Dutch-born D.P. Robby Muller has never been a household name in the way that someone like, say, Roger Deakins is. And yet his influence on cinema, particularly of the independent and world variety, is impossible to deny. Known primarily for his work with Wim Wenders (“Alice in the Cities,” “Kings of the Road”) and Jim Jarmusch (“Down by Law,” “Mystery Train”), Muller has also offered his considerable talents to filmmakers like William Friedkin (in his neon-slicked sleazebag thriller “To Live and Die in L.A.”) and Alex Cox (in the watershed proto-punk classic “Repo Man”). His is a relaxed, understated style of shooting. Whereas someone like Deakins plays with visual artifice to achieve something akin to cinematic mythology, Muller’s approach is naturalistic and pared-down. It’s also far from simple. For the most part, Muller prefers working with independent filmmakers and rarely, if ever, says the words “that’s not possible.” He is a tremendously imaginative artist, one who values his own practical needs far less then the vision of the filmmaker. He is a master of evoking the landscape as a character in a film, whether it be the barren emotional wasteland of “Paris, Texas” or the swampy, fairy-tale dirge of “Down by Law.” And in this unearthed masterclass video (via Eyes On Cinema), we are lucky enough to be able to witness Muller’s peculiar method firsthand.
The set-up of the masterclass sounds simple enough at the outset: Muller and the other cinematographers are assigned to shoot a scene at a film set masquerading as a roadside café. A particular emphasis is placed on each cinematographer’s individual visual language. The idea is to get some sort of notion of how these particular artists view the world, and how they hope to convey their particular vision to us, the audience. Muller maps out a particularly daring long-tracking shot—one that will equally emphasize the interiors and exteriors of the locale he has been assigned—and yet, even as he painstakingly assesses every conceivable option at his disposal, he never comes across as a dogged taskmaster. True to his shooting style, Muller is calm, perceptive, and almost Zen-like in his demeanor. His attention to detail is also staggering, particularly in one instance that involves the very specific placement of a tomato-red telephone. He’s also not particularly keen to change the location in any dramatic way, which makes sense given the no-frills shooting approach he displayed in his early pictures with Wenders and Jarmusch.
Jarmusch, as one might have guessed, is a HUGE fan of Muller’s, although the two did not collaborate on Jarmusch’s latest film, 2014’s wry, dry vampire love story “Only Lovers Left Alive.” In a clip from a Q&A that took place back in April, Jarmusch discusses his working relationship with Muller—which apparently, did not involve silly things like shot lists or storyboards—and how Muller taught him to trust in his filmmaking instincts. Muller’s philosophy on shooting can be summed up from an anecdote Jarmusch tells from the set of his divisive acid-western “Dead Man,” where he says he and Muller would “find the most dramatic, incredibly beautiful landscapes you could imagine… and then turn our backs on it and film the other way.” Muller often rejected traditional notions of cinematic beauty and was able to find poetry in the roadside diners, abandoned alleyways, and forgotten pockets of America as well as his native Europe. In a cinematic landscape where so many technicians are attempting to bowl us over with the flashiness of their visual execution, Muller’s ruminative, minimalist style is something truly special. Check out the masterclass video and the interview with Jarmusch below.