Interview with Cinematographer Checco Varese (The 33, Miracles From Heaven)

Chatting with Cinematographer Checco Varese on the phone for almost an hour inspired me. He brought so much passion to the way he talked about cinematography and creativity in general. He’s a man that obviously loves what he does.

To learn more about Checco, go to his website: www.checcovarese.com

checco_varese.jpgInterview with Checco Varese:

Matthew Toffolo: Tell us about “Miracles in Heaven”? How were your experiences working on the film?

Checco Varese: It’s a very beautiful movie. It’s more than a faith based movie. It’s really a spirituaul film. It was shot in Atlanta, Georgia – a fantastic experience.

MT: This is your 2nd film in a row that’s based on a true story. You want to tell a cinematic story of course, but I’m assuming you also want to keep the real experiences as accurate as possible. What is the process of making this type of movie?

CV: With true life experience movies, you’re always walking on this imaginary line that you never want to cross. You want to make it entertaining but also make sure it’s real. You have to pick your battles and make the most insightful film possible, but you also have to support what really happened and translate the real story. These are real people and you have respect that. That said, you still have to engage the audience and make it a movie experience. These are tough films but also very rewarding to do.

MT: “The 33” is a stunning film based on the true story of the miners trapped underground for 69 days. How did you come up with the cinematic design of showing the effects of the entrapment underground and making if feel real? How was your working relationship with director Patricia Riggen?

CV: This is my favorite movie. It’s a work of love. When someone asks me what my favorite film I’ve worked on was, I always say my last film. But I can’t say this anymore – “The 33” was the best experience. It was a physically, emotionally, and mentally hard movie to do.

We shot it in a real mine. The whole crew had to drive two and half miles to the set everyday. We were there 12 to 15 hours a day. It was brutal. The rules for a miner is that they can’t work in the mines for longer than 8 hours a day. We were practicially doubling that daily. Every single scene in that film was shot in a real mine.

The look is very specific. When I first read the script, Patricia (the director) told me that you have to find the language that reflects the movie. When preparing for a movie I always ask what painter or photographer best reflects this story.

PHOTO: Behind the Scenes on the film “The 33”:

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I looked at the Italian painter “Caravaggio” for inspiration. If you look at his work they are paintings of men suffering, and there is always a bay of light coming in from the distance. He makes things look beautiful, but also dramatic and spiritual.

We used the lights on the miners helmets to light the scenes and the actors. One Sunday before filming I went by myself and brought a few lights and did some measuring. I had 4 lights: a little light, a bigger light, a flashlight, and a miner light helmet. I did my work: testing, measuring distance etc… and decided to do one last thing.

I’ve never been in a mine before and I needed to understand the setting. So I turned off all of the lights and decided to sit alone in the dark for 45 minutes. After 10 minutes, I got very scared and ran out. But that’s when I realized what the minors were going through when they were trapped. Alone, underground, in the dark. It’s a frightening thing to experience and that’s when I found the language of the film.

MT: Your wife is director Patricia Riggen, the same director of “The 33”, and “Miracles from Heaven”. You have also worked with her on “Girl in Progress”, “Lemonade Mouth”, and “Under the Same Moon”. When does the husband/wife relationship start and stop, and when does the DP/Director relationship begin and end?

CV: We met working on set. The respect and then love started there. We do separate our relationship. That said, we do talk about work at home. I have to say, our personal relationship really helps our working relationship.

There are very few, almost none actually, director and cinematographer married couples, so we had nothing to compare it to. But we really make it work.

It works for me as a cinematographer because I’m aware of the film long before most DPs are. Most cinematographers join the film 6 weeks before filming begins. I am fortunate enough to know about the film months, and sometimes years beforehand. So I’m already preparing mentally for the film. That’s a big advantage I have.

That is gwhat happens in many famous creative relationships. You are working on a project for a long time. It’s a marriage of convenience on a creative level. It’s very rare, but amazing.

You do have to separate things at home and not talk about the work. It’s broken sometimes, usually by me, but when one of us doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, we just say stop and move on.

PHOTO: Checco and Patricia work together on set on “The 33”:

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MT: What is a Cinematographer looking for in their Director?

CV: The main thing you like to have is a director with a strong opinion on their vision for the film. We are the painters and they are the storytellers.

If they have a vision, then there is a good collaboration. They also need to let the DP do their job. If they don’t, then it becomes a difficult shoot.

MT: You were the Director of Photographer: b camera on Pacific Rim? What does that mean being the “b camera” DP?

CV: I was the 2nd Unit DP, but the director Guillermo del Toro also was the 2nd Unit director. Union rules don’t allow the main director to also be the 2nd Unit director, so I was called the b camera DP. Guillermo has a strong vision so he wanted to direct even the 2nd Unit sequences.

He was working on both units simultaneously. His energy is unparalleled. I don’t know anybody who’s like him. A bundle of emotion. We would have two sets going on the same day and he would jump from set to set and direct the scenes. He would work through lunch and 15-18 hour days.

MT: You’ve started as a camera assistant as for a news program, what brought you to working on films?

CV: I began as a camera war correspondant. We would shoot in some very dangerous situations. I never really wanted this world and was lucky to get out of it. I took a steadicam course and that became my profession. I got lucky landing a job after someone else backed out. The rest is history.

MT: What makes a great steadicam operator? When was the last time you performed the steadicam?

CV: The camera should not move, unless it’s necessary for the story. One of the most difficult things about being a steadicam operator is that it’s the beginning of a shot or scene. It’s difficult to start a shot and end a shot, anyone can start in the middle of a scene.

It’s like riding a bike. I haven’t done it in years. I surround myself with great steadicam operators, so I don’t have to do it anymore.

