If you are a fan of traditional stop-motion animation, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some of the delightfully bizarre work of the Quay brothers. Stephen and Timothy, identical twins from Philadelphia, made their mark after directing several breathtaking animated shorts in Europe, creating disturbing worlds inhabited by decaying, hand-made puppets that often reference esoteric works of literature, music, and art. Unmistakable in their idiosyncratic visions, their unique style became a staple in art house cinema and influenced a generation of filmmakers and animators. While much of their work was difficult to find outside the festival circuit or the occasional museum retrospective, that’s changed with a new, pristine Blu-ray release of their collected shorts distributed by Zeitgeist films.
Featuring their breakthrough film Street of Crocodiles, a collection of their MTV-commissioned shorts Stille Nacht, and their most recent works, Through The Weeping Glass and Unmistaken Hands, as well as many more, this is the ultimate treasure trove of their work. In addition, there are several insightful commentary tracks from the brothers, which illuminate fascinating details about the intent behind their imagery. Finally, there is the presence of Christopher Nolan, who has thrown his cinematic weight to bring this release to a larger audience. There is a heartfelt essay about how the director first experienced their work and was influenced by them from an early age. In addition, there is a stunning short film, Quay, shot by Nolan himself using a shoulder-mounted 35mm camera, that documents the brothers in their rarely seen workshop and reveals their playful candor and love for their craft.
I was fortunate enough to ask the brothers a handful of questions regarding the release of their anthology, including how Christopher Nolan became involved, their thoughts on 3D animation, and how their thematic threads connect this work. To note, it was conducted over e-mail, which accounts for the lack of attribution between Stephen and Timothy, and one can read it below.
The Film Stage: The opening short in the anthology is The Cabinet Of Jan Švankmajer. What would you say was the most important lesson Jan Švankmajer gave you in developing your creative process?
The Quay Brothers: To not be afraid and to be fearless in the métier of animation. And in this film we dramatized our own position vis à vis him: he was the ‘Master’ and we were the ‘pupil.’ Heretofore we had shamefully never heard of him and it was through a Czech friend at the Royal College of Art who mentioned him and this was well before VHS and the advent of the internet. And through Keith Griffiths, our long-time producer, we were able to get financing through Channel Four to centre the film around Czech surrealism which still flourished even under communism, unlike French surrealism which was virtually moribund. Prior to this our formation in puppetry was linked to the works of Starewicz, Trnka, Borowczyk, as well as the rod puppets of Teschner which were available as film prints. And lastly, The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer was a homage to Jan’s composer Zdeněk Liška, who unfortunately died the very same year this documentary was made.
Where do you draw inspiration from to create these magnificently surreal worlds, and what does it take to actually build them? How much time do you spend crafting each puppet?
The making of the puppets goes hand in hand with the building of the décors, each is the result of the other or at least provides a path for the other to follow. Some puppets are found in street markets, certain others in antique shops, however the majority are sculpted by hand by us. And of course certain objects are found in these same street markets but a puppet can take a week to make or maybe a month. On top of it, a ball & socket armature could take weeks to make.
Of all the shorts presented, is there any that you are particularly happy people will get a chance to see? Perhaps a personal favorite?
We’ve always been most attached to Tales from Vienna Woods [Stille Nacht III]. For us it captures the essence of how we prefer to create a film: it started from a footnote that was clearly unsubstantiated, more theoretical, and yet it permitted us to establish a fiction that was both genuinely dreamlike. And all the time it was a kind of documentary all remembered as a flashback.
Much of your work is very abstract, like voyaging through a dream, but in the commentaries there is often a specific narrative that you ascribe to each scene. Do you ever fear that people will not fully understand your vision as filmmakers or is your imagery sometimes intentionally opaque?
We probably aspire towards a certain ‘drift’ but this is the language and domain of pure images which is NOT necessarily ‘narrative, according to what is normally expected of ‘narrative,’ and therefore mustn’t suffer the same comparison. Images, like music, have their own laws and as we’ve said before, our narratives obey musical laws rather than dramaturgical laws. But for us the realm of say our particular cinema fuses image, music, sound and there is no hierarchy between them.
As for our imagery being ‘opaque’, we don’t ever really accuse instrumental music of being opaque. A symphony by Charles Ives, for instance, will never suffer being accused of being opaque, difficult perhaps but true! But then music demands an entirely different language of interpretation and assessment. It’s like we’ve always said about dreams: everyone always says: I had this fantastic dream last night but it would be absurd to say I had this dream last night with the most boring narrative. We’ve always approached our tenuous ‘narratives’ by discovering a side door [and thereby avoiding the front door]. Yes, it does make our narratives invalid for many.
An uncompleted image does permit the spectator to finish it. It’s not a guarantee and it’s not meant to be a presumption. Certain of Kafka’s diary entries simply stop…there’s no conclusion. You’re left with the remains of a torso and that’s it. We’ve always been struck by that…or paralyzed by that huge suspension of doubt. Despite the entry being a fragment it strangely feels whole to us.
Can you discuss how you met Christopher Nolan and how that led to him making the intimate short documentary about your workshop and technique? Do you hope to collaborate with him in a future project?
We think that Christopher must have first discussed things through Zeitgeist [the distributor] and then, yes, we were warned and one day he telephoned. We invited him to visit us in the studio the next time he was in London. But we were genuinely surprised when he proposed a documentary as well as supporting the Blu-ray. Our only stipulation was that he make it in one day and so he brought in this monster of a 35mm camera that he himself operated and finished it by late afternoon. It was all pretty much improvised. And as some future collaboration: very unlikely, but who knows?
Do you find the medium of shorts to be more personally gratifying than feature films or projects with larger budgets?
Of course short films are paradise because there’s only the need for the two of us and there’s absolutely no one to intervene …whilst on a feature, you’re gently traumatized by a crew of 44 people that you’re genuinely beholden to and as well a ferocious schedule. So where we don’t really have to verbalize between ourselves making a short film, you do have to verbalize and delegate during the making of a feature film. At the moment, we’ve just finished making the décors for a National Theatre production of a Wallace Shawn play and fell back into the arms of theatre and a camaraderie between not only the director and the lighting designer but the cast and crew as well. It was very touching to be able to sink into a world like that where any impulse was invited. But making Institute Benjamenta (live action feature) was a halcyon experience.
How do you feel about the state of animation as it is today? Do you ever think you would try to utilize the new digital tools (3D animation, modeling, etc) that technology provides?
Animation is everywhere. It’s unstoppable. But it would be utterly pointless for us to embark on a program of new digital tools for the sake of it and it would probably be laughable. We’re so far off the edge of animation as it is known today to be even remotely astonished, challenged, or even worried. We cannot possibly imagine being wiped off the earth by CGI and a legion of supporters simply because, for one, we’re not an issue for them. Alas, we investigated a 3-D printer, and the cost was just too exorbitant for our kind of budget. So, in the end, we hand-made the objects. Obviously a lost opportunity, but, for us, there is the crucial ritual of needing to touch an object or a puppet in order to release its inhabited-ness. That is our own personal challenge.
However only yesterday, we saw a Mizoguchi film that employed a Noh mask, which means that the lips of the mask do not [or never did move] despite there being a highly ritualized sung / recited text. It was so remarkable and simple and powerful and it always makes us think of the supremacy of dance, which normally speaking, never has to resort to dialogue to make known what is proposed by the music and an intense stylization of movement that is otherworldly, and therefore sacrosanct. Not, of course, for everybody’s taste — and, yes, we live in a modern world — but we also secretly honor those artists and artisans that have preceded us who have been incalculable to our own formation as film-makers.
If there was one thematic thread that connects your various short films, what do you think it would be?
We probably imagine them as oblique essays or forays into realms from which no answer will ever be an official explanation. The films are too closely aligned to music which is a non-narrative utterly incapable of being dissected. Nevertheless literary themes do abound whether from Schulz, Walser, Kafka, Hernández, or Lem, but they still obey a certain musicality which entirely informs their individual but still obstinate structures.The text of Lem that we used in Maska is a force that is devastating and concise whilst in the Felisberto Hernández film, the text becomes a foil for allowing the narrative to exist with the authority of absolute subjectivity. These are not normally the topics of animation or for that matter where animation tends to stray given that Walser has shaped our world in both animation and live action. So the thread is for the most part a homage to literary sources that have informed us hugely apart from our own personal and pathological drifts.
The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films is now available on Blu-ray.
Killing Them Safely, Nick Berardini’s incisive documentary about the lethality of tasers in the hands of police officers, is exploring just about the most prescient subject of 2015: police brutality. But Berardini’s film doesn’t take the conventional issue-doc routes of either a specific case and examining the damage, or even just confronting the subject matter head-on. Rather, Killing Them Safely starts backward, centering the entire story around Taser International, the Arizona-based company who has made a fortune suppling police departments across the country with tasers. They’re an utterly strange company whose choices (and non-choices) illustrate lofty concepts about corporate trust, moralistic delusion, and that’s even before the film dives into the intertwined adjacent conversation about the ethical and political implications of non-lethal weapons like tasers.
These are all strong accomplishments, but Berardini’s film would be cold to the touch if it didn’t transcend these intellectual discussions to also be moving. Killing Them Safely is the rare documentary to be intentionally clinical about emotionally raw circumstances, but while there’s an analytical bent to even the most disturbing aspects, the story always circles back to the human cost of corporate decisions. I spoke to Berardini about his experience putting together the film together around one in-person interview, the difference between humanizing and sympathizing, and how he would have shifted his filmmaking approach had he started making the film in the aftermath of a year that placed police brutality under a microscope.
The Film Stage: In nearly every interview you’ve been asked about access, and how you were able to speak so intimately with Steve Tuttle, the VP of Communications from TASER International.You’ve explained that you originally just approached the company in an unassuming manner as a college student, but some of your later footage snowballs into far larger contexts like the deposition testimonials and the council meeting in Canada? As the story advanced, was it more difficult to access that footage? And did your intention evolve during the filming process?
Nick Berardini: When you think about the film, the film wasn’t even initially about Taser international. The film was about Stanley Harlan’s family, and what had happened in Moberly, MI. It was an observational film about this small town that was trying to recover, a town that was trying to heal itself after what had happened to Harlan. It only became about Taser International when I understood after spending a day there there, that the situation had become Orwellian.
It was such a surreal experience. It didn’t happen overnight, but very slowly, I started to become enamored with the question of ‘why is this company so aggressive in pitching me and telling me that they are this image that I don’t really think they are?’ They were trying to convince me that they were this idealistic “American Dream” image, and clearly that was a simplification of what was happening in the real world.
During the interview, I expected a bit more capitulation over the obvious things. I expected them to say things like ‘and it may be rare, but people can be killed with our products.’ The fact that they weren’t coming to common ground on that was crazy to me, and when I left that day, it became obvious to me that I had a competing point of view. I had something that wasn’t just a black and white ‘he said/she said’ or good or bad discussion. It was an exploration into the psychology of’ why are they like this, what’s motivating this?’
The interview was open-ended and almost soft going in. I didn’t want to confront them. That’s not what I was interested in. I wanted to genuinely understand them, and I didn’t have a ton of information that would come across as confrontational anyway.
I knew then that even though it was a light interview, I just wasn’t going to be allowed back. And what eventually became clear is I wanted to make this movie about Taser International – about these executives, and specifically the Smith brothers and Tuttle.
It was one preliminary day of shooting, so what I had to do was create a structure where the narrative of the film would be about all of the things that threaten the company’s existence. That’s why it’s so narrowly focused, and not so much on the broader issues of taser usage, but specifically Taser International. It’s a movie about a company, so these are the things that create conflict for this company, and threaten its existence.
I had to essentially create the two main characters – Rick and Tom Smith – out of archival footage. It was especially difficult in that what existed of them was all performance. It was all either shareholder presentations, presentations on a stage at a training conference, and news interviews, which are all a narrowly defined forms of performance. They’re all serving a very specific purpose.
