Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy‘s classic novel Anna Karenina is now playing in theaters. The film takes place in late 19th century Russian society, and stars Keira Knightley as an adulterer who questions her happiness. In true Wright fashion, this isn’t exactly a straightforward adaptation; the director has set much of the film in a lush theater that uses over 100 interconnected sets to allow the action to move fluidly through various settings. The film also stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Olivia Williams. For more on Anna Karenina, here’s Matt’s review, five clips, and all our previous coverage.
The other week, I spoke on the phone with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. We talked about when he found out Joe Wright was changing the way he wanted to tell the story, his thoughts on the change, collaborating with Wright, the pre-production process, film versus digital, and more. In addition, with McGarvey having worked with Joss Whedon on The Avengers, we talked about what it was like to work on that project, if will he return for the sequel, when he will be shooting Godzilla with director Gareth Edwards, and more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
McGarvey: You know, it’s interesting, my job is behind the camera and I’m not really used to talking about it. But it’s interesting vocalizing something that is visual. Talking about it, I think, retrospectively helps to hone your ideas for future projects. I like it. Essentially the interesting thing about it is hearing people’s reflections on something. It makes you feel like you’re not making things in a vacuum.
You’ve worked with Joe Wright before a few times. Joe told me that originally the film was going to be a more conventional narrative telling of the setting and then he decided to do it in this innovative way. What was it like for you when he first told you, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing it a little different”?
McGarvey: (Laughs) Well, you know, it was startling really when I heard this sudden shift of gears. I’m very excited about it because I know Joe, he’s a friend of mine, and I know his sort of ambitions, his creative ambitions. And I knew that secretly although the budget had dropped significantly and he was essentially rescuing the film by reimagining it in this way, I knew that it was an exciting opportunity to create something that was actually paradoxically more honed, more precise in many ways. I was very excited from a cinematographic point of view at what it afforded me in terms of the lighting of the set. I had a complete reimagining of the lighting style and photographic style of the film based on the fact that we were now doing it in a theater. So I adopted older lighting techniques, a smaller lighting package, more I think bolder with the sources. And also I started thinking about theatrical lighting techniques that I could weave into the film, dimming, moving lights and all these things that creatively in the films that I’ve adopted a more naturalistic approach for I was able to kind of take an enforced change of direction. But it was a very exciting place and time for me.
With this reimagining and filming it the way you guys did I would imagine it put a lot more pressure on getting things done in the pre-production process. I’m curious, could you talk a little bit about how long it to you to prepare for all this and did you rely more on storyboards than maybe on previous ones?
McGarvey: Well, Joe always storyboards everything, I mean he shot lists every single shot of the film for every movie, even The Soloist, which was shot entirely apparently naturalistic, almost documentary way, it was all storyboarded. This had to very be precisely storyboard because there were so many theatrical set pieces, and not only that, it demanded extraordinary coordination between the departments. I mean it was like a clockwork toy really, the way that everything fitted together, the way that the lighting and the production design feed into each other, you know, it’s kind of modular and all these things were very carefully conceived to kind of hurtle the drama along. Joe really wanted there to be connections between the various scenes so that you can sort of sling-shot it from one scene into another with photography, and light, and design. So, you know, for me the prep period was extremely short. I finished The Avengers on a Saturday night in New York and on Monday morning I was standing in a field scouting for locations, and this was four weeks before the shot where the principal photography began. So, you don’t have to shoot the film in the first couple days of principal photography, but it was an ongoing process as we made the film of just preparing.
