Cinematographer Danny Cohen talks Room

Moviescope spoke with cinematographer Danny Cohen about Room,  released on Blu Ray and DVD on the 9th May.

The film has been a critical and commercial success, taking over $35m at the box office and was nominated for a staggering 106 awards, which included leading actress Oscar success for Brie Larson.

Cohen’s work includes Les Miserables, This is England, The Danish Girl and the forthcoming Florence Foster Jenkins.

Warning: there are spoilers ahead. We suggest you watch Room first and revisit this article afterwards, you will not be disappointed.

Jacob Tremblay in Room

Jacob Tremblay in Room

 

Watch initially drew you to the project?

Danny Cohen: Emma Donoghue was the author of the book and had also written the screenplay. Emma and director Lenny Abrahamson (director) sent me the first draft of the script and it was a brilliant read, a real page turner.

From the draft that I read, they then spent time together to make it work for the screen, but even the first draft that I read was amazing.

It’s a really difficult thing to adapt a novel into a screenplay that is as good as the book. A novel can take you off into worlds that films can’t. How do you condense all of the detail that is in the book? A lot of writers who adapt their own books shoot themselves in the foot because they don’t want to give up what they have achieved in the book, but a film is a different thing. Lenny and Emma certainly did the story justice because you still get the complete essence of the book in the film.

Any normal film would have ended at the point that they escape from the room, but and they stick that halfway through the film and play out the rest.

What camera and lenses did you use?

We choose the Red Dragon for two reasons. Firstly, I had previously shot the Lance Armstrong film, The Program (dir. Stephen Frears) on the Red Epic (The predecessor to the Red Dragon) and I liked the way it had a bit of an edge to it. The default camera for digital at the moment is the Arri Alexa and the look is a little more cosmetic, it makes things look really nice – which isn’t a negative thing at all, but I didn’t want this film to look particularly nice. So, having the ability to give it an edge and texture – I felt the Red was more appropriate for this story. Secondly, it’s a bit smaller and we were filming in a very confined space. Even if the camera was literally an inch smaller than the Alexa, that gave us a little bit more freedom within the constraints of the set.

Often, if you are filming in a small space you end up using wide lenses because you want to see the space and make the room look very big. It’s counter-intuitive, but if it looks really palatial and like a hotel, then you’ve lost all the threat and claustrophobia of that situation. The mid-range lenses worked for us, so 25mm, 27mm, 32mm, 35mm and 40mm – which is a little bit tighter than the very wide lenses we could have used, but it helped tells the story in a far more interesting way. It’s working stuff out like that in a simple, clear way; choosing lenses and a frame that always put them in them in the space but in an interesting way. We didn’t want to see too many walls in one frame, because you instantly you get a reference about the size of the space. You want to feel like it is a small, horrible space and that was the motivation for shooting on those mid-sizes.

And how did you shoot in that set?

We decided not to go for false walls with the set because moving and replacing them would take so long out of the filming day. Ethan, the production designer, put it together in tiles so we could pop pieces out and put the lens on the line of where the wall would be. That gave us a bit more space.

Jacob was 7 when we shot this film and because he is a child, there are restrictions on the amount of hours you can shoot in a day. Clearly, you can’t work a child as much an adult. We had to make the most of the time, so we shot with 2 cameras and aimed to film as much as possible within the limited time we had Jacob every day.

Rm_D38_GK_0068.NEF

When you’re in that confined space and working on challenging material with a young actor, what’s the atmosphere like on set?

When it comes to creating an atmosphere on set, you try to keep it as low-key as possible. Lenny has got two children himself, I’ve got 4 kids and so we definitely knew how to chat to Jacob and make him feel comfortable. For some of the really harrowing stuff, he’s not on the set at all and you can shoot it without him. Weirdly, I think it’s harder for Brie, who has to do some really emotional stuff while Jacob wasn’t in the room.

Jacob is a fantastic actor, he completely got the point of what he was doing. He’d already done a few films previously, so he knew the mechanics of shooting really well and he enjoyed it. In fact, it was a riot for him.

What’s complicated about the story is that it’s from two perspectives. Brie’s world is horrendous whereas Jake’s world is the only space he’s ever known, so we wanted to give the idea that everything in that space is really interesting to him. He’s not confided to the physical space in the way that she is. We shot some of his perspective on macro lenses because that is the detail that he is interested in.

