A mainstay of both Cinema Scope and Reverse Shot (not to mention plenty of other publications), Adam Nayman is one of our sharpest film critics. This is evidenced in his previous book, It Doesn’t Suck, a thorough defense of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls that only solidified the film maudit as something of a modern classic. He’s now turned his attention to another divisive figure with Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage. While Nayman has shown in much of his writing a skepticism towards the lionization of certain genre directors in Internet circles, he makes a compelling case for the still yet-to-quite-breakthrough Wheatley as a wholly intelligent filmmaker whose ideas transcend Tumblr screencaps. He sat down with us to discuss his new book, Wheatley, and other issues within film culture.
The Film Stage: In comparison to your last book, It Doesn’t Suck, do you think this was a bigger or smaller task? I mean the title of It Doesn’t Suck positions it as punching upwards, but, with this book, there’s the challenge of establishing someone as an auteur — so is it also punching upwards?
Adam Nayman: I think that, without being glib about it, the Showgirls book, to some extent, wrote itself — or could have, you know. I worked very hard to make that not a kind of viewing-companion book, or ironic companion kind of book. I think the limb I went out on in that book was a little shorter and sturdier than some of the people who covered it, or some of the people who bought it, may have acknowledged. I think, in the years passing, you’re on pretty solid ground in being able to say something has happened in the perception of this movie. And there’s the fact that this movie speaks for itself in that, in simply describing it, you make it sound compelling.
I think, with Wheatley’s movies, it’s in ways safer because I’m not the only one who thinks they’re good; they’re pretty extravagantly praised in some corners. In some ways, it’s harder because there isn’t twenty years’ hindsight to see what these movies mean and what kind of influence they’re going to have. I mean, you need to be Nostradamus to do that. But I also think what was hard about it, and what I still am anxious about — I mean, I wouldn’t use a smaller word than anxious — is, did I do it too soon? That has to do with what a lot of critics struggle with, especially in the Internet age, of received wisdom versus being too quick. If you wait around, you’re probably not going to write anything too new about Bresson or, at this point, even something new about Scorsese.
Conversely, you go plant your flag in whatever director, whether it’s Scott Derrickson or Ava DuVernay or Ben Wheatley, and you kind of have the excitement of getting in on the ground floor. But you also risk looking kind of hasty or stupid, and, in Wheatley’s case, the one thing that is true about him — ironically, the thing that everyone who pays attention would agree on — is that there’s no agreement. This is a legitimately divisive filmmaker, so that, in some ways, was encouraging, knowing that I was going to be writing a book met with both agreement and skepticism. But I wonder if even the people who agree are going to be, “Yeah, sure, but you have him right up against the edge of this interesting turn in his career, so why didn’t you just wait?”
I feel justified in using this term because we’re speaking to enough of a niche audience, but when factoring in reception for his films, do you predominantly consider Globe & Mail, New York Times etc., or really, “Film Twitter”?
Reception of his movies have a certain narrative to it, right up to High-Rise, and that narrative was, “Not many people have heard of this, not that many people have seen it, and those who had seen it were pretty excited about it.” They were pretty interested in it. There’s a certain sort of clandestine-like he’s a really interesting filmmaker doing stuff and the kind of audiences he’s reaching are the kind that get it already. It’s true that, even within that, there’s clusters of dissent and outright pans for some of these movies. When High-Rise got made — and I don’t usually like this analogy, but I’ll try to make it work — that’s it’s like when an indie band tries to reach a wider audience. It’s for very conventional reasons, like bigger actors, not an original script based on a bigger novel, a bigger distributor, plum festival placements and all that. I think, then, that reception context widens to include a varied group of factions, like the Wheatley fans who were disappointed with the film, or the people who’d never heard of him before and were just kind of amazed that a film like that exists, the people who think he’s been kind of shitty all along and now he’s just being shitty on a bigger canvas.
All of this is funny because, even if you put all of this together and amplify it, you’re still talking about a niche film and a niche filmmaker relative to stuff that is neither Film Twitter nor the Globe & Mail — like, say we’re talking about The Ringer or Screen Crush or Ain’t It Cool News. I mean, we’re still talking about something that’s pretty small, and I think that’s one of the reasons this book is being published by a very much respected publisher; I think they’re doing a good job in that they’ve got some pretty big bylines with The Critical Press and some pretty big subjects, but this is the kind of book that, at the moment, isn’t going to be published by Wesleyan University Press. I am betting, and I think I’m right, that in ten years it would be. But essentially we’re talking about a niche filmmaker, and I’m betting that’s not going to be the case in a couple years — but I still wonder if I was pre-emptive.
You bring up the name in the book, but I think you can kind of make a binary of Wheatley versus Nicolas Winding Refn. I mean, you can even see it through their comments about critics: Wheatley got in some trouble for what he said, but when Only God Forgives got panned in Cannes, Refn was like “I’m the Sex Pistols of cinema,” which is, of course, a far more pompous thing to say.
I mean, we could certainly talk about it in terms of binary. I could certainly talk for hours about why one is really good and one is really bad, but it’s maybe more interesting a discussion to place Wheatley within these kind of emergent, transnational genre auteurs, kind of specialists who have personality beyond the kind of generic structures they inhabit. I mean, Refn is one; Bong Joon-ho is another. I’d even say, in a way, someone like Denis Villeneuve counts, or someone like Park Chan-wook. Because all the roads for these guys lead the same way they did for guys a little older, like Guillermo Del Toro — they all lead to either big international co-productions or what is the big American Hollywood cross-over. Wheatley’s in the first chapter. I mean, it’s not a big international co-production in that there’s not too many countries involved, but High-Rise is kind of that and Free Fire, too, but in some ways it’s kind of smaller.
But he hasn’t really had a Snowpiercer yet, he certainly hasn’t had a Prisoners, he certainly hasn’t had a Sicario or a Drive. But I don’t think he’s too far from those guys. But I think the difference between him and Bong or Park or Villeneuve, a French-language guy, is his regional films are in English, so they’re not as clearly exotic as those guys’ movies are kind of out of the gate. In some ways, Memories of Murder and Kill List are an interesting comparison, I think they’re both the best films by each respective filmmaker. They’re both genre films with a lot of attention. I think Memories of Murder is hurt in some ways by not being English-language, but it was really valorized as being a new kind of Korean-cinema kind of movie. Kill List, because it’s in English, means it’s maybe the kind of movie that more people would sit and watch on Netflix, but it doesn’t seem as exotic — it doesn’t seem as worldly — and that has to do with the American relationship to British pop-culture, too.
I think a fair comparison would be Takashi Miike, at least in terms of a prolific, genre-switching craftsman. Though I think your book helped in seeing him more as auteur than craftsman.
Well, I think one of the things that comes out in the interview with him — and I think it comes out in the film, too — is the prolificness, the rate of production, has to do with a feeling of a late start. Ben wasn’t putting together features in his ’20s. I mean, he didn’t start super-late, but it wasn’t until his late ’30s that he really broke through and figured out that you literally have to do it yourself, make it yourself for the first one, then a certain industrial infrastructure follows. I think he and [co-writer] Amy Jump are restless and creative enough that they can keep up the momentum. I think it might be too early to judge if the film-per-year thing is good or if there would be a different quality to them if they were made with a bit more patience. I mean, the one thing you wouldn’t call his films, even if you’re a fan of them, is methodical, or you wouldn’t even call them over-conceptualized.
Even the films — I think, in an innate way, or even an instinctive way — that are quite brilliant, that are intellectual and quite politicized, aren’t films that feel like too long were spent on them. With circumstances like A Field in England, they’ve had to shoot pretty quickly and pretty efficiently. I think that’s why High-Rise is the odd film out, even more so than Free Fire — the scope of that production — but also that it’s an adaptation; it meant that there’s a little more design, a little more pre-conception, a little more planning, even just down to the architectural metaphor of the movie itself.
I think it’s fascinating that it’s the movie of his that’s the most divisive. It’s the movie of his that the most serious critics have taken the most seriously because they’ve liked it, and that’s why I gave it so much space within the book — because, like it or not, it’s sort of the movie that suggests there might be more in this career than just a kind of cheap-o genre experiment every year. There are people I know who feel very strongly about the movie and don’t want him to ever make something like High-Rise ever again. They’re like, “Please make the things you made before.”
Before writing the book and doing the research, were you very aware of Amy Jump as co-author?
Yeah, but that’s because I’ve been very aware of Wheatley. I mean, I was when I saw Kill List at TIFF in 2011… I mean, I’m sure you do the same thing at film festivals where you test your responses of not just, “Do I like this?” but, “Why do I like it?” Just to the extent that I liked it that I was going to cover it, it’s part of your job — you’re making money by liking something. I just knew it, when I saw Kill List, that it was extraordinary, and I immediately read and tried to think about what made it extraordinary. I wrote a cover piece on Kill List for Cinema Scope, which was really fun because [Mark] Peranson was on board with the idea that it was a major film; in fact, he’d written a capsule about it in Scope’s coverage that I’d read that got me excited to see it So upon sitting down with Wheatley, you ask how’s the film written, how’s it made, how’s it cut, and immediately he brings up Amy Jump, so that’s been a constant in the reception and coverage of the film since.
I’m by no means the first person, and I won’t be the last — and I don’t just mean as a critic, in terms of people trying to write about or profile him — who’s made a request to interview him, and not a casual one, like sending him an email, like, “I wonder if Amy Jump wants to talk or comment,” and the answer is always no, so I don’t consider myself more or less responsible than any other critic in terms of being able to answer for her just because I wrote the book. I mean, there was that critical quarterly symposium which I drew from in my book where I tried to talk to her and the answer was no.
I tried, and someone who’s read the book can determine this for themselves, but I tried to make the case that she’s important, but without quotes from her and without explanation of how much the film belongs to her versus how much the film belongs to Ben. Putting the two of them together, it’s pretty hard to quantify. I would say if the female lead in Sightseers seems particularly interesting, if the subplot of the community of women in High-Rise seems particularly interesting, and if the satire of male comradeship in A Field in England seems particularly interesting, even if the ultimate narrative outcome of Free Fire is interesting — like, has that particular feminist read to it — it makes sense.
Did you debate considering his early viral videos for the book? I remember, when there was a touring retrospective of Ruben Ostlund a couple years back, they sent out links to all his films, but also early ski videos he made, maybe as to track their influence on Force Majeure.
I was working pretty hard to find them. MrAndMrsWheatley.co.uk had some of them stored, but not all of them. But then even finding factual information about these things, like some of the products they’re advertising, is not always easy. But I thought it was important. I mean, there are lapses in my book, and not accidental ones. A couple of people asked me why I didn’t talk about the Doctor Who episodes he did, which, in some ways, may be the most widely seen things that he’d produced. I talk in detail about The Wrong Door, but not some of the other British television, though I mention them in passing. He did a couple seasons of Ideal and some gigs doing other stuff. In my thinking and my research, I thought these were the things that constructed the best story and the most consistent story of him stylistically.
The Doctor Who thing, I think, the argument could be made — that could’ve gone somewhere in the High-Rise chapter as an example that he gets big work now — but I also think, having seen those episodes, and I mean this no bad way, they’re like competent, well-made, entertaining episodes of a television show, which I think tells me more about his reverence, fidelity, and respect for that franchise than him as an artist. Whereas I think the viral videos which are largely his own treatments and his own ideas, there are themes and ideas and a sense of humour that feels like an indication of what he’s into. If you watch something like The Wrong Door, as silly and undisciplined and childish as some of the humour is, it’s super-prescient at the time. Like how TV and Internet comedy have become kind of adjacent of each other in terms of short comedy, like Adult Swim, I think it’s pretty forward-looking stuff.
Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage will be available in early December from The Critical Press.
