial sequence in Inception, the scene in front of Romano was so incongruous. Used to working closely with a very dapper and elegant Nolan, it was hard to adjust to what he saw – Nolan, soaking wet – standing on top of the van in the tank,in a wet suit watching the monitor.

“It showed just how important the shot was,” recalls Romano, who wasn’t giving himself a break. He’d done one complicated move capturing stars Leonardo de Caprio, Ellen Page and Tom Berenger as they struggled out of the sinking van. “Second shot Chris wanted me to stop on Ellen instead of going on to Tom,” Romano explains. “There was no room in the small van, I had no assistant to pull focus, and that quarter move to the left just didn’t work the first time.”

Things happen. No one can make a perfect move every time. Just tell that to Pete Romano. He’s harder on himself than any director could possibly be. He simply wanted to get it right for Nolan the first time. Actually, it wasn’t the hardest thing that the director had asked Romano to do. On Insomnia, for example, director Nolan and first unit cinematographer Wally Pfister ASC gave him the ultimate assignment; talk actor Al Pacino into sticking his head under water for just one quick shot. “This was Serpico I was facing,” laughs Romano. “Hardest challenge I’ve had in all the years I’ve been shooting underwater!”

Technically Pete Romano’s credits often read Second Unit Director of Photography, yet the term is often a misnomer. Working closely with first unit talent is the rule with his shots – not the exception. Not every film requires him to talk a recalcitrant actor into the water, but each one does require patience, experience, and the ability to explain to actors, directors, and even other members of a production just what can and can’t be done in the water.

“A lot of directors and cinematographers have these great ideas and it’s my job to find a way to make them happen or try to come up with an alternate solution when the shot isn’t viable,” he says. “I just got back from a shoot for I Am Number IV with director DJ Caruso, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro ASC and visual effects supervisor Greg McMurry ASC.”

“We needed to get a shot of an actor from above shooting straight down. The idea was that the actor be below camera as we looked down into the depths,” Romano explains. “The actor was unable to get deep enough to have room for the camera and myself above him. Even if we could have worked that out the light rays were visible on the black bottom of the pool and would have made the shot unusable. Water being a three dimensional medium, I asked if it would be okay to shoot the actor with his back facing towards the pool bottom, his head toward camera and his feet toward the totally black back wall. It was a simple solution that did the trick – and we got the shot.”

When directors like Nolan, Michael Bay, Stephen Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Neil Jordan and others call Pete Romano in to do “second unit” they know he’ll go that extra mile to make their underwater desires work – and in camera, instead of in post. Often it isn’t only the way he handles the talent they count on, it’s also because, as he puts it, often “necessity becomes the mother of invention.” If the tools available won’t work for the shot, Romano feels his job description has to expand to inventor.

His Remote AquaCams were created because cinematographer Caleb Deschenal ASC needed to get a shot of Kevin Costner being pummeled by a storm in Message in a Bottle. Making that happen required a remote lens control. Romano created it for one shot – who knew it would win a Technical Achievement Award. For Pearl Harbor, Romano added an underwater head which has now become his HydroHead. He’s also collaborated with cinematographer John Seale ASC to make other in-camera exciting shots possible.

“I’m lucky, there are a lot of directors out there that know that, no matter how sophisticated computer generated effects have become, there is still a big need for getting for real,” says Romano. “There is something intangible about working with real water that I don’t think we’ll ever lose. Light coming through the surface, wave action even if it’s in a pool, the interaction with shadows and highlights and bubbles and people – sure they can be created. Selling the shot, that’s a different thing. Do it for real and it will make all the difference.”

And that’s really what second unit DP Pete Romano’s job is all about – whether it’s cajoling actors into the water, manipulating images to make them something they aren’t, creating technology that will make the impossible possible – and doing it all for real just one challenge at a time.

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