Cinematographer Frederick Elmes on Lynch and Jarmusch
“It’s similar,” says acclaimed cinematographer Frederick Elmes regarding the difference between shooting a film on film or video. Free Press Houston talked to Elmes during his recent visit to Space City where he presented two films during last week’s Houston Cinema Arts Festival.
Elmes frequently collaborates with directors like David Lynch, Ang Lee, and Jim Jarmusch. The two films Elmes introduced were Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the new Jarmusch film Paterson, opening in late December.
“The act of conceiving the photography of the film is a big job where you step back and say how are you going to tell this story,” says Elmes. “What do the locations do for us; what kind of light are we going to use; what’s the feeling of the whole thing. That translates to digital media or film pretty much the same. The way you physically light something is the same. You use the same kind of lighting equipment, the same size crew, all that is similar.”
Elmes attended the American Film Institute in the early 1970s. It was here he met fellow AFI student Lynch and the two collaborated on the groundbreaking Erasehead.
“Then David went off and did The Elephant Man in London. That was successful. Then he did Dune. They hired a British camera crew for that, but I got to shoot second unit. The movie was all done in Mexico,” recounts Elmes.
“It was a big big movie, the second unit was a six month job. Although I didn’t work directly with David, I was head of my own unit. We constantly communicated about it, I also watched his dailies and he saw my dailies. Much of what I did was abstract. Fire and flames. Water images and effect sequences.”
Next up was Blue Velvet. “Dune was De Laurentiis and Universal, and David had a good relationship with Dino De Laurentiis and he mentioned Blue Velvet. It kind of became a part of the deal that De Laurentiis would support him for the film,” says Elmes. “I don’t know whether Dino ever understood the film. He was very supportive to what David wanted and said if you can do it in this many days and for this much money you can have it.
“It brings back a rush of memories, yeah there was some levity on the set. Part of it is a little bit of nervous laughter. Nobody was really sure where David was taking it. I knew David better than the rest of the crew for instance, but David is a very charismatic guy and he involves people,” says Elmes. “He gets them over to his point of view. He was able to keep it light enough that everybody involved was really interested in creating his world.”
After that Elmes and Lynch pushed yet more boundaries with Wild at Heart, which won the 1990 Cannes Palme d’Or.
“There’s a certain romance and darkness to Blue Velvet happening simultaneously. Wild at Heart was kind of a step further in that it’s certainly a romance and it’s a road movie. There are detours off the main road where we meet even stranger characters than Blue Velvet. So yes, we took it a step further,” says Elmes.
On his films with Ang Lee, which include Hulk, The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil, Elmes notes that “the popularity of the films don’t matter.” For instance the Civil War drama Ride with the Devil barely grossed over half-a-million dollars on its initial release.
“It was a subject that’s hard to get people interested in,” Elmes says. “Yet there are those people out there who love it the most. It’s a pretty accurate statement at what was happening in the country at that moment. It’s a time without electric lights so the huge challenge is to deal with natural light and fire and flame.”
Elmes didn’t work on Lee’s latest film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was shot at 120 frames-per-second with a provision to project the image at the same frame rate resulting in a super sharp image with very little blurring. Perhaps sadly the film is only being shown at two theaters, one in NYC and one in LA, with that particular frame rate of projection. A local theater manager confided to me that the cost of converting projectors to that high projection rate was over 100K, and too expensive for a film that is not guaranteed to be a blockbuster.
“It’s a system where if you shoot it and project it at the same rate it all zeros out,” says Elmes of the high frame rate. “It’s a very high definition stereo image. Some people think it’s what’s coming, I’m not sure. If you look at film history Douglas Trumball came up with a system very similar to this,” says Elmes referrering to the Showscan process.
There’s a theory sprung from biometric tests, some conducted by Trumball, that audience members respond more emotionally to films projected by higher frame rates.
“I’ve seen films projected that way. It was the oddest image you can imagine. In a way it’s like kind of bad video that looks over-enhanced. It was too sharp; it had no grain, no movement because it was all perfect. It was hard to look at. I haven’t seen Ang’s film, I’m hopeful it’s a good thing,” says Elmes.
One recent project Elmes worked on was the HBO series The Night Of. I had to ask what was up with the cat. “It’s eight hours of programs and the cat comes and goes a couple of times. He adopts the cat,” says Elmes about the lawyer played by John Turturro. “He takes it in, he visits it at the animal shelter, which incidentally was a real shelter – one of the most depressing places I’ve ever been. It was just filled with animals that weren’t going to be there for much longer.”
Another major set piece Rikers Island jail: “We built that set; you can’t shoot there. We replicated it exactly, likewise the courtroom, which it based on the actual courtroom at 100 Centre Street in Manhattan – there’s never an actual courtroom that’s available for big chunks of time,” says Elmes.
“Bob Elswit shot the pilot, Igor Martinovic shot the next two and I shot most of the rest,” says Elmes. “As for getting the cat to walk across the apartment at the end of the last episode, we just waited. There’s nothing you can do but wait. In that last shot the cat has to go from A to B, which is all it can do and you have to wait until it decides to do it.
“In Paterson there’s a dog and Nellie [played by a bulldog named Marvin] really took to training well, but there’s one moment near the end of the film where she has to hide on one side of the frame and then on cue race across the frame. We spent nearly forty-minutes trying to get that right and there’s one take where she actually did that convincingly,” says Elmes. “In production time when it’s only a shot of the dog and you have all the actors waiting around who are not in the shot and you’re concentrating on the dog it’s psychologically not a good thing.”
Paterson revolves around a bus driver named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey. It marks the fourth times Elmes has worked with Jarmusch after Night on Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers.
“The challenge for Paterson was that it’s a story about routine, about a guy’s life that’s controlled by routine. He drives a bus on the same route every day. Jim said I don’t want to think about his life – he doesn’t think about his life, he thinks about his poetry. I want to approach his daily life very simply, very repetitively. We found a way to make the shots a little different each day. He comes out of his house on the same route everyday but we made variations in the lighting, the size of the lens and size of the shot. His action is repetitive, but not boring.
“We brought that idea to everything because he sits at the same table and eats dinner or breakfast, goes to the same bar and sits in the same stool and has the same beer every night. He sits in the same place in the bus obviously. To bring some visual variety to it was the challenge.
“A moving vehicle is really a tough thing, you rely on happy accidents and a certain amount of good luck. You know that when you drive north on a street it’s going to look great but when you turn around and head south it may look great or it may look awful. So you have to go back to the south end and re-light,” says Elmes.
“When you break it down technically, the town of Paterson doesn’t want you driving the bus twelve hours a day on their streets. Also much of the time the bus was towed, which makes for a vehicle seventy-feet long. There’s certain turns you can’t make,” says Elmes.
While his credits cover a wide range of genres and styles, one thing Elmes emphasizes is the advantages of establishing working relationships with the same directors. “A lot of water is under the dam and there’s certain conversations you don’t have to have again. You may not be replicating what you’ve done before, but you still do it faster.”