For 40-year-old British cinematographer
Giles Nuttgens, the accolades for The Deep End must seem
like a trip from the ridiculous to the sublime. Last year critics
described his work on the John Travolta bomb Battlefield Earth as dark and murky. But that was last year. This year Nuttgens
won the Cinematography Award at Sundance for The Deep End,
a nail-biting thriller written, directed and produced by Scott McGehee
and David Siegel, for which the cinematographer’s crisp camerawork
is as shimmering and bright as Lake Tahoe, where the noirish drama
With the release of The Deep End, things couldn’t
be much better for the English cinematographer. Next summer should
see the release of his tentatively titled Swimfan, which
promises even more stunning underwater cinematography. The recently
wrapped Swimfan stars Erika Christensen (Traffic),
Jesse Bradford (Bring it On) and Shiri Appleby (Roswell),
and is helmed by Australian director John Polson (Siam Sunset).
And by year’s end Nuttgens hopes to begin shooting Modern Mates,
another film directed by Siegel and McGehee. He also recently finished
working for George Lucas on Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the
In a phone interview from Madrid, where he’s learning
Spanish for a film he hopes to shoot in Mexico, the good-natured
Nuttgens discussed his work, future projects and even last summer’s
L. Ron Hubbard adaptation, the aforementioned catastrophe, Battlefield
Paula Schwartz (MM): Congratulations on all the great reviews you’ve received for
your work on The Deep End. They’ve all focused on the beauty
of your cinematography and the way you shot those water scenes.
Giles Nuttgens (GN): I’ve only actually seen
the LA Times, but David Siegel said he’d send me some stuff.
MM: The Chicago Tribune gave it raves. They
praised, in particular, your camerawork around the mountains and
waters of Lake Tahoe and said it gives "an especially vivid
sense of place, one where everything seems to be in sharp focus." The Wall Street Journal called your cinematography "luminous." The Toronto Star said, "This is a movie you just want
to stare at. Its emphasis on things wet and slippery is more than
an exercise in style." You’ve just wrapped another movie with
lots of underwater scenes, John Polson’s Swimfan. Was it
by coincidence or design that you wound up doing these two films
with so many water scenes?
GN: I don’t know how that worked out, really.
I think it was coincidence, because the initial script I read of Swimfan didn’t have the underwater sequence in it. Between
taking on the job and shooting, there was a massive change within
the script, so there was certainly no connection between me doing
other stuff in water and Swimfan actually coming my way.
MM: What are the technical obstacles or
difficulties of shooting underwater?
GN: Beyond the obvious one–that it takes forever
to shoot–just the complications of getting people down there with
breathing operators and everything. The major difference, in terms
of lighting, is what the water actually does to light. To maintain
contrast underwater is quite hard. Working on Swimfan, we were working in very high contrast. In specific sequences,
the stuff above the water is force processed two stops–which means
the contrast is very, very high. And to be able to try and mimic
that under the water, so that it has the same sort of grain structure
is quite hard. The water tends to smooth things out–flatten things
out a bit–so we had to work quite heavily with very contrasting
light to actually try to match the two together.
MM: Tilda Swanson told me "I honestly
believe that movies went downhill since people started talking in
them. Images talk a lot louder than any words do." Do you think
she brings a sort of silent screen aesthetic with her when she acts?
GN: I don’t know. … She’s really very much
past the crew. She gets very involved in the filmmaking process,
enough that she moved from the hotel to right opposite the location
because she didn’t want to be disturbed between shooting periods.
She wants to finish the day and come back the next day with the
character still firmly in her head, and during the week she wouldn’t
actually go back to the place where she was supposed to be staying.
MM: Where did you go to school?
GN: I never went to film school (laughs).
MM: Then how did you get started?
GN: I started as an assistant cameraman on
documentaries. I did a lot of freelance work for the BBC, and I
[eventually] I became a focus-puller, which is first assistant cameraman
in American speak, for a DP called Andrew Dunn, who shot The
Bodyguard, The Crucible and The Madness of King George. He
was somebody who pushed hard for a high quality of technical capability.