We didn’t have too many hard and fast rules about shooting with certain lenses from certain perspectives; it’s such an unusual story to tell that you used what works.

We tried where possible to shoot it in story order and that definitely helped give us forward momentum.

We didn’t want the interior of the room to be completely miserable so there is colour there in some of the decorations. You’re always trying to find the balance between something that is real and believable. The colour palette of the room itself tells a story so once they get out into the world we might increase the saturation and push certain colours up a bit. I think you do attempt to control as much as you possibly can and hopefully the choices you make help push the narrative along.

 

Room is released on Blu Ray and DVD on the 9th May

Producer Jeremy Thomas on High-Rise and the Future of Independent Cinema

Jeremy Thomas smallerJeremy Thomas (right) is one of Britain’s most successful and fearless producers. A champion of original and challenging stories, he has never lost his appetite for independent cinema, having made over 70 films in a career spanning 40 years.

 

Thomas has collaborated with bold and distinctive directors like Jonathan Glazer, Nic Roeg and Bernardo Bertolucci, who’s film The Last Emperor won a staggering 9 Oscars in 1987, including best film. Moviescope spoke with him to talk about his latest film, High-Rise, and the future of independent cinema.

 

It seemed inevitable that Jeremy Thomas would one day work with Ben Wheatley, the auteur filmmaker behind Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England. It was after making that film, that Wheatley and his writing partner, Amy Jump turned their attention to High-Rise; the JG Ballard novel. Upon discovering that the film option was held by Jeremy Thomas, Wheatley contacted his agent, who worked at the same agency as Thomas’ son. Serendipitously for Wheatley, Thomas had just seen Sightseers and was keen to work with him.

 

High-Rise is set in a modernist tower block in 1970s London, where residents live according to their pecking order in the class system. The architect of both the tower and its social structure is the wealthy, rapacious Anthony Royal (played in the film by Jeremy Irons). Royal lives in the penthouse suite with a beautiful walled garden complete with a stable for his horse. The poorer relations live in the lower floors of the building and are galvanised by a pugnacious documentarian, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), who rails against the injustice of the hierarchy. The animosity between the floors simmers beneath to surface, eventually giving way to an incident that triggers a vicious backlash and power struggle. Living in the middle floors of the tower block are Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) and his neighbour two floors up, Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), who find themselves in the middle of the tower blocks’ very rapid descent into chaos.

Jeremy Thomas (left) and Ben Wheately (centre) on the set of High Rise.

Jeremy Thomas (left) and Ben Wheately (centre) on the set of High Rise.

Thomas said: “I picked up the rights to High-Rise about 10 years ago having previously brought JG Ballard’s Crash (dir. David Cronenberg) to the screen. I usually have several projects that I’m working on at the same time and High-Rise took a back seat until Ben contacted me”.

 

It was during the early development conversations that Wheatley laid out his vision for the film to Thomas: “When I was developing it, I wanted to set it in the near future, but Ben wanted to make it a period piece, bring it back to where the book was roughly set and incorporate Thatcherism into the film.”

 

The casting of Tom Hiddleston as Dr Robert Laing, was met with delight by fans of Ballard’s work. Thomas encouraged Wheatley to consider him for the role: “I’d just finished working with Tom Hiddleston on Only Lovers Left Alive, and he was interested in working with Ben and on a JG Ballard story. When you have good material and an interesting director, the cast will follow.”
“Ben is an original filmmaker. I like to be involved in every step of the way, that’s what I love about making films; to be involved in the development, the filming and in the edit suite but without getting on anyone’s back; to be supportive.”

 

When looking for a location to shoot High-Rise, Thomas and Wheatley began to look for brutalist buildings to double for London in the 70s. They found a disbanded leisure centre in Northern Ireland that contained a swimming pool and two large sports halls, in which production designer Mark Tildesley could build all the interior sets. Filming in Belfast also allowed producers to tap in to financial support as well as local talent; almost 200 crew members worked on the film, many of whom were based in Northern Ireland.

 

High-Rise has been building an audience through the festival circuit and word of mouth, with the director and cast obliging the crowds by attending many screenings and Q&As. Without the power of a huge marketing budget, this approach has helped foster the buzz and excitement for the film ahead of its release on the 18th March.

