Talking about Capote (2005) with Cinematographer Adam Kimmel
How did Capote first get brought to your attention?
Interestingly I got a script for the other Truman Capote movie first, “Every Word is True” I think it was called (it was later retitled “Infamous”). I got the script from my agent. I didn’t know anyone involved. And right around the same time I got a call to do a commercial with a guy in New York who I didn’t know. I was in LA and on my way to Spain to shoot another commercial but I had one or two days in between and this commercial in New York was landing perfectly on that day so I agreed to do it. I took the red eye from LA to NY, got off the plane, and went to a location scout for a one day commercial shoot with this director named Bennett Miller who was at Hungry Man doing TV commercials. I’d never heard of him, but I got there, I met Bennett, we scouted and afterwards he said to me “I’ve been waiting for the right job to hire you for a couple years. You and I met briefly at a screening for Jesus Son. I’m friends with Alison McClean the director, and I came with her to a screening of Jesus Son at the Museum of Modern art, and I really loved the film. At the end of it, Alison walked up to you, introduced me and said to ‘What did you think?’”. And I was really upset because they had messed up the printing. I had graded the movie on Kodak film, I had gotten them a deal on Kodak film stock at a great price to release the movie, and at the last moment one of the producer’s had decided, based on his suggestion of an ex-boyfriends who was a DP) to print some of the prints on Fuji film. And I had no problem with that, except that you would need to grade the movie on Fuji film if you were going to release it on Fuji film. And she had just kind of half-assed called the lab and said “lets release the movie on Fuji film”. And so the print that I saw at the museum of modern art was shit. All the color grading and the tones were off and the skintones and the color…and that movie should look really beautiful on film. It was shot with a very specific look and I loved how it looked and I came to the museum of modern art to see it with an audience and it was a mess. So when I walked out I talked to the producer and I said “The print was awful what happened?” and she said “Oh we printed it on Fuji film” and I said “And you didn’t include me in that conversation?” and she said “Oh, it’s just a couple of prints. You know the show prints are still Kodak, but a couple of the prints are on Fuji and we showed that here because we wanted to see it that way.”
And that’s not cool. So right out of that, I had walked into this conversation with Bennett and Alison. And four years later Bennet said to me “Alison asked you how you liked it, and you told her the truth and said ‘I think it’s a fucking mess, and I’m shocked that someone made a decision that affected the look of the movie and didn’t include me’ ”. And he said “I loved how the film looked, and what I was impressed with was that you were a guy that told the truth. I made a note, that when I have a project I care about I’m going to call Adam and work with him”. So then he said to me, “This commercial is not a project I care about, but I have a script for a movie”. And I remember thinking: OK another guy I’ve never heard of doing one day comedy commercials who has a movie script, yeah ok, I’ll give it a look. I’m getting on a plane, I’ll read it on the plane. So I said OK. We did this one day commercial together, we got along really well, I really liked him. He’s sort of an eccentric, odd guy but I really clicked with him. I said goodbye, ran to the airport, got on the flight, and I sat down on the plane to read the script. I think it was probably early spring at the time and he had put a note inside of it that said “I’m hoping to do this movie in the fall for around 5 or 6 million dollars. It’s my first film. I made a documentary called The Cruise but this is my first narrative film and I have Philip Seymore Hoffman to play Truman”. And I love Phil, but at that point Phil was a supporting actor and he wasn’t the lead in movies. And I had tried to make this little indie movie with him called “Love, Liza”. Do you know that movie?
No. I’m not familiar with it.
I loved the script so much. His brother Gordy wrote the script and Phil was going to be in it and I’d been hired to do it and once I was hired the budget went from like a million and a half dollars (which was the size of Jesus Son) and it went down and down and down until they had like $500,000. And I remember saying to the director “Look, tell me how we’re going to make this movie and I’ll make it with you. I just don’t know how to make a movie in 16 days with no crew”. They were shooting it in Texas I think, and I just felt like it was going to be a mess and it was going to break my heart to see this great script become something where you’re trying to film seven pages a day with no crew, so I wound up backing out of the movie. And it was a regret of mine. I saw the film and it looks like shit, but they made the movie and Phil is amazing in it. So for a couple of years I had been feeling like “Man, I really want to work with him”. And when I read that he was involved with this (and Bennett said he’d known Phil since college) I felt like it was a great opportunity to work with Phil on this script that I loved. So when the plane landed the next morning in Barcelona I called Bennett immediately and said “I love it”. And he said “Great, when you get back to New York, let’s meet”. I came back a couple weeks later, we sat down and talked about it and started prepping the movie. And we thought we were going to shoot that fall. So we jumped right in.
