Giles Nuttgens, the British cinematographer best known for his collaborations with Deepa Mehta (“Fire,” “Earth,” “Water,” “Midnight’s Children”) as well as Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“The Deep End,” “Bee Season,” “What Maisie Knew”) had two indie films out in 2014, both of which debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival: Stuart Murdoch’s musical “God Help the Girl” and Jake Paltrow’s dystopian “Young Ones.”
His latest project couldn’t be more different. Written and directed by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, “The D-Train,” which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a dark dramedy starring Jack Black and James Marsden.
Indiewire talked to Nuttgens late last year about “God Help the Girl” and “Young Ones” and followed up with him again recently to discuss the challenges of shooting “The D-Train,” which hit theaters May 8.
What are the specific production challenges involved in shooting a comedy?
The challenge on all comedy is to produce images through lighting, camera placement and production design that has a distinctive style, that is interesting for an audience to watch, that says a lot about the characters or the environment they are in, but doesnʼt get in the way of the humor.
What was the most difficult shot on “The D-Train”?
It’s always a fine line where photography becomes obtuse and puts a barrier in between the audience and a narrative, but with humor it’s extremely acute. The director needs to have the material that captures every single nuance of a comic performance that allows him to edit the film with the pacing that suits the comedy — and with “The D-Train” that was paramount as much of the humor comes out of very real dilemmas for the protagonists in the movie.
There were no particular shots on the film that were difficult from a technical point of view. We had a very tight schedule, 21 days, so that was a challenge to achieve the high quality of photography and design that we wanted. The intense scene between Dan (Jack Black) and Oliver (James Marsden) at night in Oliver’s apartment after a night of excess in LA was probably the most difficult part of the shoot. It was our last and longest day due to being shut down by an electrical storm for a few hours so the actors ended up doing probably their hardest scene in the film at two in the morning.
How did you choose the camera for this film?
We had to shoot digital but both the directors and I wanted it to look like a real film, one that had serious moments and texture as well as just humor. We wanted the potentially darker side of the situation to come through too. We all wanted to shoot in widescreen and I was very happy when they suggested anamorphic, which is the format I feel most comfortable using, to make the film feel like a big screen event even though the story is very intimate.
We were determined to show in cinemascope the limitations of the small town lifestyle of Dan Landsman (Jack Black) contrasted with his opening up to the big wide world that this one disastrous moment would provoke.
It’s a small film, but with some big issues to accompany the comedy.
And what are your thoughts on shooting on film vs. digitally?
I want to carry on working in the business so I had better say something very, very positive about digital. [Laughs] It’s part of the life. It’s an inevitability. I was part of that system in the sense that I finished off “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” and so I was with George Lucas and Rick Mccallum when they were developing the systems…Ultimately, George [Lucas] was the spearhead for all digital systems and the shift from film to digital. So in some ways I was part of that revolution, so I can’t really deny the value of digital being part of that progression. But, as a DP, all I can say is that I’m more stimulated by film images when I see them on a big screen. The actual process of working, maybe because I’m very familiar with a film camera is much easier, faster, more flexible and a much more creative process.
But that doesn’t mean that digital cameras don’t have a huge value. For instance, the Alexa is an amazing looking camera…I shot “The D-Train” on an Alexa and all on anamorphic lenses and it looks fantastic, the film looks fantastic. I mean occasionally it looks a little digital, you know 50 percent of it looks just like film, but a little sharper.
The quality of the images now coming out of digital cameras is getting better every year. The Alexa is better this year than it was the last year. It’s moving at such a rate that supporting film just on the idea that I just happen to like those type of images is not really very practical within the film world. So I accept digital, I accept we’re moving on, I accept that I think that general level of photography will increase with the quality of photography — must increase with digital, you know, the ability to just look at what you’re actually going to get should move us on, a long way.
Why do you think more DPs don’t become directors? Do you have any interest in directing?
I remember being a first AC and the time I decided I could light it better than the DP in front of me meant that you need to move on and become a DP and try it out for yourself. And I think DPs need to remember that, if they’re sitting there thinking, ‘I could direct this better’ and understanding that they have to director actors, do everything, make all those decisions, have all of that pressure…if you really believe that then you should be going off and directing.
Most DPs understand what a director goes through. They understand how much they’ve got to give and they also understand how many years they’ve got to give to get a project off the ground. And I think that’s a really tough thing.
Life’s not long enough to do all the things you want to do. And particularly when filmmaking is such a slow process to get going…It sort of has to be something that justifies taking me away from a job that I’m so really passionate about anyway. Being a DP is something that I’ve always wanted to do as a kid, I’m doing it as a living. I can’t believe I do it in Los Angeles and in New Orleans, I do it in Detroit, you know these are big privileges to actually be able to do that, to be able to put film to a camera, particularly in this day and age, is a huge privilege and so I don’t deny the luck that I have in being able to exercise in my profession as a DP.