An Interview with Ulf Brantås
Ulf Brantås is an acclaimed cinematographer. He has shot films including Show Me Love, Together, Lilya-4-Ever, We are the Best, and The Wife, as well as series such as Whitechapel, Marcella and Call the Midwife. I spoke with Ulf about his first experience in the industry, working for Roy Anderson, and his collaborations with Lukas Moodysson.
Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?
No it was never my intention to become a cinematographer. When I was a teenager I had some ideas. I wanted to do different things. When you’re that age you don’t know how life span is distributed. I was sort of hoping to do a few things before I died and one of them was working in an advertisement agency and one was being a musician because I played the drums when I was a teenager, I started playing when I was 13. I was hoping that music would still be around when I grew up, or got old enough. I knew I couldn’t be in a band when I was 13. I thought I’d probably have to wait until I was 18. I thought that music would disappear. That’s the kind of mature perspective of life I had. So working in an advertising agency, becoming a drummer and a musician, or a bartender, or work with film, or becoming a priest, or becoming a diamond dealer. So far I only have two left, priest and diamond dealer, but I got stuck, I was in fact a professional musician around 20 when I finished military service, but the band broke up. For a short brief period I was working as a bartender, some friends of mine had opened a restaurant. One day I read this interview in a newspaper about a director, Roy Anderson.
That interview made sense because at that time and at that stage Swedish cinema was quite depressing. Lots of Ingmar Bergman, very depressing: bourgeois kind of dramas and sort of a battle between sexes: which was quite boring. Roy had an interesting perspective on filmmaking. I walked up to his office because it wasn’t very far from where the restaurant was. So I asked an assistant to him: ‘can I start working?’ They said just write your phone number and we’ll call you up, but they never did. I got really quite annoyed so I started pestering them. I called twice a week for a couple of months. In the end they said they were quite fed up with me: ‘We don’t like you. We don’t like your attitude. You’re too pushy.’ So I said is there any way I can speak to Roy in person because I’d never had the chance to do that and they reluctantly said: ‘okay you can talk to him.’ I explained my situation to Roy and he said, ‘well fine you can come to the set.’ He mentioned the place, just 8 o’clock on Monday Morning. So I went there and I because I’d been touring with a band I bought some good shoes and some gloves because I knew I might make myself useful. I stayed the full day and I never went home. I tried to stay on set for at least a week or so. I managed to do that. They were doing a corporate video for Scandinavian Airlines, but they called me after a couple of weeks and asked me if I wanted to become a runner. Obviously I made some kind of impression. But at that moment I was more interested in editing or scriptwriting.
After a couple of weeks, or months, the two guys working as Roy’s assistants quit and formed their own company. So suddenly there were two positions vacant for me and director Bjorn Runge, who was already working for Roy. I have worked with him quite extensively over the years. For instance we did The Wife together. Anyway, suddenly they needed a production manager and a first AD, so we stepped up.
I was now working as a production manager and I was interested in the tools really because Roy had them all: 35mm and 16mm cameras. He was pretty much completely independent because he had some really bad experiences: The first film he did was a huge success and the second was a total flop, so he went bankrupt. So he decided that he wanted to build up some kind of foundation: a studio, sound equipment, he had all the gear. I was kind of interested in that. Not very technical, but I was interested in the tools.
We were doing a lot of commercials for the Swedish Labour Party and the unions: social insurances on work places. After some time, maybe 10 months, Roy asked me to shoot some documentary stuff and I said I’m not really sure if I can do it. He said just call John: a cameraman he used to work with. So John explained how a lightmeter works over the phone, took him ten minutes. Then I went off to shoot this footage and they cut it into the commercial. After that I shot all Roy’s commercials for a year and a half. I had no formal training at all. When I went to school we had some kind of photography course, something like that, but I was in my early teens then. So I never had any kind of film education, Roy just threw me into the pathway, into the pool and I just had to float.
You frequently collaborate with Lukas Moodysson. How did this collaboration come about, and what’s the process like working with him?
That was another thing that was really odd. As stated I never went to film school, I thought it might be better to work my way through the industry. I mentioned Bjorn, while working on the corporate video as runners and somewhat later we were doing construction work in Roy’s studio. Bjorn was a really great storyteller and he had all these weird ideas, so we’d borrow Roy’s camera. Sometimes we got paid in a few reels of film. Instead of eating, we bought film stock and Roy sort of provided for us.
