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How ‘Inherent Vice’ & ‘Nightcrawler’ DP Robert Elswit Captures the Pulse of LA

How 'Inherent Vice' & 'Nightcrawler' DP Robert Elswit Captures the Pulse of LA

In award contenders “Nightcrawler” and “Inherent Vice,” cinematographer Robert Elswit redefines L.A. as millennial noir and ’70s counter-culture haven for first-time director Dan Gilroy and frequent collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson, grabbing snapshots of who we are and the way we were.

Gilroy’s low-budget indie (made for $4.5 million and shot in five weeks) captures a nighttime Los Angeles we’ve not seen before. He avoided downtown and other iconic locales, and instead concentrated on the up and down geography from West Hollywood to the West Valley, where sociopath turned TV crime journalist Jake Gyllenhaal shoots his way to fame as a voyeur of grisly mayhem and murder. Newbie director and Oscar-winning DP (“There Will Be Blood”) prepped by driving around L.A. to efficiently incorporate 44 locations.

“It all came from Danny [Gilroy],” explains Elswit, who previously collaborated with Gilroy’s brother, Tony, on “The Bourne Legacy” and “Michael Clayton.” “He wanted to see it at night and he wanted the sense of a city divided by mountains above and canyons below. That’s hard because you have to drive through it to see it. We picked locations where I didn’t have to light the backgrounds with enough ambient light so that the streets, the buildings, the storefronts were all lit.”

Elswit mainly lit foregrounds. Shooting digitally with the Alexa, he created an artificial feeling of streetlight, then shaped and lit whatever accidents or crime scenes Gyllenhaal shot on video. “The Alexa is a fast camera that allows you to shoot in very low lit exteriors and see into the distance that only digital can do. But all the day shots in and around Jake’s apartment and at the beach were all on film because it was just easier.” 

Even though the actor and “Nightcrawler” producer is his godson, this is the first time they’ve worked together. Elswit says Gyllenhaal achieves an intensity and wit we’ve not witnessed before, and embodies the desperation faced by many unemployed Gen Y guys unable to cope with the recession. His character charismatically takes entrepreneurial ambition to its darkest extreme yet finds the humanity behind the sociopath.. (Our TOH! video interview with Gyllenhaal is here.)

Of course, Elswit is just as comfortable shooting on film and is pleased to see that it’s making a minor comeback and that Kodak is still in the game. Naturally, he shot “Inherent Vice” on film for the analog-adoring Anderson and is currently lensing “Mission: Impossible 5” on film for director Christopher McQuarrie.

“It’s still viable. It’s a different workflow and it looks different. The nice thing about the Alexa is that you can make it imitate the film curve and it doesn’t have an electronic look to it automatically. I think if you’re careful and you have enough time in post, it’s absolutely interchangeable.”
“Inherent Vice,” the first Thomas Pynchon film adaptation, is very much in the experimental wheelhouse of Anderson and Elswit. Their sixth collaboration takes place in 1970 and represents the yin and yang of L.A. through Joaquin Phoenix’s pot-head PI and Josh Brolin’s “countersubversive” cop. Anderson has described it as “The Long Goodbye” meets “Up In Smoke,” but they actually referenced Robert Altman’s lesser-known buddy film, “California Split,” for its totally aimless quality. How do you make a movie where nothing much happens?

“I think he’s nostalgic about the time his father lived through and making films about family relationships,” Elswit says. “People looking for father figures, connecting with other people to make families. It’s a satire of Marlowe. Finding L.A. again through his father’s eyes a little bit.  But things never ended well. They were undone by their own appetites.

“In a wonderful way, Paul’s a curmudgeonly, old-fashioned guy. He has a unique, hand-made moment by moment process. He collaborates with the actors, he wants to see the movie while shooting it, he wants to have dailies, he wants to look at film. At a certain level, like on this movie, it’s actually cheaper, in a way, to shoot film. It’s simpler, it’s cleaner and faster to have three or four motion picture cameras that aren’t hooked up to cables to a separate monitor. It’s inspiring for me as a filmmaker. With Danny, on ‘Nightcrawler,’ the creative process happened in prep and when you get to the set you execute your plan. Paul somewhat executes his plan but wants to trade-up, he wants life to break out.”

But “Inherent Vice” is no less personal for Elswit, who grew up in L.A. in the ’70s and attended Venice High and Santa Monica High, and partied heartily. He drove Anderson around Hermosa and Manhattan Beach. But there was little that remains except in Venice. The small homes built in the ’20 and ’30s that he fondly remembers are gone. “It was a wild, innocent, crazy, sexy, drug-addled place. I think Paul wanted to reinvent that.”

Meanwhile, working on “M:I 5” has been a wild trip as well. Elswit calls Tom Cruise a force of nature and McQuarrie a wonderful storyteller. McQuarrie has become Cruise’s latest collaborator. He was a last-minute ghost writer on “Ghost Protocol,” completely changing course narratively with Cruise and Brad Bird, then scripted “Jack Reacher” and “Edge of Tomorrow” before getting promoted to direct “M:I” sequel (December 25, 2015).

“It’s more than action. At the bottom of it is a noirish look at espionage and what it means post Snowden. Rebecca Ferguson is [Cruise’s] equal and they’re real actors performing together. Tom Cruise is the complete package and I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s a nightmare in so many ways, but he’s the hardest working man in show business. He’s an intuitively smart filmmaker who interferes on every level, but inevitably he’s right about the things he wants to do. He just makes it more complicated.”

“Nightcrawler” hits theaters Friday, October 31. “Inherent Vice” opens December 12.

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