Miracle at St. Anna, The: Shooting Spike Lee's WWII Movie

Basic Training, Forming Camaraderie

Director Spike Lee enlisted his soldiers-to-be in an intense two-week boot camp led by renowned military advisor Billy Budd (TV's “Band of Brothers”). The experience enhanced the authenticity of the battle scenesbut that's not all it did.

“The brotherhood became real in boot camp,” says Omar Benson Miller. According to Budd, that was the whole idea.”The goal of the basic training was to create a cohesive unit of men that could confidently act like soldiers, handle and fire all weapons correctly and react as a soldier would during battle,” says Budd. “It was essential to also create a strong sense of teamwork amongst the men.”

The military advisor says the 'Miracle' crew did remarkably well. “The men responded very well to the boot camp. Of course, you get the odd one or two that are so out of their comfort zone and struggle with what we call 'Day 5 Blues.' But overall, they gelled very quickly and helped one another, showing team spirit early on. The cast impressed me. I even gave them their cell phones back by the end of week one.”

Still, the job wasn't easy. Budd cites the terrain as a challenge-the region's rivers and mountains made it tough for the crew. But he says the hardest part was the historical significance of some of the scenes, particularly the massacre at St. Anna. “We shot it on the very soil where hundreds of civilians died. I can safely say that those two days were the toughest in my career.”

Miller had a similar experience. “It was physically challenging and really put you in a mindset of what it was that these guys, the actual Buffalo Soldiers, had to endure. They were treated like they were 'less than,' and the physical conditions that these guys had to go through, like crossing the Serchio River in 30-degree temps, that stuff is no joke. But we had phony bombs going off, and they had real bombs going off. So these guys deserve a lot of respect. Whatever physical prep I had to do is nothing in comparison to what actually went on.”

Shooting on Location

Director of photography Matthew Libatique and production designer Tonino Zera went out of their way to creat an authentic look and feel to transport viewers to Italy circa 1944.

Shooting the film in Italy was essential, providing unmatched authenticity to the film. Says producer and native Italian Musini, “The film is shot in a region of our country along the
summits of the Apenninesright at the linea gotica (Gothic Line), which was the major line of defense in the final stages of World War II. The location is highly representative of what the
war was in Italy, what our resistance was. True dramatic episodes took place there.”

Lee agrees that the location was powerful, but not without its challenges. “We'd never done a World War II film before,” the director explains. “The first ten days were shot in the Serchio River, covering the battle that opens the film. There was a lot of historical significance. I think everybody made note and felt that we were shooting on a location where actual battles took place.

“The massive battle sequences were rough,” Lee continues.”There were explosions, squibs and choreography; we fought the terrain and the weather, and we didn't have a lot of time.” Still, Lee came to the set with a vision. He knew what he wanted the end result to feel like, but recognized it would be tough to achieve.

“One of the hardest things to do in this film was to get the tone right because this is a World War II film that's very brutal, very stark, gruesome-yet there's a very lyrical, magical, mystical element to it. More than several miracles happen in the film, so we needed to find the right tone between the stark reality of war and the magical moments.”

Lee relied heavily on director of photography Matthew Libatique and production designer Tonino Zera to help him achieve his vision. Lee and Libatique had teamed up before, working on “She Hate Me” and “Inside Man,” so the director of photography understood and appreciated Lee's process.

“Spike is a library of film history,” Libatique says. “His use of film reference was instrumental in getting my mind in a place where I could understand his vision for the film. He is also a lead-by-example person and demands a performance from not only his actors but his key personnel.”

Libatique says his approach to “Miracle at St. Anna” was not unlike his approach to every film he photographs. “My goal was to create a photographic atmosphere and, if lucky, a language that transports the viewer into the time and place of the story.”

Zera helped achieve that goal. “Ever since we started scouting locations, it was fundamental for me to have the same artistic vision as Spike and Matty,” he says. “'Miracle at St. Anna' is full of feelings and emotions. I tried to give that soul to each location.” Zera was asked to fill sparse outdoor locations with greenery, rebuild building exteriors and construct the interior of a barn.

Libatique cites the film's climax as his biggest challenge. “It was an intricate undertaking,”
he says. “We were working in this beautiful, but space-challenged village with gunfire, squibs,
wet-downs and weather. We had a great deal to accomplish with limited daylight.”

The solution, according to the DOP, was preparation–a lot of it. “We began with storyboarding all the beats of the scene and then followed that by deconstructing the boards
with Spike, Billy Budd and Mike Ellis (1st AD),” says Libatique.”To maximize time, we designed coverage schemes that would allow us to get at least two needed angles in a single set-up. We used a third camera for additional coverage.”

The film's lighting offered a special surprise, though Lee admits he'd been tipped off prior
to arriving in Italy.”Martin Scorsese told me that the light in Tuscany is like nowhere else in
the world,” says Lee.”He was right. Most of our film was shot in natural light.”

Libatique adds that shooting with so much natural light led to welcome challenges when it came to shooting indoors. “From a lighting perspective I would say my favorite scenes involved anything inside Ludovico's house,” he says. “With a great deal of exteriors in the film it was a challenge to integrate artificial lighting into a film in which we're surrounded by the theme of natural light.”

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