When I later met the liability lawyers John Burton and Peter Williamson, and started establishing this relationship with them, I got access to a whole new world of stuff that was more honest. At this point, I knew what had gone on on paper. I knew these were the things that happened to make the company the way it is, but I didn’t really have any way to bring that to light visually. I started gaining access to Taser International’s internal archives, and specifically, the deposition videos because the lawyers get access to all these materials through lawsuits.
That opened up a whole new world, especially with the deposition footage, which showed them in a different context, and I think humanized them. It became about this confrontation that’s not coming directly from me, but came across in the edit through the critical plot points.
Early on, one of the lawyers says something along the lines of “The brothers are just weird, there’s something not quite right about them.” These brothers are such a strange bunch. They’re talking about Star Wars and Star Trek as influences, and then walking onstage to AC/DC and talking about protecting truth. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition of personality and message.
Right, right! As much as it’s an issue movie, it’s a movie about rhetoric and marketing. In many ways, it’s beyond about being whether tasers are good or bad. It’s a movie about the way in which we reset our own moral compass in order to justify our decisions. They said things even when they were actively lying or misleading, to the detriment of either the public or police officers, or both. They were doing it out of this place of saying that the ends justify the means, and that they had to do this.
That lack of self-awareness is what really caused the tension, and made this a really fascinating film. It’s about exploring the nature of human behavior. It’s about trying to understand the root causes of why we fall in love with technology, and think it will solve all of our problems without thinking about the potential downsides. The film is interested in painting a picture of all of these people as real human beings, and not just as evidence, or as good and bad guys.
The Smith brothers aren’t boogeymen. They come off a little bit slick every once in a while, but I did surprisingly find myself sympathizing with them quite a bit during some of the depositions. You very much understood where they were coming from a lot of the time, and I think that goes double for the affected policeman as well in terms of how much speculation factors in at both Taser International, and with the police departments that just assume that tasers have been field tested or will be safe. How did you try to find that balance of portraying these two groups, and their human and administrative mistakes?
The movie is very much trying to take everyone at face value and explore further, and that’s reflective of the experience I had in making it. I think we’re always at our best if we try to listen first before offering an opinion.
I don’t think that I sympathize as much with the company. I would put it this way instead – I don’t sympathize with them anymore. They have this blood on their hands. They very much needed this collateral damage to survive.
The weapons are already so expensive that without being able to convince officers that they’re perfectly safe, they never would have sold the amount of tasers that they did because it would be a niche weapon. Officers just don’t see enough of the situations that we would deem common sense taser usage to justify spending upwards of $1,000 on a weapon, and arming all their street officers with them.
I wanted to humanize Taser International without feeling like I needed to have a lot of sympathy with them because I present multiple opportunities for them to redeem themselves. And what we learn by going back to the beginning at the end is that they made this very clear decision early on when they were facing bankruptcy that they were going to choose themselves first. They were going to do whatever they needed to survive. And everybody else would come second.
But I can definitely sympathize with a lot of police officers. Police officers are hearing material presented by another officer, who is in fact paid by the company to be a master instructor. That conflict of interest is obvious everywhere. That officer who’s outfitted with the taser really doesn’t have the capability to do research for himself anyway, and decide that there’s a better alternative.
It speaks to how great Taser International is at marketing and rhetoric to suggest that the public doesn’t understand police officer’s jobs and that they do. They’re saying, ‘instead of putting your hands on a suspect and taking him to the ground and deal with an excessive force claim, use this taser to control the situation, and then ask questions later, and you’ll avoid yourself all of the stress of an excessive force claim. That’s kind of hilarious when you think about it. A weapons manufacturer is encouraging the customer to use the weapon more, and somehow they’re seen as objective (laughs).
It was the always the police officers holding the bag at the end of the day when something went wrong. They were dealing with the consequences. They weren’t just financial, but trying to gain trust back on the ground while the company was just washing their hands of it.
There’s that phone call in the movie where Rick Smith is on this conference call with all of these police departments at this critical time in the company’s history. The Canadian government has just concluded that tasers can kill people. They’re starting to lose lawsuits for the first time. They could have taken this moment to own up, and be honest with the police officers. They can say, ‘we were a bit overzealous initially. It’s rare, but here are the risks that actually do exist. Be judicious about how you choose to use these weapons.’
Instead, they choose to talk out of both sides of their mouth. They want to put all of these warnings in their training sessions in the fine print, and then slip out of the liability of what can go wrong. But then at the same time, they’re saying the only reason they’re doing this is to prevent greedy lawyers from suing them.
If you are familiar with liability cases, you’ll understand how difficult it is to actually lose one. If you lost, there’s probably some pretty serious evidence that you did something wrong. This isn’t like suing a neighbor over not cutting their grass enough times. This is a company – and companies are usually very insulated from product liability litigation.
They just fall deeper and deeper into their own lies. I specifically wanted to transition to the police department that you spend the most time with in Warren, Michigan. Was that after you found out about their respective incident with Robert Mitchell, or was that a situation of access and timing?
That was probably the easiest part (laughs). We knew that we wanted to hear from police officers, but we didn’t want to turn this into a “use of force” debate. Most people hear about how departments love these weapons. We were searching for a department who had come full circle – who jumped in head first and suffered the consequences, and was trying to overcome the new reality. These departments were gullible, and they jumped in, and they didn’t have good policies about how they were used because they took the company’s word for it. And eventually, people got hurt and died.
Warren was on the hook for that. And it wasn’t just the emotional devastation for everyone involved including the officer who thought he was doing the right thing and tasering this person, but the financial hook. It was demonstrating the backwards concept with this weapon that somebody has to get hurt or die before it changes the behavior. This is who or what you’re dealing with and people don’t have to get hurt or die before you use these responses.
You have some stunningly disturbing video footage – Robert Dziekanski and obviously Harlan – how did you decide on those particular incidents? Was that just another situation where things aligned that way?
Specifically with Dziekanski, it went back to the question of what are the things that threaten the company’s existence. The Dziekanski death was a very big deal in Canada. It essentially was the thing that motivated this government inquiry, which was the first government inquiry and/or government explanation that under certain circumstances, these weapons can kill people.
It’s the motivating factor, along with the lawsuits,.They are the things that made the company change its warnings and its training. The Stanley Harlan case was the first thing that got me involved with making the movie. I was a student at the University of Missouri when he died 20 miles north in Moberly, and I just happened to cover it as a student, and I wanted to make a movie about how Moberly was fractured by it.
That was my personal connection to it, but the purpose it serves in the film, it’s the emotional callback to why does this all matter. I wanted you to get sucked into the sort of pettiness that takes place when you look at these cases as numbers on a page. It’s what happens when you analyze them as lawsuits, as means for political gain, but what we’re really talking about is dead people though.
And nothing proves – and I hate to say prove because I don’t want to make it sound like we just used Stanley Harlan as evidence — but nothing really gets the point across as to what’s really at stake here like watching these officers stand around a man is dying because they’re convinced that what’s happening to him is not possible. Moberly only had one taser. It’s not like they had this rampant history of taser misuse or death. They had one taser. The guy was aggressive in using it, but none of the officers thought this kid might die. And there he is dying in front of them as his mother and stepfather are screaming to get him help. That was ultimately why his case and his story needed to be a part of the film. It’s about not just analyzing it from a cost-benefit context.
Hypothetically, if you had the chance to make a companion film that was specifically about the repercussions of this event on the town, how do you think the film would have changed? Or alternately, were there some things that you were not able to communicate by taking this broader, but more analytical perspective?
Yeah. I obviously very consciously decided to choose Taser’s point of view as the main characters rather than the Harlan family. The Harlan family was on board with that. I was in communication with them the whole time because they thought it could best represent the whole reason we started making the film in the first place. I think there’s a frustration that exists amongst families of people who died in police custody – especially in the cases where it’s very clear that it’s unjustified – that they’re not heard and there’s a level of victim blaming. People hear about the case and think, ‘well, the police wouldn’t do these things to you unless you were doing something wrong, or if you din’t provoke them.’
And had I made that observational film that was more intimate about Moberly, it may have maybe gotten that point across a little better, but that’s also a movie that would be one emotional track. As a filmmaker, I want to make films with a unique point of view that are three dimensional that can poke us in different ways, and can get us thinking about our lives in very different ways.
In a very positive way, the film feels journalistic in its approach. The agenda isn’t palpable, and rather it seems rooted in instinct and investigation. But at the same time, it’s digging deeper into the ‘whys’ more than your average news story.
Yeah again what I wanted to remind the audience of, and why I love filmmaking as opposed to TV news is that it lets us get beyond the information, and get into the psychology. That’s what this film is clawing at. It’s really trying to humanize everybody and show the viewer that given this environment, they might have made some of the same decisions.
You began shooting this film in the summer of 2009. In the last couple of years — and especially this past year — the attitude towards police brutality and accountability has drastically changed. Police Departments are being kept under a much more watchful eye, and larger discussions have emerged about the way communities and police interact with each other. If you were going to start making this film now, do you think your tone or anything about your approach would change?
I would spend a little bit more time on body cameras (Taser International is now the number one distributer of Body Cameras) at the end, I think. I would want to draw the exact same connection about how they’re using the exact same rhetoric and deepening the divide between police and the public. I want people to understand that when I talk to the press that they should understand Taser International as a weapons manufacturer. Their motto may be ‘protect truth, protect life,’ but that’s a marketing statement now. That’s not a mission statement. They’re a weapons manufacturer and they profit off of war.
It’s good for business when there is strife between the police and the community. It’s good for business when officers use tasers — even when they use them inappropriately — because Taser International is not the one that shoulders the blame. The officers do. I think in a lot of cases, Taser is as culpable or more culpable.
And then they’re turning around and selling these departments body cameras and saying, ‘well the public is just going to make all these frivolous claims against you, so why don’t you buy these body cameras to prove yourself right.’ And that doesn’t get to the root of the problem, it puts in the officer’s head that the public is the enemy. I want people to see that impracticality, the idea that the weapon is an alternative to deadly force, is just not true. That’s not how it’s used. That’s not the way it’s been implemented. It’s just an idea that helps them win the simple-minded pr battle.
Are body cameras a great idea? I absolutely think they are, but Taser International is the market leader in body cameras because of this pre-existing relationship they have with police departments.
There’s so many questions about effective storage. They are charging so much money for storage that short sellers on Wall Street see this, and are killing the company’s stock because their operating costs get really high. And then they pass those costs onto departments, so there’s a ton of questions about storage. There’s a ton of questions about who has access to this footage. Whose right is it? But that doesn’t matter because they just want to rush in againe, just like we did with tasers, and they think that will solve all of our problems. That’s not how it works, and on the flip side, departments want to buy into that stuff because it makes them look proactive to the public. If they’re buying tasers and body cameras in the wake of shootings, the public is thinking that at least their department is doing something, but that idealism is not matched in reality.
Killing Them Safely is now in limited theatrical release and available on VOD.
Vittorio Storaro, like fellow Apocalypse Now veteran Walter Murch, knows more about his field than nearly anybody. And, as with Murch, the cinematographer’s reasons for being at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival were almost irrelevant — for me, at least, when the opportunity to interview such a master of the craft is offered. But he was present for a project that means a good deal to him: Muhammad: The Messenger of God, an Iranian religious epic, the first in a prospective trilogy, and, to honor Storaro and director Majid Majidi, recipient of the festival’s Outstanding Cinematic Duo Award.
I don’t know if you could necessarily talk about anything with Storaro, but the man can take any topic that interests him and run with it — for a good, long time, as the following discussion will illustrate. This is not a complaint. Those who are so well-versed in their field — be it his cinematography or the history of Italian art, two things that really aren’t so separate — mixing history and personal philosophy into a single answer is always to be valued. I think a good deal of that is contained herein.
The Film Stage: From whom did the decision to shoot this on 35mm stem?
