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Cinematographer Roundtable: Cons of CG, Betraying Oliver Stone and When to Quit a Film

Six top directors of photography — Robert Richardson ('The Hateful Eight'), Alwin Kuchler ('Steve Jobs'), Danny Cohen ('The Danish Girl,' 'Room'), Linus Sandgren ('Joy'), Masanobu Takayanagi ('Black Mass,' 'Spotlight') and Mandy Walker ('Truth') — share their biggest mistakes, why digital effects are changing the field and how to keep film alive.

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

What’s the greatest skill a cinematographer needs? “Having a strong bladder,” quipped Alwin Kuchler (Steve Jobs) in a rare moment of irreverence among six top directors of photography. In fact, that could be the easiest part of the craft, as DPs now are required to navigate increasingly powerful directors, studios that can alter their work on a whim and the pressure to employ digital effects so heavily it becomes almost another job — which is why Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight), 60, argues it’s time for separate Academy Awards categories: one for old-school cinematography and the other for work with heavy effects. He and Kuchler, 50, were joined by Danny Cohen (The Danish Girl, Room), 52; Linus Sandgren (Joy), 43; Masanobu Takayanagi (Black Mass, Spotlight), 41; and Mandy Walker (Truth), 52, for THR‘s annual cinematographer roundtable.

What’s the toughest part of being a cinematographer?

RICHARDSON Having a good director. The better your director, the better your work’s going to be, especially in combination with a great production designer. I had it with Quentin [Tarantino]. I had it with [Oliver Stone]. I had it with [Marty Scorsese]. And they’re relatively word-oriented people: The script is the most important thing.

initial instinct was to not go with the standard look of a postapocalyptic film, the life-of-the-planet-is-coming-to-an-end-and-it’s-miserable look.””]

Did your long relationship with Tarantino help Hateful Eight?

RICHARDSON There’s a little bit of shorthand. But Quentin’s extraordinarily well prepared.

KUCHLER How much prep time do you ask for?

RICHARDSON Eight weeks is usually what I get. On this it was longer because it was 65mm, and no one had shot with [Panavision Ultra 70] lenses [since the ‘60s]. I came in and out, but it lasted for almost three months, going to commercials, going in and out. The lenses, they haven’t been used for years. I saw them in a back room [at Panavision] and didn’t know what they were, and they were magnificent. They were like nothing I’ve ever seen. I went with my camera assistant, and while they were fiddling with some things, I walked through a little netted?off area, and over in the far back corner, in a very dark part of this little room, were these lenses. They were shaped like wedges. It was remarkable.

Are things different when you’re working with a first?time director?

WALKER I’ve worked with a few first?time directors, and it’s always been a different experience. On Truth, the film I just shot with Jamie Vanderbilt, because he was a scriptwriter he had a very clear idea of story. He also had a vision for the movie. But he’s never been in a position to make [directorial] decisions. So what I did was, we started testing and I showed him lenses and how the cameras were working.

SANDGREN My first film, the directors were also first?timers. We did a super-precise storyboard that we followed completely. But the more you learn, the more you let the acting and the whole film impact you. What’s interesting with David [O. Russell] is that he processes the production as a constant, evolving creature. He’s never saying, “Here is the shooting script. This is what the film is going to be.” [But] all cinematography has to be based on the vision of the director.

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“I don’t think about being a woman in my job. I think of just being a cinematographer,” says Walker.

Have any of you quit because you disagreed with that vision?

COHEN I walked off a film as an assistant because it was really, really boring. I was the clapper loader. Life is too short. It reached the point where I could not go on. I didn’t work for quite a while.

KUCHLER I had a standoff once with a director, Michael Winterbottom. It was a year after my first film, Ratcatcher [1999], and I walked into this new film [2000’s The Claim], and there was one scene where apparently I used too much light — a night exterior. And Michael wanted just to use available light. I said, “Michael, it’s not going to work. You’re just going to see a sea of little dots.” “No, no. It’s going to be fine.” I was fortunate enough that I had a test to show him that it didn’t work. But I felt so exasperated that I said, “Look, if filmmaking is that nerve?racking, it’s probably not for me. If that’s the way you want to do it, you’re probably better off to find a documentary guy.” It was the first time I really had to stand up and say I really, truly believed it wouldn’t work. And then we came back and negotiated how I would light it.