We started prepping the movie and then a couple of weeks later, maybe six weeks in to casually prepping waiting for it to be an officially greenlit movie, this other movie “Every word is true” which I had been sent the script for, started posturing wildly and trying to squash our movie. I didn’t like their script and I had passed on taking a meeting because it was sort of a sensationalist homophobic version of the same story and Bennett’s script was so much better. And he had Phil Hoffman. So I never took the meeting, but all of a sudden they started putting press releases out saying things like “There’s a competing movie out there. But Philip Seymour Hoffman who is a great actor, is far too big to play Capote”. And they signed Gwyneth Paltrow paying her the equivalent of the entire budget of Capote to sign a song at the beginning of the movie as Peggy Lee. They had a ton more money, we had a much smaller budget. But they scared one of the financiers that was in place off the movie and we kind of lost the movie. So Phil went off and took a high paying job on Mission Impossible III, and Bennett and I kept doing commercials together and got to be friends and spent a bunch of time together but we didn’t really talk about the movie because we didn’t really know if it was ever going to happen. And a whole year went by. It was 2003 that I met him, but we got into 2004 and the other movie it trying to get up and running, when one of the people at United Artists that Bennett met with that ended up not wanting to fund the movie called up and said “Look, UA is going out of business. The name is being sold, but we have a little bit of money left in an account. It’s not enough to make a movie with but we just thought maybe you could take it and partner with another producer and get your movie up and running” because it was a small low-budget movie we were trying to make for about 5 million dollars. And with that, Bennett’s producer found some guy in Canada who had produced a movie called “Air Bud”.
Oh yeah! About the basketball playing dog?
Right! A basketball playing dog. Exactly. That was that guys credit at the time so he was like “Oh yeah! A real movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman!” so he put in two million and UA had three million and suddenly we had our five million dollars to make this movie and Phil had finished Mission Impossible so we knew we had to start shooting in the fall. We went scouting and chose Winnipeg, Canada. I think this happened maybe in late August or early September. And we were full time up in Canada by the end of September prepping, and we started shooting mid October. So we threw it together. Bennett was casting, we were scouting locations, we were breaking down the script, we were doing everything at once and it was his first film so it was a bit of a baptism by fire.
I listened to the directors and cinematographer commentary on the blu-ray and you mentioned at least two sets. The prison was a set…
Right. That was the main set. Then there was death row that was built in a Quonset hut kind of…well it wasn’t a film studio, it was a building we used as a studio and then the hanging was in a big industrial barn complex outside of that that we built that platform in.
So are you involved with the production designer when they are designing the sets in terms of where you lights are going to go, where you can put fixtures in, where you can fit in cameras, that sort of thing?
Absolutely. Normally more-so. In this case that death row was a copy of Leavenworth state Prison which is where those guys were on death row. I think that death row still exists, but there are lots of photographs of it from that period. The production designer was Jess Gonchor, and this was his first movie as a designer although he’s gone on to do phenomenal stuff like all the Coen Brothers movies, he did Little Women last year…just an incredible designer. So Jess copied Leavenworth, the geography, the scale and size. So there wasn’t much input in changing anything. But I remember conversations about what do you want to do about lighting fixtures etc. There were two things that affected how that prison cell worked in the movie. A lot of the movie takes place in those cells over several years and you keep coming back to him and he’s still in the same cell. And one of the reasons that I pushed very heavily early on to shoot widescreen (I wound up shooting super 35 2.40:1). And the reason was not because of landscapes or exteriors which are prominent in the movie but they certainly weren’t scripted, that was stuff that I did on my own in preproduction that wound up being a big part of what people remember from the film. But the reason I wanted to shoot widescreen was, when you look at a small room in a 1.85 frame it’s very hard to see three walls in a frame. And if you only see two walls, one corner at a time you don’t know how big a room is. So my thinking was, if I shoot a wider screen format I can feel how tiny that prison cell is because almost every shot will have three walls in it. Or at least the ones I want to show. So when you shoot towards the bars you see the whole wall of bars and both cement block walls on either side of it. And then you feel it, you know? So that was the reason I pushed for that format. And the other thing is Bennett and I started looking at prison movies and how to make the jail (which takes up about 1/3 of the movie) how to we make that interesting. The more we looked at movies that are jail-centric the more we felt like “shut it off, this is not our movie. I don’t know what our movie is yet, but I know it’s not going to have breakaway walls and cameras that can move between the bars”. And I wound up going into a very very unforgiving place where I said “Look, I don’t want a light in this cell, I don’t want a window in there where light comes in, I want a light from the hallway which is how it was done at death row. And I want that light to never change. I don’t want to take liberties, I don’t want to have smoke or shafts of light, I don’t want to feel daylight. I want it to feel like he’s been sitting in a complete still frame all of those years.” Because to me, that’s sort of what prison should feel like. And it was challenging because you have to think through every scene in the movie, and every mood change, and every different way that you want to lens everything that takes place there because you can’t change it halfway through. You can’t say “Oh I didn’t think about that”. So we blocked the prison stuff to be not only the same light and the same relationship to the jail cell for the light, but every time Truman comes they put a chair down in the same spot, we shoot them in the same two directions, and way late in the process he sits on the bed next to Perry for one scene. And at that point we entirely change up the directions because you’re doing raking singles and overs. So you’ve never seen that part of the jail. My thinking was: Truman goes out in the world, he goes to NY city, he goes to Spain, he has all this stuff in his life that changes visually but when he comes back it’s exactly the same. And it was a great discipline, I think when you watch the movie you feel on some level “Oh my God, this guy is still sitting in this little box every time Truman comes back. Nothing’s changed.” And next to him in the same little box is Dick and across the hall is the guy that they finally take out and hang before they hang these guys. So I think it worked to really offset what that experience was about and how much time had gone by. So I didn’t change much. I decided on the light in the hall but Jess kind of went from reference.