It could be said that an introduction to Mia Hansen-Løve is entirely beside the point, given the extent to which her films concern herself and loved ones. Following the portrait of her brother, Eden, she’s centered her fifth feature on her mother. The film is Things to Come, and the woman at its front is Isabelle Huppert — in one of her best performances, which I discussed with the actress here.
I had the good fortune to sit down with Hansen-Løve at this year’s New York Film Festival. The discussion we had two years prior remains one of my favorites, and the consistent ebb and flow between features means this was, in certain ways, a picking-up of where we left off in the fall of 2014. But you don’t have to know her work to find this an engaging read on the nature of art-as-introspection.
The Film Stage: When this movie was in development, it was known only by its French title, which, here, translates to The Future. Its actual English-language title, however, is Things to Come. Do you see a clear distinction? Do you view them in different ways?
Mia Hansen-Løve: I like the idea that, sometimes, it makes sense to have a different title in English than in French. It’s two different cultures, two different worlds, and I like the idea that, somehow, you need two different doors to get into a film, and a title is always a door — it’s the first step into a film. It’s not that different, though, because it’s not like “things to come” is the contrary of “l’avenir.” To me, it seemed a more right translation, because “l’avenir,” in French, means “the future,” but it has more of a sense of openness. “L’avenir” makes you look at the horizon, not at the chronology, whereas “the future” is a more scientific idea of what “l’avenir” is about. “What is going to be the future?” Like a science fiction movie.
So, to me, “things to come,” in its approximation and its relationship to everyday life, was actually more relevant to transmit the idea of what was in the French title, L’Avenir, than “the future.” My father has been not only a philosophy teacher, but also a translator from German to French, so I’m very interested in these questions, and I know very well, of course, that sometimes the proper word to translate is not the regular translation. Sometimes, you need to change something to be more true about the translation.
Maybe you’re aware that there is a science fiction film called Things to Come.
I know, because I checked; I had to. I haven’t seen it.
When we last talked, you said that love is maybe the only theme of your films — that all of your films are about a love of something. I have an idea of what the love in this work might center on, but I want your perspective.
The thing is very simple in Things to Come, maybe even more, than love of wisdom, love of ideas. Maybe the film would reveal that it’s actually love of life. I think that’s what, ultimately, saves the character. So there is a paradox in that film, because you could also say it’s the one film that is not about love, because it’s about a character who actually survives, or finds a way out, without falling in love again. It’s about her finding a way to live without love — without the love of a man — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a film about love.
For me, what ultimately helps her or helps her find a meaning, and not lose the desire to move on, is love of life. Which is maybe impossible to catch, more difficult to define; something more mysterious. That’s something that’s very important and very deep, and that connects us with our freedom, and I think the film is really about that quest: an inner freedom that doesn’t depend on how successful you are in your life — not only in terms of career, of course, but in terms of how much the kinds of things you can hope from life. There is this idea that once you’ve lost a lot, once there is this emptiness, you can stop being scared of that void and actually embrace it and inhabit it. Sorry if it’s very abstract or mystical. I really do think there’s something about very existential issues.
At this morning’s press conference, you said there’s a drama of the unconsciousness in your work. I wonder how you can dramatize this in a way that doesn’t feel self-conscious and is dramatically interesting — not too on-the-surface.
Years and years ago, when I was writing films, I would discuss a lot with Olivier Assayas the process of writing films, and I remember having discussions with him about that issue of unconsciousness, and the fact that he didn’t want to know too much about his inspiration and where things were coming from. That was the reason, he said, why he would never do psychoanalysis, or this kind of thing, because he wanted unconsciousness to stay unconscious, you know? Not to become self-aware.
Of course, you still have unconsciousness: even if you think you know everything, you still don’t know a lot of things. But, still, it changes the relationship you had with that if you start theorizing about your unconscious. Now I’m doing that with Things to Come, but I do that only once it’s over; I would not have done that before. But I remember this idea stayed with me: that it’s very interesting or precious or important, for the kinds of films I want to do, to stick to things as they are still all mingled and confused — as they are still a big ball of things that are… you know the things that cats like to play with?
A ball of yarn?
Yeah. When the things are still very dense and not unfurled. That makes powerful images and moments, and all that, ultimately, reveals itself, but finds its own way out through the image and to the eyes. It’s just a choice. It’s not that you can’t make a very interesting and powerful film in the other way, where you will be aware of all the reasons of the characters and the psychology. It’s just a choice to make films where you trust that — just as in life. I think it has to do with the choice of making films that give a feeling of life, and, in life, people come and say things that are not true. They say things about themselves that are wrong, and, sometimes, they actually feel the opposite of what they said and don’t know it, but, at the same time, are sincere.
That was what I was trying to say when I was talking about unconsciousness, the character of Isabelle in the film: I think, very often, in films where characters will say something about their life or themselves, there is nothing behind — there is no other dimension. Everything is in the mind. Whereas, in real life, where somebody says one thing, there is always a whole bunch of layers. It’s a lie, it’s true, there is a story behind it, and I like the idea of finding a way to tell stories where, when people talk, you still have all those layers. I guess it has to do, also, with my desire to make films that are connected with the past — that are very much in the present, but where you can feel the past. I think it has to do with that, too.
You told me about an obsession with the French writer Modiano.
Yes! It’s still the same: I’m waiting for the new one. I hope I’m not repeating myself too much. I guess I am. It’s not like you have so many things to say about your own work; at some point, you end up repeating all the same things over and over, so I’m sorry. Maybe you’ll realize it’s going to be the same interview, like three years ago.
I think we’re doing well.
But I do want to follow-up something we previously discussed. Eden is based on your brother’s life, and the main character has a sister. I asked if that was, in a way, you, and you said it could be, but it sort of isn’t. I wonder if —
Maybe I could, you know, edit a film that would be with all the characters. [Laughs] Maybe, at the end of my life — if I continue in making so many films inspired by people around me and my own life — maybe I could just reedit the film, where it will be the film about me or about my brother, but all the brothers in all the films and all the me’s in all the films. That would be fun, maybe. [Laughs] Anyway.
Huppert’s character is inspired by your mother, and she has a daughter and a son. I wonder if you draw on you and your sibling when writing those roles — which aren’t big, but nevertheless set off that bell for me.
Yeah, for sure. Partly, it’s us — and it’s not us. I tend to forget it’s even us when I start preparing the film. When I write it, I think of it; I don’t really forget that it’s partly inspired by us, by me, by people I know. But then, at some point, when I start working on the film and looking for the actors, I don’t think of that. Like, I’m not looking for an actress who would look like me, or anything like that. It becomes, really, something else. [Pause] But, yes, it’s true that there is something of us. But it’s the case in so many literary works. You know this? You have a lot of writers who made books where you would have, like, a family, and one book would show these members, and the other ones would be in the background, and then another book would put the ones in the background in the front — and, at the end, it’s like a portrait of a whole family.
At the end, there’s this idea that the oeuvre is not only the single books, but also the whole thing. You have that in Balzac, but you also have that in Salinger. Franny and Zooey: you have the brothers, and then the brothers are the main characters in some other books. So I think there is something like that — of course, on a smaller scale — in my films. Maybe I’ll do a film one day where the characters of Goodbye, First Love will show up in smaller parts in the background, with different names. Maybe not with the same names because I don’t want it to be too obvious. But I like the idea of creating a world that has its own characters, and the idea that you can meet them in any part of this world — they kind of cross their way, just like how, in the street, you can cross people you know.
Actually, I even did that in that film, because there is a shot — and it’s not placed there by accident; it’s on purpose, and that time was self-aware — with the actress from my first film, Constance Rousseau, who I really love. It’s, like, one short shot, just before the shot of Isabelle coming out of the metro and going to the cinema, and it’s a moment where Isabelle is very lonely in the film. It’s about these shots of young people who are having fun. It’s the beginning of the holidays, and she goes out, lonely, to the cinema, and I wanted to do a shot about a young girl who would kind of symbolize youth and grace. There was a cruelty about that, but it was the cruelty of life: having that shot right before Isabelle arrives and goes to the cinema. To me, it totally made sense, at that point, that it would be Constance Rousseau from All Is Forgiven. They don’t meet each other, but they are placed, edited, in a way.
I didn’t even notice.
No, of course. It’s very short. Very few people notice. Actually, somebody asked me a question about that specific shot — somebody who had been struck by that shot — without having any idea that it was the actress from my first film. It’s just a very short shot; it’s, like, three seconds. She’s standing and she holds a metal barrier from the subway. She’s in the street, and the night’s falling, and she’s very lonely and looking behind herself. It’s so short. To me, it’s like a breath of wind of my first film.
Is it the same character?
Yeah, kind of. But grown-up. It’s not her in the past; it’s her now. To me. I actually did that with Félix [de Givry], too — Félix from Eden. In the same scene, I wanted to have Félix just before, but I had to take him away because everybody would recognize him. The reason why I could leave Constance is because it was ten years ago and it was so short and it was felt in a way that people don’t recognize; it’s not disturbing. But, with Félix, it turned out to be disturbing, because Eden was made just two years ago, so people know my film. At the end of my film, in the first editing, people were saying, “Why is Félix there? You feel, suddenly, that you are in Eden. It’s very strange.” So I had to take him away.
That would complicate the —
Brother-brother thing? Yeah. I know. That would make, like, twins, or something. Or doubles. Double brothers.
I can imagine the universe folding in on itself if they ever met.
Yeah. That would be very dangerous.
Having seen and admired his work on several features, I could’ve only assumed that cinematographer Steve Yedlin is well-acquainted with his profession, yet I found myself surprised when digging into his presentation at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival, “On Image Acquisition and Pipeline for High-Resolution Exhibition.” Fortunately, those who were not in Poland can (and should) dig in with “On Color Science,” an extensive piece in which he runs through the tiny, tiny nuances that create various balances in any given image — and it’s not as simple as film vs. digital.
There is, of course, also the fact of his being Rian Johnson‘s regular cinematographer, including a new feature tentatively titled Star Wars: Episode VIII. That is covered in due time, though the broader discussion we were having up to that point proved so engaging, and often so assertive, in its authority that I didn’t want to distract. If nothing else, know this: the franchise has fine minds at its helm for the next (non-spin-off) go-round.
The Film Stage: I’m curious when and how this interest in camera science started. Was it parallel to your burgeoning involvement in filmmaking?
Steve Yedlin: No. It really came out of necessity. Around 2004, I started to feel that digital was coming and it might get crammed down our throats before it was as good as film. I didn’t necessarily think it was never going to be as good as film, but I didn’t think it was at the time. I was worried that market forces were going to force it on us before it was ready. Whether that happened or not, I don’t know, but we’ve gone through a transition and, now, it is ready. I just started digging into what we can do, and it started with the simplest… I remember, at that time, just the simplest, dumbest things being a big revelation. What’s happening inside the camera.
One example: at that time, all the digital cameras were still very much video cameras — even just in terms of having a million switches on them, menus — and there was this kind of prevailing wisdom that was, “Well, it’s a video camera. You have to white-balance. No two cameras are the same.” Part of me was really suspicious. Like, how does a thing even work if that’s the case? If the actual, physical sensor has such a spectacularly wide variance, how can it even work? I know there’s many factoring-tolerance issues, but if it’s that widely different, I don’t understand how the thing cane even function. Sure enough, on the first digital movie I did, Conversations with Other Women, I didn’t have any color science; I was just a DP. I didn’t even know the word “color science” at that point.
The one thing I figured out on that movie was: we had two cameras, and, a lot of the time, we were going to be shooting the same thing — not just for inter-cutting, but split-screen, so it really has to match — and, sure enough, I did some tests. If you turn off things in all the menus, you have to go to the engineering menu and everything, then the cameras do match. You don’t have to white-balance them separately; you can put them at the same setting and they will look the same. It sounds like that’s such a tiny nugget, but that was my very first thing. Everybody thinks that stuff is out-of-control, but it’s just because they haven’t learned it, and it can be brought into control and understood. That was kind of the beginning.
