The western goes east: DP Eric Edwards patrols the streets of New Jersey in Cop Land


In shooting Cop Land, the Miramax film starring Sylvester Stallone that tells the story of a sheriff taking on corruption, DP Eric Alan Edwards found himself hearkening back to the cinematic tradition of the western--in spirit, at any rate. Released in August, the film is actually set in New Jersey, with scenes shot across the Hudson River in Manhattan as well. In taking on the shoot, Edwards had to convey the strong contrast--and downright rivalry--between small-town New Jersey and big-city New York, as well as lighting some of Hollywood's biggest names. Besides Stallone, Cop Land features Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta.

Filmed last summer, the movie follows the sheriff of the fictional town of Garrison, NJ, Freddy Heflin (Stallone). Heflin has long aspired to be a New York City cop but has never succeeded because he is deaf in one ear, although he is forced to live with New York City cops in his town. In filming the New Jersey scenes, the real town of Edgewater was used. Overlooking Manhattan, the town has cliffs that figure prominently in the story--Keitel's character, for instance, lives on one cliff, and the sheriff's office is down by the water's edge.

Edwards notes that in many ways Cop Land is a modern-day western set along the banks of the Hudson: "Jim Mangold [the director] originally approached me with the idea of it as being something of a western. I think it's a movie that he wanted to put together in many different styles." The character and place names support Mangold's notion, and the film includes a slow-motion shootout at the end.

Edwards stresses that the idea is not to be taken literally. "Of course, the term has to be used very loosely because it's sort of ridiculous to think of shooting a western in New Jersey--but it was a conceptual guideline."

Edwards supported the "showdown" between these two different areas by creating very different looks for the main settings. The Manhattan scenes, for instance, tend to take place at night. "The way I treated Manhattan was to rely more on mercury vapor lamps--to rely on a more black and green palette, lighting-wise. We filmed at a nightclub, Scores, by the 59th Street Bridge. It had its own colors of more or less greens and purples in the lighting. I stayed away from the sodium vapor look as much as I could. Manhattan was fairly blue."

The city stands in contrast to the smaller Jersey community. "I did some long exposure tests of Manhattan with my camera," Edwards says. "Even though there's sodium vapor in the streets, my memories of Manhattan have always been of steely, cold, black-and-white photography, where the lamps pierce the blackness. What I did for the Manhattan scenes was to color my lights greenish, so that I could maintain the bluish-green mercury-vapor look that cities once had."

Edwards says that "in contrast to the mercury vapor, there's something about sodium vapor that's warm. My choice therefore was to use sodium vapor in the bedroom community--the place where home is supposed to be. To me, New Jersey is the suburban community of Manhattan; where these people live is not where they work. Sodium vapor took over this country during the last 20 years; before that, I don't think you could go outside and find it. I was glad when it came in because I never liked the cold, harsh reality of mercury vapor. But I think I just wanted to go retro on Manhattan; it's a film-noir kind of place."

Linking the two settings is the George Washington Bridge, which had to be lit for one of the key scenes of the film. The DP notes that "the GWB had its own kind of green cast to it. It features pretty prominently because the first main event of the story takes place on it." Filming occurred at night on the bottom portion of the bridge. Edwards would have preferred the top span because the look of the steel frame towers is "unlike any other bridge in Manhattan. If you see these towers you know you're on the GWB, so it very clearly says this is a story about Manhattan versus New Jersey."

Edwards discovered, however, that one lane on the top span has to be kept open at night for hazardous materials to be transported. Such materials are not allowed to be driven across the bottom portion of the bridge. The DP states: "We needed the entire portion shut down to work, but they had to keep at least one lane open. But what happened was they were doing some construction work on the lower span, so they let us have the entire thing."