Next: Jeremy Thomas on the future of independent cinema

Stutterer nominated for an Oscar

STUTTERER – TRAILER from benjamincleary on Vimeo.

Stutterer is nominated for Best Live Action Short at the 2016 Academy Awards. We spoke with director Benjamin Cleary and one of the films’ producers, Serena Armitage, about the nomination and subsequent whirlwind that arrives with it.

The film is about a lonely typographer, Greenwood (Matthew Needham) who strikes up an online relationship with a girl called Ellie (Chloe Pirrie). When she suggests they meet up ‘offline’, Greenwood must face his innermost fears.

Benjamin Cleary

Benjamin Cleary

Director Benjamin Clearly described the inspiration behind the story: ‘The idea for the story originally came from seeing something online about a man with a stutter who had gotten to a point where he could speak face to face with little difficulty but he found phone calls extremely difficult because it is only his voice on show. This struck a chord with me and got me thinking about what it might be like living with a stutter in today’s world. And it is this image that we open with, an extreme close up of Greenwood’s mouth as he struggles to speak to an impatient phone operator. This was the original inspiration for the story. ‘

Armitage described how it quickly came together: ‘Ben and I live in the same house, so we are always talking about ideas. He showed Shan (Shan Christopher Ogilivie, producer) and I the script and we shot it two weeks later. It was a very quick pre production – partly because I had some time off from work (Serena was working as an Edit Producer for ITV in London). Benjamin had just won a script writing competition which gave us some budget to work with but we pulled in contacts and favours to help us finish the film. The 12-minute film was shot over several days, with equipment and locations being finalised right up to the last minute.’

Stutterer was then entered to the festival circuit, where it began to gather acclaim and attention. It won many awards including Best Foreign Film at the LA Shorts Fest 2015.

When the nominations for the 2016 Oscars were announced, Armitage was both surprised and excited for the film. The reaction has been dizzying: “From the day the nominees were announced, there was suddenly a hundred messages in my inbox. From people wanting to meet to talk about this project and possible future projects. It’s quite exciting and the nomination sweeps you off your feet”.

Serena Armitage

Serena Armitage

Cleary was also touched by the audience reaction: ‘The nicest thing has been receiving all of the positive feedback and messages from people who suffer from a stutter and stuttering organisations around the world. We’re delighted the film seems to be resonating with people.’

The ceremony itself is on Sunday 28th February and the creative team behind the film will all be attending the ceremony, but only just, as Armitage explains: “The Academy only allows two individuals to be nominated for each short film, which is very frustrating as there were three of us in the creative team (Cleary, Armitage and Ogilvie). If we were to win, Benjamin would obviously go up and so Shan and I had to toss a coin to decide who would be going up with him. Fortunately, we each have a plus one ticket so both Shan and our DoP Michael Paleodimos will be in the theatre with us when the winner is announced”.

While most of the nominees on studio-backed features will be funded to attend the awards, short film nominees must use their own means to get themselves to the ceremony. As a Yorkshire native, Armitage found an unlikely supporter in the York Handmade Brick company and will be wearing a Simone Rocha dress to the awards. They will also be relying on support from UK Film institutions for some support finance towards attending.

Shan Christopher Ogilvie

Shan Christopher Ogilvie

Other nominees for best short film include Shok, a story set in Kosovo from Leeds based director Jamie Donoughue. Religious drama Ave Maria is set in the West Bank; Day One is the story of a female interpreter working with a US army unit from US director Henry Hughes. German director Patrick Vollrath’s film ‘Everything Will Be OK’ (Alles Wird Gut) is a relationship drama about a divorced father and his daughter.

Although an Oscar nomination presents a fast track to features, Cleary has plans to return to short film first: ‘I’m trying to raise funding at the moment to make another short film that I’ve wanted to make for years. And I’m also developing a feature which is kind of thematically linked to Stutterer.’

The Academy Awards takes place on Sunday 28th February 2016.

