When The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond’s original director of photography dropped from the project, director Jodie Markell’s first move was to phone cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. That was all it took to get Nuttgens on a plane to Louisiana to begin shooting—that and the opportunity to be the DP for a film featuring an original script from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams.
Nuttgen’s breakthrough in cinematography came in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s critically acclaimed film The Deep End (2001), for which Nuttgen’s efforts earned an Independent Spirit Award Nomination and a Cinematography Award at Sundance. He’s since served as the DP for a number of projects, including Swimfan (2002), Bee Season (2005) and The Good Night (2007).
Still, despite all the good Nuttgen has done in cinematography, the timeless historical relevance that The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond brings to the table stands to make this his most important project to date. Nearly 30 years after being presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter, Tennessee Williams is leaving another mark on the world of entertainment.
MM caught up with Nuttgens, who told us all about his unexpected involvement in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond—from the technical challenges he’s faced as a DP to the excitement that comes with working on something so exceptional.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): How did you get involved with The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond? What was it that attracted you to the project?
Giles Nuttgens (GN): I was brought in very late to shoot Teardrop Diamond after the original DP dropped out. This meant that I had only had a conversation by telephone with Jodie Markell before taking the flight to Lousiana.
Like everyone else I was attracted to the script because of its writer. I can’t claim to have been brought up on Kazan’s films of Tennessee Williams’ plays, but I did know Streetcar and thought it would be a great thing to be connected to—whichever way you look at it—a piece of cinematic history.
Teardrop is in some ways a summation of all the other films, similar themes but presented in a different light. The interesting challenge for a DP would be how to come up with a film that could appeal to modern cinema audiences, to find a look and a mise-en-scène that would be pacey enough to keep people interested, but classic enough in its look to set the period.
Although it was a script written expressly for cinema, Williams’ writings always have theatrical overtones and even Kazan’s films were predominantly studio-based. Although Kazan and [cinematographer] Boris Kaufman were incredibly inventive with camera movement and produced an aesthetic that worked in trying to create that claustrophobic, sweaty tension that is so much part of Williams’ work.
Ultimately, the film will work because of the performances and the quality of the emotions they are creating in the viewing audience.
MM: How do you prepare for shooting a film like The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond? Once you’ve confirmed that you’ll be working on the project, what is the first thing you do?
GN: The first thing any DP does to prepare is to get to know the script and its intentions; and along with that to communicate with the director to get to know them and how they see their film. After all, most directors have been working for years to get a film into production and part of them will end up in the final product. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that films tend to resemble their authors and it is a DP’s job to understand that.
MM: The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is a period piece, but you’ve shot a lot of contemporary drama as well. Is there a difference in how you approach shooting the two genres?
GN: All the ideas for the style of photography comes from the script. Allowing every script is different, most of the films I shoot look different. For me, the script is the only possible starting point from which to decide on a style. After that, directors’ intentions and aesthetic taste come into play, alongside production design, location and that uncontrollable element: Quality of light in the part of the world where the film is set.
In the case of Teardrop, Jodie and myself looked for a style that would be modern (a period film is still a product of the period in which it was shot and needs to comply with specific present-day standards, so that it doesn’t become a parody of another shooting style), but needed to be done with a certain amount of respect for the origin of the writing. For example, people shoot period films handheld thinking that gives it a modern, cool look. But I am not convinced that this can be applied to a piece of writing that belongs to a different period. Matching the photography to the the style of writing and the subject matter is what is important, not that a certain style of filmmaking is modern and one old-fashioned. Look at La passion de Jeanne D’Arc by [Carl Theodor] Dreyer: Static frames in an academy format (1.37:1), the most daring and “modern” framing that I have ever seen—and shot in 1920!
MM: With The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond you worked with first-time director Jodie Markell. How was your interaction on the set? If you work well with a director, does that show in the final product?
GN: With a limited preparation period, Jodie and I had to come to some decisions rapidly and the general feeling was that we would break away from the theatrical aspect of the script—in terms of format (we shot anamorphic 2.35:1) and to create some pace by letting the actors drive the camera through clear, choreographed movement. We tried to resist using the camera to heighten the tension or creating a fast pace through arbitrary or over-dramatic moves, as we felt this would betray the origins of the script.
One of the bigger problems on the set was the speed we had to work at. We only had a 28-day schedule and much of the film happens at night at a party with a lot of actors in period costume. It was summer in the plantations near Baton Rouge and humid as hell, so much of the shooting time was used up in dealing with that.
We came up with ways of moving with the actors, repeatedly developing over-the-shoulder shots within a single take that would describe the shift of relationships between the characters. This created long developing shots that we would cut into with corresponding developing reverse shots, allowing a fluidity and a rhythm that describes the changing balance of power between the characters, as the protagonist Fisher Willow loses and regains the love of Jimmy Dobyne.
Coupled with framing that uses the edge of the scope frame, we felt that we were able to break away from the proscenium arch of the theater and get enough pace into the edit to keep a modern audience interested.
MM: Are you influenced at all by the script when you’re choosing how to shoot the film? Does the tone of the script lead you to choose a particular aesthetic vibe?
GN: In terms of lighting, it was very important for me to be able to make sure that it worked to put a viewer into the period, but maintained contrast within the lighting without resorting to contrast enhancement in post-production. It was shot intended for a film-to-film process, so what I created through the camera was exactly what it would look like later. For distribution reasons, we later did a rapid 2K Digital Intermediate, but I was adamant in retaining the inherent contrast range of the original negative.
I suppose that is what I see as the difference between lighting for a period film and a contemporary one. Somehow, the psychology of the method of working has to have its base in that period—although we use modern film stocks (and I am a product of a modern industry) with relatively modern lenses, everything in that period was created in a direct way. There was no manipulation later. It suited me that we wouldn’t rely on a very new (electronic) process to create the feeling we wanted.
With a contemporary film, because anything is possible in this modern world, I also feel that there is no limit on the playing you can do within lighting and framing. Contemporary subject matter can take the pace of today, light sources can be created, invented and come from anywhere, a camera can do tricks that should be a technically impossible feat and we all accept it. It is very liberating after a period film.
MM: You started your career as a cinematographer working at the BBC. How did you find yourself working on feature films? What advice can you give to aspiring DPs trying to break into the business?
GN: I started in the BBC as an assistant film cameraman and was, for a while, 1st AC to Andrew Dunn (Gosford Park). It was working with him (coupled with the death of 16mm in TV) that gave me the interest in changing from documentaries to feature films.
Through a mutual contact, I met up with a director who was looking to shoot a film in India and never went back to the BBC after that. I worked for Lucasfilm for several years eventually ending up doing additional photography for the Star Wars trilogy.
If I were to start again I would probably be less particular about the scripts I do. What is incredibly important is to keep shooting, and to know that you should be able to make something good out of even weak material. Produce enough good work and you will get the chance to work on things you think are worthwhile. Any life experiences can only add to your ability to understand and communicate to a director or to crew—as we have to spend most of our lives away from home working, it is crazy not to profit from exposure to another culture, another way of working, another way of thinking.
Although approbation from our peers is very gratifying, ultimately what is important is that you are yourself satisfied with the quality and inventiveness of your work.