Cinematographer Greig Fraser talks ‘Foxcatcher,’ ‘Gambler’ and NOT ‘Star Wars’

10.24.14 2 years ago

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I've known Greig Fraser for a few years now and have been positively stoked to see him rise through the ranks and become, truly, one of the great DPs of his generation. He's gone from making a big splash with painterly work in Jane Campion's “Bright Star” to taking on major projects from Matt Reeves (“Let Me In”), Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”) and Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”). Oh, and now he's lined up a “Star Wars” movie.

But don't expect any details on that one here. Naturally, I tried, but Fraser is mum on just what Gareth Edwards' standalone feature is after recently being tapped to shoot it, and can you blame him? In the meantime, it's not like there isn't plenty to chew on. He's behind the camera on two completely different films this year – “Foxcatcher” and Rupert Wyatt's remake of “The Gambler” – both with striking looks and, interestingly, shot on very different formats. We get into that, too.

Read through the back and forth below. This one's a long one. A casual chat that digs in here, lays off there. Kick back on a lunch break and check it out. He's a bright one with a lot of great insights into his particular line of work in this business.

“Foxcatcher” hits theaters on Nov. 14. “The Gambler” follows a few weeks later on Dec. 19.

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HitFix: Dude, you're all over the place.

Greig Fraser: I'm like a chicken with its head cut off right now.

It sounds like you're doing a lot of cool stuff, though.

I cannot complain. But I can and I will, of course, because that's the nature of humans, to complain. I was just talking to an AC that I'm interviewing for this Australian film and I sat there and I talked to him for like 15 minutes about the London part of the shoot. And he went, “I thought you were shooting in India and Australia.” And I went, “Oh, fuck, yeah, yeah, yeah, we are. We're shooting in India and Australia. So transplant the word London to the word India and you'll have the correct conversation.”

The news here is that the London shoot you're talking about is Gareth Edwards' undisclosed “Star Wars” movie, which I'll get to. But what are you shooting out in India?

I'm doing a little film called “Lion,” which is a film that a director by the name of Garth Davis is directing. Garth did half of the episodes of “Top of the Lake.”

Right, right.

He was like an assistant director and I was like a junior schlepper at a production company at the same time. He got a music video here and there and I shot it or I helped him with it or whatever. So back in the days when we were both kind of young and pretty dumb we were each other's go-to guys for work. So he's now doing this film.

And you're doing a “Star Wars” movie!

And then I'm doing a fucking “Star Wars” movie, which is like – I don't know about you but “Star Wars” is like my first film love, do you know what I mean?

For a lot of people, yeah.

Princess Leia was the first woman that I kind of went, “Yeah, she's all right, that one.”

Which one is Gareth doing?

Gareth is doing a standalone film. Of course I do know some specifics, but it's obviously something I've signed my kidneys away for.

So you can't even tell me what it is, if it's the Han Solo movie or if it's the Boba Fett movie or what.

No. I can't tell you what it's about. I think I signed my left kidney to Disney and my right kidney to George Lucas. So I'd hate to be talking to you next time when I'm on dialysis.

[Laughs.] Well I liked “Godzilla” quite a bit, actually. So I'm pretty excited you're collaborating with him.

Did you see “Monsters?”

I did, yeah.

That's the thing that made me a fan of Gareth because, you know, filmmaking's hard. Like it's so hard and that guy took a camera down to Mexico and shot, directed – he took an editor and a sound guy and that was it and two actors. And he basically made a film. And he wasn't bound by the handcuffs that most filmmakers are bound by, which is, “We don't have a tank going across the road so we can't shoot that shot.” He just went, “Well, there's a truck. I'll just shoot the truck and then turn the truck into a tank.” He wasn't bound by the same mental brain space that handcuffs directors into not doing things or doing things when they've got permission. I was really impressed by the size of the guy's cojones because he went out and made a film that was totally anti-establishment and it was good. I hadn't seen “Godzilla” when I took “Star Wars.” I haven't seen movies in ages because of the kids but I sat down and I watched it with him and we talked about all the pros and all the cons. And we basically just talked about what we loved about each of the [“Star Wars”] films and what we hated about each of the films.

Does it have a title?

It does have a working title but I don't know if it's up to me to tell you what that is.

Alright, alright.

Sorry, dude. I'm terrified, man! You know, after “Zero Dark Thirty,” I was so terrified that someone was going to trip me up on something or the CIA was gonna, like, knock at my door and go, “You shouldn't have said that.”

I hear you. But it's awesome. It was just five years ago that we were sitting at a table in a restaurant talking about “Bright Star.” Now you're doing “Star Wars.”

Yeah. And the thing is, it's never been my goal to do “big” films because a big film in itself is not very interesting to me. I don't love big films for the sake of big films. It's not been a career drive to get to that point. But it's really exciting purely just because it's such a big part of my childhood. And also, too, dude, if I fuck it up then I fuck up my childhood. So, you know, the pressure's on!

