‘The Irishman’ DP Rodrigo Prieto Breaks Down Two Key Scenes, Talks Working with Scorsese

     December 6, 2019

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The Irishman is a masterpiece. Director Martin Scorsese’s epic drama (which is now streaming on Netflix) chronicles the life of hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) not in stages or montages, but in its entirety. Over the course of three and a half hours, we bear witness to Frank’s burgeoning crime life working with mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), we follow along as he becomes Jimmy Hoffa’s (Al Pacino) right-hand man, and we’re right there as this life of ego and hubris and violence becomes lost to the sands of time, and all the “tough guys” end up in wheelchairs, unable to even feed themselves. The immense weight of Sheeran’s life hits like a ton of bricks specifically because of how carefully (and artfully) crafted the story is, and while this is certainly Martin Scorsese’s ambitious vision, he certainly leaned on his filmmaking collaborators to help execute The Irishman.

One such collaborator is cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who has been working with Scorsese since The Wolf of Wall Street, and who I had the privilege of speaking with by phone recently for an interview about his work on The Irishman. It should come as no surprise to learn that Scorsese had a very clear vision of how The Irishman should look and how the camera should move, but it was up to Prieto to visualize the thematic thrust of the film. Complicating matters was the cutting-edge de-aging technology, which necessitated the use of multiple cameras even if only one of them was actually capturing the image that would go onscreen.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

During our discussion, Prieto talked about embodying Frank Sheeran’s methodical approach to his work in the cinematography of The Irishman, why it differs from the visual style of Goodfellas and Casino, and how he looked towards home movies for aesthetic inspiration. I also asked Prieto to break down a couple of key scenes from the film and how they were shot—the big “Frank’s appreciation night” sequence and the jaw-dropping lead-up to and execution of Hoffa’s assassination. Prieto had incredible insight to share not only into the challenges he faced in making The Irishman, but also the unique and inspiring approaches to capturing certain scenes, shots, and angles. We also discussed the influx of VFX-heavy blockbusters and what it means for the art of cinematography, and Prieto offered a brief update on Scorsese’s next film Killers of the Flower Moon.

It’s a terrific deep-dive into the making of one of the year’s best films that I think you’ll find insightful. Check out the full interview below.

How did Scorsese first pitch this to you? How did he describe what he wanted to do with this film?

RODRIGO PRIETO: Yeah. Well, the very first thing he mentioned, though very fleetingly, it was when we were still promoting Silence, and I hadn’t even read the script, or… maybe I’d read the book by then. I don’t remember exactly. But this was a while back. He said that he wanted a feeling of home movies, but that he did not want a handheld grainy style, and he left it at that. That was all we talked about because we were in the middle of other things, with an interview for Time Magazine, you know, but that really stuck to my mind. So, that was an interesting challenge. What does he mean by home movies? If it’s not grainy and handheld and Super 8 feel or 16mm, what does he mean?” So, I came to realize that it’s a movie about time, and a movie about memory, and kind of coming to terms with what your life has been. So, I guess that’s why he was referring to home movies, the memory aspect of that. Since we couldn’t do what I described earlier—the shakiness of home movies—I decided to emulate film photography instead. Amateur film photography.

So I dove in to research emulsions that were popular at the time in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, and started looking at Kodachrome images, especially of the ’50s. I have that memory myself of my parents showing me their travels in the ’50s, before I was born, and they had this very specific color to them, so I decided to give the ’50s that look, the Kodachrome look. And that was done by creating lookup tables that mapped the specific way the colors react in Kodachrome. So meaning, either when we shot on film or on digital cameras depending on—you know, because we have to shoot both, and I’ll explain that a little later. But the whole idea was the filmic look, like a film negative, but the negatives I’m using are modern Kodak Vision, Kodak film stocks, that really do not respond to color like Kodachrome did. So we had to alter that coloration, and that’s done by a lookup table. So, we created lookup tables for Kodachrome, for the ’50s and Ektachromes for the ’60s.