What resources did you have in educating yourself? Did it come down to particular texts and experts?
I talked to people when I could. It’s interesting, because people do ask what I can read, and I wish there was an answer. [Laughs] All of the overall conception things just come from figuring out how to poke and prod at the stuff unambiguously, where you are only changing one thing at at a time. You say, “Can you do this? Yes.” One example is: people superstitiously say, “Well, isn’t it going to look different if you DeBayer it differently?” Well, open up a raw file in NUKE, and do it two times — once with one DeBayer setting, and one with the other, and go back and forth and see what it looks like. Then you’ll know what that difference is.
One thing that happens all the time, that I’ve noticed, is that people jump to an assumption about what a cause of something is — a cause-and-effect assumption, which I mention in the “On Color Science” thing. They make a completely intuitive guess about something they haven’t even studied, and not only do they not know whether that’s the cause — they assume there is just one cause, as opposed to several causes, for something. The example in “On Color Science” is jumping to a conclusion about what makes film look different than digital. Many people have a thing that they’ve decided in their head, and it’s one answer. They’ll say, “Because of a random scatter of the silver crystals,” but can you see that scatter? If the rows and columns of pixels makes it look digital, then as soon as you scan film, it will look digital — because that’s it. You just said that the whole thing is that it’s not in rows and columns, so it would immediately not have whatever this look is that you’re talking about.
People tend to chalk things up to one thing, and it’s a guess. [Laughs] But that’s not just with film vs. digital. That’s with all kinds of things. People guess about what the difference is between compressed and uncompressed. The reality with something like that, again, is complicated. You have certain types of compression that are negligible and don’t matter, you have other types that do, but you get people who are so superstitious. One person will be like, “I can’t shoot compressed!” And it’s like, “Have you looked at what the difference is?” But then someone else will be so dismissive of it that they’ll shoot highly compressed stuff, because somebody told them that the codec is magical, and they don’t notice that it’s actually very degraded because they haven’t investigated. Anyway, I went way off the rails there. [Laughs] What was the original question?
References and sources.
My main source is just to keep going back and doing each element on its own, and checking unambiguously. It’s just kind of checking work and doing things in element. So I always tend to do it. I started out doing most work in Shake, but now I use NUKE. It’s not an ad for those companies; it’s just something where you absolutely, unambiguously can do things mathematically — like, actually type the math expression. It’s not like you’re using some plugin that doesn’t know what it’s doing and just has a knob on it. Anything you can describe with math, you can do, so that’s the main source.
Of course, I looked things up, but I looked up individual things. I end up doing a lot of math for this stuff, but I’m not actually good at math, so I might end up looking up how to do a point-line distance in 3D space. Looking at individual things or very technical things. Sometimes I might be looking at the ARRI scanner manual — not because I’m using a physical scanner, but because they have some information in there — so there isn’t really something that teaches, overall, that I know of. There are color science books, but I actually haven’t read them, and those are targeted at overall color science — which isn’t even specific to cinema. There’s a guy called Garret Johnson; he’s the color scientist for Apple. I think he still is. I kind of got to know him, but that was years ago, so I lost touch with him. I think he was and is the only color scientist for Apple, with a PhD in color science, and he has a book that’s one of the more-known textbooks. But I haven’t read it. [Laughs] This stuff, it doesn’t concentrate on this type of application of the concepts.
You gave what seems like a similarly focused lecture last year. I wonder what experiences, if any, might have changed the shape of it.
Last year, I showed the demo that you’ve seen online and basically just talked about it. This year, it’s a new demo that’s similar to the other one with the same, overarching philosophy, but it focuses on resolution instead of on color and texture. It’s in two parts. The first part is the demo as it stands right now; the second part is… there is going to be a second part, hopefully, [Laughs] where you watch one and then the other. But the second one doesn’t exist, so, right now, the second one is me giving a presentation. It is totally different, just in the sense that it’s not the same thing. In terms of how philosophy… I don’t know if the overarching philosophy has changed since last year, but I’m always learning. I have a lot more details. Always digging deeper, so I’ve got more details — more exact answers to questions. I think that’s the biggest way that it’s different.
Honestly, to me, the new demo is a much more boring topic of resolution, because we should just be past this. Who cares about counting pixels? The short version of this demo is, “Why are we counting pixels?” I think it should be the more boring one, because I don’t even know why this is an issue, but the fact that it is an issue is why I had to make it. Having gone through the steps of it, I have verification of things. It’s things that I’ve known, that I’ve seen viscerally. I was talking about people guessing about things. It’s things that I’m not guessing about, but I don’t have years to explain to people what I’ve seen that proves it. So this is like, “Here it is” instead of me trying to explain technical stuff that I’ve investigated over many years. “There it is. Have a look.” [Laughs] I think the new demo has stuff that’s not its topic that’ll be interesting.
The new one is very pointedly where I say, “Look, the point of this thing is to say, ‘Why are we counting pixels?’” I’m almost dismissive of having matched these different formats — two are film and four are digital — and they don’t look exactly the same, but I don’t think, like in the other demo, there’s anything that stands out as being something that makes one look a recognizable way. They’re just very, very slightly different. You don’t even know which one’s which, and you couldn’t probably pick out… well, there’s one you might be able to pick out more reliably than the other five. Although I like to be very clear and concise — “here’s the topic,” and all that — I think this one, more than the others, does have some stuff that’s implied rather than stated. It’s only about resolution, but I think it’s going to raise questions about optics and other things. Partially, just seeing this vastly different-sized sensors next to each other, and the differences that you don’t see. [Laughs]
With all these applications and variations in mind, how does shooting a Star Wars movie come into play? The series has such a powerful iconography, and I wonder if you’d actually relish the opportunity to shoot this film in a way people sort of expect — because there’s some fun in that particular opportunity.
You know, Rian and I just approach it the same way we approach everything. There are aspects that… we talked about it very cursorily at the beginning, but I think we’re on such the same wavelength that that’s all we needed, was that little talk just to make sure we were on the same page. I think we said, “Enough of what we do, anyway, fits the bill.” Anything that we want to do… we didn’t have to do anything, so there were aspects where, to some extent, we wanted to have a continuity; and, on some, we were just doing what we’re doing. I think because I know Rian so well, it was easy to agree on that and know what we both meant without checking. I can imagine doing it with another director, where you say, “But, wait… what do we mean?” Even a smart director. It’s just the communication: Rian and I have known each other for so long, and I know what he means, and he trusts me.
If I don’t need much of an excuse to speak with Dante Spinotti, he shouldn’t require much of an introduction. Yet it is worth noting his place as a chief visual architect in the cinema of Michael Mann, with whom he’s collaborated on five key features: Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, and Public Enemies. The breadth of subject, scale, and format alone evinces a career well-spent, and his perspective is well-used on the jury for Camerimage’s Cinematographers’ Debuts Competition, but the man won’t deign to consider himself an artist. Read below for that and more:
The Film Stage: You’re on the debut competition jury, so I ask you what I asked Dick Pope: how, if at all, does the film-viewing process change when the fact of these films being debuts is in mind?
Dante Spinotti: Well, first of all, I don’t think it makes any sense to separate the films. You might consider it later on, but, as you’re watching the movie, it’s about enjoying the direct experience — the possibility of some emotional transmission. So I don’t think that makes a difference. What you do see, most of the time, is that there’s, obviously, a limit to the money they had. So part of it is either to admire the way they found solutions — notwithstanding the low budget — but, other than that, a lot of young people will tell you, “Dante, I did this. Can you look at my short? But I had so little time to do it, so little money.” This is not an excuse business. There is no excuse; it doesn’t matter. It’s your problem. The only thing that does matter is the communication between the director and what you saw. Do you get that emotion? Are you involved?
Are there particular aspects of cinematography that you take note of when watching a movie?
No. I actually find that when you look at these things — if you are just a spectator, but also if you are involved in a jury — you’re not really looking at cinematography. I’m not; I’m looking at the film, the humanity involved in the film, what the story’s about. Even if I had to judge in this competition for cinematographers, I would give my vote to the quality of the film — regardless of the cinematography — and the cinematography has to be so much better if it’s great. But it’s about working for the story. You have no other way to pass your message if it’s not through the actors, through the acting, through the screenplay, through the story — the actual elements of film art.
What level of freedom do you seek as an artist? Do you prefer directors who are visually minded, or the opportunity to put your stamp on a project?
I don’t care about putting a distinctive stamp. What I do care about is… when you read a screenplay, it’s possibly something you’d really like to work on. Something that represents a challenge, and so you go through a lot of things: the history, deep into what the story means — that’s what you’re trying to represent with your cinematography. There are a number of different ways of cooperating with a director. When I work with Michael Mann, Michael is usually very keen on his camera angles. Very rarely, if I step in, was I consulted about where or what kind of lens to use in how to do a shot. Sometimes, it happens. It’s a lot about prepping, so it’s a lot about interpreting the scenes with lighting in a way that is functional — also very efficient, very simple in communication, and possibly, also, somehow fascinating and dynamic. I’ve done films where my cooperation in telling the story with a camera — the angles and the editing — I had a much bigger influence in doing that.
Secretly down, I think a director should have a good idea of how he wants to photograph his film, because the director is the person who most knows, intimately — in an ideal world — what he wants. So it is good to communicate with a director that also has a sense of, visually, what’s going on. But I’ll tell you: I’ve done movies in which I have to take care of the whole reading, with the camera angles; others in which it’s a different kind of collaboration. It’s not a rule. I’m convinced that we are not artists — filmmakers are not artists. I like what Umberto Eco said: “For something to be considered a work of art, it is necessary that the elements of communication between the artist and the viewer are moved forward.” If you imitate another painting, you’re not an artist.
So you need to move forward, to make a step forward, with whatever element you use to communicate. In that sense, it’s a major step forward, because it’s a step forward for the whole of humanity, if you think about it. But this doesn’t happen. What I’m really saying is that I don’t think we’re artists. We are conditioned too much by a series of problematic elements — the weather, the mood of the people, the schedule, lack of money, lack of time, actors that come and go — but we all know that a movie can be a work of art. So, for some interesting reason, it’s cooperation that takes you there.
Mann is so known for his sense of control. Did you feel a change in workflow when moving from film to digital?
I know Michael very well. We are friends and have been friends for a long, long time. Michael is, for sure, the kind of director who, if you agree with him and understand what he has in mind to do, you can work with him. If you are someone who discusses or does disagree, you better not do that. You don’t need to step into a hard time. So if you agree and understand, it’s all fine — and you like it. If you agree with something, you like it. I always found, even when I did my first movie with Michael… the way I describe it is that, for me, coming from Italy and some good television, he was like finding a way of making movies that maybe I dreamed of, in my mind, but that I actually never worked on. It’s kind of interesting. He was great, and I have always highly admired him; I learned a lot from Michael Mann. It was always an operation that needed quite a bit of concentration to make it happen.
I think Michael has been as influenced as anybody else by the technical change to digital from film, because, obviously, it has been such a major change when you can see what you’re doing. It’s not small; you can see exactly what you’re doing. What I’d say, just as a note, is that the first movie I did with Michael was Manhunter, and Michael had started and learned a lot more about lighting throughout his movies. Every movie I work with him, he was a little more prepared. “Hey, why don’t you do this instead of doing that?” I remember a famous scene in Last of the Mohicans. We were shooting at night with Magua, and it was one of those night exteriors: 6:30, dawn is coming up. So I see the light getting blue in the sky, and I follow a technique that I experienced and worked out many times: I placed every light on a dimmer, so when the general light comes up, you boost up your Tungsten lights, and so you avoid seeing the light comes up. At some point, Michael turned to me and said, “Dante, why did you turn this up in the forest?” I said, “Michael, that is the sun.” He hadn’t realized that the sun was up!
