An Interview with Jeffrey Jur
Jeffrey Jur is an acclaimed cinematographer. He has shot films including The Last Seduction, Dirty Dancing, Panic and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He has also worked on series such as, Dexter, Carnivàle, Westworld, Colony, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Lodge 49, and The Mentalist. I spoke with Jeffrey about his experience on Dirty Dancing, his work on Dexter, the influences behind The Last Seduction, shooting the car-crash scene, and his most challenging shot to complete.
Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?
In film school, I was making my own films and working on other students films but began to specialize in cinematography. Of all the various jobs on the set, it appealed to me the most. Making/directing one film could take many months, whereas you could shoot and be involved in many different projects over the same time. I loved the variety!
I had been shooting student projects at school, then outside school, and then even some of the professors’ independent projects. I was not being paid yet to shoot, but the experience was invaluable. To pay the rent I took on work as assistant, electrician, PA, anything film-related really, but always kept shooting. My big break as cinematographer finally came on a four public television projects, part of an anthology series based on short stories from well know writers like Ray Bradbury and F. Scott Fitzgerald. These had real actors, and I was amazed to find myself lighting and framing people like Alan Arkin, Sean Young and Fred Gwynne. These were modest productions and we usually shot in 16mm film with small crews, but it was national exposure for my work and encouraged my move to Los Angeles.
Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who have really inspired your work?
Gordon Willis’ work is always a great to reminder to simplify, he shows how little you need to tell a story, how elegant simplicity often works best and to respect the audiences intelligence. Roger Deakins for his lighting and use of color of course, but especially for how he moves the camera in a way to perfectly tell the story of each scene. You feel so comfortable in his design, always looking at the right thing at the right time in the right way. Conrad Hall as well to know how to take chances, to experiment and push the envelope.
You were director of photography on Dirty Dancing. What was the experience like, and how did this come about?
A producer out of NY liked to contact and gather people around the country that she admired and had seen my work at the Sundance Film Festival. We stayed in touch and she finally had a film for me, a small budget non-union project that became Dirty Dancing. I turned it down initially for another television project whose script I liked. This producer, to my endless gratitude, convinced me I needed to be shooting feature films and turned my decision around. The director had just won an Academy Award for a dance documentary, but had not done a dramatic film before. We met in New York, got along well and next thing I know we’re in North Carolina & Virginia shooting this coming-of-age period film. Of course at the time we had no idea of the impact this little movie would have in the world! To this day, I love filming musical events, so much fun getting caught up in the energy and excitement of the sound & dance combined.
You also shot The Last Seduction, a great neo-noir thriller. Were there any films that particularly influenced your approach in terms of style?
Well, almost every noir film from post-war Hollywood informed me, all that inky darkness and ominous shadows. The challenge was to do it in color and in a contemporary setting. We tried to take light away as the story progressed and the main character kept getting drawn deeper into the plot, using darkness and silhouettes often. I’m proud to have added to the noir tradition of the empowered "femme fatale” genre!
In one scene, Bridget is driving while being held at gunpoint by Harlan. She manages to distract him and purposefully crashes the car, the impact of the crash sends Harlan hurtling through the windshield. Can you tell me how this shot was captured?
We actually staged a car crash on location, with 2 stunt people, one driving, one catapulted through the front windshield! The glass was fake breakaway, but that guy went through it on impact! We set 2 cameras, as you often do on a stunt, hoping to do it just once, pretty sure we could only afford one take. The last shot of Harlan dead on the ground was the actual actor, switched out and matching the movement of the stunt guy. Most of the car interior work, by the way, was shot "poor-mans” which means the vehicle was not moving, all motion staged with simple lighting effects and camera movement, and grips rocking the car with 2x4s! An effect I’ve used quite a bit is small bulbs moving slowly through tree branches outside the car windows to mimic driving. On longer lenses that background is quite convincing.
You’ve worked on series such as Dexter, Mad Men, Lodge 49, Colony, How to Get Away with Murder, Westworld, and many more. Do you prefer working in television to film, and what are some of the biggest challenges you have faced working in television?
I find shooting television right now incredible. The production values have gotten so high, the budgets large and the writing is often so complex & varied. When I began in television, producers were concerned, since I had done mostly features, whether I could shoot quickly. Funny, because the films I was shooting were often made in 25 days! The need to shoot quickly and well is the biggest challenge, for sure. It’s also tricky to maintain visual consistency throughout a long production schedule on a television series with various directors, producers, show-runners, and alternating cinematographers. The cable & streaming shows commit to a number of episodes, which creates a comfort level as there is less fear of getting canceled in the middle of production, which has happened on a show I was shooting!
Can you tell me more about your work on Dexter? Which camera did you use to shoot the series, and do you have a preferred camera/kit?
When I came on to Dexter the show was going for 6 seasons and had been shooting with older Sony digital cameras. It was a finicky and outdated process and I felt more comfortable with the Arriflex Alexa system, which I had been using quite a bit, and managed to convince them to switch. In my interview, I told them with the Alexa I could continue to deliver the distinct, heightened color palate they had established. As with most episodic television these days, we shot with two cameras full time and I find the Arriflex system very production friendly and efficient. We used mostly Panavision Primo zooms, particularly the 19-90, as the show leaned heavily towards a wide angle style, and that lens is fast and compact, especially for handheld work.
Every project has its own visual requirements, so I try to assemble the tools needed to tell each of those stories. I recently worked on a period Netflix series with the Sony Venice camera, filming at 6k resolution which I’ve come to love and used the Arriflex Signature lenses, which were beautiful and helped render the amazing 1813 English decor & costumes we had in front of the camera!
Can you think of a shot throughout your career that was particularly challenging to complete?
I shot a few episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and they were known for some amazing, long Steadicam shots and I very much wanted to take on that challenge for myself. The concept was to fly over a busy 1960’s Vegas casino gambling room and land on two characters entering. A drone was out of the question, as the ceilings were too low and we would be pushing very close to moving background players. We came up with a very cool trick to detach a remote head from a crane and run with hand-held it to continue the shot beyond the reach of the Technocrane. I shot some iPhone video in prep to help calculate where the crane track had to be laid and where the transition from crane to hand-held could take place smoothly. We did a few rehearsals to make sure it was safe, as the camera was flying quite close to the set decoration and the actors. Eventually they felt more comfortable and were able to just miss the flying camera, which added to the energetic movement. It came off beautifully, soaring through the period background players and the spot-on decor and had a great energy as an introduction to this exciting new world for Midge.