10 June 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
IFTN Talks with Irish Cinematographer Cathal Watters
22 Jan 2019 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN caught up with Ireland’s most prolific cinematographer Cathal Watters following a fantastic 2018 that recently saw him nominated for his first American Society of Cinematographers Award.

Initially starting his career working as a camera man for news, Cathal Watters has become one of Ireland’s leading cinematographers. In 2016, Watters picked up an IFTA Film & Drama award for cinematography for his work on Paddy Breathnach’s Viva and has since been nominated twice for TG4’s drama ‘An Klondike’ in 2017 and hit BBC series ‘Peaky Blinders’ in 2018. The latter also earned him his first nomination for an American Society of Cinematographers Award at the beginning of 2019, an award that is solely judged and recognised by fellow cinematographers.

Since working on ‘Peaky Blinders’, Watters has participated in several major productions across film and television in Ireland including ‘Taken Down’ and ‘Finding Joy’ on RTÉ and the highly acclaimed feature film ‘Rosie’, which saw him team up once again with director Paddy Breathnach. Watters is also the Director of Photography on John Butler’s ‘Papi Chulo’ which is slated for release in early 2019.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with Cathal earlier this week to discuss his start in the industry, Peaky Blinders and his incredibly busy 2018.

IFTN: How exactly did you get started in the industry? Someone once said to me that you had started off in current affairs. Is that correct?

Cathal: Yes. I did a degree in theatre and drama in Trinity. I was acting for a little bit and I knew I was terrible. I was always taking photographs. I wanted to work with the camera. When TG4 was starting up in 1997 I went and got a job doing camera. Well, I was editing first for six months and then I was doing camera for news.”

“I shot news for a couple of years. I used to drive around the van with an edit suite in the back and shoot a package, edit a package and send it up on this feed. Then I was doing documentaries for years. I still do them. I started doing short films and music videos. Anything I could do to do something creative. I used to do as many free short films as I could do. Do all of that and keep doing the documentaries and use that to buy gear, to have gear and to do the more creative stuff.”

“Six years ago this July I did my first feature film. The only reason I can be specific about that is my third child was born then. That's how I know. Slowly and surely I started getting other feature films and other offers.”

IFTN: Do you feel that your willingness to challenge yourself regularly by doing music videos and anything you could get your hands on helped you develop your craft in the early years?

Cathal: Yes, absolutely. Anything to do with lighting you learn so much. I think music videos are a great way to do that because you can make lots of mistakes and it doesn't really matter. More often than not, they are for free. You can do what you like and no one can really afford (excuse the pun) to give out to you. I guess you can be experimental and all of that, but I was always interested in lighting; how to do it and what to do.”

“When the RED camera came out in 2007, suddenly, you were able to shoot 4K images on your own. You didn't need a party of people with you. That was a massive enabler because I was able to get all these different projects with the RED camera.”

“I guess it is all stepping stones with a lot of lucky breaks. I did second camera on the fifth season of Love/Hate. I went to Spain and I did a week of second camera shooting with Ciaran Tanham shooting the main unit. I met David Caffrey then and he liked my stuff, but it wasn't even big scenes or anything like that. We got chatting and then David later called me for a couple of commercials. We just did two or three commercials together and we always got on well. Then we did a commercial for Volkswagen and he said, ‘Look, would you come over to the UK to do some drama?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

“Then I get a call going, ‘Will you do Peaky Blinders?’ When I got a call to do Peaky Blinders, I had to jump through all the hoops. I had to send over films and TV shows that I'd done and the exec producers would decide. David gave them three names and I was one of them. I flew over to London, did an interview and that's how I got the job. That was a massive break to get Peaky Blinders. Now everybody is there going, ‘Okay, you've done Peaky Blinders.’ That opens up so many doors for you because people know you have done something of that standard, but it's still a matter of lucky breaks as well as everything else.”

IFTN: Can you tell me a bit more about the experience of working on Peaky Blinders? What is it like coming on to such a well-established show, especially one with such a revered cast?

Cathal: “Working on Peaky Blinders was very, very intense because despite what people think, the budget is still relatively small. I had to pick how many days I would use the jib. There wasn't a jib there all the time. Often we were doing 8, 9, 10 pages a day. I remember during the first week we did a scene with Adrien Brody and Tom Hardy that turned out to be 14 minutes and we shot it all in the day. In a place with no windows; it was in the Rum house when they meet for the first time.”

“So there's no real room to make mistakes. It's not a big budget show and yet it punches way above its weight. It's got a cult status now. I think working on Peaky Blinders everybody knows ‘okay, this is Peaky Blinders. This is something special’. They were putting up stuff to stop the paparazzi taking photographs of us and I was thinking ‘this is hilarious. We're here doing our daily work and there are people trying to take photographs of us.’ That's all a bit insane, but the actors are all amazing. Cillian is amazing. So to work with that calibre of acting is just unreal. Then all the sets are amazing and they really nail it.”

