A major American filmmaker’s take on one of the most “unadaptable” novels this side of the second World War has, no surprise, inspired debate. But wherever one lands on White Noise tends to make room for praising Lol Crawley, a cinematographer who’d previously shaped films by Brady Corbet and Andrew Haigh, and modern television vis-à-vis The OA and Black Mirror.
Not an expected choice for Baumbach, but White Noise‘s meeting of domestic dread and sci-fi terror balances the equation. Captured on anamorphic 35mm (with some VistaVision handled by the second unit) and showing $150 million of production design, its 2.39 images looked great at EnergaCAMERIMAGE, the sight of our interview—better than it might at home, a dilemma that comprised the core of our conversation.
The Film Stage: This is far from the first period piece that you’ve shot. But I noticed, looking over your filmography, almost every one of them was photographed on film.
Lol Crawley: Sure. Yeah.
And I think people balk, rightly or not, at a period piece shot on digital—it seems inauthentic. So how much was there a conversation about the necessity of shooting the 1980s with something visually and technologically analogous?
It was kind of established very early on. My recollection is that Netflix had gotten behind the idea of it being shot on film before I was even in the mix. And combining film with anamorphic seemed to do the heavy lifting of the aesthetic. It’s like, you combine Jess Gonchor‘s fantastic set design and shoot it anamorphic, on film, and you’re like: okay, that’s in the ballpark. Yeah, it is interesting. In general, if pushed, I would have to say I prefer shooting film over digital formats, but I also think it’s important to keep an open mind on the format and feel you’re serving the film, not just serving your own desire.
There are cinematographers I admire for that very fact. Like, Julien Donkey-Boy is a film I really love, that Anthony Dod Mantle shot, and I love the lo-fi aesthetic. I love the lo-fi aesthetic and philosophy of Dogme. It’d be interesting to know if it would feel a little dated to do that now; I don’t see a lot of people working on those low-end formats. But in a way it’s more interesting to shoot on those than a digital format that’s trying to emulate 35. I’m not sure everybody would share that opinion, but I’ve always liked the “punk” approach, in a way—trying to be more impressionistic and break an image down into textures. There’s more opportunity to do that with a much lower-resolution image to start with.
I was really surprised about this pairing with Baumbach because I tend to associate you with the Borderline crew.
Oh, okay! Yeah, I’ve shot for Brady and Antonio. That’s probably half the Borderline crew. [Laughs]
And there was a situation where he’d been working with a DP who left for various reasons. How was it coming into it after things were moving? Was there an established mold you had to work from?
No, it was so early on, I guess, that I didn’t really feel I inherited anything other than what was inherently Noah’s vision. So much comes from Noah because I find him to be a very visual filmmaker. Which might seem an odd thing to say, in the sense that his close comparisons would be Altman and Woody Allen. In some regards Noah is known for his studies of wonderful dialogue, wonderful performances, but can be also be internal—geographically, in rooms.
What was nice about this was he could flex different muscles for a Noah Baumbach film and do different things visually. The moment where Jack Gladney—Adam Driver’s character—becomes untethered and maniacally tears through the trash, the camera becomes untethered and does this circling thing. That was an idea that Noah had. A lot of those strong motifs came from Noah—which was enjoyable.
Of course he’s a De Palma acolyte, and that shot can only make me think of Blow Out.
It is very much a reference, yeah.
And the split-diopter moment.
Yeah. Well, that was another thing, but that wasn’t achieved in-camera; he did that as a post effect.
And I was like, “Oh. Okay. All right.” I don’t really get—I mean, within reason—bothered by people, directors and editors, reframing shots. Some people do, and I can kind of understand why they’d get bothered by it. I think also, once you’ve shot it, you’re not really in a position to… and I only say this because that one shot, we didn’t really discuss it. It was just in the editing they decided to do that, but I thought it worked terrifically well. Smart move.
I have to be honest: I get a bit nervous when directors work with Netflix because so much of their original content has a certain aesthetic that I don’t particularly like.
For years they had a “4K requirement” that mandated filmmakers shoot in 4K to “future-proof” their content.
Yeah, of course.
Which always seemed so hubristic—“future-proof.” It’s like saying you’ll cheat death.
[Laughs] A bit like the movie!