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Image via Netflix

But then, in my mind the ’70s aren’t so much the memory. Even though the story is told from the perspective of the 2000s, it’s more or less Frank Sheeran relating the story to someone, to us as the audience. But still the ’70s felt like the present to me. And so, instead of going to film photography memory, I resorted to a look that emulates a printing method that was developed in Rome by Vittorio Storaro and a Rome technician in Technicolor called ENR, and those are the initials of the lab technician. In any case, this method desaturates color and adds contrast. And I enhanced this lookup table after Hoffa’s death. So from that moment on until Sheeran’s death, or the older years, the color is less saturated and the contrast is deeper. And I also pushed, or force developed the film stock we were shooting on. So it created a little more grain structure, so it’s a very different feel. And so that sort of created a visual arc for the movie from the memory of a colorful past to the sort of lack of color present, in his home, and then the nursing home. That was one part of it.

And then afterwards, also he described to me the way he wanted the camera to behave. That was based on Frank Sheeran’s approach to life and to work, which is methodical, and he describes it like clockwork where he does this thing, and then he does this, and then he chooses a weapon, and he goes and he just executes the job, literally. He paints the house. And he does it in the most practical way. That’s it, you know. So the camera behaved like that. So, when we’re following Frank Sheeran, we don’t have spectacular energetic camera moves because that’s not the way he approached his job. So, you see angles that are repeated several times in the film, like when he’s throwing away the guns in the Schuylkill River, you see the same angle over and over again because it was just a methodical, repetitive thing he was doing.

That was a big part of the language with the camera, as well. If you were to shoot a car, we would shoot it from a perfect profile or frontal, or if we shoot a house or a facade, it’d be totally frontal. You know, everything was kind of graphic that way, devoid of strange angles for Sheeran. So that was another part of what he requested from me.

The covers similar subject matter to Goodfellas and Casino, but obviously as you’ve just discussed, the visual style and the visual language of the film is very different from those movies. But I was curious, it does feel kind of like a conclusion to that story arc, and a much more somber and reflective version of the gangster story. Did you guys discuss those other two films at all?

PRIETO: No, we actually didn’t. But I do think that perhaps his own—I don’t know what the word is, legacy—Scorsese’s own career and his own life was in his mind, I think. The movies I’ve worked on that I find most compelling are ones that, in one way or another, the characters, all of them, are one aspect of the director’s soul, you know? And it’s just an exploration of their own… Whatever it may be, pain or questions, or anything like that. I think that this is movie in a way is probably an exploration of the meaning of what we do, what our life is, and what we think is the most important thing. And maybe towards the end of your career you realize, “Well, maybe not so much,” or maybe there are other priorities or other things of interest, you know? So, I think at its essence maybe that’s in the movie, but it wasn’t a thing that we discussed in particular.

You mentioned you guys shot with both film and digital, and I know the digital was there for the de-aging. And I was curious from your perspective, this was a kind of a Herculean undertaking, and I think it works incredibly well in the film, not just visually, but thematically, you know, you are watching these characters age and get older and think about mortality and their lives. But how did that visual effects aspect affect your work, in terms of lighting the shots and setting everything up in the frame?

PRIETO: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think this is very unique, and almost historic in cinema, to actually see characters realistically change age. You know, traditionally it would be just makeup or changing the actors, and you know, we as audiences come to accept it and play the game, and we say “Okay, I know it’s a different actor but I’ll assume it’s the same person.” But here it’s very poignant because you see them actually age, and it’s pretty amazing. So, I think that it’s unique and it was well worth everything we had to do to make that possible.

I’d like to point out that the reason we shot digital is not that it’s easier with a digital image to create any visual effects, you can do the same with something generated on film or digital or whatever. In this case it was because the actors and Scorsese, they didn’t want to have tracking marks or helmets or things attached to them, which traditionally in motion capture had been a necessity. So, this is kind of groundbreaking because it’s the first time that actors have been free to act and to look regular, in a way, without any of these things that normally would be part of it. So, that was a requirement of the actors and of Scorsese.