 

A Personal Apocalypse

Writer/director Stephen Fingleton discusses the making of his stunning debut, post-apocalyptic character study The Survivalist

Filmmakers have long been obsessed with the mechanics of humanity’s demise, from the dusty dystopia of Mad Max to the decaying wastelands of The Road. For first time Northern Irish filmmaker Stephen Fingleton, however, the apocalypse was a far more personal concept. “I saw a documentary by Chris Smith, called Collapse, about a very paranoid individual who had a convincing theory about how industrial civilisation would collapse,” Fingleton says. “I was so intrigued by it that I began imagining myself in that circumstance, considering different options for survival.”

The Survivalist: (L-R), Mia Goth, Stephen Fingleton, Martin McCann

The Survivalist: (L-R): Mia Goth, Stephen Fingleton, Martin McCann

The result is The Survivalist, which imagines the shifting dynamics between an isolated male survivor (played by Martin McGann) and the two women (Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth) who happen upon his forest farmstead. “I was interested in showing what happens after a calamity in a location we’ve not seen, which is a thriving forest depleted of people,” explains the filmmaker of his decision to keep the action in one location. “It’s much more effective if you imagine how devastated everything else will look and how that world has deformed the characters, rather than seeing how the world is deformed.”

In his exploration of post-apocalyptic psychology, Fingleton makes some striking observations about the nature of gender politics in a world stripped of societal rules. “When I began writing the film, I became very interested in depicting human sexuality when the vestiges of society are removed,” he says. “I thought the most interesting way to tell the story was to humanise a man who uses his position, in a way, to have sex. Because men exist in those positions in every facet of modern society and, to some extent, it’s almost a satire of modern sexual politics.”

Given these weighty themes, not to mention the sparsity of dialogue and absence of music, Fingleton knew he had to find a cast able to convey the drama and emotion of his story through performance alone. “Had there been a weak link it wouldn’t have worked, but it was alchemy,” he says of his exceptional trio of actors. “They knew what the truth of the scene was and they were very generous with each other. All three actors brought a huge amount to what is a very underwritten script, and there’s such dimensionality in their performances, and such individual styles.”

Individual is perhaps also the best word to describe The Survivalist itself, which is a strikingly uncompromising work for a first-time writer/director. “The script was very well liked,” Fingleton says of finding supporters who shared his vision, “and I worked with producers who believed in me. Northern Ireland Screen were also onboard, so the main job was to convince the BFI – and they took a lot of convincing. But that process, while challenging, was very useful because I made SLR and Magpie, both of which allowed me to refine elements of my style. When you’re making a film that nobody cares about until it’s made and seen, you have no choice but to try and make something great.”

The reactions of festival audiences and critics – not to mention the BIFA win and BAFTA nomination – would certainly suggest that Fingleton has achieved his goal, and it’s already opening up a wealth of opportunity. “I am working on a large scale US project that I can’t say very much about apart from the fact that it’s set in the future,” he reveals. “It’s a mainstream film with a very provocative idea at its core.” But while this progression from independent film to big budget movie is film-making’s Holy Grail, Fingleton remains pragmatic about the future. “I have a limited window of opportunity to try and realise my ambitions,” he grins, “and I hope to use it.”

 

The Survivalist is released on the 12th February 2016.

Robert McKee on the ‘Golden Age of Television’

Robert McKee gives a seminar in Amsterdam

Robert McKee gives a seminar in Amsterdam

Robert McKee, the fast-talking field-marshall of story design, is coming to these shores for one of his classic Story seminars.

He’s famed for his success rate (he’s taught 200 Oscar nominees and 200 Emmy winners), for his robust opinions and for a certain movie-stealing vision of him, played by Brian Cox, in Adaption (2002).

We caught up with him to speak about his passion for long-form TV, of which he was an early champion and which now features heavily in his teaching (which runs from May 5-7 at Regents University, London).


 

You were an early proselytiser for what is now considered a new golden age of television. When did you first think, something’s up here, I’m not just watching a good television programme, this is something bigger?

It’s always been greatly under-rated going all the way back to great miniseries like I, Claudius (1976), which was splendid. I bought the whole thing on tape so I could watch it again and again. But nobody ever took it seriously, everybody always looked down their noses at TV. Then, in the early days of Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, I thought – Jesus, this is an opportunity for writers that the world has never offered before. The writing was wonderful and what was really fascinating was it opened up subject matter no one had dared to touch on commercial TV before and the writers were going crazy and experimenting not only with the content but with the form. So I thought – this is it, this is the future. It’s just going to get better. And I said in lectures that if I was a young writer I’d be writing a pilot for the next great long-form TV series. And people just went a little dark when I said that.

