‘Inherent Vice,’ ‘Nightcrawler’ cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots an ‘unusual Los Angeles’

Between Dan Gilroy's “Nightcrawler” and Paul Thomas Anderson's “Inherent Vice,” you're going to be seeing a lot of Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit's work this year. Not only that, but you're going to be seeing a lot of Los Angeles location work in these films that showcases areas and eras of the city unique to the silver screen.

When Elswit rang me up from London, where he's currently shooting the fifth “Mission: Impossible” film with director Christopher McQuarrie and star Tom Cruise, I found it a little difficult to keep from going long on all of this. Few DPs have had the opportunity to play with the City of Angels in such specific ways.

Much of that is owed to Elswit's collaboration with Anderson, which has sketched the city, particularly the San Fernando Valley, almost as a character in films like “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch Drunk Love.” He finally won an Oscar when they hoofed it out to West Texas for “There Will Be Blood,” and he wasn't available to shoot “The Master” for the auteur, but they're back at it with the '70s beach communities of “Vice.” And in “Nightcrawler” – which has Elswit capturing his own Godson, Jake Gyllenhaal, in his frame for the first time ever – the work recalls Michael Mann's “Collateral,” finding nooks and crannies of the nightscape and showcasing them in striking ways throughout.

So if all of that is interesting to you, you'll enjoy this deep dive. It goes on for a few pages but I'm a geek for this stuff. And with “Inherent Vice” sure to be one of the only 35mm films in the Best Cinematography Oscar discussion this year at a time when celluloid is fading away, well, let's just say there was plenty to discuss.

“Nightcrawler” opens on Oct. 31. “Inherent Vice” hits on Dec. 12.


HitFix: Most people might not know this but you're Jake Gyllenhaal's Godfather. And yet somehow this is the first time the two of you have ever worked together. What was that dynamic like?

Robert Elswit: You know, it was just kind of great seeing him, because I hadn't seen him in so long and, you know, never worked with him. It was kind of fun to watch him go through this. I've known him since he was born, so it is kind of a thrill to experience this with him. I tried to talk him into doing it and I was a little hesitant, in a way, because I didn't want him to feel like I'd gotten him into something that wasn't right for him. But I felt it really was. I felt it was perfect. He's never done a one-hander, really. He's never done a movie that's just him. I mean, other than “Prince of Persia,” it's always been kind of a two-hander. He's always been with somebody else, and this, I thought, was kind of singularly possible for him to pull off, because it was such an unusual, very-very-far-away-from-him sort of human being. So I was really happy he took it.

He's making a lot of great, intriguing choices lately.

He is, yeah. And, you know, you don't get paid anything [on a movie like this], and it's a real huge commitment of time and energy. And he just embraced it and he did it a thousand percent. He just went at it, which is what you have to do. When a movie is that low budget and that complicated – because there was lots and lots of locations – and then time consuming and physically difficult, you really have to have an actor who just won't let up. And he really came through.

With this and the stuff you've done with Paul Thomas Anderson, including “Inherent Vice,” it really feels like few have been able to capture as many specific looks at Los Angeles as you have. On “Nightcrawler,” what was the thinking on how to use the city visually?

Well, Danny [Gilroy] really wanted to make a film that wasn't a “downtown LA” movie. He wanted to really see the Valley and West Hollywood, which was kind of impossible on our scheduling budget, to show that on Sunset there are hills in between, that you drove from the west side to the Valley and you went through the mountains and, you know, kind of that stuff that brings you through Griffith Park, which we tried to do a few times. That's kind of the feeling he wanted, that you come out of the canyons into the flats, and that really dictated the locations. I mean, it was really his feelings about he wanted his LA to be. He wanted it to feel like it was all the living spaces that he knows, you know, unusual LA. And that was his little world that Jake lived in. He went back and forth between that little Los Feliz apartment that he lived in and went to the west side and went to the east side. And you would see downtown in the distance, but you wouldn't go there.

I imagine the location shooting aspect really streamlined your department.

For practical reasons – because the schedule was so short – we really had to find locations that I didn't have to do much to, that already had enough ambient light, streetlights, storefront lights, things like that, because we couldn't really spend the time to light anything except the foregrounds where the actors were. It was a very pragmatic approach based on a creative decision about what part of LA Danny really wanted the movie to take place in.