Vittorio Storaro: Well, usually I’m selecting the format. If I don’t agree with any other choice, I don’t do the picture. I’ve done 59 films until Muhammad, and I did only one before in digital; 58 were done on film. But my decision also comes along with the history of cinema. My first film was done in black-and-white, because, in 1968, it was the will of many directors, producers, whatever, to do dramatic films in black-and-white, because they were scared to film in color in a dramatic area. At the time, people thought that maybe color was not recorded well in the shadows. A dramatic story needs conflict, so needs contrast between light and shadows. But, after the first film, I started to investigate color. At the time, I was too young to be conscious about the decision; the industrial journey took me into this color decision. But, pretty soon, it became my own decision. After the third film, I said, “No. I really need to express myself in color.” And I rejected some projects that they proposed to me that were all in black-and-white, because I was missing the emotion of color.
Not necessarily I don’t want to experiment; not necessarily I don’t want to know. So, in 1983, Sony presented to the international television company the chance to record television images in high definition, because they felt normal, standard definition could be a problem for that kind of size of television. Human beings used to watch on big screens, and, on big screens, humans are acting not only with the brain, but also physically: with the eyes; with the body. On a television screen, you are totally fixed. It’s a kind of hypnotic feeling in your body. So only if you enlarge the screen are you able to use, physically, the body. In order to have a larger screen, they need much better definition, so they said, “We need higher definition.” I did this little film for the person to know this new system; it was called Arlecchino. I realized the potential of the electronic image. Since then, I’ve had in mind how in can look, this image, with my knowledge and study — I studied photography for nine years — and professional learning doing several films.
But I need to wait for an answer from the laboratory to see, onscreen, an image. Now, suddenly, the same time I was putting the camera, I am able to see the image right away. So, practically, I was able to see what I was doing at the same time. Not only that: I was able to see my own thought. I say, “Oh, no, I don’t like this image. Maybe it’s better. That’s better.” To me, it was a kind of great revelation. Looking at your own thought, you’re able to realize what you really think. So, practically, you see dailies at the same time you are realizing that. For the first day, I went back home without any question marking my mind of how it would look. I knew already. That was an incredible shock. But the technology was not ready to have an image on a very big screen.
Francis Coppola proposed to me to do One from the Heart using electronic technology. I said, “Francis, let’s use every electronic technology for pre-production and post-production, but keep the film to record the master of the film, because this is the best technology to screen the film all around the world.” And he said, “Vittorio, I think you’re right. But you will say, in the near future, I was right.” He was right. Not necessarily in the near-future, because the time took twenty years to really change the photochemical-electronic relationship. At the same time, Sony proposed to me, when they prepared the first camera in CineAlta, to test this camera. I was teaching at the Academy of Image in Italy. I said, “Okay, send me this camera.” While I’m doing the test, I’m using for the student to do their own short film with the new technology.
So practically I’m doing, at the same time, two main things: one, I know myself; second, I have the new student already being taught through new technology. And I learned something else, but I said the technology was much better than the previous one, but was not really ready to take the place of film itself. Later, in 2009, Carlos Saura, who I already did five movies with on film, said, “Vittorio, I would like to have the image perfectly in high definition, clear, while we’re shooting.” Now we do Flamenco, Flamenco, the second part of the original Flamenco that we did 15 years before. But this one will be presented on television and DVD, so we don’t need so much definition, and I think it’s proper for investigating these new tools. Everything was done in a studio. In a studio, I can control the general kind of lighting; we are not outside, with a bright sun or the contrast of different temperatures. So I said, “Okay.” We did that film, and it was very interesting for me to use this new technology, but under control.
After I did Muhammad, I said to myself, “I don’t think video and digital is appropriate for this film.” First of all, it requires what kind of image we need to blow up on a very big screen. Second, we are going to shoot in a different environment: in the desert, where we maybe have sandstorms, wind, 50 degrees. After we go in Tehran in the winter, maybe we have zero degrees, rain, blah blah. So I said, “Do we need some technical element where we can support those drastic movements?” So we used film: Kodak negatives, different films according to different needs in the Tehran studio. I used an ARRI camera. I have six of them to perform in such a specific environment. I used this composition system that I like very much, called Univisium. A relationship between the vertical area, one time, for the result area, two times. Leonardo da Vinci gave me inspiration through his own paintings, particularly The Last Supper. I found a perfect balance between those to perform.
I was tired of using so many different numbers in composition. If you remember, the silent cinema was 1.33; with sound, it was 1.37; French Panoramic, it was 1.66; English Panoramic, it was 1.85; new, modern television was 1.79; 75mm was 2.21; Anamorphic is 2.40. It’s a chaos of numbers. Leonardo said something very simple: the most balance between composition areas is 1:2 — like two square parts for the eyes. So I was able to use all technology knowing I liked it. We used the Technicolor lab in Rome. After we did the digital intermediate in Munich, it was the best that I could do. But, during the time of pre-production, one year, production, one year, post-production, another year, the film industry changed it completely, made a major revelation. They were not using anymore print films; they were using DCPs to distribute the film. Much more simple, much smaller, very simple to send this.
So when I approached, recently, Woody Allen to do his new movie, I said to myself, “I have to realize that progress is one word — that you cannot stop it. You can push it or you can slow it down, but you cannot stop it. So it’s much better to be conscious now of this kind of evolution. It’s better to be part of this evolution in order for you to know this new system, to do whatever you can to make it better.” So I did my film with Woody Allen. It finished one week ago in digital, using the camera that I think was more appropriate for me, which is the Sony F65, because it has the major chance to record a digital image. It has 4K information, digitally. It has 16-bit color depth, which means millions of colors.
You’ve expressed a wish that frame rates in the U.S. advance to 25 frames per second. I can only assume Muhammad was shot at 25fps.
Absolutely. The first film done in sound was an American film, The Jazz Singer. They used, for mysterious reasons, 60 cycle — 30 periods of positive and negative. In Europe, what was done was to use the current wave: 50 cycle. So practically they choose a kind of number, some kind of multiplication according to the 60 cycle; they chose 24 frames per second. If that movie was done in Europe, very easily we could choose 25 because we have a different period of positive and negative — we have 25, 25, arriving at 50 cycle. Practically, for many, many, many years, America was doing it at 24 and we were doing it at 25. Even if we pretend to be at 24. We used an industrial motor using 50 cycle. It was, of course, 25 periods of 25 frames. In fact, every company was manufacturing a single motor for a film camera or a film projector set at 24 frames plus, minus one frame, because they cannot do 24. They have to do 25. We always watch a film at 25. We pretend to be at 24; it’s not true. Only recently, when every engine was at crystal control, you could have the chance to choose 23, 24, 25, 26 — whatever number you desired. But, originally, we were always moving at 25 frames, no doubt. [Laughs]
So my decision with the Univisium system was, “Well, it’s better to stay at 25 frames for multiple reasons. First of all, we are totally in sync with every European country, plus New Zealand and Australia. Every country uses 50 cycle.” So if I record a television image [points to TV in restaurant] I don’t have any movement of the image. I can record, perfectly, an image on a screen. Any lights, fluorescent lights or not, everything is in sync. If I shoot at 24, I have something that makes an interpretation of this 24, 25. So, not only for this reason, but if you notice the technology, any kind of transfer of images from European to American, they find a kind of algorithm in order to be as possibly in sync. When we were using film capture, they had to use the system at three-plus-one, but they never reach perfectly, from 24 frames, the 60 cycle. It always was 29-something. If they are tracking the other side, they never reach 24; they reach 23.96. In every movement you do with the camera, because every three frames they have to copy one frame, you can see that the image was not fluid.
In using 25, it’s a perfect algorithm to transfer on 30, because, every five periods, you have a little addition nearby, which is much more uniform. So the algorithm in relation between 25 and 30 is much better than 24-30. That’s why I decided 25. But, Americans, when they start something, they never want to change. They still use 110 volts, which means having cables that big [makes circle with hand], instead of using 210 volts. It’s making the lamp filament much more noisy. Technology is not cultural. I love that each one of us is speaking its own language; I love that each one of us has a language that can be international. You don’t have to be English or French or Italian, or whatever. The idea, a long time ago, was called Esperanto; Esperanto was a new language. You are Polish? I’m Italian. So we speak a foreign language for each one of them. Why have to speak English with an accent? He is speaking perfectly; I cannot speak perfectly. You can speak perfectly.
I’m American, actually.
Oh, you are American? Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were Polish. But you understand what I mean?
If you can have something international, why is it international for everybody? We use our own language in our own country, and we use an extended language for everyone else. It could be much better. So I did Muhammad in 25 frames. But today, with digital, it’s much more simple: a DCP can work in 24, 25, 26.
And shooting digitally on the Woody Allen film was a good experience?
Yeah. No, no, very, very good, because technology today is much better than technology of five years ago. Second, the movie was mainly, basically in New York, mainly morning interior — particularly in October, where, most of the time, it’s under control. I’m not happy about the fact that digital capture today is different than video cameras; it has so high a sensitivity sensor. It maybe can be used for night, it maybe can be used for different interiors, but it’s totally against the capture of image under the sunlight. So practically you have to use an incredible number of filters in order to record an image outside. That’s something that the modern technology should provide to us, what we had before. Before we had four different films: two for artificial light; two for natural light. And two different eye sensitivities. So you can choose the best, according to your location, in order to capture the maximum number of information. There’s larger range of images, according to the place where you are. Here, you have only one. This doesn’t work.
Did a lot of frustrations come from shooting in the desert, what with those sandstorms, winds, and temperatures?
No. If you’re shooting The Last Emperor, you have to shoot in China. If you’re doing Peter the Great, you have to shoot in Russia. If you do Muhammad, you have to shoot in a place that is according to the time and geographic place. The story was appropriate, and so it was not hard at all; it was the appropriate one. So it was much more complex. If I was going to shoot in Alaska, with a movie called Muhammad! You have to deal with completely different environments. When it is appropriate for the story, it’s perfect.
The movie deals with sensitive subject matter that’s sacred to many people; you can’t even show the protagonist. Was it immediately obvious where Majidi was coming from?
Well, the script was very clear. Even, of course, like any movie, the script can evolve and change every day according to the progression that you do in sequences. The main thing was the concern at the beginning. When we met in 2010, he came to my house in Rome with some producer to convince me to do the picture. I said, “Majid, you don’t have to convince me, because I would love to do a movie about the Prophet Muhammad, like I love to do a movie about the little Buddha.” It was a fantastic experience to prepare, with Dean Wright, a movie called Kingdom Come; unfortunately, it was not completed, and I hope one day it will be. This is what I expect to do with my life now: try to visualize the lives of great spiritual leaders. That’s what I really would like to do.
“But, Majid, you have to tell me two things. Is this movie made in order to emphasize a single religion, or do we try to unify the religions? Because I’m not Muslim, but I am not Buddhist. I try to see whatever possible chance that we have to understand. Practically we have only one single God. Even if we talk in a different language — even if we form our religion with different ritual elements — practically we have a single element all together.” He said to me, “No, Vittorio. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m searching for international creative people: I want to do an international movie, not only for Muslim people. Because our goal is to make a movie that presents to an international world what we think can be an appropriate reading of the Quran, and what will be an appropriate message of the Quran — which is, in my opinion, the strong concept to respect the dignity of man.” And I said, “Perfect. Let’s go.”
You have a reputation for being well-dressed on set. There’s that Francis Ford Coppola quote —
This is what Francis Coppola says!
How you can fall off a ladder, into mud, and not get dirty. What, to you, is important about looking good on a set?
Honestly, I dress in the way that I’m used to in Italy; I don’t make something specific about it. I was educated, since young, to hold a tie, and I was holding a tie on the set, all the time. Now, recently, I feel that to be much more easy to have these kinds of things [points out current attire], than to have a shirt with a tie, and I use this one. Whatever I think is appropriate for whatever I’m doing. Italians, usually, are dressing well. I’m not particularly fond to be “á la mode,” but we have a great fashion — Versace, Valentino. So, for us, it’s very normal to buy pants or a scarf for something that can be done in a nice style. But there’s something very natural. There are some people I know who are searching to be “á la mode” — whatever is important at this specific moment. Not necessarily me. But, of course, I have my own tests and my own feelings.
