Looks That Kill: DP Haris Zambarloukos Talks Shooting Murder On the Orient Express in Glorious 65MM

Haris Zambarloukos began collaborating with acclaimed director Kenneth Branagh in 2007 on the Michael Caine vehicle Sleuth.

The duo continued to develop an arresting visual style together on Thor in 2011, while Zambarloukos also tackled blockbuster projects including Mamma Mia!Jack Ryan: Shadow RecruitCinderella, and Eye in the Sky. Most recently, Zambarloukos and Branagh have teamed up again to offer a fresh take on Agatha Christie’s classic mystery, Murder on the Orient Express. The film pushed the limits of creative cinematography, primarily taking place in a constantly moving, confined, single location. Zambarloukos sat down with MovieMaker to talk about his work behind the camera, collaborating with Branagh, and the continued viability of film.

John Bucher, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I’d love to start by talking to you about the approach you took to shooting Murder on the Orient Express. I understand you made an unusual choice in cameras. Can you tell us about how that came to be?

Haris Zambarloukos (HZ): Yes, of course. Ken [Branagh] and I had been talking about using a Panavision 65mm film camera system for a while now. We attempted it over a few projects and there just hasn’t been the right one. Ken has had experience. He’s one of the few people as a director that has had this experience. He shot Hamlet 20 years ago on a Panavision System 65. Although I’ve tested for it on various films, I’ve never done a complete film on it. But when it’s kind of … at least as much as I could create a film, I had a kind of … some experience and some knowledge of it. This seemed to be like the ideal film for it and we were very much supported by Fox, so we went ahead with it. This was after discussions, testing, etc. It’s an incredible system and it’s a very, very, very different cinema experience and it’s something we wanted to pursue for Orient Express.

MM: Did Kodak get involved with the project at some point?

HZ: Oh, very much so. Kodak’s help was immense on this and not just as a manufacturer but as a laboratory. The only laboratory at the time that could process 65mm was FotoKem in Los Angeles. FotoKem did a lot of the processing and creating our print. But Kodak, apart from manufacturing the stocks, set up a 65mm bath for us in the Kodak lab in London, which allowed us to process and develop some of the footage here in London. Some of it was processed in Los Angeles and some here. That just helped with time issues and shipping issues and just having things processed the next day, so you know what you achieved. Just the waiting period from sending to Los Angeles, kind of knowing that you got your scenes. But they were instrumental in getting this off the ground.

A galaxy of stars comprise the cast of Murder on the Orient Express. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

MM: For some time now, there’s been a lot of discussion among cinematographers about the viability of film, what the future holds there, especially for those cinematographers who are not on projects quite of the scale that you’re able to work on. Do you see film as having viability for indie productions as well?

HZ: I think it really has. I’m one of the weird guys. I have very little experience with indie films. Eye In The Sky and Denial and Locke were the only films I’ve done on digital. So I’ve remained in the film world. It’s never really been an issue. It does have to do with scale. It also has to do with five films with Ken, and we both see the merit of film. It’s always great when you have a director that shares the same kind of film language and experience with you. These are the discussions I have with Kodak. Really, film is an acquisition primer. It’s not really big with presentation. It will be for us, there will be some film prints for limited release. And they will be spectacular. They will really be something else.

But for the indie world, I think it is viable, 16 mm is viable. And Kodak is a big part of this, because what they’re creating is kind of an all-in, in a way, package for filmmakers, where film is used for the acquisition, then it’s developed and scanned immediately. I think making that digital intermediate almost immediately then becomes no different than digital, because when we do shoot digital, we do have to go to the digital labs overnight to process all the data, create dailies, et cetera. Then kind of link to our source material. So you have the editorial process.

What Kodak is talking about with their labs, is pretty much just doing all that work that would have been work a digital lab base, and basically you acquire on film, it’s developed and scanned, and then graded for dailies and stored for the final DI for a later date. That makes it very viable. That makes it very efficient. And you’re not … You’re kind of using it only as a very initial state because of chemical, and then going digital. I think that makes it very practical.

It’s a very different process from say the Dunkirk process. It’s the process I’ve always used for my film project. It’s an acquisition process. That’s the least expensive part of it, if you see what I mean. The one that kind of maintains the same principles of shooting whether you’re on film or digital. Being smart about it, seeing where you need to compromise and where you don’t, and using each format for its own ability, I think is crucial. For us to maintain a creative freedom to choose a format based on content, and the project we’re about to embark on.