When it comes to hand-held shots, I always take those shots. I was a camera operator for the news, so I’ve done these shots thousands of times.

MT: Where do you see the future of cinematography in film heading from an artistic and practical standpoint?

CV: This is a two part question. We’re still trying to define the movie language of the 21st century. We don’t know what it is yet. It will probably take about 10-15 years to figure that out. And then another 10-15 to define it.

In our craft, yes, things have developed….a lot. None of this change has been the choice of the painter. The change is based on what the movie industry wants. So you have to go with it.

The worst thing a cinematographer can do is get caught up in the technology. It’s not about the tools – it’s about what story you’re trying to tell.

Initially pianos were only made for specific people, then eventually pianos became accessible to everybody. Just like cameras etc.. were only used by a specific amount of people, and now everyone has one. In today’s world, eventually a Mozart will emerge, and that is amazing. A 12-13 year old kid who makes a masterpiece of a movie. 3% of YouTube videos are fascinating. 97% is unwatchable. That’s the process.

People have a tendancy to talk about technology too much. They try to overwhelm you with tech-gargle. You can’t get caught up in this. It’s all about the result.

It’s easier to worry about the tools. It’s hard to really talk about your skills and talent. What you are capable of. The tools will only take you so far. Technology will always have its limits.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

CV: Lawrence of Arabia. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Battle of Algiers. Die Hard. I like to watch those 1980s action flicks.

MT: So, if I’m reading between the lines, it seems like you want to DP an action movie some day?

CV: Of course. Action movies are armies. 17 cameras and 17 camera crews on a single day on set. DPing an action movie is broad strokes. Large canvasses. It’s like being a foreman on a construction site. All kinds of tools and machines to make a great building. And a lot of skilled people who are good at performing those tools and machines.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.
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Interview with Production Designer Beth Mickle (Drive, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot)

I was fortunate to get an interview with the very talented and very busy Production Designer Beth Mickle. She is currently in the middle of production on the highly anticipated film “Collateral Beauty”. We talked about that film and much more in our chat together:

Matthew Toffolo: You have been the Production Designer on over 30 films in the last 15 years. Is there a film or two that you’re most proud of?

Beth Mickle: I’m incredibly proud of so many films that I’ve been involved with—fortunate to have had so many great opportunities! One that I’m especially proud of is “Lost River”, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut. It was such a special project from the very beginning—Ryan wrote such a beautiful script with so much imagination, so many fantastical backdrops to play with. It was a smaller movie, and we all lived and worked together in downtown Detroit, collaborated closely to really shape that film as a team. I remember many adventurous weekends with Ryan and our cinematographer Benoit Debis, exploring the many awesome hidden areas of that great city. With limited resources, everyone jumped and got their hands dirty, and we built so many elements out of cardboard, tape, late-night pizza, and music…so proud of how every one of those sets came together, and the tone we found in that film. It’s one of my favorite films of all time!!!

PHOTO: Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes & Christina Hendricks on set in “Lost River”:

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The other film I’m wildly proud of is “Only God Forgives”, which Nic Refn directed and Ryan starred in. This was another lower-budget film, this one in Bangkok, where we all lived and worked together very closely once again. Exploring every neighborhood in Bangkok was a complete joy for a gal who loves to travel as much as I do, and Nic gave me so much creative freedom with that film. My fiance Russell Barnes (an incredibly talented Production Designer) joined me on the project as the art director, and we had the most memorable 7 months together in Thailand. the lower-budget nature of the production meant that we did a lot of the heavy lifting along with our amazing Thai crew—building, painting, and decorating sets with our own hands. And the markets were phenomenal!! We ran around to tons of different vintage markets and flea markets every week, loading the trucks with so many beautiful and unique pieces. Bringing together these rich, vividly stylized sets in this unbelievable country where we were living was such an unforgettable time in our lives.

PHOTO: Set Design on “Only God Forgives”

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MT: You started your career working on lower budget/Indy films as a Production Designer. Would you suggest other people who are striving to become Production Designers in this industry take this route? What are the pros/cons of taking this route in comparison to starting on the low rung and working on Union productions?

BM: I would absolutely recommend this route for aspiring production designers. The lower budget world is where you learn to be resourceful, where you can somewhat safely make mistakes which can be recovered, where you learn the complete fundamentals of how a film is made. I try to approach every production—large or small–with a calm nature, and I think that comes from being in the trenches for so many years and learning how to adapt to in all situations. The biggest con to this route is that formal “union” filmmaking can be a bit jarring when you do finally make the leap to the larger arena—but once you learn those nuances, the process really smooths out. That is definitely one pro if you do start in the larger union world—you learn those protocols right away, so you enter the film world knowing how union positions are categorized and how the different departmental responsibilities are broken down.

In terms of career growth—I also think designers can make that mental shift of thinking on a smaller scale early in their careers on smaller films, to thinking on a larger scale as projects grow in size. But I think it’s much more difficult for designers to start with thinking on a larger scale, then downsizing their approach and expectations on a smaller project. And as we’ve seen so much lately—some of the highest quality films being made right now are the smaller, independent projects (“Ex Machina”, “12 Years a Slave” to name a few), and if a designer catapults you to doing an $80 million film as his or her first film, downshifting to this smaller budget range can prove to be a difficult maneuver.

MT: What is the biggest difference when working on an Independent film in comparison to a Hollywood Union Production?

