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The Secret to His Success: David Gordon Green Cinematographer Tim Orr and Finding Beauty in the Brutal 'Joe'

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire April 12, 2014 at 7:55AM

We talk with DP Tim Orr about his longtime collaboration with director David Gordon Green and their latest work together on "Joe."
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Director David Gordon Green has collaborated with cinematographer Tim Orr since they were classmates at North Carolina School of the Arts. (Their first film was a documentary on the artificial insemination of cattle.) Orr shot Green's feature debut "George Washington" in 2000, launching both men on successful careers. Since then the pair has collaborated on "Undertow," "All the Real Girls," "Pineapple Express" and "Snow Angels," among other projects. In "Joe," about one tormented man (Nicolas Cage) who struggles to be good -- and finds redemption in a paternal relationship with a troubled teenager (Tye Sheridan).

We recently caught up with Orr to talk about his collaboration with Green and how he managed to find glimmers of beauty in the darkness of "Joe."

How did you get your start in the business?

"It comes down to feeling passionate about what you're doing. You have to believe it in 1000%."

David Gordon Green and I went to school together and we were in the same class, but we didn't work together that much in school. I think we made one short, strange documentary together. He was a director and I was a cinematographer. We made a documentary on the artificial insemination of cattle. That was pretty weird, but also really interesting and fun. 

Then a year out of film school I did the thing of trying to get started as a DP. I would do anything I could. I would work for free. I would shoot shorts. I would shoot documentaries. Then David and I were both living in LA and we started spending a bit of time together. He was at the stage where he was going to make a movie no matter what. That was "George Washington." A year after that, the film got out into the world, I was able to quit my day job and be a DP. That's how things started.

Do you two have a shorthand?

We developed a shorthand early on. That's one of the reasons we work together so well. We share so much the same taste in a lot of things - whether it be music, movies or just style, sense of humor. We found early on we shared a lot of those same instincts. Now there's a level of trust which is very special in terms of - he trusts me, I think, a great deal, which gives me a lot of creative freedom depending upon what kind of movie we're making. The last few, it's been great to feel like you can do anything you want in terms of the way you feel something should be photographed and the director is fully supportive of that. We certainly talk about things and we certainly plan things, but there are a lot of unspoken moments when we know what each other is thinking.

Did you look to other films for inspiration with "Joe?"

We kind of set out to do what feels like it's not like something else. That's a hard thing to do because virtually everything's been done. I think we set out to make - there's a certain Western quality to "Joe," but it's not overt. I think visually, what I wanted to do was certainly I wanted it to be a naturalistic looking movie, but I wanted to stretch the boundaries of that. There are certainly a lot of lyrical moments in many of David's movies. I wanted to try to give the landscape in "Joe" --  not only the exterior landscape, but also the interior landscape because so much of the movie was about the interior conflicts within particularly Joe, but also within the young boy. I wanted to take it to a mildly surreal place.

To some degree, we had mined mildly similar territory in "Undertow" years ago, but this was certainly a very different film. We wanted to be naturalistic, but I didn't want to embark upon some very realistic, naturalistic, overly gritty photography. I wanted to try to give it a bit of a lyrical beautiful edge that would kind of hopefully cut through of some of the darkness and brutality in the film.

"Joe"

There are elements within the film I wanted to try to bring a certain amount of - to stretch the bounds of pure naturalism to something that was very much heightened. It was mainly within the lighting that that came into play - using colors and motivations that you find in the man-made natural world, but stretching them to a point where they're hyper-real.

There's almost a documentary feel to it at points -- especially since you're using some non-actors.

We would set up situations and just film them in a very loose way a lot of the time, but I just wanted to counter that with enough craft in places to where it wasn't overt and didn't feel like a documentary.

What advice do you have to aspiring cinematographers?

There's more than one way to go about it. The old traditional way was to get started and work your way up, whether it was in the camera department or lighting. Then you move up the ladder and then one day maybe someone asks you to shoot. If it's something you really want to do, you do whatever you can to get those opportunities. Just put yourself out there to meet people who want to make short films, docs, even if you have to work for free, if it's something you really want to do and pursue, you just pour everything you have into it and do it. 

That said, there's also a certain amount of luck involved. There's being at the right place at the right time. So much of this business and filmmaking is about the people you work with and trusting those people and they have your back and you have theirs. When you find those people who have the same inspiration and passion, that will only help you.

Could you ever see yourself directing?

It's something I've thought about before. I know how much time and what the time commitment is in terms on what you embark on when you sign on as a director. I haven't found anything yet that I'm passionate enough about to step into that ring. I'm very open to it and would ultimately like to do it some day, but I also love being a cinematographer. It's a craft I really appreciate. But if the right project comes along. It comes down to feeling passionate about what you're doing. You have to believe it in 1000%.

This article is related to: Cinematography, Joe, Joe, David Gordon Green