Training Day, Iron Man, The Master, Munich, Ford v Ferrari, The Bling Ring, Nightcrawler, Ray, Birds of Prey, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Syriana, The Conjuring 2––meet Michael Bauman, the man who’s lit it all. That’s not even a quarter of the credits to his name, almost all of which, since 1994, list him as gaffer or chief lighting technician. Different productions have different titles, but it’s essentially the same job: he’s in charge of light. Where it goes in or out of frame, how it’s sourced, how it plays on screen, the strength, the tone, the hue, the shadow, all of it. In a medium created to capture light, that’s a vital role. He characterizes frames through details that guide our viewing experience, creating thematic throughlines with color, or heightening specific moments with dynamic shading, or falsifying daylight, or something else we take for granted.

It’s even more vital when you’re working with someone like Paul Thomas Anderson––the writer-director cinema-savant behind, most recently, Licorice Pizza––who defies auteur tyranny on set in pursuit of inspired collaboration with his lead creatives, like Bauman, who also lit The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread. Over the past ten years, they’ve become two of each other’s closest collaborators. So close, in fact, that PTA asked Bauman to co-direct photography with him on Licorice Pizza. Bauman didn’t have a single feature DP credit to his name, but that didn’t matter (just like it didn’t matter to PTA that Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, the leads of the film, had never acted). They basically did the same thing on Phantom Thread and we all saw how gorgeous that was. But I’ll let him tell you about it. 

We got on the phone with Bauman––perhaps the only man who’s worked a chief creative position on a Marvel, DC, Hunger Games, Transformers, and PTA movie?––to talk about his history with PTA, what it’s like working on so many different kinds of projects, his evolution into cinematography via Licorice Pizza, and the visual language of the film.

The Film Stage: I want to start with you. Licorice Pizza marks your first time as a DP. On top of that, you’re co-credited with PTA, which I want to get to in a minute, but first: how did you meet PTA? How did you start working together?

Michael Bauman: It goes back to The Master probably ten years ago. I knew some of the producers on that and they were like, “Hey we need somebody to do a camera test.” So I came in, did this camera test, I didn’t even know what was going on. And it was one of the first camera tests we did for The Master. I met Mihai [Malaimare Jr.] and everything. Did one camera, which was really simple stuff, because with PTA you test like crazy. Three weeks later they call me and say, “Can you do another test?” “Yeah, sure,” so I did another test, and then I didn’t know anything that was going on with the film, and I said, “Hey, I have all these notes from the camera test, I should really give ‘em to somebody.” I didn’t hear anything. Okay, fine. Then, “Hey can you do another test?” Fine. Do another test, which turned into a test for 10 hours. Then all of a sudden he’s like, “I gotta do a music video for my old lady,” and I’m like, “What’re you talkin’ about?” And one of my electricians is like, “His old lady is Fiona Apple. We’re gonna do a music video.” So, we ended up doing the video for “Hot Knife,” which is this black and white thing. We had no gear. We were just trying to figure it out. And after going through that gauntlet he was like, “Okay, yeah…you guys wanna do the movie?” So then we ended up doing The Master.

How did your role differ on Licorice Pizza compared to the other PTA films you’ve worked on? 

With The Master, I was working very closely with Mihai, who was a fantastic DP. And, you know, it was a tricky situation, because Paul had worked exclusively with Robert Elswit up to that point. So, I didn’t know Paul, Mihai didn’t know Paul, we both kind of walked into the situation. And I think a lot of good things came out of it because of the content of that film and all of us not having that level of familiarity. But as the gaffer, especially with a director like Paul, you’re kind of the connective tissue between the visual vision he has and what the cinematographer has. And you’re trying to execute all that. In that particular picture, there were a lot of really strong technical requirements because we were shooting 65mm, we were shooting very slow speed stock, we were shooting Kodak’s 50 ASA film for a lot of the movie, we were shooting on old lenses, so you need a lot of light to bring to those lenses. So, we were using a lot of light on that picture.

Then, we do Inherent Vice. That was a completely different dynamic than what we had on The Master. Robert Elswit is back, which is great. I did Good Night, and Good Luck with him and Nightcrawler, so he and I had a really great relationship. But he and Paul have their own relationship. But in the lighting department, again, you’re trying to be that connective tissue. I think Paul and I had developed a relationship where, you know, he would just directly talk to me about what his thoughts were on the lighting and all this kind of shit. And so post-Inherent Vice he was like, “I’ve got a couple of little things I want to do,” and it was this Radiohead music video for a song called “Daydreaming.” And he was like, “What do you think if we just…kinda…did this? You know, you and me doing it?”

