You’re probably going to need a shave by the time you finish reading this lengthy interview with cinematographer Robert Elswit, so let’s keep the intro brief.
Nightcrawler Trailer 1 (2014)
Paris Trout, Boogie Nights, Heist, Good Night, and Good Luck, There Will Be Blood, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, and now Nightcrawler. His achievements behind the camera are stronger testimonials to his cinematographic brilliance than anything I can come up with. Who knew that in addition to his master lenswork, Elswit is also a topflight storyteller, film critic and historian, and teacher. Seeing Robert Elswit’s name in the credits makes me want to brush the side of my face against the screen, like the cat who hears its master crinkling a bag of Whisker Lickin’s. Talking with him is an education.
Nightcrawler opens on Halloween, and I can’t think of anything more frightening than the film’s depiction of “If it leads, it bleeds” telejournalism. Elswit speaks candidly about what it takes to get a low-budget picture made, as well as a few side comments about several other films that were aided and abetted by his focal excellence. Elswit was on the terrace of his London home enjoying a downpour when we spoke.
Scott Marks: Do you remember the first film your parents took you to see?
Robert Elswit: I kinda remember the first films I saw as a kid because they were all on television. The first film I was taken to was Old Yeller.
SM: That’s brutal on a child!
RE: It was. I cried for weeks! I saw so many movies on television as a kid, because that’s what was on television. They didn’t have reruns yet. All they had was old movies, and that was kind of the wonderful thing about TV back then.
SM: Before cinematography became both your calling and profession, who or what were some of your influences?
RE: I always wanted to be a cinematographer. I fell in love with black-and-white cinematography watching it on television when I was little and was overwhelmed by the images, mostly in period films. I began to wonder who the people were that photographed them and got interested in it at a very young age. My family was sort of in show business. A little bit. They were all theatrical agents. I grew up in California, and my grandmother explained to me that all the movies I thought were so remarkable were made in England or France or Germany. I was taken to visit the studios and just found the whole thing so romantic and beautiful and impassioned. And I fell in love with a lot of young actresses from old movies. Those films from the ’30s and ’40s meant a lot to me.
SM: I just finished re-watching Jean Arthur in Frank Borzage’s History Is Made at Night. The title alone is more romantic than most contemporary films.
RE: Oh my God! What a great movie.
SM: Are you still doing your best to keep filming in 35mm alive or more and more do you find yourself crossing over to the digital dark side?
RE: Well, we’re trying. [The next] Mission Impossible is shooting in 35mm anamorphic. Believe it or not. That’s what I’m doing now.
SM: Was Nightcrawler shot on film?
RE: I shot the day exterior and day interior on film, just because it’s so much easier and simpler and less frustrating for me. The night work I thought was really right for digital. I didn’t have to light the backgrounds, I didn’t have to do much to anything far away. That’s what digital gives you. It gives you a higher ASA and you can push a little bit. You can walk into available light locations at night and really just light the foreground.
We didn’t have the money or the time to do anything else. It had to be done very simply, and we picked locations where that’s what happened. [Director] Danny Gilroy’s idea of the city had to mesh with where we could shoot and that I didn’t have to light anything. That really is a perfect way to work with digital. It isn’t the only way, but it certainly works really well. It’s like shooting 16mm film 40 years ago and pushing it a stop.
SM: While watching Nightcrawler, the names of great night cinematographers like Russell Metty, Phil Lathrop, and William Fraker keep coming to mind.
RE: Russell Metty? Well, we can hope anyway.
It was a 26 day shoot. The secret of low-budget movies is when you have 20 or 22 days, you have three locations, or four. You don’t have 40. And this movie had 40 locations, and the company moves every day. That’s the nightmare, that’s how you shoot yourself in the foot. But that was the way it was written, and it was such a wonderful script, so intriguing, that there was no way to simplify it. They just had to make it that way. I was able to spend weeks and weeks of prep with Danny trying to figure out how to do it in the simplest way possible — going to every single location, all the ones at night — and coming up with a real specific plan that he was willing to sign off on and deal with.
There was no other way to get the film done without the bonding company, which is a real issue on a movie like this. The bonding company will come…if we went a day over or left anything behind and we didn’t finish, they come in and take your movie away. They were very direct about it. They’re monitoring you all the time anyway, but if they come in and take over the film, that’s it. I was playing defense the whole time trying to get through every single day completing the work that was scheduled. That’s kind of terrible, but sometimes it actually leads to making smart creative decisions.
SM: It shows in the film. The exterior night work becomes part of the narrative. I had to laugh — here we have one of the finest DPs currently at work lensing a film that basically proves in the age of digital video that any jerk with a camera can make a go of it in Hollywood. You must have laughed your head off when you first read the script.