I’ll give you an example: a few years ago, the Guggenheim Museum in New York decided to do an exhibition about Italian cinematography. So they put together a range of sixteen cinematographers, and asked them to select two titles for each one. I select Conformist to respect my Italian culture, and to represent my international culture was Apocalypse Now. Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Coppola. I went to the opening exhibition. It was fantastic that the museum practically presents the work of art in cinematography. Of course we represented our work through movies, so they were screening all 32 pictures — but particularly from the angle of cinematography. Like this festival. The festival was born in order to underline the work, the art of cinematography. Even if they are very intelligent, they realized that our work does not exist if you don’t have a story, if you don’t have a director.
They like to underline the fact that there is an incredible relationship between the director and the cinematography; they give the duo award for two collaborators who have made several movies together in several years. This is the first time they give this award to myself, to Majid, that they collaborate together in separate years. It took five years — 2010 to today — but on one single project: Muhammad! Journalists, like you, soon after I did the seminar presenting the international project — particularly presenting my journey — they ask me, “I think it’s wonderful that the museum takes care to the art of cinematography. Why Italian when we have such a wonderful history of cinema, such a wonderful history of cinematography?” And I said, “Well, that’s something to ask the curator, but what I can imagine…”
In Italy, when we are born, and we are going to a church to be baptized, we are totally innocent. When we go in, in front of us is the baptismal fountain. Maybe there is a painting. The church has a gothic, Romanesque style. Maybe the moment they made the service, there is a musical back. Maybe there is a statue made by a great sculptor. Of course you don’t know when you are born, but step-by-step you are going to church every weekend, every Sunday, in your mother’s hand. You witness these kinds of… you work in Rome, and you see the work made by the architects of Rome. Recently, I lit, with my daughter — she’s a lighting designer — the Roman Imperial Fora, permanently. If you go in Rome… have you ever been in Rome?
You know the Colosseum?
You know the Piazza Venezia? All this street is called the Imperial Fora. The street was built by Mussolini, because he wanted to do the parade at that time, to see how great Italy was — my God — in the world. It’s more or less one kilometer. We lit, permanently… let me show you. [Pulls out iPhone] This is the photo. Lit permanently. Every night you go there, you see it lit. So even when you’re passing by, you’re making a journey: you see the architecture. There is an incredible column. At that time, more than 2,000 years ago, they sculpted the entire history of Trieste, like a film.
You have to go to Rome now to watch it at night. When we prepared the concert, my daughter did the project, I spent two months to put together the concert — how to light, why we use light in a specific way to present, symbolically, this. My daughter spent more than three months afterwards to draw a big map of where the lights are supposed to be. And after they spent two months to put the lights on the floor, the day that we presented it to the city, with the mayor of Rome, the minister of culture, they came — 35,000, 40,000 people. Just to watch those kinds of archaeological site that people left dark at night. Suddenly, they were lit. It’s the kind of example that we have in front of us every day. When you go to elementary school, they give you paperwork, and on the front page is Giotto. You go in a class, you make a journey into the museum. You go from Giotto to Piero della Francesca to Leonardo to Michelangelo… so probably we have so many years of history of art.
Even if you don’t pay attention, it’s in front of you, the images. So probably they start this exhibition from a country that has those kinds of backgrounds. I remember working with the director who did Ladyhawke, Richard Donner, in Italy. We were selecting the place to film in. Ladyhawke was based in Renaissance time — 15th century, something like that. And I was showing him several things, and we enter into a church that was done in the 12th century. He said, “Oh, my God, this was built before the discovery of America.” And I said, “…yes.” [Laughs] That’s part of the history. So, practically, we are very lucky that we were born in a place where you are surrounded by the history of art. That’s all.
Michael Brook is a Golden Globe and Grammy-nominated composer, producer and recording artist recognized for his unique style of composition that traverses ambient, world, Americana, electronic and orchestral territories. His work often contains unusual combinations of instruments, sounds and moods that create a powerful, unique and emotional impact.
Brook’s music career began as a recording artist, guitar player, producer and collaborator, working with artists such as Brian Eno, David Sylvian, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Pogues, on ground breaking labels such as 4AD and Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. As his music began to be licensed in films such as Heat and Any Given Sunday, he developed an interest in composing for film and moved to Los Angeles from the UK in 1999. Among the more than 40 films that he has scored are The Perks of Being A Wallflower, The Fighter, Into the Wild, Chavez, An Inconvenient Truth. and the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated.
In John Crowley‘s latest feature, Brooklyn, the music, like the film, has a fine balance between narrative and emotion; not quite restrained, but also short of manipulative. Sometimes an interview can really just be a conversation about the film. And like Crowley’s film, our session didn’t have an agenda – it was just honest. Enjoy the highlights of our time with Michael Brook.
The Film Stage: Brooklyn has played a lot of film festivals ahead of its theatrical release, and I saw a picture of you at one of its premiers. So how does the anticipation for a film change when it’s not just the initial release you’re looking forward to, but different openings on the festival circuit?
Michael Brook: Well I can only really talk about this film. While I did go to Sundance and Toronto, I don’t usually go to festivals. Usually when a film makes the rounds, it’s the producer who is looking for distribution for their film, or they’re just trying to get critics to pay attention and get the PR ball rolling. It’s usually all about the director, the actors, the film and way far back from all that is the composer. [Laughs] But I think for films of this sort, where it’s a small film that the distributors and producers come to feel has a lot of potential, then they just go to festival after festival, and I just don’t know how they do it. They travel around for up to a year and, essentially, their job is going to parties and talking about the film.
An interesting compliment I can give the film is actually something I read where Bret Easton Ellis praised Saoirse Ronan’s performance as unfussy, and direct with no vanity. And I think that doesn’t just capture what she did, but more of the film in general. So much of the film works effortlessly, so what motivated you to score Brooklyn in the way you did? It’s very understated, so was it the characters, the love story, or something else?
I think the main focus, initially, and ultimately, was for the role of music to support and enhance the inner emotions of the characters. There’s no actual action, hardly, so the score is underscoring the characters’ internal monologue sometimes. At first, to tell you the truth, I didn’t quite get what John Crowley was after. I thought he was maybe pushing it a bit too hard, but in retrospect, he was spot on. It really made a big difference and it’s something I don’t think I would have thought of by myself.
What specifically comes to mind?
Well, there’s a scene when Eilis goes back to Ireland, and they go to the beach for the first time. They start climbing up the dunes, and they get to see the empty beach. It’s a fairly big and ecstatic piece of music for four people who are just climbing a dune. When they get up there, it’s just the beach. Nothing really happens, but the music mandate was to bring out this ethereal, almost otherworldly and ecstatic sense of Eilis reconnecting to her homeland and the beginning of this emotional tug of war that she goes through. That was different for me, and so it was challenging and interesting.
There’s a similar scene where Eilis is on the boat to go to America, and like many of the film’s slow motion, or long takes, she’s caught in a “no turning back now” moment. There’s this mournful but hopeful dynamic to the music which really helped the scene. That happens a lot in the score.
A big part of my job was to find this delicate balance, because we didn’t want it to be cheesy, but we wanted it to be emotional. There’s a lot of fine adjustments where we evaluated where we going too far, or not far enough in certain instances.
The film has obvious Irish influences, so when you score a film which has ties to a culture or geographical region, what kind of research do you do? Do you look for musical signatures and motifs, or do you just give your impression of “this is what I think Irish music should sound like“?
Generally, I don’t do much research. Partly because I don’t want to explicitly copy anything particular. Same with that scene where the laborers come for Christmas dinner. There’s not really a lot happening, but it all gels together magically. The singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird and I actually did an album about 20 years ago for Real World Records, a company started by Peter Gabriel.
Iarla is a very serious and highly respected traditional sean-nos singer, which is a style of music that’s really old – some of it is pre-Christian, even in Ireland. It’s kind of a sung poetry, almost like epic poetry. It’s usually done with no music so it is unaccompanied voice, traditionally. When we were going to do that album, we decided to make it a little different than a traditional album.
So, prior to, he insisted I go to Ireland and drive around the country with him. Before we left, I thought that wasn’t necessary – we were just going to make a record. For one week we went to see all these musicians and it was an amazing experience. I got to see some of the most incredible musicians and the most incredible places and basically had a crash course in Irish music.
I’ve done a lot of cross-cultural collaborations and albums, and I have always tried to steer away from doing anything that comes across as mimicking a culture, because it’s always lame. [Laughs] You can acknowledge the influence, or sort of tip your hat to it, which we did a little bit with Brooklyn, but it’s always so cheesy when people try to do, let’s say, fake Indian music, or fake Irish music for that matter.
Makes sense, but some things you can’t get away from. I think what I was going for with that question was that Irish music can have fiddles, mandolins, and sometimes, harps. So sometimes a film and its score comes with certain preconceptions, right?
True, and I think the most liberating thing with Brooklyn was that there was no prerequisite for the score. My working process involves a lot of experimentation, and so I will try a wider range of things than I think will ultimately work. Then I narrow it down from that. But with the violin, played here by Julie Rogers, it ended up becoming almost a motif for Eilis as a character, and the mandolin seemed like a way to bring a little bit of the Irishness to the score, but not in an in-your-face sort of way.
When you have to tie your music to characters’ emotions, rather than scoring events in the film, the music isn’t expected to rise above the surface. The story is understated, and it reminded me of what I’ve heard composers say – the goal of the score is to stay out of the way.
You know, recently, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people about that notion. What is the role of the composer? What is their function? I’m starting to feel that there’s a huge range as to what it can be. There is a saying I’m sure your familiar with, if you speak to so many composers, and I used to agree with more strongly, but it’s that the best music is the one you don’t notice. That’s “supposed” to be successful music.
But I don’t feel that way anymore. If you think about it, that is just one possibility. A really good score can be that way; you don’t remember it, you don’t notice it, but it really brought something to the film. But there’s also times where you can’t help but notice the score. I’m a huge fan of Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann, and that, [laughs] is not background music! It’s front and center, and that’s the magic of it. There’s an epicness to things they’ve done, so I think, in this film, scenes like the sand dune sequence were a little outside what I normally do. I do a lot of ambient, more guitar-oriented pieces, but, you’re right, music can stay out of the way, but at times I painted the emotions with pretty strong colors.
Well I think that’s what I really like. Sure, Herman, Morricone, and most notably John Williams, who kind of did what Richard Wagner did a long time ago, create strong themes and signposts for the story if it calls for it. But the score to Brooklyn underlines the emotions, yet it never tells you how to feel.
To find the voice of this music, and the balance between too much and too little, John Crowley and I had a process where we sort of gave each other the benefit of the doubt. What I mean by that is you don’t get each other right away, like any collaboration. And also I find that it’s very hard to predict what will work and what won’t work. So, for the sand dune scene, I did a restrained version of what John was talking about, slightly skeptically to be honest. But John was like, “no, we have to make this huge, ecstatic, and life changing as they go up the sand dunes”. So I went along with it and eventually he was right, I saw how right he was and how it affected the scene.
Then there was another scene where kind of the opposite happened. It’s when Eilis and Tony go swimming at Coney Island. That scene is cutting between different sequences of their day in the sun, albeit cloudy, her having a good time at work, and so on, then reading the letter home that is all good news, and then cutting between that and her sister dying. John wanted to go pretty tragic throughout that whole scene. And we tried it with an A, B, & C version and it just didn’t work until you see the priest in the store with the manager coming in to clearly give Eilis the news her sister has died.
That was something that was challenging, but also so rewarding because in the process, you don’t know what’s going to happen – you have to explore and go down a path, and sometimes it doesn’t work out. It forces you to take another approach, but when you do, it can be eye-opening.
