Cinematographer Dick Pope, BSC is a two-time Oscar nominee, for Neil Burger’s The Illusionist in 2007 and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner in 2015. Edward Norton starred in The Illusionist and now Pope finds his latest collaboration with the actor, Motherless Brooklyn (Warner Bros.), in the awards season conversation. Norton not only stars in the film, but also wrote, directed and produced it.
Norton portrays Lionel Essrog, a lone wolf private detective living with Tourette Syndrome. He looks to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Essrog brings his obsessive mind to bear on the mystery which carries him from jazz clubs in Harlem to slums in Brooklyn and finally into the gilded halls of New Yorks power brokers in the 1950s. Motherless Brooklyn is based on the book of the same title, authored by Jonathan Lethem, but Norton took that contemporary tale to the ‘50s with a revised plot.
Pope began his career as a documentary film cameraman, working for many companies, including the BBC, traveling the world to remote and inaccessible areas, including war zones. He specialized in shooting films about endangered indigenous tribes such as Disappearing World; highly political films like World in Action; and TV arts programs such as The South Bank Show.
From the late 1970s through the early `80s, Pope shot hundreds of concerts, many for the Old Grey Whistle Test, and music videos for bands and artists as diverse as Queen, Freddie Mercury, Tina Turner, The Clash, The Specials, The Police, Neil Young, and AC/DC. In the mid-’80s he moved into TV drama and feature films, lensing, among others, Porterhouse Blue, for which he was BAFTA Award-nominated, and Philip Ridley’s Reflecting Skin.
In 1990, Pope was asked by director Leigh to serve as the cinematographer on Life is Sweet, beginning a long and successful collaboration that has since included the features Naked, Topsy-Turvy, Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year, Mr. Turner and Peterloo. Pope has twice won the top prize at Camerimage, the Festival of the Art of Cinematography, for Vera Drake and Secrets & Lies, and, in 1999, Leigh and Pope were recognized at the Festival with a major award for their career collaboration.
The Illusionist not only garnered an Oscar nod for Pope but also ASC and BSC Award nominations, as well as a Camerimage Silver Frog. In addition to an Academy Award nomination, Mr Turner fetched a BSC Award, the Royal Photographic society Lumiere Award and the Prix Vulcaine for the Technical Artist at the Cannes Film Festival--as well as noms for BAFTA, British Independent Film and ASC Awards.
Pope’s feature filmography also includes work for such directors as Richard Linklater, Barry Levinson, John Sayles, Christopher McQuarrie, and Jill Sprecher. In recent years, Pope has photographed Legend, about the notorious Kray Brothers, written and directed by Brian Helgeland; Angelica for Mitchell Lichtenstein, the son of painter Roy Lichtenstein; and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the debut directorial film for actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, filmed in Malawi, Africa.
SHOOT: Provide some backstory. How did you get the opportunity to shoot Motherless Brooklyn.
Pope: I first met Edward when he played the lead role in The Illusionist. He had liked my work with Mike Leigh, especially Naked, Vera Drake and Topsy-Turvy. We got on really well during production and he was very supportive of my cinematography on the film. After that we stayed in touch and about three years ago, he sent me the script for Motherless Brooklyn. Towards the end of 2017, whilst I was shooting in Malawi on The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, I received a call from Edward saying the project had suddenly become fully financed and was ready to go. So when I wrapped in sun-baked Africa, I headed straight to the winter-depths of Manhattan to commence prep.
SHOOT: What attracted you to the film?
Pope: First and foremost, the idea of working with him again on his home turf in New York, but this time also as director and writer, and the script for the film made a terrific read. He also sent me an inspiring “look book” full of photographic ideas. It was clear he had a singular vision of how he wanted his movie to look.
SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest creative challenge(s) that Motherless Brooklyn posed to you as a cinematographer?
Pope: Bringing to the screen and matching the cinematic expectation of the film that Edward had lived with and dreamt about for nearly 20 years. The gathered experience and knowledge from my previous films that I brought with me obviously mattered, but every film presents a new and different challenge and therefore my approach differed accordingly. Motherless Brooklyn set in 1950s’ New York demanded a totally different period feel to any of my other work to date, and the lighting choices I made reflect that. Of course, lighting was a key element in achieving the noir look and I was in my element here because I love sculpting scenes with light to create the right mood, and Edward was 100% supportive of what I wanted to do in order to achieve this
SHOOT: Would you give us a sense of the process or nature of the creative collaboration you had with Edward Norton as a director on Motherless Brooklyn?
Pope: Soon after arriving in New York in December ‘17 and during the Christmas holiday hiatus, I went to Edward’s apartment everyday for a week, and we spent the time together going through the entire script in detail. By the end of that week I had a pretty thorough idea of what he wanted. I was struck by the intensity of his personal vision--and his desire to imbue each frame with a painterly lushness. He wanted the patina of old cinema but without feeling like it had a treatment. The visual aesthetic for the film was inspired by a plethora of wonderful images--movies, paintings but above all photos--of New York in the 1940s and ’50s, by street photographers such as Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier and Robert Frank. We brought to life about eight of these classic photos from this era by re-imagining them and incorporating them into the film. Edward also had many archive press photos and un-credited stills of Manhattan, Harlem and Brooklyn, some featuring landmarks such as Brooklyn Bridge and the original Penn Railroad Station before it was torn down in 1963. The stills of Penn were in particular a great source of inspiration in the way I approached its lighting when we recreated it.
Paintings, such as Edward Hopper’s 1942 Nighthawks, were also evocative of what we wanted to achieve in terms of palette and composition; desaturated colors but with strong yellows and reds, shadows and darkness, reflections, negative space, the sensation of Lionel’s loneliness and isolation. We looked at ‘50s New York films such as Sweet Smell of Success. “Noir” was to be a big element in the film.
SHOOT: Shed some light on your choice of camera(s) and lenses and why?
Pope: I shot 1.85:1 Open Gate on ARRI Alexa Mini cameras out of Panavision New York, harnessing the camera’s small size and profile for ease of movement around some of the tighter sets, along with Panavision’s bespoke cage system offering multiple fixing points enabling the cameras to be easily set-up for interior car work. For a mid-century feel, I chose the Cooke Panchro/iClassic lenses--a modern redesign of the vintage Panchro classics, which I had used on Mr. Turner--mainly deploying the 27, 32 and 40mm focal lengths for the shoot. These new lenses have similar characteristics to the earlier Panchros, such as glass aberrations and focus fall-off helping to recreate the same look and feel as the originals, but with the advantage of modern glass and mounts for today’s latest cameras.
SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest takeaway(s) or lesson(s) learned from your experience on Motherless Brooklyn?
Pope: One of the many pleasures of the film for me was conversing with Edward the director one second, then watching him disappear into Lionel the next. As an actor, he has an instinctive relationship with the camera and when he was performing, you could sense him feeling the placement of the cameras and making the best use of angles, not just for him, but for everyone in front of the lens. It was simply intuitive.