- Friday, Aug. 18, 2017
One DP has an ASC Award, a Camerimage Golden Frog and an Oscar nomination on the strength of his collaborations with a noted filmmaker.
Another cinematographer has enjoyed working relationships with directors that have resulted in three Film Independent Spirit Best Cinematography Award nominations, among other honors.
And our third DP recently garnered his eighth career Emmy Award nomination—four of which entailed lensing for the same director.
Here are observations and reflections from Christian Berger, AAC, Frankie DeMarco, and Gary Baum, ASC.
Christian Berger, AAC
Berger has enjoyed an ongoing, fruitful working relationship with director Michael Haneke, a collaboration which most recently yielded the feature Happy End. Berger and Haneke have teamed on six films over the years, including The White Ribbon which won the 2009 Cannes Palme d’Or and earned the DP not only the ASC Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatrical Features but also a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination in 2010. Berger earlier won the coveted Camerimage Golden Frog for his work on Haneke’s The Piano Teacher.
Starring Isabelle Huppert and Toby Jones, Happy End—which debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—is a drama about a family set in Calais with the European refugee crisis as the backdrop. Haneke said he was drawn to the feature film by “a tough script, very strong and minimalistic—80 short pages for a 120-minute film. And of course it is always quite interesting to go on a journey with Michael Haneke.”
Berger’s journey with Haneke began with the feature Benny’s Video in 1992. “He called me at the end of the 1980s because he saw my first own feature [as a director], Raffl, and wanted to work with me,” recalled Berger. “But by that time I was busy with my second feature Hanna Monster, Darling. So the first opportunity for a collaboration was Benny’s Video.”
The other two features which Berger shot for Haneke were Hidden and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance.
Berger said of Haneke, “I always like directors with a clear handwriting and precise vision. Michael Haneke is without any doubt one of the few. I believe in general that there is no art without precision. That might be sometimes hard work and there is never any guarantee for success. But one thing is for sure—without precision, no takeoff. Easy to say...because too much precision can become very easily hard and narrow. And not enough leads quickly into a sloppy soup. Haneke is always on that kind of rope dance and I try to find my balance on that rope as well. But I like it—if it works, you get strong results.
“Over the years,” continued Berger, “many of the preparation discussions from earlier days became obsolete. Today we check locations together, we speak about the shooting list and the atmospheres—that’s it. I believe in his scripts and trust his wonderful work with the actors. And he trusts me with my lighting and framing. I do my best to keep technical obstacles away from him.”
For Happy End, Berger deployed the ARRI ALEXA SXT and the ALEXA Mini cameras with what he described as “my beloved” Cooke S4i lenses. Among the challenges posed by Happy End, Berger cited a pivotal scene between grandfather and granddaughter shot over two days. Noting that he was “so happy about the opportunity to work with the great Jan-Louis Trintignat”—the lauded actor who portrayed granddad Georges Laurent—Berger related, “We were on an original set with an open view through a big window. The weather and light conditions were constantly changing—the bright sun and dark cloud game. We handled it with my Cine Reflect Lighting System [CRLS] to ensure a stable, homogeneous light situation for that very sensitive scene. But it was a challenge.”
Berger and Bartenbach Lichtlabor teamed to develop CRLS, an energy efficient system designed to mimic nature; like the sun, it uses a single powerful beam light source, and deploys a range of reflectors and scrims to alter the character of the light and to light entire scenes. In addition to creating new aesthetic possibilities for the camera, CRLS gives actors and directors an extra measure of flexibility and freedom. Berger used the system for the first time to some degree in The Piano Teacher, and then assorted other films, including a MasterCard commercial. Notable features shot by Berger which benefited from CRLS included The White Ribbon, Ludwig II, The Notebook, By The Sea, and The Night of a Thousand Hours.
As for his biggest takeaway from working on Happy End, Berger observed, “Even if it’s not a first-time experience for me, I’m still surprised how difficult it can be to work for simplicity and I’m still satisfied if I can achieve it.”
He has striven to achieve it not only for Haneke but in tandem with other notable filmmakers over the years including Luc Bondy, Wolfgang Gluck, Stephan Gaghan, Amos Gitai, Janos Szasz, Angelina Jolie, Virgil Widrich, Terrence Malick, and the duo of Peter Sehr and Marie Noelle.