What did you learn from that?

KUCHLER I guess we all truly have to try to understand what the director [wants] to achieve and how he’s trying to achieve it — but also be the devil’s advocate. There should be some friction, with all the creativity.

TAKAYANAGI I think so. It’s a good challenge.

COHEN It’s not necessarily friction. You want to be working with directors who are always going to push you. You could tread water, quite happily.

SANDGREN But it’s also our job to fight for the film. And if the director and you have that collaboration, you can have those fights.

COHEN When you’re not in a comfort zone, you end up producing stuff where you surprise yourself.

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“He’s like a bad brother. I nearly died on a number of occasions with him,” Richardson says about Oliver Stone.

Danny, Tom Hooper said you’re a real maverick on set. Why?

COHEN (Laughs.) He might say I’m a maverick, but I think he’s an anarchist, which is potentially worse. He’s always going to throw something at you that’s completely unexpected. I just feed off that, to never be certain what might turn up that day. You can do as much prep as you can, but sometimes you can prep interesting situations out of existence. There’s a gray place where things happen that you never, ever expect.

WALKER I like to have a challenge. I did a film called Jane Got a Gun, where I had to take over from Darius Khondji, and I had no prep, and I had to walk in on the first day. I’d never met the director before, and I said, “Hi, I’m Mandy. What are we doing?” The director was Gavin O’Connor [hired after Lynne Ramsay exited the picture]. I was actually really excited about it, because I’m in a position in my career where I feel comfortable working on the fly, and Gavin can think really quickly. So once we had a very quick discussion about what the film was and the story he wanted to tell — and the script did change a lot during the shooting — I just worked from a gut feeling.

KUCHLER It’s somewhat liberating, isn’t it? You don’t have to blame yourself for the short prep time.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as cinematographers?

RICHARDSON Signing on to certain films I shouldn’t have made. I took my name off World War Z. It was a digital show. We worked very hard coming up with lookup tables [a digital roadmap]. They were pretty radical, but they were a look the studio had agreed upon. There was no disagreement with the studio, nor the director. Then they dropped it all. They chose their own lookup tables. And a little later, they decided they were going to release it in 3D. I felt I was at a point in my life where: “OK, you have to take some strength for all of us that can’t. So Paramount’s going to be angry with me. It’s going to result in conflict.” And I said I was willing to take that conflict on, because no one’s protecting us. If the studio has a right to change your things, you hope to have some artistic position to battle them.

“He might have said I was a maverick, but I think he’s an anarchist,” Cohen says about Tom Hooper.

Were there any make negative consequences?

RICHARDSON I haven’t seen Paramount send me one script for a few years.

TAKAYANAGI It feels like every day’s a mistake. But mistakes [can be] a good thing, you know. I try to always feed off the mistake.

KUCHLER I sometimes really like my mistakes.

WALKER Everybody does mistakes throughout your career, because you’re always trying to do different things. But I agree with Masa. I look at my mistakes and I learn. That’s why I do a little testing before a film, because every movie offers a different opportunity for you to try stuff.

Mandy, as a woman in a male-dominated industry, are things harder?

WALKER I don’t think about being a woman in my job; I think of just being a cinematographer. It’s changing. A lot of people have looked at the figures and seen how few women there are in my job, whereas before they didn’t really think about it. I see a lot more women in the camera department. You know, I have interns, and half of them are women. I don’t want to be treated specially for being a woman in my job; I just want to have equal opportunities.

RICHARDSON I think women are vital. I wish there were less men and more women.

COHEN In the U.K., there are definitely more women in the camera department as focus pullers [and in other jobs] than there were 10 years ago. And that’s a huge change.

