Throw Dick Pope a question about cinematography and he’ll be able to answer. Even if the aspect in question isn’t an area of expertise–just as likely not a preference–something well-formed comes back to you. I learned as much when we talked about jury work in 2016, and at last fall’s EnergaCamerimage found us at it again–this time on the subject of Peterloo, both the latest in a nearly 30-year collaborations with Mike Leigh and a continuation of their experiments with digital filmmaking.

“Filmmaking” is probably Pope’s preferred, set-and-done term, though there were complications, catches, and innovations shaping this approach to an infamous massacre. Thus the inevitable set of discourses on his art’s current state, why we should be optimistic, and what, if you ask him, fetishists are getting terribly wrong.

The Film Stage: In a British Cinematographer interview, you proved very open to discussing the process. Do you find that putting the work into words is futile–that there’s something more elemental at play?

Dick Pope: I don’t mind being direct about it, because there’s quite a lot of bullshit attached when people talk about it; there’s quite a lot of hype. Somebody last night asked me about Vermeer and lighting for paintings–”that painterly look” in the films, right? I said, “Well, the thing is: if you’ve got somebody in a period costume–especially a woman–and you have a window, and that window through which you put soft, diffused light, it comes through the window and kisses the person standing there in a period costume, and people say to me, ‘God, it’s so Vermeer-like,’ my thing about that is, well, we can all do that. We can all be Vermeers; you just need the right quality of light and staging of the scene so that you’re using that light in that way.” But it’s not always beautiful. Sometimes it’s good to create ugly light. So it just depends what I’m doing. But I don’t mind talking about what I do, because my thing is: sometimes people ask me and they don’t really listen. It’s almost like they’re asking me for the sake of asking me, because then they go off and do their own thing–like I do, too. I might listen to somebody for hours, but I still do what I want when I’m working. I do have things I remember from what DPs said. I’ve read it in, like, the ASC magazine. I remember doing a film and reading this article about a system of lighting and I tried it–I read it straight out of American Cinematographer. I became very captivated about using it. Sometimes you read things, hear things, and think, “Oh, yeah, that’s good. I could use that.” But not all the time.

The movie feels hard to place on a continuum: there are the period dressings, but also a clean digital quality to the image. Throughout I kept asking about accuracy to the period vs. wanting to express something else. One of my favorite shots, for instance, is the prisoners being taken through the hallway.

Oh, yeah.

And lights above them every ten feet or so. Its visual impression is astonishing, and all the while I ask if it was accurate to the era. I don’t particularly care, but from your perspective…

No, it wasn’t. It was a cheat. Funny: you’ve honed in on something that I didn’t know what to do with. We had this long tracking shot down this corridor where I was handheld, and I was sitting on a dolly, I think–I sat on a dolly with a camera and they pulled me down this long corridor, because we had a terrible floor where you couldn’t lay anything on the floor. Pulled me down this corridor, and there were these fixtures that the people… we did it where we did the main massacre at the end, in this place outside London. where we did a load of stuff. There was a floor, and there were these dungeons used, basically, for munitions right from the 17th or 16th century. The people who ran this facility were really tricky about no smoke being used, so when we did all the family stuff in the poorhouse where they lived, they wouldn’t allow me to use any atmosphere in there. I tried and tried to get them to let me use atmosphere; I would try to get atmosphere with smoke from the candles to cheat them. So that corridor had lighting fixtures all the way down it; they would not let me remove them, they would not let me cover them. Oh, it was a whole thing. So, in the end, my guys went up there and took out the bulbs–that was a big thing for them, just taking out the bulbs. Then we found a small bulb that we could hide in the ceiling and dim it right down, as if it’s some sort of oil. It’s never specified, but we dimmed it so it had a glow to it–and that’s how we went. I was forced to do it just from the practical aspect of: it’s not a studio. We’re not on a stage. That was a real location, so I had to go with what was there, and I adapted it. It’s not authentic, really. But, in the end, who the hell cares? There comes a point where you’ve got to just get on with it. I struggled with that for days and weeks, trying to get them to take it down and do something else.

I was surprised that you had to use a number of lights at the climax, which I could have sworn was natural light, or close to.

It does look natural. Realistic rather than natural. I think that’s what I used in the interview, but he used “natural” rather than “realistic.” But, really, it’s not “natural” natural; it’s realistic. A “tilted realism” I could call it. The number of lamps I had playing on days that were quite dark were big, substantial units basically giving me a backlight, as if the sun were still there while we didn’t have any sun. It was dreadful weather we had.

I’m interested in this line between natural and natural-seeming light, how we can be fooled. Some things announce themselves more vividly as techniques–such as drones, which were a surprise. Talk to me about getting involved there.

