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‘Three Billboards’ Cinematographer Ben Davis on Camera Placement, Single Takes, and Authentically Capturing America

Written by on November 16, 2017 

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Our rave review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri notes that cinematographer Ben Davis “captures the action and outbursts of violence with assured zip and clarity.” Though true, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Martin McDonagh’s third feature — his second with Davis behind the camera, following 2012’s Seven Psychopaths — is among the most beautiful released this year, photographed with a knowledge of its small-town environment (North Carolina rather than Missouri, but let’s not hold that against the film) that renders seemingly quotidian settings a scarred landscape of pain and anger.

Speaking one-on-one with Davis will make clear that Billboards‘ fine palette is no happy accident, instead being the result of intense consideration for environment, emotion, color, space, and, especially in the case of a show-stopping single take — one that hardly asks for us to stand and applaud, even as we’re wondering how it could be pulled off — movement. Though it may look something like an outlier on his recent filmography (it comes between three recent Marvel movies and Tim Burton’s upcoming Dumbo), one hopes Davis has numerous opportunities to photograph films of this size and shape.

Between this and Seven Psychopaths, you and Martin McDonagh have explored two pretty distinct parts of the United States: Hollywood and North Carolina, in the latter case dressed up as Missouri. I’d like to know about getting acquainted with Three Billboards’ shooting locations, which seem to have been photographed by somebody who knows them rather intimately.

Do you mean me, as a foreigner — an Englishman — shooting in North America? Or just me as a cinematographer.

The latter.

My first thought is that you have to separate the two films. Whereas I would describe Seven Psychopaths as deeply comic, in a way — a dark comedy — I would say that Three Billboards is more a tragedy than it is a comedy; it’s a tragedy with comic elements to it. So I’d say they’re quite different films. As far as locations go: as a cinematographer, I like to acquaint myself with the… I think you need to know your shooting locations quite intimately. Martin found the location, not me; it was a town called Silver in North Carolina. When I read the script, I had a very kind of Paris, Texas flat plain — drier, more arid landscape.

What comes to your mind when you read the script is, “What does the road look like with the three billboards?” You kind of know what small-town America is, but it was the landscape, so I was very surprised when he showed me, because it was a very lush, green environment. You’ve got the Smoky Mountains around; there are no flat plains. So that surprised me. I don’t like to spend time in an office pushing around bits of paper in endless meetings, which can happen in pre-production. I spend my time on the location, so, every day, I would go to the road; I’d go to the town of Silver, which was just around the corner. I’d spend the day there and getting to know the locations intimately — getting to know how they worked, how things are interlinked, what times of day look best. So that’s my process for doing that.

How many of the interiors are sets and how many are locations?

They’re all locations. The only thing I would describe as partly a set is that the police station, the building, exists where it exists opposite the office; it was actually a sort of haberdashery kind of shop, and we converted it into a police station. It’s more dressing — a kind of wall was put in for the little office — but, really, all the locations are locations, and it’s dressing as opposed to build. There are no sets.

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There’s a plurality to the lighting in those interiors. How much of it was working with the available configurations and how much was it introducing your own equipment? I think of the bar, which has a different character in each of its two appearances; then the police station is very flat, dry lighting; etc.

A lot of the lighting in locations kind of spoke for themselves. The bar in particular, we went into and it had those red tones you see; there was some of that, because there was a couple of red neons in one particular area. The rest of it was quite brightly lit, but there was one particular area of it which had this sort of look to it, which was coming from the neon signs on the wall. I kind of looked at that area and said, “I like the way this looks. I might try to push this look into the rest of the bar and give it a feel, and put some color in it.” We did something similar on Seven Psychopaths — there’s a bar scene in there with Christopher Walken. And I liked that. So that was responding to something that was there.

Most of my approach is to respond to what you’re given. On a location film, it’s very hard. It’s not a set, so it’s hard to dictate what’s over there. You’re far better-off embracing the elements of what’s there and then manipulating them into something that’s more “photographic”; that’s generally the approach. I mean, it’s the same approach with exterior work: I don’t try to impose a light direction in exterior work. I won’t come in with great big lights and try to light it; I’ll take the light from where it’s coming and then try to introduce negative space to try, you know, large blacks, and try to shape that light and create contrast in a different way, to embrace what’s there and try to bend it to your will in some way.