BM: Union rules and guidelines!!! On an independent film, everyone is moving and touching and painting everything…on a union film, none of that flies. this took me forever to learn!!!! I’m always eager to grab the other side of a couch, to rehang picture frames on my own, always telling the set dressers “this is how i keep my muscles!!”…some laugh and some are not amused at all:)…At first I resisted the union delineations, preferring the all-hands-on-deck team approach, but after doing over 20 union films, and seeing that crews are treated so fairly and safety is so championed, I do see the benefits of having a regulated system. Film productions are such incredible, finely-tuned organisms that function so efficiently….though I’d still paint walls if they’d ask me!..:)

MT: Some will argue that DRIVE is one of the best films in the last 10 years. Do you remember the initial conversations with the director and your team about the overall look, feel, and tone of the film?

BM: “Drive” is a film is very near and dear to me. It made my career the incredible adventure that it is right now. I remember my initial meetings with Nic Refn well. I think he’s one of the most brilliant directors working today, and seeing how he approaches filmmaking is nothing less than inspiring. He’s constantly striving to shoot scenes in ways they’ve never been shot before, to make every frame as great as it can be. And his mandate is always “more is more.” So for a designer, taking this approach is a dream…every set can be as elevated and amplified as you want it to be. Every color can be as rich as possible, the idea of “extreme” is always embraced. so making “Drive”—as well as Nic’s following movie “Only God Forgives”—were a career highlight for me.

PHOTO: Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan in “Drive”:

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MT: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is out in theaters. What can people expect to see? How were your experiences working on that film? A lot of exterior scenes.

BM: “WTF” was another fascinating project to do. All but 4 minutes of the film takes place in Afghanistan, and we shot the entire film in New Mexico!!! It was by far the most challenging film I’ve ever done, but I was lucky enough to be working alongside the best art department I’ve ever had. We built 2 Kabul city street sets—both nearly a football field in size, and both almost built from scratch. Building so much scenery was such a great challenge on a relatively small studio film—we reused so many facades, repurposed so much architecture, repainted so many pieces….at first it seemed nearly impossible to pull off the tall order, but once we started improvising and playing around, the possibilities really became endless. Anthony Syracuse was our construction coordinator on that film, and I’m certain that he’s one of the best construction coordinators this industry has ever seen.

Lisa Sessions was our wonderful Decorator, and she really brought so much character and authenticity to every one of those sets. She balanced on the perfect line between decoration that felt unconventional, unexpected, and with a hint of kitsch, but all the while still being remarkably authentic. Her tastes and instincts as a Decorator are just spectacular. I was so lucky to have her talents on that project!!

And the film is just fantastic! the directors John and Glenn found such a rare tone in this film, balancing between drama and dry humor so well. It’s so immersive, and the many layers of the story are so well done.

PHOTO: Tina Fey and Billy Bob Thornton in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”

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MT: You are currently working on the feature film “Collateral Beauty”, starring Kate Winslet, Will Smith, Helen Mirren and Edward Norton. Quite the cast! How are you doing right now working on the film? Everything going on schedule?

BM: “Collateral Beauty” has been perhaps the smoothest, loveliest production I’ve ever been on. Our director David Frankel is one of the kindest, most sincere directors out there, and he’s made the experience a true joy for everyone involved in the show. He’s also a complete collaborator, and brings everyone into the process in such a generous way—so all ideas are considered, all suggestions are welcomed, and everyone comes away feeling valued. The storyline has a magical element to it, and we’ve leaned into that with the design and have some very beautiful backdrops for this story. it’s going so well so far, and I think it’s going to be a truly special film.

MT: What is a director looking for in a production designer?

BM: A director looks for a creative collaborator in a production designer—someone who can translate their words and thoughts into a 3-d space to create backdrops for the story he or she is trying to tell. The best production designers are those who go far beyond what’s on the script page and really try to create a full world for the film…shape the overall tone, create authentic and rich spaces for the characters, consider locations/sets that aren’t scripted but could help make the film best that it can be.

MT: What is a production designer looking for in a director?

BM: Likewise, a production designer looks for a creative collaborator in a director as well!…Someone who can offer a framework of what they want their film to feel like, to look like, and articulate those thoughts to the designer—and then let the designer take those ideas and run with them, and offer redirection or fine-tuning if needed. My best filmmaking experiences have been with directors who have a solid sense of what they imagine for their film, and who invite me to be a part of the creative process and give creative freedom to see where the sets go. I’ve been so lucky with the wonderfully talented directors I’ve come across over the years, have had so many inspiring and enjoyable experiences.

MT: How early do you come into pre-production before shooting starts? When do your hire and bring on the rest of your key team members?

BM: A production designer is one of the first people to hit the ground running in a film production. After the screenwriting phase and some key casting is done, I usually get involved when a film is starting to decide where the film will be shot (what state, what city, sometimes deciding which country.) I’ll look at location photos and do some preliminary scouting, usually about 12 weeks before a film shoot begins. Then my key team members (set decorator and art director) begin about 2-4 weeks after I’ve started, and so on. If the film is a small one, prep can be condensed to 6-8 weeks—just as on larger high-concept films, prep can last for 6 months or more.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

BM: “The Never Ending Story” has always been a favorite. and now “Mad Max: Fury Road” is becoming an all-time favorite as well. I’ve already seen it 4 times and can’t get enough!! Other favorites are “Night of The Hunter”, “Far From Heaven”, and Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina”

MT: Do you have a production designer mentor?

BM: I learned so much from George Allison, who was my mentor through my early twenties when I assisted him at ABC Television. Some of the production designer careers I most admire the most are those of Sarah Greenwood and Jack Fisk…such astounding work!!!

MT: What type of film would you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

BM: I would love to do a lavish 19th century or art deco period piece, as well as a wildly imaginative futuristic film. I love the opportunity to be completely absorbed in worlds we’re creating!!!

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go tohttp://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Stunt Double Olga Wilhelmine (10 Cloverfield Lane)

Making her home in New Orleans, Olga Wilhelmine is a singer/songwriter turned actress turned stunt performer. Jumping out of planes brought her to her new career (see below). In the last year she has stunt doubled for actresses Haley Bennett and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in two of the most highly anticipated films of 2016.