There was one funny thing that happened the night before we were shooting, Jess had built the whole cell, he didn’t love his art department in Winnipeg, he was struggling with them. He was doing a lot of hands-on work himself. And we went in the night before our first day of shooting in the prisons cells, and the wall colors were yellow which is what death row was in Leavenworth. And they were beautifully aged down and dirtied up and it was that industrial yellow that you probably remember from schools. And we really didn’t like it. We wound up saying: We’re going to spend so much time in here, do we really want these yellow walls behind their heads in every one of those important scenes? And Jess was with us, and the three of us were going “Fuck! What do we do? We’re shooting tomorrow” And we wound up saying “Let’s change it”. And we went for this muted bluish-gray kind of color. We chose it, Jess agreed, and he stayed there all night, painted the cell that we were starting in himself, aged it himself, and we started in the first cell and he spent the whole next day painting in the cells and the hallway in the order we were going to shoot in, knowing when we’d see in, which walls we’d see, he got in front of us and managed to pave the way so we could do it.
But it was one of those great moments, on a studio movie or in a normal process somebody would have said “It’s too late. You can’t change it”. But we made this movie, it was really Bennett, myself, Jess, our costume designer Kasia. The four of us. it felt like no adult supervision. We were out of town, I brought a gaffer with me that I leaned very heavily on and thank God I had him but other than that it was us, a bunch of Canadian TV movie of the week people who didn’t really give a shit about our movie, didn’t know what we were trying to do, didn’t care. And really Jess, Kasia, Bennett and I made all the creative decisions. The good news is we were able to change course on things like painting or the house. If you look at that house that starts the movie with the murder in it, there’s an amazing story about this. We had given reference pictures of the house where the murders had happened in Kansas to Jess the production designer. And he was going out with the location scouts, and they kept bringing us pictures of houses that were wrong. They looked Canadian, there were things about them that didn’t feel Midwestern, or the scale was wrong. We weren’t finding anything they liked, and they kept going further and further from Winnipeg which would have been a longer commute and we’d burn up more of our day on the clock to get to them. We went out and looked at several houses. I know this architecture really well, I have a house from a similar period in Connecticut. I know what things do and don’t work about what you can cheat. Jess knew less about it than I did, but there were some houses where he was saying “Look, I can do this, or I can do that. I can change this”. I got pretty frustrated. The house is so important and it such iconic imagery and we weren’t finding it.
So I went out in preproduction. I took a camera that I had gotten for the purposes of testing. I had gotten two thousand-foot rolls of film, one stock, a couple mags, some batteries, and a set of lenses that I thought I would shoot the movie with. Before the producers have even agreed to let us shoot 2.40:1, because if you shoot in super 35 you have to make an internegative. An internegative was about a $110,000 cost at the lab and they hadn’t budgeted for it. And I was really adamant that I wanted to shoot widescreen and I wasn’t going to shoot anamorphic because the cost of the additional lighting for the night work would have been prohibitive. But I felt really strongly we were going to shoot this in 2.40:1. So I said let me see if I can get us a deal, and I called deluxe in LA and I asked them for a favor, and they brought the price down but the producer still hadn’t signed off on that format. But I got this camera and lenses and two rolls of film from Kodak because I wanted to go out and shoot some landscapes and some mood setting shots at the beginning of the film. And I did. I shot everything in the movie that isn’t principal actors. So from the wheat blowing in the opening, to the cutaway when the murder happens, there’s a beautiful row of dead trees that we cut to, there are shots of birds in trees, there are moody shots of the flat open lands. And they’re used all through the movie. So I went out by myself with my rental car and my gear in the trunk and there was a storm coming in and I timed it perfectly. I went out into the wheat fields. I didn’t know where I was, I just drove west from Winnipeg and I found beautiful stuff. I found stands of trees, I found barns and wheat fields. I got out there with the camera and I shot a whole library of stuff. On the last shot on the second roll, I was shooting this beautiful flat frame across a plowed field of dead trees. And I shot the last twelve feet of the roll on that. But I shot a 2000 feet, maybe 40 feet per shot. But that particular shot, Bennett loved it so much for the moment after the murder, that he used it in the edit for about 20 seconds
