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“We’re Trying to Rebel Against the System”: Pros From ‘Dune’, ‘West Side Story’ and the THR Cinematographer Roundtable

Cinematographers of 'Tick, Tick ... Boom!,' 'Last Night in Soho,' 'The Tragedy of Macbeth,' 'The Power of the Dog' and 'Belfast' also talk about subjects from rest periods to gun safety in the aftermath of the tragedy on the set of 'Rust.'

The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Cinematographer Roundtable was recorded remotely on Nov. 8, as the film community was reeling from the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust. It was also held days before IATSE membership began voting on a new contract (which has since been ratified by a narrow margin), meaning that topics including rest periods and the use of guns on set were top of mind. During the conversation, cinematographers Alice Brooks (Netflix’s Tick, Tick … Boom! and Warner Bros.’ In the Heights), Chung Chung-hoon (Focus Features’ Last Night in Soho), Bruno Delbonnel (A24/Apple TV+’s The Tragedy of Macbeth), Greig Fraser (Warner Bros.’ Dune), Janusz Kaminski (20th Century Studios’ West Side Story), Ari Wegner (Netflix’s The Power of the Dog) and Haris Zambarloukos (Focus Features’ Belfast) spoke frankly about these issues, as well as their work on their latest films.

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We have several musicals this year. Alice, would you like to start by telling us about working with Lin-Manuel Miranda to conceive the theatrical look of Tick, Tick … Boom!?

ALICE BROOKS The movie is about Jonathan Larson, who wrote the musical Rent. It takes place in 1990, New York. Jonathan Larson lived in a tenement apartment and had this incredible artist’s life where his friends were really his family. In 1990, I was 10 years old and my father was a playwright, and our tenement apartment was filled with all his artist friends. I had this incredible connection to the material. The first page of my lookbook ended up being my family photos.

Lin wanted New York to feel like what he remembered the West Village being when he was 10 in 1990, and I had that memory, in the mind of a 10-year-old where color and light and emotions are heightened, and Jonathan Larson is this very childlike human being. Sometimes the lines between dreams and reality are blurred, and that was our jumping-off point — finding the musical within that childlike mind and the blurriness between reality and dreams.

You also filmed In the Heights for Jon Chu.

BROOKS [We were] inspired by the community itself. And we found this Instagram feed called Uptown Collective. We created the look of In the Heights from this — from wanting things to feel very real at moments and intimate at moments, and then going into these big, epic musical numbers.

The 1961 West Side Story is a classic. With this in mind, Janusz, how did you and Steven Spielberg approach your movie?

JANUSZ KAMINSKI My reference was not the movie. My reference was the knowledge of what the original Broadway performance would have looked like. The sense of reality had to be not necessarily altered because it was a Broadway performance, but it’s a musical, so the moment you have people in an environment and they sing, you are entering a completely different world. Not fantasy, but just the world of the musical. And this was really stimulating for all of us because we had a chance to create a musical on such a scale that did pay homage to a classical Broadway performance, and automatically that concept and the time frame and the costumes and the music did drive the whole visual concept and execution of the movie.

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The DP (left), who lensed Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick … Boom!, signed a letter, along with other cinematographers, urging a ban of firearms on film sets after the tragic shooting on the set of Rust. Macall Polay/Warner Bros/Everett Collection

Can you talk about your approach to the scene during which Tony meets Maria on the fire escape?

KAMINSKI The song [“Tonight”] is so beautiful. The principle of the ideas, though, reflect the possibility of the romance and love that is brewing between these two people. Clearly the lighting would reflect that kind of a romance and that kind of a fantasy moment in their lives. We shot for about two nights [on location] and then we built our own facade on the stage at the Brooklyn Shipyard, simply because we had freedom to stay there all night or all day and we didn’t have to worry about disturbing the neighborhood. Also because of the safety involved in the particular scene; Ansel [Elgort, who plays Tony] has to climb across the facade of the staircases to meet her, so we had to put him on wires. It’s what I remember as a young man watching American movies. It’s just a beautiful homage to classical musicals.

Greig, Dune was your first pairing with Denis Villeneuve and locations included Jordan and Abu Dhabi. What was the most challenging location and why?

