One DP finds himself in the awards season conversation for his fruitful collaboration with a first-time feature director.
Another brought his experience in stylized fare for the likes of Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Gore Verbinski to a western directed and co-written by a filmmaker known for his documentary sensibilities.
And our third cinematographer has put an indelible mark on a cult favorite TV series which started on TBS and ultimately ended up on HBO Max.
Here are insights from Benjamin Kracun on Promising Young Woman (Focus Features), Dariusz Wolski, ASC on News of the World (Universal Pictures), and Jonathan Furmanski on Search Party.
Gearing up for Promising Young Woman, her feature directorial debut, Emerald Fennell--who first established herself as an actor spanning TV and films, and a writer (on such TV series as The Drifters and writer/producer on Killing Eve)--knew first-hand the importance of selecting the right collaborators. And for her, among them was cinematographer Kracun. Fennell had worked with Kracun on a short-form project, a three-minute piece to be shown at a TED Conference, liked him and was drawn in particular to his work on Beats, for which he won a British Independent Film Award (BIFA) in 2019 for Best Cinematography. “He made that movie look spectacular,” Fennell told SHOOT, adding, “I was a first-time film director in Los Angeles shooting my baby. I knew my DP was important, someone whom I could have an easy shorthand with. If your relationship with a DP isn’t easy, it slows everything down. Ben is a combination of being talented and great fun to be around. He could help me get the kind of performances I wanted and he could make the set itself a fun place to work, which is needed.”
Kracun in turn was impressed when he read Fennell’s script for Promising Young Woman. “It was such a page turner,” he assessed. “The last 30 pages, the plot twist. You don’t get scripts like that. It got me thinking about how we could pull this off.”
Clearly, they successfully did just that as reflected in early awards show returns, including recent Film Independent Spirit Awards nominations for Best Female Lead for Carey Mulligan, as well as Best Director and Best Screenplay for Fennell. Mulligan earlier won for Best Actress and Fennell for Best Screenplay at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards.
Mulligan stars as Cassie, a medical school dropout whose once promising prospects have fallen off a cliff. She’s working at a coffee house and spends her free time either moping about or pretending to be blind drunk at nightclubs where she ultimately shames guys who try to take advantage of her seemingly impaired state. It’s an inexplicably strange double-life until we become privy to what made her quit med school, a despicable trauma suffered by her dear friend and fellow student, Nina, years ago. This genre-busting film plays at times like a dark comedy, a comic tragedy, a thriller, a psychological tale that perfectly dovetails with the #MeToo era, all the above and more.
Fennell credited Kracun as being “essential” in making the ambitious Promising Young Woman work within the confines of just 23 shoot days. Kracun noted that extensive prep made that doable--as did open discussion between him and the director relative to shooting approach. “I was keen to shoot anamorphic when I read it,” recalled Kracun. “The story has a fairytale fantasy element. Anamorphic helped to skew slightly away from the real world which this film should do. It deals with an issue in our society but treated in a much different way. It’s a psychological thriller, beautiful, seductive. Anamorphic helped merge you into that world.”
Kracun said that Fennell initially was leaning towards spherical rather than anamorphic. But they ultimately gravitated to the latter. Kracun went with the ARRI Alexa Mini camera, explaining that it was a package with which he was comfortable and he wanted that familiarity when jumping into a time-challenged schedule. A day of camera tests translated into Kracun opting for Panavision G series lenses in part because they would soften the digital image slightly, contributing to a pleasing aesthetic while retaining an edge--sort of parallel to Mulligan’s character of Cassie. Her performance had to be front and center, not the cinematography, and Kracun found ways to enhance Mulligan’s stellar work.
He would at times light Mulligan from above to create a halo effect around her head, an appealing quasi-angelic counterpoint to her darker side. Kracun also perhaps benefited from a female touch while tethered to Mulligan’s performance as his immediate collaborators were Fennell and a camera department primarily crewed by women, including 1st assistant cameraperson Sarah Brandes, loader Laterrian Officer-McIntosh and 2nd assistant Rochelle Brown.
