Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth talks ‘Gone Girl,’ film, digital and a career with Fincher

10.09.14 3 years ago

Jeff Cronenweth grew up with cinematography in his bones. His father, Jordan Cronenweth, shot such unique achievements as “Altered States” and “Blade Runner” and it was never much of a question that Jeff would follow in his footsteps. Of late, he's forged a solid, on-going partnership with director David Fincher. Their latest collaboration, “Gone Girl,” is another bold step for the icy aesthetic they've been cultivating for decades now.

Over the weekend I hopped on the phone with Cronenweth – who was Oscar-nominated for his work on Fincher's last two films, “The Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – to discuss that continued partnership, to chew on the old film vs. digital debate and to discuss some of the specifics of how “Gone Girl” was presented visually. Check out the lengthy back and forth below.

“Gone Girl” is now playing in theaters.

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HitFix: I imagine at this point that when you get the call from Fincher and read whatever script he's prepping, you get an instant sense about what the movie is or will be. What was that sense on “Gone Girl?”

Jeff Cronenweth: I never know. He's such a clever, smart director and always has the pulse of what's going on contemporarily in music, art, world culture, politics. So first of all, if I'm fortunate enough that he calls, I read the script, have my own ideas and then sit down and start listening to his interpretation of it. And then let that kind of simmer until I can make my contributions. There are some similar tones and contrasts and shadows and that kind of stuff but I think really each one, it's never the same approach. It's always something a little different. There's always reasons why some of the choices are made. He still surprises me and I still learn something from him every day.

The two of you go way back.

My dad [cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth] and I first worked together with him. I was the assistant and then camera operator and I think our first thing that we had ever done with David was a Madonna video called “Oh Father.” A black and white video. And then we went on to do some spots. And then we started “Alien 3.” But my father eventually succumbed to Parkinson's disease. But that was a really, really tough movie and there was a lot of pressure to have only Brits in England. And the working conditions were exasperating. It was a really cold winter. The stages were cold. The sets were huge and the city – I just felt that at some point my father wouldn't be able to keep up. And so they kind of forced us off it, which was extremely painful for both my dad and David. And then later we did many more commercials and music videos. And then when my dad stopped working I got a call to shoot second unit and operate some stuff on “Se7en” And then on “The Game.” And then actually when David called me for “Fight Club,” I thought he was asking me to shoot more second unit. Instead he said, you know, “Read the script and let me know tomorrow if you're interested.” Seriously, do you think I really need to read it to decide if I'm interested or not? But OK.

Given that it was mostly second unit, did you get to work much with Darius Kondji on “Se7en?” He's such a master and I imagine it would have been such an opportunity to learn and absorb more.

Honestly, when I first had the opportunity to work on it, I was there as an operator so I was observing. You kind of try to absorb as much as you can and see what they're doing. They were breaking ground, obviously, and the techniques and watching that working relationship between David and Darius. But then later on I think Darius went off to do “Sheltering Sky” with Bertolucci and so there was about two weeks of additional photography inserts and that kind of stuff. And Harris Savides and I did that. So I spent most of my time trying to watch Darius' work and make sure that, you know, I was as clever and honorable to what he'd already done in all the inserts and pickup jobs that we did. We actually ended up shooting the entire end sequence again with “what's in the box” and all that. So other than being a fan of “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children,” which both are phenomenal, creative, inventive uses of camera and photography, I didn't get that much time with Darius then.

Well that segues right to the next question which is, you know, working on “The Game” with the late Harris Savides, who would also go on to shoot “Zodiac,” what did you learn from him?

I love Harris because he was incredibly unorthodox in most of his approaches. If there was a simple way to do something or if there was a really complicated way to do it with some abstract light source or something, and not used the way it normally is used, he was always excited and thrilled about that. So seeing all the different ways that you can become inventive was fascinating for me. He was a super nice, generous guy and super talented and one of the things that I loved most about his work over the years, because we did get to do several other things together, was his ability to be invisible, creating a perfect visual context for whatever happens to be taking place in front of the camera, yet not getting in the way and not in any way taking away from what it is. A perfect example of that to me, which I think is probably his best piece of work, is in “Milk.” That movie, you talk to most people after they see it and they're like, “Well, that wasn't so hard, you know, just use window light and natural light and ran around with a camera” – Oh my God. You have no idea how complicated and hard – and there is nothing that's available or natural light. He did all that to such a high degree that he didn't get the credit he deserved.

That seemed to be common throughout his career. He never seemed to get the proper credit beyond the inner circle. I always wondered why a guy like that didn't have a few Oscars sitting on his mantle somewhere.

He should have and I think part of that, and the interference that you get on big movies or studio movies eventually, you know, he kept segueing into more intimate, smaller, more controllable projects for him. The projects he did with Sofia [Coppola] and the projects he did with Gus [Van Sant] and then experimenting and shooting on, you know, some small-format chip – quarter, quarter-half, three quarter. All the different things that he used to do to try to be outside of the box, to the point that on one of the Nine Inch Nails videos [“Closer”], he baked the film before photographing it, to somehow degrade it, which is, you know, fantastically bold.

