Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Robert Elswit – Movies Spotlight – September 2010

Cinematographer Robert Elswit is best known for shooting all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature films. He is also a strong proponent of shooting on film, not digital – stating that digital provides “no texture, no grain”. Elswit is the director of photography on this month’s film The Town, directed by Ben Affleck about a bank-robber who falls in love with one of his hostages. It looks to be one of the best, if not the best, film of the month (and likely one of the best of the year, having received very positive buzz out of Venice and Toronto film festivals). Elswit has shot a lot of films, but his recent work is of such a high caliber that he is certainly one of the top DPs working today.

Early Career:

Elswit got his start in the late 70s’ as a camera operator and assistant camera operator on films like the drama/thriller Fraternity Row and the documentary Genesis. He also got work as a visual effects cameraman working on notable films such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Working also in TV movies, he had a surprise hit with the well-liked sci-fi family film All Summer in a Day leading to more TV and feature work. He got his first break in 1985 on Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing (his second feature coming off the success of This Is Spinal Tap), as the comedy was a hit (starring a young John Cusack) and his first exposure to mainstream Hollywood as an above-the-line crew member. But like any newcomer in the business, he had to continue working on low budget, not so great films like the rock and roll horror film Trick or Treat and the comedy horror film Return of the Living Dead Part II. He next worked on the worst of Savage Steve Holland’s three feature films (all wacky teen comedies) How I Got Into College and Bad Influence, directed by Curtis Hanson and written by David Koepp (while this film is not very good, both would go on to great success). Hanson liked working with Elswit and hired him to shoot his next two films The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and River Wild. Both thrillers were moderate successes and gave both Hanson and Elswit more notoriety in the business. Elswit’s early career had given him a lot of experience working on all types of films and different genres, but it is his collaboration with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson that really helped him make a name for himself – and it all started with Anderson’s feature debut in 1996 the crime-drama Hard Eight (though Anderson wished it to be called Sydney).

Collaborations with P.T. Anderson:

On Anderson’s first feature film, Elswit’s work garnered him an Independent Spirit Award nod. But, it is Anderson’s follow up Boogie Nights about fictional porn-star Dirk Diggler that elevated him to the status of Indy DP darling. The film is stylistically and aesthetically interesting with the opening scene having a three minute long single camera shot, moving from the street into and throughout the house introducing most of the characters. While, long takes have become part of Anderson’s style, Elswit fine lighting and camera work is also paramount in their success. Next, they made the drama Magnolia, which was another huge success on the Indy films circuit. Like Boogie Nights, the film has another three minute single shot. Elswit and Anderson also use camel lights and move the camera’s iris in/out as a throwback to silent films (both of which have also become trademarks of Anderson’s). Next, Anderson and Elswit embarked on a very ambitious neurotic experience with the dramedy Punch-Drunk Love. The camera work in the film creates a sense of panic (this is also largely due to the score) and the color scheme used at different moments in the film completely illuminates the emotions of the main character. It is one of the most interest films, purely from an aesthetics standpoint, of the decade (and it is a good overall film too). Their next film, the drama There Will Be Blood, catapulted both Anderson and Elwit into the elite of Hollywood, the film reaping a Best picture and directing nod for Anderson and cinematography win for Elswit at the 2008 Oscars. The film is a cinematographic masterpiece.

One of the Best:

Elswit also worked on a number of films while collaborating with Anderson from 1996 through present. Closing out the 90s’ he worked on Matt Reeves’s (who has since become one of J.J. Abrams’s go-to guys, and has Let Me In coming out next month) rom-com The Pallbearer, the ok Pierce Brosnan Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and Joel Schumacher’s mystery 8MM. Elswit seemed to have a knack of working with famous directors and stars on their worst or at least bad films, though his work is always top-notch. And this continued into the early part of the next decade with a pair of Ben Affleck-starring rom-coms (Bounce and Gigli) and one of David Mamet’s lesser films Heist. However, with the success of working with PT Anderson on Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, Elswit finally started getting better films to shoot (outside his Anderson collaborations), starting with 2003’s Runaway Jury, a thriller by Gary Fleder (not my favorite, but overall it is thought of as pretty good). After working with George Clooney on Syriana, Clooney hired Elswit to shoot his film Good Night, and Good Luck. To preserve the subtlety of the colors, the film was shot on color film on a grayscale set and then color-corrected in post-production (as it is a black and white film). He achieved his first Academy award nod with the film. Elswit also shot the Clooney films Michael Clayton (giving Elswit two films of five nominated for best picture in 2008) and The Men Who Stare at Goats. Rounding off the decade, he shot Mamet’s MMA film Redbelt, the crime-drama The Burning Plain and Tony Gilroy’s follow up to Michael Clayton the corporate espionage film Duplicity. He also shot this summer’s action-thriller Salt, directed by Phillip Noyce. With his work on and the success of films like Good Night, and Good Luck, There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton, Elswit has established himself as a first-class cinematographer who can shoot in any genre.

Future Projects:

Elswit’s next film to be released is this month’s The Town. In 2011, he has two films scheduled for release, though at present they are both in preproduction. The first is PT Anderson’s new film The Master a 1950s-set drama about the relationship between an intellectual, known as The Master, and a young drifter, who becomes his right-hand man as The Master’s faith-based organization beings to catch on in America. The film stars Jeremy Renner, Reese Witherspoon and (of course) Philip Seymour Hoffman. After that, he shoots the J.J. Abrams produced, Brad Bird directed Mission: Impossible IV (sidebar, I am really interested to see how Bird handles his first live-action film, and yeah I am excited to see it), which stars Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames, and may have characters from III in it as well. Both of Elswit’s upcoming projects look to be pretty good and he will likely have more and more awards coming his way in the future.

Robert Elswit Box Set (Selected Career Highlights):

1.)          Hard Eight [DVD]
2.)          Boogie Nights [Blu-ray/DVD]*
3.)          Magnolia [Blu-ray/DVD]*
4.)          Punch-Drunk Love [Blu-ray/DVD]*
5.)          Good Night, and Good Luck [Blu-ray/DVD]
6.)          Michael Clayton [Blu-ray/DVD]*
7.)          There Will Be Blood [Blu-ray/DVD]*
8.)          Redbelt [Blu-ray/DVD]
*Editor’s Picks

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