Those movies have been remastered over the years. Do you have an extensive hand in that process?
At times, yes. If I’m around, yes. Like, with this new remastering of Heat, I was invited. I went to the screening of the film print, which was a beautiful film print. We saw it with a colorist and everybody, and they kept going and worked on it. But, at times, I’m also involved in going through the whole operation.
What is it like to watch these films that you worked on decades ago? Do you reflect on how you might have changed as an artist, or perhaps wish you’d done things differently?
Yeah, of course. Also, the process that I had in my working life — which was starting late, being a freelance in Italy, and, after a few years, deciding to abandon everything there and come over here and start all over again — those will influence the way you work, because if you work between friends for a long time and you don’t have this responsibility anxiety to make it work — in other words, not to do this movie, but then be called for another film, which is stressful if you want influence over what you do. You need to be good enough to keep going. You look back at things and probably feel there might’ve been something that you might’ve done better. But the great thing about this profession is that there’s really an ongoing process of learning, of encountering complexities and finding solutions in an environment which is always entirely different — a human cultural issue that is completely different from the previous. So that’s what really makes a difference.
Do you have a desire to try new technologies, e.g. GoPros or iPhones? Do they inspire a desire to stake out some different frontiers?
Yeah, sure. For instance, we had a scene in the last movie I did — it was about human trafficking. The bad guys happened to hide in a mine, all these girls; then one escapes. The locations we had found were basically sections of a museum. We changed all the lights to make it as dark as possible, but my idea was to shoot the scene as if one of these girls had an iPhone with her, with imperfect, not-exactiy-precisioned framing — the sense of being there to witness something that happens and, somehow, you capture it. I enjoy, when you have these little cameras around, that you can put in angles where it can give you a very interesting point of view.
When I talk to students, I always screen a section of a movie that you might remember; it’s in The Last of the Mohicans. There’s a scene where she meets him in a significant way for the first time: she’s the nurse inside an infirmary, he arrives, they exchange a look. So there are some angles in the coverage which are “classic” — book-light stuff, the right framing, tight, over-the-shoulder — and there’s also an angle on him which is a three-quarters side, even though we shot him from the front and everything on the coverage. But Michael, in the editing, used a side-angle, and in that little trick is the whole key of how to use tiny little machines. What I like about that is that it’s good to have other cameras around, but, even then, you still learn how to show people talking and having a story from each angle.
Do you have an iPhone?
Yeah, but I’m technically kind of… I hate iPhones. I have one, but I like simple things; I like phones to be phones. In the end, you get stuck in something and don’t really know how to do it. When you learn how to do it, of course it’s great to go in Skype and WhatsApp and call my wife, who’s across the ocean, and see her on the screen.
No video apps?
No, I don’t. But, for instance, I’m pretty good in Photoshop. Since I always had a darkroom, I wanted to learn Photoshop and be at least as good as I was in the darkroom. When I really need something to do what I do, I learn about it — just to have this to go around town. If somebody has it next to me, it bores me that I have to learn; I don’t know some of the stuff. You click the wrong button, and it all disappears. I find it profoundly boring.
The Golden Frog winner at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival — a healthy bit of competition compiling the best in contemporary cinematography — was Greig Fraser for Lion, which we called “stunning” in our TIFF review. The Australian cinematographer’s quickly risen through the ranks, in several years jumping from collaborations with Jane Campion to Andrew Dominik to Kathryn Bigelow to Bennett Miller to, next month, Gareth Edwards on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
That comes up herein, of course, despite the fact that Fraser is limited in what he can say. A man of his knowledge and experience can go many ways in exploring his craft, so that’s exactly where we took it.
The Film Stage: When you come to a foreign country, do you look at environments and think about how to shoot them?
Greig Fraser: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s the light that’s the primary thing — well, not the primary thing, but light’s an incredibly important thing. When I landed yesterday in Bydgoszcz, I was just taken aback. I’ve been in Italy for the last two months shooting another movie, so landing here with the low sun, the fog, the cold, the slight softness to the air, I was just in heaven. I was like, “Why aren’t we filming more here? I want to be here, filming.” That freshness, that crispness. The coldness gets rid of it and creates a really lovely clarity, but, at the same time, there’s a certain mist in the air that creates a softness. The sun’s nice and soft, coming from Australia where the sun is not soft — it’s quite ozone-depleted. It’s just lovely being in Europe, just to see that amazing winter sun.
I’m curious how you discuss cinematography with fellow DPs, since this festival is overflowing with them. Is it a lot about equipment, chatting about directors?
It’s chewing the fat, yeah. It’s everything; it’s all those things. You might be talking specifically about the ethics of a movie or the underlying story. I just had a great conversation last night with Anthony Dod Mantle. Being a father to some very young children, the extent of my filmgoing, now, is limited to animated films, like Finding Dory and Inside Out. It’s not as common for me to see an adult film anymore, just for fun. It’s very rare for my wife and me to go out and watch a movie. I recently saw Snowden, which I thought Anthony did an amazing job on. I was really blown away by the film, and we had a great chat — the pros, the cons, the ethics, this, that, all the things that people talk about when they walk out of the film. Good? Bad? Ugly? Should he? Shouldn’t he? Without casting moral judgement. That’s not our job as cinematographers. But it’s really lovely to have a chat with him.
We caught up with a couple of other amazing cinematographers last night. We talked about everything from our amazing agents through to brand-new LED lighting. I went with Jacques Ballard, a great French DP, and Ari Wenger, a great Australian DP; we had a look at the new Panavision DXL camera. We geeked-out a bit; looked at some lenses. This is the thing: our job is wide-ranging. It goes from being incredibly technical, extremely technical, to being very much the artist-based art of lighting, illumination, or not-illumination.
So to run the gamut in conversation is what’s so fun about this. Some DPs are very technical; some wouldn’t know what end the lens is on on a camera. All they know is where they want to put it, or how they want to light it, but they don’t know the name of the light or its power; they just know it’s how things should feel. To be able to have those kind of conversations… on set, you don’t run into many cinematographers on set. Unless you’re taking over from somebody who’s leaving or… [Laughs] it’s very rare to be having a conversation about a project with a cinematographer.
And that could be pretty awkward.
It could be. It could be. Depending on how that was to go down, yeah.
Your filmography balances between very high-profile and smaller-scale. I wonder how much you feel the change between projects, scale-wise, in terms of access to equipment and locations you’re shooting in. And, in the case of something like Star Wars, you probably have a far longer shooting schedule.
At its core, filmmaking is identical, regardless of what you’re doing. You’re working with a director and an actor. It doesn’t matter if the machine around you is a $1 billion movie or a $1,000 short film; at its core, it doesn’t actually matter. What we do is identical: every actor and cinematographer on the planet, it’s all the same core. That doesn’t change one iota. The thing that does change, though, like you said, is access to equipment. That’s the tail, though. The dog wags the tail — so, effectively, just because you’re on a big film doesn’t mean you have to use big equipment. What it does allow, though, is for you to be… I guess it’s a luxury to be able to light with more expensive or complicated light set-ups. The classic example: I’m a massive convert to both 65mm and RGB LED.
On Lion, we used a handheld kit of three digital Sputnik heads in India — it’s pretty much all the light we used — whereas, on Star Wars, we had quite a few more than that. They’re exactly the same lights, but quite a few more. It just meant, I think, that limitations are less, technically. Also, prep time: on a big project, often you have more prep time — and, if you don’t have prep time, you have access to the sources that let you prep. So you have more days with your AC, with the gaffer. It just affords you slightly more luxury, and I don’t mean “luxury” as in “more comfortable beds” or “more comfortable pillows.” Just more luxury in, “Actually, I need two of those heads. Can we afford two?” That’s, effectively, the difference. The same end result still occurs, though. You still want the same result; you still want the drama and the performance to connect with the audience. My end result doesn’t change a bit. It’s more about the approach to that point slightly changing.
But, effectively, it’s the same. I can recount time sitting in a room in New Orleans, and I can recall sitting in a room in Pinewood Studios. Two very different budgets. Or sitting in a room in Calcutta, India — the film that’s playing now. They’re exactly the same. The tripod’s the same. [Laughs] Also, what a high-profile film allows, I think, is to get the R&D going. A perfect example is: the marriage of the lenses and the camera we did on Rogue One was a beautiful Panavision lens and beautiful ARRI cameras. They married. They may not have been able to marry if it was a small production. I say that economically, because the economics of filmmaking, obviously, are very important as well. We may not have been up to marry. There may not be the LEDs that exists in the world right now unless Rogue One had shot with them. Do you know what I’m saying?
This is the good part: Rogue One kind of helped push my LED idea along, and now, on Mary Magdalene — which is a biblical film — I’m using exactly those same LEDs. For a low-budget film. So I wouldn’t have been able to use those for that low-budget film unless they existed in a world, and only existed in a world, with a big-budget movie; and they only exist on the bigger-budget movie because I used them on a smaller-budget movie. So it’s this kind of infinite loop that just keeps going round and round.
Gareth Edwards’ work with DPs has a way of making high-concept stories feel feasible. How much is there a pressure to stick to a very culturally embedded iconography, as opposed to not wanting to be beholden to a 40-year-old movie? What was that conversation like?
Obviously, what I can say about Star Wars is limited. The main thing with Star Wars — and I’m not sort of revealing any spoilers here — but we all have our own influences. I mean, I do. Anyone who’s around my age — I’m 40 — has their own influences from Star Wars. They either absolutely hate it or absolutely loved it or are somewhere in between. It existed in everyone’s world, regardless of how they grew up. The thing with Star Wars is, iconography is a very big deal. It is built on iconography; it is built on silhouettes and images and shapes that are instantly understandable and repeatable. Death Star, Vader, Storm Troopers — those shapes, you catch a glimpse of them out the corner of your eye and you know what they are. To have that at your disposal is fantastic, because it means you’re not having to sell… Vader is Vader. You don’t have to go, “Ooh, isn’t he dramatic?”
We all know Vader is Vader. Having that iconography as a core point from which to launch from, visually, is incredibly inspiring. I wouldn’t say you have to work as hard to make it iconic, but there are shots we have in Lion that, again, you have to work a bit harder to make those shots iconic, because you need the audience to go away and remember those. I’m doing a Bible movie right now, and there’s clearly going to be iconic images in that Bible movie; that’s a western image. So the pressure’s less about sticking to the way it was 40 years ago. The pressure’s more about being true to your own belief and understanding about what Star Wars was — but, at the same time, not be hamstrung by that.
We’re making a movie that’s very separate to any of those other movies, and you want to be inspired by it, and you’re encouraged to lift — steal — from those films; it makes sense to do that. If you steal from that movie to make another sci-fi movie, well, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that. But if you’re lifting to put it into our film — I’m talking about frames or images or styles or lighting ideas or moods — then it’s encouraged. It’s great. But then, also, injecting your own aesthetic. I mean, Gareth Edwards… I don’t know if you’ve seen Monsters. That was the first thing that I’d seen Gareth did, and it looked amazing. He shot it; he had a very big say in how that film looked. I was quite excited to work with him, because you’re right: he makes conceit work. Filmmaking is false, at its core: you put an actor in front of a camera. Unless you’re filming a news report, it’s false. It starts out by being false; it becomes even more false when you start telling a person what to do. So it’s trying to make it so it feels not-false, and Gareth Edwards is incredibly good at that.
Writer, director, and producer James L. Brooks has had the pleasure of producing some attention-grabbing debut films, including Say Anything and Bottle Rocket. The latest project Brooks felt compelled to support, The Edge of Seventeen, is the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig, whose first produced script was the 2009 feature Post Grad.
Craig’s film is a refreshingly honest comedy. Its high-school kids actually look, talk, and act like high-school kids. Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), her favorite teacher (Woody Harrelson), and her family and friends aren’t archetypes. Like some of James L. Brooks’ best characters, they’re immediately recognizable.
