Oscar-Nominated DP Lawrence Sher Discusses Extending His Reach Into Directing
Lawrence Sher, ASC
"Joker" cinematographer joins directorial roster of production house brother for commercials, branded content

It’s been an eventful year thus far for Lawrence Sher, ASC. In January, he earned his first career nominations for the Best Cinematography Oscar and the ASC Award, both for his lensing of Joker. And last month he joined production house brother to pursue his directorial aspirations, securing representation for commercials and branded content. 

Sher is no stranger to directing, having helmed the comedy-drama feature Father Figures (2017) starring Owen Wilson, Glenn Close, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken and J.K. Simmons. And Sher is also well-versed in the ad arena, having lensed select commercials over the years for top-drawer directors and brands.

Sher gravitated to brother based on his experience with and affinity for its founders--director Theodore Melfi and executive producer Rich Carter. Melfi served as director/producer/co-writer on Hidden Figures, for which he earned a pair of Oscar nominations (Best Motion Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay). Sher came to know Melfi when he shot the director’s feature for Netflix, The Starling, which is currently in postproduction with a cast including Melissa McCarthy, Daveed Diggs, Timothy Olyphant and Veronica Falcon. Melfi and Sher bonded on The Starling, leading to the director asking the DP to lens Daughter, a short in Apple’s “Shot on iPhone series.”

For Daughter--which stars one of China’s leading actresses, Zhou Xun--Sher lensed sweeping panoramas, engaging closeups and single take ultra wide flashbacks on location in China, demonstrating the image-capturing prowess of the iPhone 11 Pro. Created by TBWA\Media Arts Lab Shanghai, Daughter is an emotional story of a taxi driver’s (Xun) complicated relationship with the two most important women in her life, her young daughter and her estranged mother. The film examines the changing social norms in China and reflects on the generational differences between traditional families and modern youth. The intergenerational film is a touching drama of family reconnecting for the Chinese New Year. 

Daughter has so far this awards season garnered an ANDY Award for Craft Film, an ADC Bronze Award for Motion/Film Narrative, and an AICP Next Award honor in the Web Film Over 15 Seconds category.

Noting that Sher was deeply involved in Daughter spanning testing and realizing the iPhone camera’s capabilities, scouting and helping Melfi in varied ways, brother EP Carter said of Sher, “He was so incredibly collaborative in that process, I was like, ‘Why aren’t you directing?’” Carter then learned that Sher had directorial experience, and brother reached out to him to come aboard its roster. Sher joins brother at a time when the company has bolstered its capabilities. Earlier this year brother entered into a collaborative relationship with RadicalMedia, which enables Carter and Melfi to continue operating brother independently while tapping into Radical’s global operation and deep resources. Radical in turn gains access to brother’s coterie of directorial talent.

Sher shared that over the course of working on The Starling and then Daughter, he developed an affinity for Melfi and Carter which in turn drew him to their production boutique. “Ted (Theodore Melfi) loves actors, has a beautiful way with them,” assessed Sher who’s learned from Melfi and other directors over the years. Joker, for example, marked the sixth film Sher had shot for director Todd Phillips in the past 11 years, the others including The Hangover series of movies, Due Date and War Dogs.

In addition to the Oscar and ASC Award nominations, Joker garnered BAFTA and BSC Award nods for Sher, as well as two wins at Camerimage--for the prestigious Golden Frog as well as the Audience Award.

As a director, Sher was at press time slated to take on the first three episodes of the TV series Rutherford Falls, an original show for NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service.

Sher discussed the attraction of directing, his collaborative relationship with Phillips, as well as the draw of shorter-form projects like commercials and branded content. Sher’s responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

SHOOT: What’s the allure of directing for you?

Sher: Directing has always been part of the plan for me all the way through my shooting career. But I wasn’t in any particular rush to direct. I got a chance to direct a movie a couple of years back, which was more enjoyable than I expected it to be.

SHOOT: What was the unexpected joy you experienced?

Sher: Over the years one of my prime responsibilities as a DP was to take on as much as I could to free the director to focus fully on actors and their performances. I’ve worked extensively with actors as a cinematographer but I still wasn’t sure about the “unknown” of how it would be collaborating with them more directly and constantly. I wondered if I would have the patience for conversations with actors that are chipping away at the day’s shooting time. As it turned out, I found those conversations to represent some of the most joyful parts of directing, getting me closer to actors, their concerns and helping to capture more insightful performances and advance the story in the process.

SHOOT: What draws you to commercials?

Sher: I’ve always enjoyed them. I see them as little pieces of art, opening up opportunities to experiment, try new things. Truth be told, I had never taken enough time off (from features) to build my commercialmaking career as a DP or director. I also like the prospect of being able to both direct and shoot if the project calls for it.

SHOOT: You’ve worked most regularly with director Todd Phillips. What lessons have you learned from that long collaborative relationship?

Sher: He’s the most consistent collaborator I’ve had. I’ve learned the most from him--the main thing being that preparation is wildly important. And that preparation allows you to be present and aware each day of what is and isn’t working, not being afraid to throw out something planned, to take a moment and rework it. If it’s not working, Todd’s approach is let’s figure it out right now. He’s a really remarkable director with actors. We rarely ever reshoot on Todd’s movies. I can remember only one day of reshooting all these years, with three other days of additional things we wanted to shoot. He has an incredible record of not reshooting--not to say reshooting is a mark of failure. But he doesn’t need to due to preparation and being flexible when something isn’t working. He admires and has remarkable patience with actors. They are everything to him.

SHOOT: You directed the feature Father Figures before reuniting with Todd to shoot Joker. What did that directorial experience bring to your work as a cinematographer with him?

Sher: It gave me an all new perspective on the job of DP. It made me a better DP regarding how to best serve the director. It was a way to understand all the things Todd was going through day to day, moment to moment on Joker. I became even more of an ally to him. And we shared a real desire to take risks, to make something memorable, being willing to work on a bit of a tightrope. Even though it was a studio movie, we wanted to make Joker feel handmade.

There’s a happy irony to it all. As a DP I do what I can at all costs to give the most amount of flexibility and time to a director. I thought I was not precious enough of the image to create something Oscar-worthy. And then I get Oscar nominated (for Joker). I had been fine with not getting an Oscar nomination. I much rather serve the director. You make time on set to get the most amount of shooting done. You want to be artful but with a wildly flexible palette. We started shooting the minute Joaquin (Phoenix, the Best Actor Oscar winner for Joker) was ready so he could create and find real moments in his performance. It’s a very present and flexible way of moving through the day. It’s the way Todd and I make movies.”

SHOOT: Why did you make brother your roost?

Sher: You spend more time perhaps with the people you’re making commercials and movies with than your family and other people in your lives. So you’d better enjoy who you’re keeping company with. Ted (Melfi) is an enjoyable person.

And my admiration for Ted was there prior to my working with him. I loved St. Vincent (a Melfi-directed feature starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts) so much that I used its DP, John Lindley, to shoot Father Figures.


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