“A lot of my previous work is a bit darker, playing more with shadows,” related Kracun. “I really loved the chance to kind of dive in and embrace a much brighter, softer image in a way. We were playing two cards--beautiful and dangerous--at the same time.”
Meanwhile Cassie’s darker intentions were also deftly reflected in the lensing. Drawing viewers into the story was an intentional awkwardness coupled and then replaced with an almost predatory camera perspective when she goes on an evening’s mission to hoodwink a young man into thinking she’s drunk. The halo effect is exchanged for the character becoming an avenging angel at times.
The movie’s dark tone lent itself on occasion to a more mischievous, off-the-beaten-path use of focus and framing. For example, the opening club scene captured men on the dance floor the way “hot” girls are often displayed and lensed in that scenario. The guys at times are gyrating awkwardly about, underscoring the ridiculousness of the situation
The G series anamorphic lenses and the Alexa sensor translated into a filmic combination, related Kracun who also wanted to bring the audience directly into the story in ways that went beyond the predatory orientation. He cited a scene where Mulligan and a friend she hadn’t seen for many years, Madison portrayed by Alison Brie, are in a restaurant. A long frame with what seems like vast space, he said, makes the viewer feel as if situated at a table to the left or right of them. The audience is brought into this world as the story unfolds with atypical twists and turns.
As writer-director, Fennell provided a commanding vision that drove the film, said Kracun. “She’s so confident and on top of everything. She was also seven months pregnant while shooting this movie. She did not waver at any point. She was all over it in a way that was powerful to see. When a director is so specific and meticulous, you can really start to build on that. She would throw me the ball. I would throw her the ball back and we would build and build and build.”
Promising Young Woman adds to a body of work for Kracun that is highlighted by: For Those in Peril which premiered at the 2013 Cannes International Film Festival and won Best Debut at BIFA along with two BAFTA Scotland Awards, including Best Film; Hyena which debuted at the Toronto International Film Fest in 2014; the documentary Dark Horse, winner of the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and then released by Sony Pictures Classics; Beast which rolled out at Toronto in 2017 and then Sundance early the following year, launching the career of its star Jessie Buckley and going on to garner three BAFTA Film Award nominations (including Best British Film and Best Debut), 10 BIFA awards and three London Critics Circle Awards; and the aforementioned Beats, which earned him Best Cinematography distinction at the 2019 BIFA awards. Beats centered on the 1990s rave scene and was lauded for its authentic depiction of that world.
Kracun has also set the look of several high-end TV dramas including Dublin Murders and The Tunnel. He additionally lensed multiple episodes of last year’s HBO miniseries The Third Day, produced by Plan B Entertainment.
Dariusz Wolski, ASC
News of the World marks the first collaboration between cinematographer Wolski and director Paul Greengrass. It also is the first western for both.
Wolski was drawn to working with Greengrass, seeing a potential mesh of styles and orientations that appealed to him creatively. Wolski observed that he is known for working with such directors as Ridley Scott (The Martian, All The Money in the World, Prometheus, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counselor, Alien: Covenant), Gore Verbinski (The Mexican, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), and the late, great Tony Scott (The Fan, Crimson Tide which earned Wolski an ASC Award nomination)--all associated with a stylized, commercial and grand approach to cinema.
Greengrass by contrast comes from a documentary approach to filmmaking. Wolski said he was intrigued by the prospect of combining those distinctly different worlds in News of the World.
As for how Greengrass’ world affected him, Wolski observed, “Maybe I quieted down the camera a little more, was less hectic.”
Wolski selected the ARRI Alexa Mini LF camera for News of the World, coupled with Angenieux zooms and on occasion, when additional exposure was needed, Panavision vintage prime lenses which can open up fairly wide to capture natural light. Wolski did not deploy cranes or sophisticated equipment, affirming his belief in simplicity and the virtues that can be realized by sometimes restraining yourself.
Wolski added that he did turn to a bit more Steadicam than Greengrass was accustomed to using but it was all in the interest of doing justice to the story.
