The movie to beat this awards season is undoubtedly David Fincher’s The Social Network, which has already nabbed several prestigious honors, including awards from the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The film is currently nominated for six Golden Globes, and is expected to garner a slew of nominations (including Best Picture), when the Academy Award nominations are announced later this month. While Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have been showered with praise, one person behind the camera who has not received the attention he deserves —at least not yet—is cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, whose textured camera work perfectly captures the complicated tone of the film.
MM recently caught up with Cronenweth to discuss the virtual non-stop acclaim that The Social Network has received, as well as his relationship with Fincher.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): When shooting The Social Network, did you have any idea of what a critical/commercial hit the movie would become?
Jeff Cronenweth (JC): The feeling was very strong that we had an amazing script that dealt with a very contemporary and popular subject, and of course David Fincher was directing. I think it’s important for movies to speak to the times, and both the critical reception and commercial success of The Social Network is due to the audience’s hunger for material that is relevant to them. We did the best we could to comment on the times we live in and the film is being rewarded for it.
MM: The Social Network marks your fourth film with Fincher (following Fight Club, The Game and Seven). What’s the key to a successful director-cinematographer relationship?
JC: Respect and understanding is key to a successful director/DP relationship. It helps that David and I have a common visual aesthetic, the same end goals and a similar work ethic. We’ve spent a lot of time filming together now, so we know each other well and enjoy a rewarding friendship as a result.
MM: Fincher is known to be something of a perfectionist. Do you find that to be the case on set?
JC: I think that, from a director’s perspective, from the time you arrive on the set until you wrap, you are confronted with situations that arise from all aspects of filmmaking that cause compromise. David strives to protect as much of his original vision throughout the process as possible and to give himself the best opportunity of accomplishing that. Call it perfectionist or just smart filmmaking, but this increases his odds of success.
MM: Were there any particular obstacles you encountered while shooting the movie?
JC: Harvard itself was a bit complicated in that the university is not very keen on film shoots on or around its campus. However, David wanted to capture a very iconic corner known as Harvard Square during the title sequence to set up the lead character’s journey back to his dorm and showcase the historic campus that was so critical to his story. Part of Harvard Square that makes it unique to the school is the original and oldest arched entrance to the campus. Since we were not allowed to enter the campus, we had a dilemma in that you could only see the arches if they were back lit.
So we formed a plan that included the creation of a battery pack cart with lights that could be easily wheeled into place and out quickly. Then we hired a mime who unknowingly would wheel his light cart onto the campus, illuminate the arches and perform his act while Jesse Eisenberg ran by the lit arches, and then walk off campus when the shot was completed. The idea was that even if campus security was present, who would question a mime and how can you talk to one anyway?
MM: You shot The Social Network digitally on RED ONE cameras, with beta-version MX sensors. Why did you make that choice?
JC: Honestly it was something that David and I had independently been testing out and found that the technology with the new Mysterium-X chip would best serve our needs. David is also a friend of Steven Soderbergh, who shot several films with the RED camera and convinced him to give it a try.
Filming in the kind of low-light situations David likes to work with, the advantages of the MX were an improvement in latitude, highlights not vanishing as quickly into clipping areas and actually extending the toe area, as well as the dynamic color range. The real challenge of this technology remains the manipulation of depth-of-field.
MM: How do you think it enhances the film, visually?
JC: I think that the resolution, ISO rating that we were able to rate the camera at, and the simplicity of the system allowed us to stay small, leaving a smaller footprint and maintaining a lower profile while shooting in sensitive areas.
MM: As a young man, you served as an apprentice to some of the world’s greatest cinematographers, including Sven Nykvist (Cries and Whispers), John Toll (Braveheart), Conrad Hall (American Beauty) and your father, Jordan (Blade Runner). What is the best piece of advice you learned from them?
JC: Embrace fear—it’s not your enemy. It helps to keep you pushing the envelope. Take risks and believe yourself; your first choice is usually right.
You don’t need to be the smartest person on the set, but you need to be smart enough to listen. Great ideas come from the most interesting places.
I’ve also learned never to let one’s ego interfere with the story and the audience’s perception of the story. This means allowing the narrative to unfold without overemphasis and trusting the viewer to emotionally engage with the imagery.
MM: What advice would you offer to today’s aspiring cinematographers?
JC: To aspiring cinematographers, I would say the most important thing is to care about the place of storytelling in our lives and care about telling good stories. That’s the backbone we need to work from.