Cinematography: Interview with Dion Beebe
Born in Australia but raised in South Africa, Dion Beebe returned to Australia to study cinematography at the Australian Film Television and Radio School from 1987 to 1989. He started his career in features shooting Alison Maclean’s Crush in 1992, moving onto other notable local films including Clara Law’s Floating Life (1996), John Curran’s Praise (1998) and Niki Caro’s Memory & Desire (1998). His first major production was Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke (1999) starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel. This led him to bigger international productions including Gillian Armstrong’s Charlotte Gray (2001), and action movie Equilibrium (2002) starring Christian Bale. His career soared when, in 2002, he landed the cinematographer job on Rob Marshall’s feature debut Chicago which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar and a nomination for Beebe. He has subsequently worked with Marshall on Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), for which he won an Oscar, and Nine (2009). He has worked twice with Michael Mann, on Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006), and reteamed with Campion on In the Cut (2003). Other credits include Rendition (2007), Land of the Lost (2009), and Green Lantern (2011).
“Like most professions, cinematography is about relationships. Yes, you have to acquire a certain technical knowledge (or at least bluff your way through the technical aspects of the job), but people have to be able to invest a lot of confidence in your ability when they are about to undertake a project. You may have a first-time producer or a first-time director, but most of the time, people don’t want a first-time DP.
Starting out is hard. I had just left film school and producers wanted to know what other movies I had shot. It’s a catch-22. With all the risk involved in making a movie, no one wants the DP to be part of that. They want a sure thing. So for a cinematographer, it’s hard to get work when you don’t yet have that first feature under your belt. It’s about convincing people that you are ready and capable. People do like to lean on the more experienced DPs, so at the start you have to persevere and get the break. You need confidence.
Of course, you also need to prepare thoroughly for every job, particularly on the bigger films with the complicated set-ups—the preparation is always going to help you. It’s also about the relationships you develop with your crew and knowing that you can fall back on each other as well as feeling that there’s never going to be a situation that you’re thrown into that you cannot create a solution for.
When I started out in Australia, all the movies had small budgets, averaging A$1.5 million, and on small movies it is a different mindset. You have a key crew of maybe ten and you have to get everything done with that crew. Often your choice of gear comes down to how much ten people can carry. Within those confines, you are not going to attempt to light three city blocks, you are going to find other ways to do it, and part of the process for me is having a dialogue with the director to find these solutions. As we would say on set all the time “Improvise, don’t compromise.” It makes you understand how important it is to have that dialogue with the director, to work through what’s being proposed.
I remember on Memory & Desire with Niki Caro we were shooting in Japan and it was impossible to get permission to shoot on the subway. We had an important sequence in which the main character, whose husband has recently died, is crammed in a train in rush hour. It was a moment of being surrounded by people but feeling completely alone. Our solution was to cut holes in shoulder bags, insert our camera with the lens out of one hole and the viewfinder out of the other and smuggle the gear into the subway. We carried handheld lights and went in knowing we had about a ten minute window before someone stopped us. We shot the entire sequence like that, but looking at the film now, you wouldn’t know it. These moments come out of necessity. The other solution would have been to shut down the train, clear the platform, and bring our own people in, but once you do that, you are committed to a big expense for a scene that is about mood and atmosphere. It will be an uphill battle to convince a producer to spend limited resources on a scene with one character and no dialogue, yet these are often the most memorable and poetic moments of any film.
Some directors like to focus on the technical aspects more than others, but a knowledge of aspect ratios and lenses is really not as important as the ability to tell a story.
A movie like The Insider (1999), a story about a whistleblower in corporate America, doesn’t sound terribly tense or thrilling, but what Michael managed to do—and I think that’s his signature—is to create unease when you watch it. We’ve all done the handheld shot behind a character walking down the hallway, but what Michael did in The Insider was place the camera literally on the hairs of Russell Crowe’s neck. He broke through into the personal space of the actor and suddenly the audience felt as vulnerable in terms of periphery of vision as that person does. As Crowe walks through his house at night, you are enormously tense and you’re not quite sure why, and yes, there is music, but mostly he creates tension just using the camera.
