OUR TWO FAVORITE CINEMATOGRAPHERS SPEAK - PART 1 - ANTHONY DOD MANTLE
OUR TWO FAVORITE CINEMATOGRAPHERS SPEAK - PART 2 - CHRISTOPHER DOYLE
ANTHONY DOD MANTLE
By David Feinberg
Anthony Dod Mantle, BSC, DFF, is an English-born cinematographer who has lived in Denmark for more than 20 years. He recently won an Academy Award for his work on Slumdog Millionaire, a movie he shot in Mumbai, India. The fact that he was recognized with cinema’s foremost mainstream award is unexpected for a few reasons. First, Slumdog Millionaire was the only film in almost a decade to win a cinematography Oscar that was not set decades in the past, replete with splendid period detail, nostalgic costumes, monumental set design, and meticulously reconstructed hairstyles. Second, it’s also not really a film at all—almost two-thirds of the movie were shot on high-definition video. In fact, Dod Mantle is a pioneer of the fluid handheld video aesthetic of the Danish school of Dogme films, in which his collaborations with directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg were shot utilizing only available light. He also employed video to great effect in Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy and summoned truly striking visuals for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. It’s easy to take for granted now, but just ten years ago making a serious, artistically minded “film” on video was, for the cinema establishment, akin to entering a three-legged pit bull in the Westminster dog show.
We should mention that Mr. Dod Mantle does know his way around a film camera or two (that’s why he gets those letters after his name, like a knight or something) and that his most recent collaboration with Lars von Trier,Antichrist, made headlines and upset stomachs at its Cannes Film Festival premiere. We caught up with Anthony at home in Copenhagen while he was between projects, redoing his floors, and waiting for an order of Thai food to arrive.
Vice: First off, congratulations. You’ve had quite a year, what with Slumdog Millionaire and all the awards and accolades for that film.
Anthony Dod Mantle: It has been quite a year. I’ve been tramping around the world triggering metal detectors in airports from picking up strange awards for all sorts of odd accolades. I really have been intending for some time to get back to work, and now I’m just about to embark on my second film with Kevin Macdonald, whom I did The Last King of Scotland with.
That sounds good. And you’ve been testing the metal detectors of the world, which is doing a service to all of us.
[laughs] Yeah, it’s keeping us all safe.
It’s been a couple of years since you actually shot Slumdog Millionaire. What did you do after that wrapped?
I did Antichrist. We shot that quite quickly and now it’s really going through the mill.
It has been getting some strong reactions. You’ve worked with a number of filmmakers who have created very provocative work, including Lars von Trier, of course. Is it fun to get those kinds of reactions when you challenge audiences?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that there are different ways of challenging people, and I think Antichrist caught us all, even perhaps Lars himself, but certainly those of us who made it, with our pants down. When I read the script I thought it was a bit odd and knew it would be quite demanding. And for the audience, yeah, it doesn’t hold you by the hand. With that said, von Trier is one of those kinds of people who’s actually gotten more and more complicated over the years that I’ve known him. But whether it’s him or it’s Harmony Korine in America, or Thomas Vinterberg or Gus Van Sant, I think it’s good to occasionally challenge cinema audiences with something other than happy endings and car chases. You owe something back—you owe the audience something demanding because they get enough of that other stuff.
You started working in film relatively late in your life. What took you toward filmmaking, and how did you get your start in cinematography?
I grew up in a pretty easygoing middle-class English family with my brother a year older and my sister a year younger. My dad was scientific and my mum was a painter, and so I grew up with canvases all over the house. There was a lot of chaos and then certain rational injections from my dad every now and then. I got through school OK, but I couldn’t work out what I wanted to do. I saw too many of my friends already regretting what they’d started, so I waited a while and debated what to do. It wasn’t until I was about 24, when I was in India traveling for a year, that I fell into photographing because I saw so many extraordinary things there. I just shot and shot and shot there, in color and black-and-white, taking pictures all over the place. I got really excited not just about India but about the world and the idea of taking images and watching them slowly seep up through the chemicals in the darkroom. Within half a year of returning from that trip I applied for five courses in photography and started training as a still photographer. I started doing exhibitions and traveled more, and I got my degree. But I soon felt that film would be even more interesting, so I applied for four years as a cinematographer in the National Film School of Denmark in Copenhagen. It’s a very good school, and from a few dubious relations with women, I’d already developed a certain pidgin Danish that I thought I should try and use for something more than, you know, trying to talk to people who are blond—which is quite a good reason in itself, of course. So I was about 35 when I finally graduated and I started out as an assistant and took it slow.