So we started doing these Radiohead music videos together, and those music videos were without somebody considered “the cinematographer.” Then we did several HAIM music videos. And what ended up happening was, he was like, “This is kind of working. What if we did this on a movie?” And I was like, “I mean we could try, sure.” So Phantom Thread being set in Britain allowed us kind of a different approach. One of the big inspirational points for that was the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon. On that, John Alcott was listed as the lighting cameraman, and so Paul was like, “Look, this is great inspiration.” And I said, “Look, let’s do it like that. That’d be really cool. I’ll be the lighting cameraman and Colin Anderson can be operator, and we’ll do it like that.” It’s kind of an homage to how they did it back then. Well, when we came to the States and did Licorice Pizza, there were union requirements. You have to have somebody as a cinematographer. So really, we were working almost the same way we worked on Phantom Thread, but we just had to formalize it a bit more to meet the union requirements. 

What did your collaboration look like on set, with the two of you sharing the DP role? Do you make a lot of decisions together?

It wasn’t like I was doing X amount new job. We definitely lean into each other a lot more, because we do a lot more scouting together. There’s a lot more technical stuff I’ve gotta be on top of. So there was, I would say, some slightly enhanced responsibilities, but creatively it was the same way we worked on Phantom Thread

I did Munich with Steven Spielberg, I was the gaffer on that. And, you know, Steven tends to call out all of his lenses. Like, “You know what? I want to be on a 50mm here.” Paul is very much the same way. And it’s not like my way or the highway. I mean, Colin and myself have a lot of influence on that decision, choosing lenses or camera positions. But he starts with putting a stake in the ground and saying, “Hey look, I’m thinking this,” and then we build off of that idea. In Phantom Thread or in this movie, he’d be like, “What do you think?” Well, we’d do a lot of scouting and I’d be like, “I think we should light through the windows.” Okay, cool. And that will be the extent of the technical conversation. And then the rest would end up in my lap, as far as fill levels and contrast ratios.

I mean, he would have opinions. The thing about working with Paul is that his fingerprint is on every aspect of the movie. If you go back to Phantom Thread, he’s talking about wardrobe, set decoration, the way particular items are laid out on the table. It’s that level of it. He’s involved head to toe in the whole thing. I mean, he timed this movie. Ultimately, the final timing and how the picture looks is all in his wheelhouse. And I think it’s great. It’s really great to see someone who has a very concise vision that strings through the entire picture.

How long exactly was the screen testing period?

With Paul, we did a series of tests over the course of, like, a year. He was like, “I wanna do this test. At a diner.” But it was really him testing to make sure Alana and Cooper would work out. We’d roll into a test. They’d be doing dialogue scenes. And it was him also working the dialogue out, what’s the dynamic like, all this kind of stuff—putting some meat to the bones. And one of the guys on our crew, Tommy, who’d done a bunch of Paul movies was like, “There’s no way. These guys suck. There’s no way this is going to work. I don’t see it.” Okay, cool, you don’t see it, great, fine. We shot versions of that walk and talk scene where he’s like, “What’s your phone number?” Paul had that scene written. He had a couple of scenes written that are pretty close to what’s in the movie, and we were just working them out. Four months later, he’s like, “Hey, I’m doing another test with them.” And we tested at a location that he was considering for Tail o’ the Cock, which didn’t end up being the place. And Tommy is there again, and he’s like, “They got a lot better.” And the thing is, when you make a movie with Paul, he really wants to know everybody who’s around the camera. I don’t care if you’re the third electric, he wants to know who you are. You’re some day-playing grip, he needs to know who you are. I think for part of his comfort, and the comfort of the actors to be very vulnerable in that space, he needs to know who is around camera.

And so, he knows pretty much everybody by name. He knows Tommy, we’ve done tons of movies. And Tommy’s like, “They’re getting a lot better!” And I was using Tommy as my barometer for whether it would happen or not. And then we did a couple of tests right before we started shooting, and Tommy was like, “Damn, man. They got it down.” And I’m like, “Well, there you go!” So yeah, you do a lot of testing. And we test not only for the actors to see how they’re doing, but also we’re testing different film stock, different technologies. That’s a lot of what the HAIM videos were, too. We’re doing a video for them, yeah cool. But we’d also be testing a certain technology on that that we could maybe use for the movie. You know, on Phantom Thread, we did our first HAIM video before we did that, and we just rolled around the studio floor because he wanted to see how a stabilization system would work, which we ended up using in the movie. So, it’s that kind of thing.

