Cinematographers & Cameras: Sharing Insights Into The Lensing of "Cyrano" and "Belfast"
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (l) and director Joe Wright on the set of "Cyrano" (photo by Peter Mountain/courtesy of MGM)
DPs discuss their collaborative relationships with directors Joe Wright, Kenneth Branagh

There are a couple of parallels between the two DPs in this latest installment of SHOOT’s Cinematographers & Cameras Series.

For one, both lensers are in the current awards season conversation for their efforts on lauded films.

And secondly, those artistic efforts were both for directors with whom the cinematographers enjoy long-time collaborative relationships.

Here are insights from Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC on Cyrano (MGM, United Artists Releasing), and Haris Zambarloukos, BSC, GSC on Belfast (Focus Features).

Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC
The classic tale of Cyrano de Bergerac from the play written by Edmond Rostand in 1897 has proven to be timeless. The premise of a man who harbors love for a woman--all the while thinking that he was unworthy of her love due to his physical appearance--especially stirred director Joe Wright when he saw Erica Schmidt’s musical staging of the epic story at a theater in Connecticut in which Peter Dinklage played Cyrano opposite Haley Bennett as Roxanne. Wright was deeply moved and he enlisted Schmidt to write a bold new film adaptation, yielding Cyrano with a cast headed by Dinklage and Bennett.

The lineup of characters also includes the powerful Duke De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), a wealthy, egomaniacal suitor enamored with Roxanne, and Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a King’s Guard recruit who serves under Cyrano. Christian shares with Cyrano and Roxanne a common bond of failing to make a true connection. Christian’s handsome physical appearance stirs Roxanne and she pleads with Cyrano to watch over and protect him. Cyrano pledges to do so and encourages Christian to woo Roxanne with love letters. These wise and witty letters, though, are penned by Cyrano, leading Roxanne to mistakenly feel a soulful bond with her good-looking suitor. But romance, real or imagined, falls by the wayside as war breaks out. Together and apart our protagonists experience happiness, despair, denial, discovery and destinies beyond what they envisioned for themselves.

Key for Wright to realizing what he hoped would be his destiny of bringing his interpretation of “Cyrano” to fruition in the midst of the COVID pandemic was reuniting with trusted collaborators--a prime one being cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC. 

McGarvey has twice been nominated for Best Cinematography Oscars--for the Wright films Atonement and Anna Karenina. The DP has lensed five of Wright’s features. “We have a kind of trust and clear-sighted conversation that continues to this day,” Wright told SHOOT. “He is a master. But there’s something about Seamus’ work that is always deeply humane.”

McGarvey related, “Joe and I have been friends for 30 years. There’s nothing better than going into the fray of making a film with somebody you have an immediate and well-founded rapport with. That’s the exciting thing about working with Joe. You can feel free to suggest ideas that can be absorbed, reflected or rejected. He’s an auteur but also somebody who loves the democracy of ideas from collaborators. He’s open to contributions from collaborators around the table.”

McGarvey added, “The great thing about Joe is he has such a great way of distilling the kaleidoscope of ideas of collaborators into something unabashedly and absolutely a Joe Wright film.”

Wright’s openness, continued McGarvey, also extends to dealing with the unexpected and the gift of serendipity. “Joe makes films with a lot of preparation and thought that go into them sequence by sequence,” noted McGarvey. “There’s never a scattergun approach. The foundations are passionately led well in advance. But he is also somebody who enjoys the accident of the moment, the accident of performance, light and location, compromises that might have to be made, that sometimes affect a scene. Joe is able to go with the flow of what happens when you start shooting the film. He’s a juggernaut. And there’s a constant communication between us.”

Communication became all the more essential when shooting a film in the midst of a pandemic. A bubble for cast and crew was created in Noto, a town in southeastern Sicily, Italy. The artists became a close-knit group during production there.

Plus Wright took on Cyrano as a musical--but a different kind of musical, which presented its own set of challenges. Wright wanted the songs to feel natural and integrated into the drama. This wasn’t your typical musical. There was no big fanfare, no major song and then a return to the story. Rather the drama, the characters, the story always took priority.

