Oscars: 'Silence' Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto on His Partnership With Martin Scorsese

Nominated for a second Oscar this year, Prieto has worked closely with the legendary director on film and TV projects.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
'Silence'

Having worked with the master on The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as the pilot for HBO’s Vinyl, plus some commercials, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto thinks he has a pretty good idea of what Martin Scorsese likes in a shot. Their latest collaboration, Silence, is set in 17th century Japan, which they wanted to feel as ethereal and otherworldly as it did to the film’s two young Jesuit priests who travel there in search of a missing mentor. The Paramount historical drama earned Prieto his second Oscar nomination, and The Hollywood Reporter recently spoke with the 51-year-old DP, who currently is lensing The Irishman, his third consecutive film for Scorsese.

Can you talk about the shorthand you’ve developed with Scorsese?

He makes a detailed shot list for the film, sometimes including diagrams or drawings, and shares it with me. [Then once we get on set], he will express his reaction to a shot I am setting up in terms of what he wants it to feel like; not with a specific instruction of a focal length or any technical detail. He may say, “It needs more energy” or “Could it be more extreme?” or “This should feel peaceful.” Sometimes he’ll talk about the mood and atmosphere in terms of specific colors he sees in his mind. I really love interpreting his ideas and bringing his designs onto the screen.

I know Scorsese likes to screen movies for the cast and crew. What were a few of your cinematic reference points on Silence?

We saw Ugetsu, a Japanese film from the 1950s. The images he focused on had a magical quality that he wanted to capture for the boat trips at night from Tomogi Village to the Goto Islands. I tried to mix the tone of realistic lighting with slightly surreal fog FX to bridge the sensibilities of 1950s Japanese cinema and our reality-based film. Another film we saw was Gate of Hell, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa in 1953. He loved the use of color on this movie, as well as the pace and use of camera.

In an earlier interview, you said the source novel for Silence emphasized how the priests experience the heat, the smells and other tactile qualities of being in a foreign place, and that you wanted the viewer to feel that, too. What are some technical things you did to convey those ideas?

Our choice of lenses was determined by the immediacy we wanted the audience to experience. We tested many Anamorphic lenses, but settled on the Master Anamorphics from Arri/Zeiss because they’re sharper and cleaner than most of these kinds of lenses. We didn’t want to romanticize the images with filmic flares and distortions that are so much in vogue these days. Another way of achieving this tactile feel was the use of natural light in our exterior shots. I worked closely with our first assistant director, David Webb, to schedule each shot so we could utilize the natural daylight and its interaction with whatever surrounded the characters, allowing the sunlight to bounce off the foliage or the dirt. This sometimes creates some funky colors on the skin tones, but we embraced that, doing away with any electrical lighting in our day exteriors.

There’s a beautiful shot of a group of samurai entering a village through a dense cloud of fog. I understand the fog suddenly rolled in as you were setting up the camera and it looked so good you actually went back and reshot the entire scene so it would match.

We had many moments like that where the weather dictated the mood of a scene. Sometimes the constantly changing weather gave us unexpected atmospheric gifts. So did our locations in Taiwan. [I remember] we were missing a place to shoot Kichijiro’s (Yosuke Kubozuka) first confession to Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), and as we were filming a scene at a beach, I had to go to the restroom, but it was quite far. So I climbed a hill to relieve myself and found this amazing spot with a view of the beach and mountains. I went back down and asked everybody to climb back with me to see it, and we did end up shooting that scene there!

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