And I only had about 12 seconds of it. So that was the one digital effect in the movie. We had to loop it. There’s some Toronto based VFX house that lowballed it, they wanted the credit. And it’s the only shot in the movie I wasn’t happy with. Because the original shot was beautiful. I’m looking at a print of it on my wall. I made two widescreen prints; one for me, and one for Bennett. They’re about 48 inches wide. It’s so beautiful. It’s got this pewter sky and a row of trees that looks like a Japanese brush painting and a plowed field in the front, and it’s just flat across the frame. And it was the one shot I wasn’t happy with because when they reproduced it, it got very contrasty and the noise level built up and I made them redo it a second time. I was done grading the movie and just waiting for that shot to come in and when they sent their redo it was only about 65% of what it should have been. And I kept saying why does it look like this? Look at the dailies; that’s exactly what we want it to look like. Just match it. And they couldn’t do it, but we were rushed so we plugged it into the movie and it’s there for eternity. But anyway, that was the end of my second roll of that footage. And I still didn’t even know if they were going to let me shoot the format that I wanted. So I was shooting everything thinking “This might end up being a 1.85:1 frame that we pull out of the middle of it. In the end they agreed to let me shoot widescreen, and I made a deal at Deluxe for the internegative. And when the footage came back from the lab that was in Vancouver, we didn’t have a projection so they sent me digital files of the dailies and I showed it to Bennett and I remember this moment (because now we’re like a week from shooting), where he looked at the footage and said to me “You just raised the bar so high on what this movie can be. Now I’m excited about what we’re doing”. He said “That’s the movie. That’s the color palette. That’s the tone.” And one of the things that was in some of my footage, was that you see these flat flat landscapes of Winnipeg, as far as you can see it’s just flat. There’s a joke, in Winnipeg they say “If your dog runs away you can see it leaving for three days.” It literally looks like that. So when we couldn’t find a house for the movie, I said “Bennett, out where I was shooting the wheat fields, we’ve got to be able to find a house.” I was 30-40 minutes outside of town but I had gone in this direction and I kind of knew how to find the area.
So Bennett and I, a week from shooting, went out in my rental car. He was driving, I pointed him where to go. I had my directors viewfinder . I put a zoom on it that went to 300mm and I was looking at the Horizon line which was as flat as a pool table. And I would see a stand of trees breaking the horizon line. Way off on 300mm I could just see there’s a little clump of trees. This was pre-GPS and cellphones so I would say “Make the next right you can” and we would go way down a road to the right. And I would say “Make the next left” and we worked our way to a stand of trees. We did that about four times, because the stand of trees was always next to an old farmhouse. That’s how we found the house that’s in the movie. It was at the end of a long, muddy dirt driveway. And the one day that we went out because we were frustrated with the location department, we found it. We parked our car at the bottom of the driveway and walked because the driveway was a muddy trench from all the rain that had just come through from the storm that I had shot. And we found this farmhouse and it was falling down. The roof had holes in it, the front was falling off, the porch was falling off. It was moldy, decrepit, and overgrown but we looked at it and said “That’s the house! That has to be the house”. So we ran back to Winnipeg, we got Jess the designer, we brought him out and we said “Jess, is there any way, if we’re really clear about what the angles are, because you don’t spend a lot of time in the house you just see it from outside, then you see her at the door, and then you go into a different house. We could find an interior somewhere that matches. And to Jess’s credit, even though he didn’t want the job, he was like “Let’s do it”. The house is amazing, this is great. He had to put a road in so trucks could travel down. He had to tear the decrepit shit off, patch the roof, put a fake front porch on it, paint the whole front and one side of it, because we laid out all our camera angles we said look we’ll never see the left side, we’ll never see the back, this is the master angle, here’s how we’re going to shoot it, the whole house is just patched together. If you look at the still that you pulled from the movie, every window has the shades pulled down. The house literally was a sinkhole inside. He literally just put window shades on to cover all the windows, painted it, put in a road, cut all the brush away, trimmed the hedges, raked some leaf piles in the yard and parked two cars there, and that’s the house that’s in the movie. But it’s so funny because the house is like a flat set. If you were to walk around the back it’s falling down, the walls are open, the floors are falling through from the roof leaking. And the cool thing that we found during the process was that this house had been abandoned in 1959 or 1960. Right around when the murders happened. So there was very much a history at this old farm house that was very much in sync with the old Clutter house.
When you and Bennett were in pro-production and planning the look of the film, did you share any movies or images as reference of what you wanted to go for?
