‘Mr. Turner’ himself would have approved of going digital on Mike Leigh’s biopic

Filmmaker Mike Leigh has been wanting to make a biopic about English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner for a long time now, and there was surely no other choice for cinematographer than his longtime collaborator Dick Pope. The two have excelled at a breed of tableau filmmaking that can feel at once antiquated and invigorating. There are single frames from “Another Year” and “Vera Drake,” among others, that arrest me still. But for “Mr. Turner,” it was absolutely essential.

The film was a unique prospect. It allowed Pope to show off a little more than any of his and Leigh's past efforts because of the subject matter itself. An artist who captured light on canvas like few others, who saw the encroachment of technology overtake the dominance of his art form, Turner is an intriguing figure. Leigh himself has said the film is about light – the very essence of Pope's contribution.

And that contribution is extraordinary. There are shots in the film that could be hung on a wall next to a Turner, their various elements composed just so and kissed with light in breathtaking ways. And yet, it was a digital production, which might come as a surprise to many. But, well, there's a great thematic reason for that, too.

Pope called over the weekend from New York, where “Mr. Turner” is screening as part of the 52nd annual New York Film Festival. Read through our back and forth below.

“Mr. Turner” opens in limited release on Dec. 19.


HitFix: This film's journey began at the Cannes Film Festival, where you won the Vulcain Prize for the Technical Artist. What was the experience there like?

Dick Pope: I've been to Cannes about three or four times with Mike. He's always great because he always invites me there if the film's showing there. So I did and the response was great. It was quite something.

It's absolutely gorgeous work. It might even surprise people to know that it was shot digitally.

Yeah, I think so, too.

It seems like a project kind of asking for analog. Just because of the antiquity of it, I guess. Why did Mike prefer digital?

You could say that in the film Turner is looking forward. He's no Luddite. He doesn't look back. He's always moving forward, and in his art, as well, he moved forward, didn't he? I mean he evolved from much more figurative to much more impressionistic. And the thing with the photographer when he goes to the photographer's studio and he sees the future staring at him in the face?

That's a very good point.

He says in the film when he goes to see that photographer, “I notice you haven't got color.” It's not in colors yet. And the guy says, “Yes, it's a mystery. We don't know why but it's not in color yet.” And Turner says, “Oh, thank God for that.” There's a parallel there. And he was a guy who was interested in science and chemistry and, you know, all things moving forward into the next millennium.

And then it's not like you are burdened by the digital aesthetic. You really made it feel warm.

I tried very hard to take the digital curse away from it and make it, you know, as painterly as I could. And before we started filming, the film infrastructure fell apart in the UK. All the laboratories closed. The stock was difficult to get. I was really worried that it would fall down as we were making it, and it did. Because other people who were using film at the time – this is what? Last year. 2013. In the summer. It just fell apart, you know? Films that were being shot on film in London were in serious trouble. And obviously in the beginning it was also a budgetary restraint. We didn't have a big budget. I argued for a bit for film and I couldn't win because they were absolutely sure that it was going to cost less digitally.

So what happened was I went out with a camera down to the south coast of England and I shot a series of tests in a day and brought them back and went into a DI suite, did work with them and created some sort of initial look-up table. I tested lots of different lenses and we were delighted by it. And I showed it to Mike and it was like, “Well, this is a no-brainer, really. Let's go this way.” So that's how it kind of evolved, really. And then once we decided to go that way I put a lot of work in making it, you know, as un-modern as I could, really. Trying to capture the era. And that included using really old lenses. Because the Alexa is extremely sharp and, you could say, quite modern in its field, but it has got a film feel. It's built into it, which is why I like the camera so much and don't use any other. I mean, it's designed by film people: Arri. I put other cameras through their paces, but I went back to the Alexa because it gave that feel. And when I put on these lenses – I use Cooke Speed Panchros, which go way, way back. In fact, the series of lenses I used were used to shoot things like “Spartacus”…

Oh, wow.

…and had been taken out to Everest in the '50s for the first assault on Everest, the first climb that was successful. It's a fantastic history and I tried loads of lenses and then I discovered these that had just been remounted, rehoused, this set of lenses. They'd just came into the rental house that I use in London and I grabbed them and went out and did more tests and I loved them. They were absolutely perfect for us. So that's how the look came about.

Now you said you tried as best as you could to kind of eliminate the curse of digital. What was the biggest barrier there?

You know, I didn't do anything tricky at all in the DI. The DI was really fast. In fact, I came in under time. I think I went in for two weeks, 10 days and completed it with two days to spare. So I didn't do anything really because we had looked at the tests and I shot quite extensive tests and I'd got the guy I always use, his name's Peter Marsden. We devised a look-up table for it in the DI suite that kind of was a reflection of the paints and palette that Turner used when he was working. We went to the Tate in London – it's got this most amazing resource there and has all his paints and what he used. It's all there, and his palette. So we took that palette and we made our own, really. We devised a way of coloring the film using a very similar palette to what he used. That also helped. But I didn't do any graining or, you know, anything tricky. It's just straight as it came. Sometimes I shot at speed, like in a candlelit scene. I used the setting at, like, 1600 ASA, and that was more than enough. I wasn't even shooting wide open at that. Because in the days of, like, “Barry Lyndon,” I mean the film stops were really slow and they used those – famously – those Nextar lenses, which were like .9 or something like that. But I didn't have to do that, not with the Alexa and not at 1600 ASA.