What we did was we had a lot of prep. It wasn't paid prep but it was time that Danny and I had spent driving around Los Angeles in a version of that car that Jake ends up with – the Dodge Charger – and talking about what was possible. We had that luxury – which lots of movies don't, because we both live there – that we could actually go to all the places over and over and over again and talk about what it was Danny had in mind and what I felt. We only had 26 days to shoot, so that was kind of good.

Since you've covered so much terrain around town across these various movies, I'm curious if you think there's anything about the city that you can't really capture on screen in a satisfying way yet.

I don't know. What was nice with Paul was I got to know the Valley, which is something – even though I grew up in LA, I really never spent any time in the Valley. I didn't really know much about what was west of the 405. I really never went past Ventura Boulevard and I never knew the places that he knew when he was growing up. So when we did “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” we spent all our time in those places. We actually went to some of the apartments that he lived in when he was just out of high school. And actually the same street where the chase and the car crash happens in “Nightcrawler,” Magnolia Boulevard – it's the same street that they shot for the falling frogs in “Magnolia” and the shots where the ambulance drives down the street. And we did a lot on the same streets on “Punch Drunk” as well. So I don't know if there's another part of Los Angeles where I haven't explored, I guess.

I ask because for the longest time it was being able to capture that glow of night and the sky, which they finally cracked in a great way with “Collateral.”

Oh, absolutely. Digital – it's the wonderful advantage, I guess, of going with the Alexa or any digital system. You just have, you know, more exposure. You can see the glow of the city lights in the sky and you just have a little bit more latitude. You can play it out a little bit, and that's why the Alexa is the right choice to go with Danny's stuff. You can see backgrounds.

But the city is so diffuse and so strange. I don't have a sense of the city – maybe because I grew up there – that's unique. It's very hard to make LA part of a movie, unlike New York, which is always a character, you know? When you make a film in New York you always feel you're in New York, that you couldn't be anywhere else. And when they were having to try Toronto being New York, you know, it always rang false. I think that New York is such a powerful sort of presence in any movie that's shot there. Not just because it's the way it looks, but it's the way you have to work when you work in the city. That's why so many television shows are shooting there and everybody's using it. It really becomes a big part of whatever show you're doing.

I don't know that LA ever did. It's just so many different places and so many different looks. And aside from the beach and aside from downtown LA, nobody really uses it in any sort of specific way. So that was kind of a nice thing about Paul, because he introduced me to the Valley, and its banality is sort of its charm. Its sort of, you know, streamlined, grid-shaped and, I don't know, kind of boring nothingness was something that Paul could embrace and see the beauty in it. And I think that's particularly true in “Magnolia.” That was something I really got from Paul. I don't think I ever would have said, “Hey, let's go to the Valley and shoot that movie.” That never would have occurred to me. So I really have to credit Paul with that.

Do you have the same sort of strong feelings on celluloid versus digital that Paul has?

I mean, I think they're very different and I don't think they're really interchangeable. And there's some people I really have enormous respect for who have come to embrace it and do extraordinary work with it. It just depends on the movie. I think there's some things that really lend themselves to shooting on film. It's very sad; I don't think it's going to last all that much longer because it's just such a complicated process and the workflow is somewhat difficult. And, you know, you need your actors to really see that there's a difference and are willing to commit to it. I'm doing “Mission: Impossible” on film, all of it, everything. And it's kind of wonderful. It's because Tom Cruise has a kind of visceral hate of the electronic image on a motion picture.

It's a matter of taste. I don't know. But for certain things, it's absolutely – you know, nobody does digital the way David Fincher does or the way Michael Mann does. It looks absolutely extraordinary. But their film work looked extraordinary. So it isn't any wonder that they found the best way to do it. They were always good digital stylists and, you know, some day Paul may have to – there may not be anything left. I mean there's only really one lab left in LA. So I don't know what the future holds. I don't know what he's going to do next. It seems like the kind of thing that he would either run at or not run at. But as long as he wants to do film, more power to him.

You've been with him since the very beginning. What has that ride been like for you?