For more info, go to her website: www.laolga.com

olgaMatthew Toffolo: Are you an actress who also does stunts, or a stunt performer who also acts?

Olga Wilhelmine: I am an actress who does stunts, or I’d say it started out that way for sure. A lot of times depending on where camera is, you have to do your own stunts and this is of course also depending on what the stunt is, but it is certainly a big factor.

MT: You were the stunt double for Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the upcoming film 10 Cloverfield Lane. Tell us about your experiences working on that film? From complicated to simple tasks, what was your role as stunt double on the film?

OW: I was Mary’s stand-in, photo double and stunt double on 10 Cloverfield Lane so I was there every day with her on set. We filmed about 7 weeks in New Orleans mainly on a sound stage bunker set which was kept dark and lots of smoke, dust and special effects that add to the bunker feel. Being in the dark all day was a bit harrowing especially in the beginning and we really felt like we were in a bunker. As with all films I’ve experienced, waiting is the hardest part. There are so many factors that go into each camera shot and set up and those factors add up in time. Once camera rolls it goes fairly quickly, the set up is the longest part and the re-set after a take can also take time. Mary is a really wonderful and natural actress and very gracious. I actually learned a lot from her and she was brave and did a lot of the physical work herself because the camera was on her face. After a few takes it can wear you down, so she put up with a lot. There is a camera close up of her face in a gas mask which was a heavy and awkward camera rig set up she had to wear. I tested it out for the camera people several times and at one point and it on for an hour! It was heavy awkward and difficult to move with and certainly hurt after a while and she wore this rig too to film those scenes. I have so much respect to her and I did my best to help her wherever I could, which is part of what you do as a double.

MT: You also worked on the upcoming film “The Magnificent Seven”. How was working on that set and what stunts did you perform?

OW: I was doubling the actress Haley Bennett and had a shooting scene (imagine that in a western!). There was a lot of sitting and waiting on this film as it was filmed on location and lots of factors went into it; weather, horses, actors, background actors, camera set ups and resets…although I did meet quite a few people and spent time with some of the other actors. One day several of us had other auditions for other projects, so we used the downtime to help tape each other. That was fun actually!

MT: You’ve also done a lot of stand in work. What exactly does that job entail?

OW: A stand-in takes the place of the actor doing the camera set up and lighting. As I mentioned above that can take a long time depending on the shot and how many components there are. For example, you might have to remove a wall or two, re-dress the set, lay track for the dolly, light the scene and then rehearse the action or blocking with camera movements. I did a lot of this on 10 Cloverfield Lane and they also used me as a photo double, so they would roll camera and I’d do the take in Mary’s place. She was carrying the film entirely, so they used me to help with that as it is a lot of work for one person to do alone—it’s actually not possible without wearing the actor out. In some cases you may have several people fill in, but in this case is was just her and I handling the bulk of it.

When I first started out in film in New Orleans, I was hired to stand-in for Melissa Leo on Treme which was in incredible experience for several seasons. I learned a lot from her and learned a lot about lighting and cameras. Following that I had a tremendous experience standing in for several male actors on Django Unchained. It’s unusual to have females stand in for males, usually not done, but Quentin decided to have fun with Bob Richardson and hired me after I played violin for a party the production had one night. I wore men’s clothing and high heels in some cases, and we had a lot of fun laughing about that. Some of those set ups would take quite a long time but we had a blast, listening to music and plenty of joking around.

MT: How did you get into the stunt game? Did you take an extensive course(s)? How much time do you spend weekly working on your craft?

OW: This is something I recently wrote about for an article for Parachutist Magazine link here: http://parachutistonline.com/columns/how_skydiving_changed_my_life/olga-munding

Through skydiving I got into stunt work as not many actresses jump out of planes, so it illustrates the ability to focus and perform under extreme pressure and that is impressive to people. There is of course a physical element to skydiving and you learn how to maneuver your body in the air and control your terminal speed, along with canopy piloting to reach the ground. Most people don’t know, is that skydiving is immensely psychological in that it all comes down to your mental headspace. The calmer you are, the better the dive, the more successful you are. One minute can become a very long time by slowing down your thoughts and streamlining your focus.

I met some stunt guys who upon discovering I was a skydiver, encouraged me to get into stunt work. Both stunts and jumping are continuous learning experience and I have gotten comfortable in the space of “not knowing what’s next” just going with it and trusting myself, that I will know what to do and I will be able to perform.

MT: What’s it like being a female in the “boys” club of the stunt performers on set?

OW: I grew up sort of a tom boy, so I was always around boys. I played plenty of sports and was on a ski team, but I was also a musician, composer, singer and writer and actress so I had a lot of other areas of talent and skill. I am quite comfortable around the guys, although now I’m all grown up and a bit more girlie, but I find they are easy going for the most part an easy to get a long with. I suppose one of the challenges is that is is hard to break into stunts and “the club” if you will, and so that can be difficult for women. But that seems to be the case in whatever business you get into, honestly. Don’t even get me started on the music business!!

MT: Have you had any minor or major injuries working as a stunt performer?

OW: Thankfully not (knock on wood). Bruises and scrapes and sore muscles though…

MT: What’s the biggest high risk stunt you’ve performed to date?

OW: I’d say jumping out of planes is my biggest high risk and I do that for fun! There are different kinds of stunts at different risk levels. Certain people are better at certain things than others and I very much respect people who do the things I cannot. For example, I know nothing about car crashes and car stunts. There are experts in that area and I would defer to them as it is a special skill.

