It’s been a busy year and a half for cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. Over the past 18 months, he has shot five films, including "Rosewater," Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, Maya Forbes’ "Infinitely Polar Bear," Naomi Foner’s "Very Good Girls," Remin Bahrani’s "99 Homes" and Oren Moverman’s "Time Out of Mind." Then again, that’s nothing new for the veteran cinematographer who has worked steadily since getting his start in the mid-1980s. Since then, he has lensed films by directors such as Nancy Savoca, Marc Pellington, Joe Berlinger and Oren Moverman. Along the way, he’s also shot various TV shows, most memorably "Weeds." Indiewire recently chatted with the prolific cinematographer about how he managed to keep up with the pace, his frequent collaborations with Moverman and why he enjoys working with women directors. His latest project, "Very Good Girls," which stars Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning, is available on VOD and will have a limited theatrical release beginning tomorrow.
You have a bunch of films coming out soon. How did you have time to do all of this?
I wondered myself and in the month of May I went to New Mexico and rented a house so I could sit still for a month. But you’re right — the past eighteen months it’s just been film after film after film. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to good directors and good films.
Still five films in 18 months, that’s incredible. I’m assuming they were all shooting at different times.
Yeah, all different times but overlapping in terms of pre-preproduction. As soon as a director asks me to be with them, I’m really happy to engage them no matter if I’m working or not because, when a director is making a movie, it’s the most important thing that they’re doing in their lives and I like to show the spirit that I’m committed and involved just as much as they are.
Is there a type of collaboration with directors you prefer? What is your ideal situation?
Yeah, to me paramount to the relationship with a director is my understanding of the narrative – what are the narrative objectives of the story? That’s primarily what I’m concerned about. What attracts me to do a movie is the story, along with my curiosity for how human beings operate, human behavior. So I sit down with a director and before we talk anything about visuals, I really want to understand, ‘Okay, what are you trying to say? What is the purpose of telling this story?’ And then we can start breaking things down scene by scene, what is the integral component of the scene this narrative accomplishes. ‘Oh, to show the alienation of this character? Great.’ So now we start talking about alienation and how can we fit that visually, compositionally, lighting-wise, lens perspective – all these kinds of things – color. Let’s talk about those things in terms of supporting that narrative element.
Do you find that directors will come to you with you in mind for a project? Or is there ever a project that you know about that you actively pursue? How does that process work?
At this point of my life, directors are familiar with my work and will either directly get in touch with me or colleagues of theirs that have worked with me or, of course, through my agents, who will often be out on the lookout for material that they know I would like. But, I would say all of my movies that I did – all of the ones that we just talked about – were all directors coming to me and asking me.
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With “Very Good Girls,” how much did you discuss the look of the film in advance with Naomi Foner?
So much so. We had talked about this film for a couple of years and I’m very close to her daughter Maggie (Gyllenhaal), she’s a very good friend of mine, and I met Naomi over the years through Maggie and I’ve always admired her mind and her soul and her ability to tell stories. So, we started talking about it pretty early even before there was funding. I like to go a museum with a director. I always love that trip. If it’s in New York, we’ll go to the Metropolitan Art Museum because then we’ll just start looking at paintings and the director might say something, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the yellow that I was talking about.’ You start to develop this language with the director for what colors are appealing for the movie, what kind of contrasts in lighting is appealing, what composition is attractive to the director. So, a museum is good place to start and then, of course, we have a museum online, which is Google, and we could start researching right away and start away what appeals to the director.
Obviously you’ve worked on some really low budget films as well as some big budget films, what is the biggest difference between them beside the budget? How does it affect your work?
There are more producers on expensive films and I feel like there are more above-the-line costs. When you get down to it, you always feel the same; the pressure of time and restrictions on equipment and crew. In a bigger budget, you do have more support in terms of crew and a little bit more flexibility in getting equipment that you want. That being said, if someone has a beautiful story and hands me a camera box with a hole in it and sticks a lens in it and says ‘let’s shoot a movie,’ I’m going to make the movie meaningful and beautiful regardless of how many people are helping me because as an artist we have integrity and we have a certain feeling about how we want something to go. So, I feel regardless of restrictions of time, budget, equipment, we can make something beautiful if we want.
Is there a way you really don’t like collaborating with directors? Are there certain qualities that make that relationship difficult?
I think the best quality that a director can posses is specificity. I feel like information is really important and how easily one communicates with someone else is paramount. So, people who are non-communicative and non-specific – it doesn’t help too much because then the possibilities are endless and vast and you can’t whittle it down and distill it down to the purest elements. You know: clarity, specificity – I think vigilance is another great quality in artists. The idea of being in a place on set when we’re filming and having the presence of mind to be still and watch and listen to what is happening in front of you instead of constantly putting yourself on it. That idea of stepping back and letting a film unfold on set is an interesting thing. We always plan when we go in but you’re crazy not to stand back and say ‘Well, something completely different counter to what we planned is happening here and it actually is good, why don’t we just listen to it and roll with that.’ Flexibility is a great characteristic.
"Time Out of Mind" is your third film working with Oren Moverman. Obviously that collaboration has been successful. Do you now have a very easy way to communicate?