Greengrass observed that the dynamic handheld work for which he’s known benefited from the classical feel Wolski brought to it. Ultimately, commented Wolski, “Every movie finds its own style, coming from reading the script, talking with the director.”
Wolski dismissed what he regards as the misnomer that a good director gives creative freedom to his collaborators.
The DP explained, “We are both experienced filmmakers. It’s not about giving each other creative freedom. It’s about responding to each other’s instincts.”
Set in the post-Civil War era, News of the World introduces us to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a Confederacy veteran, whose profession is that of a non-fiction storyteller, moving from town to town, sharing the news of presidents and queens, glorious feuds, devastating catastrophes and gripping adventures from the far reaches of the globe. As he travels in the backwoods to reach his next town hall gig where he will regale attendees with stirring stories directly from the pages of newspapers, Kidd crosses paths with a stranded Johanna (portrayed by Helena Zengel), a 10-year old taken by the Kiowa native tribe six years earlier (after the murder of her parents) and raised as one of their own. Johanna, hostile to a world she’s never experienced and dealing with the trauma of being ripped away from two families, is being returned to her biological aunt and uncle against her will. Kidd agrees to deliver the orphaned child to where the law says she belongs. As they travel hundreds of miles into the unforgiving wilderness, the two face tremendous challenges of both human and natural forces as they search for a place that either can call home. In the process, they form a lasting bond.
While he enjoyed capturing the feel of a western, Wolski related that he had to do justice to the project as a character study.
“It’s about people, particularly the combination of these two traveling together,” he said, describing the movie as “visually very subtle, simple yet beautiful.” While he looked at certain westerns he admired for a point of reference such as John Ford’s The Searchers (lensed by Winton C. Hoch) or the more modern cinema examples such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (directed by Andrew Dominik and shot by Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, CBE), Wolski noted that at the end of the day, you process what others have done, perhaps affected by it on a subconscious level but proceeding based on your own artistic instincts and sensibilities.
Production designer David Crank, who too marked News of the World as his first western, cited his creative collaboration with Wolski as invaluable. Crank had the daunting task of recreating Texas after the Civil War for News of the World, doing justice to each distinct stop on the journey of Captain Kidd and Johanna. “Every town had a reason for being there. Every town stands for something. You had to come up with a look based on understanding the world and character of that town,” said Crank who extensively researched Reconstruction Texas, culling through historic photos of people and their environments.
Many of the Texas settings along the way were meticulously created in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Bonanza Creek Ranch served as a hub of sorts.
The variety tackled by Crank ranged from small bustling towns to God-forsaken locales. There was a treacherous rocky hillside that Kidd and Johanna had to navigate in a rickety wagon and then on foot to elude and ultimately confront a violent group of attackers. There were vast stretches of plains and swiftly disappearing Indian country, a rough-and-tumble manufacturing town, ad hoc military outposts, an old school that Crank remodeled to become a windswept Spanish style cathedral, a Spanish pueblo abode in Santa Fe that was converted into Kidd’s San Antonio home, and the high-maintenance, always work-to-be-done farm maintained with a stoic hand by Johanna’s aunt and uncle.
Being able to have a continuous dialogue and rapport with Wolski made a major positive difference to Crank. “Dariusz was with me in Santa Fe about two months ahead of production. We scouted a huge amount together, talking about things, and a lot kind of organically came out of that. It was unusual to have a DP there but it was quite a luxury.”
In addition to the aforementioned ASC Award nomination in 1996 for Crimson Tide, Wolski has garnered assorted other honors which include several from Camerimage, earning nominations in 2015 for his lensing of The Martian and director Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, and last year for his cinematography on the pilot (directed by Ridley Scott) for Raised by Wolves. In 2009, Camerimage bestowed upon Wolski a career honor--a Special Award recognizing a Polish Cinematographer for Immense Contribution to the Art of Film.
Furmanski has shot all but two episodes of Search Party over its four seasons thus far.
