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An Interview with Jeff Cronenweth

Jeff Cronenweth is an Academy Award nominated cinematographer. Known for his collaborations with David Fincher, Jeff’s credits include, Fight Club, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. He has also shot films such as, One Hour Photo, Hitchcock, A Million Little Pieces and K-19: The Widowmaker, as well as music videos for artists including, David Bowie, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Nine Inch Nails, Michael Jackson and Maroon 5. I spoke with Jeff about following in his Dad’s footsteps, working with Sven Nykvist, his collaborations with David Fincher, and his work on Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Of course cinematography and photography runs in your family. Was it a career you were always interested in pursuing?

Obviously I got to visit the set when I was a young child and I became enamoured with the team effort, the collaboration amongst everybody and this kind of notion of having a common goal of going out and trying to overcome all the obstacles that day to make great scenes and a great film. So I fell in love with that and the procedure and I wanted to be part of it. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was intrigued by the camera department obviously because that’s what my father did. So I just knew that I wanted to be involved and watch and see and kind of find my nuance which, as I got older, became obvious the camera department and cinematography and following in my Dad’s footsteps.

I ended up going to film school and I worked my way through the camera department as a loader and I was a camera operator and then before I knew it I was shooting.

You were a camera assistant and camera operator for Sven Nykvist. What was the biggest thing you took away from working with him?

I did a number of films with my Dad and then when my Dad was forced to retire for health reasons, I literally walked right into meeting Sven Nykvist and then did another seven movies with him over a five year period. Had a great friendship. It’s an amazing luxury to have both those guys as mentors because they are super talented but their styles are not necessarily similar. They approached storytelling from the same perspective, but lighting styles they are different. So it was a great opportunity to see two masters.

Kind of what my takeaway from both of them is they were such gentlemen and they had such a presence on the set and they garnered respect and they did it in a way that was not boisterous, but kind of reserved and internalised. It’s a great way to manage teams. As a cinematographer you can only do so much on your own, you need help. It takes a team, you can’t really do it by yourself. The ability to encourage and inspire your crew is imperative, especially when it’s very long hours or physical challenges and what not. They just did it in such a great way that everybody was proud and gave your all to be part of their projects.

Are there any differences in the typical challenges you would face when working on feature films versus music videos and commercials? And if so how, if at all, do you change your approach to the project to overcome these challenges?

I mean of course they are a bit of a different beast. On a music video you tend to make singular images that have to be beautiful and represent the artist in the most complimentary way should that be that type of video. In a feature film you are doing this scene, you have a master and you have to do coverage within that scene that could be ten shots over a three day period. Each one of those shots has to have the same weight visually as the master did and you need to keep people engaged and you need to keep the humanity and so that is a considerably more difficult task than simply making a pretty shot for a music video.

Music videos have their own challenges of course. Everybody’s trying to push the boundaries, everybody wants to invent something new. Nowadays the budgets aren’t quite what they used to be, so you have financial restraints that you have to overcome. And they’re always really pushing the envelope culturally and pop wise and what’s going on. So they have their own wonderful challenges, they are great fun to do. It’s not the same thing as trying to tell a story and the continuity involved and that responsibility for sure.

You were cinematographer on One Hour Photo. The whole film feels very orderly and distinct. Was that a reflection of Sy and his inner world?

Yeah it most definitely was. To me when I talk about the films that I have photographed, that one in particular stands out because it was a smaller film. The story was divided into three worlds. The store that he worked in his workplace that was this kind of a safe haven in theory to him almost because he felt like he was creating art and life with his photo processing. His reality of his life which is a small, abandoned very cold and sterile apartment. Then the house that he wanted to be part of, the family who he idolised as the perfect life for him. So I got to photographically create three different environments. It became a storytelling point. Is the look true to those three different worlds? That combined, we went out to try and achieve a lot of shot in shot frames in frames because it was about photos and photo processing and his obsession. It was very kind of straight up and standalone to kind of present things. We didn’t want to overcomplicate it. We wanted the actors to be able to find their nuances in humanity within this kind of simple structure and let it be the light of these three places and the performances.

You frequently collaborate with David Fincher. What’s the process like working with him?

David kind of models his approach after Hitchcock in the sense that it’s all about the prep. If you prepare yourself for, first of all eliminate any kind of obstacles or challenges that may come up and then to be prepared for those when they do. So by the time you get to the set and start principal photography, you’ve solved a good portion of the dilemmas, and then allow yourself just the luxury of shooting as much time as you can. For him it’s about as much time with the actors on camera that he can, so we traditionally would block a scene out before the crew arrives, before call time with the talent, myself, the AD and script supervisor, and David of course. Block it all out. Allow the crew to see it once when they get there. Talent goes off to hair, make-up and wardrobe. We light for however long it takes for that scene. But I have to have a strategy that I can very quickly adjust that master shot to accommodate the coverage within the scene to give him the most screen time with the actors. So that becomes a really good challenge and task at hand to conform to that. It doesn’t always work out, obviously sometimes there are dramatic changes and changed sets and all that kind of stuff. But we try to be as much ahead of it as we can to allow the most time on camera.

