David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” opens with a shot of a woman staring at the camera while a disembodied hand strokes her blonde hair. From that moment on, the photography creates an air of mystery around the main characters and a sense that something is not quite right. Caught in the shadows, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) seem to be evading the truth, each other or themselves — and Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography captures the murky mood. The film marks Cronenweth’s fourth collaboration with Fincher and what we think of as the filmmaker’s distinctive vision is, in part, thanks to Cronenweth.
Cronenweth got an early start on his career by gaining experience on set as a camera loader and second assistant camera during high school alongside his father, Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (“Blade Runner,” “Peggy Sue Got Married”). After working his way up to first assistant camera and camera operator, Cronenweth got his first shot (so to speak) as a DP for Fincher’s “Fight Club.” Since then, he’s collaborated with the director on “The Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” in addition to working on films such as “One Hour Photo” and “K-19: The Widow Maker.” When he’s not shooting films, Cronenweth and his brother Tim shoot commercials and music videos.
In 2011, Cronenweth was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on “The Social Network” and again in 2012 for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Given his evocative photography on “Gone Girl,” which hits theaters today, it’s likely he’ll have another shot at an Oscar this year.
Indiewire recently spoke to Cronenweth about his collaboration with Fincher, his personal style and shooting digital.
You’ve been working with David Fincher for quite some time, so was it just a given that you would be working on “Gone Girl?” Does he still ask you or does he assume you’ll be working together?
Neither. You never can take anything for granted, you never know. David is such a talented guy, and maybe one day he’ll try to do it all himself, but we had talked about it and shot commercials previous to it and knew it was coming. You never know until it actually happens, but we talked about it a lot.
When reading the script, did you already have in your mind an idea of what it was all going to look like? What was your process like? At what point do you start to envision the look of the film?
That first reading you let your imagination run wild, and then you go back and do the research and talk to David and talk to the art department and start getting to a place where you can interpret what it can be and what you and everybody else can contribute to it. And then you get the attempted visuals and what the style should be along the way. With a story like this, you’re going into a lot of different locations, and because a lot of the story happens in their heads, the perception of what the characters think of their lives is very much based in reality, so you search out locations to fulfill your visual style or make those locations fit the style you’ve created after you’ve started.
Fincher’s films have a very distinctive look, and a lot of that look is due to your style as well. How would you describe your style?
With the most recent movies that we’ve had the opportunity to shoot, we’ve taken reality and have responsibly made the visuals as compelling and important as the contents of the story allow you to do. I don’t want to sound like I’m recreating what the reality is, but a lot of the movies are so grounded in human experiences that to really push one style would get in the way of it, especially if it was too heavy handed. As elegantly and contemporary as these movies seem, it’s about finding what’s in them to push the boundaries of the style so that it’s still coherent to the context. It’s always been that way for me. I kind of follow my father’s photography, which I fell in love with, and to some degree it was that with a little magic added to it. It’s all story driven, but the last few films I’ve done have all presented the story in a very naturalistic way.
You started out your career with your father. What is the most important lesson you learned from watching him work?
Oh, that’s such a big question! I think being bold and taking risks and pushing the visual boundaries and trusting your initial ideas. The way he interacted with the various teams he worked with over the years and the way he collaborated with the director was something that was super appealing and something I wanted to apply to my career. He always said, and I don’t want this to become a redundant thing, that it was all about the story; you’re there to support the visual impression of what the contents of the story are, and to let those actors play out in that visual world, and I’ve always tried to do that to some extent. You know, I haven’t had a really futuristic opportunity to present something other than the commercials and music videos, and I did a romantic comedy that was a period piece, but that was kind of its own little style. For whatever reason, the movies I’ve ended up shooting have not been as theatrical as other shows have been.
You’ve collaborated so often with Fincher. Do you two now have a shorthand way of communicating?
Oh, definitely. Over time it’s gotten so much easier. It’s a combination of things. It’s us embracing new technology, and having years of experience together. And, him more than me, becoming better and smarter filmmakers along the way. More efficient too, utilizing tools better to give ourselves the best shots or the most time with the actors.
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What are your thoughts on shooting digital versus film? What are the advantages of shooting on digital?
It’s been four in a row that I’ve done digitally. There is still something inherently magical about shooting on film, and to some degree, it’s mysterious and you get to be the wizard behind the curtain that makes everything happen, which I kind of love. But also, with digital photography, you’ve eliminated some of the things that could become problematic, both photochemically and technically in labs with scratches and all kinds of mysterious things that can arise. There’s not many surprises with digital, but there’s more risks you can take. You certainly sleep better at night because you don’t have to wake up at 4 am and call the lab to see if there’s still a job for you to do that day. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less work, you still have to put the lights in the right places and you still have to make good choices and fight continuity along scenes.
