To attend Camerimage as a journalist is to be spoiled rotten. As was the case with yesterday’s conversation with Robert Yeoman, I didn’t have the opportunity to interview Mike Leigh’s regular cinematographer, Dick Pope, because he had a film to screen, but because he’s serving on the jury for their Cinematographers’ Debut Competition. Although I haven’t seen any of the titles to which he’s been responding this week, it’s an opportunity to pick the brain of a master craftsman. How could I turn it down?
Pope conducted a video interview right before we sat down, which must set off all kinds of bells for someone who’s spent a career ensuring that a person’s face is photographed just right. My iPhone seemed to be an immediate point of relief, and so we were off.
Dick Pope: Is this just radio? [Laughs] Like an old-fashioned man: “Is it radio?!” It doesn’t matter where we sit. I’m more comfortable like this.
The Film Stage: When you do video interviews, do you take special interest in the camera, and —
I just changed the lighting.
Yeah. I didn’t like it at all; I didn’t like how he had me placed. There was a big shadow in the background, so I adjusted it — which was infuriating, really, because he had little time to do the interview. So that was a problem, really. [Laughs] I spent some minutes relighting it, and then he only had five minutes to do the interview. That wasn’t so great for him, but nevermind — I’d rather it be shorter and look better. [Laughs]
The festival program says you’ve previously been on the jury here.
Yeah, I have.
I’m curious if and how the process has changed over time — if you’re more used to watching a film with the jury deliberation in mind, and if you’ve developed a mode of thinking there.
I’ve been on the jury here at Camerimage a number of times, on different juries. I’ve been on the Main Competition jury several times, the Polish Film Competition jury several times, and different ones. I would say that being on a jury does make you think before you speak about the film that you’re seeing. It does make you engage brain before engaging mouth, because you may feel that your opinion of a film is definitive — because it’s coming from you. You feel that. You know how it is when you see a film: you come out, you’ve got an, “I didn’t like that,” or, “I liked that,” and then you sit down with other jury members, and they’ve seen the same film, but they disagree with you. And then you hear what they say, and of course they’re grown-up, highly intelligent people.
So you hear what they have to say and it might make you rethink what your first opinion was — reexamine what you’ve just seen. It often leads me to go see them again and go with what I thought and what they thought. There’s a meeting place of why I didn’t like it, or why I did, and they didn’t. It is an examination; you do analyze the films. It’s taken very, very seriously here. But then I’ve been on juries, many juries at many different film festivals, and it’s always taken really seriously. People are passionate on juries about what they feel, and, of course, it can end up in a bitter fight about who wins. It’s not always a consensus; sometimes it is a battle. “Oh, there we go.”
And for something as specific as your profession. I can’t imagine how that discussion of commonalities and differences runs. It seems like that would be very revealing.
Yes, it is revealing! It is, sometimes, better not to speak first! I remember being on a jury with a wonderful DP, Eduardo Serra — a highly, highly intelligent man. A really, highly intelligent man. Fearsome. Great cinematographer. They asked me what I thought about a film, and I said, “Oh, I quite liked that. I thought that was pretty good.” “Okay, and what did you think about it, Eduardo?” He was next to me, and it was now his turn. He said, “This film had no photographic ideas whatsoever.” And I looked around and he was deadly serious, and I was really shocked. Then he said why he felt that. It does make you reexamine.
I was going to say something else, then, about that process: it’s contentious, what we’re actually voting for. It always is with a jury, but especially in a cinematography festival, because it’s very difficult to separate cinematography from a good film. Now, there’s loads of films that are beautifully photographed, but they’re a bunch of rubbish; they’re crap. How about that? Since time began, since films began, they may be great films, but they might look like shit. And there are other films that are, like, fantastic and look terrible. Who’s to say about that? I can think of a handful, right off, and I won’t mention any at all.
Yeah. But it works both ways, and cinematographers are… the role is written as kind of best-serving the director and their vision of their film, rather than us trying to run off with a film in terms of beautiful cinematography — wonderful, gorgeous, pretty images which don’t serve the purpose at all. So it’s very difficult to sit there. Now, I’m in this festival jury doing debut cinematographers. And then there’s debut directors’ competition as well — so first-time directing, first-time cinematographers. But where do you draw the line? It’s very difficult to look at, say, a bad film with good cinematography. You need to be looking at both.
You know, it’s like, you want to be seeing a good film that’s well-photographed; that is always the dream. A great film which really appeals to everybody on the jury but is also really well-photographed. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, but perfectly photographed for the film they were employed to shoot. So that dichotomy of interests: it’s the same as the main jury here. With a main jury, of course it’s the cinematography competition. They’re giving it to the best cinematography in a film, but I’ve done it; I know what it’s like. You can’t separate it. You’re looking at a film. It has to be good both directorially with the actors, the acting, and served by great cinematography. It just doesn’t work if it’s well-photographed and it’s not a good film. So it can be very difficult.
I asked Robert Yeoman what particular aspect of cinematography he values the most; his answer was lighting. I’m curious if you have one.
Do you mean when I go and see a film that isn’t mine?
When I am in a darkened theater, say, and I’m viewing a film, what am I really looking at? Because it’s a bit different here, at a festival, where you’re in a rarified atmosphere of judging cinematography. When I’m sitting in a theater and I’m watching a movie, beyond anything else, I’m looking at a whole film and how that film works for me — how it affects me, how it moves me, or what excites me. It’s a gamut of emotions, but not really to do with the way it looks. I mean, that’s subliminally there, but I’m really looking at the movie in the whole, in the round. I can forgive the cinematography an enormous amount if I really love the film.