Fincher is known for his unique visual style, especially his use of minimal lighting. How does this affect your approach to lighting his films?

That’s one of the beautiful things about the partnership that we have, the collaborations that we’ve had over the years. Even from a time when I was a camera assistant and had the opportunity to work with him a few times, aesthetically we saw eye to eye. We kind of share some of the same sensibilities and that made it really easy each time to discover what it is that particular film’s language would be and then kind of adjust to that. It felt second nature to me. I think that’s maybe one of the reasons why it worked out so well, it was effortless within reason. Effortless, but still a lot of work. That we’re able to do it so well for so long is because we share a lot of the same style and sensibilities and then once we picked a particular approach to a film then we nuanced it in that order. So for me it was always finding the range within that kind of genre that we decided to emulate and then go running with it.

Your first feature film collaboration was Fight Club. How did the opportunity come about?

Technically it was. I had worked with my father on Aliens 3 with him. I had shot second unit on both Seven and The Game. So when Fight Club came along he asked me to come meet him at his house and handed me the script and said: ‘Read this. Let me know tomorrow if you want to shoot it.’ I had assumed that I was going in order to meet him to talk about second unit again. So it was a funny thing when he handed me the script and said: ‘Read this tonight and let me know if you want to do it.’ I didn’t have to read the script to know that I wanted to do it right? So I had to kind of play it off and say I’ll give it a read and see what I think, but I danced all the way to my car, knowing that was something I couldn’t wait to do. But it was a funny thing because that script in particular, I sat there with David and he said when he was describing what it was going to be, he was like: ‘This is a very complicated story to try to tell. It’s the probably the best script I’ll ever get to direct. It’s probably the best film that Brad will have the opportunity to perform in. I want it to be our, the nineties, our generation’s Blade Runner in the sense of a cultural kind of iconic film to be regarded later.’ But he didn’t think that it would necessarily make any money.

Going in that is obviously something that once you spend two years of your life, or a year and a half of your life putting together that’s unfortunately how most films success are measured, in the sense of the money that it made and not the cultural influence. In all fairness it did make a lot of money later, but not necessarily in the initial release. It made most of its money on DVD releases and then on (pay per view) channel views, that kind of stuff. It was interesting but it was a challenging film for sure to kind of wrap your head around and figure out how we were going to bring what Chuck had written to the screen.

You collaborated again on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Did the original Swedish adaptation have any influence on your approach to shooting the film, or did you try to differ from it as much as possible?

When I got invited to join Dragon Tattoo I hadn’t seen the movies, or read the book. I was advised not to, only because Ceán, David’s producer said that she’d seen the movies, read the books earlier and had the script and sometimes would get lost in what we were dealing with versus what she remembered from the book and the previous movies. In order to stay focused and not be distracted by it, I chose not to view those until after we’d finished ours. I thought they did a really good job. Those movies were intended to be television releases I thought at the beginning. Then they were done so well they released it theatrically, the first one. Each sequel after that had less and less money. They didn’t have a lot of money to start with for the budgets. You could tell they were going to keep things at a certain level, but I thought they did a really good job.

I think it was a good choice and we made a different movie, so it was a great experience and it was a beautifully conceived movie.

Did working with Sven Nykvist help you prepare in anyway?

100%. I laugh about it because I heard so many stories from him where his style came from. He used to joke that he only knew how to do two people at a table or next to a window having coffee. That was his answer to everything. He talked about how it stemmed from the notion that winters in Sweden were always soft light, overcast and you would have window light that was soft coming in. He kind of made his style around that. You know, naturally to fit into what he had to deal with. He brought that style to the United States. It’s not like he invented soft light, but he certainly brought a style over and then of course I heard all the stories of his experiences with Bergman and shooting in Sweden and Stockholm. The non-film parts as well.

It was really easy, once I landed and the first day of shooting I just kind of looked around and felt and saw everything he’d said. So it was really quite wonderful.

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

If it’s going to be a shot I would probably say something like in K-19: The Widowmaker. There’s a scene that starts on the road of the port and we take sailors into the submarine, through the entire compartment of the submarine and down and back out of the bow into the street where a car accident happens. That was a pretty complicated shot in 2001 when we filmed the movie. It was hand held and handed off from one operator to another and we had some lifts that dropped and crew members that were dressed as actors to facilitate focus and hatches opening. It had a lot layers to it, but came off beautifully and you felt the energy that we were trying to capture.