You have to be a smart filmmaker either way. It’s opened the door a lot in that it allows directors to work longer with the performance, you can get actors into a routine and force things out of them in a way. You watch David and after four takes in a row it sort of breaks the mold and you get something new out of what might otherwise be a safe performance. That’s really magical. I like the fact that you ultimately have more control. Back in the day you spent so much time, down to the tenth of the stock, in order to expose something, and there were all the lenses coming with it, be it Panavision or Aeroflex. You’d go to the lab and they would try and get as close as they can, but then you’d walk into one theater and it’d be green, and then in another theater it’d look blue, so all of that work seemed to disappear when you finally got to the presentation.
Now, everywhere you go with digital, it all looks the same, which is somewhat comforting. You’ve given up a little magic, and you’ve given up a little texture, but you can work on that. There’s ways of making a lot of that come back if you have enough time. And there’s still piracy and environmental concerns, given the prints and chemicals, but that’s just the evolution of cinema. There’s still a lot to be discovered and it’s still super open, which is kind of what the industry has always done.
You have a reputation for dim-lit, closeup long-shots, especially in “Fight Club.” Is that your signature style or has that been pegged on you wrongly?
I think it’s pegged on me wrongly. That was a particular style. I think in “Gone Girl” and “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” we may have used a long lens to compress something four or five times in the whole movie, but otherwise it was fairly traditional, almost on the wider side of lensing up. I think the film stocks got faster, but digitally you’re allowed to embrace practicals and embrace environments, like night exteriors or enormous venues, and then fine-tune within that.
Even the films that I haven’t shot for David, they kind of have the same characteristics, and it’s something to our eyes that makes more sense and feels more natural. With the speed of these digital cameras, one thing you really fight hard for is keeping depth of field a choice you get to make. They’re so fast that if you expose normally than everything in the world becomes focused, which makes it look not as cinematic as you want it to be. You also lose the ability of a storyteller to say, “I don’t want you to look at this, I want you to look at that.” So we fight really hard to maintain a shallow depth of field because it’s part of the direction of the visuals, or of what David wants the audience to pay attention to.
When talking about the look of “Gone Girl” with Fincher before you began shooting, did you think of it in terms of color palette?
Yeah we did, actually. A large portion of the story takes place in the Midwest, and although it does take place over a period of time, it was imperative that the weather be a huge character in the story, just as it was in “Dragon Tattoo.” So you really needed to feel that in order to understand what the actors were going through. So in “Gone Girl,” that was part of the contempt for the characters’ positions they found themselves in in the humid summer heat and all the things that come with that part of the country in the summer. It was imperative for us to tie the visuals into that and that was the tonality that was picked. That’s why some filter choices were selected along the way. The story has each character going on a different nonlinear path to each other, and they mentally find themselves in different places, so we used that a little bit to help create the environments for each one of them. Ben Affleck’s character, Nick, after he has been accused for being responsible for his wife’s disappearance, kind of finds sanctuary in his home, which opens the door to all these beautiful visuals that help with what he’s processing.
How much thought went into the opening image of Rosamund Pike’s head?
Again, I have to give David full credit for that. But it was really described in the book, and that’s kind of the novelty of opening the movie and the script. Without going overboard in description, that movie touches on things that anyone that has ever been in a relationship can understand, from the love to the thoughts that go in the opposite direction, so it just seemed too good. It was so well written and so well thought out by David.
In what ways does the photography help to create the sinister or ominous tone of the film?
We took what was fairly a mundane, trapped house, one without personality or characteristics, which was the point given how they found themselves and then the disintegration of the marriage, but you take really traditional settings and introduce shadows and loneliness, because it is all about these two people going on a journey where they lost each other. Separating them, and giving their own parts of the house a different tonality was all a part of that. We landed it slightly different at different times in the movie, because Rosamund’s character sort of morphs from one character to another and then morphs back again, and so we needed that to be a different world when she was off on her own. Her demise had to be unflattering, it had to have some harsher lensing and makeup and style and locations. A little bit more reality based and less theatrical. With Ben, though, it always had to be more dramatic, the screws always had to be tightening around him.
What was the most challenging shot? Is there one that stands out?
One is when the detectives go to the vacant mall to find clues. It wasn’t actually an abandoned mall, and the scale of it was absolutely enormous. It was this three-story mall, about 300-400 feet in each direction, and economically and time-wise there was restrictions, but it was super important to feel how cavernous the place really was. We went around it in a different way, and we chose to use a lot of small, incandescent light sources in order to preserve the scale. It just was a monumental, huge location. The notion was that there was drug dealing and a few camp fires and one pharmacy that had one working flickering light, so it was an interesting opportunity to create some looks and create some neon flashes and clever placed cards for the officers to bounce off. It was one of those moments in the movie that people will remember if you do it right.
There’s already talk about Oscars with “Gone Girl.” I know you’ve been nominated a couple of times, but what would it mean to be nominated again? Or to win?
I can’t even think about the winning part, but to be nominated again would, of course, be great. It gets better every time as you appreciate how hard it is to get there. The first time was extremely exciting and overwhelming, but now, and having been through the process and knowing how many films come out each year, it’s even more exciting and appreciated. But who knows? I’m just lucky enough to be able to make movies.