Thursday, July 19, 2018
  • Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017
DPs Takayanagi, Davis Reflect On "Hostiles," "Three Billboards"
Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, ASC (l) and writer/director Scott Cooper on location for "Hostiles" (photo by Lorey Sabastian/courtesy of Entertainment Studios)
Cinematographers share insights into working relationships with directors Cooper, McDonagh
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Cinematographers Masanobu Takayanagi, ASC, and Ben Davis, BSC, enjoy close collaborative relationships, respectively, with writers/directors Scott Cooper and Martin McDonagh. Most recently, Takayanagi teamed with Cooper on Hostiles (Entertainment Studios) while Davis lensed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight), for McDonagh. Both films are in the Oscar conversation this awards season. SHOOT connected with the DPs to gain insights into the dramas as well as the creative challenges they posed in terms of the cinematography.

Hostiles is the third feature Takayanagi has lensed for Cooper, the first two being Out of the Furnace and Black Mass. The cinematographer and Cooper have developed a shorthand in recent years over the course of their ongoing collaborative relationship, so much so that Takayanagi immediately knew the priority upon reading the script for Hostiles. 

“For Scott, it’s about the emotion of the journey,” observed Takayanagi. “It’s challenging to show emotion in photography but that’s what we strive to do with a thoughtful approach to the project.”

Set in 1892, the emotional journey in Hostiles tells the story of an Army captain (portrayed by Christian Bale) who is ordered to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to tribal lands. At first Bale’s character wants no part of the assignment, believing that it’s wrong to reward the Cheyenne whom he regards as a savage murderer. But as a captain, he is compelled to comply and do his duty. Making the harrowing journey from Fort Berringer, an isolated Army outpost in New Mexico, to the grasslands of Montana, the former rivals encounter a young widow (Rosamund Pike) whose family was massacred on the plains. Forced together by circumstance, this group must face punishing terrain and weather, hostile Comanche warriors and varied other perils.

The journey Takayanagi refers to, though, is not the physical one, as arduous as it is. Rather it’s the journey of each character, particularly the Army captain whose hate turns to understanding and empathy, reversing course on convictions he’s held for seemingly his entire life.

Reflecting this evolution of character via the photography was a major challenge of the film. “Scott and I discussed the emotion we wanted to deliver--and how we could deliver it,” related Takayanagi, adding that this was an ongoing process. Beyond spending considerable time together in pre-pro, each  Saturday morning they reviewed the week and discussed what lied ahead. Scott is very accommodating with his time. He makes himself available to all of us. It was one of the ways we stayed on track in capturing the genuine emotions of the characters as they progress.”

Initially in the film, explained Takayanagi, there’s more of a coarse, rough look. As the journey goes on, the look become crisper and more clear, reflecting how Bale’s vision of the elder Cheyenne chief and his family comes more into focus. He starts to see his lifelong enemy in a different light. Similarly, there’s the overriding question of whether nature itself is a friend or enemy. “We never expressly answer that question but it felt right to show nature in a clear, more beautiful way as the journey got tougher and tougher. It’s all designed to reflect the emotional journey and how the characters perceive each other and their surroundings.”

Takayanagi also made his own journey during Hostiles relative to Mother Nature. “The film was about 80 percent exteriors. I think my biggest takeaway from the experience was that I learned to go with it, to go with what nature gives us, not to fight against it. Light, weather, everything can’t always be your way. You need to accept it and that’s also what helps you be true to the story by reflecting what nature does. Nature is beyond the control of the characters.”

Takayanagi deployed the Panavision Millennium XL2 camera on Hostiles, using three different film stocks. Film, he affirmed, lent itself to this period piece. 

Takayanagi added that he was influenced by the work of Edward S. Curtis, a still photographer of Native Americans back in the 1800s. “We didn’t literally go for that same look, but his photographs captured mixed emotions on faces and that served as an inspiration for me.” That and the work of production designer Donald Graham Burt and costume designer Jenny Eagan went a long way towards helping to recreate 1892, said Takayanagi.

Being on the same wavelength was also essential to realizing Cooper’s vision for Hostiles. Cooper said of his relationship with Takayanagi, “We share sensibilities and can evoke this world because we both have the same story in mind.”

Ben Davis, BSC
Writer/director McDonagh told SHOOT that cinematographer Davis has “a brilliant eye,” exhibited during their first turn together on Seven Psychopaths and reinforced by Three Billboards. “I come from a stage background and am a ‘new-ish’ filmmaker,” related McDonagh. “Ben helps me on set. He’s speedy, nurturing and wonderfully cinematic. We share a lot of the same love of movies, particularly American movies of the 1970s.”

(Editor’s note: McDonagh is interviewed in the next installment of this “The Road To Oscar” series.)

That mutual love of 1970s films figured in Davis’ approach to Three Billboards. “We wanted that feel of ‘70s American films but we weren’t totally married to it,” said Davis. “You can’t look at a script by Martin and say ‘this reminds me of this or that film.’ It’s all so original and so Martin.”

That penchant for 1970s’ imagery, though, had Davis drawing subtle inspiration from the work of Stephen Shore, an American art photographer of that decade known for depopulated landscapes and everyday still-life moments--a roadside billboard, a diner meal, a lonely motel. This in part informed the fictional town of Ebbing where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s a small town that’s both charming and stifling. Davis helped to create McDonagh’s vision for that town.

It’s a town that also helps to define its characters, including Mildred (portrayed by Frances McDormand), a grieving mother consumed with rage because the rape, murder and incineration of her teenage daughter has gone unsolved after a year. She rents three billboards on the outskirts of Ebbing. Passing motorists read the successive billboard messages which taunt the town’s sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and ask why no progress has been made in the case. Thus begins a quest for justice that is full of anger, sadness, emotion yet is darkly comic as we are introduced to Ebbing, its characters and their stories.

“For Martin, it’s all about delivering the characters, making them live. That defines his approach to cinematography,” said Davis who lensed Three Billboards in a minimalist yet emotionally striking way. “Martin is all about character and story. You’re like a fly on the wall, taking in the story and characters. Cinematography needs to support that, not stand out on its own.

Paradoxically by not standing out, Davis’ cinematography stands out in the eyes of critics and award show judges. Three Billboards was nominated for a Golden Frog and won the Audience Award at this year’s Camerimage. Additionally, Davis earned a Best Cinematography nomination from the 2017 British Independent Film Awards.

For Three Billboards, Davis deployed ARRI ALEXA XT cameras along with E and C series anamorphic lenses which helped to break down the digital image. “Our approach was to give the actors as much freedom as possible--freedom within the environment. The actors are so good. You need to let them loose.”

Three Billboards adds to a Davis filmography which also includes the features Layer Cake, Imagine Me and You, Hannibal Rising, Stardust, Wrath of the Titans, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange, as well as TV fare such as Masters of Sex and Genius. Davis is currently shooting director Tim Burton’s live-action version of Dumbo.

This is the fifth of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 90th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 23, 2018. The 90th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.


Credits for ScreenWork: 

Fox Searchlight trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a feature written and directed by Martin McDonagh, shot by cinematographer Ben Davis, edited by Jon Gregory, with music by Carter Burwell and production design by Inbal Weinberg.

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John Komnenich
Director, Editor