McGarvey saw the film going from romance and softness to the harshness of reality. There was a frivolity to the story at the beginning of the musical, a warmth and kind of “languid lyricism” to the cinematography. The first part of Cyrano was shot with the conscious decision to diffuse the image. Towards that end, McGarvey deployed Christian Dior #10 Denier stockings which work well when shooting large format (ARRI Alexa LF) with Leica lenses. Those lenses are inherently quite sharp so the stockings helped take the edge off to create more romance. 

Then when the story evolves into war, the images become crisp as the lenses are used to their full capacity. For McGarvey, the final battle sequences were the most physically demanding of his career in that they were shot up the side of Mount Etna, an active stratavolcano on the east coast of Sicily. Furthermore the weather had turned unseasonably cold and snow began to fall. With molten lava beneath the land’s surface, the snow would start to melt, making conditions uniquely difficult. “It was tough physically just getting up there to begin with,” recalled McGarvey. “But somehow that lends an authenticity that Joe Strives for, an emotional authenticity, seeing soldiers who are freezing, wet and hungry. If that had been done on a backlot or bluescreen, you would not see that on their faces.”

Shortly after shooting wrapped, Mount Etna erupted, covering the sets in ash. The crew had to quickly evacuate.

After the battle came a return, near the end of the film, to a bit of image diffusion. But this time the camera movement shifts from fluidity to reflect that things have become more anchored.

McGarvey credited a brilliant crew with making it all doable, including his longtime colleagues on Wright films, production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer.  Greenwood is a six-time Academy Award nominee for Best Production Design--four for Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina and Darkest Hour. Nominated with Greenwood each time was her long-time creative partner, Spencer.

The experience of making Cyrano is one that will stay with McGarvey. “The period prior to shooting Cyrano had been the worst of the lockdown,” he recalled. “The great aspect of that was it was a time for reflections about your life. You’ve been running and running, and suddenly there’s no choice but to force self-reflection. It was the first time in 25 years that I wasn’t working--and then I went into this film. I suddenly approached this film with a certain amount of fear (over the pandemic)--but also the sensation of making something really special. I loved the script so much. It has loads of life.”

McGarvey added that in the final scene you can’t help but think of “the fugitive nature of time and what you should say or should have said. That’s something I took away from the film. It’s about saying what you mean, expressing yourself truthfully and not obfuscating or beating around the bush--or avoiding things or procrastinating. All of those things that COVID taught me during lockdown are echoed in this film.”

McGarvey is also a two-time ASC Award nominee--for Atonement and Anna Karenina. Additionally he was nominated for an Emmy on the strength of the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive,” directed by Wright. Beyond his collaborations with Wright--which also include The Soloist and Pan--McGarvey’s extensive filmography includes: a Best Cinematography BAFTA Film Award-nominated and BSC Award-winning turn on Nocturnal Animals, a BSC Award-nominated effort on Bad Times at the El Royale, and such work as The Greatest Showman, The Avengers, The Hours, High Fidelity, Charlotte’s Web, The War Zone, Sahara, Nowhere Boy, Fifty Shades of Grey, World Trade Center, Butterfly Kiss and The Winter Guest. Upcoming is director Paul King’s Wonka starring Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Colman and Sally Hawkins.

Haris Zambarloukos, BSC, GSC
Writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast has already earned honors for the black-and-white cinematography (with some impactful, relatively brief color work) of Haris Zambarloukos, BSC, GSC--including a Golden Frog nomination at Camerimage as well as nods for both a British Independent Film Award and a Critics Choice Award. 

A coming-of-age tale set in late 1960s’ Northern Ireland, Belfast introduces us to Buddy (portrayed by Jude Hill), a lad living with his mother (Caitriona Balfe), father (Jamie Dornan), brother (Lewis McAskie) and grandparents (Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds) during “the Troubles” when neighborhood streets turned into war zones as unrest grew between Catholics and Protestants. Belfast shows us this era as seen largely through the eyes of a child, Buddy, and has a semi-autobiographical bent informed to some extent by Branagh’s experiences as a youngster. The story first and foremost is about the love and resilience of a family, showing how that deep bond survives universal struggles. 

