- LOS ANGELES
John Mathieson, BSC is no stranger to the Oscars, having earned Best Cinematography nominations in 2001 for Gladiator and in 2005 for The Phantom of the Opera. He is now again in the awards season conversation for Mary Queen of Scots, which marks the feature directorial debut of Josie Rourke, known for her work on stage.
Mathieson observed that the film is “very theatrical” in many ways, with stage influences including the director’s detailed attention to performance. “She (Rourke) was very focused on the players, that’s her background, which meant I had to do my job in order to free her to focus on the actors--particularly with a film that’s heavy on dialogue.”
Leading the cast are Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart, who ruled Scotland in the 16th century, and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I. Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth, Queen of England, finds her condemned to imprisonment before facing execution. The power struggle and political machinations between the two are the spine of the film, even though the two powerful woman only appear on screen together for one eventful scene.
Mathieson said his charge was to not let the cinematography get in the way of the performances. “You don’t want people to notice the cinematography so much. I just wanted it to be easy on the eye, with the emphasis being on doing justice to the story and the dialogue.”
Mathieson and Rourke opted for the Panavision DXL, fitting the digital camera with vintage Sphero 65 lenses, which the DP said lent a softer and warmer look as compared to other lens alternatives, complementing the Alexandra Byrne’s costume work, Jenny Shircore’s hair and makeup design, and assorted beautiful locations. Having at what at the time was a new camera mesh with a different lens was a source of photographic joy for Mathieson.
And while it’s not essential to his role, Mathieson found it “good to know” the politics of Mary Stuart’s and Queen Elizabeth I’s courts, helping him fashion the space and rhythm of the cinematography during rehearsal, understanding the hierarchy of the two rulers’ courts, the way they work--at times played like chess pieces. Mathieson wanted the camera to naturally fit into these environments.
Mathieson has a knack for naturally fitting into any era or storyline. In a SHOOT Fall 2018 Directors Series profile, Jake Scott of RSA talked about his collaboration with Mathieson on American Woman, a feature that had at the time recently debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. Mathieson had shot Scott’s first feature, Plunkett & MacLeane, as well as numerous spots and music videos for the director. Scott described Mathieson as being “very methodical and analytical, someone who understands scene blocking, We didn’t want actors to have to hit marks. We wanted them to run over each other with their lines, interrupt each other. John’s planning and experience allowed us to do that. He was very helpful in terms of maintaining a visual style without compromising coverage. He’s just a great cameraman with a lovely feel and who shows that a sense of realism doesn’t have to be mundane or bland.”
Mathieson’s filmography also includes multiple collaborations with director Ridley Scott (Robin Hood, Matchstick Men, Kingdom of Heaven), BSC Award-nominated work for director Mike Newell’s Great Expectations (Mathieson won the BSC Award for the aforementioned The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Joel Schumacher) and a pair of features in the X-Men franchise, X-Men: First Class directed by Matthew Vaughan, and Logan helmed by James Mangold.
Logan in particular marked an acclaimed departure from other superhero films, centered in a pared down cast rather than a large, star-laden ensemble. Mathieson’s camera thus focused on a small core of characters as they interacted in a story that’s unexpectedly intimate for the genre. The story was written by Mangold who in turn teamed on the script with Scott Frank and Michael Green. There’s an emotional resonance felt throughout the film, stemming from a deep exploration of the characters, particularly Wolverine portrayed by Hugh Jackman. Mathieson’s work helped evolve an ostensibly superhero movie into an on-the-road, character-driven drama with serious emotional overtones.
This is the 11th 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 SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 22. The 91st Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 24, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,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.