And it is candlelit. I mean there were huge chandeliers in the room, in the soiree room where they played, you know, and Turner was painting them. A massive candelabra. I had hundreds of candles, you know, hundreds and hundreds. With fire officers and everything all around me.

You started to touch on this but I'm curious what else of Turner's aesthetics you used to inform the overall visual look here.

Well, when I first discussed the film with Mike – I mean I'd been talking to Mike about it for 10 years, probably.

Yeah, he's wanted to do it for a while.

Say like a year and a half ago we had some serious conversations about what we would do – what sort of film it would be. It sounds pretentious – I'm not saying the film would be like a painting, but it would. The film would evoke the paintings, the spirit of them, you know, and the world that he saw, how he saw it and looking through his eyes. There's an awful lot of the film that we look past Turner, through Turner, on the back of Turner looking, you know, at what he's looking at, what he's seeing. So we tried to conjure up a whole feeling of that, of the paintings, but within the images without recreating them, if that makes sense.

You know, all of his films are the same. It's been the same since day one when I worked with him. Nothing's really left to chance, although it's not like it's labored. But everybody puts in for him, with a lot of love and attention to detail – all the elements. We work very hard at making it as picture perfect as we can. There's a lot of tableau filmmaking in the way he and I work together. He is a master of tableau filmmaking, which is quite an old tradition that kind of got lost somewhat. But to allow lots of actors to move within a frame, I mean, the camera could be moving or not moving. It's not the important thing. It's the orchestration and choreography of the way they are within the shots and move in and out of the frame or whatever. And we love working like that, where we might get a scene in one shot and have all the actors, you know, do their thing and not have to cut into it.

And the thing about that is working with him in wide screen, because it means you can get in there into mid shots and not be too wide. We both have this thing of, like, we love close-ups. We love exploring the human face. Never scared of getting in there. A lot of directors are very scared of going inside with close-ups. Mike's completely fearless about it. That's where the emotion is.

And you've worked with him obviously quite a long time at this point. I'm sure there's a shorthand that's developed over time…

Sometimes we don't even talk, you know!

I imagine so, yeah!

We can work very harmoniously without saying a lot.

How has that relationship evolved over the years?

Well, we're both a lot older. That's 24 years we're talking about. So that's a long relationship, to be working with somebody. There's not many of those around. Not many longstanding ones. My friend Roger Deakins, he's got one with the Coens that goes right back. He's always said to me, and we've always agreed, that it's the most wonderful thing, to have that long-term collaboration. It's really special. And lots of DPs I know really envy that. There are so many directors as well who just, you know, the DP might want to work with them again but they move on. They want to try someone else, someone different, you know?

I always feel like that's a mistake for the filmmaker. Sometimes they're searching for something and that's fine, but by bouncing from DP to DP can keep you from having, I don't know, something consistent about your visual language, which is obviously an intrinsic element of the medium anyway.

I completely agree with you. I completely agree with you. And also, they don't fight for them. If a director moves on and gets a bigger film and, you know, the studios say, “Oh, well, you can't use him. He's not well-known enough. He hasn't got the track record.” – and yet we're talking about the very DP who gave that director that wonderful look on, say, a number of films – and then they moved to a bigger budget and they don't take them with them. There's a number I could cite, but I've always felt that and quite often the DP doesn't move on so much because his man has moved on and left him. I find that very sad.


You know I did a film with Rick Linklater called “Me and Orson Wells” and then when he asked me to go and shoot his film “Bernie” in Texas, I mean, I was so delighted. It is the greatest thing, to be asked back. And to be asked back that many times with Mike, it's just been – we're such good friends. Obviously we are. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to do it. I mean I'm not saying we get on like, you know, peaches and cream the whole time. It's not like that. We bicker and we argue and we have rows, but there's that strength of trust as well. I trust him and he trusts me and it's just wonderful.

What did you think of “Boyhood,” speaking of Rick?

I loved it. I adored it. I thought it was like a real Benjamin Button. I couldn't get over it. I felt quite freaked about it as I was watching it! Do you know what I mean? I found it uncanny. And not only with him but with Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke and Rick's daughter, Lorelei. It's disturbing, almost! He's a complete original. I got to work with him in the first place because of “Topsy-Turvy.” I really hope to work with him again and I'm sure we will. A lovely man.

Great. Well, once again, congratulations on this. It's just beautiful work and you deserve that Cannes honor. I hope you receive a few more before it's said and done.

Oh, we'll see.