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Tripping The Light Fantastic
04 Feb 2015 : Paul Byrne
Fifty Shades of Grey will hit Irish cinemas on February 13th
With Fifty Shades Of Grey about to slink onto our screens, Paul Byrne talks to Seamus McGarvey about life, camera and the love action on his 52nd outing as an award-winning cinematographer.

With titles such as The Hours, Nowhere Boy, Atonement and Avengers Assemble on his impressive CV, itís hardly surprising that Armagh-born cinematographer Seamus McGarvey rarely has time to twiddle his thumbs.

McGarvey is there to shoot Gavin OíConnorís The Accountant, having recently completed Joe Wrightís Pan, his regular collaboratorís take on the J.M. Barrie fairytale being due out in July. Also coming out this year is Fifty Shades of Grey, the much-anticipated big-screen adaptation of E.L. Jamesí erotic best-seller. Another Garvey regular, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, is behind the camera for this February 13th release.

PAUL BYRNE: Can you tell us much about The Accountant?

SEAMUS MCGARVEY:ĎI can tell you that Ben Affleck and J.K. Simmons are in it...í

The soon-to-be Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons...

ĎI hope so, I hope so. I have my fingers crossed for him.í

Heís about to have his Alan Arkin moment - another much-loved character actor whoís been quietly stealing the show for decades.

ĎAbsolutely. Iíll see if I can get to the other Academy members, just in case...í

The last time I spoke to you, you said that you always liked to put your ego on the backburner when it came to making films. Has that always been easy? Do you ever feel the need to leave your mark?

ĎWell, I donít think thereís any place for ego in cinematography. Certainly, personal vision, but not an overwhelming print of a personís personality. I like to look at things through the lens of a script, and whatever place that youíre shooting it in, and alongside whoever youíre working with as a director. And all those things can colour the way you approach it visually. So, when you approach a film from a purely personal point of view, he kind of gets in the way of the collaborative nature of filmmaking. Iím not saying that you should be some sort of anodyne vehicle for the photography, but, you know, obviously you bring yourself to it. So, things are filtered through everything that you see, and how you see it. But, at the same time, I think itís very easy to be formulaic, in terms of photography, and I like the way that every film, every project, forces you to see things in a different way, in a different light.í

Is a good cinematographer one that blends in completely to the work, or you should you be able to say, ĎNo doubt about it, thatís a Seamus McGarvey film, man!í?

ĎI think photography is an easy medium to make spectacular, to make incredible imagery with, and there are styles that sugar the eye. They lure you in. There are tricks you can do with photography where you can coat the image, and make it more beautiful, but thatís not always necessary. I do like serving the story, and I do love the play of light - Iím not anti-pictorialist; far from it - but I also like telling a good yarn. And to tell it with a lens, where the camera is in the right place, and the light works for the story, and produces a mood thatís in tandem with a directorís vision, and the photographic heart of whatever script youíre working on, I think that leads to a more personal cinema experience for an audience. The choices made are thought about, not only from shot to shot, but the whole series of images, how they will work one after the other. Not just how they work by themselves; itís about thinking about the sequence, and how one plus one can equal three. Cinema is such a young art, relatively speaking, that I think thereís room for exploring the immense vocabulary of cinema. And I certainly havenít done that, but Iíve tried to do it in certain films, and how a cascade of images might work.í

ĎI think Joe Wright is a director who thinks on those terms. He really plots the sequence of images, and uses the camera as though shots were words.í

Cinematography is relatively young, but it seems to have sprouted in the last two decades or so, with a dizzying amount of new developments through digital innovation. There are so many ways to shoot, and the audience has become familiar with many of them.

ĎYeah, the times they are a-changiní, as they say. The very term cinematography is kind of corroding, in terms of what it means, and what people think of when they think of cinematography. I think that imaging might be a better term. I think that cinematographers traditionally had their own little citadel that was unassailable in terms of the photographic and the lighting duties on a set. Now, obviously, weíre kind of fused on many films with many digital effects and design as well, and actually, thatís exciting, because it expands the horizons of cinematography. If people acknowledge the critical tenet of cinema, which is collaboration. We shouldnít work alone, and itís one of my favourite things about cinema - chewing over ideas with fellow collaborators. Iíve always loved working with Joe Wright for that reason. He always roundtables his key collaborators, and itís a democracy of ideas. Ideas are thrown into the pot, and discussed, chewed over, and then either pulled in or thrown out, or adapted into something else, and itís really lovely to feel the heat from that crucible of ideas, and how itís ultimately filtered through a directorís eyes. But itís nice to feel those ideas come into place during those initial stages, however chaotic and disparate they are. Then itís even more exciting to see them refined, and ultimately rewarding if theyíve coalesced in the final film into something that helps tell the story.í

So, on a personal level, before the first meet-up, do you figure out what you hope to bring to the table, page by page, or do you wait for the directorís notes?

