'Into the Woods': Cinematographer Dion Beebe on Photographing Meryl Streep

This is the Oscar winning cinematographer's third musical with Rob Marshall
Dion Beebe

Into the Woods is the third musical that Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe shot for director Rob Marshall. Together they previously collaborated on Nine and best picture winner Chicago.

But Into the Woods, an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's work, was a "different type of musical in that the lyrics are the dialogue of the film," said Beebe, who won an Oscar for Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha. "We didn't choose a theatricality that we used on Chicago and Nine. It was important to focus on the songs as if they were dialogue and create a reality. The woods was integral to the foundation of the film."

The musical was photographed using Arri Alexa cameras on location in the U.K.'s Windsor Great Park and Queen's Park, and additionally on a set at Shepperton Studios. For Beebe, one of the key production challenges was lighting the woods in a way that would be stylistically consistent, whether on a set or on location. "If it felt like it was bouncing back and forth between stage and location, I feel it would have lost its scope and its magic," the cinematographer said.

"We were doing day exterior on stage that was cutting with day exterior on location—and often cutting within a scene," he elaborated. "I had to create a lighting style that I could achieve on stage, but I could also achieve on location. Every frame in the movie is lit to that end. By lighting and controlling all the day exteriors, I could match the style on stage."

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For Beebe, the musical is about the performances, and among his favorite scenes is a carefully choreographed number during which Meryl Streep, who plays the Witch, sings "Children Will Listen" to Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) in a circular tower. "I devised a lighting plan motivated by this broken down tower that they were in and created light that was breaking through the ceiling. It sort of created this world that Meryl could just perform in. We built this circular movement in the camera, and in a way it allowed her to just find and channel the emotion of the song, which for me is such a powerful moment in the movie."

"It was shot pretty much as one take," he added. "You're mesmerized by the power of the performance. What I strive for — what I think any cinematographer does — is using light and camera to complement and strengthen what the actors are doing."

In the film, Streep actually takes on two very different looks, one of a haggard witch and one of a beautiful witch. "It was amazing and fun to watch Meryl go through this physical transformation — Meryl's ability as an actor and the physicality she brings to the role," said Beebe. "We used lighting and camera to enhance these things, and not say 'we'll take it into postproduction and create these two looks.' For the old cursed witch, there's quite a lot of top light to enhance the prosthetics and feel the age. And I filled her in less so you felt more contrast and contour on her face."

"Meryl is beautiful, and the [later look] came down to using a lighting style to enhance her beauty," Beebe added, noting that "because she plays in this ensemble, the glam lighting and keeping a consistency amongst the others in the cast was sometimes tricky. We had to protect the look, and not allow our world to become overlit in any way."

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA

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