We first talked about having drones for the film in the riot itself. There was quite a lot of dialogue that Mike and I had, but then we thought, “No, it’ll be a nightmare flying them above people’s heads–men, women, and children. Why are we doing that?” We rejected that because we thought it was a very modern touch, but the idea of the Moors was a very lyrical interlude in the film. We used them there, with the coach going away, which wasn’t so apparent, but more apparent where they were practicing marching on the Moors themselves. I don’t know… I’m mixed about it, really. I don’t know whether they worked or not, but it seemed like a fun thing to do. It was a good way to see the Moors and be moving. I look at the film sometimes now and think, “Oh, I’m not sure about that,” but we made that decision and went with it. [Laughs] You could say it’s a modern affectation, but then you also look at The Favourite, what Robbie Ryan did on that, and he was using super-wide-angle lenses on a period film, which feels like you can’t do, but of course you can do that — you can do anything you goddamn like. It was a completely fresh take on the convention, which is definitely not wide-angle lenses and waving it about in a sort of rock-n-roll, music-video-type style. I suppose that’s the joy of cinema: you can do what you like.

Peterloo does what period pieces should: it made me think about the interplay between departments, how much coordination was necessary. Because of Leigh’s well-known process of writing for the day, does it feel especially arduous?

When he’s rehearsing with actors for five months or so, I’m also doing quite a lot of prep in the background. I’ll go back with my team over and over locations where we know we’re going to film and don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. I will have a number of different ideas that I can call upon without causing big delays. I’ll have prepped, and by the time I get there I’ll have lighting “plots,” say–a sort of game plan. Because we’ve worked together so many times, I have a really good idea of what we’ll be doing. I’m also able to prepare with the art department, and if he says to me, “Well, what do you think about having something there?” I’ll have something there. It might be hidden away from him so he’s not distracted by it, but I’ll have those units there, ready to pull out of the hat. So that’s not quite what you asked. Do you mean while he’s doing his rehearsal period?

I was thinking of the day for shooting.

Oh, sorry. When he shows us the scene?

Yeah. Of course you don’t just do period pieces, and I have to wonder if the transition from a period piece to something contemporary brings some relief–loosening the belt, so to speak.

You can’t point that camera anywhere on a period film; you can’t wave it around unless you’re in a completely controlled environment. The outside is a nightmare. That’s why that fort worked so well on Peterloo: they were able to take that space, augment it, and make the buildings higher in VFX and crowd augmentation. It was our place that we took over for three months. There was nothing of modernity in there–it was all period from the 18th, 17th century. Yeah, it is liberating. I went straight from Peterloo to a contemporary film in Africa. It was amazing. I spent eight months, probably, on Peterloo, and suddenly I was in Africa and you can point the camera anywhere. It was fantastic, fantastically liberating to have the freedom of doing that. You can’t do that in a period film. It was all good because it was contemporary. And then I went to New York immediately after that and did a film there. So it was three in a row: one set in 1819, one contemporary in Africa, and then in New York last winter for a film I did with Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn. Again, I couldn’t photograph anything apart from what had been dressed, because it was a ’50s / ’60s kind of noir film where streets had to be dressed and dealt with. Again, I was restricted with where I looked. So yeah, I look forward to doing another contemporary film where obviously there isn’t the restriction. The Edward Norton film is sort of a noir-ish thriller, so it’s fantastic fun but very constricted.

And the DI on Peterloo was handled remotely.

That’s the first time for me. I did the film which I wanted to do–I’d been talking to Edward Norton for years–and it was really good, because I wasn’t bogged-down in the DI suite for week after week. I was going there for my day off on Saturday or Sunday and looking at it with fresh eyes. It was really very good: I did a Voice Memo tape, made notes, and then we’d have quite a few discussions on the phone back to the UK on a Sunday, and we talked through it. So slowly the film evolved, and I was there, in the background, every week. I enjoyed it.

Do you think one informs the other that way–looking at one on days off, then back to the other? Motherless Brooklyn sounds very different.

It is very different, very different indeed.

But maybe one bleeds into another.

It might, but that’s because I’m the connecting factor–so it likely does in terms of shooting style and lighting, because I have a way that I do things and a way of lighting that’s not signature by any means, but it’s the way I go about things. That crossover is on everything I do. It’s there on the African film because, there, we had lots of night interiors–candle-lit, because they didn’t have electricity. I used the same techniques that I used on Peterloo and Motherless Brooklyn.

Can you think of ways candle-lit and naturally framed sequences changed with the switch to digital?