Having spent most of my life in small towns, I felt those exteriors showed authenticity. What time of year was this shot in?

A really good question. It was late summer, early fall, I’d say. That’s an interesting thing you say. See, someone said that to me the other day about small-town America, and I read a review that said something about Martin being an “English-Irishman,” if you like, and “how can he understand small-town America?” Because the interesting thing is: I’m a Brit, born in London, and two of the best films I’ve seen set in London are photographed by DPs who are not English.

Sometimes, coming at something from a very neutral background, from a foreign environment, and observing it where you’re able to remove yourself from it, observing it from an emotional distance because you’re not part of that world — sometimes you capture things, you see things, that are unobvious to people who are immersed in that environment every day. So it’s interesting, and I thought about that. I do think that two of the best films I’ve seen about London were shot by people who are not from London.

What are those films?

Eastern Promises would be one in particular, and Dirty Pretty Things. I thought, “Wow, they’re a really interesting take on London, which I haven’t really seen before. But now that they’ve shown it to me, I can see exactly what they’re trying to say.”

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Which brings me to the first question I wrote down while watching the movie: how much say did you have in the size, shape, color, and font of the billboards?

Yeah, that’s an interesting conversation. The size of the billboards were really, I would say, dictated by the location — the road we chose to put them on. I kind of wanted them… they’re also dictated, slightly, by budget, and logistics; we had to build these things. There are several things in the script that had to work: she has to be able to climb up them; she has to be able to put them out when they’re on fire. So, in my head, I thought they’d be bigger than they turned out to be. But if you then break it down and look at the script, they have to be on fire and she has to be able to put them out; she has to be able to climb to the top of one. There are dictates within the script which kind of land the billboards where they ended up being in terms of size, and a lot of it was also about that road and what you see from Mildred’s house. Mildred’s house did, the swing set and her house, actually overlook the road the billboards are on; that was very important to Martin, that that visual link was there.

We picked them out and looked at them, so we had stakes in them; we lined them up from Mildred’s house, from the road. We decided what angle they needed to be. It was a long process of coming to the size. I think I arrived and, initially, made them a bit bigger, because I thought they needed to be more of a statement. And the color and font thing was an odd one because, again, in my head they weren’t red with black writing. There was something very different; I don’t know what they were, but they turned out to be. I remember sitting on the bus with Martin and one day, because Martin and I have a very close relationship, and the art department had sent him a whole range of background colors, fonts. We were looking through it and I remember white ones with black fonts, green ones — there was a whole gambit. I remember, Martin pulled up the red one with white writing and said, “I quite like the red,” and I was like, “Wow.” I said, “Martin, I think that’s a real statement, the red,” and he goes, “Yeah, that’s why I like it.”

We went to red and he started playing with fonts and letter sizes, and he arrived at red with black — which took me by surprise, but it was interesting when we put it out there, because the environment is so green and you have this red. I mean, I love red and green, personally — it’s one of my favorite combinations of color — so I loved it; I thought it was inspired. But that was Martin. Clever guy.

His films tend to be well-photographed and, speaking in a broad sense, well-directed, so I have to wonder how much visual approach is detailed in the script, or if those are mostly textual documents.

No, Martin’s screenplays are very like his stage work: there’s not a lot of visual direction within them; they’re mostly the words laid out. But Martin has all that in his head; he doesn’t include it in the script. Making a film with a playwright director — or someone who comes from a theater background as opposed to a film background — is a very different process because, in theater, the script is sacrosanct. You don’t take Hamlet and change the dialogue because you don’t think your character would say something — which happens a lot in a film. On a film set, I’m quite used to, “I don’t think I should say this. Should we change this line?” You don’t do that with a playwright because the words are sacrosanct, so all the words of Martin are… Frances and Sam obviously had quite a lot to offer in there, but it’s a very different thing. HIs scripts don’t have stage direction particularly.

I generally find shot-reverse conversations incredibly boring. Here, there are worthwhile rhythms: I noticed that the camera focuses less on someone else if she’s not particularly interested in what someone has to say, e.g. Woody Harrelson probably getting the most screentime out of anybody else, and there’s less of Sam Rockwell. How much is dictated by his intuition with dialogue and performance, and how much comes down to visual character — lighting, the actor’s face?

