Saturday, March 30, 2013

Director of Photography Jonathan Miller talks about the sweet, funny, and prize-winning film, Gimme the Loot, lens flares, visualizing what a film should look like, and so much more

There's something exhilarating about seeing a truly great movie, especially once that's a Valentine to New York City. Gimme the Loot, shown at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, is also a Grand Jury Prize winner at SXSW and the winner of the Independent Spirit Someone to Watch Award, and it boasts rave reviews from The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many more. About two rival gangs of graffiti artists, it's a sunny romance, urban adventure and an edgy comedy, all buoyed with a knockout soundtrack, and when Jeff and I went to see it last night, the house was packed. Part of why the movie looks and feels so great is due to the brilliance of Jonathan Miller, the Director of Photography.  I'm so honored to have Jon here to talk about his work. Thank you so much, Jonathan!

I always want to know why people do the things they do and how they got to do them. What sparked you to be a cinematographer? What and when was the moment when you felt this was what you had to do in life to be happy? And how did you go about making it such a successful reality?

The moment that sparked my interest in cinematography and what it could do was watching The Conformist (shot by Vittorio Storaro) in a film class in Rome while studying abroad. That film blew me away and it's still on of my favorites.  Seeing how that film captured Italy and Rome (where I was) and represented memory and emotion visually was an inspiration. I could not stop watching it. The film seemed to be capture memory in all its vagaries through image and editing in the most fascinating way.  

I'm not sure cinematography is what I have to do to be happy. Making films is what I love, but there's nothing easy about it.  I think maybe cinematography is the place where craft, intellect and instinct come together in the most natural way for me.  I remember early on in my career I was shooting a short called Warlord  down in Maryland and I realized one day that I was just in the zone on this movie; I was in that state where things feel effortless and you know what you're going to do before you do it and everything just flows beautifully. I'd never felt like that outside of sports before, so it was kind of a revelation. 

As far as making my cinematography career a successful reality, I work on that one every day. I think success is so fleeting you have to enjoy the process and your life as a whole first and then enjoy whatever comes your way.  I'm always looking to learn, try new things, challenge myself, and help other people along the way. I try to remind myself to step into fear/the unknown every day because that leads to growth and adventure.  Also, Francis Ford Coppola said his best advice to young male filmmakers is "get married." It forces you to make money doing it.  For me that means I have this feeling of togetherness and support that anchors me, and also it pushed me to grow up and provide for my family (now 4 of us). 

I know you've shot commercials and videos, but is Gimme the Loot the first film you’ve worked on? What was the experience like? Was it what you expected? What surprised you about it? I know, with writing a novel, I never have a sense if the book works until it's finished--and even then, I'm so close to it, I can't tell. (I depend on Andra to tell me!) Did you know this film was going to be such a hit?

Gimme the Loot is my second feature technically, although I barely count the first one because it was so low budget and a difficult experience. 
When I met Adam (the director), and read his script and watched his short film Killer, I was really excited. It felt like this was the feature I'd been waiting for. I grew up painting graffiti in New Haven, CT. Graffiti, skateboarding, and Hardcore music were what I was most excited about in high school. So the film was right up my alley, and I felt a responsibility to make sure the graffiti was accurate. 

Shooting the film was remarkably pleasurable for such a low budget film. We did a lot of testing and talking in preproduction to find the look and plan the shots. We were well prepared. Adam was very clear about what he wanted and focused on getting the scenes to really work often in a single shot.  We shot very little coverage and we did lots of takes. Adam was so intent on getting the performances right that I had a lot of freedom as an operator to improve the shots as we did more takes. The days were shorter then normal for an independent movie and we ate awesome ethnic food in whatever neighborhood we were shooting in. It was a calm and focused shoot.  