RE (laughing): It’s true! He was gifted. The whole thing we figured out with Jake’s character was that he was a natural. It was just something we understood. He was a great photojournalist with a movie camera. And that’s not all that impossible. I kind of love that. We actually went out with one of these guys who lives that life. He was one of the most organized, thoughtful, creative people I’ve ever met — an English kid with this completely decked out car, totally anal/neurotic. Organized to the Nth degree. He has five scanners that he listens to all night long. We went on a run with him that was one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever witnessed. The way he worked and how he functioned was amazing. He’s like a little machine, yet incredibly creative and insightful, always thinking, always working.
I shot a video of him working. We went to this accident in downtown L.A. where a car went off the freeway in the middle of an overpass, dropped 40 feet to the ground, and landed in the middle of a homeless encampment. The airbags all deployed and they all survived. We got there 15 minutes later. Jake was there the whole time.
SM: Are you familiar with the work of Weegee?
RE: Of course! Weegee was much more of a romantic, much more fun. Jake is the opposite of that. Weegee got his blood — he certainly got his blood — but he got his sex and crime, too. Jake was all about blood. (Laughing.)
SM: There are a lot of newscasters who handily help to put down their profession in the film. Were they all in on the joke?
RE: They don’t take themselves all that seriously, I have to say. At least the ones we worked with. They knew exactly what was going on, and they were brilliant when it came to making that shit up. Danny’s script is so solid and so together, it’s hard to imagine that it’s a first film.
SM: You’re a very loyal DP, inasmuch as you have remained faithful to a great many directors (Stephen Gyllenhaal, Curtis Hanson, George Clooney, Paul Thomas Anderson). What is it about a director that makes you want to pay a return visit?
RE: Usually it’s up to them, but a lot has to do with how much I like working with [an individual] and like them as a human being. The really aren’t a whole lot of people out there who know how to direct. There are lots of people who wander through movies, which is amazing at the level some of these are being made. When you find somebody who really is a film director, someone I may actually learn something from, it’s hard to say “no” to that. I do that every chance I get. I never get bored of seeing someone do it well. Even if they haven’t written it, if they understand it and are able to break it down, I find that whole process fascinating.
What I do essentially is try and figure out how to light a movie so that whatever you want an audience to see when they look at an image is also felt. That’s a conversation you have with the director. The lighting is really the direct way to communicate to people’s feelings in a movie. Music is the only thing that gets you more. The way something is lit is how you tell an audience what they’re meant to feel. Or at least how they could feel. I think there are lots of directors who don’t think that way. It’s not what interests them, but it’s what all cinematographers are interested in.
When you find a director whose point of view is like that — someone who understands that there really is a difference between the time of day you shoot something, whether something is front lit or back lit, what the practicals in the room look like, how a movie should feel — it’s no longer about the mood you create. It’s a direct connection to people’s feelings about what they’re seeing. And there aren’t a whole lot of directors who think about this. When you find somebody like that, it’s really hard to give it up. You really want to do it over and over and over again.
SM: Years ago the term “beautifully photographed” meant something. Today people apply it to Miller Beer commercials. Direction and cinematography should go hand-in-hand. Like I need to tell you this.
RE: When it’s working really well, it’s all of a piece. You can’t call attention to it unless it’s meant to. Having that kind of symbiotic relationship with directors is heaven. This is the second time I’ve done a Mission: Impossible film, and I really like all these people enormously. Christopher McQuarrie is a great screenwriter. He hasn’t directed a lot, but he assembled an amazing cast who all love each other and it’s a goofy stupid popcorn movie. I think it’s going to have enormous charm and be lots of fun. It’s hard to say “no” to that. It isn’t doing a Marvel comic book.
Tom Cruise is the most neurotic, wacky, hard-working lunatic you could ever be around, but he’s a complete consummate pro. Alec Baldwin is in this movie. I heard horrible things about Alec Baldwin. Turns out he’s the nicest, funniest guy in the world. You come to the set every day wanting to be there. That doesn’t happen all the time. I’ve really been very lucky.
SM: I’m an animation nut and really admire your work on Ghost Protocol.
RE: Oh, yeah! You must love Brad [Bird].
SM: Maybe the presence of a former animator at the helm is what accounts for the film’s feeling of weightlessness. Did he discuss the film in terms of animation any time during the course of pre-production?
RE: You know what he did that I didn’t appreciate at the time? The film was done completely in animatics — moving image storyboards, sort of. When you do animatics for cartoons, you can put the camera anywhere. It’s not the same for a live-action motion picture. You have to have it be real in a way, unless you want to do the whole thing in the computer. Bread started putting the camera anywhere in these animatic storyboards as we went through. Immediately he realized that you can only go so far with that. You can’t put a camera outside the window and have it go upside down and pan around. Audiences won’t believe it — they won’t understand how it happened.