Wow, you were an old film student.
But my schooling wasn’t a fully academic bit. It was also just looking at people, looking at faces, looking at lives, being part of people’s lives, and seeing how the world ticks in very different ways all around the world. That’s been my education, I think, and I use that every day whether I’m shooting a commercial, a documentary, orSlumdog or Antichrist.
You’ve worked around the world but have also spent many years living and working in Denmark. My sister has been doing some work in Denmark and says it’s an impossible language to learn and an even harder one to pronounce.
Yeah, it’s tough, it’s a tough cookie. I wish her luck! [laughs] I’ve been here over the course of 20 years now, but boy, it was a tough one. It was the hardest language, and I’ve always liked languages. I have a command of the Scandinavian part of the world and I’ve spoken Spanish in a number of countries in South America and in Spain so I had a bit of that and I had Latin for a long time because my parents wanted me to, so that helped me learn languages. I’ve encouraged my kids to do the same.
What are some of your initial concerns when starting a film?
For me it’s always about a mixture of how I’m going to move and how I’m going to place stuff and of course the amount of production money available. Having come from a lot of European films that run on very low budgets, I learned how to do the best I could with very little money. Danny and I agree that when you have a little bit of a budget, you have to be careful not to get spoiled or complacent. Danny is very particular about it since he madeThe Beach, and he talks very openly as a director about the fear about becoming spoiled by having too much.
It’s remarkable that you were inspired to pursue photography by a trip to India so many years ago and then you did a major production in India. How was it to go back to make Slumdog Millionaire?
It was great going back to India. It was a full-circle thing for me because I had been there for years and I have a very strong affection toward India and Indians. It’s an extraordinary place and a demanding place, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining and jaw-smacking and inspiring culture. The first time I went there I spent a year traveling on a very low budget and getting to know people very closely with a lot of travelers who, like myself, didn’t have much money. We spent a lot of time talking and reading and listening to people. But this time, shooting the film, it was full-on. Making a film is like being in a war zone. It’s like a ministry apparatus and you’re in the middle of it and it’s big long days, six days a week, 16 hours a day.
And I would imagine it’s especially tough shooting in some of the real-world locations used in that film.
It’s a circus when you’re making a film and trying to do what you’ve got to get done, and at the same time you’re dealing with people who are living in slums and you’re standing in their homes. You have to respect them. You have to know how to balance the essential reason for being there with an ethical kind of fundamental integrity toward people. You have to behave properly. So that was all going on in India and it helped me that I had spent some time there before, it really did. Some people in my crew were pretty knocked out by the way things work in India. It gets tough.
Watching the film itself is a bit overwhelming on the senses. That comes across. What is the difference between shooting in a place like you described compared with some of the other films you’ve worked on that feel much more contained in a smaller venue?
The mechanics are the same. You know, when I was a kid I thought I was going to be a real estate agent. That means walking into a room and imagining not only how you can sell it to someone else and make a profit [laughs] and make somebody happy and give them a life and give them a home, but you’re also imagining how you can encourage people to think of how they would dress the space and use it. I’m not saying that’s how all real estate agents work—they probably just want to make a dollar and move on and buy a sports car. But I spent most of my childhood going into and out of homes—my parents were moving all the time—and I was always having to think about where my bedroom was going to be and where Mum and Dad were going to be. I moved six times as a child. And in fact, what I do now in cinematography is not totally unlike that. Together with the director you go into a space. Slumdog was about going into spaces that were already there but then adapting them and trying to make it work for you while still being flexible. When you’re doing a film like Slumdog you can’t quite control as much as you usually do as a filmmaker.
There was much more chaos there than on a soundstage shoot.
