As “Lincoln” enters its fourth weekend at the box office, numerous commentators have noted how realistic the film is in its portrayal of politics and history. It resonates even today.
That realism didn’t end with the story and performances, as the look of the film meticulously recreated a sense of time and place. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Rick Carter were responsible in large part for that realism. The duo, who have three Oscars and eight nominations between them, are longtime collaborators with Steven Spielberg and I recently spoke with them about their work on the film, with Spielberg and with each other.
Kaminski notes that the most important element of his work is always “creating visual language.” With “Lincoln” widely being noted as an actors’ piece, it’s unsurprising that he found his primary task having “to create the realistic world in which the actors would feel comfortable.”
Carter also found that the focus on a narrow story, and the role of particular characters in it, improved his work. He had been involved in the project for over a decade, dating back to 2001. “I was involved in some of the earlier versions when it was a film on a full presidency,” he says. “So many things happened [in those versions] that it became a greatest hits version of Lincoln’s presidency.” He found, though, that he was able to concentrate on details and proper historical research as it was consolidated into a film on the passage of the 13th Amendment. “I was lucky I had a long time to digest the historical materials,” he says, acknowledging he would have been overwhelmed otherwise.
Kaminski also notes that the human and political story affected his work, especially when compared to some of his showier recent efforts. “The movie was more restrained in terms of visual panache – the camera is not very busy in how it moves,” he explains. “We composed the movie with a great concern to the reality of the period. We didn”t want to be flamboyant with the camera. That”s a major difference from the other movies where the camera is consistently moving.” In this respect, he compares it to another film he did with Spielberg about slavery and mid-19th Century America: “Amistad.”
The lack of showiness created an intimacy Carter tried hard to develop, and he found that Lincoln’s having been in the White House for four years helped that task. “Every choice we made was based on historical accuracy,” he says. “It was a place where Daniel [Day-Lewis] could go and feel he was in a real place…that meant that the details had to be purposeful.” The result of this was meticulous research to bring in actual details from the Lincoln White House.
Kaminski points out the obvious, that every movie set attempting to recreate a real time and place is not actually that real time and place. The upshot of this is his need to “take this artificial environment and create a world that the audience can embrace the story as if they were there. That”s always the most challenging aspect of my job.” As such, even though he did not think “Lincoln” was a technologically challenging movie, he nevertheless needed to painstakingly mimic the practical lighting of the period: whenever possible, lighting was created by windows and oil lamps, as would have been the case at the time. But while these were good rules to work by, he admits he needed to use artificial lighting at times while not detracting from the look of the film.
In an attempt to recreate an organic atmosphere, the pair of course had to work hand-in-hand. They’ve worked together numerous times and Carter notes that learning how Kaminski intended to light the picture helped him know what to concentrate on. “It”s understanding the colors, so within the darkness, you can see so much,” he says, marveling that Kaminski “was able to direct where your eye goes while seeing whole frame.”
Kaminski is also grateful for the relationship which has developed over seven films now. He says the period authenticity Carter had to create was more obvious than his. “We can definitely help each other in creating a movie that feels real,” he says. “We understand each other in terms of what needs to be done to do the work.” He particularly praised his colleague’s knowledge of the reality of the set and the roles of other department heads on the production. “I photograph what is in front of the camera,” he says. “If I have really good stuff, my work will be better.”
One of the reasons they have worked together so frequently is because they are both chosen crafts artists of Steven Spielberg. “Because of our relationship, I have a lot of freedom,” Carter says of the living legend. “He always directs me in the sense that I show him things and he comes up with ideas.” Spielberg knows what he wants but has tremendous faith in the people he employs on the set, he says.
Kaminski also notes that his and Spielberg’s incredibly successful relationship has deepened over time. “Cinematographers are not asking permission from directors to do things,” he says unapologetically. He nonetheless admits that differences between DPs and directors can cause serious problems, but insists that hasn’t been the case with them. “Our relationship has been so successful because we both see the movies the same way.”
Spielberg was clearly going for a realistic, human story with “Lincoln,” which is what Kaminski and Carter (who had previously worked with him on grand epics such as “War Horse” and science-fiction movies such as “A.I.”) tried to convey as well. And whether they were researching history, working with each other or working with their crews, they sought to establish that sense of place every step of the way.
“Lincoln” is now playing at a theater near you.