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Image via Netflix

So Pablo Helman from ILM devised this idea that he could, without these tracking marks, he could use three cameras mounted from every camera angle. So, the main camera would be your regular [one], the camera that’s capturing the scene, right? And then two witness cameras that would capture the information of the depth, and he was able to utilize their own faces for the tracking for the computer, and all that information is fed into the computer to reproduce the performance practically without any animations. So, it’s all just from the information that these three cameras captured.

And the extra thing was that the two witness cameras had the filter that normally blocks infrared light from the sensor, which is infrared light that is not visible to the human eye, but cameras can capture it. So, normally you have to put on a filter to avoid it, but instead with this film a filter was put on the cameras to eliminate the visible spectrum of light, so these cameras could only see infrared. Then around the lenses they have these LED lights that projected infrared light up to the actors face, which the central camera or the main camera could not see this infrared light, but the other cameras could. So that way they captured the faces with flat infrared lighting without any other information. So that way it had one central camera that captured the lighting and the shots and the composition, and the other two cameras had the exact information of the performance without… You know, because with lighting sometimes you might be a silhouette, you might have very high contrast, and it’ll be hard for the computer to read the performance. So, that’s how we did it. I got a little deep into the technicality, but that’s…

No, this is fascinating.

PRIETO: So that required the cameras to be digital. Because also they had to be synchronized, the shutters had to be synchronized. So, with film cameras that would have been really hard to synchronize so precisely, and also the magazines, to have them move as one camera would have been really difficult. That’s why that has to be digital. And one of the challenges then was making them look the same to the film camera, or as close as possible. So, that was another challenge for the color scientists, to match the colors of the lookup table on the film dailies and on the digital dailies, and then up for the digital intermediate, and then also match the grain structure. I asked ILM to be in charge of that because it was because of them that I was shooting digital, no other reason. So I called them, “Okay, Pablo, you’ll be in charge of making sure that the grain’s a perfect match,” and they did.

It’s really stunning work. And as I said, I think it really drives home the thematic point of the film because you’re witnessing these characters get older, and you really feel the weight of that mortality and that regret as it goes on.

PRIETO: Exactly. As for the lighting, I approached it as if it were a one camera. You know, as if we weren’t doing any of these visual effects. And the cameras became a little heavier and bigger because of the three cameras. But we made it with the lightest materials possible so that it would behave in unison as one camera, and I could use it with any head, remote pad or fluid head, or any camera support system that we wanted to use. So it became like a regular camera in a way.

The challenge was the lighting that I was doing had to be matched by the computer, and that required extra time after every set up where we would photo wrap, with my lighting, a reflective mirror sphere. And then another sphere that was gray, 18% gray, and then they did the thing they call, “Lighter,” or they captured the information of the lighting from the perspective of the face, and the color chart. All that information was fed into the computer and just as they weren’t creating animation for the faces, they also weren’t painting in the lighting. It was all fed in. It was all in that automatic process done with this information that they captured on set, which is pretty stunning for me when I was doing the color timing of the movie, it was the lighting that I created on the normal faces. I could see it on the CGI reproduced exactly. That was really something.

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Image via Netflix

The “Frank’s appreciation night” sequence is just really stunning. I was wondering if you could kind of talk about the construction of that sequence, because it has an arc unto itself where Hoffa’s fate is being sealed.

PRIETO: Every time I read a script, there’s a scene that stands out as a special challenge, and that whole scene was one of them, because a lot happens there it’s the same space that had required the look of a celebration, so it had to be in a way pretty, but at the same time, there are very dark things happening. That balance of the celebratory feel to it and the menace of the underlying situation was challenging. So I knew I had to create something special. The location where we shot at was in Harlem, and it was a banquet hall, and it had these arches on top that I knew we’d want to see it at certain points. So I knew I couldn’t really rig top lighting for example, that’s a way you would approach a banquet like that, you know? So I was struggling, It really took me a while. I didn’t know what to do. Then one day my daughter was watching Network, shot by Owen Roizman, and there’s a scene in a banquet hall that… There’s a person who would, you know, sing a speech to his banquet hall, and the tables have these red lampshades and there’s a spotlight on the person talking. And I thought, “Eureka! That’s it.” With red lampshades, I can create this red atmosphere that has that element of venom.