Beyond the critical reception, which is pretty much through the roof, how is the reception that you’ve seen to both the music, the film and, the entire production?
Oh, it’s 100 times better than I ever would have imagined. Sometimes, you need a little bit of distance from these things to really see and grasp the totality of it. But, I’ve had amazing responses to the score. The film itself is getting like 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the reviews have been stellar, and a lot of the mentioned score, which is nice, [laughs] and it’s been amazing. I’ve never had a better response to a film.
But I’ve been talking to a lot of people about the film and trying to determine why the response is so strong. Now we all think it’s really good, but there seems to be something carrying this at the speed of light, and I’ve just been wondering why it’s getting such a universal response. All the elements are good, but is it the fact that there’s no irony, meaning that the filmmakers aren’t trying to hide their vulnerabilities, that people are refreshed by?
Off the top of my head, I think that the film is just, like they say about country music, three chords and the truth. Brooklyn doesn’t seem to want anything of the audience, or have an agenda other than being an honest story about people you really care about. And it’s easy to care about them – from the girls at the boarding house, to Tony, to Eilis – and want the best for them.
Something that’s getting response from a lot of people, me included, and everybody in the first world, is the idea of leaving your home – the immigrant side of the film. If they’re not here from another country, they, at least most people I know, don’t live in the same neighborhood as their parents anymore. I think we all do that to further realize ourselves as individuals, and it’s a price most of us willingly pay. But it takes its toll too. For me, this is the third country I’ve lived in, and it’s hard. There are rewards, but there are also costs. Maybe that’s part of what’s making this film resonate so well.
My mother moved from England to Canada around the same time as the story takes place. She went there in 1949, and in those days, when you went, travelling was a real endeavor. Also, phone calls were expensive, and letters took a long time. So I think the film is getting this universal draw because it makes us all feel like immigrants.
Sometimes it’s a parent’s job to impart the idea of independence on their children. You can come home again, but it’s OK if you don’t live here. What I took away from it all was not the loss, but the ambition behind looking for a new life.
I agree, and while the home sickness isn’t the dominant element in the film, it’s really something we can relate to. In order to gain something we want, we have to give up some things we’ll miss.
Thanks to Michael for his time. For more information, click over to his official website: michaelbrookmusic.com. Fox Searchlight is expanding Brooklyn‘s limited release now. Listen to the full score above.
Being that I don’t enjoy — and, by extension, bother with — much contemporary TV, perhaps you should take it with a grain of salt when I say that Sense8 is my favorite series in at least a decade, if not longer. Still, that prerequisite shouldn’t dull the effect of the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski‘s show — directed by the former pairing, Tom Tykwer, James McTeigue, and Dan Glass — which is immensely entertaining, always takes advantage of the endless number of possibilities its concept offers, and evinces a crucial understanding of the many opportunities afforded by long-form storytelling.
It’s also a formally accomplished bit of work, which is thanks in no small part to the helping hand of cinematographer John Toll. It might be surprising that the who shot The Thin Red Line, Braveheart, and Almost Famous would head to a conceptually bizarre sci-fi TV show, but his recent collaborations with the Wachowskis are a symbol of good collaboration — even if the pre-production process wasn’t exactly the tidiest. We spoke at Poland’s Camerimage International Film Festival, where the pilot screened, and you can read our discussion of this in addition to how the shifting nature of post-production has changed filmmakers’ eyes, Netflix’s “4k requirement,” and more.
You’ve talked about how you make little distinction when shooting for film and TV — mostly keeping in mind that you’ll be watching something on a smaller or bigger screen, with a similar image-making process — but has that changed the longer you’ve work in the medium?
Well, I think the idea of small screens and big screens is sort of changing, because television screens, the quality of television monitors — home-viewing monitors — are getting better and getting larger. I don’t know when I said that, but it’s probably a little different now.
It was for an interview about the Breaking Bad pilot.
Okay. So that was five, six years ago. I think things have changed a lot since then, so I’m not quite as… it’s not as much an influence on me as when I did Breaking Bad. But, in terms of Lana and Andy, their previous films were sort of “larger-screen images,” just in terms of visual effects, and I think the types of stories that they were telling — in The Matrix, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending — were certainly different types of stories. With the nature of the stories and the digital-effects aspects, there was a different emphasis than Sense8, so I think that’s the adjustment: it’s just different types of stories, as opposed to where you are watching it.
What kind of displays were you looking at during the production and post-production processes?
Well, we didn’t really see it in post-production; we saw it mostly on the set. Dailies would actually be small-screen images, because what’s happening now is, there’s something called Pix, which is when you get your Dailies transferred and delivered to you, so people are looking at dailies on iPads, so you’re not actually looking at projected, large-screen images for dailies. I’m not sure what everybody is doing in television, but, on Sense8, we shot and we traveled in eight different countries. We’re traveling, so we never actually had an opportunity to sit in a screening room and look at dailies, so I think we were judging the quality of the image primarily on-set, looking at high-quality monitors on-set, on larger screens — 30-, 40-inch monitors, which I think was sort of representative of the viewing experience that Netflix delivered. So we were kind of evaluating the images as we were shooting them, and looking at displays that were pretty much representative of what people would be seeing.
I think that, in shooting films for the length of time we’ve been shooting them, we’ve been able to interpolate: even though you’re not looking at a 25-foot image, you can look at a 40-inch monitor and kind of evaluate how it’s going to look that way. I think that comes out of experience, really, having made a few films and seen how a 40-inch image might translate to a 25-foot image. I think you just sort of have to take that into consideration, and you just don’t have the option — especially if you’re shooting in multiple locations all over the world — to sit in a screening room. So we watch dailies that way. You’re not shooting at the same studio for two or three months and go to lunch and watch dailies on a projected, large-screen image; it’s just not practical.
Are you curious to see it projected on a big screen?
Yeah. I’m going to go see it, because I haven’t seen it in a theater. So I’m really curious to see how it looks. But I went to Chaplin College a couple of weeks ago, just to sit in; one of the instructors is an ex-colleague of mine. So we projected a Blu-ray of The Thin Red Line, and I thought that just the fact that it was a projected Blu-ray, number one, was questionable, but it held up really well. I hadn’t seen the film projected in quite a while, and I’ve seen it on various monitors because we’ve done various, different transfers, and it all sort of looked like the same movie.
It looked pretty much like it had, looking at it on monitors for a while, so you just get used to it — especially if you’re involved in post-production on feature films, because you’re doing your post-color correction on smaller screens, and they’re projected images — but not huge, massive, 30-to-40-to-50-foot screens — so you become used to being able to interpret and compensate the difference of that screen. So my mind is not as critical as it used to have been, before you had that experience, and when the quality of the monitors are very nearly as good as they are now.
The show uses directors across its various settings, and it seems as if you, in one way or another, worked with most of them along the way. How was that uniform, “house style” set?
Out of necessity. It was funny, because, when we started, the other cinematographers… one was Frank Griebe, who works with Tom Tykwer all the time. Christian Almesberger is another who works with Tom, and Dan Ruhlmann, who works with James McTeigue. But it came together pretty quickly, and the idea of the various units was sort of being juggled around and kind of fell into place, but we never… we did my segments first, with Lana and Andy. And we sort of developed a working style [Laughs] based on necessity as much as anything else, because we had a hell of a lot of work to do. The amount of work on a daily basis was much more work per day than any of us had been used to, because there was a television schedule and we’re doing twelve hours of television — probably the same length of time that we’ve taken to do two-hour movies.
So there was a certain practical approach to the work that was necessary just to accomplish the amount of work in a given amount of time, but it also lent itself to telling those stories the way that they want to tell them. We didn’t have a huge amount of collaboration amongst the cinematographers, but we sort of set a pace. We set a tone, because we decided first which cameras we were going to use, because Netflix has this “4K requirement,” so there’s a certain limitation on which type of cameras were available to us, only because of the “4K requirement.” So I kind of set up what I thought would be most appropriate in terms of equipment and a stylistic approach to the film, which is a lot of steady cam and a lot of handheld. Everybody else just sort of fell into place with it — not because we had established it, but all the different directors were faced with the same scheduling challenges, so it kind of became like the approach to the work.
Lana and Andy were traveling, even though we were all in production simultaneously at one point. As producers, they would travel to the other locations where the other directors were shooting, and they basically just had collaborations. Stylistically, what we had established had sort of bled into the other units. But it wasn’t a… we never all had the opportunity to sit in a room together and say, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s the style of the piece.” It just sort of emerged in a very practical sense, in that… we started shooting. [Laughs] This is what we did, and it made sense for everyone else. But there was no grand design; it just sort of came together out of necessity rather than any large, creative collaboration.
Did challenges emerge from shooting with cameras that weren’t as high-end as what you used on, say, Jupiter Ascending?
Well, they were high-end cameras; they were just different cameras. We used the Sony F55 cameras, and, because of the camera mobility, I knew that we wanted to be able to move the camera. We wanted to be able to… it was trying to accomplish a lot of work in a given amount of time. More than we’re used to in a feature. But Netflix had a “4K requirement,” where, basically, they’re trying to “future-proof” their content in terms of resolution. So they have a 4K requirement, where you can use any camera you want, you decide, it just has to be 4K-capable. That automatically limits your choices. So we settled on F55 cameras. They are high-end cameras; they’re great cameras. But it wasn’t a camera that I had to use in the past, so there’s a little bit of a learning curve. Cinematographers sort of customize the camera system to their needs, so there’s a little bit of that going in, which wasn’t a big deal — you’re just getting to know your equipment a little bit, and it just wasn’t equipment that I knew. But it didn’t take long.
Are you expecting to return for the show’s second season?
I think so. We’re talking about it. It’s just sort of starting to fall into place with scheduling and everything.
Do you know when it might begin shooting?
They’re talking about March.
You’re on the Student Short Films jury. You having decades of experience and worked with great filmmakers, I’m curious about what mindset you might put yourself in when evaluating the work — in the sense that they’re not as experienced or working with cheaper technology.
Well, I do, but that’s secondary. I think that these are motion pictures, and, in my mind, motion pictures are about telling stories with moving images. That’s what they’re about. It could be a $200 million feature film or a $2,000 student film. And I do remind myself that they have limited resources, they have limited experience, but given the scope of their project, you’re evaluating how these particular filmmakers — and even though they’re students, they’re filmmakers — what story are they trying to tell, and how are they trying to tell it with images? As a judge, that’s my primary consideration. Their experience level is one thing, but there are ten-year-old kids with video cameras who are telling stories, and it’s sort of like… there are limitations with the equipment, but somehow a filmmaker needs to understand what their limitations are and being able to use their tools, in a way, to tell stories, so it doesn’t need to be high-end photography.
Basically, it’s a camera and it’s a story, so how are they using the camera to tell a story? In my mind, that’s the primary consideration. And just the level of sophistication beyond that, certainly you take it into consideration, so there’s some really interesting films we’ve seen in the last couple of days. There are some pretty accomplished films, but you know that there wasn’t a big budget, there wasn’t a big crew, but they were able to use the tools in ways that really involved you with the characters and really involved you with the stories. So, in my mind, that’s what any kind of filmmaking’s about. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Ridley Scott movie or a kid down the block.
Have you done juries before?
I was on a Main Competition jury here about eight years ago, but that was the only other film-festival jury I’ve been on. In L.A., the Cameraman’s Guild, The Local 600, has a competition. I’ve been a part of that. I’ve seen some AFI films. There actually is a judge, but I’ve been exposed to films. I understand the limitation, but I try to take that all into consideration.
It’s the nature of the beast: a quiet, left-of-center project that a famous woman writes, directs, and leads alongside her also-famous husband is labeled a “vanity project” and disposed of by know-nothing entertainment journalists before it has any fighting chance of making an impression. This is the fate that’s been assigned By the Sea, Angelina Jolie Pitt‘s third feature as a director, her first as a screenwriter, and a work that’s deeply fascinating because of who is making it.