 

I remember hearing a quote from David Simon in the early days of The Wire and he was asked ‘what about the casual viewer’ and he said ‘f*ck the casual viewer’ and that was so contrary to the attitude you expected from anyone making TV.

The geniuses that launched this whole epic genre were HBO. And it was a marketing strategy. HBO looked at their competition – ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox – the family channels, and they decided to commit to ‘anti-family’, to draw those viewers who found commercial TV too sweet to swallow. I’ve had former students tell me that when you’d go in to pitch in those days, and it’s probably the same now, the most common note you got was ‘not dark enough’. To a writer, that is just putting petrol on the fire. Not dark enough? I’ll show you how dark I can go.

 

And out comes True Detective.

Right. And right now I have just caught up with Fargo 2.

 

I’ve not seen it yet, is it good?

It’s so good. It’s not a matter of gore, it’s a matter of just how crafty and Machiavellian and manipulative evil people really can be. To the point where you have to like them, you have to empathise with them simply on the basis off their courage and their cool under pressure. The storytelling and the characters are superb and the acting is up there with the best. When I do the TV day the emphasis is all about character. And the key to long-form TV is character complexity.

 

More so than in any other medium?

By far. By far. You know my definition of a dimensions – a consistent contradiction within the nature of the character. In the TV day I analyse Tony Soprano as not a two or a three dimensional character but as a 12-dimensional character. Walter White is a 16-dimension character. The storytelling and the character complexity go hand in hand but you can’t have great storytelling of that kind unless the characters are complex because if the characters are not complex then the storytelling becomes repetitious.

 

What’s a good example of that happening?

Dexter. It exhausted the characters somewhere in the fourth season and then it just kept going and it spent two seasons being uninteresting and then it collapsed. In long form you’re trying to take the protagonist, and the other characters, to exhaustion, to where they are finally emptied out, their dimensions revealed and the variations of those dimensions exhausted – that would be the Sopranos. Long-form like that is exciting. And it’s exciting to finally see the public and the creative community coming to terms with the dark side of human nature.

 

So you don’t think movies are capable of doing that so much?

No, films have become incredibly conservative. I can’t speak for Britain, but in the US there has been a migration by writers from the movies to TV for a lot of reasons and the first one is creative freedom. Film is not a free, experimental, in-depth. It’s things like Birdman. And the directors have the say. On TV writers can do whatever they want as long as they bring an audience – that anti-family audience. And so they have creative freedom, they have power – they hire the directors or they direct themselves. When you see writers becoming directors and the directing is really wonderful you come to realise how really unimportant directors are. If you’ve got a great cinematographer and great designers, great actors, great script, great scoring – those crews and those actors know how to take care of themselves. They have freedom, power and money. The kind of money that a writer makes in long-form television compared to what they might make in a feature film – you put a zero on it. If you think $1million is a lot for a feature film script, and it is certainly, the same writer working on long-form is going to make $10million or much more. Why in the world would anyone write a feature film?

 

In Britain, there is much more of a tradition of writing in smaller teams as supposed to the US-style writers room. Our long form seems to be quite a lot shorter, and I wonder if that’s primarily money?

It’s shorter for that very reason. You have some kind of version of the auteur theory in television writing – one writer, John Cleese doing 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers. The standard in America, is the 100-hour series. And if you want 100 hours of absolutely compelling storytelling in character one mind is just not up to that. In America the showrunner, who knows that arc and keeps the series heading towards 100 episodes away but in the meantime they can be very flexible depending on what the people in the writers’ room can come up with. The essence of creativity is choice-making – you want your mind as open as possible, generating 10, 20, 30 different ways to write the same scene so that you can go through all of those couple of dozen variations thinking, well these are all in character, within the setting, they are all credible, but which one is the most unique to the character, to the story and has never been on the screen that way and in order to get really great choices you have to have a lot of voices. And if you’ve only got one mind creating choices over a long period of time, eventually that mind exhausts itself.

NEXT: McKee on Aaron Sorkin