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Interview with DoP James Mather – IFTA winner for ‘Frank’
19 Jun 2015 : Seán Brosnan
James Mather won the IFTA for shooting Lenny Abrahamson’s acclaimed comedy drama ‘Frank’
Fresh off winning an IFTA Award for shooting ‘Frank’, IFTN caught up with DoP James Mather to talk about his work on Lenny Abrahamson's film.

Mather previously shot Abrahamson’s 2004 classic ‘Adam & Paul’, as well as co-directing (along with Stephen St. Leger) his own big budget feature in between – the 2012 sci-fi thriller ‘Lockout’ featuring Guy Pearce.

Here, Mather talks about working with Lenny Abrahamson again and his perennial preference for “good cinematography over flashy cinematography”.

IFTN: The saying you have to lose one to win one obviously doesn’t apply to you in this case – how does it feel to have landed the IFTA last month in your first time out?

James Mather: ‘I'm delighted and feel very lucky. I thought there was some amazing work this year by an incredibly strong group of DoPs. I'd say I barely squeaked through.’

Your first collaboration with Lenny Abrahamson since the classic ‘Adam & Paul’ in 2004. How did it feel to get the phone call about Frank?

‘I was delighted. I've been lucky enough to work with Lenny Abrahamson on some of his projects which has been among my most rewarding experiences. He's an extraordinary director with amazing instincts and a unique view of things. I've learnt so much from working with him. He's a master of tone and always manages to walk a very fine line in his films - choosing to make complex and often outwardly unsympathetic characters very human. He's a huge talent. I can't wait to see what he's done with ‘Room’.’

Was preparing for Frank difficult? Getting the lighting and compositions right for a story that is surreal and dark but also comedic?

‘It was such a different and narratively inverted script that finding how to pitch it was the trickiest part. In the hands of the wrong director it could so easily veer into farce but Lenny was interested in exploring the inner life of the characters and keeping the film grounded. We opted to keep it visually realistic - although some parts are filtered a little bit through Jon's view.’

‘In telling the story we opted to keep it straight so it wouldn't be a "whacky hellzapoppin comedy about a kraazy guy in a giiiaant plastic head!" What you might term a "White Poster" movie. Lenny was interested in telling a richer story. Narratively, obviously one of the biggest concerns was how to make Frank 's head work. It's a unique story for lots of reasons but not least because the titular character is wearing a mask throughout. We had lots of discussions about how to approach the mask which presented lots of logistical as well as artistic challenges. One note: Lenny was adamant that Michael was never body-doubled for any reason - although for scheduling reasons it would have made sense at certain points - so whenever you see Frank in the film, it's absolutely Michael Fassbender.’

Lenny Abrahamson has enjoyed a lot of success since his first outing in ‘Adam & Paul’ but has his approach changed do you think?

‘From what I have seen Len has always had very strong instincts as a director. Each film he's done has its own strong unique identity but feels unmistakably his. ‘Adam & Paul’, ‘What Richard Did’, ‘Garage’ and ‘Frank’ all have a similar confidence of storytelling, fondness for non-traditional cinematic stories and keen intelligence. You feel you're in the hands of a great storyteller with perfect tone watching his films.’

When we spoke to composer Stephen Rennicks, he talked about the creative spontaneity and freedom he enjoyed when working on this film, did you feel the same when approaching the cinematography?

‘Firstly I have to commend Steve's amazing score on the film. I just think it's art. Stephen is a genius but would never admit it - especially to himself - Frequently I still find myself singing "coca-cola, lipstick ringo dance all night, dance all night, i've got dancing legs".’

‘Cinematography differs from music in the sense that it is so subject to the circumstances of the day it's made and in a sense isn't the art in itself. The art is telling the story and cinematography is a tool in that process so, in my humble opinion, cinematography must subvert itself to the story - it's there to support the director’s vision and the two of you must be searching for the same story together. I'm not a fan of overtly flashy "look at me" work where the cinematography sticks out like an indulgent twenty minute guitar solo lumped into a song. I'll take good cinematography over flashy cinematography any day. Sometimes you want beautiful but sometimes you want it ugly too. Lenny creates a great environment where you all feel invited to collaborate but he is clearly the director and is in full control of the ship.’

How long was the shoot and can you tell us a little about the equipment you used?

‘We shot on Zeiss glass and the Arri Alexa - which is a digital system but one designed to look like Kodak film stock. They've done a pretty good job with that camera. Against current vogue we opted not to shoot "wide open" on the lenses but at a slightly deeper stop to allow actors some freedom.’

‘We shot for six weeks - the first two and a half were in New Mexico which was logistically interesting (and where I was lucky enough to meet my amazing wife during the shoot). American crews have a very different workflow which took a little getting used to as opposed to the British system we've embraced. The light over there is amazing. New Mexico is a cinematically amazing place.’

Do you think having experience of being a director on a big-budget film yourself helps you to empathize and work with directors?

‘It made me understand the solitude of being a director. There’s a terrible schism between how you saw it in your head and what you're getting - reconciling the two isn't always easy. In short, it made me more sympathetic to their position. Outwardly, directing looks easy - you just say what you want, right? But, in reality you're literally facing a cacophony of questions every second on every single topic from the colour of shoelaces to coming up with an on-the-spot explanation for why an actor might need to do something they suddenly don't want to do - and you've got ten minutes until wrap after which the chance to capture it can be gone forever. It can be a weirdly masochistic job as you're often dissatisfied and struggling internally with it. Lots of people think they can do it but few really can do it well.’

‘It's a job which requires you to be an expert in everything. It embraces psychology, aesthetics, narrative ability, military style leadership and boundless patience - and now you've got to get all that in a very short space of time so you've got to make very hard choices as to what you can get with ten minutes left in a shooting day. If I could describe the feeling it's somewhat like playing Countdown with nothing but consonants and ten seconds left on the clock - at the end of which you need to produce a work of art. It can be daunting and exhausting.’

Other than celebrating this win then, what else is in the pipeline for you?

‘I'm currently awaiting my lovely wife to return from her shoot so we can remember who we married. She's been working abroad since January and we're looking forward to spending some time together. I'm currently shooting commercials and working as second unit DP in Vikings. I'm also talking to some people about some upcoming projects.’

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