Film Production: Why The DP is Your MVP
I’m mentoring a young friend through the process of writing and directing his first feature, which he’ll shoot in a year; he’s still in development tweaking the script before it goes out to cast. His executive producer, the former president of a major studio, said to him the other day, “Your cinematographer is the most important person on set after you.” I couldn’t agree more.
There’s nothing like working with a great DP, it makes all the difference in the world to the outcome of your film on many levels. The most important level for me is the personal, the experience of making a film. I don’t get to direct often, so when I do I want to enjoy it, to be carried away by, yes, the quasi-spiritual experience of creating something worthy in harmony with my crew, as cheesy as that might sound.
Conversely, if the DP sucks or is a difficult diva, you’re going to have a bad time and perhaps make a bad movie. One delightful cinematographer I never got to work with, but with whom I was once planning a feature, said during our first meeting, “It’s funny: the difficult shoots are the ones that yield the best films. It seems that when you have a good time, the film sucks.”
I don’t agree with her. An American, she had shot an Oscar-nominated film in India almost entirely on the streets of Mumbai. She hadn’t felt that glory since. Abandoned by the director she helped create, she was now shooting broad family comedies in Hollywood, going to work every day in the comfort of her unionized bubble like she was going to an office, her lunches sterilized and catered, no dysentery, no thrill of grabbing handheld shots before the light faded or the cops arrived or she was trampled by cows and monkeys. She was making crap deliberately intended to be crap. Good experience or not, there was no way she could polish deliberate crap to be anything more than it was, no matter how talented she was.
The first script of mine to be produced, a film set in Kashmir with epic aspirations but a decidedly Mickey Mouse production, was just about the most arduous experience in every way that one can have with a film, and the result wasn’t good. It didn’t help that we had a DP who couldn’t light the inside of a paper bag with a flashlight. I would stand off to the side with the stills photographer, one of Bruce Weber’s assistants whom I’d brought in from New York, and we would shake our heads and mutter as the lights, such as they were, were set up. We didn’t have video assist back then, much less up there in the Himalayas in January on a set with no heat, but we could tell the framing was cack just by looking at the lighting and camera angle.
When we finally saw the footage, it wasn’t surprising. Still, I was so disappointed that it was all I could do not to insult the director more that I already had — I was berating him more constantly than a betrayed wife at that juncture — by walking out of the screening room. The film was never completed, ostensibly because civil war broke out in Kashmir, but it was really because we were making crap, and not deliberately — it was simply incompetence. And the DP was chief among the incompetent alongside the award-winning director.
To be fair, that DP had little idea of how to make a film to Western standards of “epic.” If you’re going to fly in a writer and a stills photographer from the New York, why not bring in the DP and the equipment, too? It was a fatal judgment call on the director-producer’s part, one of many. And that’s ultmiately the director’s job: to make the best judgments possible.
I sometimes mentor directors on their short films by assuming the role of first AD. An assistant director isn’t the director’s assistant, but the person in charge of the set. My dual role is also to steer the novice filmmaker in the right direction, to catch him if he fucks up, to step in and make the right call for the sake of expediency. (That really is a “break only in case of emergency” situation that most often happens after a lunch break, when the director, already exhausted from sleep deprivation in prep and general anxieties, is digesting and suddenly has an existential moment that blocks his decision-making process.)
A couple of years ago, I ADed for another writer who was making his first short film, a professional production shot in Los Angeles with limited money. The DP was a camera operator who ostensibly was doing the director, her close friend, a “favor” by being his cinematographer — she continuously reminded him of this to the point he was groveling at her every whim. She was a nasty diva, but she had not a jot of creative talent in her to warrant being a diva. I was so angry by the time we wrapped that I couldn’t bring myself to say goodnight to her despite all she had contributed to the production in terms of crew, thereby making my job easier.
Sure enough, the film looked flat and uninspired. Had I been the director, I would have shot this piece light and handheld on an SLR using as much available light as possible. But the director fell under his nasty-diva DP’s spell and suddenly there was talk of budget-breaking ARRI Alexas and Cooke prime lenses. It’s not just the rental expense: the bigger the lighting and camera package, the bigger the crew and the slower the pace.
I’m not digressing. As valuable as DPs are, they can be demanding and petulant if they can’t shoot on what they want, but the budget on a small production can get out of control if you don’t say “no,” if you’re not prepared to say, “Fine. Walk.” Do not negotiate with terrorists, ever, I don’t care how much time they put into prep and what sort of a “deal” they’re getting at the camera rental facility, a deal that is always only extended to them, but somehow everyone gets. In 2009 I watched a micro-budget feature I was advisor on triple in size, kicked over into the next tax bracket because the star DP, whom I admit I put on the production, totally lost the plot and demanded it be shot on 35 MM, when this particular film would have been lucky to be shot on a camcorder, if it should ever have been shot in the first place.
