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An Interview with Simon Duggan


Simon Duggan is an acclaimed cinematographer. He has shot films such as, The Great Gatsby, Hacksaw Ridge, The Interview, Die Hard 4.0, Underworld: Evolution, and I, Robot. I spoke with Simon about his career as a cinematographer, his work on The Great Gatsby, shooting Hacksaw Ridge, and his preferred camera/kit.

Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line? I was first introduced into the world of cinematography at High School in Sydney, Australia. We had a two year course on Film and Television Production. I learnt the basics about an industry that I previously had no idea about. On leaving school I searched for a job in the film world and was lucky enough to find a job as an attachment to the camera department at a commercial film production company. Over several years I worked my way up through the camera department, finally shooting in my mid-twenties.

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

Most of my inspiration came from my early days watching films shot by DP Vittorio Storaro and Director Bernardo Bertolucci such as The Conformist, 1900 and The Last Emperor and later Apocalypse Now with Dir Francis Ford Coppola. DP Gordon Willis with The Godfather series also with Francis Ford Coppola directing. DP Jordan Cronenweth's Bladerunner directed by Ridley Scott was another beautifully lit film. I also loved the use of light in David Finchers film Se7en shot by DP Darius Khondji. DP Harris Savides did some beautiful films with Gus Van Sant, I was really impressed by the way all these directors of photography created the mood of their films through their lighting and composition.

You worked as cinematographer on The Great Gatsby. What was the experience like, and how did you prepare?

Baz Luhrmann and his wife, Production and Wardrobe designer Catherine Martin are amazing to work with, pre-production was very thorough with a lot of research, attention to even the smallest detail of the set designs, set dressing, costuming and lighting. I did a lot of research into the lighting that existed in the mid 20’s and was surprised to find that it had become quite sophisticated by then, giving me a lot of freedom to use all sorts of practical’s and spot light fixtures for the film. Baz did a lot of rehearsals with the actors so everyone was well prepared. I had lit everything to allow quick lighting resets between angle changes through a dimmer board. It allowed Baz a lot of freedom to move around within the sets with speed. The sets were massive and stunning and some of the most memorable lighting setups and camera movement I have done.

There is a brilliant moment in the party scene when Gatsby introduces himself to Nick Carraway during the fireworks display. How was this scene filmed?

It’s interesting you ask about the moment when Nick Carraway is introduced to Gatsby. Gatsby was a mysterious personality which no one had any past knowledge. Director Baz Luhrmann wanted to amplify Nick's first impression of Gatsby. A Steadicam transitions through a series of shots at one of Gatsby’s parties, through a tray of champagne flutes, establishing Nick’s observation of a Black Onyx ring drawing him towards this stranger who finally turns, almost as though the whole thing had been orchestrated by Gatsby he then introduces himself to Nick in the most impressive way.

Which camera did you use to shoot the film, and do you have a preferred camera/kit? We shot The Great Gatsby in real 3D which means two cameras shooting simultaneously through a mirror. We wanted a lightweight camera rig so that we could still have the freedom of handheld and Steadicam coverage so we chose the Red Epic camera system.

I have also used the Arri Alexa on many film productions with Cooke lenses and recently have been using the larger format Sony Venice.

You also worked on Hacksaw Ridge. Can you tell me about the process working with Mel Gibson, and how important the collaboration is between the director and DOP?

Mel Gibson was great to work with, he is an amazing storyteller and really knows how to structure a film. He is particularly very good with the actors and working their characters. We did a lot of research using recently released WW2 shot by Combat War Cameraman showing how horrific the warfare and conditions were. We kept the film as factual as we could, we had a great collaboration and with all the research and pre-production it went very smoothly and as with most productions once you commence shooting you have developed a mutual trust with each other when it comes to the overall creative decisions as you move forward.

Can you think of a shot throughout your career that you are particularly proud of?

The most impressive shots are usually the one take 2 minute camera moving through a scene with perfect timing, choreography and performances. The problem is they normally don't make it through the edit for timing reasons. I think some of the most amazing scenes I’ve shot involve the party scenes in The Great Gatsby using Techno cranes and Steadicam to float through massive hordes of party goers, dancers, swimmers and all with atmospheric objects floating through frame such as confetti, streamers and balloons, all creating quite a visual feast in 3D.

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