You know it started with the prison stuff. Because we were daunted by telling so much of the story in the prison cell. But we never found a movie and said “Let’s keep that idea on the table”. We stopped looking at them because we started feeling like we were feeding bad ideas into our heads like “Oh you have to do this or that”. You look at prison movies and you see cheating with light, cheating with cameras, cheating with sets, cameras moving between bars…people do all this stuff to make their films visually interesting but it pushed us away from all that. And other than that we didn’t look at a lot of movies. But we did look at one film that Bennett didn’t know called “The Dreamlife of Angels” which is a modern French film in the style of Cinema Verite/French New Wave color cinematography. And I showed it to him, because it has a naturalism to it, a kind of beautiful photojournalism/documentary style to it. And I really like that movie and I’ve used it as a reference several times for different reasons but when I showed it to Bennett it’s the one movie that I remember him responding to, but it has nothing to do with Capote (tonally or narratively). But what he loved about it, and the reason I showed it to him, is because there is an honesty and a truthfulness to everything in it. The way that scenes are staged, and where the cuts happen and what the feeling that the filmmakers are giving you is about in that movie is something that we really connected to and tried to emulate. Even though stylistically our film has very little to do with it, there are some weird choices if you look at them on paper, there are some weird choice in Capote about when I decide to go handheld, and it’s not the obvious places. Sometimes there are scenes where you just want to have your ears cleared and you’re suddenly in this present thing. And the rest of the movie is very composed and very still and there’s not a lot of camera movement. There’s not a lot of cutting. I remember the editor saying after the rough cut was put together, “I’ve never cut a film with even twice this many shots in it. This movie has less shots, and I used everything you guys shot. And there’s nothing left that’s not in the movie (with the exception of one little sequence that Bennett pulled out).” He said most of my films are something like 1500-1800 cuts and I think we had 600-700 cuts in our film. Maybe less. It’s really sparse. Which was a choice. I didn’t have time or resources to be shooting stuff we wouldn’t use. But it really hit me that it was very minimal and it was decided on out of necessity. But it was also kind of like Truman Capote’s writing which is exactly that. He used to call it “prose journalism”. Every word is measured, every word has a purpose, every sentence has a structure. It stands alone. It’s like he’s writing poetry, but he’s writing non-fiction. And directly and indirectly, that became a style that I thought worked for this film. I really blocked out what I thought each scene needed and I never said “Oh lets shoot the wide shot for the whole take and then we’ll go in and shoot closeups”. We would say: We’re going to use the wide in the beginning, or we’re going to use it at the end. To save time and to save film we didn’t shoot every shot for the entire scene. We were pretty deliberate and pretty trusting that we knew what we needed. And Bennett relied on me enormously for that and he really trusted me and I remember when he called me and said “I want to show you the cut”. He’d been alone in the editing room with the editor for ten weeks and he said “I’m ready to show you the film”. The first thing I said to him was “Is it boring? Visually is it boring or is it working?” and he said “It’s working beautifully. Come look at the movie”. And before he showed it to me he said “Look, I’m showing this to you because I now know what I think of it, and so now I can listen to what other people think.” He’s an incredible director. He had that kind of clarity and he knew his strength with being patient and being in the edit room and really finding the pace and the story, but he had everything he needed. So we were really in sync. I trusted my instincts on this stuff when we were shooting and I also felt like “What’s the choice? I don’t have multiple cameras, I don’t have time, I don’t have all the film in the world.” We did this movie in 30 days on a tight budget with a small crew. So we found the style that suited the story, but also suited the logistics.
Well it certainly works, the naturalism and minimalism really helps tell this story.
It does. The minimalism really helps the story. I mean, this is a guy That whole beginning where you see him at the party in NY in his element. We didn’t shoot that as part of the movie. We did that like six or eight months later because they didn’t want to give us money to do that. And Bennett felt really strongly you can’t start the movie with Capote getting on a train and going to the Midwest. If you don’t know who he is and where he comes from then you don’t how out of place this world is that he lands in to do this reporting. So we finished the film and people had already seen the edit of it and got excited about what we had done, and then they said “Ok, you can shoot one day in New York, non-union, pull all the favors.”. That party scene was at a friend of Bennett’s brownstone in Harlem and all the people in there were people that Phil or Bennett or Dan the writer knew. The wardrobe was pulled together by the costume designer for no money, I shot it with a three or four person crew on two lenses, handheld, and we really threw that opening scene together. And then I took the camera home from a commercial to my apartment one night. Bennett and I were doing a TV commercial and I ordered the lenses and the camera that I could change the ground-glass and shoot this aspect ratio and all the New York establishing skyline shots or shots of the streets at night that are wet, there’s a shot or two like that in the movie, I did all of that out of my apartment windows by myself. Then I put the camera in my car and drove over to New Jersey and looked around for vantage points that had a Manhattan skyline. And I wound up knocking on some guys door and saying “Hey would you let me go on your roof? It looks like your roof would have an unobstructed view of the city. Can I go on the roof with a camera and take some pictures?” And then I carried a Panavision camera and lenses and tripods and a head and everything by myself, no assistant, nothing, and I went up on this guys roof built the camera and shot the Manhattan skyline shot. And there were no visual effects, no buildings were removed. I lensed it so that everything you see in the frame feels true to this period. And I even got the new Yorker building with the red neon to read. You can read “New Yorker”. And that’s the magazine that his editor wrote for. That’s where the story was first published in sections from “In Cold Blood”. So it was just one of those fortuitous things. But we made it, it’s truly a handmade labor of love this movie.
