'Logan' Cinematographer on Its Most Emotional Scene: They Were "Giving It Their All"

"It's a real moment," says John Mathieson, who filmed the crucial exchange between Hugh Jackman and Dafne Keen differently from any other part of the movie.
Courtesy of John Mathieson
Hugh Jackman in 'Logan' (Inset: John Mathieson)

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Logan.]

It just might be the most emotional scene ever filmed for a superhero movie.

After 17 years, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine delivered his final moments onscreen in a death that was well-earned and picture-perfect. As he's dying, Logan shares final advice with his daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen), telling her not to become what the scientists made her for. Laura calls him Daddy, and they both cry (and so did many moviegoers over the weekend).

Oscar-nominated cinematographer John Mathieson broke with director James Mangold's preferred method of using just one camera at a time, because he felt it was essential to use two — one trained on Jackman, the other on Keen — to capture the very real moment unfolding between the two actors and to save them from having to perform the incredibly difficult scene over and over. 

In a conversation with Heat Vision, Mathieson also gives a closer look at Professor X's (Patrick Stewart) burial, that memorable casino hotel scene and the hidden tribute to Prince he put in the film.

Logan's death scene was quite powerful, and you really focus on the faces of the two actors. How did you get that so right?

It's very important to get into the eyes of both of them. The tears are going to come. You don't just shoot Hugh and go, "That was very nice. Now let's shoot Dafne." Because they are giving it their all. They will be drained. Jim is very much a one-camera man, but I didn't even look back at him. I'm sure he got cross at me, but I think he'd agree that whatever is going to happen is going to happen. You better make sure you get it on two cameras. If you have a great performance on one side and they are doing marvelous things and you don't have the other side at the same time — a hand goes here or someone brushes hair out of someone's face — then it's very difficult to re-create that. Then you have the script supervisor coming in, "Oh you had this in your left hand and your tear came here." You just can't do that to people.

What was the mood on set during this crucial scene?

Hugh's got the patience of a saint. He's great and he'd never complain about anything. He'd do it again, and again and again. But it was still hard for him and it was hard for her. They had to dance together on this one. You're treading carefully around them and kind of impressing the crew with, "Are you ready for this? Because it's going to happen once — and you've got to have your focus." It's a real moment, it's a real piece of emotion. It's a real performance and it really happened at that time — and you can't drain people too much to do that again and again. They were great. You knew when you got it. And you knew you could feel it easing off as well. "Let's go again. Let's go again." It was diminishing returns. "You know what? Two takes before was the one."

In earlier X-Men films, we saw Charles freeze people with his mind. This film's version of that is much more violent and unpolished. Was that done in post?

It was a very physical effect with the camera. It was doctored in CGI, but basically the camera is shaken very violently and then we zoomed in and stabilized the images afterward, which gave it that weird, blurry, sonic kind of horrible, screeching, sound-distorted visualization of what it's like when he emits the pulse that makes everyone catatonic. That was a physical thing, which I think feels far more tactical and tangible than some other films.

Another memorable moment came when it was time to say goodbye to Professor X. What was shooting his burial scene like?

It's one of those locations I was a bit disappointed with, because we had to find it near New Orleans. Jim kept laughing, "Oh yes, and here we have another manmade lake." The thing was to try to arrive there early enough. They'd driven all night to escape the farm and the nasty X-24. We had actually found this other place, and at the last minute we were kind of wandering around and I hadn't actually seen this place. "OK, what about that place over there?" Because it felt a bit more wild. It was quite difficult to find the right sort of woods, with the pine trees and enough space. And burying Charles by the water, which he wants to do, because obviously he didn't get him the Sunseeker to escape to the seas, which Logan was promising they would do.  

One of the most important scenes to set up the tone is the first one, in which Logan kills the men trying to strip his car. What comes to mind when you think of that scene?

It's all kind of purple. I did a lot of work with Prince and he'd just died, so I thought I'd give it a bit of a purple light. It was a little tribute to him. We used to call him his Purple Holiness and all these funny little names. I did eight videos with him, and it was a bad year for losing great people.

Most films don't have action sequences that are as easy to follow as a viewer. How'd you manage it all to make as much sense as it does?

Jim always wants to know what the camera is doing. "Why is the camera here? What's the action shot?" He doesn't want to be spraying off shots. He was very specific: "This leads to that, which leads to that …" I don't like super close-ups in action sequences. Because your eye is being torn this way and that way. A medium-wide shot is a lot easier to understand. When you've got real guys throwing each other around and they are hitting the floor, well let's see the floor. Let's not have them fall out of frame.

Dafne and the doubles that worked with Dafne were in the air a lot. But it wasn't ninja sort of scenes. She really lands on people and when he's thrown on the air and she hits the ground, she hits the ground. She doesn't just bounce straight up again. Things hurt. You feel the grit and the physicality of those sequences and I think that's a really Jim thing. Also, no high speed. I like things real time.

You also shot X-Men: First Class, which is the most glamorous-looking of the X-Men films. This one is totally the opposite end of the spectrum.

Patrick [Stewart] said, "This isn't a pretty film." I said, "Sorry, Sir Patrick." He's very fragile in the movie. Then you see him at the premiere and he looks fantastic. Much younger and youthful and bright-eyed. And Hugh, he's a drunk [in the movie] and he hates himself and he's scarred up. Hugh [in real life] is a good-looking chap. It was hard overhead lighting and hollowed-out eyes. He's craggy. The usual X-Men vibe is everyone looks fantastic and glamorous. You make them look good because they've got superpowers and they've got amazing costumes and all that stuff. In Logan, these guys are all covered in dust in torn-up jeans and stains from whatever nasty things they've been eating and dripping all over themselves. It's not a glamorous film. It's rough. It's real. You feel the grit and dirt in it. When your stand in the desert all day, you are dying for a shower.

For more on Logan, check out THR's interviews with James Mangold, Patrick Stewart, screenwriter Scott Frank and the Logan team about the tragic flashback they cut from the script.

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