He pushed very, very hard. He pushed his assistants extremely hard
as well because he wanted to get to Hollywood, and that’s what he
did. Basically, I grew up in the system. I grew up assisting on
documentaries, focus pulling on TV films and then I started shooting
documentaries when I was 25.
MM: Talk about your work with the Indian
writer-director Deepa Mehta. You worked on her highly controversial
films Fire (1996) and Earth (1998). Weren’t you also supposed
to shoot the third film in her trilogy, Water? You’d seem
to be the perfect person for that.
GN: Water never got made, so I spent
two months in Indian for pre-production, then we were advised to
leave the country by the Indian government.
MM: Too controversial?
GN: Yeah. We had our permissions stopped in
India by the government on the grounds that we were–I don’t know
what the term they used was– that it was a possible disturbance
of law and order’ because of the controversial nature of our film. Water was a film about widows in the 1930s, set in the holy
city of Varanasi. Unfortunately, one of the widows in the film was
sold into prostitution and that was the basic objection, the portrayal
of widows as prostitutes. It is historically accurate, but it didn’t
throw a nice light on things.
The problem with shooting in India is that your scripts
have to be cleared by the Indian government and, despite the fact
that our script was cleared, there was a lot of resentment within
the holy city of Varanasi while shooting there, enough to stop us
from moving forward.
MM: Will it be shot anywhere else?
GN: We tried. We tried to remount it in Africa.
We tried to remount in Sri Lanka. But part of the story is the River
Ganges, and we felt we couldn’t actually use another river and put
in onto film and have the same emotion to it, so the film was never
made. Deepa Mehta is now shooting another picture in Toronto.
MM: You’ve worked with George Lucas twice
now, once on the Young Indiana Jones series, and now with Star Wars Episode II. What is that like?
GN: George is great. Just before Swimfan, I just did three weeks finishing off the new Star Wars, and
we had a great time. He’s very efficient, knows exactly what he
wants. He’s sort of no-bullshit director.
MM: I heard that John Travolta wants to
do a sequel to Battlefield Earth. Would you do it?
GN: I think it’s unlikely. I don’t think I
should comment (laughs). The interesting thing about working on
those so-called studio pictures that have studio budgets, was that,
on Deepa Mehta’s film, Earth, which was a $2.4 million Canadian
film, I had twice as many lights as on Battlefield Earth.
My kit was twice the size because of the budget. Battlefield
Earth had the smallest lighting budget of any film I’ve ever
MM: Why do you think that was?
GN: Because, believe it or not, $57 million
doesn’t go very far (laughs) when you’ve got a lot above the line.
I think the Battlefield Earth production budget was around
about $10 or $12 million.
MM: What is your ideal collaboration with
a director? Do you prefer freedom to set up a scene or would you
rather the director be specific on what he or she wants?
GN: All of these things are dependent on the
individuals you are working with. Scott McGehee and David Siegel
are the most precise directors I’ve ever worked with. They are very,
very strong about the make-up of the scenes and how they’re presented.
What they do allow me is complete freedom over lighting.
MM: But they did tell you how to set up a scene?
GN: They have a very, very strong idea about
it and what they’ll try to do is convey their idea to me without
the mechanics of where to put the camera and how you actually get
to what they want. What they want me to do is interpret what they’re
saying into something technical. But they know very clearly when
it’s not what they want; when it’s not going in the right direction.
And that, for me as a DP, is a great pleasure—to work with people
who are aware of the power of an individual image within a scene.
MM: How do you decide on a project?
MM: I’m sure you’re being inundated with
scripts now after The Deep End.
GN: Whatever walks through the door (laughs).
You’re always looking as a DP, as a director, as an actor, you’re
always looking for something that’s original. You’re always looking
for something that’s different. I have another factor: that I’m
also looking at locations. I’m looking at things that give me the
flexibility to do something interesting on the film.
MM: What’s your next project?
GN: I’m hoping to do Modern Mates with
David Siegel and Scott McGehee, which is a thriller shooting in
Los Angeles toward the end of this year. In the meantime I’m working
on this script about an Indian artist.
MM: And this script you’re working on now,
will it have many water scenes?
GN: Well, I haven’t actually finished the script
(laughs). And no, there’s not any water in it– yet!