A couple of years later Bjorn went to film school and I didn’t, I was still working. Björn returned and we did some short films. Björn had met with a producer called Lars Jönsson and Lars tried to soak up new talents. Lars had just written a contract for a short film with a new director called Lukas Moodysson. Lars asked me if I wanted to meet this Lukas Moodysson. I said well I can meet him that’s fine. So I took the train down to the west of Sweden and I met with Lukas. He had an idea for a short film and I tried to sort of pitch myself to do the job, but it was really the worst pitch ever. Everything went totally wrong. I was so un-concentrated and so was Lukas too. His little son, four years old, was running around shooting at me with a space toy gun. I lost the thread and everything I wanted to say I just totally forget. So my impression of that meeting, which went on for an hour or so, was to never meet that man again. But after a while, after three weeks they called me up and said Lukas really liked you and he wants to do a short film with you. So you never know: I’m quite often really off when it comes to judging situations which is really weird too.
We did one or two short films, me and Lukas. And he explained he had this idea for a feature film. It was about two girls, two lesbian teenagers. I said that sounds really interesting. But he was waiting for it to be greenlit because at the time this was the late nineties and just the idea of having someone making a feature film about two teenage lesbians in a very small town in Sweden was sort of quite bizarre. It was a co-production between Lars’ company in Sweden with Lukas and they also had a co-production from Zentropa, Lars von Trier’s company in Denmark. We was just a group of middle aged men who wanted to do this feature film tried to get some financing from the Swedish film board, but the only woman who was involved in the process was quite reluctant, I don’t know why. For some reason the Danish film counsellor congratulated her on having so many other good scripts that she could turn this down. So she had second thoughts, but after a while she said you’re getting the money, so it was greenlit. That was sort of the preconditions for doing Show Me Love.
It was quite odd because Lukas never presented any kind of mood board, he just told me what he didn’t want, I suggested we shoot this on reversal stock and we can develop it like a negative. We decided on using a zoom lens and I said I didn’t want to use any kind of wide shots, or establishing shots. I said the camera should be like adhesive plaster on these girls, something stuck to them all the way through, so you’d have that kind of intensity. You wouldn’t leave them at any moment really, that was my idea and Lukas said fine. After a while, a couple of days, whatever I said to Lukas he just contradicted me and if I said A he said I want it to be B. We had these kind of discussions and arguments and to me it sounded a really weird way of working, as if he needed some kind of resistance. So I started saying things I didn’t like. After a while I got my will anyway and I assume he understood that I was lying, well we didn’t argue anymore. It was more like a psychological struggle between us.
Sometimes you read about how a cameraman or a DP collaborates with a director and it becomes slightly romantic, how they found new territory. I never had a very close contact with Lukas. Even though we’ve done four feature films together, some of them have been really quite successful. When we’re shooting these films it’s more like you get together, you talk a bit and when you’re finished, you’re finished. It’s not like something you collaborate on a deeper level. I believe he must have had some kind of trust in my way of handling the situation or the camerawork. He’s called me a couple of times and that is must be some kind of evidence.
You also shot Together, which takes place in 1975. What challenges did you face in designing and achieving this look?
In those days, 2000 or something like that, 1999, there weren’t any digital cameras around so we were always shooting on film. My modus operandi is trying to be as efficient as possible and make it quite effortless. I’m not very interested in the technical side of things I just wanted to work so I’m sort of more face value. I’m more interested in the storytelling than creating some kind of beautiful images.
But we shot that on 35mm film and I know that Lukas was part of that too because he hated having to wait for the camera to get ready. We used really long zoom lenses, but at that time Kodak had some film stock which was really fast, 800 ASA. We pushed it to 1600 ASA and used some light bulbs which were really powerful. We changed all the practical’s we had. We had these strong 250/500 watts bulbs which we had to switch off because between takes as the lamp shades would catch fire.
So that was the idea, but it was quite contained as a story and that counted for the set too. We were shooting in this house and the production designer was an artist. I assume that 95% of the props in the house were his personal belongings. The house and the house on the opposite side of the road, which was the neighbour’s house with the family of the boy with glasses. They lived across the street. The wardrobe was stuff you’d find at the Salvation Army. It wasn’t complicated in that way. Production design department was really meticulous, for instance all the books on the bookshelves, none of them were published after November 1975. Even if you didn’t open the book, and there was a period gum wrapping in the ashtray. The amount of paying attention to detail, that was really amazing.
Some of the actors had grown up in communities like that, hippy communities. They had some kind of an experience. Everyone had that background and hated that hippy community, so it was a weird backlash when it came to what they were supposed to do. They were in fact playing their own parents. That was interesting.
Could you tell me more about your experience shooting Lilya-4-Ever? What research was involved before filming?
Lukas had seen this documentary portraying the life of this girl. She wasn’t from Estonia, she was from Latvia, or Lithuania I think. A story about this young girl, her mother disowned her and was sex trafficked by someone to Sweden and on New Year’s Day in the winter she threw herself off a bridge and died. I never saw the documentary.
