“When I wanted to be a cinematographer, somebody said to me, ‘Girls don’t do that job,’ ” Disney’s Mulan director of photography Mandy Walker admits, adding that she’s recently seen an uptick in representation. “It’s a little slower in our world, but it’s definitely changing.” Agreeing with Walker at THR‘s virtual Cinematographer Roundtable on Dec. 12 were DPs Damian Garcia of Netflix’s I’m No Longer Here; Erik Messerschmidt of Netflix’s Mank; Tami Reiker of Amazon’s One Night in Miami and Netflix’s The Old Guard; Joshua James Richards of Searchlight’s Nomadland; and Dariusz Wolski of Universal’s News of the World. Inspiration, diversity and the future of theatrical exhibition drove the conversation. “Seeing people congregate together wearing masks in the middle of a plague … was one of those moments for me where I was just like, ‘I’m a filmmaker for life now.’ It made me realize I’m kind of ready to go down with the ship, to be honest,” recalls Richards of Nomadland‘s drive-in premiere in September. “If filmmaking stops being about that, people coming together, congregating for an experience that’s awe-inspiring, I might prefer to do something else.”
Who are some of the cinematographers who have influenced your work?
ERIK MESSERSCHMIDT Well, two of them are on this Roundtable. Dariusz and Tami have been important people in my life. I was a gaffer for a long time, so I’ve been really lucky to have people to look up to, and I’m eternally grateful to all of them for that guidance.
DARIUSZ WOLSKI I grew up on Italian movies, European movies, so Gianni Di Venanzo [8 1/2] and then Sven Nykvist [Fanny and Alexander] … and [for] American ones, of course, Gregg Toland [Citizen Kane] and James Wong Howe [Hud].
MANDY WALKER For me it was the ones that I grew up with, John Seale [The English Patient] and Russell Boyd [Master and Commander]. Robbie Mueller [Paris, Texas] was one of my favorite influences. Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe [too]. They all had different styles and came from different eras.
A few of you mentioned Gregg Toland, so Erik, how did Toland inspire your work on Mank?
MESSERSCHMIDT Oh God, in so many ways. I was terrified, honestly. The movie provides context for our film, but it’s very different from Citizen Kane in a lot of ways. So it was more of a springboard, and we certainly borrowed things. David [Fincher] was very specific about the things he wanted to reference. Deep focus was something we were for sure going to do. A lot of that comes from Citizen Kane, but also it just comes from black and white.
Joshua and Dariusz, you both shot movies in the American West. Would each of you talk about your approach to your stories?
JOSHUA JAMES RICHARDS By the time Nomadland rolled around, Chloé [Zhao, director] and I had worked on two other movies in the heartland. At this point, I’m probably more familiar with Wall Drug, South Dakota than I am anywhere in [home country] England. So for us, we were really excited to make a road movie in these places that we’d fallen in love with. My dad raised me on Anthony Mann and John Ford, so I always had this fascination with the heartlands of the American West and the cinema that came out of that.
WOLSKI It’s kind of the same. We all grew up on Westerns. Our approach was to take all this in and just make a contemporary movie. Paul Greengrass comes from a documentary background being a combat reporter — so you know, the camera’s shaking. This movie [incorporates] handheld, but it doesn’t look like it’s handheld.
Tami, you worked with Regina King on One Night in Miami and then with Gina Prince-Bythewood on The Old Guard. What was it like working with each director?
TAMI REIKER Regina King — this is our first film together and her first feature film [as director] — definitely had a very clear vision of the film she wanted to make. For these four iconic Black men, we based a lot of our references on historical accuracy. That was very important to her. We used a lot of references from [photographers] Neil Leifer and Eve Arnold and [Muhammad Ali biographer] Howard Bingham. Cassius Clay and Malcolm X were so photographed, we had a lot of material to work with. We actually re-created a lot of photographs, like the shot of Cassius Clay in the swimming pool.
And then Gina Prince-Bythewood on The Old Guard, for both of us it was the largest film that we had done and the most action. So it was great to go through that experience together.
Mandy, tell us about working with Niki Caro on Mulan.
WALKER I had never worked with her before; she’s a great storyteller. We did a lot of research, looking at Chinese cinema, art, photography and martial arts films that had fight sequences like the films of John Woo and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Last Emperor. But really in the back of our minds was always that this was a woman’s story and we were following her journey. So the way we looked at the battle sequences and the fight sequences was always about centering the audience’s experience with hers.
Damian, tell us about shooting I’m No Longer Here in Monterrey, Mexico, as well as New York.
DAMIAN GARCIA It was fun. The only reference [director Fernando Frías de la Parra] gave me at the beginning was a long playlist of songs. We started to build this film, trying to be in between a documentary and a fiction film. Trying to be respectful with the environment, despite us trying to create our own point of view and to be subjective with the character. … Mexico is always portrayed in a very violent and raw way, and we tried to — despite doing a kind of violent film — see it from a different perspective. [Influences were] mainly still photographers like Alex Webb and Paul Fusco.
WOLSKI That was always my way of working. Just looking at stills of the great photographers and taking it further and trying to basically re-create it for the whole scene. People sometimes say my work is very stylized, but I always say that it’s not, that it actually comes from reality. When you look at great still photographers, you look at one shot and it’s so brilliant. But the guy walked into the room and saw perfect light through the window and took a shot, so it was actually a documentary photograph. But on another hand, it’s just a beautiful image that you can say is stylized. So I take everything from reality as much as possible. You just find the beauty. It’s all about what inspires you.
