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Call in the Specialist

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.”

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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.”

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“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.

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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.”

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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.”

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Over the years Kimball has developed a style characterized by sharp visual contrasts, of color, light, even action and stillness. He is known for photographic extremes that can stray into excess. And he has gone over the top. In “Revenge,” for example, at least one critic suggested that a dramatic dining-room table scene was lit with too many candles, distracting from the story line.

Of that same film, another critic, Roger Ebert, noted that co-star Madeleine Stowe was introduced with “a voyeuristic camera shot that starts at her ankles and climbs hand over hand up every wrinkle in her dress.” As an effective establishing shot, Ebert liked it.

In his most recent picture, 1993’s “True Romance,” which was directed by Tony Scott, Kimball was called on to record scenes that ranged from a dingy drug pad to an oceanfront setting. At times the images are horrifically violent; blood spurts, and walls get slimed by bullet-riddled bodies.

But throughout “True Romance,” sunlight seems to be breaking in like an irrepressible dawn, lighting up faces, intensifying colors and casting shadows in surprising ways.

Kimball particularly likes the lighting in the scene between Christopher Walken, playing a cruel gangster, and Dennis Hopper, the hapless father who won’t reveal his son’s whereabouts. As the confrontation develops, Walken seems to grow darker in shadow and evil while rising sunlight illuminates Hopper’s face in his final moments of courageousness.

The set for Stallone’s dance scene was created inside an abandoned warehouse on the Miami River. Carpenters built a wooden deck for the workout and added an upstairs loft, which also serves as the living quarters of the character Stallone plays.

And when filming inside is finished, the entire warehouse is to be blown up, of course.

Born in Dallas, Kimball developed an interest in photography as a young boy after he won a camera by selling newspaper subscriptions. In high school, he says he apprenticed himself to a local photographer and began to experiment with Super-8 films. He studied filmmaking at North Texas State University and by the time he graduated in the mid-1960s had begun to look for work in commercials. His first break came with a series of Pepsi ads in the 1970s, and from there Kimball went on to make commercials for such clients as Coca-Cola, Marlboro, AT&T;, Federal Express, Volvo, Estee Lauder and Seagrams (with Stone).

Although Miami is currently enjoying a boom as a filmmaking center, and other major pictures, including the spring box-office hit “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” have been shot here, no one film has ever captured the city’s sunlight, clouds, pastel colors and Latin rhythm as well as the television series “Miami Vice.”

Kimball takes that as a challenge. Scenes in “The Specialist” are set in trendy Art Deco South Beach, along the grimy Miami River, in Little Havana, outside a Spanish-style church in Coral Gables, in Coconut Grove and on the causeways over Biscayne Bay.

“We’re working with the whole city here, and so as we go along, I am trying to keep open to the possibilities,” he says. “Control of light is always the key, and because of that Miami is filled with opportunities.

“And the water. This may be the best place in the world to film scenes on the water.”

As might be expected in a movie about an explosives expert lured out of retirement, the warehouse is not the only thing that will be dynamited in “The Specialist.” Several scale-model sets as well as some expendable Miami buildings have already gone boom.

Scenes featuring explosions, of course, have to be captured in one take, and Kimball says failing to be prepared for the right shot “is a cinematographer’s nightmare.”

So when the warehouse goes up, Kimball will have at least eight cameras running, positioned just out of harm’s way. “Clay Pinney, our special-effects coordinator, will tell us how high, how big the blast, and where it’s safe,” he says. “I love these action sequences because they are not so dependent on great light. When the whole screen is exploding, no one worries about the shadows.

“I think this movie is going to be visually striking. But movie-making is such a collaborative effort that it’s a wonder anyone ever makes a great movie. In the middle of it all, I can’t really tell if the movie will be poor, good or great. All I can do is what I want and satisfy myself and the director.”


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