The interior scenes were shot/built in a studio in Sweden, but all the exterior stuff we shot in Estonia. There were these areas outside of Tallinn which were really derelict and in a bad state. The Soviet Union had collapsed nine years earlier. It was quite a poor area. We shot in Estonia first and then we went to Sweden to do all the interior stuff in her apartment as well as some exterior stuff. The last bits in Lilya-4-Ever we shot in Malmo, in the south of Sweden. The last place where filming took place was in the spot where she died.
Apart from a bit of location scouting, we never prep in a more traditional sense. I’d never done that with Lukas. It’s like we had this situation - let’s shoot this. It’s not very analytic or anything like that, it’s let’s get together and shoot some stuff. ‘You take care of the camera, I’ll take care of the direction. If I don’t like it I’ll tell you.’
It’s a funny way of collaborating, but if you’re used to that you’re not really missing anything. Sometimes it works the opposite, if you have a director who wants to analyse things too much. You can only prepare yourself to a certain level and then you have to start working and you have to be open to what’s happening in front of the camera. You can’t, three months in advance have pretty detailed ideas of how to shoot things, that doesn’t really work for me because in those situations when you’re more interested in your own theory of how to shoot it instead of actually focus on what’s happening in front of the camera to me it’s obvious which way to go.
You last collaboration was We are The Best. Do you plan on collaborating again?
I don’t think so. Honestly every time he’s called me again I’ve been quite surprised. I’m quite pragmatic about it, if they call me that’s fine, if they don’t call me that’s fine too. You can never know what kind of deal the director has with the financers or the producers, or executives.
Lukas did a feature film called Mammoth with Gael Garcia Bernal and it was his first big feature film. He also did another film called A Hole in My Heart and I didn’t shoot either of them, but I know that when we had done Lilya-4-Ever, we were in the United States for some screenings in New York. Lukas told me he had this idea about a family who were doing porn. He thought it was an interesting thing to do a feature film about. So he sort of invited me, at least told me about his plans.
I know the American distributors were really keen to do the feature film in the USA, but for some reason it became a union thing with shooting in LA. It should have been quite expensive. So Lukas was thinking if shooting it in Florida or somewhere outside of California.
But I didn’t hear anything for quite a while, then I heard he was going to do A Hole in My Heart in a flat here in Sweden. It was extremely contained they were going to shoot for three weeks. Because we had this discussion when we did Lilya-4-Ever; should we shoot it on film or should we shoot it on video? In those days if you’re going for theatre distribution you had to shoot film anyway because video would look great on TV, but look bad on a movie screen. So we had that discussion and I think he always wanted to use a consumer video camera.
On A Hole in My Heart he used four non-professional camera operators with video cameras. I think they shot 72 hours of material during those three weeks. Shooting that way you don’t have any kind of spine. You don’t have any kind of structure. It is merely just registering the action in front of the camera. So they spent six months editing that, they had to keep 2 hours, but get rid of 70 hours of film. That’s not a very efficient way of shooting.
I had an agent here in Sweden who heard rumours that Lukas was going to do another feature film. I think finally his American distributor said we want you to do a big budget international movie, but I hadn’t heard anything from Lukas. My agent told me to call Lukas because everyone’s asking her. After a while I called Lukas and asked if he was doing another feature film and he said yes…well if you want to you can read it.’ So he sent me the script and I thought it was really interesting, probably the best script he ever wrote. But I didn’t hear anything from him and I went to Japan for a couple of weeks with my girlfriend. While we were in Japan there was an article in a newspaper about a press conference in Cannes regarding this film and there was another DP there, a Danish DP on that podium with Lukas and Gael Garcia Bernal, Michelle Williams. I never heard anything and I wasn’t asked. I thought probably some politics, you know.
A few years later Lars the producer called me up and said Lukas is going to do another film called We Are the Best and asked if I might be interested in shooting it, I said, ‘sure of course.’ So we did that, but that’s the last time we worked together. But I have met him a couple of times over the last couple of years as The Swedish Film Institute has restored and created new digital negatives, since we shot Show Me Love on Super16mm reversal stock, very grainy, then Together on 35mm stock, Lilya on Super16mm stock. Early on when they transferred it to a digital tape, because the digital tape didn’t have much resolution it couldn’t really handle the amount of information in the image, it looked really bad.
The Swedish Film Institute has a programme where they are restoring old films from the past. So over the last two or three years they have been trying to recreate the original feel in a 4K digital world, so I’ve been involved in that.
Apart from that we don’t have very much contact at all, that’s the way it is sometimes. That’s part of the industry. Part of the job is you work with someone and it’s quite sort of intense depending on your personalities. Sometimes you work with the same director again, you may want to do the next project with them, but never happens because you’re busy. I have worked with some directors several times which is really good. I think that’s a good sign. If you never hear from the director again you know it probably wasn’t a good collaboration, but if they call you like 10 years later and say I’ve been trying to call your agent four or five times, but you’re always busy. Over the years if you worked with more than one director and handful come back to you I think that might be a good sign. But who am I to judge?