The Academy Award-winning writer-director behind Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets, recently discussed Craig’s film with us, his approach to producing, and how to best serve a movie.
The Film Stage: The second draft of the script was what really resonated with you, correct?
James L. Brooks: It wasn’t even the second draft. It had a few ties to the first one, but we never looked back. I never had that experience before — we never looked back. We started hanging and talking and shooting. And I encourage research, and she’s remarkably gifted, Kelly, at drawing young people out, because she’s empathic and she means it. And we looked at the videos, and we’d talk some more. We’d talk about movies. And then this new script came in where, suddenly, a writer was born, and it knocked me out. It was awesome. And then we were in service to that script, both of us.
You’ve produced some great debut films. When you read a script, like in this instance, do you immediately think, “This is a voice I’ve gotta help get out there””
Not the first draft. The first draft I don’t feel that way at all. I felt something about her. And she did turn around at the end of our first, you know, sort of awkward conversation and say, “Nobody works harder than I do.” And it was the only totally non-awkward thing she said. And it was just the truth. And she was true to her word. And she found her voice. She’s really seriously talented. I’ve done this 3 ½ times. I’ve done it with Anderson, and I did it with Cameron Crowe, and I did Penny Marshall’s second film where she started to really express herself as a director. And it’s great.
What sort of environment do you think a writer-director needs to best express him or herself?
I think with writer/directors, and with the exception of Penny, everybody is a writer/director I work with, the thing is you’ve seen a movie in your mind, and then you go get it. But if you really want to do a movie, that thing has to move. That thing has to be open to change. That then goes into a team sport; finally, it’s a team sport. And you’ve got to learn that. And that has to do with how you relate to the key creative people around you—with your cinematographer, your production designer, your costume…which is important. And most important of all is the actors. This picture wouldn’t have gotten made unless Haley came. Wouldn’t have gotten made. I mean, not only financially we wouldn’t have made it because we didn’t hear that script work right with anybody else. And Kelly had seen on video what not…something larger than a thousand young women. If Woody hadn’t been passing through town and he wasn’t a pal of mine, and he didn’t agree to do it, the movie would not have gotten made. Kiera, at the end, the movie would not have gotten made unless she was going to do it. If we didn’t find Hayden, the movie would not be the movie it is.
The most humbling thing about movies is how many breaks you have to catch. No matter how much you prepare, no matter how good you are, how many breaks you have to catch. I’ve had it where I’d kill for one actor, kill for one actor. If I had gotten that actor, the movie wouldn’t have worked. That’s happened to me once or twice. But all you can do is serve the movie as best you can all the time and make sure it’s a good place for actors to come to.
You mentioned some of those conversations you had with Ms. Craig early on. What, specifically, did you discuss?
I think we talked about everything. And we, you know, we hung out. There’s a great acting coach that played a role in this picture, Larry Moss, where all the actors sort of spent some time with him for this picture, which was interesting. And we’d go and sit in the back of his class to find out how good he is and just get religion, you know, as somebody who is sort of a purist. And we’d have lunch with somebody who was great at their job who we couldn’t possibly afford, Hans Zimmer, who ended up helping us, as a matter of fact, with the score at the end. Richard Carr is one of the great production designers…
It was like that. It was very informal. And Kelly is able to do a long haul. And I seem unable to do anything else. So it was like that.
If a first-time filmmaker asks you for guidance, is there a piece of advice you usually give?
No. I think it’s supporting who they are, which is the fun for me. But I have definite ideas about trying to make the movie the boss and trying to serve the movie; I have definite ideas about that that come across at times. It’s hard to describe. I think moviemaking is very often telling yourself to keep the bad from happening. You know, like, “I’m going to do something good…” It’s just knowing when something is wrong and throwing yourself on every grenade that pops up. I always said to Kelly, you know, somewhere in the process, in a very casual way, because it hadn’t come up, you know, “You should direct this,” and it never changed from that casual comment. She just hadn’t done it. Even if you bake the résumé, she hadn’t done it. And she’s great at it.
What sort of problem solving is required on a movie like Edge of Seventeen?
We had crises galore in this. We had crises galore. And the worst thing that can happen in a movie is if anybody thinks your sense of crises is sort of silly. You know, “What do you care about the location that much? Come on.” And that’s the worst. The temporary insanity that that glass is important, more important than anything. I don’t care what’s happening out there, that glass is important. That temporary legal insanity is what moviemaking is. It’s the detail. Kelly and I are very similar in that regard.
There was a time when Hayden [Szeto] lost his character for a second and how he approached that. And the three of us have talked about it since. He was the… just God said, “I’m going to send this guy to see you very early in the process. He’s going to be perfect for the part.” And then in the making of it, suddenly, it had been a while, and he lost the character for a second and lost his own… but then he got it back just… we just showed him his audition and he said, “I got it.” And he kills. I mean he kills in this movie. It’s one of my joys of the experience to see genuine breakout happen.
When do you know an actor is right for a role?
You can always make mistakes. I believe in exhaustive casting. Some people say, “We’ll cast it in six weeks.” I think we were probably over a year casting this. If the person hasn’t walked in the door, the person hasn’t walked in the door. And you can either say, “Well, that person walked in the door,” or say, “No, nobody’s has walked in the door yet.” At a certain point, that takes some…that takes something I believe in. Other people might think it’s a curse.
Have you ever thought you just couldn’t make a movie without a particular actor?
Yes. As Good as it Gets, certainly. Broadcast News, certainly.
When you are directing an actor who loses sight of a character or scene, how do you typically work through it?
I’ve had it in the extreme. I’ve had it in the extreme where it wasn’t happening day in and day out—the pressure is there. I think twice in my life actors have been replaced. And each time it was just nakedly wrong. And it’s your mistake, and it’s nakedly wrong. But the movie is the boss. And sometimes it’s tough. And sometimes the communication is tough. And the minute you are on the stage, the pressure, the distractions are enormous. But just to be honest with you, I don’t have it yet. A lot of these things is telling yourself the truth as you know it, as you understand it.
The story on As Good as it Gets, Jack was having the hardest time, and I couldn’t tell him… I didn’t know what it was that wasn’t happening. I was driving him crazy. And I’d say that picture would have blown apart if we weren’t good friends, that one day when he was having such an unhappy time, and I was having such an unhappy time. And the way he tells it, I kept on saying “too angry.” And then one day he blew up, and I said, “That’s it!” That’s the way he tells it. I don’t know whether it’s quite true. But one day I stopped shooting a half day in and knew that I was just digging the hole deeper. The crew goes home, and that’s a weird thing to do to send the crew home when you still have hours to shoot. And we sat on this enormous stage and talked for three hours. I have no memory of what we said. The next day everything was okay.
The Edge of Seventeen is now in theaters nationwide.
Bradford Young‘s filmography remains slim, but the work displayed in his repertoire — among them Pariah, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Selma, A Most Violent Year — impresses to the point that his involvement has become something of a qualitative promise. The praise has continued with his latest feature, Arrival, an effort that marks something of a breakthrough: along with being his first sci-fi feature, it’s Young’s foray into thoroughly contemporary environments.
While at the Camerimage International Film Festival, we sat down for a long, surprisingly personal conversation in which Young reveals his personal philosophies, creative insecurities, and the many steps that go into creating an image for Denis Villeneuve. The entire process was a total pleasure.
The Film Stage: In preparing for this interview, I found that many asked about the novelty of shooting a sci-fi movie after devoting your career to dramas. One aspect of this that I haven’t seen addressed is shooting a thoroughly contemporary movie. Your two most prominent jobs, Selma and A Most Violent Year, are period pieces, and Arrival is a film filled with screens, effects, and so on. I’m curious what your thoughts were going into the film, and if there was a need to find your footing.
Bradford Young: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m going to start with that, because that’s the one I feel like I can speak on best — part of the reason is that I haven’t thought about it much. Yeah, it’s strange. Making films in real time holds you accountable in a way that period pieces just don’t. You know what I mean? What they do is make you think of yourself in a particular way. With Arrival, it’s these notions of mortality in a contemporary society that obviously affect me in a real, palpable way. Raising children in America; that hit me in a really palpable way. Raising black boys in America; that hit me in a real sort of palpable way. So because I have to wrestle with knowing what’s happening in real time, the setting in which we parallax on is like settings that we live in now. We know them. We smell them. We’re not augmenting the environment. We’re actually shooting in the environment that we exist in.
But, also, the nuance of story resonated with me in such an intense way because the film is exploring ideas that could potentially affect my children. You know what I mean? Could potentially affect my relationship to my children. It’s not about the potential, or my grandparents’ agency and my contemporary liberation, or their attempt to create a structure of liberation for us in the future. This is, like, a projection on my children. You know what I mean? This is a potential conversation that I have to have with my children. In that way, I think what it did — without even knowing it; I’m kind of free styling a little bit as I answer, because I’m thinking about it deeply — was, I had my guard up a little bit. It makes you a little guarded, because you always have to oscillate and figure out how much DNA you give to every project, right? So if you give everything, how do you survive? We all are trying to figure out how much we give at certain points.
This is one of those films where, in order to make it really expressive, you have to give everything. It makes it harder when you’re photographing real time — when you’re photographing in real space, when you’re photographing in contemporary environments — because there’s so much more present. There’s no allegory, there’s no mythology, there’s no projection, there’s no ability to let imagination lead everything. This is one where you have to face the monster. You have to face the alien. You have to face what makes real life and contemporary society joyous and difficult for us. I never thought about it when I was doing it, and I don’t think I even really came up with a way to prepare for it. I think the main, overarching theme for us, and especially for Denis, is this idea of truthfulness.
For me, this is the first time I got really invested in perspective. I think that’s really important for contemporary films to be effective: the perspective is important, because you want the audience to feel like they’re in a world that they know. So, to prepare for that, I decided to remind myself that this is Louise’s film. That’s not something I have to do… I tried it on Selma. It was this idea that Martin Luther King is leading us. A Most Violent Year was a little more objective; it was us observing the life and time of this couple, and this very strange environment. This is the one where it’s like, I’m with Louise. We’re with her on the journey. And, again, because it’s a contemporary film, that Louise character is somebody you know — it’s somebody you can put your hand on. You turn the camera and there are probably three or four Louises on your set, you know? With something like Selma, you turn around and there is no Martin Luther King, you know? It’s us imagining what it would’ve been like to be there with him.
So I think, yeah, it requires a certain level of rigor and a certain level of discipline in order to make it feel truthful. That was a big conversation that Denis had with me from the beginning. It was like: “I don’t want an overly aesthetic film. I want the film to be only as beautiful as Louise will let it be.” For a cinematographer, that’s either a nightmare [Laughs] or a benefit. For me, it really helped me grow.
I was interested by the level of visibility that’s allowed by the lighting in interior environments.
The first moment where it really stood out was in her classroom, which doesn’t feel like a normal college classroom — it feels so from her perspective with the top-down lighting.
The top-down light. Yeah, yeah.
Is something such as that conceived of from the start? That seems like the kind of thing you’d be having a conversation about.
I think it’s that balance between the mundane — which is what the film is all about. It’s about this ordinary life, and I think that’s one of those examples where you examine the ordinary, right? It’s about a teacher. But then you look at the structural reality of the classroom: that thing — those wavy lines, those curly lines — had to mirror, in some way, things that we would experience later, so you take that liberty to slide that sort of thing in there, and then that creates a more interesting frame and a more interesting tension, because then it’s not just, like, a squared-off environment with a few seats. It actually has some structural thing there that tells a story. That’s one of those moments where you just say, “Yeah, we can just turn on those lights and make it a regular classroom,” but there’s a feeling. There’s a melancholy in her life, and the lighting in this moment — and the lighting in every moment until we get to this ship — has to be evocative of that.