MT: Do you have a stunt that you love to perform in a movie that you haven’t performed yet?

OW: I’d like to skydive in a movie!!

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

OW: Star Wars – A New Hope is my favorite and I’ve seen it a million times, it never gets old.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Storyboard Artist Cristiano Donzelli (Ben-Hur, The Young Messiah)

A storyboard artist, or story artist, creates storyboards for film productions.

Storyboard Artist Cristiano Donzelli is a wealth of knowledge. You can feel his passion for what he does. No wonder all of the top filmmakers in the world who venture to Italy want to work with him. He simply makes all the films he storyboards better.

Cristiano’s credits include Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Rome (2005). Zoolander 2 (2016), The American (2010). Ben-Hur (2016), The Young Messiah (2016), and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

Go to his website at www.cristianodonzelli.com

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Matthew Toffolo: You have been the storyboard artist on over 40 productions in the last 20 years. Is there a film or two that you’re most proud of?

Cristiano Donzelli: First of all I want to say that I do this work because I love cinema, I’m very passionate about movies, so for me it’s not just a job, it’s more than that. After weeks of drawing the scenes of a film, developing it with the director and seeing it growing little by little, it becomes part of you. So each film I worked for, has been a unique experience, so I’m equally proud of all of them.

MT: Ben Stiller sings your praises. You just worked with him on “Zoolander 2”. What can you say about the Ben Stiller experience?

CD: Ben Stiller is an icon in the film industry and Zoolander is a cult movie so when they called me to work on Zoolander 2 I already knew that would be an important and funny experience for me. I worked with Ben Stiller for four months and we shared so many laughs while working. He’s a good person and such a great artist, always full of ideas and I can say he has the comedy in his blood. He asked me to use my creativity to imagine gags and re-write together the scenes of the script with the storyboards. He’s a very sensitive person and I can say the film business didn’t change his genuineness, enthusiasm and sincere approach to his work.

PHOTO: Cristiano with Ben Stiller:

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MT: Can you give us a teaser of what we’ll expect to see in “Ben-Hur”? How was it to work on the remake of such an iconic film? That’s seems like it would be a very daunting and overwhelming task!

CD: Too bad I can’t tell you anything about it, as you may know before starting to work in a film production, an artist has to sign an NDA so he can’t tell anything about the movie before it’s out on the screens. The only thing I can say is that it’ll be very spectacular and visually great. I’ve worked closely for months with the director Timur Bekmambetov, the second unit director Phil Neilson and with the VFX supervisor Jim Rygiel (3 Oscar winning for the Lords of Ring trilogy), creating spectacular action scenes especially for the iconic chariots race scene that won’t delude the old Ben Hur movie fans.

MT: You’ve also directed some short films, commercials, and music videos. Is directing something you like to do more professionally? Is directing a Hollywood feature film your ultimate goal?

CD: I’ve been second unit director for James McTeigue (V for Vendetta director) in his project “Caserta Palace Dream”, I directed over 40 tv commercials, three music videos and the 30 minute short film “Una Storia Di Lupi – aka A Wolves Tale” that stars Franco Nero as main actor that won two important film festivals as best short. I was born with a passion for drawing, then I realized that I had a great passion for directing too. When I was a child my father often took me to the cinema and since then I had this dream to work in the film industry and be a director. I’m developing different projects and writing treatments, so yes, directing a Hollywood feature film is my next goal.

MT: What’s the general working relationship and process between a storyboard artist and the director? How early do you meet before production begins?

CD: It depends on the project, sometimes they call me very early even before the pre-production just because the director and the producers want to have an idea about how the film will be and how much it’ll cost more or less for each scene. Other times they call me later, when the locations and the sets are decided so the director can give me more precise information about the scenes. The general working relationship between me and a director is also something different each time. Some directors have very clear ideas about what they wants, some others give you the script directly and ask you to do all by yourself. He assigns you the responsibility to take decisions choosing the shots, in some way it’s like if you direct part of the movie. Between me and a director there is an artistic exchange, you give something to him but you also get something from him, his vision, his way of tell a story and most important, you know closely a person and an artist.

MT: What are you looking for in a director?

CD: Maybe the question should be “what a director usually looks for in a storyboard artist?” I would answer that a director wants to work with a person who is able to understand his vision of a story, who is able to give ideas, understand the possible problems of a complicated scene and give solutions, be able to show with his drawings all the information that a storyboard has to provide to all the different departments in a movie productions. And above all I think a director wants to find a person to be comfortable with because he will have to spend weeks with him.

CD: I had the chance to work with so many directors, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Paul Haggis, Kevin Reynolds, Brian Helgeland, Ben Stiller and with many of them, besides a professional relationship, I cultivate a good friendship.

MT: Do you have a Storyboard mentor?

CD: Actually I have no specific mentor, I am a self taught, I learnt everything by myself. I spent hours drawing and watching movies, sectioning them, trying to learn the language of telling a story with images, the framing and the editing. There are a lot of good storyboard artists around and I like their work. Sometimes I take some inspiration from them as all the artists do with other artists’ work.

MT: You have worked on a lot of Action films. How important is the creation of the storyboard to the production team for the action and fight scenes?

CD: Very important. A storyboard is the translation of written pages in images, it’s the first virtual visualization of a story. So the director can see his movie before shooting it and explain to the producer, to the director of the photography, to the production designer and all the departments, what’s his idea of the film. Thanks to the storyboard you can also have an idea about all the problems you’ll have to deal with and find solutions before the shooting. In particular for the action scenes just because they can be very complicated to shoot, the storyboard can allow the team to prepare properly special effects, to coordinate stunts, to arrange everything that is needed, and most important to give to the producer an estimation of the costs for each scene.

MT: Besides the films you’ve worked on, what movie have you seen the most in your life?