Belfast continues a working relationship between Branagh and Zambarloukos which dates back to the 2007 release Sleuth. The shared director-cinematographer filmography also includes Thor, Cinderella, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Murder on the Orient Express, and the upcoming Death on the Nile. Back in 2017, Branagh and Zambarloukos received the Camerimage Cinematographer-Director Duo Award.

“It’s a real privilege to work with Ken, a consummate storyteller,” affirmed Zambarloukos. “In that respect I feel like we always start from the beginning. We assume nothing about the story we’re going to tell--even if it’s one in this case that he’s written himself and is about his own life. We still immerse ourselves in discovering a film and the language we need to use.”

Zambarloukos could relate to the Belfast story, recalling that he was a child in Cypress when Turkey invaded in 1974. He thus experienced a military presence around him as a youngster. “We wanted to tell a story--not just about his (Branagh’s) city but everyone’s city,” shared Zambarloukos. “It’s a tribute to parenthood, to parents who protect the innocence of a family even through difficult times.”

Belfast marked the first film that Branagh and Zambarloukos shot together digitally. As for the decision to go that route, Zambarloukos said they “arrived at the same conclusion quite quickly” along with embracing black-and-white imagery, the latter desirable for its ability to capture and delve deeply into emotions without distraction. As for digital, it afforded the luxury of running the camera for longer stretches of time which can be advantageous with a child actor. While Hill is a talented young performer, Zambarloukos observed that it helps to make a 10 year old feel at home and relaxed, not always aware of the camera, even running it when he isn’t looking and not so conscious of what’s going on.

Zambarloukos also liked the nimbleness of the Mini Alexa LF, enabling him to shoot as silently and unobtrusively as possible which dovetails well when working with a minimal crew during the pandemic.

The alluded to color photography came in the film’s opening in the form of a visual love letter of sorts to the city of Belfast. Color also appeared when Buddy’s love of cinema comes to the fore as we see excerpts from such films as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years B.C. which made an impression on the youngster.

Color photography, though, wasn’t confined to just the scenes which appeared in color.

Color photography was also deployed for the black-and-white scenes, which constituted the lion’s share of Belfast. Shooting black-and-white in color was Zambarloukos’ preference due to the flexibility that afforded him in postproduction. In the DI, the DP explained that he has more precise control over tones of gray. “I can separate a particular color and give it a specific tonal value in gray,” said Zambarloukos who would not have that option if he instead just went with the installation of a black-and-white sensor on a digital camera. By shooting color for black-and-white, he can assign where in the gray scale something is visually such as the sky, clothing and people’s faces.

Speaking of faces, Zambarloukos often couldn’t see the faces of his crew colleagues. That was in large part because during the pandemic, the cast was unmasked and had to be protected. And in that this was one of the early shoots coming out of lockdown, still in the pre-vaccination stage, protocols were stringent and very much on the side of caution. “It was harder to communicate with a mask on. There was extensive sanitizing of the equipment. When we went for breakfast or lunch, we had to sit in a cubicle with a shower curtain around us. All these procedures broke the flow of what we’re used to--and the flow of work that we’re used to.”

The inherent nature of Belfast, though, lent itself to the conditions in a way. “There was a simplicity in our approach to Belfast, a minimalism that we were forced to use but turned out to be sort of joyful and playful. We were free to tell the story in a simple way, which as it turned out was best for the story. There was so much beauty in the words, so much drama in the performance that every time I tried to add a little bit, it felt wrong, like I was intruding. Less was better. The less we did, the more immersive the experience for the audience.” 

Belfast has made a major mark on the awards show circuit, named one of the top ten films of the year by the National Board of Review, receiving a special prize from the American Film Institute, and winning the People’s Choice Award at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

The People’s Choice Award is often a harbinger of things to come at the Academy Awards. Over the past decade-plus, every People’s Choice Award winner has gone on to earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination. In 2020 that was Nomadland which wound up winning the Best Picture Oscar, following in the footsteps of such People’s Choice Award-winning features as Green Book, 12 Years a Slave, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech.

Besides his work with Branagh, Zambarloukos earned a British Independent Film Award nomination for his lensing of director Roger Michell’s Enduring Love, and an Australian Film Institute Award nom for Gillian Armstrong’s Death Defying Acts. Other credits for the DP include Locke from director Steven Knight, and the Phyllida Lloyd’s Mama Mia!


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