Edwards was therefore forced to find a way to light the towers from a location other than the top of the bridge. "We came up with the idea of these 6k Arriflex HMI PARs. We did several shots from the outside of the bridge. I found that the beams of those--they were brand new--carried all the way to the center of the span. The bridge is 4,200' [1,280m] long. So this one lamp carried all the way--2,000' [607m]--to the center, and I had the level I wanted all the way. It was pretty amazing. But since the lamps were just recently purchased (we got our package from Xeno Lights on Manhattan's Worth Street) they were very clean, and that's why we got so much output. We set up in a park on the Jersey side, right at the foot of the bridge. We were able to set three on that side and three on the other, and that pretty much got the bridge. I used the green in the bridge itself and relied somewhat on the mercury vapor lamps that are on the bridge, but for the interior span I used a combination of HMIs and tungsten. The HMIs were gelled down with CTO to bring them towards 3200K. And we also added orange to that.

"The thing that we did with the span that was unique and interesting, and that I hadn't done before, was to use flares," he continues. "Our props guy, Sandy, gave us an endless supply of magnesium road flares. Between takes I would go around and place them where I could. There were a number of Steadicam shots where we could pretty much line these flares up along the path of the Steadicam, and get an effective level of light on faces just from the road flares. We had this wonderful Mephistophelian red glow coming up from the deck of the bridge." Edwards adds that throughout the shoot, gaffer Michael Berg, key grip Gary Martone, and camera assistant Richard Rutkowski all made important contributions.

The bridge sequence is an important part of the film, not only because of its link between the two worlds, but because of the ambiguity it presents in terms of whose territory it actually is. The question of who has jurisdiction over the bridge underlies the action of the scene. Edwards' use of lighting reinforces the confusion within the events: "We had all the cop cars and medical cars creating a traffic jam, we used the cherry tops from the emergency vehicles as much as we could, and we used car headlights a lot. One of the vehicles was a Jeep with a bank of lights, and we used that. A great deal happens on the bridge. Officers plant a gun in a car. Medics, who know about the planted gun, fight over that. There are about three or four dramas going on simultaneously." Edwards notes with a laugh, "It was quite a production number."

Crossing the bridge to New Jersey leads to a whole other world. "We found a grouping of buildings, including a bar and an old water and power building that we converted into the sheriff's office. We incorporated the idea of a town square by shooting a bank with a clock that lit up at night. Instead of a church tower with a clock, we had this bank with a blinking digital sign. That was our updated version of a western town."

Edwards also brought a grittiness to the town, especially in the bar scenes. He relied on fluorescents for these interiors. (Two bars were used--one in Edgewater for the exteriors, one in Jersey City for interior shots). The film is set in summer, and Edwards considers the fluorescents to have contributed to the effect of a "sweaty male film." He continues: "Barroom fluorescent lights can have a wonderfully dingy atmospheric quality. Often they are sort of pathetic and dim and awful-looking. So when you use them on people in a bar, there's a quality that can exaggeratethe power of the face or the sweaty griminess or real textures of the face in a way that a hard studio fresnel fixture or a soft box cannot. Fluorescents have real spikes to the spectrum."

For the 65-day shoot, Edwards used two cameras at once--an idea that came from both director Mangold and cast member De Niro--which was, according to the DP, both a blessing and a curse. "In terms of continuity and capturing moments that are spontaneous, it was a good idea. It plays hell with lighting people, though." The camera used was the Panavision Platinum, and the lenses were Panavision Primo zooms and primes. The film stock was Kodak's new 5279 stock, also known as Vision stock, as well as 93 in some scenes. Edwards says, "The 79 is pretty much what I'm using now. That stock hearkens back to the colors that I like. After a long, conservative history, Kodak has finally come around and done something interesting with the color rendition of the stock. They've actually gone sort of European with it. There are more oranges, more yellows. The blue is not so pervasive. It's a little more magical and a little less reality-based."

Edwards' previous DP work includes 1993's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, 1995's To Die For, and 1996's Flirting with Disaster. He recently completed Clay Pigeons, a film directed by David Dobkin, produced by Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions and slated for US release by Gramercy Pictures. Of working in a field that so closely combines the technical with the artistic, Edwards concludes that the two work in conjunction to reveal something beyond just the visual: "I think all I do is deal in the currency of emotions. In its most pure sense, that's what cinematography is."