CD: Once upon a time in America, Blade Runner.

MT: Do you have any advice for high school and university students who want to work in the film industry?

CD: As I said I am a self taught, what drove me along my life was my love for drawing and passion for movies. I can’t suggest any specific school because I don’t know it directly. My opinion is that first of all anyone who wants to work in the film industry has to have a strong will and passion for this work, no school or university can ever give you that. Of course the schools can give you the basics, the technique and teach you every other thing you need but what’s important to succeed in the film industry is the determination, the passion and the love for your job. And this is the best teaching for everything you care about in your life, always give it your best.

PHOTO: Cristiano’s Storyboards on KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. Director Ridley Scott:

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Cinematographer Jeff Cutter (10 Cloverfield Lane)

Chatting with Jeff Cutter about Cinematography and his career could have lasted all day. I generally like to limit the questions to about 10-15 when I do these film interviews because these are very busy people and generally less is more. With Jeff, I literally could have asked him 100s of questions as we were just scratching the surface. This is one of my favorite interviews to date. A must read for anyone working or wanting to work in the industry.

Jeff’s cinematography credits include “Gridiron Gang”, “Catch .44”, “Yellow”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “Playing It Cool”, and “10 Cloverfield Lane”

Matthew Toffolo: “10 Cloverfield Lane” is set to hit the theatres this week. Can you give us a sneak peak as to what to expect? How was your experience working on the film?

Jeff Cutter: Expect a taut, tense psychological thriller with 1 or 2 big surprises. I had a great time working on the film as we had a wonderful director in Dan Trachtenberg and an extremely supportive production company in Bad Robot. It was a relatively small budget, and had challenges as a result, but since it is mostly a very contained script we could maximize the resources we had.

Matthew: Do you have a favorite experience in your work as a Director of Photography? What film are you most proud of?

Jeff: I am most proud of my latest film, 10 Cloverfield Lane, because the photography is very close to what I had hoped we could achieve, and in some scenes, better than I hoped. My favorite experience was receiving an email from JJ Abrams about 2 weeks into principal photography, telling me how great he thought everything looked.

PHOTO: Still Shot from 10 Cloverfield Lane.  Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.. Director: Dan Trachtenberg

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Matthew: You have DP’d many music videos. Is this something that you’ll continue to do? Do music videos give you a lot more creative freedom to explore being it’s generally an experimental type of story being told?

Jeff: I haven’t shot a music video for almost 10 years now, which makes me feel very old! Budgets have shrunk dramatically from the heyday of music videos when I started. Back in the late 90’s and early 00’s, music videos gave you so much freedom to explore, but also the funds with which to do it. So almost any crazy idea a director came up with, you could go and do. Traditional narrative tools, like lighting continuity, or realistic lighting sources, get thrown out the window. But creative freedom doesn’t always lead to good work.

Experimenting will inevitably also lead to some very bad work as well!

Matthew: What is the key difference when working on a horror film (Orphan, Nightmare/Elm Street) in comparison to doing a straight up drama (Yellow)?

Jeff: When working on a horror film, it needs to be, first and foremost, scary. So much of the camera work and lighting is dedicated to creating/enhancing the suspense and scares. When filming a drama, you use the camera and lighting to support the narrative story.

Matthew: “Orphan” is an amazingly photographed film. It really sets the mood, tone, and themes of this film and is truly a masterful job from a cinematic level. It executes and then heightens the story to a new level. How was your collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra?

Jeff: Jaume was an extremely well planned and thoughtful director. For him, setting the overall mood was the number one priority of the camera and lighting. We watched many classic thriller and horror films, as well as less conventional ones, and discussed the feeling that Jaume was looking for in the movie. Then we mapped out the shots and techniques that would help create this feeling.

PHOTO: Still Shot from Orphan. Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

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Matthew: What type of film would you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet? Is there a shot/set-up that you’ve thought of already that you love to do in a film if it fits the story?

Jeff: I am prepping a comedy right now, and it’s my first one. It’s not that I necessarily love comedies or was dying to shoot one, but I do like the challenge of trying a new genre. If you don’t constantly challenge yourself, I believe your creative juices will stop flowing and you become complacent, and no good work comes from complacency. Whenever I shoot a film, regardless of genre, my goal is to create a film that looks different from what people expect it to. I’m not looking to do the typical, predictable thing. Of course, sometimes this results in failure, but nothing great comes from playing it safe.

Matthew: What does a DP look for in its director?

Jeff: I first and foremost look to the director for a vision of the film. When I first read a script, certain broad ideas come into my head, and then when you meet with the director, you hope those basic premises line up with what the director had in mind. Then a good director will guide you into the more specific direction he wants the film to go in terms of lighting, mood and camera work. A good director will challenge you to not settle for less than great work. A good director will pull you back when you’ve gone too far and push you when you’re being too safe. A good director will also listen to you when you know you are absolutely right and they’ve gotten something wrong! These are all the things I look for in a director.

Matthew: Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?

Jeff: I don’t have a DP mentor as such, but I do have many cinematographers who’s work I admire and reference, and whom I hope someday to be half as good as if I am lucky. Working greats like Roger Deakins, Emanuel Lubezki and Bob Richardson along with geniuses no longer with us like Conrad Hall, Jordan Croneweth and Harris Savides.

Matthew: What do you look for when hiring your main team? Gaffer. Key Grip. Camera Operator. Etc…

Jeff: I look for guys who are confident in their abilities, unfazed by last minute changes and complications, willing to contribute ideas but not be upset when they are shot down, and last but not least, pleasant to be around. When you spend 6 and 7 days a week with someone for three or four months it’s much easier when you like them!

Matthew: Where do you see the future of camera/lighting technology in film?

