How do I collaborate with the directors I work with? First off, it’s important to remember they are coming to you to begin with. They are the director of the project, so they’re choosing their production designer, they’re choosing their editor, they’re choosing their costume designer, and they’re choosing their director of photography.
They already know your work, they already know your style.
So when you meet, it’s a kind of meeting of the minds. When you come together, you start talking about the aesthetics of the film. I find that I do it on location scouts more than anything. We’re sitting in a van for hours on end driving all over the place. And I like to have conversations with the director then and there.
Just start by throwing out some ideas. “What if we do this, or how about that?” Talk about the style, and the mood, and the look. That’s when all these things are really done. Because the director has so many things going on that you have to grab that opportunity, and I find that the location scouting van happens to be that wonderful opportunity. We start to have a dialog.
After reading the script, I put together what I call an emotional breakdown, which is a series of thoughts on the script, the characters, what I feel their camera emotion should be, what I feel their lighting emotion should be, and just taking the main characters of the screenplay and breaking that down. I send that to the director, in that they will start to have a thought process on that. And then they’ll come back to me and say “I like this,” or “I’m not so sure about that.”
Let’s take Gabriele Muccino on Fathers and Daughters. We met in Santa Monica and he wanted me to shoot Fathers and Daughters. We had a very good meeting, and I brought my reference books – all that good stuff. All of a sudden, 2 weeks later, I’m in Pittsburg scouting locations with him.
After I read the script and did the emotional breakdown and sent it to him, he started to generate his own shot list that was embedded into the script. So out of that I started to look at it and started to see where the shot list was headed and the idea and the methodology behind it. I started to do the emotional breakdown a little differently and sent that to him with a couple camera ideas with how we could pull this off.
That immediately sparked tons of conversation because I wanted to shoot 80% of the film on the MoVi, which was a very untested device in the cinematic sense. Great for those trick shots, but nobody had really used it to do 80% of a film.
He really loved the idea, loved the feel of it. We quickly saw on set what that device could do very well and could not. We exploited its best attributes and it really made this movie very different and very visually engaging.
Out of that you start to work on the mood and the tone of the film. Fathers and Daughters was a very very depressing story so I did not want to hit it with depressing light. It was kind of seen through Katie’s eyes as an 8 year old and what she remembered experiencing from her father. So I took that and said ok “How does an 8 year old see pain?” “How does an 8 year old remember happiness?” Well…everything is going to be a little more saturated. Let’s make it a little more golden and alive.
Because I remember times when I hung out with my dad and we might be throwing the ball in our front yard and I’d remember back and I’m like,
“Dad, remember when we were playing catch after the little league game and it was so awesome and beautiful light and setting sun…”
And he’s like, “what are you talking about? That was like high noon and it wasn’t after the little league game, it was after I got done with lunch and before I went back out on the tractor.”
And I was like “What!?!”
That kind of idea of what a child sees and how they see it through their eyes is the mood and the tone of how I wanted Fathers and Daughters to feel. So I counteracted the emotion of the story because I felt if I had really hit it with that depressing sense of emotion, you’d want to put a bullet in your head when you’re leaving the theater. It’s very alive and very rich and very golden and kinda like how an 8 year old would see the story.
Working with the director and tossing these ideas out and seeing what they respond to is part of your job.
The relationship on set, I find, is very rewarding. I like to be very close to the director, I like to be right next to the monitor with them seeing the performance, establishing that rapport, where they turn to you and say:
“Did you like it?”
And I’m like, “Ehh… I don’t know. I didn’t believe it,” or, “Yes!”
I get very emotional when I’m watching a performance, and I’ll do the “OK” sign or a big thumbs up or all these kinds of things while I’m watching it so the director can immediately see what I’m digging on.
In the Illumination Workshop HD download, I go very in depth about how I work with directors, from the creation process all the way to the execution. I call it discovery. So the full discovery process: meeting with the director, talking with them, breaking down the script with the director, and through the creation.
I had an incredible time collaborating with Gabriele on Fathers and Daughters, I hope you get a chance to check it out.