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The Essentials: The Works Of Harris Savides

The Essentials: The Works Of Harris Savides

“I don’t want to light their faces and bodies specifically. I like to light the space.”Harris Savides, Interview Magazine, 2008

As you might have already heard, today brings the awfully sad news that Harris Savides, one of the great working American cinematographers, has passed away at the age of 55. Savides was a relatively late-starter in features (his first stint as DoP was Phil Joanou‘s “Heaven’s Prisoners” in 1996), but over the next fifteen years managed to work with a laundry list of great filmmakers, from James Gray and Gus Van Sant to Ridley Scott and Sofia Coppola.

Like many of the great DoPs, Savides’ work evolved: from his more stylized early work with Fincher, and in the commercial and promo world, to stripped down, naturalistic, open-source lighting work with Coppola, Van Sant and Noah Baumbach. He embraced digital on “Zodiac,” but never gave up on film either (his two most recent features, “Somewhere” and “Restless” were both shot on 35mm).

To commemorate the cinematographer, we’ve picked out some of our favorite pieces of his work (although it should be said that Savides never shot a frame of film that didn’t look glorious). Check them out below, and let us know your own favorite Savides film in the comments section below.

“The Yards” (1999)
Harris Savides first made his name in music videos and commercials (which we’ll get to in a moment), but it wasn’t quite until the mid-period of career when he began to collaborate often with David Fincher and Gus Van Sant that his name became familiar among cinephiles. One film that was overlooked at the time, both as a fantastically gripping drama and for its gorgeous visuals, was James Gray’s “The Yards,” a brooding and moody drama about family, loyalty, friendship and betrayal. Centering around the duplicity and corruption in the subway rail yards of Queens, New York, the story about a young man leaving prison to go straight only to get pulled into this “family business” and a world of danger and deceit, is positively tragic, heartbreaking and “Godfather”-esque. The great cinematographer Gordon Willis is a huge influence on this picture, which is steeped in the shadows, textures and bronze hues of chiaroscuro and the visuals meticulously communicates the ominous, burning and brewing emotions conveyed by some lovely internalized performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. To better understand how beautifully Gray and Savides understand the psychology of an emotional response from the moving image, watch this interview below. And if you haven’t seen it, rewatch the film itself to fully understand the gorgeous and breathtaking look of “the voluptuousness of death.” It’s a shame they never had a chance to work with one another again.

“Gerry” and “Elephant” (2002, 2003)
There’s the early, more stylized work from Savides’ career perhaps best represented in “The Game” and “The Yards” and then there’s the “second phase” of his career. Natural light and capturing natural lighting was always one of Savides’ passions — the way it falls and lands on objects and creating a reality from that beauty — but it wasn’t until his work with Gus Van Sant and Noah Baumbach that Savides began to seriously chase this dictum. While this new direction (influenced in part by the great Terrence Malick cinemtographer Nestor Almendros) can be seen in all his work from the aughts, it might be best represented as a starting point in “Gerry” and “Elephant.” Influenced by Bela Tarr, Van Sant was experimenting with extremely long and hypnotic takes (many from behind, providing a haunting mystery and disconnect from the psychology of its lonely and troubled teens), and perhaps to respond in kind, Savides threw away most of the flashy tricks cinematographers employed to take a stripped down and spare approach, that when combined with the direction, drew the viewer in like a whisper. His style in the picture practically begged for light to pour in and the aperture acted like a flower — refusing its petals to open up until a genuine light source nourished it. While it comes to best fruition in “Elephant,” which won Gus Van Sant the Palme d’Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, for Savides, his watershed working moment began with the picture before it. “ ‘Gerry’ was, for me, a really important film. It was a milestone. After working through ‘Gerry,’ I felt like I understood filmmaking for the first time,” he said. The brilliance in both films is certainly due to Savides u’nique mise-en-scene and naturalistic point of view, perhaps so real and genuine, it gave “Elephant” a chilling tone to its brutal aftermath and in “Gerry” captured the desperation and isolation of the forsaken.

“Birth” (2004)

Savides’ unparalleled mastery of the camera is evident from the very first frames of Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth,” as we wordlessly glide behind a man jogging through a deserted, snow-covered Central Park. Accompanied only by Alexandre Desplat’s jaw-dropping score, it evokes the eerie Steadicam shots of “The Shining,” but placed in the naturalistic outdoor setting of the park, takes on another, even more mystical dimension. What makes this sequence even more of a marvel is that it isn’t some showy one-off. Throughout “Birth,” time and time again, Savides creates glowingly magical images and Glazer, in his infinite wisdom, lets us luxuriate in them. Grab any moment from the film, frame it, hang it on the wall, and it will become the discussion piece for your next dinner party. “Birth” is a story of reincarnation and love set amidst Manhattan’s upper class, and whether he’s shooting an austere apartment hallway or star Nicole Kidman (sporting a tellingly “Rosemary’s Baby”-esque hair style) sitting in the bathtub, the images both take your breath away and contribute to the movie’s overall feeling of unease and dread. The movie’s centerpiece moment, though, in terms of storytelling and camerawork (and the seamless braiding of the two), is when Kidman goes to the opera and the camera hones in on her, staying on her face as she watches the opera. The shot holds for a nearly unbearable amount of time and her expression says everything you need to know about what’s going on inside of her. It’s an image so dazzling and heartbreaking that you can’t imagine anyone but Savides capturing it.  

