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A DP’s Basic Instinct

A DP’s Basic Instinct

Articles - Cinematography

Steve Mason
Cinematographer Steve Mason

Who you know might be the first step to success in Hollywood, but the Australian film community plays by a different set of rules. Even with a successful producer dad—and frequent dinner guests such as Peter Weir and Philip Noyce—Steve Mason had to work his way into the industry. Starting as an unpaid camera house assistant at the age of 17, Mason has worked his way through the ranks to become an incredibly successful—and in-demand—DP, with credits ranging from Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom to John McTiernan’s Basic. As he wrapped up shooting on Luke and Andrew Wilson’s The Wendell Baker Story, Mason took time to rap with MM on his more than two decades behind the camera.

Jennifer Wood (MM): When did you first decide that you wanted to become a cinematographer? Was there a particular person, scene from a film, etc. that really got you interested in stepping behind the camera?

Steve Mason (SM): My father was a producer in Australia. He worked at the Commonwealth Film Unit (later to become Film Australia). Our house was always filled with young filmmakers such as Peter Weir, Phil Noyce and many others. As a boy we would sit around the dinner table discussing filmmaking and politics. The dreams of these filmmakers filled me with the excitement of filmmaking. My father would take me to the film festival, where I developed a love of film. At the age of 11 I picked up a Bolex and some black and white film and made my first film. Then I had the bug. From that age I wanted to be a cinematographer and always loved it. The early films that left an imprint for me were Lawrence of Arabia”, 8 1/2, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Cabaret.

MM: Who would you say has been the most influential person in your career—either professionally (as a mentor, etc.) or aesthetically (another DP whose work you admire, got you into the field, etc.)

SM: There was a group of cinematographers that influenced my understanding of the art, [including] Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane), Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia), Néstor Almendros (Days of Heaven) and Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) . Coming up in Australia, I had the pleasure of working with John Seale (Cold Mountain) as a focus puller and operator for many years. I also had the pleasure of doing many second units films for Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves).

MM: How did you get your first job on a film set? Was it a case of banging down doors? Having connections? Or a combination of the two?

SM: At 17, I began working in a camera rental house without pay and went to university at night. I would get introduced to all the cinematographers that came to see the equipment. I would tell them I would work for free to have the chance of working with them. After about three months I landed a job with APA Leisure Time, which specialized in commercials and TV series.

MM: Your filmography represents an extremely eclectic group of films—from action to comedy to straight character films. What draws you to a project in the first place? What criteria do you set in deciding whether or not you want to accept a project?

SM: I always wanted to keep an eclectic group of films. It seems everyone gets pigeonholed into action, drama or comedy; I wanted to be able to do all areas and not get stuck doing one particular genre. I feel it makes you a better cinematographer, and keeps freshness to my work. The script and the director are what first draw me to a project. What I hope for most is that the director has a vision, which for me is a great starting point for any film. From there, we are able to collaborate and expand on every area of the film. After all, we are in the business of bringing written words to life.

MM: But is there any type of film that you really prefer? What is the one script that really spoke to you—both as a reader/moviegoer and cinematographer—as soon as you picked it up?

SM: The script is what drives me; the genre is not. When I read Strictly Ballroom, I loved the material and also had already worked on another film with Baz Luhrmann. We both felt the script was special and we could do a lot with it.

MM: So much of any film’s success (or failure) really lies with the DP. When you first begin working on a new project, what are the most important questions you want to answer immediately with the director and your crew? For example: location, camera type, shooting days, etc.

SM: I don’t think the success of a film relies solely with the cinematographer. I feel it starts with the script, the director and the casting. Certainly the look of the film is extremely important, but without those three pieces it doesn’t matter how great it looks—it can still be a bad film. And believe me, I’ve shot films where the script hasn’t worked or the cast hasn’t worked. It’s usually when you get to the end of the film and see it that you realize what hasn’t worked. I wish there was a way in the process to see that one element isn’t working, but we become so obsessed with the process—when what we need is to have our eyes on the end result.

MM: You’ve really been blessed to work as a truly “international” DP, starting work in your native Australia, then traveling all over the world for various Hollywood projects. What sort of information is most important to you to know about a location before you get there? For example, on a movie like Basic, where you’re shooting in Costa Rica and Panama.

SM: I have been blessed to be able to do what I love all over the world. I do a lot of research about each location before arriving. I read and think about the character and how each actor will play the character and how the location will affect the performance. I’ve shot in Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe and America. I’ve been in a lot of different circumstances—whether we were in tents or five star hotels. I’ve had great experiences with crews from all around the world. You also need to know your labs and equipment and where they are and what resources they have available to you. You also need to be willing to improvise wherever you may be.

MM: And for your latest project, The Wendell Baker Story, you’re in Austin. How has that experience been for you?

SM: The Wendell Baker Story was shot in Austin, Texas. We had Luke Wilson and Andrew Wilson directing and they also wrote the script. We had a great time. Austin is a wonderful town to shoot. The crew was terrific and Luke and Andrew assembled a great cast. It was a great experience.

MM: In what ways has the project challenged you most?

SM: The Wendell Baker Story was a challenge from the standpoint of schedule. We all knew we needed to keep the speed up to complete the film on time. The actors needed to be on other films with specific out dates, so there wasn’t room for any extra time with them. From that standpoint we needed to prep everything really well and be ready to shoot at each location. On smaller films it’s important to prioritize. I try to work out how much time we will need to get the performance, then what shots do we need so that I can work out how much time we have to light.

MM: Once Wendell Baker is complete, what’s up next for you?

SM: I have a few options for the next film but haven’t quite decided yet.

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