Also responsible for its creation is Christian Berger, a cinematographer best-known for his multiple collaborations with Michael Haneke. By the Sea shows off a different set of skills, however, being a far warmer and intimate work, though voyeurism, a favorite focus of the Austrian director’s, becomes a major part of its fabric. (While using it rather excellently, I should add.) When the film came to Poland’s Camerimage International Film Festival, I sat down with Berger to discuss the creation of a unique project, including ways in which the lead players’ fame became a nuisance for everyone hoping to make a compelling onscreen story.
The Film Stage: You’ve said that, while shooting, there was some instance where a photo of the three of you in a boat was taken, and it created a tabloid story about you potentially being some sort of relationship counselor?
Christian Berger: Ah, that stupid thing. We were on location, looking along the coast; we were in a little boat. Angelina was in the front and Brad in the back. So this is some “crisis of couple life.” But it’s [Laughs] such an enormous impact on their whole life. Sickness, couple crisis, the children — and always taking the worst.
Were you led to expect this sort of thing before you went into this film?
I think it’s a new tendency there. I lived it already, the first time, after The White Ribbon, because the camera got attention, and the industry magazines wanted to know about camera work and so on. American Cinematographer, whatever. Normally, if you’ve done a few films and you’re recognized, you have that. But that’s it. Suddenly, the daily press was there — the biggest papers — and they would always mention the camera work; that’s quite new. And it’s the same now, of course, with the celebrities. It’s easier. But they mentioned, her and Brad, how they were happy with the lighting, because it had such a freedom for the acting — based on, again, a lot of attention.
There’s this talk about how it’s a “personal project” for the writer-director-star. In what terms, if any, did she frame it as that? Or were you only speaking of technical and logistical matters?
In general, I speak technically with the directors — only if it’s a must. The first two questions are artistic questions. How it’s in my department to solve problems, if there are any, or if I have to speak with the directors if it’s not realistic to realize it — or I don’t believe it’s the effect he or she wants to have. But it’s always about location, about acting, about atmospheres, and then how I do it is more or less my problem.
She’s onscreen for so much of this film. Did you find the tempo of things changing much when she isn’t? Was she more directly behind the camera, or were you generally given the same amount of control?
She was, all the time, in front of the camera! No, it didn’t change very much; it was quite the same. In some scenes, when she directs only Brad or the other couple, it was about the same. She’s not a control freak. If she checked at the beginning, and when she trusted it once, I was more often asking her to control it. “Listen, you have to check the scene!” “No. If you’re happy, I’m happy.”
A big part of the film’s story is them observing the couple through that hole in the wall, which the audience also sees through — complete with the tops and sides obscured. How was that view captured?
We were shooting without anything, normal. The problem is not to be too voyeuristic, which is [Laughs] not too easy, and it should not be that kind of effect — you know, to look through a telescope or to have that kind of “vignette” thing. So the best thing, we thought, is that we’ll pretend that on the other side was a little table, and that’s it. And that was an old installation from a heater.
What creates the effect of the view?
If you see only on the side, then it’s the real hole, but what you see through the hole was shot without hole — open. Then they were like a mask. They were editing at the table and they foregrounded it.
There’s a distanced intimacy to these moments. How did the team capture these moments and make them seem “present”? What kind of discussions were had about camera distance and what’s in view?
That was completely her staging. We were fixing the camera, we were taping out the angle so the actors knew exactly when they are in and out, and that she did very carefully — the staging, what they will do, if we see up to the knees, whether they use the mirror or they use the TV, all those things were completely, precisely planned. But the gag was to never change our camera. It’s one perspective, one lens, and it’s always the same. It doesn’t have to “look like that” or “look like that.” It brings nothing. In reality, you cannot shoot it, because if it’s that thick [creates small space between thumb and forefinger] you cannot see nothing. It’s a keyhole. [Laughs] And you cannot come with a lens near enough to make an angle. With an eye, you can do that; with a camera, no.
And you used the same lens as throughout?
The visual rhythm changes quite a bit when both couples are at the table and talking, with the camera suddenly becoming a roving, active object.
It’s the first time she’s out in the story, and you have a kind of social obligation, suddenly. It’s a kind of small talk; she’s not really interested. She didn’t want to make a shooting of, “It’s her line; now her line.” We were floating with two cameras, parallel, with two lenses, but on the same dolly head, and we were just moving… it’s not a circle. One’s on this side, and one’s on the other side. And then they had enough material for the editing.
Was everything shot in a continuous manner?
Two cameras at the same time? Yeah. Otherwise, the repetition is very difficult for the actors — what they just did, and so on.
Did you notice an additional fluidity to their speaking at those moments? Perhaps there wasn’t as much need for additional takes, what with them going at the same time?
No. It was quite organic, how they spoke, and we were quite stable with our written… we were not faster or slower. We tried to make it completely, at a regular speed. That was good for editing. Even if you changed the side, it’s the same speed always. The speed and the background, because you keep the face in the background.
Was something like that visual choice laid out in the script?
That was clearly planned when we did blocking for the central scenes, and then, sometimes, the evening before the next day, we’d repeat the blocking to make sure we’d be prepared, if we had to change something. It was very small things; it’s never a big break. In general, really, the other departments needed more time.
Sound set-up, for example. Sound was difficult because, if it was a little stronger wind, everything was whistling. You know, like in an old house. Because it was only built with little tubes, and the wind would be like open bottles, you know?
Did that happen often?
Yeah, but less often than in other movies where you have a plane, a car — less so. Because the bay was protected. The strong winds were sometimes a problem.
Were you involved in the film’s editing? I imagine you had a hand in color correction and the like, but was there anything else?
Concerning the grading, I hate to move around with the look on the set. We know basically what we want and we stay with that so I can see folds or changes, and I know what is possible in the grading. So I don’t try to make that on the set. In fact, we stay daylight or artificial light, and sometimes a small adjustment if it’s only candlelight or something — or only moonlight. Then it makes sense. Otherwise, not. It’s only the grading and if you know the material you know what you can do. Have exactly what you will have — or what you don’t have. [Laughs]
I was surprised when I found out this didn’t use natural light, and then amused that the belief that you used it was somehow persisting.
[Laughs] No, it was a fault in the first press release, that “he only uses natural light.” It was unprecise, formulated, then it was a mistake and spread around. It’s a compliment, because it should look like a natural light, but of course it’s built. You cannot keep it for a few days in the same atmosphere.
I have to admit that the first few moments made me wonder.
You saw the film yesterday?
So is it natural light or not? [Laughs]
I certainly mean it as a compliment, though.
In fact, it’s not important. It’s just “blah blah” because the film is there and if it works, it works. So, however it’s done… It’s like to ask if the actor cries, really, or if you have to tell her first her mother died. [Laughs]
What about Jolie Pitt is distinct and separates her from other collaborators?
That combination from a very experienced actress and a young director, which is curious. She wants to try out things; she wants to experiment. I don’t know how you felt, but what they did with the whole project is really quite courageous, because they risk a lot, from their position. If you’re a celebrity, you could say, “I get the next $20 million from doing that.” But she wants to really… she’s an artist. She’s curious. She wants to create something. She wants that career, what she says: one step out in directing. And she wrote, for the first time, her own script. It’s risky in the states, to risk your brand mark. I mean, it’s all over a problem, but in Europe you might be more tolerant. Maybe we don’t have the top stars, but if they move their finger like that instead of like that, it’s already a drama. [Laughs] It starts a press avalanche? “What does that mean?” You’re the devil or something.
With this being a Universal release and you getting good notices, do you see yourself potentially going into a studio project?
I’m not really curious for that. It was never a dream of mine. I was never dreaming about Hollywood; it was never a goal for me. If it comes, if the script is good, and the director’s interesting, okay — but not because of Hollywood. I don’t really need that anymore. I was never dreaming about it, anyway! [Laughs] By the way, that impresses the Americans: because they are not used to somebody who’s relaxed, who maybe doesn’t want a career in their system, because they don’t need it. That, they don’t know. For them it’s a surprise — even shocking. [Laughs]
I’m obligated to ask if you’ll be partnering with Haneke once more on his next project — whatever that ends up being.
I’m in discussion with him for the next project — and I’m not allowed to speak about the script. [Laughs]
By the Sea played at the Camerimage International Film Festival and is currently in U.S. theaters.
Few films in recent memory are quite as visually explosive as Mad Max: Fury Road, which makes any of the men and women behind its images an immediate point of interest. But for all the talent that’s on the screen, and for all the effort it must have taken to make that come through, cinematographer John Seale will tell you the process wasn’t always conducive to innovation — if only because George Miller and his team of confidantes had been waiting to go for so long.
This, I think, is all the more reason to sit down with the director of photography, whose enthusiasm for the project was so strong that it forced him out of retirement. Fury Road is being celebrated at Poland’s Camerimage International Film Festival — several months after its U.S. release, but not enough time for our curiosity about the picture to die down. To get a deeper understanding of how that unique beast was created, read on.
I read an interview you did right around the time this movie came out, when you hadn’t yet seen it. So I’d like some description of your thoughts upon viewing it for the first time — after all those years of work, having it right in front of you.
Oh, gosh, you know, it’s always a very pleasant surprise, because you work hard with a director to shoot the film. You know, basically, in the direction, which direction the director wants to take it, but you’re shooting really broad brush strokes of the film, and it’s not until the editor gets a hold of it and ends up trimming it down and getting it down to a reasonable length, and the director and him fine cut, and it gets tighter and tighter. Then the music tracks are laid and the extra voiceovers go on. The polish of the film is then completed.
So, when I go along to see them, I am most surprised how they turned out. It’s never a surprise that it’s not the way I thought it would turn out, because I’ve obviously talked with the director in the shooting of it to know which way he wants to take it. The surprise is how well they’ve done it, so that’s generally the surprise. More so on Fury Road, because I knew George would cut it pretty fast in the editing — but I didn’t think it would be quite that fast. But I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that it was, because I’ve always believed that a lot of the earlier films that I helped to make in Australia were very slow, and could be tightened up and still tell the same story. George, with his experience and age, I think understood that as well, and he cut it very tight. That was the pleasant surprise.
The last time you worked with him was Lorenzo’s Oil, from 1992; Fury Road shot in 2012. I don’t think it’s unfair to say those are different kinds of films. But even with that and the twenty-year separation in mind, what makes George Miller consistent?
I’ve got to say one word: boldness. He’s a very bold filmmaker. He fears nobody, from critics to studios to audience to whatever. He makes his films. And that boldness came through on Lorenzo’s Oil, and I thoroughly enjoyed that boldness and working for him on that. Years and years later, when Fury Road came up, I knew enough about Fury Road on the grapevine — I could hear they were talking about problems in pre-production — and I remember thinking, “That’s going to be a big movie.” Then, all of a sudden, I get the phone call to go onboard, and it was that boldness that really made me decide to go on it — because I knew that George would end up with a very bold film, and I think he has. I’m glad he has.
He storyboarded the entire film before it was shot, which I imagine is an interesting scenario for a cinematographer to enter. Apparently he’ll set up an entire room that you can walk around and “observe” a movie from.
So were you concerned as far as autonomy goes — that you won’t be able to even express yourself?
Well, yes, I would be normally worried, but once I came onboard at very short notice, there was no script. So I didn’t have anything to read; all I could do was study the storyboards and do a lot of listening to all the guys talking. Because they were ten years in pre-production, so, for ten years they’d been honing the storyboards, they’d been rehearsing way out in the desert back out in Australia; they had been rehearsing all the stunts, all the car choreography, where the cars would be at a certain moment to set up this stunt. All of that had been done, and you couldn’t change it, because so much training had gone into each action scene, you couldn’t change it.