He lensed the first two seasons (2016 and ‘17) of the TBS show. Three years later, Search Party returned but on a new platform, HBO Max. Two of the season three installments were lensed by Kat Westergaard, the rest by Furmanski who also shot all of the current season which debuted last month.
Created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter, Search Party became a cult favorite right out of the gate, following a group of goofy, self-absorbed friends who find themselves in ever-deeper water trying to find an acquaintance from college who’s disappeared.
In many respects, each season has been akin to a new show unto itself while at the same time all staying connected. That dynamic has in a sense represented the biggest creative challenge for Furmanski who has been integral to creating, developing, evolving and fine turning the look and feel of the show throughout its run.
Season one had an undercurrent of foreboding with some Scooby Doo overtones as the gang tries to solve the mystery within their world.
Season two had a Hitchcockian bent with lead character Dory (portrayed by Alia Shawkat) descending into a psychotic mess while dealing with the aftermath of a murder.
Season three played like a courtroom drama while the season that just rolled out is a crime comedy of sorts.
Still, related Furmanski, Search Party is trying to be one story over the years, not an anthology.
“You watch the pilot and go all the way through season four and it seems like one experience. But each season has its own feel and identity. Our challenge is to push the individual visual language in each season but still make the overall show cohesive.”
Serving the show well in retrospect, said Furmanski, was that when the pilot was done, the story of that first season--as well as the photography--had not been fully mapped out. Still, there were some definite feelings that its creators knew had to be part of the series’ fabric. “What we knew at that point was we wanted to create a sense of unease and uncertainty, reflecting the idea that the friends are a little bit rudderless--Dory being the greatest example of that as she looked for her place and purpose in the world. Something always felt a little off. But with all the uncertainty, the show is firmly a comedy despite the fact that there’s murder and kidnapping. It’s a balancing act between thriller and comedy.”
Furmanski noted that Search Party, except for the pilot which was shot on film, has been a two digital camera show, mostly to guarantee that actor performances are captured, “making sure in scenes for example where we have four characters at a table, we have the option to see what everybody is doing at that time. Every take is hilarious and different.”
The series norm has been the deployment of two ARRI Amira cameras or an Amira as the “A” camera and an ARRI Alexa as the “B” camera. The versatility and mobility of the cameras was one of the deciding factors, explained Furmanski, enabling him and his team to get in characters’ faces in a way that a larger camera profile could not provide.
First and foremost, stressed Furmanski, is that the cinematography not get in the way of story and performances. “Everybody I talk to raves about the show,” he shared. “They are not necessarily raving about the photography. They are raving about the performances, the writing and the perspective that the show has. It has a sensibility, tone and point of view you don’t see very often. When working with people as talented, smart and friendly as our creators, head writer and cast, you get fulfilled in a way that most jobs don’t allow. That’s what brings us happiness and satisfaction.”
From a career perspective, also gratifying to Furmanski has been the range of projects and disciplines he gets to work on from features such as Good Boys, produced by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, to TV comedies like Inside Amy Schumer, The Detour, Little America and Search Party, and documentary features including The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, May It Last, 30 for 30: Doc & Darryl, The Family Business: Trump and Taxes, and Big Men.
“Many cinematographers get pigeonholed. I’ve been able to avoid that. It’s almost accidental the way that’s happened,” said Furmanski. “I had no ambition to be a documentary cameraman but fell into it because a guy I used to be a camera assistant for started to get narrative film jobs--so he started to send me his documentary clients.
“I found documentary filmmaking to be rewarding and fulfilling in a way that narrative isn’t. Years later, my girlfriend at the time was working on a comedy show. The director wanted it to look like a documentary. She suggested, ‘Hire my boyfriend who’s a documentary cameraman.’ I got that opportunity and approached that comedy as if it were a documentary. I took my documentary knowledge, adjusted and moderated it to fit the needs of a scripted show.”
From this in turn emerged other opportunities. “That led to me doing more scripted comedy, and then back into documentaries,” noted Furmanski. “Then Good Boys happened as a direct result of my work on Search Party. And then Little America resulted from Good Boys. One experience informs another.”