You’ve worked on so many different kinds of projects. You mentioned Spielberg, but you’ve also worked with Sofia Coppola, Antoine Fuqua, Paul Schrader, James Mangold. You’ve done two Iron Mans, a Transformers movie. You just did Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, which the lighting is astounding in by the way—

I haven’t seen it yet! Have you seen it?

Oh yeah, it’s terrific.

Ah man, I can’t wait to see it! [DP] Bruno [Delbonnel] is like, “You gotta see it! You gotta see it!” But I’m, like, never around. Anyways, that’s good. Glad to hear that. Can’t wait to see it.

So, what’s different about working with PTA? Especially in comparison to working on, say, a Marvel or Transformers movie?

There’s so many ways to go with that. With Paul, for starters, he has a vision, but he’s very collaborative. Like once he finds a team that he trusts, he really uses that team as a sounding board, and I’m very fortunate to be invited into that circle. You know, when you talk about Michael Bay, for example––like Transformers, and I did The Island with him––I mean, Mike’s got a vision, too. I find, as a gaffer, my job is to see: what does the cinematographer have in their head, what does the director have in their head, and how do I communicate those visions and execute that? And with Paul, it’s very much about, like, he has a very clear vision but then he also really likes to see the magic that happens on set. With Alana and Cooper, there would be things happening and he would want to capture those moments. You have to have a bit of fluidity, you know? You can’t be locked into like, “This is the game plan, this is what we’re doing,” because that could go out the window. 

You know, with Paul, you shoot a lot in the script that doesn’t end up in the movie. It was the same on Phantom Thread as it was on this thing. Ultimately, you might have other story lines you liked that are really interesting but that don’t end up in the final product. He really looks at tailoring the whole thing together. And I think what’s been helpful for me in this journey has been the fact that being a gaffer and being able to work with so many fantastic cinematographers––I feel very blessed to have worked with Janusz [Kamiński], and Robert Elswit, and Bruno [Delbonnel], and Pawel Edelman—it’s just different approaches to the whole thing, but taking little bits of all that and bringing it to the party on this particular movie.

What was your approach in crafting the visual aesthetic of Licorice Pizza? In terms of movement, composition, grain, color palette, etc., and influences from other films.

With Paul what’s great is he’s got this whole screening room set up at his house. So he can screen 35mm or 70mm at his home. And he knows all the studios and who controls their film libraries. So he’s like, “Hey, I wanna look at a couple movies as reference.” Okay, cool. So, you roll over to his house, and, I got a picture of it, there’s like 15 different prints lined up sitting in his garage, and you’re like, “What’s all this?” And he’s like, “Well, I want us to look at American Graffiti and Manhattan, but I got a print of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for the kids, Jaws, this other thing…” I’m like, “Where’d you go to get these, the library?” And he’s like, “No no, I just know so-and-so over at Paramount.” Nobody watches these prints, so they’re like, “Oh yeah, send a courier over! We’ll pick it out!” And I’m like, “Do people do this on a regular basis?” “Nah, not really anybody. I mean, Quentin [Tarantino] does it, Chris [Nolan] does it.” I’m like, “This shit’s just sitting in the vault?” He’s like, “Yeah! Nobody’s watching it, so they’re like, ‘Yeah, take it! please!’” 

So when we did this movie, he was like, “We gotta watch American Graffiti.” So we watched the damn thing like three times. And that was really the strongest visual reference. Then, we looked at Manhattan—you know, the Woody Allen movie—because there’s a lot of interesting walk and talk in that particular production. I mean, it’s like everybody steals from everybody else or gets inspired by everybody else, whatever you wanna call it. There are literally shots in Manhattan and the visual language of that film where it’s like, “Okay, let’s use that here.” So in the walk and talk at the beginning of the movie, where he’s asking for her number and he messes it up a few times and they’re just walking, there’s a shot in Manhattan when––well, you know, Manhattan is considered an amazing work of black and white cinematography, and it is! And everybody looks at the classic shot of the Queensboro Bridge and all this kinda stuff. But what we were looking at is these walk and talks and how Gordon Willis handled them. He would just put a light over camera, and he had all sorts of stuff going on in the background, and he just went with that. So we duplicated that. Normally on a movie now, you’d light up all the backgrounds and do all this crazy shit. We didn’t do any of that. We were like, “Let’s just let it go black.” Like American Graffiti. Because American Graffiti, you look at that movie, and they had no money. Haskell Wexler was like, “Dude, I got no money. So we’re just gonna light their faces and whatever happens in the background, hey bonus!” And that’s what happened. So, we embraced that. 