As far as a sequence would go I would say it’s kind of a toss-up between the car crash in Dragon Tattoo and the car crash in Fight Club. Only because there are so many elements involved that you are unaware of. In Fight Club when Brad leans over and tells Ed Norton to: ‘Just let go.’ And so they’re driving down the road and he lets go, so the car goes crashing down into the embankment and rolling over and flipping. Well that probably took ten days to do, in eight different, or ten different locations, including three nights out of the wash road shots, plate shots. A half car on stage that we rotated the talent in. Rear screen projection for the dialogue and then a set piece where the car slid to the bottom and the boys climbed out. So it had so many elements and you’re talking in 1997. The technology was still evolving and it wasn’t quite as simple as it is today to do it. So there were many, many layers and angles and pick up shots, re-shoots and all kinds of things to get it into the shape that you saw in the film. Most people are unaware of. It looks like a car crash and the car goes over and there you go. ‘You guys all shot it in one night that it took place.’ I’m like well no, not exactly. It’s never that simple.

The final scene in Fight Club is one people always speak about. How difficult was it to shoot that scene?

We went before production started on that film, we went and shot century city and juxtaposed buildings to create a city that didn’t exist. Then sent that off to get turned into a translight. Fincher had this notion of trying to do two translights with a gap, so there would be some perspective to it instead of it being so flat. That translight took seven months to make and it’s massive. I want to say it was like 40 foot tall and 120 feet long, something like that, the two of them together. Because that set was a giant office floor with giant windows that saw everything and so there are so many layers to it. The set was being built and we were shooting downtown and the set had to be lit and we had only seen one inch test strips of it to pick colors and pick density up until that.

So the night before we’re shooting it, we wrapped downtown, drive to Fox, walk onto the stage and turn on the lights and one of them is brighter and bluer than the other one and we’re shooting the next morning. So it was a terrifying evening, the rigging crew was going to stay all night to fix whatever, we had to go back and go home to come back the next day and do the scene. So we just made a guess. I think we had over 100 skypans, which is an old kind of light that takes 10k bulbs or 5k bulbs, so I switched out the ones on the side that was too bright to 5k glows and I ordered a gel to gel the entire back of the translight for the one that was too blue. They were guesses and it wasn’t until the next morning that we arrived on set with talent and we lit up and miraculously it looked the same.

That was quite fortunate and lucky guessing on our part, but then there were plates, explosion plates shot out in the desert for the buildings collapsing and actually blowing up. I had a Scrim built between us and the translight because it softens the translight slightly and you put fans on it and it gives the illusion that lights are twinkling in the air that you’d normally get when you’re shooting outside at night. Then we did all kinds of plates of reflections and blacking out the entire thing so you could see the reflections of the actors in the glass, then take the glass away and then shot green screen and then motion control. It was a very complicated scene to get on camera. But magical for sure and appropriate on the last sequence of the film.

The beautiful thing about that first meeting and he said,’ I want it to be like Blade Runner for us.’ And it was and it became that. Blade Runner and Fight Club are both in the Library of Congress. They take one or two movies each year and make them something to keep restored forever. Fight Club is there and so is Blade Runner, so that’s a cool fact.

What are your views on streaming platforms and their role in modern cinema?

I think it’s wonderful. I think that what you’re seeing now on television has as much production value and thought and talent and engaging an audience as anything in the cinemas. I’m not one to hope that one replaces the other, I just think they are beautiful, amazing ways of viewing films, or storylines. The one advantage you have with streaming is you can have much longer developed characters and see arcs, because you have eight hours to do it as opposed to two hours. You can really have complicated storylines that have time to evolve. I think it’s amazing. The qualities of the cameras now and the quality of the displays. It’s really made that experience worthy, where you couldn’t get it before. But there’s still nothing like sitting in the audience of a theatre and watching a 70mm print projected or a 4K display projected of something that was captured in anamorphic, or 70mm, or large format. That experience is hard to replace.

You asked about Mark Romanek earlier, you asked about One Hour Photo. I shot a pilot for him for Tales from the Loop, which was an amazon streaming show last year that was released this year in April. Ideal timing for us because everyone was captured at home, so we had a captive audience. I was really pleased with the whole experience. He has desires to make more films, he stops because the parameters turn out not be what he wants, but I’ve been down the path with him on several films that in the end he has walked away from. Hopefully he’ll find things that keep enticing him to get out there and make more projects.

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