Jeff: In the future cameras will continue to get smaller while packing an even larger punch. And LEDs are the future for lighting. Eventually everything will be based around LEDs as they are fully dimmable, there is access to the entire color spectrum, they are light weight, can be customized into any configuration you want, and are extremely energy efficient.

Matthew: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

Jeff: There are a handful of films that I have watched multiple times because the film making is of the highest order, and they are for me examples of perfect photography. These include “Apocolypse Now”, “Angel Heart”, “Jacob’s Ladder”, “Blade Runner” and “Seven” to name a few.

Matthew: What suggestions would you have for people in high school and university who would like to get into the industry as an editor?

Jeff: My suggestions to students interested in getting into cinematography: Watch and re-watch as many great-looking movies as you can, and any movies by the great cinematographers. Find what you like, then go out and shoot as much as you can as often as you can, and start experimenting. Make friends with as many people as you can and start building a reel.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Neon Demon, The Rover)

Natasha Braier is a Director of Photography on the rise. Her list of credits is already impressive, but 2016 could be her banner year. She is set to film “American Express”, directed by Nash Edgerton and starring Charlize Theron. Her film, “The Neon Demon”, will be coming out later this year. It stars Keanu Reeves & Elle Fanning, and is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Bronson).

For more information, go to: http://www.natashabraier.com/

It was an honor to sit down with the Cinematographer:

Matthew Toffolo: Tell us about THE NEON DEMON. What should we expect to see? Nicolas is a very visual filmmaker – shows more than tells. How was your working relationship with the director?

Natasha Braier: I think working with Nicolas Winding Refn is a gift for any cinematographer, because he is interested in visual story telling, in poetry, in suggesting rather than narrating. He doesn’t care about the conventional established representational mode of film story telling, he goes beyond, and for me thats what always been exiting in film making. I always tend to look for directors that are working in this direction, but Nic is probably the most extreme of them, and that’s what I love about him. He pushes me to get the bravest part of myself, to jump the abyss, he doesn’t care if we fall and crash while trying, he would rather try and fail than to stay in a safe territory. So, I love jumping with him, and most of the time, we don’t fall but we fly.

PHOTO: Elle Fanning in “The Neon Demon”

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Matthew: You are set to DP the feature film AMERICAN EXPRESS, directed by Nash Edgerton. We showed Nash’s last short film at our festival last year. Lots of camera movement while showcasing the production design to give multiple feels and emotions to the viewer. How is your experiences in prep been so far?

Natasha: We are having a great time in prep, we start shooting tomorrow. Its very interesting that you mention about his camera movement because I love how Nash moves the camera and that’s one of the things that attract me of his work. Together with his sense of humor and his sensibility.

Matthew: After a string of successful short films, you jumped to features in 2005. How did you obtain your first feature film job? What has been the biggest thing you’ve learned as a DP in the last 11 years?

Natasha: My first film GLUE was directed by my then husband, Alexis Dos Santos.

He won a 30K development grant in Rotterdam and we shot the movie with that money plus another 15 I made on a car commercial. Glue won in Rotterdam and showed in more than 20 film festivals, Lucia Puenzo called me to do XXY after seeing Glue, so did Claudia Llosa for The Milk of Sorrow. So, that’s how it all got started.

Matthew: You still like to DP short films from time to time. What keeps inticing you to work on shorts? Do you like/love the medium?

Natasha: I shot a few in the last few years, Loxoro for my friend Claudia Llosa who I shot “Milk of Sorrow” with. I shot “Swimmer” as I admired director Lynne Ramsay who after that collaboration because a great friend. And a short film for Zegna with director Park (Chan Wook) another big hero of mine, whom I had never dreamed I would have the chance to work with. If these amazing directors are doing shorts, sure, I love shooting shorts with them. Also, short films are a format that allow for more experimentation, more poetry and freedom.

Matthew: What type of film would you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

Natasha: I would love to work with Leos Carax. And I would love to do science fiction. I guess it would be dark, arty science fiction ha .

Matthew: What does a DP look for in its director?

Natasha: Someone you respect as an artist and as a human. Someone who has something to say that I relate to and I feel I wanna help express with the tools of cinematography.

Matthew: What does a director for for in its DP?

Natasha: I guess that depends on the director.

Matthew: What do you look for when hiring your main team? Gaffer. Key Grip. Camera Operator. Etc…

Natasha: I look for the best technical expertise, an artistic eye and sensibility that resonates with mine, a passionate love for film making, and personalities I would like to have around for months.

You are creating a family that will support you not only technically but also emotionally, so the human aspect is as important as the technical one.

Matthew: Where do you see the future of camera/lighting technology in film?

Natasha: I’m very sad to see film disappearing and I feel is our responsibility to keep fighting to keep it alive and to have the option to choose what’s the best format for each project.

PHOTO: Natasha on Set of the film “The Rover”:

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Matthew: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

Natasha: Mauvais Sang, Leos Carax. I’ve seen it so many times I can probably draw it frame by frame.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Editor Jake Roberts (Oscar Nominated film BROOKLYN)

It was a pleasure to sit down with Jake Roberts, the editor of BROOKLYN, which was nominated for 3 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay). Jake has already established himself as one of the top editors in the industry. This year alone he cut two Hollywood Productions coming to a cinema near you. COMANCHERIA, starring Chris Pine & Jeff Bridges. And TRESPASS AGAINST US, starring Michael Fassbender & Brenden Gleeson.

Interview with Jake Roberts:

Matthew Toffolo: Tell us about your experiences working on “Brooklyn”? How many months do you work on editing the film? How does it feel to be the editor of an Oscar Nominated film?