KUCHLER Danny Boyle, who was a great director to work with, actually sent the word out to all ADs [assistant directors] to make a special effort to employ African?Americans or women. When it came from the very top, it made a real difference.

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“There always needs to be something that slightly scares and challenges you,” says Kuchler.

Bob, you mentioned Oliver Stone. Why did you stop working with him?

RICHARDSON I took a Marty [Scorsese] movie, and [Stone’s] film got delayed. It could have fit, but he felt it was a betrayal. There’s one line — you’re either on this side or that side. And I wanted to work with him; I even wanted to work with him when he was going to do the second Wall Street. [I said,] “Why didn’t you hire me?” He said, “Because you have too much fire in the belly,” that he and I would have friction. He’s like a bad brother. It’s a great pleasure. I love it. But he can be brutal. I nearly died on a number of occasions with him as the director.

Who taught you the most?

WALKER I learned a lot from Baz Luhrmann when I did Australia [in 2008]. That was the largest film I’d done. I was running a lot of different units, and my department was a hundred people, and I’d never done that before. He said, “You’re not just an artist. You also have to consider yourself a general. And there are two parts you have to play, and [both are] very important.”

Are you comfortable with that?

WALKER Yes, I am. It’s about delegating. Before, I’d always operated on films, and it was about saying, “I’m not going to jump on the camera, and I’m going to have three camera operators going. And I have to keep the vision consistent.”

TAKAYANAGI We have to be [generals]. And you have to be able to communicate, to deliver your ideas to all the people. Our art is not just, “We can do everything.”

KUCHLER There always needs to be something that slightly scares and challenges you. I loved the script for Steve Jobs, but a week before we started shooting, Danny and I were getting nervous, because of all of the words — you know, where are our moments to visually bring something interesting in? It was a strange experience, because normally we look for the visuals, and I didn’t have that. And it was a very specific challenge: How do you best support the actors, given they have to remember so many words? After nine hours, they were just done. They were like computers shutting down. We had to accept that.

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“I wanted to be a baseball player. I guess I wasn’t big enough,” Takayanagi says about his early aspirations.

How is modern technology changing what you do?

COHEN People are watching films on their phones now. So we’re striving for these fantastic, epic images — and a huge percentage of people are going to watch on a screen that size. I feel conflicted. It’s an impossible situation. And then you have your 70mm Imax, and it blows you away. But the audience is fragmenting.

KUCHLER I used to like when the dailies came back and there were fluctuations from day to day in your rushes. Because I was discovering something in all these different looks. (To Richardson) For your film, they must have actually made the film stock, right?

RICHARDSON They had to make the stock. They also did 2,000-feet reels for us. They made the [film stock] magazine so Quentin could do longer takes with his dialogue.

KUCHLER And the labs?

RICHARDSON Only one lab in the world for us: FotoKem.

Everyone’s using more CG and green screen. Do you like that?

KUCHLER I love directors who think of every way of avoiding it, because when you spend a week in front of a green screen, it drains the energy of everybody, especially the actors.

RICHARDSON I wish there were two categories for Academy Awards. There are films that are shot relatively normal, and then there are films that are shot with all visual effects. And yet they’re put in the same categories. I mean, I love Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki]; Gravity was shot with brilliant ideas in mind, but as a visual effects film. I know people that actually thought, in Life of Pi, they really got those shots of the whales. Really? Got a shot of the whales, did they?

“No one has an idea of what we do. I asked the taxi driver, ‘What is a cinematographer?’ And he didn’t have a clue,” says Sandgren.

Is enough being done to keep film alive?

KUCHLER I still love film and I still feel, when I work with film, that I can induce something more soulful and express myself better.

COHEN The problem in London is the infrastructure is falling away. All the technicians who have years and years of knowledge — that’s just evaporating.

SANDGREN We’re still going to need film. You can do things with film that you can’t [digitally] unless you spend millions of dollars in post. And it also has a certain amount of soul. Maybe digital is better for certain films, and maybe Super 8 is better for certain films, and maybe Carol looks beautiful because it’s Super 16. And maybe Hateful Eight looks beautiful because it’s 65mm. It’s a huge limitation to not have the option to choose.