As an advisor and not a formal producer, there was nothing I could do to stop the madness once it happened. The director and producer were under the DP’s spell. I believe the film eventually had a screening at Slamdance, where one of the producers had connections. The financier suffered a sizable loss.
Personality issues aside — they’re rife in many creative partnerships, not to be given undue importance at the expense of more critical challenges — I doubt very much that the aforementioned nasty-diva DP will ever be more than a camera operator for TV shows. That was the impression I got the moment I shook her hand her at our first production meeting. She knew her tech fluently, but she had nowhere about her that innate sense of artistry that separates a cinematographer from a cameraman. It’s a difficult quality to define. Creative professionals get it, they feel it, but for non-creatives — and that includes creative professionals with poor visual style — as long as an image looks okay, they don’t understand the difference between decent and superlative.
With that in mind, if average viewers don’t really care how the image looks, if they can’t see the difference between the way reality TV is shot and Skyfall, is spending time executing the most gorgeous image possible within the restrictions of the production and budget worth it? Yes. For a feature film, extra yes. Even if they aren’t aware of it on a conscious level, the image affects the audience’s emotional response, like rain in the background of a sad scene.
The best DPs I’ve worked with are passionate, dedicated, and bring a lively energy to the set. Many good ones can be introverted, too; very few are like the effervescent Seamus McGarvey, the cinematographer behind Atonement and Anna Karenina, who has more enthusiasm and bonhomie than ten social-media managers on crack. His intense dynamism comes across in his signature kinetic, emotional camerawork; there’s nary a dull moment in one of his films, even when the script and the direction sags.
With the quieter ones, I look at their personal style, at their Instagram feeds, at any outward indicators of their compositional view and taste. I once had my first meeting with a DP in a museum, and within a few minutes we’d begun developing an unspoken language all our own.
When a director is predominantly a visual stylist, the DP becomes a functionary with little input. He’s executing the director’s strict vision and managing the camera department as smoothly, effectively and unobtrusively as possible. His most important contribution is executing what the visualist director wants in the most practical way. He is on a par with any other key crewmember; in that instance, he is no longer the most valued player, but simply a player, a glorified camera operator.
I have a few director friends who are recognized as important visualists, so much so that the image often threatens to usurp performance and plot. They work with a handful of mid-level DPs, all of them interchangeable as far as I’m concerned. That’s not what they think, of course, but the reality is they are who they are for what they have executed for that particular director, and they are hired by other less-visionary directors because of it, to replicate it. What better way to poach a genius director’s talent than by working with his crew?
I come from a writing and performance background. While I have an acute and exacting visual sense, a blend of several schools of cinematography, it isn’t a distinctive style. If I want to be recognized for anything that is particular to me, and I don’t, it would be the language, the way the story is told, the characterizations as manifestations of aspects of my resolutely eccentric and ambivalently bourgeois personality. But I believe the writer-director’s persona and style should be subservient to the story and the film. If auteurship can’t be avoided, then it’s permissible — Tarantino cannot help being the hopped-up, loquacious, loudmouth magpie that he is. But it should never be deliberate; that’s just sheer egotism and irrelevant to the film.
All of this is to say I am entirely reliant on the DP’s input and skill, while also knowing what I want and what is and isn’t superlative. And I cannot explain how I know, I just do.
One of the first things I say when I meet a DP to discuss a project is, “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing,” which is strategic half-truth. I understand photography profoundly, but not cinematography as much. It is better by far to admit this weakness and empower the DP by entrusting her with it than to hide it and have it all unravel on set. A rudderless director who has no clue what he wants but still feels the need to lead is steering the ship onto the rocks.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately as to what separates feature films from TV these days. Premium cable has raised the bar for the sort of features I make, the literary dramas. The answer always comes back to the quality of the image. TV will also always be shot at a much faster pace than non-guerilla-style features. There is only so big they can go with the canvas even with the amazing cameras these days, although cheap, quality special effects are pushing that boundary, too, even for TV; have the grips throw up a big piece of green cloth in the background, and after a few hours in post you’ve got yourself Moses parting the Pacific, forget the Red Sea.
I watched The Fault in Our Stars a couple of days ago, the sleeper hit about teen cancer patients, which inundated big screens around the country this summer. I cannot recollect the last time I saw such indifferent filmmaking. The image was bland, flat, worthy of a Lifetime movie of the week, at best. It’s the cinematographic equivalent of normcore, the anti-hipster fashion movement that eschews style and individuality in favor of “normality.” The GAP, which has always been the purveyor of the most basic clothing, has wisely embraced normcore as it’s new ad campaign; the irony is the campaign is shot more stylishly and moodily than anything the retailer has done before. If the ads were honest and not trying to glamorize blandness for the sake of selling clothes, they would look like The Fault in Our Stars.
The director of The Fault, Josh Boone, is visually as unstylish as they come, and probably doesn’t give a shit. Or maybe he is doing the bland thing deliberately; the young filmmaker I am mentoring, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this article, and who is only a few years junior to Boone, texted me last night out of the blue with, “Normcore is rad.”