Totally. Well let's dive in with “Foxcatcher.” As I told you previously I saw it at Telluride and loved it. What kind of visual ideas did Bennett Miller bring to the table when you first started talking about it? Like were there photographs or anything, any kind of reference points?

He showed me references of, you know, that type of person, that type of family, that type of world. I say “that world,” meaning old money – East Coast old money. There's a certain way about them. They do things a certain way. They're a certain type of person. And at the risk of offending those types of people, they're not always the prettiest pictures in the world, you know what I mean? Like the way people treat other people, it's almost like what I'm finding in India in the caste system, where the money is so old that kids or grandkids or great-grandkids of billionaires have somehow been ingrained to believe that the world will work for them and that they are somehow the top of the tree. Now that wasn't necessarily supposed to be expressed visually, but what I was seeing reference-wise was a lot of ugliness. I sort of love ugliness in the beautiful mansions and the beautiful, you know, ball gowns and the beautiful pictures of people entertaining themselves with that much money. That much money with the references that I was seeing was actually ugly, you know? It was almost beautifully ugly to the point where – and this is not all the pictures I saw but, you know, in Hollywood circles you sometimes see women who are massively done with Botox and fillers and you just see the ugliness within that's come out. It's coming out in their faces and their insecurity, you know? And their perfect bodies and their perfect breasts. And then it becomes an ugly thing. There's a fine line between beauty and ugly.

That's certainly a hard thing to translate to the screen.

It very much is. And this is where, you know, you have to have the full trust of the director and the actors, where you know that they're going to create that through their character or through their performances or through the editing and through the script. Because visually you can't shoot it in an ugly way. You can't shoot it like a noir and make them feel all kind of like dark or nasty. You need to shoot them in a normal, if not beautifully normal way. Does that make sense?

Yeah.

So if you then try and create big hard shadows and try and create intrigue with the lighting, I don't know, I think it's like adding too much sugar to a cake, you know? You can overdo it like a crazy person. But instead if you hold back on that and you allow the world class director with the world class script and the world class actor to do their thing, then you can just ride that balance of being like an unseen force, an unseen hand that sits and just presents it gently to the audience visually. And that's a fine line that we skirt because in filmmaking, we have the opportunity in every single shot to go in any direction that we want. And it's important to try and maintain a very clear, concise direction that you're not going to create any pictures that are overtly beautiful or overtly ugly, but they can't be plain either. Or maybe they can be depending on what the scenario is. But you've got to try and ride that edge and hopefully you come out with something that ends up sort of feeling good to an audience and they don't get jarred by, “Oh, wow, look at that beautiful room,” and not listening to the really horrible conversation that's being had on the screen.

Bennett's an interesting director because he's used three different DPs on his three films and yet there still remains a strong, connective kind of visual identity to his work. How did he strike you in terms of how he wanted to work on set?

He's not an aggressive director in the sense that he knows where to put the camera and knows how to light. He's not a proactive technical person. But he is very proactive at discussing what's wrong with an image if it's wrong and discussing what's right with an image if it's right. And if it's not quite right, about working together to make it right. So he's got very strong instincts and that works all the way down the line from location choice to casting to costume choice to shot selection, lens selection, performance to editing. All the way down the line. His instincts are very strong and very good.

It's easily one of my favorite movies of the year. I just saw the new trailer, which was great.

When did you see that? Is there a new one recently?

Yeah. It kind of plays up the thriller elements.

I have to say it's very hard to understand a film that you worked on because when you sit there in a cinema, you're feeling a certain feeling. I'm sitting there and going, “Oh, fuck, I remember that day. It was so cold in that gym. I remember I didn't bring my jacket and I had to borrow someone's jacket and it smelled and fuck…” So it's very hard to be 100% objective about your own work. But with some of my favorite films, like “Foxcatcher” being one of them, I rarely, rarely, rarely think about all the shit that went down during the shoot. I'm engrossed in it. And I think that's a very, very strong positive for Bennett and for the film the way it finished. Because it's such a beautifully done film. It's a film that I like to make. And I like to be involved in films that don't always have a happy ending. I mean, shit, we talked about “Bright Star” – talk about a non-happy ending.

Well, “The Gambler” certainly looks like it's going in that direction for a huge stretch of the movie. This one is interesting because like “Foxcatcher,” it's a story about obsession. But it's told in a very different, sometimes kind of kinetic way. Had you seen the original film?

No, I haven't. I saw a couple of sequences out of it because Rupert Wyatt wanted to explain a point. There was a scene that he was putting in there that was reminiscent of the original and he showed me the original scene just to show me the feel of it. That scene subsequently got cut out, but I liked the era that that was shot in. That era when “The Gambler” was shot was around that time of “The French Connection” and “All the President's Men.” I personally worship every single film that came out during that era for one reason or another. I didn't ever reference that look, but there were certain things. We tried older anamorphic lenses, and that was less to pay homage to the original but more to pay homage to that era of filmmaking. The lenses had reached a point where they were pretty good but they weren't perfect but they had character. Filmmakers really had this kind of deep understanding of that type of drama.

