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Showing His True Colors

Acclaimed screenwriter Gary Ross' directorial debut moves 'Pleasantville' from black-and-white to living hues.

September 20, 1998|Amy Wallace | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

To grasp how complicated it was to make "Pleasantville," writer-director Gary Ross' new film about two vibrant '90s teenagers who are absorbed into the black-and-white world of a '50s television show, begin by imagining actress Joan Allen's face painted green. Picture her, chartreuse, in the middle of a love scene. Then, try not to laugh.

That's what actor Jeff Daniels had to do while making the film, in which the residents of the monochromatic town of Pleasantville turn to living color, one person at a time. In one romantic scene, a black-and-white Daniels touches Allen's black-and-white cheek and discovers that under her gray makeup, her skin has become pink. That's what you see on screen, anyway.

To achieve this effect--a single splash of natural color in an otherwise drab frame--a makeup artist slathered Allen with green face paint, specially mixed to match the tones of her skin. During shooting, Daniels managed to gaze lovingly into Allen's eyes despite her ghoulish appearance (gallantly, he said later that his co-star's talent outshone her icky hue). Finally, during post-production, a computer was used to turn her green face gray.

And that, Ross says, was just one of the 1,700 special effects in the $40-million film, which premiered last week at the Toronto Film Festival and is set for release on Oct. 23.

"When I first got the idea for 'Pleasantville,' I realized I had stumbled on a wonderful metaphor to express what it means to come alive," said the 41-year-old first-time director, recalling how he first hit on the concept of making a movie that began in black-and-white and gradually turned to color. He admitted, however, that his initial excitement was accompanied by ignorance about how difficult such a project would be.

"I was so naive. I had no idea," a punchy-sounding Ross said as he neared the end of the project he began writing four years ago and spent more than two years actually making (more than twice the usual time for a less technical movie). Asked to describe the "Pleasantville" production, which according to New Line Cinema has more digital visual effects shots than any movie in history, Ross said: " 'Fitzcarraldo' meets 'Brigadoon.' "

The comparison sounds loopy, but it's apt. For like director Vincente Minnelli did in 1954's "Brigadoon," Ross brings to life a mythical village in "Pleasantville" that is forever altered by the arrival of two visitors from another land--in this case, twin siblings played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon. And like director Werner Herzog, who actually hauled a huge riverboat over a mountain while making 1982's "Fitzcarraldo," Ross had to overcome huge technical obstacles to get his movie made.

The story is a modern fable about two children of divorce--Witherspoon, the popular flirt, and Maguire, the likable nerd who is obsessed with the idyllic world of his favorite television program, "Pleasantville." When the siblings are mysteriously transported into the black-and-white show, they find themselves in an alternate reality where the weather is always sunny and 72 degrees, where the bathrooms have no toilets and where father and mother always know best. But with them, the '90s teens bring change. First a rose turns color, then a shiny new car, then a young girl's tongue. Once the transformation begins, there's no stopping it.

To execute this vision--in which color itself becomes one of the movie's central characters--Ross considered using the traditional process of colorizing black-and-white film. But the results, he feared, would look too fake, particularly the flesh tones. The key to "Pleasantville" was that the color characters had to look as real as their monochromatic friends, prompting a visceral engagement of the senses that would contrast with the sense of nostalgia evoked by black-and-white.

So Ross, who has no formal technical training, embarked on an odyssey that would make him a computer whiz who would become as comfortable using terms like "saturation shift" as he already was discussing a character's motivation.

The plan was to shoot on color film stock, which has better resolution than black-and-white, and then to remove the color from scenes--and from particular parts of individual frames of film--that the story line required to be color-free. But that created all sorts of unprecedented problems during the shoot.

Lighting was tricky, for example. Cinematographer John Lindley had to experiment to find a combination of lighting schemes that could provide the proper illumination for both black-and-white and color objects and characters. The production designer, Jeannine Oppewall, and costume designer, Judianna Makovsky, had to choose colors for the movie's sets and clothing that would have the right "gray value" in one shot, but would also evoke the right emotional feeling when shown in color.

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