26 January 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Irish DOP Seamus McGarvey Talks 'Sahara'
07 Apr 2005 :

McGarvey on the Sahara set

From developing photographs in his bedroom as a teenager growing up in Armagh to shooting Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep in the Oscar winning film ‘The Hours’, its been an incredible journey for Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, whose latest film ‘Sahara’ opens across the country this week.

Shot in the desert of Morocco, ‘Sahara’ stars Matthew McConaughey, and Steve Zahn who embark on a treasure hunt through some of the most dangerous regions of West Africa. Here they encounter Penelope Cruz, playing a World Health Organisation doctor, who is investigating an outbreak of a mysterious plague.

The film was a first for McGarvey, who has made his name shooting dramas and comedies, like ‘The Hours’, ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘Along Came Polly’ and, despite the difficulties that go hand in hand with shooting in the desert he’s taken it in his stride, delivered the results as usual, and photographed a film that is as beautifully shot as it is great entertainment.

After Sahara, which has been Seamus’ biggest film to date (with a daily shooting budget of €200,000 out of a total €130million) comes the live action version of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ currently shooting in Australia. It’s here where IFTN catches up with Seamus for a chat.

IFTN : So Seamus, can you tell us what’s happening with ‘Charlotte’s Web’?

SMG : We’re shooting on this farm that they’ve built, two barns, two farm houses and a huge big corn field has been planted. I arrived in mid-December and I’m probably going to be here until the end of May. It’s a long stint but it’s a great place though. Phoebe my wife and my daughter Stella are here as well and we’re just loving it.

IFTN : Can you tell us how you got involved in ‘ Sahara’?

SMG : Paramount are involved in ‘ Sahara’ and I had done ‘The Hours’ with them, so they knew I could do the job well. I read the script and I was intrigued because it was such a big film, an actioner with such scale, so I thought ‘well fuck it, they’re absolutely crazy to even consider me for this, but I’d quite like to meet the director’. It was just purely out of interest, didn’t want to waste anybody’s time but I never for a second thought that I’d get the film. I went along to meet Breck because I thought ‘he’ll never hire me for this but possibly if he does a smaller film I’ll get a look in’. The next day they rang me up and said ‘Breck wants you to do the film’. I nearly choked. (laughs). Breck was on his first feature, he’d done pilots and a lot of high-end national and international commercials but hadn’t done a feature before so he just wanted somebody who wasn’t going to be this sort of old guy, he wanted somebody he could just bounce ideas off.

IFTN : So you both came in on a level par because you had so little experience between you in the action genre?

SMG : Yeah, that’s it exactly. I’ve never done an action movie, ‘The Hours’ was a sombre kind of arty film and that’s the sort of stuff that I’m attracted to. I really like doing stuff that’s simpler and more dramatic. But at the same time the scale of ‘ Sahara’ attracted me. I’d travelled in Morocco and I really loved it as a place so I was very attracted by the idea of photographing the landscape there and knowing that I was going to have to deal with more than one unit. Our unit had three cameras, we had an aerial unit, a model unit, a visual effects unit and a marine unit as well. Having to marshal all those disparate elements to try to create a coherence and at the same time trying to make it look good was a real challenge.

IFTN : What research did you do for ‘ Sahara’?

SMG : Obviously with a movie of that scale there was quite an extended pre-production period, we had a lot of recces in different countries so in between I had almost two months work of pre-production. I think that gradually we realised we wanted to make

something that owed more to the classic desert movies than the big explosion ridden actioners that you see these days. Also, we wanted it to have a grandeur but we didn’t want it to feel to poppy.

Particularly as we were working with a digital intermediate both myself and Breck really felt that recently a lot of films have taken this far too far and overworked the image. We really wanted to focus on the image as we shot it and really make everything work in camera. Although there are a lot of digital effects, photographically speaking, we used particular filters. For instance the Sahara Gold Filter. Here I designed a bespoke filter which Schneider filters made up for me specially, I named it the Sahara Gold and they now market it. Using the Sahara Gold we warmed up the image with this golden hue/sepia quality and then we tried to hold back on all the possibilities in the digital media.