Well, I really learned a lot. I don't think I would be anywhere near where I am right now without having worked with Paul. It's just been a film education in so many ways because his process is so different from the standard industrial Hollywood filmmaking process. It's a great opportunity to watch somebody make a movie who refused to kind of – I don't know how to describe it except to say that he's all about finding the film while he's making it, which is a very time consuming and complicated and very difficult thing to achieve because that's when you're spending all the money. And to be open and available to every creative impulse that's sort of going on while you're shooting is really, really stressful and complicated. And he's willing to do that.

There are some films where he really had to figure them out ahead of time, mostly “Magnolia,” because of the cast issues. You didn't have the whole cast the whole time. Lots of locations, lots of actors and lots of overlapping sequences and the weather and all the things had to be worked out ahead of time. But other than that film he really is able to stand there, and even with a plan going in, find something. He wants life to break out in front of him. He wants to find something he hasn't seen before. And no one else I've ever worked with is willing to not feel compelled just to shoot something just because they have to shoot something. He really can't stand that and deal with it creatively and he's strong enough to do that. I mean it's really hard to do when you start spending money. And he loves it.

It's an interesting mix of philosophies actually. He's always struck me as such a constructionist in the craft and planning, not someone to just spray it all and find it in the editing.

And that's why, I think, actors love him and love working with him and respond to him and they're willing to do things with him they just don't do with anyone else, because he loves that process. He loves what actors do and he embraces their nuttiness and their eccentricities and whatever it is they bring. He's more than willing to indulge. Those are his real collaborators, and they feel that. They understand that. And he's very reluctant to compromise in any way. So, you know, it makes it difficult to work sometimes on his shows, but there's really no escaping it: I've just gotten so much out of it that I don't know where I'd be without having worked with Paul.

Let's talk a bit about “Inherent Vice.” The design elements are so striking and it all just sort of pops.

It's very vivid.

Given that the film is obviously part of a certain tradition, did you look at things like “The Long Goodbye” to help inform any of the visual language you were working with?

We did. We looked at a whole bunch of Altman movies, a whole bunch of old LA, lots of photos from that era, a lot of music, a lot of books that were inter-reference sources. More than anything else there were these marvelous sort of Kodachromes and Ektachromes that these little music groups that lived in Topanga and the other canyons – you know, the Joni Mitchell era of the singer/songwriter, album books – we got a bunch of them. And Mark Bridges is a wonderful costume designer, so we kind of went through a lot of that to find wardrobe for all these people. We looked at the kind of photographs that people took in the '60s and '70s living in Laurel Canyon, living in Malibu Canyon and living up in that canyon along the beach that you drive up, just past Sunset. What is it…


Topanga, yeah. Topanga Canyon. It's kind of the people who lived in that world in the '70s. I went to the place that Pynchon lived in Hermosa Beach – that's Gordita Beach in the movie – and in those days it was a very low-rent neighborhood. It was a lot like Venice only not quite as charming. It has a hill that leads down into the water and there are lots of these kind of lovely old homes from the '20s and '30s that have all been torn down, all been turned into condos and apartments and very, very expensive homes. But back in the '70s it was people who worked at the airport, a lot of stewardesses, a lot of flight attendants, a lot of maintenance personnel, pilots who weren't married. And it was an absolute party town with a mix of hedonistic hippies and surfers and airline people. I went to Venice High and Santa Monica High and when I graduated, when I was in college, I would go at least once a month to some party at some stewardess's apartment in someplace in Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach. It was a crazy, crazy time back then. And that's when Pynchon went there. That's when he wrote the book, about that period, about that place, and that was kind of the inspiration.

So Paul and I spent a lot of time driving around in those areas trying to find what little was left. Venice has kind of changed a little more in its character than Hermosa Beach. Hermosa Beach could have been bulldozed. Everything south of the airport is just completely changed. I mean there's just nothing left. Not what it used to be when I was younger. But he found a little bit of it and also to feel what it was like to live that sort of weird, hedonistic, kind of crazy lifestyle back in those days.

It sounds like an electric experience. And again, it's a unique world to capture on film. It's kind of anthropological or something.

Altman, I think, came the closest to finding all of that when he made “California Split” and, you know, even his homage to Philip Marlowe when he made “The Long Goodbye.” Pynchon's book is really a riff on Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, except it's a stylistic orgy in which nothing pays off dramatically. They don't really solve the mystery. A lot of remarkable events happen but you don't really get any closer to what's really beneath it. Just figuring out what to adapt from that book was a really complicated process for Paul. It was really living on the edge for him.