A lot of films that I’ve done before were in a studio. Lars’s films are very much designed frame by frame and some of them are even storyboarded right down to the finest point. The films I’ve done with Thomas Vinterberg—apart from the Dogme films—have been quite storyboarded. With Kevin Macdonald on The Last King of Scotland, it was quite organized even though it was shot on location in Uganda. Anyway, yes, when you’re shooting in a studio you have much more control and so you have to create the magic and the flare and excitement and the energy. In India it’s almost the opposite. When you get there you have to actually keep calm and not be overwhelmed by the Indians in the first place. Before you can even press a button you’ve got to clean it up and modify it and calm down. I would go walking in the early morning with Danny [Boyle] with a cup of tea, just checking out the first shot or the first four or five scenes. It was like we were casing the joint. And it doesn’t really matter for me whether it is a set that’s been built by brilliant designers or it’s a street in a slum. It still always takes casing the joint and figuring out how to make it work for you and for the audience.
You approach each location on its own terms. You mentioned the Dogme films a moment ago. With regard to working with a location, it was a very bold thing to restrict yourself to shooting without lights.
It wasn’t so difficult after spending quite a lot of time in documentaries, where you have very little and you do the best with what you have. I also think that “working without lights” is not quite the right way of putting it. It’s actually that you are working without mobile lights to rig up. You’re looking at the light you have, and that’s actually sometimes better training than having everything you could want. We should look and see what is there and what God has given you and work with intensity, focusing on how to use it as best as possible. That’s what I do in documentaries and that’s what I did in Dogme. There are good and bad examples of how that’s worked out, including in some of my own films [laughs]. In some places it works better than in others.
Was choosing to use a video format necessary in order to pursue the idea of using only available light?
Choosing video has generally been more about mobility. It was about that and also about exploring new technology and playing with it and accepting it for what it was—trying to not regard it as an annoying piece of duty-free airport-consumer-shelf technology, but as something that could have some kind of artistic or potential emotional competence. And video formats are not actually faster in terms of light sensitivity. Today you have lots of film stocks that are faster and better quality at lower light levels.
The whole idea of film and video is kind of confusing. Even though people are more and more aware of movies being shot on video, usually when you go into a theater you are still watching it projected on film. It’s kind of a strange transition that we’re still in the middle of negotiating.
A few years back there was a war and there were battles over this. People were scared of each other and scared of what it all meant. Producers were excited because they thought everything was going to be cheaper, which was rubbish. Some directors were excited for good reasons and some directors were excited for the completely wrong reasons and some reverted to other old habits. For me, now, it’s way down the line of just being a more complicated and sophisticated palette.
That’s a great way to look at it.
I guess the more toys there are—I guess you’d call them toys, or tools—the better. In professional image making you’ve got to be on the ball and alert and astute about why you do things. It’s the particular mission you have at any given time that should define your weapons.
There are a lot of options out there—a new camera every day, it seems.
Well, my fundamental thing is not about high definition and then the sublime higher and higher and higher definition. My fascination with cinema comes from painting and from cinema as an art form. I don’t believe that there’s any logic to the fact that 20 years ago people were actually pushing stocks two stops to get a more grainy and weird look, but now for some reason we feel obliged by the industry to really strain ourselves to produce high-definition, full-resolution, sharp, sharp, sharp images. I don’t want to offend my colleagues at Kodak and Fuji, and I do want to live in a world where we can produce fantastic instruments that can record images at very high quality levels. But I’m not going to be confused enough to believe that it has to all be high resolution all the time.
The original idea of cinema was a bunch of people in a theater, in a controlled environment, but there are so many ways now that people are watching media, whether it’s on their laptops or their phones or—
If I’ve made a film, it’s intended to be for cinema, so at least a certain number of people can see it like that. But I’m open to all the possibilities or opportunities. I have to keep an open mind about it. I would go out and shoot a film tomorrow on a mobile telephone if I thought it was appropriate and the people I was with were all on the same line of thought as me. As I’ve said, I come from painting and a world of painters, and so I think the driving force in me is perhaps not infatuation with the contrast glass and the sublime contrast curve. I think it comes from somewhere else.
One of your best-known films is 28 Days Later. I’m sure it was a challenge to the production to essentially evacuate the streets of London.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was crazy!
What was going through your mind when you were creating this epic moment and then capturing it on cheap consumer-level video? Were you thinking, “Why am I using this with this camera?”