MESSERSCHMIDT I have grown to just completely adore working in the studio. I love the control and the blank slate of it and having a set that’s been discussed and previsualized and worked out in advance. Being a victim to nature is the cinematographer’s Achilles’ heel, I think, sometimes. You guys did it brilliantly.
RICHARDS Something interesting happens with the elements. Sometimes having a common enemy, I’ve found, can almost unite a crew. It’s like, “Sorry, guys, that sun ain’t waiting for anyone, you know.” [With] the magic hour, it’s like, “OK guys, all that stuff we were talking about, we’ve now got 20 minutes to get all of it.” By that point, hopefully everyone knows where they need to be. But I hear you. If you don’t get that luck with the weather gods, then it certainly is the Achilles’ heel for sure. You ride your luck.
Erik, would you elaborate on working with Fincher?
MESSERSCHMIDT David’s an incredible collaborator. We’ve been working together now for a few years and have a pretty good shorthand and quite a bit of back and forth. We don’t actually talk much about how the movie looks. We talk much more about sequencing and editing and how we’re going to tell the story.
So for a cinematographer, it’s a really fantastic environment to work in. But you know, every director has their working style and practice. For cinematographers, a huge part of our work is learning what the director’s process is and trying to figure out how you can fit in their machine to best support them.
REIKER That’s my favorite part, too. In prep, you just become connected at the hip. And let me tell you, it was really fun to be connected at the hip with Regina King in New Orleans. You know, you’re trying to absorb as much as you can to understand their process and the characters, and you’re with them through every art meeting, hair, makeup. Each part of that is helping inform you of how it’s going to look.
MESSERSCHMIDT Yeah, I kind of think cinematographers are over-credited for how movies look and under-credited for how the stories are told, in a way. We end up taking on a lot of credit for things that really belong to the production designer or the costume designer, to be honest. And yet, when the movie gets assembled, we’ve been so intimately involved in figuring out how to cover scenes or how to approach certain moments — I think that’s a part of our job that’s really not understood.
WOLSKI I agree, Erik. That’s very smart, what you just said. I never thought of it, but it’s true.
RICHARDS You know that question you always get asked by people: What advice do you have for young cinematographers? Sometimes I say, get good at reading scripts. Because actually, as a cinematographer, that’s kind of what you need to be good at, seeing potential for stories. And then when we get together with the director, it’s really about how to tell that story. It’s not really purely aesthetics.
MESSERSCHMIDT But that’s kind of interesting how you create your own grammar with the director and what the style is and you work within that. Then you explore and push things, of course, but that process of figuring out what you’re not going to do or what you are going to do is so integral.
RICHARDS Chloé and I always end up boiling that down to a certain list of rules. Once we get to that point, we’re like, “What is the grammar?” Then it’s like, “Well, no, remember we decided we’re going to shoot those close-ups like this, and we’re going to shoot all the wides on this lens?” I don’t know about you guys, but that’s always the way we’ve built that grammar, and it’s almost like, these are our colors, these are the paints that we’re painting in, and that’s it. It’s almost like essentialism.
WOLSKI I really like what you’re saying. I mean, on News of the World, we had the rule: no cranes. It’s nice to restrain yourself and say, “OK, I’m going to just do this with no cranes or Steadicam, try to stay handheld as much as possible, but not crazy.” But at the same time, no matter how well you plan the film, it’s back to, you can figure things out, but it’s nice to challenge yourself.
What are your thoughts on the future of the theatrical experience?
WALKER I’m hoping people are desperate to get back to the cinema. A lot of people that I talk to miss it. They miss the social aspect of going out and being in an environment with an audience.
MESSERSCHMIDT I can’t wait to get back to the theater. But I think, in a way, it’s great that the movies are available to people [via streaming]. You want as many people to see your movies as possible. I do think, though, that the captive audience aspect of the cinema is a really special thing that you don’t really have in the television world.
WOLSKI I agree, but at the same time, because of the COVID, I will be in defense of Warner Bros., because the only two movies I’ve seen was Erik’s film and Mandy’s film because it’s streaming. And I really enjoyed them [on a TV] — provided they’re properly adjusted and stuff. That’s a separate problem.
Compared with some of the other areas of filmmaking, cinematography hasn’t been as quick to diversify. Why is that?
WALKER I get asked this question all the time, I think because when I first started, there were hardly any women doing my job in the world. It’s getting better and there are more women and people of color coming into the industry, because people are consciously aware now that it’s been the other way for a really long time.
REIKER Yeah, I definitely feel like it’s changing. And there is a big push now, which is great. On One Night in Miami, we had 70 percent diversity in the crew in New Orleans. That was really important to Regina and to me, and we made that happen.
In the productions where you are seeing change, is that coming from the director?
REIKER By the director. Definitely. With Gina and Regina, it was definitely really important for both of them. And so they gave the push and everyone followed.
RICHARDS I think the film schools have also shifted in a really positive way. When I arrived at NYU, all the classes were at least 50/50 and completely eclectic, so I do think that’s positive.
MESSERSCHMIDT I think Joshua’s point about the film school is a good one. I think we as an industry have to do better about providing opportunities. It has to be holistic, from the hiring standpoint, the education standpoint and the training standpoint.
WOLSKI I agree with all of you. It’s a huge cultural change for better. And of course it’s slow, it’s never fast enough, but it’s happening. There are great African American directors, women directors — the more successful they get, they’re going to become role models. I used to admire women directors like Agnès Varda and Agnieszka Holland, who were real pioneers. They were tough, they didn’t take any BS from anybody.
GARCIA [Cinematography] is a very nice international language. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting in Tanzania or in Mexico or in Brazil or in New York. And I think that makes the crews more diverse. Not only [regarding] woman and man, but people from everywhere can work in everyone’s production.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.