I’ll often work with two camera, so I always think… particularly when dealing with Martin’s work, because we tend to shoot the rehearsal on take one, because sometimes it’s far more interesting to see the other person’s reaction than actually to see the line, and Martin very much plays with that. I remember when we did Seven Psychopaths, there’s one particular scene where they’re around a fire in the desert and Sam Rockwell does his pitch for the end of the movie to Christopher and Colin. He does this pitch, and Martin had seen Sam rehearse this pitch where he does this really bad Irish impression. He said, “Listen, when we shoot this, I don’t want to shoot Sam on the first, because I know what he’s going to do. I want to shoot Colin and Christopher and I just want a camera close on their reactions to Sam doing it.”

So we didn’t rehearse it; we just went straight into it and we had a camera on Christopher and Colin. He used it and it’s priceless, because you can see Christopher trying, desperately, not to break out into laughter, and Colin’s face when Sam does the really bad Irish accent is priceless. You use that, and one little, spontaneous moment can make or break a scene as an audience. You see, as an audience, this visual reaction which is the same as yours, in a way, and this is a thing that happens, emotionally, for an audience where they feel they’re there. I think Martin plays with that a lot, and we played with that a lot on this about the person who’s listening — particularly when it’s Sam. [Laughs]

It’s always worth having Sam on camera. Sam, he says the words that are on the page, but he’ll always do something with that you don’t… he’s really, properly a genius, Sam, and he’ll always do something that you’re not expecting. As a crew, we go into the day, and if it was a scene with Sam — the same applied to Frances as well — my crew, the focus puller and grips, would be excited. You could sell tickets: everyone wanted to watch the first take because you didn’t know what he was going to do.

Do takes get ruined because of laughter?

No, I don’t think we had that. It’s not broad, like slapstick laughter; it’s sort of an inner laugh. As well as Sam’s character being comic, he’s also very tragic, and there’s a sadness to it. But it’s just that thing of watching someone who’s so brilliant and so in-tune with the character they’re trying to portray. It’s watching a master at work — fantastic, a privilege.

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Talking about immediacy brings to mind the long take, where Rockwell goes from his police office to the billboard office across the street, breaks its glass door, goes up the stairs, beats up Caleb Landry Jones’ character, throws him out a window, strikes his assistant, goes down the stairs, finds Jones crawling on the street, then goes back into the police office. Were there invisible cuts?

There’s no invisible cuts in that scene, but I can explain to you how it works, if that helps. When I read it, I said to Martin, “This should be a one-shot scene.”

And there was no indication that it should play this way?

No, no. It just read like one shot. I also felt there’s something that happens when you do… I don’t ever like doing things in one shot just for the sake of it. I think there has to be a damn good reason, and the damn good reason for this is, I didn’t want let the audience off the hook. It’s like, “This is what’s really going on.” As soon as you put a cut in there, you’re allowing people to take a breath, a deep breath, and I don’t want them to take a deep breath: I want them to be shocked, and relentless to the point he goes back inside the police station. So the logistics of that took a bit of working out. We had a great stunt coordinator and Martin and I stuck to our guns: “It’s got to be one. It’s got to be one.”

So you follow Sam up to the first door, which he smashes — which is a real plate-glass window, which we had to replace every time — then you follow him up the stairs. He walks into the office. As he’s walking up the stairs, a truck pulls up outside the window — a big truck full of cardboard boxes for the stuntman to land in — so as he goes into the office and hits Caleb in the face, Caleb’s got a blood thing; there’s a blood thing at the bottom of the gun and, also, in his hands. None of that is visual effects; it’s all in-camera. He drops out of frame, and then Sam smashes the window in the office. So when he drops out of frame, Caleb rolls out of shot, stuntman comes in in his place — because he falls out of the frame, you have Sam smashing the window, and while he’s smashing the window, there’s a switch to a stuntman. So the stuntman, he picks him up and throws him out the window.

While that’s happening, Caleb is rushing down the stairs and being put into position on the road and they’re doing his makeup; there’s makeup artists down there applying more blood. He throws him out the window, stuntman lands in the truck. We pan away from the window and come around to where he hits the girl in the face. As that’s happening, the truck is driving away with the stuntman in the back of it around the corner. Then we come down the stairs and out and there’s Caleb lying on the ground. So it’s quite simple in its strategy, but that’s how we worked it out. It was okay; it wasn’t too big a deal.

