MIAMI — As dust motes float in the sunlight streaming through the warehouse window, the camera limns every glistening bead of sweat that rolls across Sylvester Stallone's straining pectorals. Here on the set of "The Specialist," the atmosphere is as thick as the heat.
"Every shot," says producer Jerry Weintraub, "is like a videotape painting."
"Provocative," says director Luis Llosa. "We want this scene to be provocative."
Even Stallone is pumped. "Ten years ago I wouldn't have done this scene this way," says the shirtless star, toweling off after the sixth take and looking at a playback on a television monitor. "It's got a feminine quality to it."
Director of photography Jeffrey L. Kimball likes this scene, too. In a movie about a lone-wolf explosives expert drawn into an obsessive plot to wreak vengeance on a family of Cuban mobsters, Stallone's workout-dance early in the story plays against a bass-heavy love-song soundtrack in which co-star Sharon Stone is heard talking about her lingerie. The scene is intended to establish a sensual, noir-ish feel that could distinguish "The Specialist" from the herd of action-adventure romps punctuated by fisticuffs and fireballs.
Says Stallone: "I'm using my body in a masculine-feminine thing. Is it karate or is it a sensuous workout? It's not just pumping iron, it's pumping irony."
All irony aside, Kimball is aware that such moody, back-lit set pieces can call so much attention to themselves that they overpower plot, character and even a star of Stallone's wattage. The phrase Kimball uses is "over the top."
"With a film like this, it's important to style it out, to present scenes in an exaggerated way without going over the top," says Kimball, 51, whose recent cinematography credits include "True Romance," "Curly Sue" and "Revenge."
"I want to convey a mood, a feeling, and still tell the story."
In the warehouse scene, the story lingers on the sensitive, reluctant hero being tempted out of retirement by a sexy voice on the phone. As Stallone stretches his sculpted body and furrows his brow in thought, we watch through the indoor haze, in the sunbeam cast by a xenon spotlight, next to the slowly turning window fan, on the other side of a furry cat hunched over a bowl of food.
"It's a gorgeous scene, photographed to make an impression," says Kimball.
But is it too much?
Kimball hopes not. "The look of the movie has got to be tasteful, which means what you don't see could be as important as what you do see," he says. "Miami is an energetic, vibrant city, filled with water and wonderful light. So I watch what nature is capable of, and try to mimic it.
"The hard part, the technical part, is capturing that light, and making it last all day."
A Weintraub/Warner Bros. production with a budget of $40 million, "The Specialist" has Stone as Stallone's love interest, and also stars James Woods, Rod Steiger and Eric Roberts in what pre-production publicity describes as "a taut thriller of vengeance, obsession and betrayal set in Miami."
Oscar-winning composer John Barry ("Midnight Cowboy," "Dances With Wolves") is scoring the picture, and Emilio Estefan, husband of Gloria, is contributing some music. The film is scheduled for October release.
To hear the principals tell it, "The Specialist" is a risk for everyone involved. Weintraub, who produced the "Karate Kid" trilogy and "Oh, God!," says he's not known for action pictures. Peruvian-born director Llosa is hardly known at all; he's gripping the reins of his first big-budget American production. And Stallone, after larger-than-life incarnations as Rocky, Rambo and the Demolition Man, says that at age 47 he's about to reveal his softer side.
With all these reputations at stake, Kimball might seem like the perfect choice to record it all. "He's one of the top five cinematographers in the world," says Stallone, "a great artist totally unaffected by the Hollywood syndrome," meaning perhaps that Kimball seems more driven by the images he captures on film than by his image at a Malibu party.
Weintraub says he hired Kimball because "I wanted to use long lenses, and Jeffrey Kimball does that better than anyone else. He is not afraid to push the envelope, so we get shots we wouldn't normally get."
"I want that certain look," says Weintraub, "with the texture of the 'Godfather' movies."
Although a film's director of photography gets billing in the upper-third of the credits, the average moviegoer could no more name the person who shot "Top Gun" than he or she could identify the character Bob Hope played in the 1963 classic "Call Me Bwana." (Answers: Jeffrey Kimball and Matt Merriwether).
Kimball, a tall, easy-going man with a mop of graying curly hair, knows that. But working downstage of big-name stars and directors does not lessen the seriousness he brings to his task.
"The director deals with the actors and the story, and my job is to fulfill the director's image and interpret it," says Kimball. "The key is to set up all the shots and light them."