First of all, I’ve seen in many of Scorsese’s films… This was me, you know, not him saying, “Oh I want to emulate this or that.” But I remembered that color of light, and even back to Mean Streets and I remember this scene in Goodfellas where they’re taking this out of the trunk of the car and they’re lit by the car lights with this red light. So I thought, “Okay, that’s it. I’ll use the red as a motive.” And I asked the production designer Bob Shaw to help me. He was skeptical at first because of the curtains… The way he designed the place had blue curtains, and he thought, “Well the red lampshades would look bad.” So he changed it to golden curtains, and red curtains, and we use those red lamps. So that was a big part of it.

But also I added these little units all around the balconies that are like little tiny little theatrical PAR cans, they’re called Birdies. And that created kind of a golden skew to play against the red. So it wasn’t just monochromatic red, and then I used the spotlight, obviously for the stage and the speeches, but also to move around the room when they’re dancing, and to highlight certain moments. So to me it was an opportunity to use this roving romantic light. When Peggy, for example, is dancing with Hoffa, and she looks over to the table of where Russell Bufalino and Tony Pro and those guys are looking at Hoffa. So that spotlight goes through Peggy at the exact moment she’s looking, and then the spotlight goes through Russell the moment they stand up to go. So I used that just to highlight those special moments. So that was sort of the design of the whole thing.

But another tricky challenge in that place and throughout the movie was that every dialogue scene—for example with Pesci and De Niro on the balcony, or Pesci and Pacino below, or the “It is what it is” scene—we have to shoot simultaneously with two angles at the same time. Two cameras, one on each actor. And that meant that it just complicates the lighting, because normally if you’re shooting one actor, you know the lights in whatever place will look best on that actor. But another camera is looking in the opposite direction, that means you can’t put any lights right there. I had to come up with ways to light them, especially in the balcony. That became tricky because I wanted the light to look like it’s coming from downstairs, from the party itself. But putting pipes out from the balcony to put the lights on… it was a big challenge to keep them out of frame.

So I think that that scene I’m kind of proud of, because it does have that intimacy and kind of that beauty and all that. And I think there’s a variety to the look, even though it’s in the same place for a long, long, time. But, yeah. I think we came up with a kind of a decent solution to the dilemma.

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Image via Netflix

That whole sequence is fantastic. I also wanted to ask about the extended Jimmy Hoffa assassination sequence, which is very methodical. I love how there’s just no music and you just kind of let the visual language of the film drive the tension. What were your conversations with Scorsese like about the construction of that whole sequence?

PRIETO: Well that was another moment where that methodical thing and the clockwork idea comes to play. You see the same angle repeated where Frank Sheeran goes to see the house from a very specific vantage point, and then he goes back, and then picks up Hoffa, and then the whole car again goes that same trajectory, which is the way that Sheeran described to Charlie Brandt in [the book] I Heard You Paint Houses, the way he describes arriving to that house in Detroit, we tried to emulate. And then in the film, in terms of all the specific landmarks, right? He said he went through a bridge, so we found a bridge and shot the car going several times over a bridge, things of that sort.

Another thing that I’d like to mention is that another challenge is all these car scenes, and you know that famous scene when they’re talking about the fish in the car and there are all these dialogues and these important things happening in these cars, and there’s also the travel to Detroit. I knew that it’s really hard to shoot in cars, and especially in a period film, or if you have to block the street and go back to one and reset. It’s very time consuming and really hard. So I suggested shooting all those in the studio, and we created these environments with LED screens, huge LED screens that were used as the background kind of the same way that rear screen projection was done in the past. Instead of green screen, we had a LED wall in the background. But additionally to that, we had LED screens all around the car, out of frame, that were creating the lighting. So if you notice, they all have glasses or whatever they’re wearing, you know, you see the landscape going through their faces or reflected in the glasses, or anything like that. And that’s because it was lit with the actual landscape. Wherever he’s driving could actually be in front of him, in a big screen, and if they’re looking for their house, for example, in Detroit, the actor could actually follow a house in the screen. So that became very effective just from a technical standpoint.