McGarvey: Well, we shot on celluloid, on film, and we shot with anamorphic lenses and that was a decision that I felt was really essential, just for the textural look of the film and the feel of the film. The way that anamorphic allows you, and particularly the aspect ratio, CinemaScope the 2:40 frame allowed us to push people to the edge and explore the space between people as well as look at groups of people, you know, you can frame two close ups in the one frame, so it’s an exciting compositional tool. But in terms of the material, I mean, it’s an ongoing debate about digital and film. The way I see it, I’ve only shot one film digitally and that was The Avengers and I had a wonderful experience on it, it was an appropriate tool for that job and it worked. But I think realistically were lucky as cinematographers in our era right now because we have the choice. I mean I love film, but I think that digital is offering many great possibilities for cinematographers. Particularly in urban cityscapes and low light photography its allowing us to render what we actually see with our eyes; which is interesting.
Well I was going to say a lot of people are using the Arri Alexa or the RED Epic, do you have a preference between the two?
McGarvey: No, I take every film as it comes. And sometimes, you know, the RED EPIC – both of them are great cameras, but they’re quite different. The RED is small scale, which makes it very user friendly for 3D for instance, and sort of minimizes the kind of skips and break. I actually I love the Alexa and I think it’s a great camera; it kind of bridges kind of the feel of film. It has a texture and a feel that I recognize from film, but both are great cameras. And there are many other cameras on the market too. The Sony S55 is just an extraordinary individual camera. But every film I do I’ll look at the choices available and see what’s appropriate for the job at hand.
McGarvey: Well, for me it was just an extraordinary opportunity to work on a film that I knew was going to have just such enormous scale. It was very exciting to learn about visual effects at the absolute top echelon of its evolution. It’s changing on a monthly basis, the excellence of visual effects. We had a great visual effects team and they kind of educated me in areas that I just had absolute very limited knowledge of. So that was, for me, a great education. And I knew that it had every chance of being a huge hit, but I was quite happily surprised when I saw how well it did at the box office and it’s great for Marvel. They’re a bit ideal to work with; they’re very encouraging to filmmakers and the artistic approach. So I really loved working on the film. Joss [Whedon] is just one of the nicest directors I’ve ever worked with.
You mentioned visual effects change every month, was there one thing that you took away from Avengers that you maybe are going to apply to– because I heard you’re going to do Godzilla and I’m sure you’re going to do future special effects movies, I’m just curious if there’s something you took away from Avengers that can be applied to future projects.
McGarvey: There was a great collaboration in the photography of The Avengers, in the look. Because so much of that film, particularly in the final symphonic battle is about, you know, the effects. But I had to be very closely involved with Janek Sirr, the effects supervisor. That, for me, was a new departure, because normally I’m in control of all photographic aspects of the film, cinematographic aspects. But what was wonderful about Janek was that he involved me very closely in all the choices that were made in terms of the lighting of the CG, in terms of the camera work—the choice of angles, the way the camera would actually move in an entirely CG shot, and when an alien, for instance, was whizzing past. I would advise on the type of camera movements as well. For me it was a privilege to be involved in that because increasingly in these movies they are your co-cinematographers for particular scenes. So you’ve got to really make sure that you’re both on the same page. For The Avengers and for Godzilla something that I learned was that employing stuff that I learned from documentary from films with natural light, that were all striving for the photo-real experience. It will really increase believability and veracity and audience immersion in the film when you can actually believe that it’s real photography. So introducing all the little aberrations and fuck-ups of real cinematography, the things you can’t control, is something that I loved.
Obviously Godzilla already has a release date; I would imagine that you guys are filming next year. Do you already have a production schedule in terms of when you’re shooting?
Do you know where you’re filming the movie and have you already decided on the look of the film or what camera you’re going to use?
McGarvey: Not really yet. Unfortunately, you know these ridiculous NDAs they make you sign I’m not allowed really to say anything. We have a location, but I’m not really allowed to say that. But we still haven’t yet chosen the direction that we’re going visually. In fact I’m sort of testing next week for that stuff.
Has Joss already said if you will be coming back for The Avengers sequel?
McGarvey: Yes, yes he is. He’s coming back for Avengers so that should be fun.
No I meant is he bringing you back for The Avengers sequel?
McGarvey: Again, I can’t really say that, but yes he has asked me, yeah.