Jake Roberts: ‘Brooklyn’ was a great experience. There was a really positive energy throughout the shoot and it felt like we might be working on something quite special. It was personal to a lot of the people involved and that seemed to come through in the material and that makes you want to raise your game, especially when you’re watching a performance like Saoirse’s unfold you feel a huge pressure to do it justice. Once John and I were back in London we cut for about 3 months and obviously there was plenty of back and forth but at the same time it was quite a calm and controlled process. We had a very strong first assembly and we never deviated too far from it or went down too many experimental cul-de-sacs. This is largely a testament to Nick’s script which only needed the subtlest of refinements so essentially it was about distillation, making it as tight as possible and all the while carefully calibrating the emotional journey through the performances. As for the Oscars it is all a surreal bonus, like I say you hope as you work on something that it is special and obviously a nomination suggests you did something right but the most thrilling thing is that a wide audience gets to see it and thankfully it seems we managed to strike a chord with a lot of them.

PHOTO: Still shot from BROOKLN:

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Matthew: You have worked on many documentaries. Is this something you like to continue to do?

Jake: In theory yes as documentary is so much of an editor’s medium but having fought for so long to get into features it’s difficult to turn your back on them. Certainly as a viewer I’d rather watch a great documentary than a fictional film so if the right one came along it’d be hard to say no.

Matthew: What is the key difference between working on a narrative film in comparison to a documentary?

Jake: In documentary you are creating the narrative as you go, effectively writing the script in the edit, but at the same time you are obviously constrained by your material so you have to know both how to tell the story but also how best to illustrate that within the limitations of the footage you have available. Someone once said that it’s like being given a bag of sentences and being asked to write a novel. The fact that in narrative film you get to follow a script that has been very carefully written and developed means that all that heavy lifting has been done for you and your role is just tell that story as effectively as possible.

PHOTO: Documentary film LONG WAY AROUND, starring Ewan McGregor:

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Matthew: How did you transition from working on short films to features?

Jake: The very first short film I ever cut was for the director David Mackenzie after which we made a low budget feature together, I was 23 at the time, but then David went on to make a bigger film with actual film stars and the producers insisted on a more experienced editor so I lost that relationship. I then spent years cutting every kind of project that came my way, documentaries, commercials, music videos, shorts, television drama, you name it. Basically I honed my craft and just tried to become the best editor I could always hoping I could return to features one day. Many years later David was preparing his sixth feature film and his regular editor was unavailable so we reconnected and fortunately I had gained enough experience to be given a chance by the financiers. We have now made 5 features together.

Matthew: In the last 16 years you’ve worked as an editor on over 20 productions. What film has been your favorite working experience so far?

Jake: Films are like children and like any parent you can’t really pick favourites but each has their own unique qualities. Being involved in ‘Long Way Round’ Ewan McGregor’s round the world motorbike trip was a great communal experience, working out of a garage in Shepherd’s Bush in the months before they set off we were cutting upstairs as they prepped the bikes downstairs. Everyone involved stayed up all night helping pack up the equipment the night before they left and then months later we were flown to New York to be there when they arrived. We shot ‘Tonight You’re Mine’ in 4 days at a music festival working 22 hour days which was a very intense and disorientating but bonding process. ‘Starred Up’ was shot over four weeks in Belfast but was similarly intense as David was insisting that we have all the scenes fully cut within hours of them being filmed. We were shooting completely sequentially and he wanted to have as clear an idea as possible about the shape of the film up to the scene he would be filming the next day so we basically made the film as we went. We eventually screened the entire movie at the wrap party and locked the picture 3 weeks later so it was ultimately very short and sweet. Just recently I was cutting in a log cabin in New Mexico and every Sunday we would have a barbecue and screen assemblies for the entire cast and crew, Jeff Bridges would bring his guitar. That was a lot of fun.

Matthew: What is an editor looking for in their director?

Jake: Work. No seriously I think a coherent vision that hopefully translates into the dailies and then a sense of collaboration in the cutting room. It’s definitely a conversation and I think I would struggle to work with someone who insisted on doing all the talking.

Matthew: What is a director looking for in their editor?

Jake: You’d have to ask them but I would imagine someone who brings ideas and solutions to the table but doesn’t force their agenda, merely offers it. Ultimately someone who makes them look good, which we usually do.

Matthew: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

Jake: Probably Jaws or This Is Spinal Tap.

Matthew: What type of film would you love to edit that you haven’t worked on yet?

Jake: I’d love to do a kids film so that my children might be allowed to see what I do for a living.

Matthew: What suggestions would you have for people in high school and university who would like to get into the industry as an editor?

Jake: Start early. I can only speak from my own experience but if you’re clear about what you want to do then I wouldn’t waste time getting a media studies degree, you’re going to have to work for nothing to get started anyway so better to do it at 18 than 22. Get any practical experience you can, firstly to make sure this is really something you want to do, it’s going to take a lot of work and sacrifice so make sure you’re suited to it. Approach established professionals directly and tell them you want to do what they do, most will try and help in some way even if it’s just a cup of coffee and some advice, I always do. Try to edit rather than assist. Personally I think you’d learn more cutting a zero budget music video than you would assisting on a big budget feature. Even if you’re at the bottom of the ladder doing very basic tasks do them as well as humanly possible, listen to any instructions very carefully and never think of anything as beneath you or not worth trying over. Care. I once had to edit 9 hours of obese women discussing their bras in a focus group but I treated it like I was making art. You never know where the contacts who can ultimately give you a break might come from. It might be the guy directing the corporate video you’re working on? He might be making a feature in a few years so do an incredible job and he might remember you. If you are always creative, reliable, conscientious and good company doors will eventually open I promise.

PHOTO: Saorse Ronan in BROOKLYN: 

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.