But going back to the assassination, there’s one shot in there that I found a really incredible, that Scorsese wanted to do very specifically, and I was worried that it wouldn’t work because everything in the film is so realistic or naturalistic in a way. But suddenly right after he kills Hoffa, there’s this shot, this impossible shot. It’s almost like a theatrical—it’s a tableau, a wide shot where you see Sheeran adjusting the body, moving the gun on top of it, and opening the door and leaving.

The hallway where we just saw him being shot is maybe four feet wide. There’s no way in the universe a camera could capture that angle. So that immediately, you know, it signals that this is [going to be shot in] a studio, where we not only have to remove the wall, we have to extend the stairs, extend the floor, do all these things. And yet, it’s very effective and it’s part of these flat angles that we shot. Everything from like the house we’d be shooting frontal, the car we shoot through the windshield, frontal. When we see it going by, the camera just pans around with it. It’s sort of simple angles. Instead of doing, I don’t know, a wide angle from the corner of the hallway, like, “Okay, we got to do it frontal or sideways, so remove the wall.” So I thought in the end it was pretty effective and nobody has ever questioned to me that angle, because it’s such a powerful emotional moment, you know?

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Image via Netflix

It’s really striking. I really love that shot in the film. Well, I’m very excited for Killers of the Flower Moon. I know you’re Oklahoma doing a little bit of prep work on it. Do you know kind of tonally what we might be able to expect from that?

PRIETO: We haven’t figured that out yet. And, right now I’m in the process of researching different ways of shooting it so we still have to actually meet, and I’ll show Scorsese images, propose ideas. He’ll probably have his thoughts too, but we still haven’t figured it out. So, it’s on the way.

One last thing for you. Scorsese has made some comments recently that a lot of people have been interested in. I’m not going to ask you if you think that Marvel movies are cinema, but I am curious as a cinematographer, I mean he’s not wrong in that the majority of films that are in multiplexes now are these big blockbusters, and a lot of those films have a visual effects shot in almost every single shot of the film. Do you think, as a cinematographer, something’s been lost in the art of cinematography with that?

PRIETO: Right. I think that it’s not that something has been lost. I think it has changed, and it’s actually interesting as a cinematographer to have to imagine an environment, and create a lighting environment that matches a place that isn’t there. I had that experience making Passengers. Most of the tests were real, but we did do visual effects. Especially the shots when they’re in space and such, you know, so with the light source not even close to the sun, just coming up with ways to create sort of star light, and it was very interesting. So I think that it’s evolved.

Having said that, one thing that I do miss in visual effects, in general, I mean there’s still the visual effects that still rely, say, on miniatures and stuff. It’s mostly everything’s created on the computer, which still requires skill. People have to actually make it, you know, it’s not like automatically the computer does it all. The reason I got into cinema was stop-motion movies, like Clash of the Titans or Jason and the Argonauts. These films that Ray Harryhausen would do, and we’d see them in Mexico, they’d show them in this show on Sundays that would show movies, and for some reason these were often on. I love the skeletons and the stop motion stuff. And then King Kong, the original King Kong. All this stuff. You knew that they were miniatures, but I found it fascinating that these little things came to life. Even the original Star Wars with the spaceships that you knew were miniatures, and it created so much awe for me as a child and a teenager, that someone actually put all these pieces together by hand and glued them on. And then I started doing it myself, in my own little Super 8 movies. So I really, really, enjoy that handcrafted visual effects thing that’s kind of lost now. And then just personally, I find that there’s a magic that’s a little bit lost in its absence.

Yeah, no, I’m with you. There’s definitely a difference between something that’s physical or tangible that can be lit, as opposed to something created entirely in the computer.

PRIETO: Yes, I think so.

The Irishman is now streaming on Netflix and is playing in select theaters.

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