Tell me about the courtroom scenes. You’ve got the judge, the lawyers, the jury, the two men being tried, Truman, Harper and everyone in the audience…how do you conceptualize a way to shoot a scene like this while maintaining eyelines, and not confusing the audience about their orientation in the room.
There’s a real story about that. And I just told it to Yvan Attal. He’s a French actor and director. He’s married to Charlotte Gainsbourg. He’s directed a bunch movies. He was in Rush Hour and a bunch of French movies. He’s a good friend of mine, and we’ve become close in the last couple of years. And he headed off just before this whole Covid-19 shitstorm, he left NY to go to Paris to direct a movie. And at least half of the movie is in a courtroom. And he was saying “What am I going to do with this. The court system in France is so old, and antiquated and everyone wears these costumes…we’ve seen it a million times and it’s so hard to shoot because it doesn’t change. It’s this very formatted thing”. He said to me “How did you do the courtroom scenes in Capote? What were the decisions behind how you shot it?” And I just told this story and had to remember all of it, which is that of the entire movie, including the jail stuff, the thing that Bennett and I struggled the most with it talking about it in prep, was the courtroom. Because we found the location, and it was on the third floor of a building, and we couldn’t do anything with lighting the windows, because we couldn’t get cranes to light the windows. It was just a wooden box. And we kept going in there to shot list and our process was, Bennett and I would go alone or with Jess and the AD and we would read through the scenes in the script and we would just talk about how we wanted to stage them. And that’s how we lined up almost every decision in preparation. But the courtroom, we just kept stumbling. There were so many eyelines and so many things and you’re in there multiple times and there’s time passages and those need to be different. We were really struggling. And that is the only other thing besides the jail cell that we started looking at movies. And I remember looking at Philadelphia because that was Jonathan Demme’s movie and there’s a bunch of courtroom stuff. There’s a million courtroom movies and the more we looked, the more we thought “None of these feel like they have anything to lend to our film”. And we really struggled with it. And I remember feeling like “Oh my God, what are we going to do? Nothing feels like a good idea.” And ultimately we did the most obvious and simple thing which is that we said “Wait a minute, you can’t jump all over the courtroom and have the POV be changing. That’s not how we’re telling the movie. This movie is anchored to Truman. It’s his journey, it’s his experience. You’re either really close to him, or you’re seeing him in wide shots in this fish out of water landscape. Why don’t we just anchor the whole courtroom scene to his perspective.” Because I guess when we were starting to try to figure it out there’s the two of them, there’s the jury, there’s the two killers, there’s the judge, and there’s other people in the crowd. There were five elements. And we were making them all equal somehow. And we wound up just kind of saying “Wait a minute, what if we shoot the room as we lay it out, without the ability to jump around. What if we just let the point of view anchor us. So the view of the killer, and I think we moved people around a little bit to accommodate this idea, but the point of view of Perry as he’s talking, you know we don’t come around and jump to the other side. We sort of favor what Truman could see from where he was sitting. And that’s pretty much what led us to everything we shot. There are a couple of times that we cheated a little bit, but the sense that we wanted was: He’s a spectator. He has no dialog, but we still need to anchor it to his experience. So let’s try to create a set of rules that don’t allow the camera to be wherever there’s a nice shot of somebody. Let’s try to respect this layout. And we laid out the courtroom with that idea in mind. You know, it was a set and I put the lights overhead that were there, and we addressed the windows the way that we could. I’d have to look at the movie again to see how much we stuck to it, but that was the key way that wound up telling us what we should at least try to accommodate. And it’s funny you bring it up, because that’s really the thing we struggled with the most.
Well I think it definitely works. It’s not confusing, you know where you are and you know where all the key players are. So I think it was definitely a great way to shoot those scenes.
It’s also the most complex scene in the film in a lot of ways because even the bigger sets, like when he talks at the YMCA, it’s very clear. There’s Truman, however you want to shoot him, and then there’s the audience. And we jump around to see him from different places in the audience, but there’s still only two sight lines. The courtroom was more difficult. You can shoot it a million different ways but you need a sort of bible. “Why am I doing it that way?” is a question I always ask. Of course I can think of cool shots, and I can think of things I’ve seen in other movies, but the one that I’m going to wind up doing I need to be able to say to myself “This is why I’m doing it this way”. And that idea that it should be anchored to Truman’s experience was the key way that allowed me to at least have a starting point that made sense. I try to do that with all films. I’m never a fan even if I think of a really beautiful shot or I find an angle while I’m prepping that feels really unique and visual and great opportunity, I don’t normally indulge in that. I normally say “Can I make that work for the story I’m trying to tell, or am I being self indulgent and going “Hey, here’s a cool shot”. When I see that in films I have the same reaction like “Yeah, you’re taking me out of the movie”.