When you’re talking about the aesthetic of it, for starters we’re already shooting film. Paul sits down with Dan Sasaki over at Panavision, who’s their lens guru. I mean, in a world of digital, lens choices and lensing have become more and more important. And Dan is this total propellerhead who goes in and is like, “Hey, I’ve got this glass from this Gordon Willis set of lenses back in like 1970. Let’s put that in something.” 

So you shot with 1970s glass?

Yeah, we used old ass glass, all this crazy stuff. I mean, there’s a Gordon Willis set of lenses we used on Phantom Thread, we used on Inherent Vice, it’s just around. Paul owns his own lenses. And depending on the movie, what format we shoot, spherical or anamorphic, Dan at Panavision will anamorphize it or put it back to spherical. So Dan comes to the party with a bunch of lenses. He’s like, “Okay, look I’ve got this kind of thing I made up.” And you look at this thing, and it’s a total Frankenstein lens. But we put it up, we test with it. “What’d you think?” “Ah, it’s pretty cool!” “Okay, cool, well let’s shoot with that thing.” So, we end up with three 50mm lenses, each doing three different characteristics, depending on what visuals he wants. We shot primarily with C series, which is an old school anamorphic. That’s why you get the nice blue flares, like when they’re walking out onto the golf course.

Did you intentionally try to recreate the anamorphic blue streaks from Punch-Drunk Love? Or is that coincidence?

It wasn’t so much about Punch-Drunk Love. It was more about, like, “What sets the tone for the 70s?” And this anamorphic aesthetic was absolutely in that wheelhouse. So, he wanted these anamorphic lenses, he wanted some of these other elements. You know, he worked heavily with Dan on creating that lens, and Erik Brown the first AC, because Erik is a total lens geek also. I mean, look let me tell you. We did the initial test for The Master and in rolled three carts, each of them filled with like 50 lenses. And I’m like, “There are one-hundred-something lenses in front of me… are we gonna test all this stuff?” He’s like, “Oh yeah!” and I’m like, “What the hell did I get myself into?” But, I mean, that’s what he’s looking for when you’re talking about visuals. And in a world where everything is about 4K, super clean, get as much information and resolution on the screen as you can, he’s like, “We need to degrade the image a bit. Let’s make it so it has some texture to it. Let’s make it so it has some more connection to the audience.” So, that’s kind of where a lot of that came from on the lensing.

How did the big spotlight outside the shop come into play? Was that written in or did you just find it?

[Big laugh] Aha! So Valley Skylights, which used to be this big company in the 70s and 80s, they used to have like 30 of those things, and these are the marquee lights that everybody used for everything. You know, movie premieres, big events, all this kind of stuff. And Paul was like, “We gotta have Valley Skylights involved.” Okay, cool. Well, Valley Skylights is, like, gone. There are two units left. We get ahold of the guy, and he’s like 90. And he hooked it up, was like, “Sure, yeah we’ll come out and do it.” And then he said they were gonna trash the thing and I was like, “Trash it? No way!” So, I ended up buying the damn thing! And we had it at the premiere. 

Because one of the things about Paul, too, is he’s like, “We’ve gotta use carbon arcs.” Carbon arcs are a type of lighting technology from the 1920s that existed before HMIs, which are really the way people create daylight now. So, the carbon arcs were like a whole thing to this movie. And I’m like, “Dude, you’re killing me with these fuckin’ arcs.” You have to use carbon rods and all this crap. So, for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there was a technician who wanted carbon arcs on that movie six months earlier, and we were able to tap into that network. Because this guy had this old technology, which he’d completely restored. It’s kind of like steampunk-style lighting. I heard about these things and we found this guy who had five of them, and we used them throughout the film. It basically is taking pieces of carbon––one is a negative charge and one is a positive charge––and you create this light source. And it’s how they used to light movies back in the day.

We had one day when we were shooting—it’s the scene in the movie where they get in the big fight after they saw Joel Wachs, Gary’s ordering all the pinball machines, and Alana’s like, “I’m a politician! You’re some loser kid!” And all of those lights we had coming in through the windows were arcs. And it was 116 degrees that day in the Valley. And so all the LED we had, all the modern technology, was shutting off. But the arcs kept working. That’s the only way we made the day. The old school technology saved the day, I’ll put it that way.

So to go back to the spotlight. The spotlight uses that same technology, because it’s from 1942. So, we tried that thing out, got it going, and it worked great. But that was something he specifically had in his head from back in the day that he wanted to see in the movie.

Licorice Pizza is now in wide release.

No more articles