I could have just turned on every light, because that would’ve been real, and that would’ve been what a college classroom looks like, but then I don’t think you’re telling story — and I think the whole idea is for us to continue telling Louise’s story. So, yeah, I just felt like I had to drape her in light that would be indicative of her psychology, indicative of a woman that… for instance, the college classroom is such a good example. We just learned that she’s experienced great loss in her life. It doesn’t matter how many lights are turned on. You know what I mean? Your perspective on life is very myopic, so let’s let the lighting be evocative of that. I think you see that, too, in the university: she walks across a college campus that is totally, 100% empty. Not a single soul. She walks through a cafeteria that is totally, 100% empty. Not a single soul. She’s in her office and this mysterious figure shows up at her door, and you can’t see his face. He sits down, and you still don’t see his face. She’s backlit. It’s all these things that probably don’t happen in real time. You see somebody’s face in another way, but you just take those small liberties to, again, be encased in her dilemma.
Do you have an idea for how long it takes to conceptualize those sorts of things? How long those conversations of a) “that strategy will convey this,” and b) figuring out the tools you need.
It’s interesting, because I feel like, with us, my process with Denis was a little different… well, not “different.” I mean, I guess it’s sort of like my lighting process with a lot of directors, which is: prep is really busy, so you don’t have time to talk about all the nuances and details ahead of time; then, somehow, most times, you’re kind of reluctant to talk about it because actors determine so much. You don’t have an actor with you on a scout, or you don’t have an actor with you in the storyboarding sessions. You board a basic idea, but you can never talk about the nuance of how it’s going to happen until you see what actors will do on the day.
I’ll give you the other example where you really plan: in the case of her office, we showed up and it was just a regular office — but, on the day, when you see the way Forest Whitaker enters the doorway, you say to yourself, “Okay, this is a moment where we can create another level of mystery, another level of anxiety, in what would be another ordinary, procedural conversation between two human beings.” So then you see what the actors did and you say, “Okay. We probably shouldn’t see his face much, but, when he sits down, let’s make sure that the lighting is doing this.” Those are the things you worked out on the day, in real time. Because you’ve done so much homework in terms of talking about the film in other ways — like, “Our film is about this, but we still don’t know what that means visually,” or, “Our film is about this, but we still don’t know what that means in terms of sound” — but you still have been inoculated with an idea, and so you just trust that, because we’re all working towards this idea, that what we suggest on the day doesn’t betray that, and everything else is just adding what I would call “grace notes” to those moments.
For something like when he shows up at the house for the first time, that’s playing. That’s like, he shows up in the helicopter; for a split second, hopefully, the audience thinks that it’s an alien spacecraft. Right? He opens the door. You don’t see his face. You only hear his voice. You know it’s him, because you’ve seen him in the scene before, but he becomes alien. And then she gets in the helicopter that’s got some weird proximity to the house, she gets on the spaceship, and the spaceship is totally an environment that we haven’t experienced before. The lighting, the awkward seating arrangement — it feels like you’re sitting in the belly of an animal.
All these things are very much Denis Villeneuve ways of making a film, ways of telling story. Those are those moments where you really plan it out. When she comes down the steps and the whole house is lit by this singular, bright light, it could be the spaceship. You realize it’s not; it’s just the general. These things, you create the counterintuitive relationship with audience by giving a lot but really planning it out. Those are those moments you just don’t want to freestyle because you are trying to say something very specific.
You speak of being in conversation with other departments. I’m always very curious about a cinematographer’s relationship to computer-generated effects — lighting and “photographing” that. In the post-production, what’s your level of involvement in supervising visual effects and ensuring that it’s properly orchestrated?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course. I wish I had more input, and I think that I didn’t have enough input on this film, and I’m sure I would’ve had more input. There was opportunity for me to have one, but circumstances didn’t always allow me to do that. But I wish I could’ve been more involved, and I actually think that, if this is a platform to say anything, I encourage — especially young — cinematographers to be more involved. We were actually lucky that we shot a film that had a very particular visual style and a very particular optical reality that the visual effects had to marry themselves to, because to do it any other way would betray everything else the film was trying to do.
That was not an easy process for us to get to. It’s never easy when you have visual effects-heavy films, because every human being has their own artistic preference, taste. This is a collaborative process — everybody comes in with their notions of what is and what isn’t — so it requires a lot of compromise. But what it also does is require all of us to be on the same page in terms of what this film has to look like, what is has to feel like, so it’s a big tug of war. It’s a healthy tug of war because, ultimately, you end up getting what you want. I think, with this film, what I really respect about it is that the visual effects are anchored in a real, honest appeal to show humanity in the foreground in a very particular way.
So when you see the spaceship, we don’t rack-focus to a film that exists already; we actually see it through the lens, the perspective, of Louise — and the whole film is about her perspective, anyway, so you can’t go look at the ship and it becomes a movie where we’re looking at the ship. It has to be Louise’s perspective on the ship. That requires a lot of reminding. It requires people to be uncomfortable, sometimes, with how milky the blacks are, the kind of lens you’re using, how hard things are falling off. Or, on the day, instead of giving people an hour late on trackers, you just say, “The light’s good, we’re going to go out in the field, and we’re going to go shoot the shot,” and you’ve just got to figure out where you put the ship later. That’s always difficult for visual-effects artists, but it’s sort of the nature of the necessity of the kinds of films that I would hope to continue to make. But, all in all, yeah: I think it’s important for cinematographers to be a key… not even a key element, but an important part in the conversation of where visual effects in the film go.
If no film this year has been as uniformly praised as Moonlight, it’s natural that the cinematography has impressed just about anybody, believer or otherwise, who comes into contact. Barry Jenkins based his second feature on Tarell McCraney‘s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the evocative title of which marks a good precedent for what’s being visually communicated — a story of love, time, and discovery that serves to show how a perception of things plays into our lives as much as the facts themselves.
Cinematography James Laxton will undoubtedly find himself making a big step forward, so it’s good to speak with him now, as the movie continues rolling out across the U.S. and other parts of the world. We sat down in Bydgoszcz, Poland, at the Camerimage International Film Festival, where he helped peel back the production process of a film many will discover and cherish for years to come.
The Film Stage: You’re here, now, after Moonlight has opened in the U.S., and it’s been a huge critical success. I’m curious about reading the praise for your own work: if it’s a funny thing when people, myself included, who don’t have a knowledge of the cinematographic process offer praise. It’s often reduced to “this looks beautiful.” I assume it’s gratifying, at least.
James Laxton: No, of course. It always feels good to have someone feel like you did a good job, and obviously that makes you feel like you should keep going. But I see your point, on some level: our job is odd, in that you’re not necessarily meant to understand why it works. Whether this is true of Moonlight or not, it’s hard to say, but we are taught, on some level, in film school to make your work sort of unnoticeable, and to sort of be a servant to story and performance and those things. With Moonlight, we maybe pushed that envelope a bit, because our look is somewhat bold at times, and things like this.
But sure, yeah, the job is difficult to critique — a little bit, possibly. But it’s funny, because here we are at a film festival that’s full of a bunch of cinematographers, and we get to critique each other in these contexts — which is sort of different than most festivals or theater experiences. I’ve met a lot of people I’ve looked up to for a long time. A lot of people I’ve obsessively read articles about for the last ten years as a student, and continue to, after school, read up on; people I feel are my heroes, honestly. So to meet them here and have discussions about our process and our work is unique in that way.
You go to parties here, and you have, say, Ed Lachman holding court. He’s almost like a mafia don, sitting down with his big hat as people come up and shake his hand.
He’s a charmer. When I met Ed the first night I was here, he was sitting on a couch and I literally just sat on a floor for about 20 minutes just talking to him, because it felt like such a special moment. He has the kind of personality and character that makes you feel very welcome and very open, which is something that’s maybe rare, a bit, in our field. Like I said before, because of how hard it is to critique a cinematographer on some level, because it’s so personal and so… it’s something that I find difficult to talk about in a tangible way, or a theoretical way. I don’t see myself as someone that makes decisions in a conceptual fashion, and so to talk about these things is interesting. To talk with Ed, who is very open and honest… and not just Ed, but the other people I met here, is kind of amazing.
There was an article about Moonlight‘s digital intermediate process, with before-and-after shots showing the effects this has. I’m curious how knowledge of said process — even knowing it’s to come — affects the decisions made on set. The film would be far less powerful if the before image was what we saw.
Yeah, I agree. It’s interesting — especially today, when so much of what we do is shot digitally — to find a way to make your images, and this is a terrible word to use, “special,” or “unique.” The DI process plays a heavy role. In decades previous, you would pick film stocks, maybe process them differently, or cross-process; maybe pull two stops or push two stops. All these things you were able to embed in the image of the negative of the image — such a deep look — and so, today, when we have cameras… like, for example, we shot on the Alexa, which is a fantastic camera. It’s something that we chose to use on Moonlight. We went into Moonlight knowing full well that the DI process was going to be a very special and important process for us. Shooting digitally, that’s the moment when you get to really be bold and make large decisions — in terms of color, obviously.
Do you have trepidation about that? A feeling of “showing how the sausage is made”?
As someone who writes, I’m mortified by the idea of anyone seeing a first draft of something I’ve written.
Sure. No, I understand what you’re saying. I don’t have a problem with it. That’s interesting. The truth is, I’m conflicted. For example, I hate behind-the-scenes special features because, to me, it sort of ruins the magic of the experience of the movie. We all go to see films and look to be impacted by them in very powerful ways. Often that has to do with losing yourself in the film, right? Kind of being open enough and having an experience where you’re impacted in a really meaningful way — so, yeah, if you know all the steps that got the filmmakers to give you that impression and the emotional impact, possibly that diminishes. So it sort of works against you a little bit, in that sense. But for people who are students and learning about filmmaking, and want to find different ways of how things are done, I don’t see a problem with that.
I was a film student once, and I was very eager to absorb and consume how much information I could as to how things were done, so for people like that, I feel perfectly fine, and I support the idea, like you said, of “learning how the sausage is made.” That doesn’t bother me. But I do hope — honestly, on some level; I don’t want to diminish readership — not everyone reads those things. I think it’s not necessarily, like I said, a bad thing in a specific sense — for students, and things like this, to serve those things — but by no means do I hope everyone becomes really aware of how we do things, because I think that might ruin it, on some level — the impact of film.
For better or for worse, my question relates to that. When I spoke to Michael Chapman, he said his favorite job was that of camera operator. Moonlight credits camera operators separate from you and Jenkins.
The only shots that I did not operate were those shot on Steadicam. So I did operate, I don’t know, 98% of the film. Obviously, I can’t count, but there’s a number of Steadicam shots in the film that I didn’t do — but, for the most part, I did.
What’s your participation in that? What is that conversation like?
Actually, it’s a great one. The truth is, working with camera operators can be a wonderful thing as well. These people are trained professionals at that job. Just because I’m a cinematographer and I’m the head of that department, by no means does that mean I’m more or less suitable to perform the camera operations of the film. So it just becomes communication. Camera operators — very strong ones, like the ones we had on this film — are unique and important to the process, I find, and their relationship to the actors and their role in the process, by which images are created… I don’t want to diminish them, because they’re important. But, on set, it just becomes a very specific and detailed conversation you’re having — both with the camera operators and, also, the cast to choreograph and move, like in scene one, that very long Steadicam scene with a lot of choreography.
It just takes communication. “You’ll be here for this line. You’ll then move over here. You’ll then be here for this line.” I just keep it down that path until you tick all the boxes, and then, maybe, you go for rehearsal or start shooting. That’s generally the process. These camera operators also have input, and they’ll maybe see things you don’t see. That can be very, very helpful in aiding that choreography. I definitely don’t want to diminish their role, because it’s actually very important. I do enjoy camera operating in the same way Michael Chapman does: it’s also valued very highly, so I get a lot of gratification out of it. I’m on both sides of the fence, and I don’t mean to straddle it too much, but, the truth is, it’s important, I think, to use them when you need them — and sometimes for me, personally, I enjoy operating myself.