I think that’s what separates the really good DPs and Directors from the rest.
I agree. When I watch movies and go “God, I love how this is shot” it’s very rare that I say that without loving the movie. They have to be part of the same idea. And the movies that I love the cinematography most on are movies where they are inseparable. And one of the most influential movies to me as a kid growing up and that I still put high high up on my list is Midnight Cowboy. And I got to work with Adam Holender (Cinematography on Midnight Cowboy) as an assistant and we’re still friends. I just saw him in NY over the Holidays. I look at that movie, and he doesn’t have any other films in his whole career where it worked as well. But on that movie everything that he was doing with the story, with the director, with the period, with the music…it is an incredibly well conceived and complete world. And the photography is inextricably linked to all of that. And it’s what…50 years ago? And it holds up. It’s so fresh and beautiful to watch.
You touched on this a little, but towards the beginning there is a handheld shot as they are standing outside a house knocking on the door, later as the prisoners are having their pictures taken that was all shot handheld. How did you decide which shots would be handheld and which would be on a tripod?
Yeah, there’s no dogma to it. There were just times that it felt like it needed that energy. And one of the most obvious examples of it at the end when Truman comes to see the killers before they die, and they’ve given up and he’s in the hotel room and won’t answer the phone and he’s in denial and miserable then he winds up coming to the room. So that was a scene that Phil and Bennett had been talking about privately in rehearsals and they had kind of disagreed a bit. The process was that Phil was saying that Truman would not break down and cry in that moment. And Bennett was saying: He has to. He has to break in that moment. And I didn’t know this going into it. But I knew that we had pushed that pretty far down the schedule. And I knew that Bennett had been working quite a bit in conversation about prepping it. And when we got to that moment, and we had a huge full night with a bunch of stuff to do. Probably the same night as the actual execution, we had this work to do and we got to that scene where Truman was going to come in and see them. And I remember talking about how do we shoot this? How do we set it up? How do we use the room? And Bennett said to me “Listen, we’re not going to rehearse at all”. We didn’t rehearse a lot on this movie anyway. But Bennett said “We’re not going to rehearse, Phil and I are in a process of figuring out what the scene is going to be. I want you to think about this like we’re shooting a nature documentary. We don’t know what the animals are going to do, we don’t know where they’re going to go, we don’t know what’s going to happen and we might only get one take of it.” So that’s what he told me. So I lit it, I top lit the room, and I put the two guys where they are sitting to one side, and opposite that is the door. I didn’t put any marks on the floor I just waited with a handheld camera since that allows me versatility, and I thought “That should be handheld anyway. Just because you want this sort of visceral live feel to this moment”. So we rolled camera and the door opened and Phil walked in and I was just standing arbitrarily where I was and he settled. And if you watch the movie you will see that there were times when I step in towards him, there are times where I step in again, or I lean in, and I’m just documenting what’s happening. And I think we did two takes but we shot Phil’s whole side. And I think we did a second take and at the end of the second take he leaves, as he did in the first one, and the door closes and instead of cutting I just turned 180 degrees around behind me and the two actors had been off camera for the whole previous take and for this whole take. And they could feel it coming, they were looking at my back and I was panning 180 degrees towards the two of them. I didn’t know what the frame was going to be but I kind of knew where I was in the room and I landed there and it’s in the movie. And I remember Bennett said to me “I fucking love it.” It’s the thing that makes the scene work for me because you’re not always cutting from them to him and him to them. It pans across a guard who’s standing there who was kind of unprepared to be on camera and it’s this long white wall,it’s ugly. It’s fucking terrible. It’s not like I designed it or thought “Oh I’m going to pan 180 degrees around a white painted room that’s fluorescent lit” but it has some quality of imperfection, live, danger, you don’t know what’s going to happen. And I think the performances when we landed on those two guys, they’re caught off guard by being on camera so there’s something about it that really worked. And Bennett loved it enough that he used it in the movie.
But the handheld choices were always when it just felt like you didn’t want to be in a static, composed frame. You want the feeling that it’s alive. And yeah, when we go to that house and they’re knocking on the door and they go in and talk to the girl, that just felt like “lets be in a documentary moment”. Same thing with the school. When they go to the school when they first try to talk to her. When they first try to meet her. That was our first day of shooting. That was our first scene in the movie, that moment when they go to the high school and the kids are kind of moving away from Truman as he’s walking around. And we just thought, they’re kids. They’re not actors, it’s our first day, lets just be in this kind of reactionary documentary mode. And it makes sense in the movie.
You mentioned earlier that when you were doing the location scout with Bennett you had a 300mm director viewfinder. And then you mentioned in the blu-ray commentary that you shot some shots on a 300mm lens.
