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An Interview with Florian Hoffmeister

Photo: © Robert Viglasky

Florian Hoffmeister is a cinematographer known for his work on Official Secrets, A Quiet Passion, The Deep Blue Sea, In Secret, Great Expectations, and Johnny English Strikes Again. I spoke with Florian about cinematographers who have inspired his work, his collaborations with Terence Davies, his work on Official Secrets, and his most challenging shot to complete.

Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?

I studied in Berlin at the German Film and Television Academy. It was a more holistic filmmaker’s course. My initial intention, my interest was more in general about making films, not necessarily envisioning myself becoming a working cinematographer, as it turned out years later. On the course you’d be broken up into groups of six. For the first two years, each group would make two short films. You would have to photograph and direct your own film. Each crucial technical position was rotated and before I went to film school I actually had moved to Berlin to get into the film industry and gain some experiences. I had been an intern on a film in the lighting department on the film set and then those people had referred me to a rental company where I did an internship for a year.

So by the time I went to film school I knew a lot more about cameras and how to switch them on than a lot of the other students. So it just happened to be when it came to cinematography, people would very early on, on the course would trust me to photograph their films. It was mainly because I knew how to open a box. I discovered that I really enjoyed lighting and I enjoyed the intimacy of the position because in Germany you also operate. We shot everything on film and when you operate a film camera I personally feel it’s literally as if you are witnessing the birth of the image. It’s a very real sensation to operate a film camera and I just fell in love with it.

Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who have really inspired your work?

I don’t really have particular cinematographers as a role model. There are many amazing people out there. When I studied we were inspired a lot by Christopher Doyle, for example, or Roger Deakins. And then, of course, I admire Gordon Willis, Freddie Francis, Kazuo Miyagawa. I admire them for having been able to articulate their own voice, in something as fluid as lighting. My goal has always been to find my own voice as much as I could. It’s not something that I say I love a particular cinematographer because of a technique you see, I admire them because they have found their own voice. In terms of films that left a real strong imprint it was all things Kubrick, Tarkovsky, The Sacrifice I still remember seeing that at film school and being speechless. Then also the American cinema of the ‘80s, or ‘70s, of course, Blade Runner and Ridley Scott. Those kinds of epic films always impressed me, I would say motivated me to go into films.

You shot The Deep Blue Sea. Were there any films you watched in preparation? What research was involved?

Of course you watch all kinds of films all of the time. I wouldn’t watch films as an immediate inspiration or reference. I watch films sometimes together with the director, maybe to watch something at the same time and react to it emotionally. You can start to get a better idea of what one likes or what the other likes. To put images to language. We talk about all kinds of things, even if you show me a photograph you can tell me about something. When you watch a scene together, you actually start watching the scene with a shared eye. I don’t know if you’ve noticed sometimes you watch a film with somebody and then you watch the film with again with someone else and it might create a different impression that the film leaves within your mind. So the viewing experience very much depends on the company you have and the venue you watch it. I find watching films in prep more important to establish a communication with the director. Not necessarily to pinpoint specific details of craftsmanship.

Terence is somebody who preps mostly by the word, so we will have conversations. It’s not really that you go around and start sourcing stuff and then sit there with a stack of DVDs and watch. Terence writes a script and then you talk about it and it’s most you form of prep. When I read the script because it takes place in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, while Britain was undergoing economic hardship. I read a little bit from the point of view of kitchen sink realism, quite stark. I did some research. I love Bill Brandt’s photography, I looked at a lot of his pictures and the production designer James Merifield had done an amazing mood book about some more anthropological photography of that time frame. I always thought it’s that bareness and a sense of fatigue and scarcity that would kind of form visual material.

There was a misunderstanding because Terence would always refer to, he had one light bulb that it was really, really lovely, so it became apparent in the way he was talking that he was associating a form of warmth, or a form of emotional tenderness with that time. Even though it was so sparse. In prep he turned, I think 66, it was his birthday. The BFI organized for us a screening of one of his favourite films, Brief Encounter by David Lean. We watched Brief Encounter and it became apparent that Terence was thinking in terms not of realism, but rather naturalism. The light bulb would have been barer in a single source, but it would have had a glow.

We would build up a set of tools that would give it that kind of naturalistic, heightened, I would almost say romantic feel. As it was a love story there is romanticism in the air, but the lighting can be intensely real in the way it depicts class or it depicts social circumstances. We netted the lenses with stocking and the way I would amend the lighting with China balls. That would then push it further away from its darkness and into something warm and emotional and romantic. That was kind of the journey.

The Deep Blue Sea, by Terence Davies, Stillframe © Florian Hoffmeister BSC

What was your approach to lighting the film?