“Zodiac” (2007)

Savides’ first collaboration with David Fincher was the wildly over-the-top “The Game,” a kind of hyper-intelligent fuck-you puzzle-box thriller about a very rich man put through his paces by a shadowy organization under the guise of an elaborate role-playing game. For their next feature together, Savides and Fincher went the complete opposite direction, not wholly abandoning the stylistic flourishes that made Fincher such a beloved film world figure, but stripping back much of the bullshit to present a just-the-facts-ma’am look at the decades-long hunt for the notorious Zodiac serial killer. What Savides accomplished with “Zodiac” is mind-blowing – this is a movie with scenes spread across locations and time periods, each requiring a different historically representative look, and often with the Fincher-approved embroidery of intricate visual effects (many of which go undetected they’re so seamlessly integrated into the frame). What’s even more astounding is thinking about how this was the first time that Fincher had used digital — up until this point his films were all shot with celluloid — at a time when the format still looked, in lesser hands, crunchy and flat. This wasn’t some bedroom chamber piece; this was a rich historical epic, and needed to look appropriately grand. Savides did it all. There are so many amazing shots running through our minds right now – one of the opening shots from inside Darlene’s car, fireworks exploding behind suburban roofs; the tracking shot of the cab (whose driver would meet his fate at the corner of Washington and Cherry), which pivots as the cab turns; the way Savides captured the droplets of water that dot Jake Gyllenhaal‘s face as he knocks on Mark Ruffalo’s door at the end of the movie. These are moments that contribute to the emotional and intellectual heft of the movie, not showy shots that are dissected in film class. Fincher and Savides, with “Zodiac,” made stylization subtle, which of course makes it all the more effective. “Zodiac” is an American masterpiece; unthinkable without Savides’ significant contribution. 

“Somewhere” (2010)

We have to confess to not being totally wild about Sofia Coppola‘s “Somewhere” when it hit two years ago; a somewhat shallow picture that felt like the “Lost In Translation” director going over old ground with diminishing returns. But that’s not to say that her first collaboration with Savides (their second, 2013’s “The Bling Ring,” will serve as the DoP’s final film) wasn’t absolutely glorious looking. Having brought a digital sheen to the 1970s with “Zodiac,” Savides brought old-fashioned 1970s grain to the contemporary tale of Stephen Dorff‘s ennui-struck movie star and his daughter (Elle Fanning), with a beautifully-lit take on LA by day, and thrilling neon cityscapes of the city by night. The handheld camerawork is loose, almost casual, but as much as in anything else in Savides’ cinematography, he’s able to capture an iconic image amidst it; Dorff’s sports car racing around a track, the actor sat caked in plaster for a special effects fitting, Fanning miming drinking a cup of tea underwater. Even for those of us who feel lukewarm about the film, it’s stunning work, and we can’t wait for their second team-up, even with the heavy heart that it turned out to be Savides’ swansong.

Commercials & Music Video Work
The commercials and music video worlds often provide a platform for filmmakers to step up to bigger and better things, but rare is the talent who can show off some of their most memorable work in such a short frame. Savides started as a fashion photographer, but his first big break came from Ridley Scott, who hired him for the Miller Genuine Draft commercials he was directing (the two would later work together in the features world on “American Gangster“), and the cinematographer took off from there. And it speaks to Savides’ remarkable skill set that he was able to make such a remarkable impression in the short format. Iconic and groundbreaking videos for Michael Jackson’s “Scream,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” and R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” found Savides behind the camera, but that’s not all. When directors dipped into advertising, they brought him along too. John Hillcoat collaborated with Savides for his memorable, Malick-ian Levi’s spots for their To Work campaign. The cinematographer exercised different muscles for Martin Scorsese’s Alfred Hitchock homage “The Key To Reserva” and Savides worked with Wong Kar-Wai and delivered the short “The Hire” for BMW. And while the Academy never recognized his efforts, his peers in these industries did with Savides earning three MTV Music Video awards, a Clio Award and many more. The diversity of his work speaks volumes, and you can check it out below.

– Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton

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