One of the visual references for the movie were the long slow zoom outs in Barry Lyndon. Before this film I hated zooms and almost never used them. By the end I loved them. We talked a lot about how to best execute all the walking and talking scenes in the movie. On our budget lots of long dolly shots were not realistic. A steadicam also felt wrong as we couldn't afford to use it for more than a few days and that footage would stick out like a sore thumb.  We wanted to keep the movie really honest, like we just stole everything. The feeling that we went out in real places and stole all our shots was a big driver of the aesthetic. In a sense, it mirrors the story of these kids trying to hustle for $500; we were hustling in the streets to steal this ambitious movie with no money in our pockets. We also wanted it to be smooth and not shaky handheld like a lot of these movies can be. So the long slow zoom became one of our favorite tools to bring in the city and all its wonderful characters and keep the shots dynamic and revealing. I grew a new appreciation for the simple power of the pan and the beauty of a slow zoom that is hidden in a pan. 

One thing that was amazing was how many interesting-looking people just walked through our shots without seeing the camera and added their vitality to the movie. New York is an incredible city that way; there is so much going on and film shoots are so normal that people often don't even look at or see the camera.  The city adds so much production value, and you can capture it for free. 

I had very little perspective being so close to the film. The first time I saw a fine cut, I thought it was a good movie and worked very well. I really had no significant notes, except for a scene at the beginning that we planned to reshoot anyway. Credit there goes to the Morgan Faust, our awesome editor, and Adam for ruthlessly cutting it down to what it is. When it first screened at SXSW I was so nervous and worried that it looked and sounded bad and everybody was going to hate it. At the second screening it looked and sounded a hundred times better so I was pretty happy with that. I never in a million years thought it was going to win the Grand Jury Prize. Privately, I had big dreams for the film but no concept of what was to come. Everything since then, Cannes, all the awards, a million festivals, outstanding reviews, Jonathan Demme, theatrical release etc. has just been a trip. I'm very grateful.   

How did you decide how you wanted the film to look? What goes into that process? How collaborative is it?

Well, Adam had some really interesting ideas in his head about how he wanted to make it look. My job is to get inside the director's head and figure out how to visualize and capture the feeling and texture of what he wants. So with this film we talked a lot, looked at a lot references together, and then I shot a lot of tests and we looked at them. Then I shot more tests before narrowing in on what we finally chose.  Originally, we planned to shoot on film, super16. When that became unrealistic, due to our budget, we knew we needed to find a look that would fit the story and the homemade feeling we wanted it to have. Adam had this idea of an old video look - kind of like the pastiche of archival footage in the documentary Senna. Something that evoked the 90s and felt period and soft. Adam talked about how he wanted it to look like we shot on tape and buried the tapes for a year. I liked the grain in the documentary Darwin's Nightmare and how it gave these cheap video cameras a lot more organic life then they normally have. McCabe and Mrs Miller was another important reference. So we tested real old video cameras, including an old Betacam that one of Spike Lee's cameramen left at Abel Cinetech (we had to jumpstart it to get it working with modern batteries). We tested a lot of old lenses and filters. The camera that I thought would really allow us to get nice grain, shoot flat and soft, and allow us to pull off the slow zooms was the Sony F900R (an older HD camera that was originally developed to shoot Star Wars Episode II). I'd used the camera on a lot of television docs and felt I could make this camera really sing with the look we had in mind. So we shot on tape and used an old Standard Def Canon 22X lens. We cranked up the gain to 6db on everything to increase the grain, used a custom gamma curve from Light Illusion, and put an Antique Suede filter in front of the lens for everything. It was a sort of weird way to do it, but we really loved how the dailies looked, and the film has a unique and sort of timeless look as a result.   Since then the Chilean movie No went and did what we tested, shooting on old period cameras to achieve a period look, and it's amazing.  

What’s obsessing you now?

Oh, so many things are obsessing me now. 

I love lens flares and the quality of a lens bokeh. I'm obsessed with older lenses - Leica Rs and 1960s Nikkor -S and Os, Cooke S3s, the new Hawk Vintage 74s...
I want to tell stories that break open the world and flood it with meaning-- stories that change the way we see things and have the potential to change our lives. 

I'm obsessed with light and how it shapes the world around us. I think of light as a liquid sometimes. A material that flows through and around things creating shapes and intangible substance. How we capture that liquid light energy that is changing and flowing is what cinematography is all about. 

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