Yeah, sure. It’s a tricky one, this, because… film is great, right? Film is really good. There’s two things to my answer. One is: I don’t think that either Peterloo or Mr. Turner looks digital. Now, that’s my own opinion because I spent absolutely ages and ages to take that digital curse off the films. I put grain on them, I used old lenses. When I first showed Turner–and I feel the same way about Peterloo–a lot of people said to me before they saw the film, “Oh, my God, you’re doing a thing from the 19th century and you’re doing it on digital as opposed to film?” To me, it’s a lot of bullshit, actually, because they didn’t have either in those times. So what you record it on is another matter. When I saw The Favourite the other night, I thought it looked absolutely fantastic, absolutely brilliant, and that was on film–it was on Panavision. It kind of inspired me. Perhaps I’ll do another one on film. I haven’t been asked, really, in the last few years to do another one on film. Most companies don’t want you to. Robbie did a film with Ken Loach, and they suddenly wouldn’t allow them to shoot on 35mm–and this was two days before they shot. Ken Loach didn’t like the idea of three-perf pulldown, so, in the end, they did Super 16 as opposed to digital. It’s partly the way Ken Loach edits; he edits on a Steenbeck, so it had to be film. I don’t quite get it, what the attraction of that is.

I saw The Favourite at NYFF, where projection specifications are pretty adhered-to, and I was surprised it was shot on film, because it looked so bright. Peterloo is a case where I wouldn’t be 100% sure.

I’m rather obsessed by it, you see–by it not looking digital. I hate that clean, textureless quality, which is another thing I have about digital cameras: people are always saying, “Oh, you should try this, it’s so fast and you can shoot in the middle of the night.” I find that another problem these days, of people shooting darker and darker and darker. There’s a lot of it around and not being able to see anything. A few years ago, DPs wanted to go darker and the directors and producers wanted it to be brighter so they saw more; now it’s the other way around and directors really want it to be dark, and DPs are going, “We should have some definition and bring it up a bit.” It’s changed from what it used to be, but I do see a lot of very flat, muddy images, which I don’t like at all. Dark like they’re trying to hide something.

People who aren’t film-obsessive just tend not to notice. They might think of it as odd-looking, but not in terms of formats. 

No, they don’t. That’s right. Say The Favourite, for example: you kick off with this real desire to shoot on film for the texture, the look of film, but then once you take that negative and scan it, digitally, into the digital domain, you’ve already taken it away from that world. So you talk about The Favourite not looking like film as much–that’s a symptom of the process. Then, once you’re in a digital world, you can do all sorts of things with it that you couldn’t do before on film because, before the advent of scanning onto digital, you couldn’t do that. So, in a way, if you want to be really purist, you wouldn’t do that; you would just shoot it straight and not go through a digital analogue.

A lot of movies shot on film are projected digitally. It’s not often new ones are also shown that way.

I went to NYFF a few years ago and saw a film there which the director came on the stage and announced, like it’s fantastic, “We shot on film and we’re going to project on film.” And everybody in the audience clapped. But when it came on it was, like, fucking awful. It was so scratchy, jumpy in the gate. It didn’t really work. I hated film projection. Hated it. I don’t know many DPs who liked film projection. All that stuff about “authenticity” and “the shutter” can all crap off for me. The truth of that matter is [Laughs] you never knew how it was going to be. Even if you’d done the test it might be scratched now. Such a lottery. A lottery. And you go into where cinemas were showing a film: one cinema looked bright, the other scratched, this, that. Horrible. Horrible, all of it. Something that’s really, really good is the consistency of the prints on digital; that side is done. I did a test last night in the Opera Nova here for Peterloo. I walked in, they put on the first five minutes, brilliant. Didn’t touch anything–just brought the sound up a bit–and that was it. I’ve been here at this festival with prints, head holding in your hands. And in cinemas as well, they’d show it in the wrong formats.

New York’s lighting, for me, is so anemic, but the light in Bydgoszcz is intoxicating. Do you have an inclination to shoot in a place like this?

Yeah, it’s very evocative; there’s no doubt about that. You wake up in the morning and have this misty autumn, with the leaves falling off the trees, and this Eastern European feel of misty mystery. It’s very lovely, the river and all that. The sun’s coming up over the river. It really is great. But I’ll go to New York and I’m turned-on as much there because it’s not like London. When London comes up, “Ugh, here we go again–a London location.” But I feel very excited when I’m in New York because it’s so different.

I’ve never been to London, but I’m sure that if I went there I’d find it exotic.

Oh, yeah, you would. So I feel the same way about everywhere that isn’t London: it’s like a great opportunity, in a way. You go back and it’s so drab, but for people who come back in, they love it. It’s in the eye of the beholder.

Peterloo opens on Friday, April 5.

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