He’s become my trusted and dear friend in the process of collaborating. I think that the ingredient that Oren had from the very beginning was trust and I must mention that as another quality for a director. It’s very useful and beautiful to trust because the minute you can trust a director and trust me with this story, with the way of telling the story and just trust me as an artist, I feel like I then really bloom and really get to delve into my tools and into my craft. I would say with Oren, we shot a lot of handheld stuff together. All, except the last one, "Time Out of Mind," not at all. It was the first film we were planted with the camera. But the idea that I would have to, with Oren’s films, shoot scenes without having had prior rehearsals. Basically he would talk to actors, they would show up on the set and he would talk to them separately, I would not be privy to those talks and he would throw me in the middle room and say ‘action’ and we would start filming the movie, and at first I was like, ‘Oren, I don’t know what you want really.’ He said, ‘You’re a human being and a sensitive human being, so just listen an watch and when something draws you to it go to it and if something repels you step away from it and be curious.’ Putting me right in the middle of the action and basically asking me to be a human being so, I think once you have trust like that from the very beginning you’re dealing with something quite beautiful. At this point, we literally shoot something, I see him walking across the room and go to meet him and as we meet I say, ‘Oh, I know what you’re about to tell me’ and ninety percent of the time exactly what he was thinking is what I was thinking. So yeah, we’re very fast with communication. We’ve just aesthetically done three films together. We know where we’re going.
Which cinematographers do you admire?
The cinematographer that I really love right now is a guy called Adam Arkapaw, He shot recently the series on HBO "True Detective" and a film last year called "Lore," which was a really beautiful film. I like his aesthetic. I like his work. I love Eric Gautier. He’s a really good cinematographer. Harry Savides was, of course, an amazing cinematographer who I was very inspired by. There’s so many. I feel like we’re entering a new age. Lighting style and I’ll call it style because it goes in and out of fashion. I mean I’ve been shooting for thirty years now and it’s amazing how not only has a certain style of lighting and lensing passes. It goes through changes, becomes in fashion and out of fashion, and the equipment often reflects the need that the equipment, the limitations of the equipment, has. So that when we were shooting with really slow ASA films early on we were requiring big lights for exposure. Now we’re shooting digitally and the sensor on a camera lens, like the Alexa is so sensitive that you’re normally trying to subtract light from places to create lighting, so the technique become different, the use of tools become different. I love shooting digitally.
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That was my next question. What are your thoughts on digital?
I love it. I love the fact that I was sitting in my head for twenty something odd years shooting negative, shooting it from emulsion and along came a tool out the clear blue sky, put in my hands for me to devise a way to use it. I just feel it’s so interesting to have another brush in your hand. "Rampart" with Oren was the first time I shot digitally. We were using the Alexa for the first time, which right now is definitely my preferred camera. Arri Alexa is the camera I like to use now. That film "Rampart" was taking place a lot downtown at night in Los Angeles and inside a cop car and we were very interested in exploring not lighting the film much. The idea that the camera was so fast. We were able to use little or no light and it just really informed how light on our feet we were in terms of making the film, which really translates to the energy of the film. I had my first experience with digital on that, which was a very positive experience. It informed my subsequent experiences digitally. I feel like it’s not a question of film or digital, but for me it’s like, ‘Let’s make films. We don’t have to shoot films on film to make them films.’
I know you collaborated with Nancy Savoca a lot early on in your career and now you’re working with Naomi Foner and Maya Forbes, so clearly, you have an affinity for working with female directors.
I’ve had the good fortune of working with 50% of the population, so it’s really nice. I don’t know. I feel like I like working with artists and artists come in all sizes and genders so I feel like – I don’t know that there’s a difference so much working with men or women.
It’s hard to generalize certainly.
But I do love – It’s so funny with Maya specifically, she confessed to me as we were finishing the film, she said ‘You know I really wanted a woman cinematographer. I really tried to get a woman cinematographer and I interviewed a lot of women cinematographers and my friend Reed Marano, who I think is a great cinematographer, was at one point going to do and then somehow it didn’t work out.’ And then she said, ‘And then you came along and after this experience I was wondering why I was thinking that in the first place.’ She said, ‘I know it was a film about girls and about the mother.’ And she said, ‘I just thought a woman would have a certain perspective.’ And she said, ‘I was totally misguided in that misguided in that assumption and you’re an artist.’ And, it was nice that she shared that with me actually.
I can see that. I can understand for her first instinct also to compensate for the fact that women in the industry haven’t received as much attention, especially in cinematography, which traditionally has been more of a male’s field because it is somewhat technical.
How beautiful that that’s changing. I mean, Ellen Kuras is an old friend of mine, Nancy Schreiber, Reed Marano, Rachel Morrison. When you get to the root of it, it’s completely ridiculous.
You’ve been in the industry for decades. Does it get easier?
Yeah, I mean, I just feel like the beauty of staying at something as long as I’ve stayed at it in terms of my career, it’s wonderful what you gain as you spend more time with the craft. You gain mostly experience and from experience you gain confidence and with confidence you gain a certain lightness of being and lightness of being as an artist is amazing because you are just so receptive and you’re not stubborn and you’re open and things come to you, you understand right away that you don’t have to impose yourself on anything and that if you sit still and your vigilant and silent as an artist you’ll see great beauty in front of you constantly and it makes it easier then to translate it into your work.
That made me think of one last question. What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer?
To expect not to eat food for about the first ten years of your career, to not make money for the first ten years of your career and to live your life in a way that don’t have a lot of overhead and that you can support yourself as an artist. I think part of being an artist, part of the creativity, is also involved in how you live your life. I think you devise a way to live your life so that can support your art and usually that’s quite frugally in the start. So I just think, that idea of just being light and not having a lot of overhead – I don’t know – Shoot everything. Someone ask you to shoot something, shoot it. You’ll learn something. I taught at NYU in Singapore Tisch, the graduate school. I was teaching second year cinematography for the first couple of years and it was so beautiful. It was so amazing to talk to hungry minds about what one does because it reminds you of why you do it and how you do it, and you learn a lot about yourself like maybe there’s too many habits. The students always ask you why. You know, ‘why do you do something?’ and then sometimes you have to stop and say, ‘Yeah, why do I do it?’ And sometimes you realize that it’s something as simple as habit.