We did. Well, there’s one shot in the movie. And it was another one of those scenes where we thought “there are several ways we could shoot this and they’re all in the style of the movie” but there’s the scene where they drive out to meet the boyfriend of the girl that was killed. His name is Danny I think. And there’s this moment, and it’s scripted that they drive out to a long driveway on a country road and they talk to Danny. And we were just feeling like “We have a lot of these moments where we’re in these over the shoulders, or where in cutting between Nell and Truman and a person, whether it’s the girl in the house or the kids at the school or the police detective, we keep going into these situations where they go to talk to people and we suddenly thought let’s give it some breathing room and back way up (because you can do this in Winnipeg) we went way out in the field on a 300mm. It’s a very Terrence Malick Badlands/Days of Heaven way of doing it. We put the camera low and had them play against the horizon. I have everything in the frame. I have the car parked, I have Truman standing over on the left, and I have Nell walking towards this boy in a driveway to the right. And we just hear over it “Hi are you Danny? I’m Nell” and that tells the story that they went and talked to the guy. We don’t see who the kid is. We don’t have another performance or another actor to introduce. It just plays as a tableau.
So I think that’s probably the only time in the movie that we used a 300mm except I may have used it when they catch the killers and they bring them in. I think some of the tighter stuff I did in there on the 300. And that was one of those scenes that Bennett said to me “Look, there’s no dialog in this. There’s no action. It’s all blocking and eyelines and coverage.” And I remember he said to me “You’re on your own. You do this one”. So that night shoot where they bring them in was my shotlisting, my blocking, my operating. A lot of the movie is anyway, but when there are actors speaking, Bennett is all over it and part of it and right next to the camera. And I remember this was such an intense film for him and that night we moved to that location for the night shoot and he said to me “Hey man, this is all you”.
Did you use any filters when you shot Capote?
There were no filters. I used Cooke S4 Lenses which really have a kind of softness built into them. All the Cookes do but especially those S4’s. The look of the film is a combination of things, but it’s a desaturated, softer contrast look. You could use a lowcon or many other things to do what I was doing but I did it with pull developing. So it is in camera, but it’s not anything in front of the lenses.
What lens package did you have?
I’m pretty sure it was the standard S4 package. 18, 25, 35, 40, 50, 75, 100. And that would have been it. I think I got the 300 for the day that we did that scene with the boyfriend and again for the night where the killers were brought in for all the close up stuff because I shot that from pretty far away. I got my camera package from Clairmont Vancouver for that because I was doing a ton of commercials with Clairmont in LA. So it was an easy hand-off. And I’m pretty sure we just dropped and added a lens based on those two days. I probably carried a zoom, just because you kind of always do. But I can’t think of a single time in the film where I was on the zoom even as a fixed lens. I think that whole movie is shot on primes and it was on that basic S4 set. You know they added some S4’s over the years. But I wouldn’t have had anything wider than an 18, and I think a huge amount of the movie was shot on the 40 and 75. I remember thinking at the end that I could have pretty much shot the film on three lenses. In super35 the 40 is beautiful when you’re doing that wide screen 2.39/2.40 format. It’s a beautiful focal length for being close to somebody without distortion and then the 75 always feels like the right compliment to it when you want to isolate and punch in and make the focus shallower.
Did you end up doing any reshoots?
Well, no reshooting, but the scenes that were set in Spain we shot back in LA. That was in Malibu and that was at the end of the movie. We had been asking all through it, we need to have the Spain scene in the movie, and they didn’t want to pay for it and it wasn’t budgeted. And I wound up pulling my LA commercial crew to work, one day, non-union and we found a location up in Malibu and we dressed it. So much of what was in that house was perfect. It felt very much like it does in the film and I had them make those curtains that are on the windows inside the house.
We shot two big scenes in there and one was not used. A scene where Phil Hoffman and Bruce Greenwood are by the fire at night in the house and they kiss each other. Passionate, deep tongue kissing. It was an amazing thing to shoot because they were both so incredibly committed and believable, but it never made the film. And there another scene where Bruce comes back and he tells Truman that he’s been shopping and Truman tells him that he finished his manuscript. And then there’s a scene on the roof. That was all done in that house in Malibu in I think two days. We just rolled up our sleeves and killed it. Jess went in and dressed it and we got the old car there with a Spanish license plate. It was a scramble to put together with no money. And then way after that (we shot Spain right at the end of Winnipeg) in New York at the end of the summer while Bennett had been editing, I did the New York skyline stuff and the opening party. And that was it. There was only one reshoot but it was done in Canada and it was a scene that Phil was unhappy with. He was unhappy with his side of the scene we just talked about where it was handheld in front of the house and we go in and they talk to that girl. Phil is alone in his closeup in that scene. And there was something about the accent. It was early in the shooting and he wasn’t happy with it. So we recreated that little corner with the window and the wallpaper behind him and that’s a reshoot. And we plugged it into the rest of the scene that we shot the first time. And Malibu was continuous so it was really just the New York stuff that we snuck in.