KUCHLER You need directors who are just as passionate about it as we are, and say no [to digital]. (To Walker) You told me a really interesting thing: in order to be able to shoot on film [whose costs are higher], you lost a position on your crew, right?

WALKER On Tracks, a film I did with John Curran, he was passionate about us shooting film out in the desert. And the numbers kept coming back, saying it was too expensive, because we had to ship the negative out. So he let go of the script supervisor position to be able to shoot on film. That was the sacrifice he made.

Did you discuss that with Truth?

WALKER No. From our very early discussions, Jamie said he felt digital was the right way to go, because we could do long takes. And most of the film was set in offices and boardrooms. It was the right decision.

Have any of you thought of directing?

RICHARDSON No. Not seriously. I just want to be better at what I do.

SANDGREN I’ve learned so much from working with great directors. I realize I don’t know at all as much about directing as, for example, David O. Russell. I express myself, thanks to the relationship with a director.

COHEN I have no desire to direct. I don’t think I’ve got the kind of overview that you need.

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Growing up, what other careers did you think of?

KUCHLER I was becoming a comic artist.

SANDGREN Me too. I was illustrating a lot, like drawing cartoons and stuff. But I also wanted to be Jacques Cousteau and travel around the oceans, figuring out what the whales are talking about.

WALKER I knew when I was really young, I wanted to be a cinematographer, because I loved photography and I loved cinema.

RICHARDSON I wish I had a great voice and a wonderful way to play a guitar.

TAKAYANAGI I wanted to be a baseball player when I was a kid. I guess I wasn’t big enough.

COHEN I previously did a degree in social sciences. That’s where I was heading, but I went off track.

What’s most misunderstood about your job?

SANDGREN No one has an idea of what we do. I asked the taxi driver [today], “What is a cinematographer?” And he didn’t have a clue.

WALKER I was an artist in residence at UCLA, and a couple of people said to me, “Don’t you just make cool shots? And don’t you just sit there thinking cool images?” And I said, “No. You’re there to tell the story.” In Truth, we wanted to make it subtle: There’s a lot of people talking in very small rooms, and at the beginning there’s more color and the camera moves quite a bit. By the end we had almost a black room and black clothing. It was all about faces.

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When you’re working with actors, is precise lighting difficult?

WALKER If I was doing something extreme, I would tell them.

COHEN What’s changed is that directors definitely like the freedom to let the actors do what they’re after, to come up with stuff that might not necessarily be scripted. So sometimes you have to light spaces, as opposed to specific chairs or whatever. On Room, we went in with that notion, because Jake [actor Jacob Tremblay] was 7. Trying to pin him down to anything would have been exceptionally unfair. [It was about] giving the kid freedom.

When you’re working with a star like Johnny Depp, do you do things differently?

TAKAYANAGI I don’t know if we did anything differently, to be honest. But I also lit the set as a space. It was very appropriate [for his character] that we left it shadowy and sometimes didn’t even see his eyes. We had great actors, and it was great to be by the camera and witness the great performances.

SANDGREN Different actors have different needs. I mean, Jennifer [Lawrence] looks gorgeous in any light. The key to everything is to have such a relationship with actors on set that you feel a mutual respect and can talk about those things.

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You’re all away so much. How does that affect your personal lives?

COHEN It’s crap. I’ve got four kids, so I’m always in deep trouble about being away for a length of time. I don’t know what the solution is.

WALKER I’m lucky that my husband used to be a chef and decided to be a full?time dad when our daughter was born. But it’s hard.

RICHARDSON I made the singular decision to devote my life to film at the expense of family.

Do you regret that?


THR’s Roundtables air on Sundance TV. The shows air Sunday at 8 a.m. PT on channel 557 on DirecTV, 126 on Dish nationwide and at 11 a.m. ET/PT on cable (channel 625 on TWC in L.A., 94 in NYC).

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