Having said that, we did do some things in post that simply wouldn’t have been possible using the normal photochemical processes that a laboratory would previously have offered. For instance we were able to do dynamic graduation filters, as you pan from a wide shot into a close up of Penelope Cruz, you can graduate the skies in the wide shot and then as you pan into a close up, you can change the filtration during the shot. We used that once or twice during the film and it was a great asset to us but that was not something that we preconceived being used, it was something that we looked at afterwards. So I have learned a lot about the digital intermediate process with this film.

The crew with Matthew McConaughey

Seamus McGarvey

IFTN : What was the atmosphere like on set?

SMG : It was a mixture, when you are working on a film of that scale things can become quite high octane at times. We had a lot of problems that we encountered and dealt with, it’s a case of sometimes you have to hit those swerve balls as they come at you. Overall it was great and sometimes the difficult situations that you get yourself into enhance the picture. For instance, we had a lot of problems with sandstorms, maybe it was the season, but there were really, really big sandstorms that would come very suddenly. As we were a little bit behind at the start of the movie we had to continue shooting through these sand storms. Since it was such an uncomfortable situation to be shooting in, we were thinking “oh fuck, this is a disaster, why are we doing this?” but when we saw the rushes, it gave this incredible atmosphere to the picture. There is a scene that changes dramatically; it’s the scene by the well where a helicopter arrives. We start shooting in sunlight and as they drive away from the scene it becomes all dusty. That was when the sandstorm hit in. The following shot when they are all in the car together, we were driving along and it was just a full on sand storm.

IFTN : Is it true you also had a plague of locusts?

SMG : Yeah, it was probably a couple of days after the sandstorms kicked in. We were just sitting shooting this scene and I looked on the horizon and I said to the focus puller ‘Jesus there are some clouds pulling in’ and he just looked and said ‘those aren’t clouds!’ The sky was just darkening with locusts and bit by bit they came in. These really huge locusts about five or six inches long, they were hanging around and it was almost like they were remote controlled or something, they were so ungainly these things, like remote controlled planes.

IFTN : How did you protect the equipment?

SMG: I’m very lucky to have a great team around me and my focus puller Carlos De Carvalho had worked a lot in South Africa and various desert locations and he said ‘don’t bag the camera, don’t cover it or try to over protect it, just let the wind blow over it’, that way you don’t get sand inside the mechanism. There were many raised eyebrows but it worked and we never once bagged the camera, even in the middle of the desert, in the sand dunes, and we didn’t get a single scratch on the film in the first unit. One problem I suppose was the heat, but we had covers that we put on the magazines to reflect back the heat so the mags didn’t get too hot and we made sure our camera car was air conditioned and all the stock was very carefully handled.

Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz Seamus McGarvey

IFTN : What equipment did you use on the film?

SMG: I usually work with Panavision cameras. We had the Panaflex Xl’s which are a very lightweight Panavision camera, plus all their Primo lenses. Because we were out in the desert, we brought out everything we needed, so that in terms of equipment we had a whole toy shop out there!

Normally on a film you have to specify the dates that you need the equipment for and that’s that, but because of the remote location we were able to make deals with companies and say ‘look we’re in Morocco for at least three months do us a deal or else you can come out here and hang about on a sand dune for two months and we might use you for ten days’. We had a Libra head, a Technocrane, Steadicam, all those things that normally come in on dailies were with us all the time. That gave us a lot of freedom. The Technocrane was great because it allows you to arm out in a telescopic motion over areas without laying track. It was perfect for the desert because it’s really, really tricky to lay track in the desert because the sand just gives away under it.

IFTN : In the film there are lots of explosions, was that CG or done live on set?

SMG : That was all practical, we did all that live. There were a lot of explosions and the smell of gasoline and petroleum made me very nostalgic for growing up in Armagh at the height of the troubles! (laughs).

IFTN : How did you prepare for this since you had never shot an action film before?

SMG : We did lots of testing and it was a particularly pleasurable experience spending three days testing the colour of explosions. We used various mixtures of chemicals to achieve a particular hue in the explosions, to sustain the flame for longer or to make a particular ball of fire. Looking at bullets it’s whether they have a green, white or orange spark. All that appealed to me, it was great fun.

IFTN : And the film is great fun too…

SMG : That was one thing the director wanted to achieve because so often these action movies have a testeronic quality, y’know the very gung ho, macho movies. I think that’s ‘ Sahara’s saving grace and I think Breck strove to achieve that in the film. We all hoped it would come off and by the look of it I think it has. All the actors are very important too like Steve Zahn, he’s so throwaway and so conscious of the genre that you feel like he is taking the mickey out of it.