How do you make all these things seem real and at the same time seem…like you say, weightless and alive and fun? That’s what he was really brilliant at, and something I did not at the time credit him for. We went through all the stuff, trying to figure out how to shoot outside that giant building in Dubai, and the sandstorm, and all the stuff that followed it. He wasn’t a director of actors. What he ended up doing was figuring out how to organize the visuals and seeing to it that instead of every cut being an arbitrary editing-room decision, there was a charming “next moment to occur” flow. I credited it to all the animation work he had done over the years.
SM: A friend, Brian Silva, who is a working cinematographer, wanted me to ask why is it that on any movie with a significant budget a DP has to be both artist and craftsmen and is held to a high standard of performance, yet the same doesn’t seem to apply to directors and actors (e.g. Gigli)?
RE: Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. Marty Brest is one of the smartest, funniest, most intelligent, strange, neurotic human beings I’ve ever worked with, and I really loved it. What he can’t do is write. He made a horrible mistake. He tried to write his own movie. There are some people whose imaginative skills are all about taking a screenplay and working it into something else, and that’s Marty Brest. Marty decided to write this thing himself, and somehow he talked Joe Roth and all those guys over at Sony into doing it. It was just not a film.
And you know what? Part of it was the personal relationships involved. Ben fell in love with what’s-her-name… the whole thing was misshapen from the very beginning. I don’t know if it ever would’ve worked out, but I think Marty Brest is not a screenwriter. He’s a really interesting and compelling director and a lot of fun to be on the set with. He’s a complicated guy. He does not get along with studio executives. He’s not a great partner. When his films make money for his partners, they put up with it. And as soon as they didn’t, he couldn’t buy a job. He hasn’t worked since.
His work was held to pretty high standards, but his personal relationships are kind of what doomed him. His lack of charm and inability to compromise and interact with studio executives, particularly on a film that cost that much money, made things complicated. He was probably the most combative director I’ve ever worked with when it came to studio people. Not with the crew, or me, or anyone else, but when it came to his relationship with the people at Sony, he was a nightmare. But if the film had made $400 million, there would’ve been another one a year later.
SM: If you had to pick one image — a moment from one of the many films you’re worked on that causes you to say, “That’s it. I nailed it!” — which one would it be?
RE: Honestly, I really have never thought about that. That’s an interesting question, and one I’d have to think about.
SM: Okay. We’ll leave it at…
RE: You know what? I would have to say there are some moments in Michael Clayton, and it has to do with performance more than anything else. It has to do with what George Clooney was doing and how we found it and what he did. There is a very simple, strange little setup at the end of Michael Clayton that I think about a lot. Maybe that’s why it came to me. It’s at the end of the movie when he gets into the taxicab. We just put a camera in the front of the cab and shot a close-up of him. It doesn’t have anything to do with what I did. We made this very simple shot; you’d expect him to just sit back.
What he does, if you remember the movie, is just sit there. It’s the last shot in the movie. And I thought that’s just the perfect way to go out. It was the perfect shot. That doesn’t always happen. It’s actually proceeded by another really perfect shot, a Steadicam shot where you walk back with him and watch Tilda Swinton in the background fall to the ground. What’s so amazing about it is what Clooney is doing, which is not doing anything. You think. But what he was really doing, he told me later, was he sat there and replayed the whole movie back in his head. Starting with the first scene he ran through the whole movie in about 2-1/2 minutes. That’s what he was doing.
SM: Last question and then I’ll let you go. You photographed the fourth Bourne film, so you’re pretty much blame-free. To what do you attribute the current maddening trend in hand-held cinematography?
RE (Laughing): It was a wonderful stylistic choice that Doug Liman made on the first Bourne movie. You know it’s been around for a long time, but never in a drama, never in action film. And then Doug Liman reinvented the action/spy movie. He really did, as crazy as he is. You also have to give credit to [cinematographer] Oliver Wood. They changed everything. They made it so you couldn’t make a James Bond movie. All of a sudden you have a strange, European reality to a sort of a nervous, anxious camera.
You know how he does it? Doug and Oliver do it, and [Paul] Greengrass does the same thing. They put three cameras in three corners of the room. They give everybody a zoom lens, let them start shooting, and throw it up in the air in the editing room. Greengrass is a little better than that, but not much. He’s also great with true stories. All the films he’s made that have really worked have been based on real events. Real stories of real people. When he tried to make a narrative film that was an invention — which was The Green Zone — it was a complete piece of shit. The only got through the Bourne movie because Tony Gilroy and Frank Marshall dragged him through kicking and screaming. He just doesn’t have that kind of imagination.
Those kinds of films change the way people look at movies. Everyone went “Wow!” over the hand-held camera. There’ve been a lot of parts of movies that were hand-held, but they’re very specific moments of the movie, and they don’t really look all that hand-held. It’s one camera, and they’re meant to convey a kind of emotional feeling in a very subtle way. The idea is you don’t think about it when you’re watching it. It also grew out of television, where it’s hand-held and constantly zooming and panning.
SM: I liked it so much more when television borrowed from movies instead of the other way around.
RE (Laughing): I know, but that’s really what happened.