Like Berger, cinematographer DeMarco had a feature which debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, lensed for a director with whom he has collaborated regularly. The movie is How to Talk to Girls at Parties, helmed by John Cameron Mitchell.
DeMarco scored one of his three Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Cinematography on the strength of a Mitchell-directed film, Hedwig and The Angry Inch, in 2002. The DP’s first Spirit nod was for director Larry Frandsen’s Habit in 1998. DeMarco also earned a nomination in 2014 for J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost.
DeMarco has an extensive filmography with Mitchell spanning short and long-form fare. On the latter front, DeMarco shot Shortbus (2006) and Rabbit Hole (2010) for which Nicole Kidman earned a Best Lead Actress Oscar nomination. How to Talk to Girls at Parties is the fourth feature he has shot for Mitchell; it stars Kidman, Elle Fanning and Ruth Wilson, and is billed as a story about the birth of punk rock in London, the exuberance and exhilaration of first love, and the perennial mystery of how to talk to girls at parties.
Meanwhile DeMarco remains active in commercials, having shot Mitchell-directed ads over the years for Revlon (with Emma Stone, Halle Berry, Olivia Wilde), Lady Dior (featuring Marion Cotillard) and Rimmel Cosmetics (with Kate Moss).
Fortuitous circumstances brought DeMarco and Mitchell together. In looking for DPs for a Sundance Filmmakers Lab in 1999, Michelle Satter, who still runs the program, reached out to DeMarco at the recommendation of a producer. “I talked to Michelle for a half-hour or so and based on the timber of my voice, I guess, she thought John and I would be a match,” smiled DeMarco. “Somehow, she was right. We got along very well. At the time he had the promise of $7 million to do the movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch—he had been doing the play and was looking for a DP. He was going to star in the movie but was wondering whether or not if he should also direct it. Or would he be better off with a separate director or a co-director? His experiment at the Sundance Lab was to see if he could star and direct something himself. What he found in me was a good partner. And he wound up starring and directing the film, which we embarked on a year later—with limited time and money.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch went on to considerable acclaim, including winning the Audience Award and Best Director honors at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. From this sprung a lasting relationship in which the two have become accustomed to turning obstacle into opportunity, a prime example coming in How to Talk to Girls at Parties which Mitchell wanted to shoot in Super 16. But at the 11th hour, the whole Super 16 plan collapsed. DeMarco, though, had sometime earlier done an ARRI ALEXA test, shooting a Super 16 extraction from the digital camera. “I pulled this little test out of my hat and John embraced it,” recalled DeMarco. “He could realize his vision for the film.”
DeMarco wound up deploying a compact ALEXA AMIRA camera which offered great flexibility, and thanks to ARRI the option of a Super 16 extraction.
DeMarco cited the personal rapport he enjoys with Mitchell. “John comes from a theater background, meaning he likes feedback,” shared DeMarco. “He likes to be critiqued by people who care and whom he trusts. Producer Howard Gertler and I give him that feedback. We discuss what’s working and what isn’t. We challenge him a little bit. He’s not defensive in any remote way. He loves to discuss and collaborate.”
DeMarco’s ties to directors extend well beyond Mitchell. The DP lensed Chandor’s theatrical motion picture directorial debut, Margin Call, which went on to win Best First Feature and the Robert Altman Award at the 2012 Film Independent Spirit Awards. DeMarco and Chandor then again teamed on All Is Lost, starring Robert Redford. Among DeMarco’s other feature credits are director Jay Chandrasekhar’s Beerfest and The Babymakers, Jay DiPietro’s Peter And Vandy, and James C. Strouse’s Winning Season. The latter two premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
On the TV front, DeMarco lensed an episode of Mad Men directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, the ABC-TV miniseries Madoff directed by Raymond De Felitta and starring Richard Dreyfuss in the title role of con artist Bernie Madoff, and an ABC pilot, The Jury, which was directed by Neil Burger and centered on a murder trial as seen through the eyes of individual jurors. At press time, DeMarco was in the midst of shooting season two of the Amazon con man series Sneaky Pete.