GREIG FRASER It’s always challenging when you move away from your comfort base, and generally the comfort base is where your infrastructure is. Abu Dhabi probably ended up being the most challenging; we went there with 15 people and Denis was absolutely diligent about keeping 15 people, which meant we were limited by what we could do. But those limitations ended up being probably the best time that we had on the entire movie — going from this big production to this tiny little film.

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In his first outing with director Denis Villeneuve, the DP says location shoots for Dune took place with a scaled-down crew of 15 people, which made the Warner Bros. epic seem like an intimate production. Courtesy of Chia Bella James/Warner Bros.

Chung, you were shooting on location in the middle of Soho in London. What was that experience like?

CHUNG CHUNG-HOON It was amazing because we tried to capture London central and then Soho at night. Everyone was very excited: “We can shoot in the middle of Soho!” Lighting-wise, I couldn’t set up big lights and you cannot control every road, but that’s a situation I like.

Bruno, The Tragedy of Macbeth is black-and-white with echoes of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. What was the approach that you discussed with Joel Coen?

BRUNO DELBONNEL Joel called me about three years ago. He said, “I want to do this little movie. It’s five weeks, everything onstage. It’s Macbeth.” It happened to be slightly bigger than what he wanted, but we shot everything onstage because they didn’t want to go to Scotland and he didn’t want to go to a castle. It was about theatricality. … Now it’s just to get rid of any ornamentation. A wall is a wall, a staircase is a staircase; it’s not Gothic or whatever. And then it was really about the language of Shakespeare. When we watched The Passion of Joan of Arc, we said that’s probably where we wanted to go.

FRASER There have been a lot of film adaptations of Macbeth. I’m assuming you guys avoided those? Or not? How did you go about that?

DELBONNEL We watched them all. The best being Kurosawa’s [Throne of Blood], I mean, for me anyway. But we didn’t use them as references. The look of it is really [Ingmar] Bergman and Dreyer, very Scandinavian.

Haris, you also used black-and-white on Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. Can you talk about planning that look?

HARIS ZAMBARLOUKOS Ken had written this during lockdown, and it was about his childhood. Once we came out of lockdown, we took a trip to Belfast. He described his childhood and we walked through the streets together. [Branagh would say], “This is where my cousins lived. This is where I played football.” That was quite a different approach to making a film than I’ve been used to. It opened up, for all of us, a sense of our memories of childhood — how do you remember it and how do you see it now? In that regard, we were trying to find a way that avoided distractions and took the viewer into a place where they could feel a lot of the emotions that are described in the story. We concluded on a mixture of color and black-and-white. We opened with modern Belfast, a descriptive ode to the city. Color is a really vivid, descriptive medium, but the more intimate human-condition portraits I’ve seen seem to have a more direct, more lucid portrayal in black-and-white. It seems to allow the audience to know what the actors are feeling.

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The cinematographer (fifth from right) lensed Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film Belfast, marking his fifth collaboration with the director. Courtesy of Rob Youngson/Focus Features

Ari, The Power of the Dog was your first pairing with Jane Campion. What did you discuss in preproduction, and how did you approach the look?

ARI WEGNER It’s a film that takes place in the 1920s on a very isolated cattle ranch, and essentially it’s the kind of world where people can’t talk about what they’re really feeling. It’s a film with very little exposition in terms of the dialogue. It’s inherently visual. For us, it was [about] how you find the visual manifestations of what they’re all going through.

We spent about a year together before we shot to be able to scout and translate those big themes into visuals. … [We also explored] how to make a film where the camera is not, I guess you call it emotionally manipulative — the camera’s not telling you what to think but leaves it to you to put your own judgment and feeling. It’s a film about first impressions.

In terms of diversity in the cinematography ranks, what’s changing and what is still most needed?

WEGNER [I look forward to when] we don’t have to talk about diversity anymore and it’s just solved. The mind-set has definitely changed. There’s a lot more awareness, and then there’s also the reality that it takes a long time to be trained. It might be a little while still, unfortunately, until we see what we really want to see. But there always has been a kind of gatekeeper culture to filmmaking. What we can do tangibly as DPs is create opportunities. There are also bigger things like childcare and stuff, if we’re going to really support people. I think we are also missing out on all those great people that could otherwise be in the film industry.

BROOKS For years, I was the only woman in a scout van. On Tick, Tick … Boom!, Lin was almost the only man in the scout van. He hired so many women and so many people of color who came from all different backgrounds. It was really a lovely experience to be in that world where diversity was just there and no one talked about it.

