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Isle cinematographer helps ‘Tree of Life’ sprout


Paul Atkins has been to the birth of the universe, and lucky for you, he brought his camera.

OK, that’s a stretch. But the veteran cinematographer shot creation scenes all over the world for "The Tree of Life," the new film from director Terrence Malick that won the prize for best picture last week at the Cannes Film Festival.

Atkins, who lives in Hawaii Kai, was the second unit director of photography for the film, which folds the lives of a family in a small Texas town into an epic, evocative story that includes the dawn of time.

"I felt I was working on a film of consequence, a film that said something about the human condition and might stand the test of time," said Atkins, just back from France. "It was a fantastic experience for me."

For Atkins that’s saying a lot. He’s shot nature documentaries since the early 1980s, getting up close with great white sharks and erupting volcanoes. He also sailed around Cape Horn shooting storm footage from the deck of a replica British frigate for "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

"The Tree of Life" stars Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn, whose character wonders what happened to the joy he felt for life as a boy.

"I think audiences are finding that it connects with them emotionally," Atkins said. "You see a family that goes through death and joy and life and birth and all the emotions you can recall in your own childhood. It’s extraordinary."

Consolidated Theatres plans to screen "The Tree of Life" starting June 17.

AS CALLING cards go in Hollywood, an Academy Award nomination is pretty good, but it’s no guarantee you’ll get through the front door of success.

Just ask Iris Yamashita, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s critically acclaimed "Letters from Iwo Jima." Hers is a profession in which dreams are trashed several times a day.

"It’s very hard, and even once your foot is in the door, it’s very, very hard as well," Yamashita said by phone from her home in Pasadena, Calif.

Even after she joined the Writers Guild of America, which represents TV and film writers in Hollywood, the first advice she got was to have another job on the side.

"In the film world the odds of getting your film produced and on screen is like being struck by lightning and winning the lottery on the same day," she said.

But it’s not impossible, and Yamashita will offer tips for aspiring screenwriters at a Pacific New Media course June 4 and 5 at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The cost is $200.

"The advice I usually give at seminars and panels is you need to write because you are going to do it anyway," Yamashita said. "You can’t be writing because you are going to strike it rich."

It’s rare that a screenplay will succeed if the story doesn’t already have a following, but Yamashita said a collection of scripts might get you a writing assignment. She’ll talk about how best to approach that, as well as how to get an agent, a manager or an entertainment attorney.

Yamashita is working on seven different projects, and that kind of juggling is the norm.

"Because the writer is the first step in the process, your risk is so much greater than everyone else’s," she said. "A lot of your work is free work, pitching and selling your project. You work on a lot of different projects at one time in the hope that one will make it through."

Register for the class by calling 956-8400 or online, under "Film and Video," at

And that’s a wrap …

Mike Gordon is the Star-Advertiser’s film and television writer. Reach him at 529-4803 or at

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