You worked with Jenkins on his only other feature, Medicine for Melancholy. It’s such a long gap between their productions, so I wonder at which point you were brought into the Moonlight fold, and what initial conversations may have been.
Just outside of filmmaking, Barry and I are very close friends, so we get to hang out most weekends — when we’re both in the same town, anyways — get coffees, have dinner. He’ll come over to our house, so we get to talk about things kind of constantly. I was sort of aware of what Moonlight was — a project that he seemed to be very excited about — I would guess, maybe, a year-and-a-half before we started official pre-production. It also helps, too, that one of the producers on the film, Adele Romanski, is my wife as well, so it’s a really sort of family affair, on some level.
I was aware earlier than, I would say, is average, but that doesn’t mean I was brought in for drafts of the script. I think Barry usually saves giving me the script until we’re much closer to going into actual, official pre-production; I think he values fresh eyes at some point in the process. It is different than working with most directors, really because of our friendship and our long history. I even joke that we have a 17-year pre-production history now, which is great. There’s a lot of trust in that relationship, and I think our history really helps us not only have a shorthand, but also helps us push each other in the right ways. We know how to, I think, get the best out of one another.
In screenplays, does he make many specifications about visual components? They’re so key to the development of character and story.
I don’t remember too many. I’ve not read the script in a year or so, so to remember specifically is a challenge, but I don’t think there’s very many descriptions of, like, “And we push in here oaths action.” That’s not how Barry writes. He’s a really wonderful writer. I think his scripts, oftentimes, feel like novels, the way he writes things and his descriptions. Not only are they very detailed, but they’re also very eloquently expressed. When reading them, you’re full of emotion — not just necessarily reading, “This character walks from this door to this window.” The way he describes those things in the screenplay is really evocative.
Moonlight looks nothing like Medicine for Melancholy, so at what point did it become clear that this visual approach would be taken? I know you’re both fond of Wong Kar-wai, and that’s clearly there. Did he frame things through that sort of prism? I think there’s even a direct visual reference to Happy Together.
Sure, yeah. We have a Dropbox folder full of images, and there’s definitely some screen grabs from Happy Together in there. Also some other Wong Kar-wai films; also some Hou Hsiao-hsien films and Claire Denis. There’s a pretty large spectrum of what we found was an appropriate reference for this film. It wasn’t, by any means, just one filmmaker or photographer. I think, again, going back to the luxury of having this friendship and this kind of collaboration for a long period of time. I think we’re constantly, for example, sharing links to things — sharing links throughout our years together that our interesting to us and excite us. I think all those things, what happens is, they sink into our subconscious, and into the zeitgeist of the movie that we’re pursuing, somewhat organically.
It’s hard to answer the question, on some level. I don’t exactly remember this moment where he showed me, for example, this image from In the Mood for Love or Happy Together. It didn’t necessarily happen that way. It’s much more organically put in — long before the moment of actually talking about Moonlight, for example. I think these are just filmmakers and images that we respond to as a whole. But, yeah, I’m being very general here. Obviously, once you find out, “Okay, this is the movie we’re going to make,” we just start to whittle all those influences and all those ideas that we’ve been sharing for a number of years previous into a smaller box and say, “Okay, now we have this fantastic language that we love all of these things about. Now that we have this movie, let’s start to whittle those things down to these five or ten ideas that seem really appropriate to, maybe, the movie as a whole, but also these scenes. This reference is good for the beach, or this is a wonderful reference for the diner moment in act three.” I think that’s generally how our conversations happen.
It’s not so finite, so, for example, when we meet to talk about a movie — Moonlight, for example — we start talking over coffee about how good the coffee is, and that conversation turns into, “Oh, man, did you get caught in that storm?” That conversation turns into, “Yeah, the drive over was…” And, all of a sudden, we’re talking about a reference to a film that was inspiring to me six months earlier. So it’s a wonderful friendship in that regard, and we’re very close, in that sense. Maybe that process is unique, because it’s not like, “Okay, we have an hour together. Let’s sit down and bang out these ten things and these five ideas.” We have the luxury of just being able to hang out with each other, generally.
Can you name scenes that are really of your own devising, speaking for composition, angle, lighting, and so on?
I think the answer to that is no. I don’t think I do. I can’t remember what interview this was in or where I heard Barry talk about this; it was a discussion between him and Tarell McCraney, the playwright who wrote the film. I think someone asked them a question similar to that: what scene was more yours or Barry’s? I think the answer was that even they couldn’t remember. I think that’s actually a sign of a great director: they seem to inspire everyone around them to make them always feel like it’s their idea, or maybe you don’t know — maybe it was Barry’s idea.
It’s this wonderful sort of soup that happens, and I don’t think there’s a moment I can think of that was, “Oh, I know that wasn’t Barry’s idea,” and I honestly don’t feel like there was. It just isn’t part of the way our conversations happen, and it isn’t important to us. I don’t think we feel like collaboration works that way. So I think the answer is, I don’t think there’s a scene or shot that I can think of that’s just mine — and I hope Barry feels the same. [Laughs]
Many have obsessed over the shot of André Holland —
Smoking the cigarette? [Laughs]
So if one of you wants to take credit, you’ll become very popular with the ladies.
[Laughs] You know, I’m married, so I’ll give Barry that one. He can have it.
I think it’s in the trailer.
It is in the trailer.
But a lot of GIFs have shown up on Twitter, usually with some desiring caption.
He’s a sexy man, André Holland. No, I hope he’s enjoying himself somewhere.
Certain shots have become my favorites in the month since I saw Moonlight. I’m wondering what your stand-outs might be.
Something I’m very proud of… I’ll answer in two ways. The scene I’m very proud of in the film is the nighttime beach scene in story two. It’s a really wonderful scene. The performances are just astonishing, and what’s going on in that scene is just so emotionally, I don’t know, just wonderful. I was going to say “touching,” which would be a terrible word to use. But it is impactful, in that sense. On a technical level, that’s also a really challenging scene. We put a lot of technical work into making those images the way they were, just in terms of the resources that we had and the time we had. Shooting on a beach, at night, with the wind blowing poses massive challenges to us on a technical level.
So I was very proud of how that scene turned out, in a visual sense. It was something I was very nervous about going into the movie, period. I knew that scene was coming — and it was something I was very apprehensive about — and so to see the images, to see the results of what the work was, I’m very proud of that. The second thing I’m very proud of is the diner scene in story three. I know that’s not necessarily the most bold, stylish camerawork in that scene, but there’s a lot of precision in that sequence and a lot of thought that went into that, in terms of pacing and how the camera’s moving, the choices that we made in pre-production, and the execution of them in post-production. I think that sequence, in general, is something I’m incredibly proud of as well.
Moonlight is now in wide release.
Had he only worked for a period of roughly ten years, Michael Chapman would still be among the best-regarded cameramen of his time. How else to qualify the man who acted as operator on Klute, Husbands, The Landlord, The Godfather and Jaws, as well as cinematographer on The Last Detail, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Hardcore, The Last Waltz, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers? (The decades-blurring Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is no small achievement, either.) But then he’d go on to helm All the Right Moves (a key early point in Tom Cruise’s career), then photographed (to name but a few) The Fugitive, Scorsese’s video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” and, of course, Space Jam. How many people in his trade can lay claim to that wide a berth?
Chapman’s been retired for nearly ten years — his last feature, Bridge to Terabithia, was released in 2007 — making it fitting that he’d now, at 80, receive a lifetime achievement award from the Camerimage International Film Festival, which is also holding a retrospective of his work. While there, I was lucky enough to sit down with the man, who shared a wide range of humble thoughts on his career, some frustrations with his former collaborators, and a perspective on today’s cinematographic world.
The Film Stage: There’s this retrospective of your films being shown here. Did you have much hand in choosing the films?
Michael Chapman: No, I didn’t, actually. They chose the ones that they always do — Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and all that — and I think they asked me for some suggestions, but we talked over what films were available that they could actually get prints of and things. That limited it, to some extent. A couple of the ones I wish they had done, they didn’t, because I suggested them too late or they couldn’t get the right print — or something. It was a mixture of my suggestions and what they could do, so there was no overarching authority on it.
Are these prints or digital?
I guess it’s mostly digital. I suppose. No, I think it’s almost all digital.
How do you feel about the proliferation of older films being shown on DCPs? Do you approve, or would you prefer that older films are seen on 35mm prints?
No. I think that, by and large, old 35 prints are in crappy shape. They’re probably better. If they make the digital prints from a good negative or something, they’re a lot better than they would be. They preserve them in a way that film is not preserved — forever — so I’m all for it. Let them do it; let them save those movies. It’d be wonderful if there were a way to preserve them on film, and all that, but, in the real world, what you want is to make sure that the image survives and exists. So make them digital. Why not?
You’ve participated in restorations of your work. A new Blu-ray of Taxi Driver was released last month.
Yeah. I supervised a new print of it. But it just came out now? Because I did it a couple of years ago.
I think this 40th-anniversary disc uses the same restoration.
Okay, yeah. What I did was for Blu-ray, and it was easily two or three years ago — more than that, I think. I can’t remember. It was a while ago, anyway.
I’d love to know your thoughts about watching these films again for restoration. In the career-spanning book Camerimage has created, you said your skills on Taxi Driver were “still quite primitive.” So I imagine it’s interesting to revisit it now with the intention of making it look as pristine as it can.
Yeah. I was trying to make it pristine, but I was trying to make it look what it looked like; I wasn’t going to change what it looked like. In one case, I was, because the final big shoot-out scene had to be toned-down in color because they would threaten to give it an X rating, and they wouldn’t give it an R unless we took the blood down. The whole last scene is completely screwed when they first put it out. I was very angry, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I managed, I hope, to bring that back up to the color level of the rest of the movie, and I pretty much did.
Occasionally — in fact, whenever I see them — I see a mistake I made here and there, and I think, “Oh, shit, I should’ve put that light a little further there,” or, “I should’ve taken that one down a bit.” Constantly. But they’re usually minor things that most people never notice — in fact, nobody seems to notice but me — so I get nagged by my own mind and those things, but, in general, what can you do? You did what you did, and there’s no sense brooding about it now.
And you’re here with this lifetime achievement award.
I must’ve been reasonably successful.
I wonder if you have a sense of the “lifetime achievement.” Do you find that a sufficient way of considering your career, or is it hard for you to see your work this way?
I guess it is hard for me to think of my work in that way, yeah — as if I set out with this great thing in mind, to climb Mount Everest and I had climbed Mount Everest. Well, I didn’t set out with anything like that in mind; I set out to make a living. Then I set out to do this movie well and that movie well. I was not conscious… I hope I’m not lying to myself. I was not enormously conscious, in any way, of, “Oh, I’m leaving this great trail of great works behind me.” I don’t think I thought that. I really don’t. I was leaving behind me whatever I did, because you almost always… I mean, I was involved in some marvelous movies, but there is always, in what you do, a very practical element of, “I’ve got a wife and I’ve got alimony and I’ve got kids and are they going to go to college?” Very practical.
It may be a great art form, but it’s an industry, also, and you shouldn’t lose track of the industry part of it. [Laughs] If you do, you will end up screwed out of it. So I don’t know that I… most of the time, anyway; maybe my most pompous moments alone in bed, no I doubt I thought of this and that kind of crap. But, most of the time, anyway, I didn’t even have to consciously try. I was just there, doing it. I was doing it as well as I could, and I was doing it on this movie and that movie. Sometimes, it was a good movie; sometimes, it was an ordinary movie. But I was trying to do the best that I could, and I thought of what I was doing the next day more than anything else.
I’d heard that you made something of a point of working with first-time directors, since many making their debut don’t know what to get from a cinematic image.
