If the memes and debates—not always so separate on a venn diagram—filling your timeline prove any metric, TÁR is the movie of this moment. It would be one thing for Todd Field’s thorny script and Cate Blanchett’s full-throated rendition of such to leave their mark, but you’re not thinking about TÁR without remembering those overcast Berlin days or bloodless academy offices—as a rare example of serious craftsmanship and harnessed mood in popular contemporary cinema we should give much credit to cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister.
I spoke with him at the EnergaCAMERIMAGE festival in Toruń, Poland, where he was less than a week from earning their top-prize Golden Frog. It seemed an opportune moment to inquire about the odd angles and unknown places Field decided to go his first time behind camera in 16 years; for this Hoffmeister offered valued, practical perspective on the how and why of a movie we’ve only started unpacking.
The Film Stage: Did I hear you’re going to watch the movie with the audience?
Florian Hoffmeister: I think so. Yeah.
How many times have you seen it?
With an audience? It would be the second time. First time was in Venice. But I’ve seen it a few times during post-production.
Which was probably not in a theater.
No, I was very lucky: we graded it at Company 3 in London, and of course the grading suites have real screens. The London one is spectacular. It’s bigger than the one where I’m going to see it today. So I’ve seen it in a “filmic” presentation but not with an audience.
I’m a huge advocate of proper home-video treatment, so it was great seeing TÁR will get a 4K UHD release. As a cinematographer, are you much for the home-viewing set-up?
I’ve seen some of the stuff that influences me or was dear to me on my iPad. I mean, I watch Tarkovsky on an iPad. So I do think it’s all about [Laughs] distance to the device to have an immersive experience. But the communal aspect I think is something that [is unique]. Even yesterday, we sat in this little room and did a check. You sit in a little room and think “God, you’re in a movie theater.” It’s like going to church, in a way. It just does something to you when you’re in the room. I think especially Todd: he’s a proper auteur of cinema, in a sense, in the way he makes films. I think the feeling of sitting there together, with other people—I think that’s the key.
Do you have much of a home-video set-up?
I don’t. I have an iPad. [Laughs] I have, actually, a 4K Sony HDR monitor that I use for grading, and sometimes I play stuff on it. No, I don’t really… I should maybe start having one. I’ve been in places where people have it. I don’t have one.
This is Todd Field’s first movie in 16 years, nobody knows what to expect, and in almost any possible respect it’s a surprise. So how did you two get involved? Did you know each other? Were you set up through mutual parties?
He called me. [Laughs] And I’ve never questioned that. When engaging with him, we came right out of the gate. I got an email in April—I was still in production on Pachinko—and I knew of him, of course; I really thought that when In the Bedroom came out, that was a really important film for me at that time. Not just as an audience member but also because it had such a strength in terms of arthouse cinema. I think it was a beacon of light, back then, for me. So suddenly being in touch with him, I considered it a great privilege. And then we only had four weeks. No, I think seven weeks later we met in Berlin and started pre-production. So we jumped in the car and I never really asked the question. [Laughs] I think when he called, I was there. And I was very happy he had called.
I found an interview where you called Field “a master at car work,” citing rear-projection effects from In the Bedroom.
Yes! Of course. I remember the American Cinematographer article back then about In the Bedroom, because of how he pushed rear-projection. He’s just a master filmmaker so it always feels slightly weird talking about such a little element of production. But I remember the AC article about In the Bedroom and the talk about the rear-projection stuff. Here we had car work and I was of course excited to be pushing this along with him.
It gets at one of the things about working closely with a director: you know more about their process—technically and intellectually—than anyone else. And Field, to the outsider, can be mysterious—he doesn’t do many interviews, he hasn’t been seen in a bit—while TÁR presents itself in pretty strong ways. What about his approaches might surprise people? Not per se invisible to the naked eye, but don’t announce themselves like other components.
It’s always hard to talk about someone when he’s not in the room. Or actually it’s easy. I think what I, personally—working with him—admire is a sense of bravery. When you do a film, obviously you have to take many decisions, and the more you decide the more you narrow your choices, and he is a man who is absolutely interested in narrowing them down. That’s a sense of bravery. Talking about cars: there’s a sequence in the film where Nina Hoss and Tár have a quarrel. Tár drives, we see them almost have an accident, and she jumps out the car. That is shot in one shot. So the entire scenario of that was: we shot it at this major intersection in Berlin. It’s really hard to control; we can only control it on Sunday morning for two hours. So normally, if you approach it—as I say— with the weight of the responsibility of achieving the sequence in the given time with the schedule… which is a big thing with filmmaking. We have these two hours, and that’s when we’re going to do it.
So how do you approach it? One approach would be, “We need to have two cars or three cars of the same build. We have cameras everywhere and we try to get the most out of the sequence.” With Todd, it’s the complete opposite. We kind of talk long, we test it very thoroughly. What is the one crucial shot we need to tell the story? That’s where the camera ended up: we put it right in that backseat. And then, now, you only have two hours. So how do you orchestrate this feeling of danger and stunt in one single shot?