Maybe I just don’t get it.
Boone even makes the hipster-lite, folk-ish soundtrack of The Fault feel like supermarket-brand angel-food cupcakes with plain sugar frosting. Just because the film takes place among white, resolutely middle-class suburban Episcopalians doesn’t mean it needs to look so insipid. On the contrary, this should have been an opportunity to uncover a visual lyricism in the mundane, the way Sofia Coppola did in The Virgin Suicides.
The Fault is a meditation on death the way HBO’s likewise suburbia-based The Leftovers is a meditation on sorrow. The latter isn’t exactly revolutionary in terms of visuals, but it does care much more. It makes an effort to bolster the tone of the drama with accompanying visuals. As TV, it is shot much faster than The Fault, yet it is far worthier of the big screen in terms of the way it looks.
The Fault reminds me of how American broad comedy is shot: as crisply, brightly, flatly as possible so as not to distract from the antics. If I think of it impressionistically, I see that style of filmmaking as a high-end mall, each shot and sequence like an American Eagle next to a Banana Republic next to a Macys next to a Footlocker next to a, yes, GAP. And the lighting and framing looks like an 80s Sears catalog.
As far as Hollywood comedies go, this is largely to do with the filmmakers themselves. In my experience, they’re usually good ol’ boys and gals from elite American universities who aren’t exactly big on taste and fine-art photography. They’re going to buy that quirky vintage poster for the living room, not the carbon fine-art photography print by Irwin Olaf. (“Erwin who?”) Sure enough, there are good ol’ boy and gal cinematographers who specialize in that look.
Some filmmakers, namely David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh, have done away with the DP altogether. Lynch uses a camera operator, and Soderbergh shoots his own. I feel that some of Soderbergh’s scenes falter as a result, particularly those that require a lock on the actor’s performance, specifically the slower and quieter scenes, or those that should be slower and quieter. Soderbergh is so hyperactive — and that’s absolutely fine — that he does best when the film isn’t at rest. A film like Magic Mike is a perfect example of him pulling it all together immaculately as director, DP and camera operator. But when you’re making drama, you have to have those moments of reflection when the camera needs to sit the fuck down and shut up, and that’s when Soderbergh’s lack of focus on performance really shows; he’s too busy keeping the handheld steady — he often literally shoots from the hip, up at his subjects, which I really like — and making sure his subjects are in focus to notice if they are delivering their lines in the best possible way.
My feeling is Soderbergh is riddled with ADHD and gets restless waiting around on set while the camera crew sets up, so he folded that department into directorial to keep himself busy. But I’m not alone in this belief that the director really needs to focus. I was participant in a discussion once between a high-end photographer friend, who also directs commercials, and a cinematographer she was interested in working with. Given my friend’s status in the photography world, logic would dictate that she should just hire a great gaffer and first assistant, and shoot it herself. The cinematographer asked her just that, “Why don’t you shoot your own so you get exactly what you want?”
“Because I can’t focus on directing.”
Very few cinematographers make good directors in their own right. In my review of Dark Knight DP Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, Transcendence, I reamed him for putting image before narrative, performance and characterization. This is the cinematographer-as-director’s Achilles heel: Image alone cannot carry the drama. Just as the director needs to trust the DP and step back from the image-creation process during production, the cinematographer needs the director to balance him out and keep the real focus where it should be: on the story itself. It’s very much a symbiotic relationship, all the more reason why I think Soderbergh should take a Xanax once in a while and sit in his director’s chair and wait it out like everyone else.
Off the top of my head, there is only one DP who has ever pulled off a great film as director. That would be India’s very own Roger Deakins, Santosh Sivan, who wrote and directed The Terrorist, about the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi as seen from the point of view of his Sri Lankan female murderer. But here’s the rub: There was very little dialogue. The heroine barely says a word throughout — she observes silently; she is the camera. Still, it is exemplary directing; the film still haunts me sixteen years after I saw it.
That relationship between directors and their DPs that can be such a magical, yes, spiritual part of the filmmaking process. I don’t know how Soderbergh doesn’t miss it; it’s like preferring masturbation to great sex with someone you’re passionate about, perfectly in sync with. Marathon sex over many weeks.
If I were right now at the level I would like to be in the film world, I would be promiscuous and work with a different great DP as often as schedules permitted. Gus van Sant does that. Many do that. Yes, sometimes the sex turns out badly despite promising foreplay in initial meetings and pre-production, in which case it might be wise to develop a creative partnership with three or four cinematographers with whom you work best, whom you can trust to execute your vision as near to what you have in mind as possible (it never comes out exactly what you have in mind).
Unlike me, Darren Aronofsky is a faithful mensch who only works with Matthew Libatique. That’s sweet: they helped create each other, like Bergman and Nykvist. I find that sort of close partnership moving and enviable. That’s more than just MVP, more than just effective collaboration. That’s family, baby, Coen brothers style. And it’s the optimum on-set working relationship, a shimmering, rare thing.