The approach in lighting was to add a form of naturalistic romanticism to the starkness of the times. Personally, I find quite important when I light that you do not only create a space in which the drama occurs or a stage so to say, but, of course, guide the eye. For example, there is a scene towards the very end when Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston sit down for the last time and they are actually breaking-up and night has fallen. I was very sure that they should sit in almost complete darkness with only their faces glowing. The apartment in which they are must virtually disappear. So there are these decisions when I light. How I want the lighting to elevate or to maybe suddenly comment on it or enhance the atmosphere that I feel would support that kind of performance. So there’s one approach setting the tone of the kind of film. They are mostly guided by the dramatic context of the scene, not necessarily by a stylized approach of the scene. Creating a look that is not necessarily connected to the story, can be a legitimate choice for a cinematographer. You create something that is just like its own world in which things can happen, but I have to feel there has to be a very deep connect to the content.

You collaborated with Terence Davies again on A Quiet Passion. How did this collaboration come about, and what’s the process like working with him?

I met Terence, on The Deep Blue Sea. I was introduced by producer Kate Ogborn I had met on a short film I photographed for Tony Grisoni . She used to work at the BFI and knew Terence and she joined that production and put me on a list of a few cinematographers. Then I met with him in London, and we had a very beautiful conversation. He is, of course, of a different generation. And there’s a form of divide because his taste is really divided by a generation, but what I absolutely cherished at the point when I met him, was going back to a shared devotion to the artistic side of the medium. At this point I had worked in Britain for about six or seven years. I had done a lot of television, a lot of big television productions as well. I was very much working in a fast paced environment, very good scripts, very good stories, very good actors. But also a very tight schedule.

When I met Terence, I almost felt like going back to film school. Not necessarily in the sense that I was learning again, which you always do, but in the sense that when I went to film school there was a real moment of complete dedication and discovery. There’s a difference when you work on a five-part drama for the BBC. The room you have for that sense of discovery and artistic expression is limited. With Terence it’s only about that. If it’s 10 until 7, then you have to wrap at 7 o’clock. He doesn’t feel the shot, he does not see, he won’t shoot it, it’s just impossible. He’s very much guided by an inner emotional compass. To come back to that which I would describe as similar effect as going into films when I was young it was exactly like going back to that starting point. It was a tremendous production to have done that. We had this conversation and he asked me to photograph the film and then we had a very beautiful time doing that. He got back to me with Sunset Song and we started prepping it together, but unfortunately the financing fell apart and I got another job and the money came back so I wasn’t available anymore. He asked Michael McDonough ASC BSC to photograph it.

And then A Quiet Passion came along. He sent me the script and I was available. We went to Antwerp and shot it on a stage and with a week in the States for some exterior work. In The Deep Blue Sea, the apartment was built on a stage, but we had an equal amount of location-based shooting. With A Quiet Passion, the Emily Dickinson film everything takes place on a stage, everything takes place almost in a room because she never left the house. I looked at a lot of early paintings of independent America which is quite interesting because it’s nothing that I had really looked at before. In a lot of these paintings you feel a kind of promise, you can almost sense the endless, the vastness of that continent, when it got colonized. I thought even though the film takes place only in a room, you have to have a feeling of the light coming from the outside, should be of that crispness, that vastness. Again I tried to change the lighting constantly and suddenly.

On set: A Quiet Passion. Photo: © Joe Voets

Due to a budgetary circumstance we couldn’t afford a photographic backdrop, so the production designer organized a man from Belgium, who’s a fantastic scenic painter and he came and painted the entire backdrop. Literally 360 degrees of a house set on a stage. The backdrop was five metres high and probably 60 metres long. He painted that. He had painted for Tarkovsky on the studio of The Sacrifice. There is a scene in the film where Emily Dickinson recites a poem called The Looming Man. She speaks about basically the desire of living in a relationship. There was a sequence that Terence had written. A door swings open and a man comes inside and goes up the stairs and she thinks he’s coming in her room, but, of course, it’s just a dream or a thought. He was very adamant that we shouldn’t see the face of the man, so I lit it as a complete silhouette. Because of the backdrop, photographing a silhouette, right standing in the door frame, literally 4 metres away from backdrop that’s the Achilles heel of filmmaking. The illusion can fall apart. Because it was painted on canvas, we then took a light and backlit the canvas and created this really surreal shadow, it’s a tree behind the guy, almost like a painting. There were these elements in the film where the lighting almost becomes theatrical, but because of that really beautiful. It was a really, really fantastic collaboration. Not only does he write these very elaborate camera moves, all of these 360 movements that he’s known for, just one shot. They’re all in the script, it’s almost like his handwriting. But at the same time when it comes to lighting that canvas that he provides he is very open to have me fill that. He gets very excited when he likes it. So it’s a very generous and fulfilling work to be lighting his films.

You were cinematographer on Official Secrets. There is a very powerful moment in the film during the breach announcement scene when Keira Knightley’s character realizes the impact of her actions. How was this scene captured?