ĎIt comes two ways. I consider myself a visual person, so, when Iím faced with the dry page, images tumble through my head. It takes me a long time to read a script, because I imagine the script pictorially in my head. I jot down all the ideas that are coming into my head, so, when I reach the end of a script, I let those ideas settle for a bit, and then they somehow fragment into an overall form that has a little bit more cohesion. Once that happens, I tend not to blurt it all out when I go to meet the director, however strongly I feel about it, because I found that some directors are good, but language can taint how you describe something. People can pick it up on the wrong foot, and reject an idea too early. Obviously a director has lived with a script a long time before Iíve read it, and has brought their own notions to it. So, I usually love hearing what a director has to say, how they want to approach it, and then I can come in with my stuff, and usually thereís a to and a fro. Thatís the way I love to work.í

ĎNaturally, each director has their own way of working. Joe has very specific ideas, whereas another director might be completely open to whatever you can bring. The fact that youíre dealing with different directors makes you a different cinematographer every time. You have to keep adapting, and thatís great.í

Iíve often felt that cinematographers are a bit like session drummers, a crucial backbeat to many a classic. Do you get to meet up with other cinematographers backstage, share notes, war stories ...?

ĎWell, there is a great camaraderie amongst cinematographers. There are some who are very protective, as weíre vying for the jobs that come up, but mostly itís just a lovely bunch of people, and Iím very lucky to know cinematographers I admire most in the world. Quite a few of them are friends of mine. Roger Deakins, for instance, is a great friend, and Chivo, Emmanuel Lubezki, theyíre people I can ring up if Iím stuck on a detail. With Chivo, for instance, heís on Instagram, and we spitball visual ideas by throwing them on Instagram. Sometimes itís just ad hoc photographs, and sometimes itís very studied, but itís great to see other peopleís work, to see their varying eyes in the everyday. To see how other people see the same thing.í

ĎItís funny, recently there was an extraordinary sunset in Los Angeles, just before I came here to Atlanta, and it had this very, very unusual cloud formations in the sky. And it was interesting, again, to go on Instagram, and see all the different ways each cinematographer shot it. It was a very evanescent moment, meteorologically, and it was interesting to see over those five or ten minutes, all these different eyes looking at the same thing.í

Would there be any competitiveness between you guys?

ĎI wouldnít say that we were in competition, but thereís a definite push going on, each of us trying to do the best job that we can because we know our friends are watching. Thatís something that I really like about it. Iím a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, and the British Society of Cinematographers - and actually, the Irish Society of Cinematographers too - and through those organisations there often are get-togethers, or little seminars, or talks for students at AFI, etc, and I get to meet fellow practitioners, and thereís joy in the technical discussions. The Ďwhyí rather than the Ďhowí of cinematography is something that I like to talk about. For the last number of years, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Iíve interviewed fellow cinematographers whose work I admire, starting with the late Jack Cardiff, Darius Khondji, Anthony Dod Mantle, Roger Deakins himself, all these cinematographers whose work I love. Chris Menges is another one. And through these interviews, just exploring what I was saying there - how cinematic perception is so different from person to person. It maybe touches upon what you said there about ego, that I kind of refuted - to a greater or lesser degree, people do infuse their work with aspects of themselves, and I guess you could call that ego. I associate ego with something more centrifugal in terms of personality, and cinematographer ought to be more collaborative and shared.í

Young Rogerís move into animation, first with WALL-E and later How To Train Your Dragon - beautiful work too. Is there any sense amongst cinematographers that this new age of wholly-created digital imagery is akin to synthesizers versus guitars?

ĎRoger is very clever in seeing the future of cinematography being hand-in-hand with Pixar and other computer-generated films, and itís something that Iím involved with as well. Because of Rogerís advice, actually - ďYouíd better expand your horizons if you want longevity in this businessĒ. Iím actually working on such a project now, but I canít reveal anything about it. Itís something Iím very interested in, not simply in regard to the veracity of what happens in the lens, or the stock, or the accidents that happen on the set that Roger loves bringing to those films - WALL-E has some beautiful effects, where the camera doesnít always quite pan properly, bringing a humanity to the style which gives it heart - but also the mise en scene, the choices that are made in terms of lens, and the shot-to-shot of it all, the design of the shots scene-by-scene, thatís something Roger has brought to those films thatís really wonderful. A lot of computer designers go for the spectacular, and the unachievable shots - which is not to say thatís not always the wrong choice - but when itís purely bombastic, a symphonica effect, it just numbs.í

Technology has come to a point where people can shoot a movie on their phones - does that excite you, or are you worried something might get lost here? This is the YouTube generation, where everything is ideally under two minutes.