Oh, that’s not my choice. Specifically for Warner Bros., but also various other people, I had that reputation in Hollywood: that I could walk a first-time director through it and at least make sure that really egregious errors didn’t get made. That was a niche that I had. They called me and offered me good money to do it — fine with me. I mean, this is later in my career, when I was not yearning to be Michelangelo. By then, I was just getting through the day, getting through life. I had that niche in Hollywood for some years, yeah, that they would call me in for certain situations. Sometimes, even, big movies, like The Fugitive. They called me to take it over, and various other things. Often, if they were first-time directors, they would try nudging them into using me, because I could more or less, as I say, make sure the most egregious errors were not going to get made.
Your final film, Bridge to Terabithia, was nine years ago, and so much has changed in the cinematographic art form since then.
You’re retired and have talked about being happy in that life, but do you look at certain things that have emerged in the time since and wish you could’ve tried them?
I do wish. I do wish very much that I could’ve shot digitally while I was still doing it, because it seems fascinating and I think I would’ve loved to experiment with it. I just didn’t get a chance to. Would I do it now, go back? No. I’m an old man. I ain’t going. I wouldn’t mind fooling around in a studio if Panavision or something just wanted to let me try some stuff out — I would love it — but shooting a movie now, in digital or anything else? I couldn’t do it. I would be lying to the people if I said I could. It’s too physically demanding.
You’ve worked with some of their era’s most-defining directors — Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg — and I’m curious if you have thoughts when you watch their new movies now. Scorsese and Spielberg still work very frequently, so do you see them and think about the cinematographic character of them? Maybe watching them will bring to mind working with them, where you can kind of see traits of your working relationship.
No, I don’t think I do, necessarily. I’m not that wild about some of the later work of either one of them. Their great years seem to be somewhat behind them. Not to say “they had to have me there” — I don’t mean that — but we only have so much in us of great work. Actually, the latest movies of Marty’s, I haven’t even looked at. He did that television series — what is that? Vinyl, or something? I tried to watch that, and I just… whoo. I just couldn’t. It just seemed pointless. It was well-shot and everything — I don’t mean that — but this is an example of how you can shoot things wonderfully and have nice dolly moves and everything and it doesn’t mean shit. It really doesn’t.
It seems to me, unless a director makes some huge sea change in what he does, that the work, the mechanical work, is going to be vaguely the same — or of the same school, anyway — but what changes is the intelligence and passion behind it in the script. Steven Spielberg, I’m sure, does still do wonderful dolly shots and this and that and all of it — and, mostly, who cares?
Do you watch a lot of films in your free time?
No. I’m in the Academy and they send me everything in the fall. It’s probably stacking up at home now, Blu-rays of everything. I almost never go to the movies anymore. I’m corrupted: I just wait and watch them at home. Because, you know, I have a big-screen TV; it looks just about as big as the image of what you’re going to see in a theater. I see, occasionally, things. What is it, Dr. Strange? And I turned out liking it. And a few things I hear about, I see — but, basically, I just wait, they mail them to me, and I look at them at home.
That might answer this next question: are there film artists, particularly cinematographers, working today who you like? It seems there’s a glut of good ones.
Yeah. But they seem, to me, to be imitating each other all the time. It all looks the same to me, pretty much. They’ve worked out a style with digital; they’ve worked out a style of how to do flashy, nice things, but it all looks the same, whoever’s shooting it — it seems to me, by and large. I mean, big-time movies do it. There are obviously small, independent movies that look different. But there seems, to me, to be a certain style which has pervaded the major-movie industry. So I can’t really tell the difference between this guy and that guy, by and large; they look pretty much the same.
That’s maybe just me being an old, grumpy asshole; don’t take it too seriously. But I wish that somebody would come out and do something radically different. I don’t even know what it is, but I wish to hell they would — for a big movie, I mean. For a big-time movie that a lot of people are going to pay money to see. I wish somebody would do something startling, and I would like to see it, whoever that person is. Most of the cinematographers who I admire are people who, most of them, [Laughs] are now dead. I’m trying to think if there are new guys who… no, there isn’t. There isn’t anybody who jumps to mind. That is, as I say, partly because I don’t go to the movies as much anymore. I don’t find them as central to the culture as they once were — because they’re not — so the need to go see them is problematical, at best.
Do you watch a lot of television, then?
I watch the Red Sox. But, no, I don’t. I watch a few things, but the last thing I watched passionately was The Sopranos, and that was some years ago. It seems, to me, that no one’s gotten to be as good as The Sopranos — so, until they do, why watch? I watch the Red Sox instead.
And The Sopranos was a beautiful-looking show.
Oh, it was beautiful in every way — not just “looking.” In every possible way. And I watched Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie. That was kind of fun, too, because she’s such a good actress. I don’t know, everybody says… what’s that one about the high-school teacher?
Breaking Bad. Everyone says it’s wonderful. I never quite could get into it; I don’t know why. I should’ve paid more attention to it, I guess. It can’t be anything but wonderful if everyone says it’s wonderful. It’s got to be pretty good. That’s probably my fault. But, no: I don’t watch television much. I watch the news and I watch sports.
I’m interested in that you’ve worked as both a DP and camera operator. In this book, you said that working on The Godfather was nice because you weren’t involved in “any of the big decisions or disagreements.” I’d like to hear, from your own perspective, the pleasures that come with being an operator.
Oh! A camera operator is, far and away, one of the most wonderful jobs in the movies, I think. [Pause] Well, I’ll leave aside some other things. [Laughs] Because it is very challenging, and it’s a mixture of athleticism and aesthetics: you have to make choices, constantly, at 24 frames a second, and, at the same time, be able to do it. It’s a hard job, and, if you’re good at it, it’s a wonderful job. If you do it well, you’re immediately gratified by it. You know, “Why, I made that. I knocked that one out. I hit that one out of the ballpark.” Whatever you want to say. Also because you are the first person to see the movie. You are seeing the movie as it’s being shot — far before the director, before the DP, before anybody. You’re seeing it as it’s shot, for the very first time, and that’s very exciting, because you’re the eye that is the movie. You are the movie. Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s heavenly. You don’t have to go to dailies. You get to flirt with the actresses. Oh, it’s a wonderful job. It’s a heavenly job.
Have you worked on movies with more than one camera operator?
I guess I probably have, but, when I was an operator, I was always the key operator. I guess in big scenes, big shoot-outs, there’d be more than one camera. But, by and large, I was always the “A” operator.
I’d imagine Jaws requires more athleticism than The Godfather, which is much more still.
Oh, yeah. Well, Jaws was all handheld, standing on a rocking boat. That was a real triumph of operating. They owe me a lot of money, because they’d still be there in Martha’s Vineyard, still trying to get that thing, if it hadn’t been for me. But, anyway, operating is… I can’t say enough about it, how wonderful it is.
Do you have a clear preference for something slower or faster?
Not at all. I just love whatever comes along. I like whatever’s appropriate. The first scene of The Godfather, it’s all very still and quiet and dark and kind of mysterious-looking; running around on the boat in Jaws it’s all very frantically going here and there. But that’s what’s appropriate to the scene. There is no one thing better than the other.
As messy as it is effective, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk attempts to be both a celebration and a satire on the American soldier and the way our country receives him or her. In Billy’s brief fling with Dallas cheerleader Faison do we get one of the more biting relationships of the film. The Film Stage spoke with actress Makenzie Leigh, who plays Faison, about injecting satire into character beats, pulling from her own life, and how personal politics play into a performance.
The Film Stage: Had you read the book or known about the [Ben Fountain] novel before filming? Was that something that was in your head?
Makenzie Leigh: I hadn’t. Not at all, because I was just given sides. And, to be honest, the sides were pretty long. I didn’t even have time to really read the script. Which is weird and rare, actually. Usually I can’t get a character together unless I read the full script, so I almost always get really frustrated because people only send you sides to audition with. I’m always like ‘How am I supposed to build a person?’ And this was the only time in my life where I received the sides and was like ‘Oh, I know exactly and I don’t want to read anything because I don’t want to be at all influenced.’
So the book didn’t really factor into it.
No, and then I made a conscious call later not to read it until I finished filming, because I felt like I knew that it was written from Billy’s POV, A.K.A. a male’s POV, A.K.A. a sexualized version of who she was, and it felt like it was really necessary for me to not know how men were seeing me, but me to exist on my own.
When you’re making a film like this, do you bring any of your personal politics into the role?
Yeah, I mean, definitely. I’m from Dallas, I grew up around these girls and this world. I absolutely brought everything I’ve ever felt about my upbringing and the girls I went to high school with… this type of woman. I tried to put it a little over into a satire, and I tried to use the accent to do that. Because most girls in Texas don’t have accents. It’s kind of like a trope in a way. And I wanted to play with that. So I made the decision to give her a Southern accent which more speaks to that she says she’s from Stovall [,Texas], like her family is from Stovall. So you could say she’s from somewhere else in Texas and moved to Dallas.
You were recently in the James White, a smaller film that relies less on dialogue and more on subtle emotional beats. How do you navigate that turn as a performer, especially when making something like Billy Lynn, which has very aware lines and themes presented throughout?
I actually think there’s no difference in what the role costs. And I think that’s a really great way to say it. I feel like if you’re acting and it’s not costing you something, you should do something else. Because then you’re just phoning it in. And not to say that I can’t be accused of phoning things in sometimes. [Laughs]
But not on purpose. I thought what was so great was I realized to play on the satire it’s that classic thing, you play humor straight. So to push the satire I had to get more genuine and more deep and to make it seem so absurd that someone would sometimes say some of these things that had to be completely real to me. And that had to make it complete absurd, hopefully, to the audience. If course I can’t know if that’s going to work but that’s what I was trying.
And that’s a tough balance. In talking about that tonal balance, one of the film’s strongest scenes comes towards the end where there’s a reveal of sorts regarding your character. You’re one thing and then you…
Yeah, it’s my favorite scene. I don’t remember if it was my favorite scene to film. Maybe it was because it was the last one.
It was the last one we filmed. Well, the sex scene was last but that was the last speaking scene we filmed. [Laughs] It’s so amazing because I do feel [the scene] worked in the way that you said. I don’t know if it was like the full intention of what I went into. Some stuff you can plan for and some stuff just happens. I feel like either Ang chose the right take or edited us really nicely. It was a general idea but it was so nice that it got specified in one moment that you could see. It wasn’t just him projecting onto her, she’s equally projecting onto him. It’s so nice because it’s so rare that as a woman you’re allowed to project and you’re allowed to have that moment where you actually expect a certain level of masculinity from a guy. And you’re always playing with the other side of it. Like what the guy sees the woman as. So it was amazing to get the chance to flip the script and say, ‘This whole time you’ve been seeing me this way, guess what, I’m guilty of the same stuff. You see me as a cheerleader, I see you as a soldier. I see this as fitting together because of who you are. It’s so nice because it’s honest. Women do that in ways…I mean everyone does that. You’re in a relationship with someone you obviously like certain things about them. It’s attractive that they do this or do that. Whether you’re someone who wants protection or doesn’t, either way you’re dealing with masculinity and how that is desired or not.
Given the brand new technology being explored in this film (120 frames per second, 4K presentation, etc.), how aware are you of that when you’re filming?
Ang kept us away from the dailies. He didn’t want anyone to be aware. Because he was very scared that if we knew how close we were being filmed we would be very scared.
So he protected you guys from that a little bit?
Yeah. He would tell us that, ‘You’re going to get caught acting.’ So he was very intense about the fact that… ‘I can see that you’re acting, that’s acting, come on.’ He equally tried to not let us be aware of what he thought would be hindering the performance and yet was like, ‘You better not act, because it’s going to be clear in the most incredible definition that’s ever been seen for everyone to see forever.’ I guess actually only two theaters in America so that’s fine. [Laughs]
Final question. What’s next?
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk opens nationwide on Friday, November 18.