For DeMarco, one discipline informs another. He has found his commercialmaking experience invaluable in longer form narrative storytelling. “Each shot in a commercial is artfully crafted from the composition to the lighting to the action and perspective. Each shot has to be since you only have a little less than 30 seconds. Each shot is a distilled communication of maybe 10 to 15 different ideas. Working in that discipline helps me distill shots in a feature or TV show to their essentials while still conveying many ideas. I can distill two or three of the shot ideas for a feature into one shot. You can create a tighter story and let shots evolve.”
DeMarco also finds inspiration in jazz. “All those modalities, different scales and rules that can be broken. Jazz musicians break them with full knowledge of what they’re doing. You can create something beautiful by breaking or bending the rules. Rules are just guides. In music they’re guides that help fellow musicians communicate with each other, to play together. I have to communicate with a director but once I know the filmmaker’s vision, we can break rules, and distill down shots to realize a creative vision.”
Last month Baum picked up his eighth career Emmy nomination—for the “Crime Time” episode of Superior Donuts (CBS) in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Multi-Camera Series category.
Baum said he enjoys the working rapport on Superior Donuts, which takes us into a donut shop that’s trying to find its way in a changing neighborhood undergoing gentrification. The series revolves around the relationship between Chicago donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski (portrayed by Judd Hirsch), his new employee, Franco Wicks (Jermaine Fowler), and the shop’s various customers. In his mid-70s, Arthur is an old-fashioned and sometimes grumpy widower. Franco, a young African-American who had come to the shop regularly as a kid, sees Arthur as a mentor and friend whom he wants to help in the struggle to keep the donut shop viable.
In the “Crime Time” episode, Franco is concerned over Arthur’s routine of getting up early and walking the streets in a potentially dangerous neighborhood. When a local dry-cleaning store is robbed, those concerns heighten. But just as, if not more concerning, to Franco is Arthur buying a gun. For the episode, Baum found himself working on new sets, including a gun range and a bowling alley modeled after a retro-looking, punk-themed alley in downtown L.A. The shooting requirements of these sets along with his having to make street scenes look like part of a more expansive neighborhood were among the challenges Baum encountered on the episode.
“Crime Time” puts Baum in the running for his second Emmy win; the first coming in 2015 for the Mike & Molly episode “Checkpoint Joyce.”
And just as he did for “Checkpoint Joyce,” Baum deployed the Sony F55 with Panavision 11:1 Primo lenses for “Crime Time.” For a multiple-camera sitcom shot in front of a live audience, Baum finds the F55 to be his “camera of choice at the moment; the cameras are basically tied together in one-big brain which controls the various setups. And when the camera is paired with those lenses—which were designed for the Panaflex film camera before digital ever came around—you get a different look, something more cinematic.”
Another common bond between “Checkpoint Joyce” and “Crime Time” is that Baum was brought onto both series by James Burrows, the producer-director who has won 10 Emmys spanning such shows as Taxi, Cheers, Frasier and Will & Grace. (The “Checkpoint Joyce” episode of Mike & Molly, incidentally, was directed by Victor Gonzalez.)
Baum first met Burrows 20-plus years ago on the set of Friends—Burrows was directing and Baum was a camera assistant at the time. Baum moved up the industry ladder to operator, reconnecting with Burrows on Will & Grace. When Tony Askins, ASC, retired and recommended that camera operator Baum succeed him as DP on Will & Grace, executive producer/director Burrows afforded Baum that opportunity. Burrows later directed the pilot for Mike & Molly, bringing Baum into the fold on that series.
Four of Baum’s eight Emmy nominations have been for series (Gary Unmarried, 2 Broke Girls, Mike & Molly, Superior Donuts) episodes directed by Burrows. And Burrows served as an exec producer on all the shows for which Baum has earned nominee status.
“Jimmy has played a major role in my career. We enjoy a great collaboration,” said Baum, who noted that he’s about to embark on the return of Will & Grace to NBC. “It’s a reunion I couldn’t pass up. It’s where Jimmy and Tony [DP Askins] gave me my first big break as a cinematographer. I will always be grateful for their trust in me.”