ĎThere is a proliferation of imagery, and as soon as you provide tools to everyone, you democratise that world. But thatís not a bad thing; youíll always have people who are very particular about what theyíre shooting, and how, and why. What iPhones are doing is amazing, I think, in terms of recording the everyday. I use my iPhone all the time, and I take pictures with it that I donít take with my Canon 5D. Itís a different way of looking. I take accidental pictures. I take pictures where the camera is on the floor, or is macro, or is at a height, or is over my shoulder. Just perspectives that are unleashed, untethered, and I love it for that. It reminds me of the way I use to shoot with Super 8; itís got a levity, a freedom, that bigger cameras donít allow you. And the smaller the cameras get, itís great for recording the minutiae of the human condition. I love it for that. The camera isnít the catalyst it once was anymore; people are less likely to puff themselves up now, to stiffen up in front of the camera. Thereís a more innocent gaze at our world opening up. And thatís a good thing.í

I know photography was your springboard, so, where do you get your inspiration? The everyday, the cinema, photography...?

ĎI tend to get inspired more by photographs than anything else, in books, magazines, wherever. Very often, Iím inspired by news photography, or news reportage, in newspapers, or on the internet. I watch films as often as I can, but I maybe see three films a month, if that. Obviously, I vote in the Academy Awards and stuff, so, I see all those films, but really, I watch most of these films on my computer, or on airplanes. Iíll probably be thrown out of a few societies for this, but my favourite place for watching a movie is on an airplane. Iím a captured audience. I almost find the emotion gets tuned up. And if itís a film that I really, really like, Iíll always go to the cinema afterwards. But that first time, hemmed in by two big people, snoring, either side of you, youíre just locked in. I find it very visceral, a very profound, cinema experience.í

ĎWhat you think about the story, rather than just luxuriating in images, just for the sake of them.í

You shot 50 Shades of Grey for Sam Taylor-Johnson.

ĎSam Taylor-Johnson and I have worked together for over 25 years now, starting with her art projects and installations on film through Nowhere Boy and Love You More, but her work has often involved nudity - her stills work, her film - so, we are used to that kind of intimacy. Also, her work is not hysterical when it comes to eroticism. Itís not erotic for the sake of it; itís more psychological than that. This is actually one of the most straightforward films that Iíve shot, in terms of its photographic approach. Itís kind of everyday until you get into these scenarios with the actors, and weíve shot it in a very simple way. The erotic charge comes from its ordinariness. So, audiences, I think, may be surprised. I saw it recently at a test screening in LA, and Iíve been grading the film over the last few weeks, just finishing off all the colour and the digital intermediate, and, you know, I really, really like the film. I did it because I didnít want to miss out on working with Sam again, but it isnít a film that Iíd be drawn to otherwise. But, I can tell you that, at the end of that screening in LA, I was very proud of having worked on the film. All the misgivings about the possible politics, and the position of the Anastasia character, and the whole notion of submission, that was kind of coloured by my own sexual politics, were dispelled upon seeing the film, and what Sam has brought to the Anastasia character is a strength and a power thatís definitely between the lines in the book.í

You said that it didnít matter whether the film was big or small, it always feels like youíre just back in your wee dark room in Armagh. Were there any shoots where you really wish you were back in your wee dark room in Armagh?

ĎIím not saying that working on a film isnít without huge challenges and responsibilities. A lot of the time, youíre working very long hours. I just did a 20-hour day yesterday, starting at 8 in the morning, and I wrapped at 4 this morning. But I get such excitement being on a film set, and I realise how bloody privileged I am to be in a job that I love, where I get to be creative. I feel that every film that I work on, I do something that is creative, that stretches me, that excites my heart and my brain, and my eyeball, and itís also something that, when Iím dead and gone, will be around. Itís some kind of mark left, and I really do get an excited charge on working on movies. I love working with other people, and I love sitting down to watch what weíve done, and then sitting around, talking about what we achieved.í

ĎFifty Shades Of Greyí is out February 13th.




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