“Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh’s biopic of 19th century English painter J.M.W. Turner, premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews, earning star Timothy Spall the Best Actor Award. Less on the radar, but equally as responsible for the film’s success is cinematographer Dick Pope, who also won at Cannes, taking home the Vulcain Prize for the Technical Artist.
Here are a few things the Leigh and Pope said at The New York Film Festival about turning “Mr. Turner” into a Turner masterpiece.
“Of course, the great source of reference is Turner’s work,” Leigh said. “The look of the film comes out of a sense of us trying to interpret, visually, his paintings, but also the spirit of the two periods in which the film takes place, Georgian and Victorian.” Pope described his approach as, “more invoking the spirit of what Turner was looking at, or what he was seeing. What inspired him to take the journey to Margate in the first place, which was and still is famous for its light and wonderful sunrises. What drove him drove us.”
“[We were] certainly trying to evoke what he saw,” Pope said, “looking through him, through his eyes, in terms of camera movement. One thing is lighting and the other thing is where we put the camera, because that’s what’s more important in one of Mike’s films, more than anything else, is where do you see it from? A lot of the vantage points in the film are from Turner looking at what he is observing.”
“We did a lot of studying, Mike and I, for most everything we shot,” said Pope. “We decided when we were going to be there, and what time of day. We were blessed with wonderful weather last year when we shot it. It was a fantastic summer. In Margate, we went one way and then the other way and then this way in the morning, really trying to capture the best light, with multiple interiors as well. In the house that Mrs. Booth lives in, the windows— a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘That’s CG out the window, right?’ I say, ‘like hell it is!’ It never is on one of Mike’s films. The house that Mrs. Booth had behind her when she was in that room or when she was eating supper was the view out the window at the right time of day.”
“I studied Turner’s color palette quite a lot at the Tate Britain,” Pope explained, “which is a fantastic resource for everything Turner— even the paints he used. We took that, and in a way the film is colored is very much in the palette of what Turner was using at the time. We used the paints that he was buying in the color shop as our own palette.”
“The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up,” from 1838, was one of Turner’s most famous paintings. Pope and Leigh shot the scene, in which Turner views the Temeraire being towed away, on the Thames River. “We shot it very late in the evening, just on the cusp on sunset,” Dope said. “We were blessed with the most fantastic sunset and the actors and the whole landscape was viewed in this beautiful light. It was almost in the same place as where the painting was depicted, bringing the Temeraire up the Thames to be broken up. Then these magical guys back in London created the moving Temeraire in CGI, which I hope you found completely believable because I did. We provided everything else!”