So I didn’t have any input on that, and, quite frankly, realized it was far too late to have any, if I did, because it was all rehearsed. So I really kind of came in and just did a lot of listening and doing exactly what George asked me to do, because I’ve made a lot of films and I just knew that George had that storyboard patent in his mind — everybody had that in their mind — and so there was no changing of it. I just went along with that and tried to catch up, really, because there were so many stunts, so much action — it just kept rolling from one scene to another — that it was quite a difficult thing to catch up with the intricacies of every stunt. So I was more trying to catch up with the whole movie rather than trying to contribute anything.
Did you have downtime during production, maybe between takes, where you could observe something and turn it into a suggestion? Were those conversations had?
They were — up to a very small degree. Because, once again, the whole thing was locked in, and even if I had an idea, generally I rethought it, and by looking at the storyboard book, realized that you couldn’t change any of that. I didn’t mind that because the pre-production had been so intense that I figured everybody else had smoothed that storyboard down to exactly what the film would be, and I was right: we literally shot the storyboard. So I didn’t mind. The only thing I brought to it, I feel, was that George and Guy Norris on the action unit had the very distinct feeling that they only needed one camera to cover the scenes and the stunts. But I’m willing to multiple cameras. I get frustrated if I can’t put in six, looking for little cutaways that the editor might need. So, with George, I did put more cameras in, and I operated one because I was able to, and I think we helped a bit by doing that.
Because, later, George was very complimentary to the camera crew for persevering with more cameras on the ground, and he got into editing and did get into trouble. When he did, they could go back through the digital records and find that, “Another camera covered that? No. Another one did that? Well… Another one did that? That’s perfect.” They used that to save them in the edit, and he was very complimentary to them in the end. I felt I was able to contribute at least that to the overall production, yeah.
You’ve talked about getting joy from being a camera operator. Could you expand a bit on what pleasures are specific to that position?
Yeah, I do love operating. I really started as an operator; I worked my way up through the ranks. I worked as an operator for a long time in Australia, because I just love operating the camera. In Australia, we worked kind of the English system, where the director would talk to the operator and the director of photography would be listening in. But the contribution of the operator was large, and the director needed that, so you really had a good say as to helping to make the film. So I enjoyed that thoroughly, and as I went into lighting as well, I found that I really loved lighting and operating, much as a lot of people say that it’s not a good, professional way to make a film, because you must be sacrificing a bit for the lighting and to the operator. But I don’t agree. I think that I worked quicker as a lighting cameraman, because I knew the parameters of the shot, and therefore I only lit that area.
So I was quicker lighting, because I only lit where the camera needed to go; the rest of it was patched-in, ready to go, but I didn’t have to trim it, so I saved a lot of time in lighting. And then I concentrated on the operating, because I believed that the size of the frame is really a lot of the psychological message to an audience, as to how dramatic the film is. You can disturb the audience, or you can make them feel relaxed. You can help to make them cry or laugh by the size. Why is the camera here? Why isn’t it there? Why is it this big and not that big? There’s a whole lot of questions to ask, and you’ve got to keep the editor in mind, that every shot except the first one and the last one has another in front of and behind it, and the editor has to cut those in. So the flow of the film is in your mind: that the last shot that the editor used that way, this should be that size. So it cuts nicely and the continuity is good. All of that’s racing through your mind, and I just love doing that as an operator. So, as I said, I can happily light and operate, so I’ve continued to do that all my life.
I’d like to know a bit more about the post-production process. You’ve described the color grading as “George’s manipulation,” but were you consulted or coming into the studio to look at material?
No. I went it as much as I could and had a good look at material, but it took about eighteen months to cut the film and down to fine cut. George put a DI colorist on for eight months, so he was grading the picture for eight months. I couldn’t go in there all the time and be there on the grade, so I did leave an awful lot to Eric Whipp, our colorist who was very good, and I’d go in and have a quick look at things, make a few suggestions, whatever, and never really knew whether they were taken into account or not.
But, in the final result, I also knew George well enough to know that he would take a long time to make sure it was going really well. We talked on set about what we thought the final image should look like: grainy; he didn’t want to go a kind of blue-gray-black post-apocalyptic standard look, desaturation of color. He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to keep the desert color in to the point where it might almost be construed as a scorched-earth syndrome — but we don’t know what happened. So I knew all that, and I knew he was going to degrade the image, so I was never perturbed about whether or not I had the best cameras or the best lenses, because I thought, “It doesn’t matter. It’s what we’re going to do in post.”
I think, to this day, I would have liked to see even more grain left in the film — or put into the film — and I might also like to have seen the night work a little darker. But the final result is George’s, and the final result is always with George — I think, a good decision. I always knew I was in good hands, and, whenever I could, I’d go in to have a look. George and I would have a talk about it, and George always had the final decision, so I was happy with it.
Mad Max: Fury Road played at the Camerimage International Film Festival and is now on Blu-ray.
Playing at Film Forum starting today, Friday, November 20th, for six days is John Huston’s newly restored 1972 film Fat City, starring Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges. In the film Keach plays Billy Tully, a down and out former boxer who returns to the ring in an attempt to escape his days spent picking fruit for a living and nights spent drunk in dingy skid row bars.
For those in New York City, Friday’s 7:00pm showing will be followed by an onstage interview with Leonard Gardner, author and screenwriter of Fat City. Monday’s 7:00pm showing will be followed by a live Q&A via Skype with Stacy Keach. I had the opportunity to speak with Keach via phone from Los Angeles. Check out our conversation below.
The Film Stage: When was the last time you saw the film in full?
Stacy Keach: I guess it’s been about ten years.
Do you deliberately avoid watching your own films?
Well in the old days we used to all go to dailies but I didn’t like to go. I didn’t like seeing myself so I wouldn’t go, and sometimes that would get me into trouble because certain directors really enjoyed having everyone come and watch the dailies at the end of day’s shoot, it was ritual, especially with someone like Robert Altman. John Huston was the same and I always felt very uneasy because I would see myself in one take that I liked and then when I saw the final cut that take was not used and it would make me sad. Now I just do the work and forget about everything else.
How did you get the part in the first place?
I was shooting a film called Doc in Spain and John Huston came to the set to visit me and offered me the role. He had seen me in The Travelling Executioner and wanted to work with me.
Huston was obviously one of these larger than life Hollywood figures. What was he like on the set?
Huston was a wonderful director. Being an actor himself he understood the process actors go through. He had very simple directions. He would say inevitably, ‘A little less,’ or, ‘A little a more.’ He was like a conductor. He would rely on his actors to find the appropriate emotions of the moment on their own. As a director he was more concerned about the camera and worked a lot with Conrad Hall.
Fat City feels very much a film of the 70’s, the type that could only exist in that decade. Watching it again it reminded me a lot of Five Easy Pieces or Save the Tiger. What was it about that specific period that nurtured this type of film?
The thing about the 70’s is people still had dreams, which is highlighted in Jeff Bridges’ character. Billy Tully’s heyday had passed and he was a broken down guy. He’s a survivor in one respect but still maintains an existentialist plight. The thing about Fat City that distinguishes it from other boxing movies is the characters start at point A and end up at point A. They don’t go anywhere, unlike Rocky, which is more of a Cinderella story.
How did the often dark and gritty nature of the film, especially in relation to Conrad Hill’s cinematography effect you as an actor?
Well it certainly helped me get in the mood. The environment had its own stimulus. It made it easier to find Billy Tully’s inner core.
The film obviously has a lot of fight scenes and you’re involved in a long boxing sequence towards the end. How difficult has an acting challenge was it to make those fights seem authentic?
I had the privilege of working with Jorge Torres, a light-heavyweight fighter who trained me. I got in the best shape of my life. My respect for fighters was elevated, I came to understand how hard they work to get into shape. One of the most telling moments of the shoot was when after we had done a take of the final fight, Huston came up to us and said, ‘That’s wonderful fellas but now go out there and box, no choreography, just get out there and fight.’ Sixto Rodriguez, my partner in the scene, was a professional heavyweight with 87 fights to his name — he was strong with arms of steel. He told me to hit him as hard as I wanted. I hit him in the stomach and he reacted intuitively and came out with a right hook and knocked me cold — I mean actually knocked me out. That was the shot John used in the movie.
You’ve acted in hundreds of movies, TV shows and plays – what as an actor do you know now that you didn’t know at the time of filming Fat City?
John Huston was very instrumental in forming an approach to film acting that I hadn’t up to that point been privy to. He taught me to be unpredictable in portraying human behavior. Fat City today still remains one of the most important films of my career.
Fat City is now playing at Film Forum in New York City.
Having had a long career of making good films look great and making bad films look good, Matthew Libatique is one of the best living judges of cinematography. It thus makes sense that the world’s foremost cinematography-oriented festival, Camerimage, would turn him into a recurring figure on their Main Competition jury. While attending the festival, we both sat down for a brief, albeit revealing talk, one mostly centered on his mindset as an influential voice in this specific world — as well as the insecurities that come with the position — and the bonds shared by fellow cinematographers.
You’re on the Main Competition jury. How many times have you done this?
This is my third year here. It’s my second time participating as a juror. The first time I came, Darren [Aronfsky] and I got the Duo Award, which was an honor, but it took me years, actually, to come here. Last year I was here on the Polish jury, and, this year, on the Main Jury.
What’s the sense when you see a festival geared toward cinematography? Do you think it’s overdue, or hoping to see more of?
It’s not recognition so much as it’s a chance to celebrate with your fellow craftsmen, and sort of share stories and see each other. You know, we don’t work with each other. We know each other from ASC awards or festivals or Camerimage. For me, personally, it’s not about recognition, because I think it’s conceited. But I do like the celebration of the craft, which is why I love it and support it so much. But the camaraderie that cinematographers do have is kind of special, so every time I’m here and get to meet Christian Berger or Christopher Doyle or Ed Lachman, it’s a great honor. And then you see the younger generations, and that’s also really satisfying. I don’t know, it’s the world… we’re sharing it not only with people from New York or Los Angeles. We’re sharing it with cinematographers from around the world — which is, I think, probably one of the most special things. It’s kind of a priority for me, now, to come here.
What’s the camaraderie among cinematographers, exactly?
[Laughs] It’s funny, because I went to the American Film Institute, and I think where that school really excels is the cinematography program. That’s when I first started to feel it, but then I thought it’s because we were all students in the same class. And then, as my career went along, I just realized that, everywhere, it stayed the same. There was a celebration of each other’s work and a respect. I think we all sort of recognize how difficult the job is, and we all sort of have a love for filmmaking and consider ourselves filmmakers, first and foremost. I guess that’s what it is, and you just sort of share the… you know, we all have similar complaints and bitch about things. Ed always likes to say, “We can bitch about directors when we get there.” And it’s true. And producers and whatnot. It’s just the way to sort of share technical knowledge. But sometimes I honestly don’t talk technically that much here. It’s about how we sort of live, the sort of gypsy lifestyle that we have to deal with.
I don’t know how much you can say, but do those complaints recur among longtime collaborators — that is, the creative types who know you best?
Of course. You’re not always going to agree 100% with what a director wants to do.
Even if it’s someone you know well.
Even if it’s someone I know well. Ultimately, they’re in charge of that screenplay. If they wrote it or not, they’re the ones being given the task of creating performances that make that film happen, and our ask is to articulate that into an image. So it doesn’t matter: I’ve done five films with Darren Aronofsky now, and I’ll have complaints. It just happens. And he’ll have complaints about me, so I’m sure that, if there’s a directing event, they’re going to complain about the cinematographers! [Laughs]
But there’s nothing new to it. We all kind of share similar stories about not agreeing with something or being put in certain situations where it’s not an ideal for the image. Sometimes we bitch about the schedule or the amount of money or the amount of time we have, but it’s normal frustrations that you have in this occupation, and we all share similar stories. We’ve watched people like Michael Seresin and Film AU. Those guys have amazing stories as well. You know, Michael Seresin shot Angel Heart. To hear a story about that is amazing, and it’s not like you’re prodding anybody to get a story; they pop up in conversation. “Oh, one time when I was on Angel Heart!” or, “Oh, one time when I was on Requiem for a Dream!” It’s kind of beautiful.