To say the least. Those two movies are interesting, “Se7en” and “The Game,” particularly “Se7en,” for just kind of honing Fincher's sense of visual language. And you've been in a unique position to be with him throughout. What have you observed as far as how he instinctively wants to tell a story visually? What has always stuck out to you as unique about him there?

I think that, for the most part, the camera is never in a position that would be a typical shot. There are no shots that are ever taken for granted. There's a purpose behind everything – without getting crazy; obviously certain situations allow you a lot more freedom than other situations, but it always intrigues me that it's slightly not normal, or not traditional, rather. The camera tends to stay lower; we're always looking at people in an observational way that allows you, really, to study them and give them an opportunity to express whatever turmoil's going on in their heads that then reflects in their performances. The camera has movement but nothing is ever moving for the sake of movement, you know? There's purpose for everything, as opposed to filling in a void in content or our energy by deciding to make some interesting camera moves. The camera moves have a reason. He's incredible about the prep. He does so much homework and we all, you know, it's very much from the Hitchcock kind of philosophy about doing the movie before you ever get there and by the time you walk on the set it's just putting the pieces together. And in doing that, he's very clever about allowing all of us to discover any kind of problems or obstacles that we can't overcome in resolving them and then giving the same amount of light and then step out of the way and elicit performances from the actors.

He's always stuck out as a kind of constructionist, I guess. He's not one of these guys that goes out collects a bunch of content to be sussed out later.

Never.

Do you think that brand of workmanship is increasingly unique?

You know, I think there are a few guys out there that do it in the same way. I think he's one of the more committed, to the procedure. And, you know, it's not something that would ever box you in. It's always creative compromises and solving issues no matter how prepped you are. And he's extremely open-minded if there's a better way to do it or a better idea to convey the same message. That always exists, but it has to be better, which is fantastic because it gives you an opportunity to present things. But we've all been through it by the time we start shooting. The movie's cut in his head, the tempo and the pace, which are always incredibly important in David's movies. They go hand in hand with the visuals and the music and that editorial style and the flow. You start going back – I don't know specifically which movie, but certainly you should look at “Benjamin Button” and you start going forward to “Social Network” and then “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl” now, and then “Fight Club” as well, there was like a lyrical pace to the editorial choices and the rhythm that had to keep going to tell these complicated stories with a lot of short scenes and keep this energy and pace up. He's so focused and has such a clear idea of what it is that the finished product will be that it then opens the door, ironically, to new ideas.

Now do you guys always kind of start from square one on just what the visual identity of your film is going to be or do you pull from referencing?

We've done all of it. We've pulled references. We've just talked about other movies. We've talked about photographers, still photographers. We've talked about ad campaigns.

How about on “Gone Girl?” [SPOILERS IN THIS ANSWER]

“Gone Girl” was, you know – there's a whole bunch of things going on. There's these two nonlinear, parallel journeys of these characters and their demise emotionally, and certainly as a relationship. And then their discovery and coming back to this point of conflict. So that combined with the notion that all this strife, a lot of it is environmental, so you want to make sure that the harmony of their relationship started in New York when they were young writers and everything was going great, and then something happened. They end up in Missouri in the summer, and it's imperative that you feel the heat, the loneliness, the isolation, the change, so color choices at that point – and then as they segue Nick gets accused or starts being the primary suspect, he closes himself off to the world and hides in this big, isolated, impersonal house. And so that sets up this whole thing of this catacomb, this cave he's hiding in, this isolation, and then the loneliness – which also played when they were there together in the flashbacks. It's a sterile – you know, it's a beautiful, huge house that has absolutely no personality and in a way kind of fights the opportunity to have any kind of passion in this relationship, because it's such a cold place to be.

So once he starts spiraling out of control, he wants to hide himself from the paparazzi and he wants to hide himself from the police and journalists, so the notion of pulling down all these windows and creating all this isolation and the shadows and playing with the kind of structure and then letting him relive some of these spaces was fantastic. And then for her, she starts off owning her situation and then quickly it falls apart, and she falls apart. She's thinking that she's going to end it all after she gets her revenge and that changes and things change on the way. So we chose different kinds of palettes for her. We chose different lensing for her to kind of not be as complementary and flattering at this point, because she was actually losing it and gaining weight and choices of wardrobe and makeup. So without, like, extreme choices but subtle choices, there are differences in their journeys visually and optically as well as, you know, anything that takes place in front of the camera.

I'm curious, beyond what I'm sure your dad instilled in you, what are your sort of personal touchstones in cinematography? What movies have inspired you on that score?

Who do I love?

Yeah, who do you love?