Yeah, I did want to take some 35-mm cameras out. I remember thinking, “Are we doing the right thing here?” You know? [laughs] But I didn’t feel uncomfortable because I felt we were doing something that was interesting, something that was extraordinary, really. There was another time, actually, in Donkey-Boy, where I was filming on infrared so you couldn’t really see the image or the lights. It was pitch-dark with the lights off in a skating arena and a blind girl was skating in the dark and the only things that could read the image were the infrared sensors on the camera. It was an extraordinarily conceptual idea. What I mean is that there are many weird things that happen when you’re making films, especially when you’re working with creative, wacky directors like Harmony, who I adore—really, truly adore. With creative people who are interested in playing around, good things happen. Shit happens, but good things happen as well.
I just went back and watched the trailer for Julien Donkey-Boy on YouTube. You did some interesting experiments on both film stock and video cameras for that movie. Normally while watching a video on YouTube, you can count on losing a lot of the original quality. It can ruin things. But I noticed that forJulien Donkey-Boy it just adds another interesting layer to the images you created for that movie.
The best screening I ever saw of Julien Donkey-Boy was the one that Harmony and I witnessed in Italy at the Venice Film Festival. It was the biggest screening size-wise I’ve ever seen, and it was way up there on the massive square screen and it was actually beautiful, like a bubbly underwater painting. We were really happy about it. And as for YouTube, you’re right, it’s great to see things like that too.
You might be one of the few Oscar-winning cinematographers who doesn’t mind seeing his work on YouTube.
No, I think YouTube is good [laughs]. It’s out of our control anyway, so you’ve got to be a bit relaxed about it.
Christopher Doyle, HKSC (aka ), is an Australian-born cinematographer who has lived and worked throughout Asia for more than two decades. He is most renowned for his eight-film collaboration with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. On classic, largely unscripted films like Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, Chungking Express, and In the Mood for Love, Doyle helped create one of the most visually stylized bodies of work in cinema, all despite having never received any formal training whatsoever.
Upon leaving Australia at age 18, he had stints on a Norwegian cargo ship, as a cow herder in Israel, a well-digger in India, a doctor of Chinese medicine in Thailand, and many more... or so goes the legend of the man whom some call Dù KŠ Fēng, or “Like the Wind.” Drawing on his travels and many late nights spent in bars with artists and actors as his preparation, Doyle shot his first film in 1983 and has since enjoyed a long tenure as Asian cinema’s busiest Australian.
After the film 2046, which was released in 2004 and which took five years to complete, Doyle and Wong, despite admittedly being able to read each other’s thoughts, decided to have some time away from each other. Since then, Doyle has stayed busy working with directors around the world, most recently with Neil Jordan on Ondineand Jim Jarmusch on The Limits of Control. We talked to him from his Shanghai hotel room after a day of filming his latest project.
Vice: Hi Chris. You’re in Shanghai right now?
Christopher Doyle: Yeah, I’m in Shanghai and I’m staying on the 26th floor. It’s about 104 degrees here. These bloody fucking mosquitoes, I don’t know how they can fly this high.
What are you working on?
I’m working with Stanley Kwan, a wonderful, wonderful filmmaker. He’s a major Hong Kong-based director who tends to make quote-unquote “gay” or, as they might say in Hong Kong, “women-subject” films.
You’re known for being a very spontaneous presence on the sets of the films that you shoot, and for working without scripts on the films of Wong Kar-wai.
You can make incredibly meticulous notes, but when it comes to the actual shoot you still throw the script away. You have to. For me, it’s about the energy and the inspiration and the possibilities of what’s being attempted in the story. It’s kind of like sculpting. It’s getting rid of the stone to see what’s really inside it.
Like the legend of Michelangelo seeing David within the marble.
Yes. It’s a process that’s most basically motivated by a response to what is there. Maybe it comes from working in film communities that don’t have access to large budgets or that have minimal technical facilities. It’s part of being used to working with what you have as opposed to what you want. So, one gives and takes from it, as one does with tai chi, a basis of martial arts. Or one searches for the center of the whole as one does in meditation. You push in a direction and aim for a removal of the unnecessary.