'The Ironclad' on the Sahara Set

IFTN : ‘The Actors’ was the last feature you did in Ireland, do you hope to work in Ireland again?

SMG : I’d love to but I just very rarely get offered stuff in Ireland. I had such a great time working with Conor McPherson on ‘The Actors’, the crew were fantastic and I’m really looking forward to coming back and shooting there.

IFTN : The producers of ‘ Sahara’ have called you a “rising star”, how does that make you feel?

SMG : For me that’s a real compliment. I don’t see myself as a star in any sense, I’m just a photographer. I want to be good as a cinematographer. I’ve done a few films now but I’ve always tried, so far, to change what I do because I’m learning so much with every film. I’ve tried to shift genres and do things that are challenging in different areas. That’s why I went from ‘The Hours’ to ‘Along Came Polly’ and from there to ‘ Sahara’. They are incredibly different films and they stretch you cinematically in different areas, and even though it’s still about being a director of photography, they require different skills; be they technical, diplomatic or in terms of just personal skills, being in a new country and working with a crew of 1000 as we had in ‘Sahara’ at some points, to 60 as we had on ‘The Hours’. The name of “rising star” I take as a compliment but it’s undeserved.

IFTN : How did the success of ‘The Hours’ change your career?

SMG : ‘The Hours’ was critically quite well received but it was the same as any other film in terms of how we went about it and the energy we put into it. It was blessed with a fantastic cast, great director, a very hands-on producer and wonderful writing. Having worked on a well-regarded film obviously enhances peoples’ perceptions of you as a technician but my photography is much better on a well written, well directed film than on a badly written, badly directed film. It just proves the point that it’s a collaborative artform and you are only as good as the consummation of all the elements.

IFTN : What kind of work are you doing on ‘ Charlotte’s Web’?

SMG : It’s all live action but we have mouth replacement for the animals, just like ‘Babe’ had where the pig talks. We’ve also go two CGI characters; a rat in a temple and Charlotte the spider, who is incidentally voiced by Julia Roberts, we shoot the background plates and those characters are created digitally by special effects houses. We shoot the pigs and all the other animals every day and we’ve also got great live actors in human roles like Dakota Fanning playing the character of Fern.

It’s great fun and I’m loving it. It started off quite trickey though because we found in the first week that if we shot the pigs at the normal 24 frames per second that they would be apparently moving too fast, so we’ve ended up shooting them in slow motion like 36 or 40 fps and sometimes at meaningful moments at 96 fps. That came about through experience.

IFTN : So what’s next for you after ‘Charlottes Web’ wraps?

SMG : It’s all so vague, I’m going to take a big break anyway. Nothing is definite now but I’ve been sent a few scripts. There is a film that I’ve wanted to do for a long time with my friend Sam Taylor Wood, it’s called ‘ Jerusalem’ but they can’t seem to get the money together so it’s on hold. It’s an absolutely bonkers script from the guys who wrote Sexy Beast. I hope it comes off because it could be really extraordinary.

IFTN : Finally, do you have any advice for somebody wanting to follow in your footsteps?

SMG : If it’s photography that you want to do, just follow your eyeball and your brain. Shoot photographs all the time and exercise your imagination. There are a lot of people who want to be in the “film industry”, in big inverted commas. They are developing a sense of what they want to do but actually not developing the imagination. It’s all about imagination, people exploring their ideas and their creativity.

Sahara is released nationwide by UIP on Friday 8 th April

Filmography (As Cinematographer)
Charlotte ’s Web (2006)
Sahara (2005)
Along Came Polly (2004)
The Actors (2003)
The Hours (2002)
Enigma (2001)
Wit (2001)
High Fidelity (2000)
The Big Tease (1999)
A Map Of The World (1999)
I Could Read The Sky (1999)
The War Zone (1999)
The End (1998)
The Slab Boys (1997)
The Winter Guest (1997)
Jump The Gun (1997)
Harald (1997)
Flying Saucer Rock N’ Roll (1997)
Magic Moments (1997)
Butterfly Kiss (1995)
Look Me In The Eye (1995)
Skin Tight (1994)
A Sort Of Homecoming (1994)

By Tanya Warren.

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