Have you seen the conversation around and focus on your profession change over the years? I feel like, nowadays, certain venues — be it Twitter accounts or video essays — shine a light that wasn’t previously present.
Sure. Yeah, of course. You know, on Twitter alone, there are so many people putting together Twitter accounts that are dedicated to the image, which is amazing. I’ll look at Twitter and, all of a sudden, an image pops up from a movie. There are two or three of them; there’s a website called Film Grab. I mean, that didn’t exist when I was in school; Twitter didn’t exist when I was in school. And the rise in digital cameras and DSLRs and the motion pictures being more accessible, and having your laptop and being able to carry basically a filmmaking kit in a backpack has changed the game. I see people all the time who are carrying RED Epics and Dragons in backpacks on the plane. The game has changed, and now there’s more cinematographers, and people are shooting their own stuff and taking it into their own hands because it’s more accessible. So, yeah.
And, consequently, when you’re starting out, because there are so many new cinematographers and so many people interested in it, they start to look at us as a reference, so I feel like it’s just become a bigger thing. Some cinematographers do it because they want to direct. That wasn’t my case, but now you have people who are growing up wanting to be cinematographers, period. Obviously that existed, because that was me, but now, I have to say, I feel like there’s way, way more — and there’s more programs. It’s astonishing, really, and when I look at young people’s work — people who are in film school now — they’re so much more sophisticated because they have more access than we did.
When you come to an international festival and see a lot of films, are you still surprised or even inspired by what’s being put in front of you?
I love it. Sometimes you get really inspired; sometimes you’re ambivalent because you don’t like something or don’t agree with it. But I’m more ambivalent, in that case. I don’t tend to hate on people because I know how hard the job is. I appreciate choices, even if they’re the wrong ones. But, for me, I hope I’m seeing something that’s unusual to me; I want to be blown away. When I am, maybe a small part of me is, “Oh, fuck, why didn’t I think of that?” I think that’s natural, but typically that’s what I’m looking for. As a juror, I want to be blown away. Maybe it’s the usual suspects — Chivo or Roger [Deakins] or Chris Doyle — but it’s even more beautiful when it’s somebody you’ve never heard of.
Are these things fresh on your mind if you go right from the festival to a new project? Is that part of an ongoing learning process?
Absolutely. I don’t think I’m there yet; I don’t consider myself there yet. I mean, I know how to do the job, but I feel like every film that I approach is starting from scratch. Of course you’re taking everything that you’ve experienced in your career and life and you’re putting it into it, but to assume that I can fall back into a habit is incorrect — so I just start from scratch. I start to deconstruct a screenplay for myself, and start, brick-by-brick, trying to build a visual language. But I don’t tend to use films as a reference. I more use photography, and painting, because it hasn’t changed much; classical painting hasn’t changed much, so those references are stuck in your mind.
But photography is always evolving, so that’s what’s interesting, I think, for me when I’m trying to create an atmosphere or experience. I look at photography, because I just don’t want to bite people’s work, so I tend not to use other people’s work as a reference. But clearly you’re influenced by everything you see, so if I remember an image that I’ve seen in a film, say, here, I might subconsciously lighting a scene and not know it, but it’s not a thing I tend to try to do. Directors like to watch films a lot. I do watch them, but I’m talking strictly about creating an atmosphere. When you’re working with a director, watching a film is great because you’re having some base of common knowledge about how shot structure is, and getting a sense of how the director’s going to work editorially. So, in that regard, films are very important.
I’m excited that we’ll see more of you in just a few weeks, what with Chi-raq coming out. We’re very excited for it.
And I’m very proud of it. I’m most proud of it because I feel like it’s a true Spike Lee film, and, I have to say: this is my fourth film with him and I’ve never seen him so excited. He’s always been kind of a hero to me, so I always have to step outside of myself to make sure that I remember I’m a collaborator with him, but I don’t forget the fact that he was an influence. I’m really proud of the film because I think he really did his thing [Laughs] in his own specific way, you know?
I’ve spoken to many people in my time, but few (if any) have the same credentials as Walter Murch, whose résumé would be amazing if it was only for the collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola: editing and / or audio work on all three Godfather films and The Conversation, truly groundbreaking sound design on Apocalypse Now, editing the terribly ignored Youth Without Youth and Tetro — even being around for the early days of The Rain People and lesser-seen oddities such as Captain EO. But that’s not the half of it, really, since he’s also been instrumental in proving how consumer-grade editing software can be as effective as high-end systems. And then there’s the work that helped George Lucas getting his career started. And the cult sensation that is his only directorial effort, Return to Oz. Or his book, In the Blink of an Eye, which is often considered the essential literary source on film editing. The list goes on.
We’re both in Bydgoszcz, Poland for the Camerimage International Film Festival, where he’s being handed their Special Award to Editor with Unique Visual Sensitivity. Given his credentials, you can understand why I took the opportunity to speak with him in spite of there not being a specific project on the table. Selfishly, I wanted to be able to pick his brain a bit, and, being as experienced as he is, Murch was able to satisfy that desire — even if he might be speaking about basics within his complex profession. For those without access to that world, however, some of this is truly surprising material.
Camerimage is giving you an award for “unique visual sensitivity,” which sounds fairly specific.
Meaning, for cinematographers, “Don’t ruin our shots!” [Laughs]
As an editor, do you have a personal view of “unique visual sensitivity”? Do those words resonate for you?
Yeah. I think it, on a very basic, practical level, is that — it’s “don’t ruin our shots.” But there’s a larger context to that, which is, “Take the material that we have shot and find the best way to shepherd this material through all the turbulence and rapids that both frequently happen to a film.” You can have a film that was shot with one intention and then, because of certain things over which we have no control, the final film is different than what the intention was. What an editor has to work with is that material, so it’s the film equivalent of how to transpose from one key to another and make it seem natural. That requires a certain visual sensitivity to that, and finding ways to rework the material, but within the spirit of how it was shot in the first place.
You’ve been around for so many changes in the industry, from the technology crafting films to how people assemble them. There’s this whole discussion about how the average shot length has been cut down from the ‘60s to today, so I wonder if that’s at all changed your relationship to images.
You know, I would dispute that concept. The average shot length of The Birth of a Nation, which was made 100 years ago, is five seconds, and Francis Coppola’s Tetro, which was shot six years ago, is five seconds. Action films, that is lower. On average, you can get down to, over the course of a whole film, three-and-a-half seconds per shot. But you can also compare two films shot within a year of each other: Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s film, and The Third Man. By today’s standards, Sunset Boulevard is slow in terms of its cutting pace; it doesn’t make it any less of a wonderful film. Third Man, however, which was shot, I think, the year before — anyway, both around 1948 — definitely looks like a film that was shot and put together today. It has that same kind of quickness of tempo. So I think it depends on the film and the sensibility of the director.
The quickest film ever shot, editorially, is Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov’s film, where he does one cut every frame, and he superimposes three strains at the same time. So you’re looking at just a blizzard of editing… not, obviously, throughout the whole film, but there are sections there where it’s inconceivable that a film could be cut quicker than that film, which was made in the late 1920s. I think if you look at certain kinds of television shows, like The Office, there, the pace has definitely picked up. I think, there, the average is a cut every two seconds or so. Basically every line of dialogue is a cut: duh-duh-duh-duh, cut; duh-duh-duh-duh, cut; duh-duh-duh-duh, cut; duh-duh-duh-duh, cut. If you compare that kind of a show with a similar show shot twenty years ago, thirty years ago, yeah, that has definitely accelerated.
Can you think of ways that sensibilities have changed among directors, then? Has Coppola, for example, changed much from The Godfather Part II to Tetro?
Mmm… no, I don’t think so. Again, I think it’s down to the sensibility of the film itself rather than the filmmaker. I mean, Tetro was shot digitally, so individual takes were longer because you can just keep the camera rolling. He did a number of what are called “resets,” which is, from “action” you go along and then, at a certain point, you keep the camera rolling and just say, “Just go back a couple of lines and pick it up from there.” So, in a sense, you’re kind of cross-country skiing your way through the shot, and that requires a different approach on our end, editorially, to dealing with the material. But the end result, I think, is not profoundly different. It’s down more to the sensibility of each individual film.
When you’re in that sort of situation, with a new system — cross-country skiing, as you call it — has your accumulated experience prepared you for that new sort of experience? Do you have those moments of concern, or is it more a challenge you embrace?
Yeah, no, you have to figure out how to simply keep track of all that stuff. Tomorrowland also had a great number of resets in it, and, there, you’re just dealing with a take which could be half an hour long with 30 resets in it, and the technology now, in 2015, has caught up with that. But, at the time that we shot — which was only two years ago — it hadn’t yet, so we had to evolve a pretty complicated way, editorially, of marking all of those resets — to make sure that we were “tabulating” them, so to speak. But I’m using a new editing system on a film I’m cutting in London; I’m using Adobe’s Premiere for the first time. So I’m always ripe for a new challenge.
What’s changed in the two years, then? Is it just a system update that accommodates resets?
Yeah. I edited Tomorrowland on the Avid. The film before that, Particle Fever, I edited on Final Cut Pro 7, Apple’s system, and the documentary I’m editing now in London, I’m using Premiere. So in the space of three years I’ve used three different editing systems. That’s kind of the world we find ourselves in now; it may settle down. I hope Avid survives. Its stock price has gone down again, and they’re flirting with bankruptcy frequently. I hope they can survive, because we need as many different systems as we can have. Technically, the reset issue now… if we we’re making a film now that had resets in it, there is a kind of a silent buzzer that, during the take, you give this control either to the script supervisor or to the cameraman, the assistant camera. When the director interrupts a take and says, “Just go back,” we go, “Enn!” There’s a little buzzer that says, “This is a reset.”
I mean, these are kind of basic, fairly simple technologies, but the way that digital is being used has occasionally outraced the technology that can support it, and this is a good example of that. The danger of resets, for an actor, is that it interrupts the trapeze act of every take. The talented actor who launches himself into a take the way a trapeze artist launched themselves into a routine, where you’re handing off from one actor to another, and it’s a very complicated aerial ballet, in a sense, and for the director to interrupt that — “Stop!” — is like freezing a trapeze act in mid-air. The actors say, “I think I know where I am, and you want me to back to that handheld? Okay, I think I can get back there.” But it’s an invisible, very demanding discipline to do that to actors, and I, in general, [Laughs] would recommend doing that as little as possible, because I think the nature of acting really demands it.
Speaking of invisible disciplines: do you have, even in minuscule ways, have different mindsets between Adobe, Final Cut, and Avid?
The equivalent would be… I mean, they’re not profound, profound differences. The equivalent would be a concert pianist saying, “We couldn’t get the Steinway, so you’re going to have to play the Yamaha,” and you have to recalibrate certain things between those. But they’re not profound differences; they’re like dialects of a language. You have to say, “All right, I’m going to speak with a Bronx accent now,” or, “Now it’s a Brooklyn accent.” So you make certain modifications. Avid, for instance — unless something has changed recently — can only give you twenty-five soundtracks at the same time, whereas Adobe can give you many times that. So you adjust to move from Final Cut 7, which also gives you 99 soundtracks. I had to readjust how I worked to compress things into the 25 tracks.
Have you been particularly impressed by recent examples of editing or sound design?
You know, when I’m working on a film, I don’t see many other films — so I can’t give you a real answer to that, I’m afraid.
What’s the exact purpose behind avoiding other films? Keeping your mind clear of other possible approaches?
Yeah. Just the hours we put in are so long, and you have to balance a kind of mental house of cards to work on a film. That takes time to set up. The first three weeks of working on a film, you’re really kind of doing that, getting into position to work on a film. Seeing another film — again, this is just me — in the middle of that tends to put that house of cards in jeopardy.