In Collateral, I particularly remember one situation where we were shooting Javier Bardem having his conversation with Jamie Foxx in this odd backlit nightclub. Javier is sitting at a table and behind his head is an arrangement of succulent plants. They are long, pointed, and with jagged edges. In many cases they would simply be set dressing, but for Michael they became a counterpoint to the conversation and to Javier’s character. The angle, placement, and lighting of that single element took a good 45 minutes. I had my key grip, Scott Robinson, up on a ladder manipulating cutters to achieve the exact amount of menace from those plants.
Michael is definitely a perfectionist and he will often focus intensely on something like that because it is important to him: it’s part of the composition and the storytelling and the tension of the moment. It might seem misguided because, hang on, shouldn’t we be getting on with this scene, but you realize when you see his work that that’s part of how he makes his movies. That ability to create tension through the composition of the frame and the juxtaposition of elements within it to support that is signature Michael Mann. I have memories of Michael on the back of a low-loader car traveling at 40mph and he is pushing down on the shoulders of operator Gary Jay as he watches the on-board monitor, all in pursuit of the perfect frame.
Rob Marshall is a filmmaker with a strong vision and it’s my job as the cinematographer to facilitate that. “No” is not an option with Rob, and nor should it ever be. If there is a shot, as in Memoirs of a Geisha, where he wants the camera to be flying over the rooftops and end up at a window on a little girl looking out, you find a way to do that.
What is exciting about working with first-time directors is that they will often have these requests that have no consideration about cost or practicalities. I think this is important. The idea is the key, and having these blue-sky moments liberates those ideas. Yes, we always have to consider how and for how much, but not before we consider what that idea hopes to realize on screen. We should never discourage a grand vision.
Rob was like that on Chicago. He had a very clear vision of that film and was not inhibited at all, or intimidated by the technology or the equipment. We had a tight budget, but never let that dictate the type of film we wanted to make. In the end, a clear vision, some great actors, and lots of detailed prep helped achieve a great deal.
I feel that my job with actors is to make them feel as comfortable as possible in that very odd environment of a film set and to create an atmosphere of trust. We are all there to help the actor do their job. If, for whatever reason, an actor is off their game, then the film suffers. I could have spent two days lighting a set but if the performance is off, then it is just pretty pictures.
I will therefore afford actors whatever they feel they need, whatever strange quirks or foibles they have. However upset they might get on a set or seemingly upset, you have to realize how hard it is for them. I’m not the one stepping up in front of the camera delivering lines and having to believe in this false environment.
I often find myself in the midst of a film standing on the actors’ mark and looking back at the camera. Instead of my usual view of the set which is framed through the lens, carefully composed and lit, I am looking from the other side. This view of the set is a mess, with lights, stands, and flags, cameras pointing at you and people standing around on cell phones and eating bagels. The dressed set, composed frame, and carefully crafted lighting that is presented through the camera, is not what the actor sees. Instead they look out at this mess and have to center themselves and not just believe this environment is real but make us believe it too. Often all an actor has is the other actor, often off-camera, to help them make that connection. Some actors will not stay for off-camera work. However, most I have worked with will. My favorite actor’s off-camera moment was on the movie Nine. I had been so focused on this tight push-in on Daniel Day-Lewis that when I finally looked over toward camera to comment on something, I realized that Daniel had arranged the greatest off-camera acting ensemble ever gathered. There were Sophia Loren, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Fergie, Kate Hudson, and Nicole Kidman crammed up next to the camera. My camera operator was beside himself, but it goes to show the importance the actors place in having that connection with one another on the set…”
Excerpt from FilmCraft: Cinematography by Tim Grierson and Mike Goodridge © 2011 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.