CHUNG For me, it’s not [about the gender or color of the] DP. It doesn’t matter to me — it’s who has talent and who understands the movie that is more important.

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For director Jane Campion’s Western The Power of the Dog, the cinematographer (left) made sure that the camera was capturing the story rather than telling the audience how to react to it. Courtesy of Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

IATSE members are a few days away from voting on a new contract, but throughout the negotiation period, and even before it, there’s been a lot of attention on the subject of rest periods and turnaround time. Bruno, you’re among the cinematographers who recently signed a petition urging the studios to address the topic. Would you elaborate?

DELBONNEL It’s been a long time since [the late Oscar-winning cinematographer] Haskell Wexler was doing something [to address the subject] decades ago. Even if I’ve been treated very well by producers that I’ve been working with, you can see that working 16 hours a day doesn’t make any sense. We say that after 10 hours we’re tired — what takes us five minutes to do in the morning takes us an hour in the evening. It has to change. But the main thing is people shouldn’t die because they worked long hours. I remember it was years ago when I was shooting in New York and a guy fell asleep driving his car and he died. He had a car accident.

KAMINSKI It’s an issue of being exploited by the system. Clearly we are at the point right now where we’re trying to stand up against the system that’s been structured to have a minimum of 14 hours and pay us well, but at the same time demand total dedication. As we’re getting older, as the world is changing around us, we’re trying to rebel against the system, but it’s a good rebellion. It should change. But, you know, it’s a tough thing to deal with all those changes, particularly now during COVID, where there’s so much money being spent on COVID [precautions] and somehow they’re trying to justify the long hours by saying, “We need to somehow make up the financial reality.” At the same time, I worked for Roger Corman when I was 32 years old. We were working 16, 18 hours and we loved it. … [Our job requires] a total commitment.

DELBONNEL I think we should have a life besides working. That’s all I’m saying. I haven’t worked in France for 17 years, but when I was doing Amelie, at 6 o’clock I was home. It’s not about a fight against the producers, it’s just … slow down a little bit. Not seeing your children, those years are gone.

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For director Joel Coen’s black-and white adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the cinematographer (far right) referenced the stark films of Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Courtesy of Alison Rosa/Apple Tv+

WEGNER What we’re talking about is the very end result. I can’t count the number of times I’ve almost had to pull over and sleep on the side of the road because I thought I couldn’t drive home — and then it turns out after 20 minutes, you’re exhausted. But we’re talking about the very end of the chain. The decisions that led to that, in my opinion, go back to the start of the chain when someone decided, “We have a script, we want to make it, this is how much we think it’s going to cost and then this is how much we can get for it.” There’s a decision at some point that says, “Well, let’s make it anyway. We’ll just figure it out and everyone will cut 1,200 corners and we’ll get there.” I do love the spirit of that, but the reality is really difficult and dangerous. At what point do we say, “We don’t have the money to make this movie,” or, “How can we tell the same story and change some fundamental things so we can make it for the money we have?”

FRASER The point that Janusz made about the passion when he was young, doing 16-hour days, is very right. Everybody who’s talking here has that passion or has had that passion. Every one of my crewmembers has had that passion or have that passion. The point that Bruno is getting at, which is very real, is that current productions [are] feeding off that passion. There are people willing to work those 16 hours because they love films. As DPs, we work for a chunk [of time] and then we might have a little bit of time off. Directors might have years off. Maybe everybody on this Zoom call is probably better-paid, but I don’t believe [production crews] are well paid. We’re taking a chunk of people’s lives. And I think the industry is feeding on those passions.

[What is needed is] limitations that say you can have your passionate crew, but here’s when they’ve got to go home. Here’s their turnaround. Here’s their pay. So that at least we’re protecting the most vulnerable on our crew. I mean, you look at that stuff in New Mexico. Their camera department walked, but that’s a rarity.

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While lensing Edgar Wright’s time-hopping psychological thriller Last Night in Soho, the DP captured the busy world of Central London and the neon-colored nightlife of Soho after dark. Courtesy of Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features

Greig, you referenced the recent tragedy on the set of Rust in New Mexico. We don’t yet know the details of what happened on that particular set, but overall, do you think sets are safe, or do you think new safety measures need to be put in place?