Official Secrets is, of course, the complete other spectrum. I took that film because I really liked the story. Not only the story in terms of the script, but I was intrigued and impressed by what Kathrine Gun had done in 2003, by leaking the documents and putting her own life completely on the line, at a point in time when nobody was talking about this sort of thing at all. So I said I really wanted to shoot it and I met Gavin Hood and we discussed the look of it. Gavin just wanted to present the story. That sometimes is harder than it sounds. It’s really easy to put a spin on things, by turning it into a thriller for example, or putting your political opinion into it by using irony.

Gavin was very adamant that he wanted to tell the story, holding back tricks that we normally use to lure an audience into engaging with it. People should engage with it really because of the story. It was quite factual so to say. On the other hand, you go to a cinema and you watch a film, you want that, of course, to be pleasing aesthetically or invigorating, or challenging. You will end up pointing a camera at somebody’s face, and, of course, people will want to see images. Keira Knightly didn’t want to have her hair bleached and she didn’t want to wear make-up. This is factual, she said in order to present this story, ‘I don’t want to become Katherine Gun. I don’t want to be seen for making this transformation, I just want to honestly and humbly present this.’

Official Secrets: Gavin Hood Stillframe © Florian Hoffmeister BSC

Keira Knightly is a very iconic actress. We shot a test with her and you realized how many films she’s done and how young she still is. She came and we shot a couple of hours with her in London in a little studio. If you approach photographing her in a very traditional set-up, it becomes quite iconic very early on and our approach was to try not to go iconic, always to try to have her accessible, vulnerable. I probably think that is why that very scene feels stronger emotionally and captivating because the film was holding back all the time. At certain key moments for her character, we then tried to visualize her emotion. It’s probably not the individual choice, but rather how the scene sits in the entirety of the film that lets it stand out a bit. I am sometimes torn about Official Secrets because in the end I don’t know if I failed a bit in the attempt. Like I said when you point a camera, it becomes an image and the image becomes something else. I’m torn, but that particular scene I do really like. Also because of the blocking. All the people are standing. In the scene everybody’s listening. Filmmaking enables you to almost feel a part of it because you are an audience and somebody is saying something. Then you see her and you mirror your own isolation into that image.

Can you think of a shot throughout your career that was particularly challenging to complete?

Every single one. There are two kinds. The true challenging shot and then there’s the regular challenging shot. The regular challenging shot is always the first day of the shoot. That happens to me every time. You walk on set, look at your light meter and wonder which button to push. As we talked about The Deep Blue Sea, there’s a beautiful shot when Rachel Weisz is sitting in the opening sequence of the film. She is sitting in front of her chimney and she’s put the gas fire on, but she doesn’t light the flames. She wants to commit suicide. We see her from the side and we can clearly see she’s sitting right in front of the gas and in story terms she’s going to lie down. We wanted to shoot this shot where it’s a true POV of the little gas fire and then the camera starts tracking and finds her having lain down. So you cut from the side where you see her and you cut into her POV, and the POV starts tracking and finds her again and she is lying down on the floor closing her eyes, breathing. Now because it has to be a truthful POV, the positioning of the camera was quite clear. We had clearly seen in the wide shot the distance between her and the gas fire. Hence the camera had to be a certain proximity to the fire. To enable the camera from there to move to reveal her having lain down. If you had tried with a regular dolly move, it would have meant as if the camera is moving away. The camera would have had to track back and pan to reveal her lying down and it would have been a very detectable move which would have made a comment. It would have almost created it like there is somebody else in the room. It would have been a very strong deliberate camera move. We only wanted to pan the camera, but to physically execute the shot there was simply no room for Rachel and the camera, and me between Rachel and the camera and fire.

There’s this lens called a Frazier lens. It’s a tubular lens system that has a couple of internal mirrors that you can rotate, so you can rotate the image for example, just by rotating a little wheel on the lens. It’s mostly used for table top photography in commercials. We’d rigged the camera in the very position and then the camera could literally just pan while the camera was not ever moving. Literally 180 degrees. It would physically not obstruct Rachel from sitting right behind me, because she’s also introduced a mirror. So once the camera pans off the gas fire then we see a mirror in which Rachel is reflected and clearly to be seen to be sitting, almost where I was sitting with the camera. Then the camera keeps on panning right and then she’s leaning down and she lands in a close-up. The only lens with which you could execute it was that system called the Frazier lens. The only problem with the Frazier lens is it has something like I think an 8, so it’s a really slow lens. We had shot already the beginning of the scene and it was the end of the first day. And the next day that shot came up and I said we have to get this lens. I, of course, had set myself up for complete catastrophe because I’d lit it so dark. So we had to light this darkness for an 8. It was the only big blunder I’ve had in my career so far. I was really pushing it and my gaffer, Gary Varney, was saying this is going to be tight, man. I was pushing my light meter very hard. It came back the next day and it was nothing on there. The lens is brutal. It killed me completely, so we had to reshoot it, which we did. I had lit it more appropriately, more technically, which I did. But it turned out it was a very beautiful shot.

Florian on set of The Deep Blue Sea. Photo: © Liam Daniel

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