Yet you shot this digitally, on the Alexa.

We did. Exactly. So therefore – and again, this is where I'm keen to have an open dialogue with yourself, with other DPs – you see it with how the Alexa looks compared to film. Because we're at that point now where we're using older lenses to pay homage to an era in the '70s but we're also using brand new technology to do so. So it's interesting.

I was just going to ask – because you did this on digital and “Foxcatcher” on 35mm and you continue to bounce back and forth – I keep asking my DP friends and acquaintances lately just for their take on that whole debate of film versus digital. What's yours?

Well, you know, it's such a personal thing and it's not just personal between humans because obviously you speak to Nolan or Pfister they're going to go film all the way. Roger Deakins I believe is about to shoot the new Coen brothers film on film.

Yeah.

So here he is going back to film from the Alexa. Now I'm positive that he's not doing that because he thinks the Alexa's subpar. I'm positive it's because of the Coens. And it's obviously going to be interesting seeing Roger Deakins shoot film after having been on the Alexa for a while. I worship the ground that guy walks on. Everdything he does is fucking gold. So as an exercise I'm really excited to talk to him before, during and after him having shot on film again. But I don't think there's any one correct answer. Because “Episode VII” of “Star Wars” is shooting on film now, you know? Who knows what “Episode VIII” is going to shoot on.

What are you shooting yours on?

We haven't decided. Nothing is a hundred percent confirmed for anything either way. There are reasons for doing stuff and there are reasons for not doing stuff. So it sounds like a very wishy washy answer, I'm sorry, because I…

No, I think it's the right answer. I mean I think there are too many strong opinions on it, actually. Too many definitive opinions, anyway. I think that there's not enough middle ground being staked out. And more and more, DPs seem to be the ones who settle into that middle ground. They seem to understand and get away from the romance of it all. I think some filmmakers get hung up on that romance.

And vice versa, to be honest, where there are some directors like Fincher or Michael Mann who are the other way because they've got hung up on – well, I wouldn't say “hung up” as a bad thing – but they are definitively digital. I've had debates with filmmakers about this before about how you might believe that film is the only way, and I've maybe shot something on digital and had this discussion and said, “Well, on that project digital was a better solution because of this and this and this reason.” And they may not have agreed. I've sat at the end of a line when I received a phone call from a lab saying, “Hey, we've just fucked up a roll of your film.” And I've also sat on the end of a phone call when I've, you know – “This shot is corrupt so we can't use it.” So both film and digital have their issues. They're not always 100% foolproof. The issue that people like Nolan have, which I understand and agree with – he's got this issue with archiving.

Right.

And it's a good point. Because if we go watch a film as early as “Ben-Hur,” they could go back to that film and they could rescan it at 4K and they could re-project it in the cinema at 4K brand new looking.

Yeah.

You know, you go back to a film that was shot on 1080p or 720p, I mean, what are you going to do? Are you going to re-release that?

Very true. A different argument, too. Because at the end of the day there's also the issue of file types becoming obsolete. This is Scorsese's deal, regarding preservation. Celluloid can have a 100-year shelf life or whatever. You can strike a print and preserve it. And so I understand that argument, absolutely.

Yeah.

It's interesting though. The whole thing is just at such a fever pitch lately.

And people are almost religious about it, which I find any form of extremism a little silly because there are arguments for and against. And then I'm sure I'll get into trouble from filmmakers about that and I have in the past. I have had, like, hearty debates with filmmakers on both sides of the line and I don't know. It sounds like I'm being wishy washy but I'm actually just saying each project deserves its own set of glasses. For me, “Foxcatcher” would not have worked if it was digital. Bennett's a very strong advocate of film so, you know, I give him credit for pushing that line, but I agreed with him 100% that film was absolutely the best method to use on that film.

And then I just had one more question here, which is: Which “Star Wars” movie is Gareth doing?

[Laughs.]

I tried.

I'm sorry, man.

When are you going out to shoot it?

I think they start shooting around next year sometime. So it's kind of around middle of the year next year.

OK. Well good luck with that and the India and Australia of it all. Like I said, you're all over the place.

Yeah, thanks, dude. I mean, I'm excited about the projects, but it's going to be a really tough year for family because I'm going to be away a lot and stuff but, you know, we did “The Gambler” last year and this year in LA, so I kind of have done my time at home.

Safe travels, man.

Thanks.

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Side note: Fraser also shot the short film “Naran Ja” a few years ago, which was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. It's a one-taker (on VHS, no less), which makes you wonder if the director got some inspiration for “Birdman” while making it. Check it out below.

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