That’s not the way most Hollywood cinematographers would talk about their work. It’s so refreshing to hear it spoken of this way.
I think that film has all the qualities of music. There’s repetition, there’s rhythm, which is a certain grace and a certain reserve at certain points. It has a spontaneous emotional energy, and it’s not stylized, it’s not, what’s the word…
It’s a bit like jazz, kind of improvisation-oriented?
Just like jazz. You start and then you have your solo stuff, you move along on certain themes, and then you all try to end up together. It really is a jam session. I think that’s wonderful. All art should aspire to that.
On all those great films directed by Wong Kar-wai, you also worked with William Chang as both the production designer and editor. Given the amount of footage you and Wong Kar-wai would shoot without a script on a film like In the Mood for Love, it seems like the hardest job was up to the poor editor. He had to piece it all together.
William is pretty ruthless! [laughs] That’s his great quality. It’s astonishing. When we work together, it’s in a very unspoken way. We don’t really discuss things. We don’t really have production meetings. It just happens. Again, I’m not being facetious, there’s just some common frequency with those guys. There is a communal response to something that actually is never articulated. Even when we go to a location, we don’t really talk. We just kind of walk through and decide if it’s good or bad and if we are going to go with it. Then, perhaps we come back and say, “How about that wallpaper?” or something like that. But that’s about it. It’s not like the Western sense of the production meeting, with various heads of departments sitting down to discuss something.
But it helps that William Chang the production designer was on set with you and Wong Kar-wai. He would contribute to the story and have a great sense of it going into the edit room as William Chang the editor.
Yes, and the thing about William is how pragmatic and how astute his removal from his own participation is. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much money or time, including his own, has gone into something. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it could be cut down, it will be cut down. But if it should be, for example, a three-minute sequence of just Maggie Cheung walking up the stairs, then that’s what it will be.
And Maggie Cheung on the stairs in In the Mood for Love is definitely a memorable image. Before picking up a camera, you traveled and lived around the world. What compelled you to do that?
Necessity. I don’t know. I have no idea. When I left Australia, I was studying literature during a very drug-oriented, politicized cultural environment in 1969. Vietnam was going on, people were being drafted, all this kind of stuff was happening. Also, most Australians—and I am talking about white Australians for the moment—feel isolated. There’s a great deal out there in the world that you haven’t experienced, so you try to get exposed. I wanted to know something that I only knew through literature up until then. I wanted to have it firsthand instead of having D.H. Lawrence or Borges or Bukowski tell me about it. So I became a merchant marine, and then I ended up in Europe, and then I ended up traveling in Israel, and then I traveled cross-country to India, and I lived there for three years, and blah, blah, blah. And I do believe that was my film school. I totally believe that.
In my traditional film school, I was taught that narrative filmmaking has to be scripted and scheduled and budgeted right down to the minute and dollar. For example, there’s a screenwriting formula where a 30-page script equals roughly 30 minutes of screen time.
Yeah. Well, what if a script was 24 pages, and in the middle of page 3 it says, “Then they make love”? That means they can only make love for ten seconds, right? [laughs] And then it says, “Now they fight,” but what if you have a scene from a movie like Crouching Tiger or Hero, you know? And in the script it just says, “Now they fight!” So, when people say, “What’s your motivation for making a film? Isn’t the script important?” Well, how many good Shakespearean films have you seen? Maybe five? And how many did they make? So, obviously, there’s another aspect besides the script.
You came around to filmmaking in your 30s. Had you at least done photography before that, during your many travels?
No, not even photography. I never had a still camera until I was shooting Chungking Express. The first camera of any kind that I ever used was an 8-mm movie camera, and that was just to impress a girl. You know, it’s the usual kind of thing, right?
I wonder how you were able not only to pick up cinematography so quickly but also to make such unique and beautiful images.
I think that, like an athlete’s muscle memory, visual memory is something that just has to be tapped. In my case, the visual experience of a place like India stays with me, or I remember the color of the light in Israel or the fog in Bruges, where I also lived for a while. Maybe that’s relevant to the way in which I light an Irish landscape, for example. I’m not sure, but it probably is. It’s not conscious, but it’s there.
You work a lot in Asia or in China and then go to Europe or come to the United States to shoot too. You’re still moving around quite a bit.
