Exclusive: DP Seamus McGarvey on ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ and Looking Back on ‘The Avengers’

     October 25, 2018

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When you think of versatile cinematographers, Seamus McGarvey is a name that immediately comes to mind. While his work on films like High Fidelity and The Hours was noteworthy, McGarvey really turned heads with his stunning photography for Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement—which involved the now-iconic Dunkirk oner. Since that time, McGarvey has traversed a variety of genres while never forsaking his artistry. Whether it’s We Need to Talk About Kevin or Godzilla or The Greatest Showman, McGarvey’s keen eye and penchant for complex shots shines brightly.

Most recently, McGarvey teamed up with The Cabin in the Woods filmmaker Drew Goddard for the rich, surprisingly emotional thriller Bad Times at El Royale. The original film (which Goddard also wrote) tells the story of a group of strangers who cross paths at a unique motel on one fateful night in the late 1960s, only to discover that not a single one of them is who they initially appear to be. The film is packed with delightful twists and turns, but it’s also a refreshingly complex and thematically hefty character piece, with stunning performances from actors like Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Hemsworth.

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Photo by John P. Johnson / 20th Century Fox

With Bad Times at the El Royale now playing in theaters everywhere, I recently got the chance to speak with McGarvey for an extended, exclusive interview about his work on the film. Given that Bad Times is one of my favorite movies of the year, and since I’m a huge fan of McGarvey’s work in general, I jumped at the opportunity. During our wide-ranging interview, the cinematographer spoke at length about his collaboration process with Goddard, honing in on the story’s metaphorical and allegorical imagery, how they shot that stunning long take, how the film’s music impacted his visual decisions, why shooting on film instead of digital was essential, and he also got into spoilers to discuss the film’s finale.

McGarvey was incredibly gracious with his time and also spoke about his work on The Avengers, and what it was like to collaborate with Joss Whedon on a Marvel movie before Marvel was, well, Marvel. And McGarvey indulged my questions about his work on Joe Wright’s Pan, a film I find to be fascinatingly ambitious.

If you’re a fan of McGarvey’s work or Bad Times at El Royale, I’m confident you’ll find what McGarvey has to say here to be extremely enlightening and insightful. Check out the full interview below, and if for some reason you still haven’t seen Bad Times at El Royale, I highly suggest doing so while it’s still in theaters.

How did the project first come to your attention? Because I know Drew wrote the script on spec and the whole thing just kind of materialized very quickly.

SEAMUS MCGARVEY: Yeah, I had met Drew when he came on the set of The Avengers. He and Joss Whedon are friends. So I met him very briefly at that time. Then when I was doing The Greatest Showman, one of our executives from Fox, Fred Baron had said, “I’ve got a really interesting, quirky script from Drew Goddard” I love his work. I loved Daredevil. I loved Cabin in the Woods, which was one of my favorites actually. So I just jumped at the chance to read this and when I read it, it normally takes me a long time to read a script from a cinematographic perspective because I cannot help but chew over each scene and imagine it in a photographic way. But in this one, I just kind of hurtled through it because it was un-put-down-able. It was really one of those scripts that gripped my imagination. Not only that, but it was so beautifully written and obviously written from one voice.

You know, you can normally tell when you read a script, or you can tell the kind of kaleidoscopic inputs that sometimes appear and make a script a clunky read. But this one was so wonderfully cohesive and intriguing that I finished it in the same time that it probably takes you to watch the movie. And I rang up Drew right away and said, “Please, can I do this?” So we met in Los Angeles and we got on well and he offered me the film.

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Photo by Kimberley French / 20th Century Fox

I’m always curious with cinematographers and directors, what those early conversations are like and how they compare with the finished film. So, what were kind of your initial conversations with Drew like, about what this project should look like and did that evolve or change much once you guys actually got on set?

MCGARVEY: You know, it didn’t change much when we got on set. Obviously the discussions became more physical and real because we have the tangibility of a set to work in when we got on set. But in advance of pre-production, Drew is an incredibly visual filmmaker and he had such a clear notion of how he wanted to approach the film visually. Sometimes people write that directly into the script and that can be a distracting part of the read. Drew hadn’t done that as vocally as some do. But when we sat down with Martin Whist, the production designer, and Danny Glicker, the costume designer, he was so vivid about what approach to take in terms of color and design. How design and photography kind of intersect and the photographic language of the film. The set up, the shifts that gradually occur, both tonally in terms of the milieu, the weather change, the darkness encroaching, and how that would be enhanced and embellished by the cinematographic approach. The choice of lenses, the type of movement we would do, and how that would connect with design.

So, a big thing was the kind of trajectory, like from light to dark. Obviously, if you loved the film, you know that the allegory is pretty heavy in this one. It’s full of many metaphors and light and darkness being kind of essential elements in terms of the religious imagery that was used throughout the film. So starting the film in brightness and sunlight and with vivid color and with a kind of levity to the camera movement and camera approach was something that Drew initially wanted to set up, so that an audience was kind of invited into the film with a certain amount of allure and then as things start tightening, as the screw starts tightening on the drama, the rain starts coming, the elements of the darkness, and we start to get closer and employ different techniques of lighting as well, to create a sense of foreboding I suppose.

Yeah, I noticed that. There’s a lot of dynamism to this film, and I know that probably was a little tricky to pull off because the film largely takes place in one setting. I mean, there are different rooms, but you’re dealing with one set that you’re kind of introduced to at the beginning of the film and you have to make that a visually dynamic experience throughout the entire film. How did you go about doing that? Ensuring that as an audience member, it would be dynamic to watch?

