Creative Arts Emmys: 'Normal Heart' DP Danny Moder on Working With Ryan Murphy and Wife Julia Roberts

The Normal Heart Writer Races - H 2014
Jojo Whilden/HBO

The Normal Heart Writer Races - H 2014

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

After spending years behind the camera on such feature films as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Spider-Man 3, Danny Moder has been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding cinematography for The Normal Heart, HBO's contending film based on Larry Kramer's play about the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. Directed by Ryan Murphy, the film earned 16 Emmy nominations and was shot in New York on Kodak film at a time when Kodak's stakeholders are trying desperately to keep the company alive. Here, Moder, 45, reveals why he shot the feature on film, how AIDS influenced the tonal changes throughout the movie and why he loved working with his wife, Emmy-nominated Heart co-star Julia Roberts.

What inspired you to shoot on film?

Primarily, the period begged for it. It was a movie set in the '80s -- and it was an option we wanted to take advantage of. A lot of it had to do with Ryan Murphy, who just loves to shoot film. It allows us the beautiful opportunity to see what the lab has found [once the film has developed]. We loved the results. We primarily used two stocks: 5219, the 500 Tungsten film stock; or the 5207, the 250 daylight. I didn't want to take too many chances on more exotic film even though I wanted to; it still feels trepidatious as to how much film to order how far out, in case we became too accustomed to a stock and then it became unavailable. So I went with some basic ones and it turned out really well.

What was your overall approach to the photography in order to capture the pain and drama inherent to the story?

The film starts in the summer of 1981 on Fire Island. The concept is, it was bright and beautiful and promising. They're at the beach, and it's colorful and saturated. Ultimately they start seeing signs of this disease popping up, and they don't know what it is or where it's coming from. It's mysterious and scary, so we start to slowly get into more muted tones as we move from the beach into the city. Early '80s New York is not the New York we know now -- there's piled-up trash and graffiti, and there's the mystery of the disease. It was a different character than what you saw on the beach. It slowly got even more dark; things weren't as obvious and there was much more side light. At the end of the film, you see that there's some promise and it lightens back up as Mark [Ruffalo] attends a dance at Yale.

What was your favorite scene?

I like the transition into the third act, when our heroes in the grassroots movement are trying to get a meeting with the mayor to let him know the issues. Where they met was an underground, sort of storage room. We beat the room up and I had one light flickering; it was nice to show that everything is breaking down.

You first met Ryan when your wife, Julia Roberts, starred in his film Eat, Pray, Love. What did you enjoy about working with him?

We felt very comfortable talking to each other about movies. And Ryan has so many creative thoughts! For Heart, he really wanted to get it right -- I think everybody did. He needed to be careful, not only because so many people knew the Broadway play, but also in honor of the lives that were lost. The biggest challenges were getting the locations and the actors. Once Ryan got those broad strokes, a palette that he OK'd, he gave me a lot of creative freedom. We developed a quick shorthand about lighting, where the camera is going to go and how we were going to construct a scene. He gave us a great canvas, and from there, let us do the work. I think Ryan is very proud of the end result.

What was it like to work again with your wife, who played Dr. Emma Brookner in the film?

It was good. What was tricky for her role was being in a wheelchair. She needed to make it look like it was something she did her whole life. Sometimes it was difficult for her to hit her mark right next to the camera for an over the shoulder. I'd muscle her chair while we were rolling, asking the operator if we were in a good spot. I think it helped. It was a challenging role. There were some nuances she found out about while doing research on her character, and I loved watching that reveal itself. It wasn't a sexy role, but, wow, what she brought to it, I was really impressed.