It’s a great pleasure to work outside my usual cultural environment, but I also feel most comfortable in this place. In my environment I have a Chinese name. Most people don’t even know my English name, so I have a certain freedom that I think is basic to the artistic pursuit. This is where I grew to be the way I am. These are the people whose film culture and social conditions and concerns I am most familiar with. These are the people whom I can talk more directly to.
When you went back to Australia to make Rabbit-Proof Fence, did you have the eyes of a foreigner after spending so much time in Asia?
Absolutely, absolutely. It was fantastic. I left when I was 18 and I went back about 30 years later. I do believe that I am a filmmaker because I was born in Australia, even though I didn’t know it at the time.
I like the saturated colors and textures in a lot of your films. How much of that is drawn out of working with the film lab and how much is based on the way you shoot?
Because I really do come from a poor technical environment, or a less proficient technical experience, I always felt that if it is not on the negative, it won’t be in the film. That’s the kind of mentality that I have day to day. But we could enhance the things that already were apparent by playing with simple lab techniques that are very organic and very direct. They’re not digital techniques.
So it’s in the film before it gets to the lab.
Yes, the vibrancy of the colors is there. The colors and that vibrancy and the energy of the films themselves come from that environment. For example, when we did In the Mood for Love, we said, “There’s going to be a lot of red.” You have to be careful of red, because it is such an evocative color in Chinese culture. To put red anywhere, it really says something. It smacks you in the face and has a certain resonance. All colors have cultural baggage.
You were a consultant on the Hong Kong film Internal Affairs, which was remade into The Departed by Martin Scorsese. It’s not a totally recent trend, but there have been a lot of remakes going on in American cinema.
Well, obviously the structure of certain industries is based on money. What’s been happening recently in Western cinema culture is franchises and remakes. It’s the commercial functionality of that quote-unquote “industry.” As people in different parts of the world will tell you, there are certain aspects of Western culture that have hit a brick wall.
People say America is going through the fall-of-the-Roman-Empire phase. I was at the cinema just the other day, and in the lobby there were posters for upcoming films and they did all seem to be about the end of the world, like 2012, which is an apocalypse movie. I saw the Harry Potter poster, which looked very scary, and the GI Joe poster and Transformers 2 poster. These films that are coming out, they’re franchises and they seem to be pretty fixated on the end of humanity.
These are films that have lost their voice. Nowadays, the work is taken away from real artists and it is done by committee, as we see with most commercial or—let’s say just for argument’s sake—Hollywood-style films.
Asian cinema has grown a lot in the last 10 to 15 years.
Well, for example, you had a new wave in France. You had a new wave in Hong Kong, you had a new wave in China and Korea and even in Argentina and Brazil at one time. It’s all a sort of sociocultural thing coming together at the right time. It may last for a certain period of time but usually it doesn’t last for very long. And usually it comes out of the energy of the moment. Look at the fifth generation in China. Why was there an explosion of creativity? Because you had the Cultural Revolution. People had been denied so much for so long and there were so many stories waiting to be told.
I watched Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, which you shot, the other night. It fits in many ways with some of his other recent films such as Elephant and Last Days. I also think it fits with some of the films you’ve made with Wong Kar-wai as well, with this kind of fractured chronology and, I guess you could say, meditative style.
After seeing one of the most beautiful and complete pursuits of an idea in his trilogy that is Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, I had to think, “Where can you go?” Harris Savides was the cinematographer on those three films. He’s also a good friend of mine. One of the things that I wanted to do with Paranoid Park was to move on and yet not lose that commonality—to pursue another thread of the incredible and informative journey that was that trilogy. You have to share something. It’s like a little journey together and you are going to bring along a bit of your own baggage.
You’re able to build a new kind of process with each director, but do you ever find it hard not to use one of your old tricks or techniques?
I think that there is a big danger of that, but I think that can happen in anything. One has to be very worried about parodying oneself, unconsciously or consciously. If you work with people who have quote-unquote “integrity,” or people who have similar intentions, they will prevent you from that.
And some people must look to work with you just to try and get a re-creation of your work on an earlier film.