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Image via 20th Century Fox

MCGARVEY:   Well the set was one place, it was all built on an interior at Mammoth Studios in Vancouver. So even the night exteriors were shot on that covered set; even all those big rain scenes, we had a massive rain rig that was designed by Martin Whist’s brother, Joel, the special effects supervisor. And I suppose the gift for me in the film, when you’re working in that one space for a protracted period of time, is you have to be really in sync with the production designer. And I suppose that Drew’s cues were so strong to both Martin and to me, that every place we pointed the camera, there was a frame there. I mean, you could almost spin the bottle, spin the camera and land on something that had interest. It really was as glorious a set to shoot in as that. And obviously we were a bit more precise with our choices of lens and mise-en-scene, but throughout the film, throughout the set, there’s a very sort of distinct imagery.

What was your relationship like with the production designer? Because again, it’s one setting, but it’s very meticulous when it goes to different rooms. I mean, you open outside in the light in the lobby, but then you’re slowly introduced to the rooms themselves, and then of course, the back room.

MCGARVEY: Well, it was complex, and that idea of perspective and looking, and the sense that if the camera is an eye as well, and working with the camera as an objective and as a subjective device. We talked at length, Drew and I and Martin about that. Obviously there’s the big shot in the corridor where Laramie, Jon Hamm’s character, discovers this observation corridor with the cameras and the windows through to the rooms. And you know, it’s a very long shot, it’s over five minutes, and it was tremendously complicated to set up and required great collaboration with the design and art direction to make sure that we had all the elements we needed. Because we were looking, pretty much, in 360 directions in that very dark corridor into rooms that were lit.

One thing in particular that I discovered through testing was that I couldn’t extract a reflection off of Laramie’s face as he looked into the room, which was crucial to see what he was looking at and see his reflection in an over shoulder shot. So I did various experimentation and found half silver glass that would allow me to pick up some reflections, so it was at a 30% reflective glass, almost like a two way mirror, that was allowing him to look into the room and still get enough light on his face to get a reflection of it. So those were quite expensive panes of glass, when they’re that size, so that was one thing that we said early on, that I know that this is a few thousand pounds per sheet but this is an integral element to the drama, so it’s a good investment to make.

That shot is incredible.

MCGARVEY: Oh, thank you very much. We shot, believe it or not, 27 takes. I remember in Atonement we did like three takes or four but we used the third take. This one we used take 25, is what I’ve heard from Lisa Lassek, our editor. We actually shot 27 takes on that, which was hard because for Cynthia Erivo, she was singing live throughout that scene. So it was a really, really tricky shot to pull off. But I must say, I had a great grip team. Ryan Monro was the dolly grip, and we worked with a remote head, stabilized head, and the operator, the focus puller, they were all all like this sort of a one man band with Jon Hamm. Because we talked about other ways of achieving that shot, possibly with some sort of an almost motion control device, and there was no way, because you really need to be in tune with Jon’s movement. He’s such a pro in terms of hitting marks and movement throughout, but you need to be live to their movement and to go with it. So that was the decision was to just go with a dolly where the grip and the operator can really react to the movements of the actor.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

That shot is incredible from a technical perspective, and my jaw was on the ground. But it also isn’t just one of these things that’s meant to look cool. It’s very in line with the film’s themes, and that’s one of the things I wanted to ask you about, is that thematically, so much of the film is about voyeurism and watching from afar. Right from the opening shot where you’re an objective viewer. How did that manifest into your approach to telling the story with the camera?

MCGARVEY: Well there are times that we played with the celestial perspective. There are top shots reminding of that kind of “God is watching”-type of vibe, and when the priest, Jeff Bridges, is digging up in Darlene Sweet’s room, you cut to a top shot. There’s a few instances of those in the film, where we’ve got aerial perspectives—in the Vietnam flashback for Miles, and when the priest is knocked over, it’s a top shot. These are the Eye of God and throughout the film we have those perspectives that are out of distance, then sometimes are shot through cruciform images. It may sound corny but these were really pre-ordained or pre-saged by Martin and Drew to remind us of these thematics of good, evil, truth, fiction and the elemental things of light and dark and fire and air. I mean, all of those things come into it as bold thematics.

But yeah, in terms of the perspective, we didn’t adhere the camera to a particular point of view. Although, when we do deal with each character, there’s more proximity, if you like, to the character when we’re within their world. There’s more of an intimate feel, both to camera movement and to the close up lensing of those moments with each character. And then a lot of the ensemble pieces that show the interaction between the characters are shown in more of a grand plan, they’re wider shots. We shot in anamorphic, we shot on film. So we were able to use that lovely 2.39:1 aspect ratio to place people in the frame and to choreograph actors within that with movement. So that people could move into closeup and move back into a wide, to make shots that evolved and showed an ensemble piece, and then we could distinguish the individuals within that.

That kind of drills down to another theme of the film, which is that looks can be deceiving. And the opening scene in the lobby, with all the characters arriving for the first time, is pretty breathtaking. But once you’ve seen the film, you think back to your first judgments that you make about these characters when they’re first introduced and then you realize that your judgments were off. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about constructing that opening lobby sequence.

MCGARVEY: It was complicated and when I read the script initially, it was the one scene where I kind of felt the longueurs and Drew really assuaged my fears about that by saying, look, we’re going to have great actors, number one, but there’s gonna be incredible tension between the various looks and the spaces between the looks, it’s not just one poking head after another. And that was what he really did brilliantly in the room. Because we shot that opening scene over, I think it might have been even a couple of days. I remember it was almost 16 pages. And it was fantastically complicated in terms of the staging, the camera movement, the changing of the eye lines. You couldn’t really block shoot it in your normal way that you might do these big scenes.

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