So he takes Cate, they go out for a weekend, and we mount the camera in the car; they do stunt training—because she has to drive herself—and then we just pulled it off in those two hours. We just had two hours. We drove around the circle for two hours, she got one take right, and that was it. But the bravery in that—to actually concentrate and focus meticulously on this one task for that one moment—I think that’s what I could consider directorial bravery, and it’s actually a privilege to be working with somebody that kind of sets that as the bar to which, then, everybody has to live up.
What’s getting discussed most is the classroom sequence at Juilliard. I found an interview where you said “it was planned in a full rehearsal day” with Blanchett where you showed up, Field looked at the room, and from there it was decided this sequence should play as one shot.
My actual question being: how much, in the rehearsal of a full day, did that sequence change from a first run-through to what we see? Differences in camera placement, blocking?
There is of course a lot to be said about that sequence. The idea, I think, behind it is when he said “let’s do it in one shot.” It’s not necessarily to have somebody dance and show “muscular filmmaking” where it’s all in one shot. There were about 35 points in the room where the camera wanted to be during this entire sequence that would have shot it traditionally if he had broken it down into set-ups. And the idea behind it is more philosophical, in the sense that it was basically that Cate and her performance would drive the editorial tempo in which this would happen.
But you want it to be close to her at the piano; you want it to be far, to display her, on the stage as she’s lecturing. All these visual beats have to be fulfilled; they were absolutely clear from the start. It was not about “finding it” in a rehearsal. It was: “How can we make those points have her drive the editorial tempo, and achieve that technically without getting caught?” Those were the three things. Because that’s a phrase he used quite often: “don’t get caught.” That’s actually one of the very simple lines to tell you about the magic of filmmaking. [Laughs] Just don’t get caught!
I only realized minutes in that it was a single shot.
That’s what I mean. You could probably cut it up in those elements and you would feel the core of our attempts to break it down into single shots—you would see that if you stop, start the sequence. That’s why it doesn’t feel like that.
In early conversations with Field—maybe after you read the script, and he hired you so he trusts you—was it clear how much autonomy you’d have? Was it immediately clear he had strong ideas about the visual fabric?
Oh, no, he has an extremely sensitive visuality. He has a visuality that’s very acute. He has a very, very, highly tuned eye. If you read the script you know that somebody knows exactly where he wants to put the camera. I, as a cinematographer, find this very, very liberating because then you can take it to another level. It kind of skips over a big process that normally takes a lot of time—figuring out where should the camera go. I think when you work with an auteur—a true auteur—then my position as a cinematographer is different than if, for example, I were to work in a context where somebody else has written a script and then you work with a director. Because then you exchange interpretations if you were a director and you were given a script and then you tell me “I read it this way.”
If somebody is a true auteur and has written—and is not only going to be writing and directing but producing—the film, my position is first and foremost to listen; to try and figure out what is his sensibility, his approach, his dreams about this. So it’s just a bit more of a quiet approach. The last thing he needs is my personal opinion about a scene, in a way. [Laughs] As a judgmental, “Oh I thought it was about this.” That doesn’t really count. It’s really more about getting a creative intimacy going that then lets us make the decisions about lighting.
The Berlin setting is in the script.
Do you think he asked you about shooting the film because you’re a native German and can approach the spaces more closely?
Oh, of course. I reside in Germany, in Berlin, even though I hadn’t shot there in 15 years. But I live there. That might’ve been one of the reasons: to get somebody who actually lives there. I know what he has said is that he was very interested in getting a European crew together. He’s worked 15 years, I think, in commercials. He’s very used to going all over the world and working with different crews; I think that’s what happens when you direct commercials. I thought what was interesting for me was: I hadn’t shot in Berlin for 15 years so it was interesting to go back to the city that I live in through somebody else’s eyes. We saw some places, and I rediscovered my love for the city as well.
We had a slight exchange when he was still in America—we talked on the phone. My thing is: it’s a hard city to photograph. I find Berlin hard because there’s a spirit in the city that it’s just hard to capture. He introduced us to a couple of spaces that I also had forgotten about, which I thought was one of the successes: we really captured Berlin as a place. And I think cinema, ideally, is about place as much as it is about time.
There’s a couple references in this movie I’m very curious about. One is a shot inspired by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blue: the shot of the bed on the water.
Which apparently… have you seen Blue?
Are you familiar with Apichatpong’s movies?
Okay! So maybe you don’t know. I thought you two had talked about it.
So the mystery of it deepens.
Because we came out the gate so quickly we had very little exchanges about references. We really tried to engage in a genuine fashion. When you make a film you really try to keep your head above water. There’s so many forces at work that seemingly try to prevent you from getting what you want that it’s always, in hindsight, things make more sense retrospectively than in the moment. So I cannot say. We wanted to create something new. That was not our intent. You just start working with each other and try catching something that’s in the air.
Maybe this answers the second question, but: I was just jaw-drop-shocked that the screams she hears outside are (maybe) taken from the ending of The Blair Witch Project.
Did you know this?
A lot of people are independently claiming it’s from there, so I rewatched The Blair Witch’s ending. And it does sound familiar. Have you seen The Blair Witch?
I’ve only heard of it. I haven’t seen it, no.
Okay. Neither of us know. That answers the question.
TÁR is now in theaters and on VOD.