‘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?