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