I definitely mean it as a compliment when I mention invisible cuts, because I was wrapped up in it and not thinking about the possibility of trucks, stuntmen, etc. And there’s nothing in the film like it.

Yeah. It’s not a one-shot film to be show-offy; it’s a one-shot scene for that, for a necessity. And there’s no great big hoo-hah about it — it just is what it is.

How many takes did it require?

I think we got that on take four, I think it was. I think we did about five, and I think it was three or four. We got it early on, but we rehearsed it. It was easy, in the end. Difficult to work out, but easy to execute.

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A lot of interiors are static shot-reverse exchanges, while much of the exterior sequences have a more floaty visual character. Was this devised at a particular point in pre-production?

I don’t think that was a deliberate… I don’t ever remember discussing that as a strategy. I mean, every single shot and scene was planned beforehand, but I don’t remember that being a particular strategy. There’s also a lot of car work in the film; there are numerous scenes that take place in cars, including the finale. So there were lots of discussions about camera placement, for the car work. When you are in the back of the car and are looking — which is one of my favorite angles: from the rear of it, and not giving away too much — when do you need to be on their faces, which obviously requires a different approach? Technically, you’ve got to tow a vehicle. So there were lots of discussions about where the camera needed to be in the car, and that went throughout the film about camera placement for me. It wasn’t about lighting. A lot of it, for me, was about, “Where do you want the audience to be in this particular scene?”

I remember reading about something Gordon Willis did ages ago, and he said his camera placement would often be about, “If I wanted to observe this scene, where would I sit?” And that’s where I put the camera. A lot of it was about what we want the audience to see. How much of what she’s feeling do we want her to see? Is it here or is it here? So there was a discussion in every scene about where you want to put the audience. I felt the audience in the scene needed to be present, particularly with Mildred. A lot of that was about Mildred. She’s our central character, and I felt the audience needed to take the journey with her; the other characters are sort of satellites around her, in a way, but you need to anchor the film with her. She’s who you hook onto as an audience.

She doesn’t go… I read somewhere, once, that in a script your character needs to change in some way; they need to go through some sort of change. Mildred doesn’t, really. She starts off going to war and finishes the same; it’s Sam’s character who changes, but it’s still her character who’s our central character. She’s the one who you’re trying to read, who you go on the emotional journey with.

How many days did you shoot on this film?

It was 30-40 days, maybe 39.

How does that compare with bigger productions?

They’re very different. I just finished Tim Burton’s film; we did 96 shoot days. So there are massive differences. Having said that, there are differences in days, but also ambition. Generally, you have enough days to shoot what you need to shoot: the schedules and budgets are in place because that’s what you’re trying to achieve. I don’t think they’re any different, big films or small films: you’re always up against the schedule. There’s always the ticking clock that you have to work to. That doesn’t really change. People think, “It must be very different when you’re on these big films.” No, there’s still a schedule: this day, this much has to be shot; this week, you have to achieve this much. It’s just there.

Even a lot of The Avengers is actors in front of a camera.

Yeah. That doesn’t change. My favorite bit, to be honest, on those big effects movies is still the bit where you’ve got two or three really good performers performing a great bit of dialogue, a well-written scene; nothing beats that. I mean, I find shooting great big sequences, special-effects sequences, really dull. I’d rather be confronted with a well-written scene. I mean, that’s the privilege of being a DP, I think; that’s the thing that gives me the most joy, is watching actors do their work. Good actors perform great lines, and a good director then working this scene.

We saw that a lot on Dumbo, which I just finished doing. We had Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, and you’d see this scene on the page — “You know, it’s okay” — then they’d come in and do it, then Tim would push it this way or this way, and you’d see this scene evolve from something that, on the page, seemed okay into something incredible because you had two great actors and a great director just working. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and I get to sit there, quietly, behind my camera and observe. It couldn’t be better, really.

I imagine you’re especially tired at the end of such a shoot.

It’s like a marathon, yeah. But it’s interesting, because my daughter came along and worked on the film for a bit. She’s very young; just worked as a runner. She couldn’t get used to the exhaustion, and what I realized is that people who work in the film industry work in a level of exhaustion, permanently. You’re just exhausted, and you work really stupid. I leave my house at 5, get home at 10 most days. You work at this permanent level of exhaustion and just become accustomed to it, and people who come into it the first time find it really hard because it is really hard.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is now playing.

Read our Camerimage 2017 coverage.


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