Well, first off I'd say “Blade Runner,” without a doubt. I'm a little biased because dad shot that but I remember going to the set night after night. I had just started working as a loader at a commercial company. That was in Studio City and they were shooting at Warner Bros., so it was a 10-minute drive from me every night and I would go and stay as long as I could stay awake watching them shoot “Blade Runner.” And then Roger Deakins with “Shawshank.” I think Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] is a genius. He's a nice man as well but he's a genius and everything that he does, you admire it, respect it and become completely immersed in it. Harris is one of my favorites and, of course, “Milk,” as I said, was one of his masterpieces. There are so many good guys.

I think we're going through kind of a golden age, actually, for cinematography. Quietly.

I think we are. And ironically. It's weird. It's interesting that as the digital age has immersed us all, the fear always was that we would be insignificant, and ironically we've become more significant and it's more imperative. And yes, true, there's certainly things that it's not as – the latitude and the choices and things can happen, color correction and visual effects and all these things water down what used to be ours alone. But also there are so many more things you can do and the contributions and you still have to have the light come from the right direction and you still have to put the camera in the right place and you still have to have continuity and creativity in scenes to make something seamless. In doing some of these interviews they already have predictions about potential award-winning movies and whatnot and they list all the movies for photographers. And you watch the trailers for each one of those and it's daunting, because there's so much good stuff coming out.

And a lot of it is digital.

Absolutely.

I mean there's “Fury” on 35. “Inherent Vice” is on 35. “Interstellar,” obviously is film. And after that it's all digital.

But all of them sent to digital and then they went back and were filmed out. There's some digital aspect to everything now. And, you know, I look at it like, yeah, film was magical. There's things that can happen that you can't predict. I loved the idea that you were the mad professor and you owned everything on the set. But I also like not waking up at four in the morning, calling a lab to find out if I should show up on the set that day or not. I like the ability to take a risk. I like the continuity that you walk into a theater and it looks the same in most of the theaters now as opposed to, with 1,000 prints or 3,000 prints, you could go to a multiplex and walk from one room to the next and they all look different.

Yeah.

And then, you know, not to be sanctimonious, but environmentally, we don't have prints to deal with. And then the biggest one is piracy. Now you can control a lot and eliminate a lot through digital cinema and digital projectors and knowing every time it's screened, where it was screened and the watermarks that no one knows about, they can find stuff. It's funny, on “Social Network” I was with Scott Rudin and we were in New York. Again, we were lucky enough to open the New York Film Festival. We were doing a pre-run that morning of the premiere and the projectionist was 20 minutes late, and so the film stopped 20 minutes before it finished. And, of course, he called back to Sony, Sony sent a new passcode and we watched the rest of the movie. But that's very empowering. That's fantastic.

It's fascinating to have the talk because a lot of people kind of have, like, a superficial discussion about it, at least in the media. Things like Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams fighting to keep labs open is great, but beyond that things always devolve into an argument of romance versus practicality and pragmatism.

I couldn't agree with you more. I mean, I love film. I loved being the guy. I loved when you watched “Fight Club” or something, other DPs would come up and go, “Dude, your balls are so big. How did you do that?” And it's terrifying to be that bold and take those risks, because there is no return, you know? Now there's so much more forgiveness. Yet I think in some ways it's harder now, to still make it interesting and push boundaries that other people won't do. So I don't know. I think that the industry has always been evolving. They've always embraced technology. And it's going to be the answer. It's going to continually evolve. I think the magic is that we're all just now trying to figure out how best to use it, and that's why these movies look so amazing now. Everybody's on board. It's not scary and brand new and no one's running from it.

It's almost like Deakins going digital was kind of like Dylan going electric.

And I had this whole dilemma on “Hitchcock” about, “Well, it's sacrilegious to shoot a Hitchcock movie digitally.” And eventually the choice was nullified by cost constraints and the director realizing that he could have a couple more sets and another two days of shooting if we went digital. But my argument back to that was that Hitchcock, of all people, would have been the first person to embrace the newest thing. He always took risks and was always making changes and if there was a digital camera and he was directing, he'd be using it.

So what do you have coming up?

I direct commercials with my brother and I shoot commercials. Actually, David was so far ahead on this one prior to the release that we did these black and white Gap spots. If you haven't seen them you should check them out because they're typical Fincher, irreverent, and we shot it with the RED Monochrome, which is a digital camera dedicated solely to black and white. So the resolution and the ISO go up enormously and it's really a beautiful camera to capture things with. But that, and my brother and I are trying to get a picture ourselves off the ground.

Oh, nice.

So, you know, when you have a movie come out, anything with David, the scripts keep rolling in. But unless it's something magical I'd rather try to stay home, enjoy life with the family, develop these projects with my brother and then shoot cool commercials.

Dude, it sounds like you're living the life.

It's not bad. I'm not complaining at all.

Well, enjoy it. And good luck with the release. It looks like it's doing pretty well so far.

It topped $38 million, which, ironically – you wouldn't guess this if you didn't know it – but it was David's biggest opening. It seems so wrong. But I remember how painful it was when “Fight Club” came out and, you know, just like “Blade Runner,” both of those movies, when they released, they were considered flops. And then they became iconic.

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