By Iain Blair
Acclaimed Irish director of photography, Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC BSC, has twice been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and both nominations – for Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012) – came through collaborations with director Joe Wright.
McGarvey re-teamed with Wright for their fifth project together, and took on a very different challenge – the beloved epic love story of Cyrano De Bergerac, re-imagined as Cyrano, a musical in the tradition of the classic MGM movies. And there’s a further twist; instead of an actor with a large prosthetic nose, it stars renowned actor Peter Dinklage, who has a common form of achondroplasia, in the title role opposite Haley Bennett as the beautiful Roxanne.
For this new adaptation, scripted by Erica Schmidt and filmed in Sicily, Wright assembled a behind-the-scenes creative team that, in addition to McGarvey, included such frequent collaborators as Oscar-nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood (Atonement, Anna Karenina) and editor Valerio Bonelli (The Woman In The Window, Darkest Hour).
Here, McGarvey, whose eclectic credits include The Hours (2002), Nowhere Boy (2009), We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), The Avengers (2012), Nocturnal Animals (2016) and The Greatest Showman (2017), talks about making the film, and his love of natural light and aspect ratios.
You must love working with Joe as this is your fifth collaboration. What were your visual references and inspirations?
Yes, I love working with Joe. The look for the film came from the place where we shot – Noto in southeastern Sicily, which is a very beautiful city, full of Baroque architecture, and built out of this wonderful pink stone that just glows in the natural light. So the location where we shot during the Covid lockdown, in October 2020, offered so much – from the colour of the Sicilian light and the way it reflected off the buildings. This really changed all our initial thoughts and pre-conceptions of what the film was going to look like, especially as the it was made almost entirely in real locations with no sets. We shot in real rooms and real landscapes. It was a lovely place to let yourself go and just let that be the visual guide and inspiration.
How did you make all your camera and lens choices?
We wanted to shoot digitally, although we did consider film at one point, but we knew that would be very tough in the middle of a pandemic, getting film out of Sicily and back again. So we abandoned that idea very quickly.
My camera package was an ARRI Alexa LF and an Alexa Mini LF, and in terms of lensing and filtration there was a clear choice for us. We didn’t want to luxuriate in the balm of the period, though it’s a period film, and go whole-heartedly into creating a memorial to that time. We wanted Cyrano instead to be crisp and urgent and vivid and tactile.
“The Leitz Large Format Primes are incredibly crisp but very beautiful for portraiture”
So I shot with these amazing lenses, the new Leitz Large Format Primes, which they brought out last year. They are incredibly crisp, but also very beautiful for portraiture. I’ve always loved still photography and still take photographs. When I tested the Leitz Large Format Primes, they reminded me of medium format lenses – like Hasselblads and so on. And Joe really responded to them.
In the end I shot with a Leitz Large Format Zoom 25-75mm and an Angeniueux Optimo 36-435mm, and initially I used them unfiltered, But, when we saw the first day’s rushes, we realised they were actually too vivid with the Sicilian light. So I used Dior 10 Denier Black nets and Tiffen Black Glimmer Glass filters, and alternated between them depending on the situation.
What about the aspect ratio? Tell us about that and composition.
We talked about this a lot and it’s one of my favourite things, discussing exactly which one to use. Because, at the start, we talked a lot about portraiture and filling the frame with the human face, we actually discussed shooting in 4:3 aspect ratio – which weirdly we’d also initially considered using for Atonement. But once we saw Noto and all the locations, the inevitability of 2.39:1 was there right in front of us, and we knew we were shooting large format.
The way we approached it was thinking about opposites, and the idea of the triumvirate – being able to fit three people into a single frame as one. That dictated this. With 2.39:1 we could split the frame into three and have three close-ups living in the frame together and singing together, which occurs several times in the film. But it wasn’t just for the montage sequences. It was also for the juxtaposition of people on opposite sides of the frame, either to create distance or space between people. So the compositional space between characters was actually gifted to us by that widescreen letterbox format.
What about the lighting? It looks like you used a lot of natural light.
We did. I love natural light and the apparent natural light, because although we shot in real locations, we did light. I’m always guided by the light you see when you first walk into a room. But that can be so elusive and fugitive that it’s gone as soon as you set-up your camera to shoot the actors. And, of course, it traverses through the day. So you can’t rely on natural light, but you can rely on the inspiration natural light gives you when you first see it. I try to emulate that and stick with it and create the illusion.
I learned that approach years ago from the great Chris Menges BSC ASC. I was telling him how much I loved his use of natural light, and he said, ‘It’s not natural light. I just put a light outside and tell the actors to stand by the window.’ (Laughs)
“I love natural light and the apparent natural light”
All the locations we used were beautifully-chosen, and every time we shot, something happened accidentally – something I’ve never seen before, like the way a hot spot hits the floor and bounces off marble around the room. I would never light something like that, but when you witness that, it gives you an idea. So if you’re open to what you see right in front of you, and the beauty of how real light interacts with a room and different surfaces, it’s so inspirational.
So did the Sicilian light change your process?
It did, absolutely. I’m from the Northern European school of soft winter light – that’s how I grew up, and how I always lit before. But this film taught me so much about Sicilian light and how to use just one hell of a big source, and bang it through a window or door, and let the rest do what it does.
So that’s how I lit all the day scenes. For the night stuff, I’d just say, ‘Well there’s a candle, let’s see what happens?’ So there was a great freedom in the innocence of the light. It was no less difficult, but it was certainly truer to how I’ve normally lit. How I light has always been simple, but I tend sometimes to over-complicate things. But on this film I wanted to stay simple.
So, for outside windows, I’d use an 18K HMI, and sometimes it’d be on a cherry-picker for scenes like the palazzo. We had certain rigs for different windows, like 4K HMIs. Inside the rooms I tended to use LEDs – smaller S60 ARRI SkyPanels.
Joe likes a lot of movement, so the camera’s constantly moving and you’re effectively seeing 360 degrees a lot of the time. All the developments in LED technology really helped and we used a lot of Astera tubes in this respect. They’re colour-controlled, dimmable and battery-operated, so you can hide them in corners and behind walls in these ancient palazzos, and they give you the fill you need and the source, without all the cables. They’re also very safe and cool, so there’s no danger of fire – that’s another big plus with LEDs.
Did you work with a colourist in prep on any LUTs?
Yes, but I don’t like to get involved in all the intricacies of the look while I’m shooting. There’s just too much to do in terms of lighting and camera movement and so on. I don’t even spend a lot of time in the DIT tent. We had an amazing DIT, Sandro Magliano, who had a lot of autonomy. Knowing what our LUT was, he balanced everything. So at every location I’d set it up with him and then pretty much left him to his own devices. I’m so busy once we shoot that I’m not one of those DPs who labours over every shot in the DIT tent. I do all that later in the DI. As long as we’re in the ballpark on the set, that’s fine by me.
Tell us a little about the final DI grade?
The DI was done at De Lane Lea in London with colourist Peter Doyle, who also worked on the original LUT. He’s a genius. I’ve done quite a few films with him now, and this was very different. We talked with Joe before we shot, about the trajectory of the film, the rose-tinted opening, the romance of love, and how it should have a warmth and allure that was built into the LUT. And obviously with digital you can do that, and it’s why I love digital.