Dame Judi Dench in Murder on the Orient Express

MM: What do you think are some of the most common mistakes that cinematographers make when choosing a camera? What, in your opinion, separates those who are not as experienced in the field with those who have had time for their work to mature?

HZ: I think about it carefully. I would have never, for example, chosen a film camera to shoot Locke. It was a film shot at night on a car over, pretty much, seven nights. We had to do 25 minute takes, we literally did. That would have been an impossibility. And that would have been the wrong choice. I was also playing to the strengths, at that time it was a read at tape, was playing to its strengths. It’s ability to shoot at night, it was a small size, its ability to do long takes, rather than its weaknesses, if you see. In a way, it would have been a mistake not to shoot 65mm for Orient Express.

What we really wanted to do was to create a really immersive, emotional experience for the audience, and 65mm film is so intimate. You feel every eyelid bat in a way that you can’t compare with another format. If we have a cast like this, and you’ve got them all in one carriage, and you want them all in one shot, this process really allows you to get the full benefit of that. That is a one-off situation. You do not get films like this with this kind of a performance. It’s 13 cast members all in one room. All in one shot. The portraiture of that, and the way that you experience that is what drove us to shoot 65 film, as opposed to doing what most people thought, which is the epic glances that we would do in kind of Alpine journey on the train. For me, this kind of guttural connection with the performance is by far the most important.

MM: You mentioned you shot Eye In The Sky on digital. What camera was that shot on?

HZ: That was shot on RED DRAGONs.

MM: It sounds like when you have shot digital, as opposed to film, you’ve leaned towards RED product. Is there a reason that you favored that?

HZ: Again, I kind of went for the ergonomics a lot, a kind of root. I mean, Eye In The Sky was a film about, kind of how we digitally photograph everything that happens from 35 to 60,000 feet. It makes sense that that would be a digital film. It seemed to be kind of inherent in the material. Those aren’t the cameras that they use in those drones, but there was certainly amount of clarity that you get from a RED DRAGON that I thought was helpful. It seemed to make sense. It’s a feeling as well, you know. I never go into a film with a preconception. I go through an elaborate testing process, and a discussion process with my collaborators, the director, your producers … And we watch things and we kind of make judgements based on the picture, rather than any preconceived notion of what we would like to do. Then we make decisions based on the practicality and the ergonomics of the tools, and how they apply to us.

Josh Gad (left) and Johnny Depp in Murder on the Orient Express

MM: For cinematographers just coming out of film school who are going to be setting in theaters watching you work on Orient Express, who want to be you one day, what sort of advice can you give them as they are maneuvering through the world of making selections about cameras, and trying to figure out their own style. What have been some of the most skillful things that have helped you in your journey in figuring it out?

HZ: All I can say is, what I tried to kind of achieve is be a storyteller and a filmmaker first and foremost. Being a cinematographer is just the role I play in that. What that does is, it allows you to be … To really leave a mark. If you’re first and foremost a cinematographer, you’ll just think about angles and frames and pictures and lighting, and sooner or later you realize that that just becomes, not a mechanical process, but a bit like walking and breathing. You don’t really think about it.

With years and practice, that just becomes second nature to you. But the integral thing that pushes all of that is your desire to tell the story, and your desire to participate in a particular film. If you stay true to that, and you see what you bring to that, than I think the cinematography follows. It follows in a natural way, and not a forced way. I think that’s really important. It doesn’t matter what camera you choose, because you will just automatically choose the right one for that story, and that challenge.

I think we do get bogged down by numbers in a way, statistics, like pixel count and, of course, cinematography has a science nature. It is a mixture of art and science, and how you balance those two abilities is what makes you achieve your cinematography. Somewhere in there you have to balance it and again, be at ease. If you’re not comfortable with the technical aspect of it, you’ll encumber your artistic abilities, and vice versa.

MM: With the Orient Express, is there any particular scene or shot that you just waked away really proud of, that really will stand out, maybe 20 years from now, as you’re thinking back on that film, or a particular moment that you will remember?

HZ: I think that denouement scene when Poirot has all the 12 suspects in front of him. I mean, it’s staggering. I truly feel that we achieved that catharsis by the end of that scene. It shows the purpose of the entire film, and why we did this, which is that this was why this was done, why this crime was committed, as opposed to who committed this crime. We really wanted the audience to experience a kind of cathartic moment, as you’ve seen in classic tragedy and classic literature, where you just see the futility of revenge. You go through a certain process. MM

Murder on the Orient Express opens in theaters November 10, 2017, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. All images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

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