IFTN: Since working on Peaky Blinders you have returned to work on some of Ireland’s biggest television shows this year such as Taken Down & Finding Joy. What were the different challenges you faced as a cinematographer?

Cathal: In Ireland it's constantly a situation where you're confined by the budget. Suddenly you don't have 200 extras. You've got 12. Now, I still think people are used to that here and people work around it. It's just a different thing. You have to wear so many different hats in this game. Nobody wants to hear people giving out the whole time that, ‘Oh, we don't have money to do this or that.’”

“I must agree that sometimes it is frustrating because you know something could be so much better if there was just a little bit more time or a few more extras, but that all boils out to a little bit more money. Last year after Peaky Blinders, I did Taken Down, which I'm very proud of. I think it was very, very good. I think it was very different. But again, we were doing 11, 12 pages a day. It was insane. It is difficult coming back and working here but that's what I'm used to. Then often when you're put into a corner and you have to do something, you get more creative. You do, you have to find ways around it. You have to try and make it work.”

IFTN: In terms of TV that you've worked on in 2018, you have a period drama, a contemporary drama and a comedy. Tonally and stylistically, there is a stark difference between each of these shows. As a Cinematographer, how much does your approach change when working on each project?

Cathal: “Well, everything is different. You don't want to repeat yourself but you're still telling a story. For me, the story dictates the style. You have different languages that people are used to. Like comedy, a lot of people are framed centre frame and that's the way you're shooting because that's the way you're informed or that's the way you've seen any reference you might have in your head. It's all very similar. I guess you're trying to be new but you're informed by everything that's been done, that you've seen or that you've heard.”

“The last thing I want to do is have a style. I don't want to have a style. It's whatever style that suits that particular piece. Before any project, I'll have what I call a visual bible just for me so that I know, ‘Okay, this is where I'm thinking of going’. For Peaky Blinders I wanted to use a lot of colour. I wanted to use a lot of silhouettes, a lot of film noir. I looked up a lot of references to film noir and all of that. Then I wanted to inject a lot of colour into it. For me, I colour coded a lot of stuff that was probably lost on a lot people, but I was happy to do it. I definitely try to have a different style for each piece. I don't want somebody to look at something and say, ‘Oh, Cathal Watters shot that.’ It would be like the death nail for me.”

IFTN: Would a lot of how you approach it then be based on how you interact with the director in preparation for it?

Cathal: “For sure. Whoever the director is. We have ideas and we chat but it is never set in stone. Obviously lens choice would be a big thing. Filtration would be another big thing. When I did Papi Chulo over in LA with John Butler, he wanted everything to be dreamy, aspirational. He'd tell me these different things so I shot it with anamorphic lenses. There was a lot of lens flare. We wanted to use the sun and use it as an oppressive feature in the film. We used lens flare to flare up. I would create lens flare in different places by using lights shining directly into the camera from far away. In that sense okay, we've talked about that before.”

“You only prepare up to a certain point. Because ordinarily, I'd get two weeks prep on a feature. The director is mad busy as hell. You can only do certain amounts with the director and then you hope you've got an idea of what they want. What sentiment they want or how they want it to look like. Then you try and implement that on the day because it always changes. I think going out on a shoot, you'll always have certain shots in your mind and you try and hit them, but most of it is making it up on the spot.”

IFTN: Another film that you worked on, which has been hugely successful is Rosie. It was such an intimate and claustrophobic film. How did you capture that and can you tell me a little bit about the filmmaking experience?

Cathal: “That was my second film with Paddy. We did Viva before. We kind of developed a style over Viva and we used a lot of the same methods let's say. I think certainly Paddy; he wanted it to feel claustrophobic. Shooting in a car made that quite easy but then we had all the condensation. I was physically in the car. Sometimes Paddy was lying on the ground with his legs… I don't know where they were. It was ridiculous.”

Then Hugh Fox and Graham Scully were hiding underneath the folds in the back. It was just insane stuff. I guess what we wanted with Rosie was something that was very real, that was very naturalistic, but sometimes poetic and it would be cinematic. I look at that film now and I honestly, I don't know of any other that is as real.

“I think the performances from Sarah and Moe and the kids are just incredible. They draw you in and you just try and capture that. The thing is, Paddy is great in prep. We went through the script and we did page turns and we had phases in the film that we wanted certain shots. We wanted to feel claustrophobic here or we wanted to use different things at our disposal that we could use at different times during the film like negative framing or whatever it might be.”

“There's so much planning that goes into that and to get that right, and I think Paddy got it right. We got it right. Úna the editor got it right. It's incredible. It's a very planned film. Where it looks haphazard, it isn’t. As a piece of cinema, I think it's incredible. I've done stuff that I wouldn't say that about. I'm not gushing about other films I've done.”

Winners of the American Society of Cinematographers Awards will be announced at a ceremony in Hollywood on February 9th.

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