FRASER I think overall sets are safe. I haven’t been on an unsafe set, and if I have, I have said something. I don’t think broadly you can say sets are safe or unsafe. I believe the things we’re talking about right now are making things more unsafe. And as Ari pointed out, it’s the end result of 50 or 100 people all being absolutely dead-tired in week seven of a shoot. Then you start getting into unsafe territory. The thing I hear about the Coens, and tell me if I’m wrong, Bruno, is that it’s a 10 hour day and they make it fit into that time. That’s a rarity.

DELBONNEL When I worked with the Coens — and I’ve done four movies with them — they don’t have a lot of money. Usually it’s a budget of around $20 million, which is very low. But they write accordingly to fit the schedule, to fit the budget. And when there are budget issues, they address it. And then suddenly you can wrap it in the afternoon.

The logic of the money is driving me crazy in some ways. I’ve worked on big [movies] — Harry Potter was a $250 million budget. But sometimes you just want to say, “I’m sorry, we can’t shoot this in one day. We need two days. It’s ridiculous to shoot it in one day.” That’s when it becomes dangerous. And that’s when you know a lot of problems occur.

Alice, you were among hundreds of cinematographers who recently signed a letter urging a ban on functional firearms on set.

BROOKS I am incredibly affected by what happened [on the set of Rust]. I slept in my daughter’s bed for a week afterward just holding her all night. I signed that letter because we all share passions. I knew I wanted to be a DP when I was 15 years old; it is completely my dream life, but I had two dreams. The other was to be a mom, and I have this wonderful little girl. The fact that Halyna Hutchins doesn’t get to go home to her son ever again, the fact that her son doesn’t have a mother anymore — that’s why I signed that letter. I strongly believe we all should go home every night and feel safe and not have to have anxiety or fears that we are working in unsafe environments. I feel very strongly that there is no need for a real firearm on set any longer.

WEGNER I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but I feel like I’m always fighting for enough prep time. I don’t know if it’s a solution, it’s not directly related, but once the clock starts ticking, it’s much harder to speak up. Some decisions can be made earlier — let’s make a plan so we can do a reasonable amount of shots per day, but that also requires investing in the prep.

FRASER We’re at a level where we’re working with directors that care, working with producers that care. But I’m watching other sets and I’m hearing other stories. As Alice just pointed out, it’s those people we need to keep our eyes peeled for and help. We’ve all come from a place where we’ve done small indies with no unions and very low budgets. And we’ll take on risks. I can’t tell you how many risks I’ve taken in my life when I was younger. We have to help protect those sets.

ZAMBARLOUKOS I think it’s quite simple in the issue of Rust. A loaded firearm of any sort — whether it be a blank [or not] — has no effect on the cinematography or the outcome of a film. It only has an effect on the reaction to an actor. We don’t need loaded firearms on a set. They could always try acting. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think it’s any more complicated.

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The two-time Oscar winner, for Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List (seventh from right), has collaborated with director Steven Spielberg for decades, including on this year’s adaptation of the Broadway musical West Side Story. Courtesy of Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

Looking to the coming years, with these issues, as well as the impact of the pandemic, what permanent changes do you anticipate seeing in production?

FRASER I’m seeing a bit of a shift in the way we prep a movie. Now, we may not have to all get on a plane and scout a foreign location all at once. We could work with 360 cameras and virtual headsets. Nothing’s quite the same as standing on a plain in New Zealand with your director, talking. But to actually see city streets in advance without having to waste the world’s finite energy sources — I guess to be more frugal and more economical with our choices, I think that’s going to happen. Virtual production is a hot buzz term at the moment. Everyone likes to fly a flag that they’re doing stuff virtually; there are real benefits to that for some things — but not everything.

DELBONNEL There’s definitely something to be done about ecology and not flying and green sets.

WEGNER I feel sick by the amount of waste I see on set — even just trying to find a recycling bin on a film set. I think the film industry is being really slow. It will probably be lumped with the dinosaur industries if we don’t do something soon to make ourselves sustainable.

FRASER There’s got to be some balance. Studios [are] saying we want to be green, but they’ve also got to go, “Here’s our flight limit.” Or, “Here’s how many kilowatts per day you’re allowed.” Obviously that’s going to limit us as DPs. But how can we make those choices?

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.