There are those who say, “OK, these are going to be the references for the look of this film,” and then they show me one of my own films! I start laughing. I say, “No, I can’t do that,” and they say, “What do you mean you can’t do it?” and I say, “Well, I’ve already done it. How can I do it again?”
You have worked with a lot of first-time directors. In fact, some films were able to get made because your name was attached.
It is a great honor to work with friends, and if my saying that I am doing a film with someone who may have never done a film before will help to get the film made, I couldn’t be more proud of that. Also, I can’t be more proud that some of the greatest filmmakers around also happen to be friends. I mean, what more do you want in life?
There’s talk everywhere now that film is dying and video will soon be all there is. How are you responding to the change in technology in filmmaking?
Up until The Limits of Control, the Jim Jarmusch film that I shot a year ago now, I had never used a DI.
For the non-film nerds out there, a DI is a digital intermediate, in which the footage is rendered through a film-to-video conversion process and can then be manipulated using digital techniques. Sorry to interrupt…
I was afraid of DI. But you know, you’ve got to live… What’s the expression? Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
Right. One thing that’s certainly good about the shift to video is that it’s easier for amateurs to make and distribute their movies now.
The excellence of the image really has to come from the excellence of the intent. It doesn’t come from the hierarchy of money. Now you can put yourself out through YouTube. You don’t even have to bother with waiting for some bloody studio to green-light it. I think we are in this incredible period of time where the challenge that TV made to cinema in the 50s is being manifested a hundredfold. It’s crazy—it’s fantastic. Now we really have to be better than before if we’re going to say that we are professional filmmakers.
You mention the challenge that TV made to cinema. The internet is now kind of doing that to TV. But I guess the internet is challenging everything, really.
I think it’s fantastic. I mean, all those shit movies, they can fight against it like the music industry tried to fight against MP3s. But it’s only excellence—it’s only quality—that will really get people. Of course, the franchise kings of the world, the American Idols of the world, will push mediocrity. But there’s a great deal of space for the rest of us now.
With high-definition video, there is the ability for clarity with a very clean, crisp look to it.
Kids today are spending something like 60 percent of their time in front of some kind of screen, whether it’s their phone or a TV or a computer. Their visual experience is extremely different from how ours was. And so, when people talk about digital image making, I think that they should talk to the kids and not to me. I think that my work comes from landscapes, it comes from books, actually—and it comes from music. Therefore, the way in which I express something is confined to, I guess, or initiated by those concerns. I would rather read than go to a movie. And I am not being facetious. If I have the choice, I rarely go to the cinema.
Do you feel pressured to try shooting with the new RED camera? Everyone is saying, “This camera is amazing. It’s the future.”
It’s just a tool. I still don’t really know anything about it. I mean, I know a little bit because I forced myself to know it, but it’s really the same thing as before—just another tool. You’ve still got your eyes, you still have got to know how you perceive things and how you approach the technology and the possibilities you’ve seen in their application. That makes the art. Everyone will tell you that a truly beautiful color film should have really clean reds and really beautiful greens and deep blacks. So what happens if you saturate the blacks and push-process the film and it looks really grainy?
Has it been hard for you to work on larger-budget, studio-type pictures?
You know, ten years ago Gus Van Sant called and said, “Let’s do Psycho”. Or, for example, there’s the M. Night Shyamalan film that I did, Lady in the Water. Those were fantastic experiences. I would never have had so much respect for craftsmanship if I hadn’t done them. And they also informed me about the qualities of a more complete, more technically astute Western working environment. I could say, “Is that really the kind of film that I want to make?” Well, yeah, at that time that was something I wanted to know.
It’s a movie-by-movie thing for you.
I think all my decisions about work are based on very personal motivations at the times that I’ve made them. And it’s always been about people. Night and I, we don’t think exactly the same, but I have great, great respect for him and I regard him as a friend. I have great, great respect for Barry Levinson, [of Liberty Heights] and regard him as a friend. Our paths cross, and there are communal intentions and respect because we are all filmmakers. Same with Jim and Gus and Phil Noyce and Wim Wenders and Anthony Dod Mantle. I guess I knew that if I worked with Night, I could work in that kind of mainstream, high-profile, high-budget environment. Then I wouldn’t be afraid of, you know, Spielberg.
Hey, he might read this and give you a call, so you never know.