White Noise was shot on anamorphic 35mm and—correct me if I’m wrong—some 65?
Yeah. The second unit had VistaVision, I think. It’s not actually 65, but 35mm film you’re pulling through horizontally—so you’re pulling through 8 perfs at a time.
And this movie doesn’t have what friends derisively call “Netflix sheen.”
Right. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Obviously I don’t want you to say a single negative thing about someone who’s paying you, to get you in trouble.
I just wonder if there were certain mandates, suggestions, preferences regarding, say: post methods, labs, systems, color-grading. Are those conversations had?
No. I had them in the past, for The OA, which was a Netflix show—the first thing I’d ever shot for Netflix. And there was a clear stipulation about that. In fact, the Alexa existed but we couldn’t use it because Alexa, at that time, didn’t have 4K capabilities. But actually, in their defense: they were very supportive of the opening sequence of The OA. It has Brit Marling’s character jumping off a bridge that someone had filmed on an iPhone, and they were like “Sure, if you want to shoot that on an iPhone, that’s fine.” It wasn’t a blanket ban on other stuff. It’s just, like, the vast majority had to be shot—the A camera—on a certain format. So that I remember.
But with this one: no. This one, the fact that it was film and there’s not a question about the resolution of film: no. I felt very respected and I can’t honestly remember a point where anybody mentioned anything. Which, thinking about it, is kind of remarkable. It felt like we could just make the movie we wanted to make. I mean, it’s interesting what you say about this sort of Netflix sheen because I don’t disagree, but I think it’s also, like, across-the-board in many ways. I think it’s a product of digital per se and a sort of out-of-the-box Alexa look or out-of-the-box Venice look.
Or whatever. It’s just inherent in the capture medium. You could break that down and do something that’s closer to film—I’m not sure anyone’s ever completely matched it—but I think you could fool a lot of people. But I think it’s a choice. I agree, because sometimes I just watch stuff and it’s kind of… my aesthetic is to be more impressionistic and painterly and less glossy. But gloss sells, doesn’t it? People like paying for a bit of gloss.
I think if you did a Pepsi challenge and asked people what studio produced this movie, Netflix would not be a common answer.
But I think it’s all part of the Netflix support for auteurs, auteur filmmakers. Which is all good. And the fact that there is going to be a cinematic release of it as well. But it’s tricky: it’s also economics, in terms of how much it costs to go to the cinema. It’s people’s viewing just changing. I don’t go to the cinema as much as I should and I don’t have young kids and I can afford to go to the cinema and I have a distinct love of film. If I am failing, what’s the rest of us doing?
The scene on the highway has a shot that looks quite a bit like Penguin’s edition of White Noise. Do you know what I’m referring to?
It’s the family in the car, seen from the outside and looking through the windshield.
While talking with Baumbach, were there certain images from DeLillo’s book—or book covers—that stuck out and you were seeking to emulate?
Oh, interesting. I honestly don’t remember having conversations that directly link back to the book in that way. I think maybe because, in the conversation I was having with Noah, the book had been put aside and then it was the script, so it’s like we never went back to the book. That would be interesting to hear Noah’s response on that. There was nothing I was lifting from the book, but he may answer the question different.
I also have to ask about something unrelated to White Noise: you shot Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom with Alma Har’el. Which I love. And I’m eager to know about the experience of… I could just ask “what is it like being in the same room as him?”
It was wonderful. The thing is, I’ve done two things with Bob Dylan. One was with John Hillcoat and the one you mentioned.
What was the John Hillcoat thing?
I don’t think it came out. I don’t know why, because it was a blast. I guess he just decided not to do it. But yeah: you don’t sit down and have a conversation with him, so everything is sort of through the director. But the interesting thing is… people obviously say “mercurial,” but it’s a really fascinating insight into how he approaches music. And it feels like he doesn’t know what he wants—but he knows what he doesn’t want, and by that process you arrive at something. You think it starts as one thing and then it can become the complete inverse.
My experience was that it was a process of “finding” the end result. Alma, to her credit, completely took the whole project in hand. She’s tremendous. We did it right around his 80th birthday and I believe he was happy with the end result. It was a gift.
White Noise screened at EnergaCAMERIMAGE 2022, opens in theaters November 25, and arrives on Netflix December 30.