MM: Tom Ford has been a successful couture designer for some 30 years but this is only his second film. You’ve established working relationships with experienced directors, including Joe Wright and Sam Taylor-Johnson. Were you apprehensive working on this project? And did you get any suits?
SM: No, I didn’t get any suits, but I got the gift of working with Tom! I’d no sense of trepidation about working with him. In fact, from the very second I met Tom, I knew that he was a man of incredible achievement in many areas, not just in fashion, but also as a person. There’s such profundity and intelligence and just the way he sees things. More importantly, as a cinematographer, I’ve collaborated with many filmmakers, and his ability to communicate in such a coherent and vivid way—not in a prescriptive way that would make me shoot in a particular way—but his words are very rich in terms of how he imagines a scene. He can translate his imagination into words, and that means that his collaborator can connect with his vision. And if he doesn’t like it, he will tell you but in the most lovely way, so it was a very, I suppose, dynamic collaboration in terms of the setting up of shots, color references, references for the film, all those things. It was so exciting to work with somebody with such depth of visual knowledge and references that we could talk about, so there was a real wonderful communication there from day one.
MM: Does he allow average-looking people on the set? And does he have a sense of humor?
SM: He’s extremely funny. His sense of humor can veer between mordant and mischievous to just outright hilarious.
We were shooting in the desert at night in the dust and the cold. In fact, in the desert, Tom abandoned his signature suit, which he often wore on set. He wore jeans and cowboy boots and a hat. I think a lot of the publicity stills from the set show him in a perfect silhouette of one of his own couture suits, but actually in the desert, we were down and dirty. It’s a mucky business making films and Tom loved that.
He’s such a hard-working filmmaker and he’s one of the most prepared directors I’ve ever worked with in terms of knowing what he wants, but also knowing that things can go belly up at any point for whatever reason. He’s very elastic and he’s able to change course in a blink of an eye but still maintain the directorial through line, and that’s the mark of a great director.
MM: Did you come across any surprises shooting the film?
SM: Stuff happened when the rednecks—I don’t want to call up them rednecks; there’s probably a better word for that that isn’t offensive—abduct the family on the road at night and pull them over. Everything up that point had a kind of stability, a very considered approach to the photography. However, at that point we just threw the cameras up on our shoulders—myself and David Emmerichs, the A-camera operator, and I was the B-camera operator—and we just shot and ran. I’d lit the actors in a way that they had a lot of freedom of movement. And there was a certain amount of improvisation, within reason of course, but the actors really responded to that as well. It’s great when you’re witnessing a performance through the camera for the first time. You’re at your own little private cinema. We shot it over a couple of nights. Some of those performances, you could really feel the tension and feel the fear and it’s lovely.
A film set actually is quite a tiny place in the end. There weren’t many people around. Once the clapperboard goes on, there’s silence and the rest of the crew disappeared into the darkness on a night shoot and you really feel a sense of being there in a created scene. You feel the electricity. Actually, I feel it again when I watch the film.
MM: You mentioned you’ve seen this film three or four times. What went through your head when you were watching it?
SM: It’s the first film that I’ve watched, either in a private screening or with a small audience, that I forgot that I worked on it. I didn’t think, “Oh, I wish I’d done that, or I wish I’d lit that better, or that shot is slightly out of focus.” I was completely sucked into the movie. I only start looking at movies from a technical perspective when they’re not immersive or engaging enough.
MM: Clearly Tom Ford admires beautiful bodies, and there is a lovely shot of Jake Gyllenhaal’s and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s nude bodies. Is there a special challenge to shooting a nude body?
SM: It’s like any photography; it’s part of the art. I love portraiture. I love photography. I come from stills and I’ve shot many nudes when I was a stills photographer, and I really love the photography of a naked body and when you’ve got somebody as exquisite as Jake and the other actor, India Menuez, who’s playing Susan’s daughter. It’s looking at still lives, basically, and the sculptural aspect. We labored over a while setting up that shot on the red sofa when Michael Shannon and Jake the sheriff find the bodies and matching it to a similar pose of Susan’s daughter in bed waking up with a phone call from her mother. All of those overlays and mirrored shots were fantastic to set up, however horrific the effect of them is. It’s great working with actors who are comfortable with their bodies and who can move and pose as well.
MM: On another track, how do you feel about 3-D? You worked on one 3D film, The Avengers.
SM: I’ve yet to work on a film that I feel explored 3D in a creative way. On The Avengers we started shooting real 3D and then abandoned it and did it in post, which gave us a lot more flexibility for doing the dynamic work in 3D, creating dimensionality during the shot, which is not something that’s possible with real in camera 3D. I think that Hugo is actually the best [3D film]. I also loved Wim Wenders’ Pina Bausche documentary.
I’m not anti-3D. I just find it slightly crazy watching it because I don’t like having glasses on in the cinema. I’m aware of the edges of the glasses’ frames. One of the beautiful things about cinema is that it is one window into the cinematographic world, and the glasses are kind of like another window, an extra keyhole between that and the screen. So the cinematic experience, rather than being enhanced by 3D, is diminished by it for me. But I can see that there may be ways in the future where the 3D experience can be improved upon. It’s lovely that people aren’t blinkered about how technology can either let us tell stories in different ways or just enhance the viewing experience. It’s a different way of looking at films rather than an enhancement of reality. In fact it’s further, 3D for me is further than the real experience. It’s a more distancing technique than a leap toward reality.
MM: Then you wouldn’t agree with Ang Lee, whose Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk attempts to make viewers feel like they are right in the picture?
SM: I haven’t seen that film so I can’t disagree with what Ang Lee said. But my philosophical response to that would be that I get stitched into an image because of persistence of vision. The very flicker of 24 frames a second means that we spend more time in darkness in a cinema than in the light of the reflected image off the screen. That dark time between the shutter flash is important for the brain to cogitate on the image it has just seen in that millisecond. That is what we as humans leap to in the cinema. We see a story in our own heads rather than the barrage, the rat-a-tat of multiple frames of high-speed photography and high-frame rates which only bombard you with imagery that’s preordained. What is lovely about cinema and the human experience of watching it is that your own soul and mind [is] mixing with images of the director’s vision in front of you. It’s that hand and handedness that is the essence of cinema.