In a way, it’s better to watch it like that — be open-minded enough to try to forget what I do for a living, what my role is, and just look at it as a movie. If it packs a punch — whatever the punch is; emotionally or whatever — then it’s got to. It gets to me, and it doesn’t have to be the greatest photographic experience. It can be not-so-great, but if it’s apt — if it’s apt to the subject and the story and it serves the story; and it doesn’t detract from the story, but pushes and advances the story — it doesn’t have to be beautiful, but I can just relax and watch the movie and not worry about it. Just get what I came for from the movie, and then I love it. It’s when it doesn’t have any of those things that there’s a problem.
Is this your first time on the debut jury?
Yeah, it is.
There’s a certain association that people have with that sort of prize, a debut. I think it connotes many things that other prizes don’t.
I’m curious about certain ways of seeing the movies, then, with this in mind — knowing that these are debuts.
Yes, yes. I’m quite unforgiving about that, because there’s an awful lot of cinematographers whose debuts are magnificent, whose debuts are works of art. I’m not very forgiving in terms of that. I don’t see why. If they’re calling themselves a cinematographer and they’re going up and shooting a film, they’ve been asked by the director, hopefully, for the right reasons — because the director either saw something, they might have worked together, they might have come out of film school together. They might have been told this guy or woman is really great. Whatever. But I would hope that the cinematography up there on the screen is as good as somebody, really, who’s been doing it a few years. I don’t see why I should make allowances for second-rate cinematography that shows promise but doesn’t deliver. I don’t feel like that.
I think they should be accomplished and, as I said before, perfectly realizing the tale told — the story, the subject, whatever. I think it should work first time off. And it’s not as if they walk into a room blind without knowing what they’re doing and then they’re given a camera and they shoot it. These guys have got lots of prep and lots of time to talk about and discuss it — discuss the way it’s going to look and feel. So, in a way, there’s no reason to forgive and accept substandard work just because it’s a debut. I’m almost more critical about it, in a way. I’m more critical because you’ve got to show the potential. They’ve also got to be strong. That’s a big thing, now, as a cinematographer: you have to be very strong. It’s no good just saying, “Yes, sir. No, sir. Three bags full, sir. I’m ready, sir.” Or madam. “Yeah, I’ll do what you like. I just want to be really popular. I just want to be no problems, no issues,” and you’re willing to turn over and film before you’re ready. Like that.
A director says, “Why don’t we do it here?” And you say, “Of course. Wherever you want.” That’s not what it’s about. That’s not what a collaboration… it’s much better to be saying, “Yeah, we could do it over there, but what about if we explored doing it from over here?” It would work better, and then, hopefully, the director will listen, and, somewhere along the line, you’ll get a dialogue going and you’re able to find the right vantage point. Now, I say this because it’s very relevant to the way Mike Leigh and I work. He just doesn’t tell me, “We’re here, we’re there, we’re over there.” I question everything. And sometimes, I win; or it’s a compromise; sometimes, I lose. We find a way — a way that is best for the film, is best for the emotion, is best for what you want to get out of any scene. So when I see films and I see lazy camerawork, lazy photography that just is kind of “quick” — “quick,” “cheap,” and “I’m ready” — it doesn’t really do the job. That’s where I become very critical.
Is it in your nature to be questioning of a director?
Well, it’s best not to have this happen when you’re filming. It’s best to work it out beforehand. Now, with a Mike Leigh film, I often don’t see a scene, any given scene, before the day that we shoot it, and then I’ll see it first thing in the morning and we have to get on with it. So we have to have that dialogue there, on the set, and we have it without anybody else there — just us and the actors. Everybody else goes out the room or wherever we are — “walks away” — and Mike and I will work it out. But on a film with a script, which is like 99.9% of the other films, I will have been in that location with that director, and we would work it out there.
Now, some directors don’t want to make any decision at all until they see the actors play the scene out and rehearsed, but at least I’ll be there in advance, with that director, working out some fallback ideas of how we’re going to approach it before the date, so I can prepare the lighting and do some serious work on getting the set ready. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. Sometimes, the director says, “Well, I don’t think we should do that. We should turn around the other way.” Rarely that happens. But it’s a great thing, to look at the actors rehearse a scene before you decide exactly what you’re going to do. But at least I’ve had a dialogue with that director in advance, well in advance — perhaps returned several times to that location. If it’s in a studio, you can’t, but, as it approaches and the set gets built, we can walk in there and look at it and discuss how we’re going to approach it. Preparation is everything. Being well-prepared is 75% of it.
When you have an initial conversation with a director, what makes you decide someone’s worthy of collaboration?
It’s the script, really. I start with the script. I would say I get a big idea of how this film could look, and sometimes you meet the director and he’s got a really different understanding — so, somewhere along the line, you’ve got to talk about it. But the films you get like that off meetings where you’re asked to go to a meeting for a film. Usually, you can tell whether they’re going to be a good collaborator or not. It’s just a question of dialogue and talking and exploring and, perhaps, researching together — watching movies together. Some people look at paintings — I don’t really look at paintings — but I do certainly look at photography or other films.