MM: Back to Nocturnal Animals. There are so many gorgeous shots of the desert in the film and they stay on the landscape for a long time. Can you talk about why you did that?
SM: When I saw the film initially, I said to Tom, “So many close ups, we did so many wides!” This is in a pre-cut situation. He and Joan Sobel, his editor, did kind of understand that they wanted to save the vista for the movie-within-the-movie and create a kind of psychological landscape. We were blessed with some of those shots. We shot at the right time of the day, and we were very light on our feet as a film crew. It was a relatively tight crew, so we were able to go, “Oh my god, look at that sunset!” The shot of Jake trying to find where the hoods dropped him off… we were there and suddenly this sunset appeared and the cloudscape appeared. It was almost like a time lapse, and I jumped up on top of a truck with the camera and screwed on the legs and we clicked the head on and Jake was brilliant. He loved that sort of energy, of on-the-hoof photography.
We shot him crawling under this barbed wire fence. It was allowed to live on the big screen because the clouds have this pathetic fallacy; they’re imbued with meaning somehow. [Laughs] Nobody thought about that when we were shooting it. We just thought, “My God, look at that, look at that amusing cloudscape!” But, of course, in the one-plus-one-equals-three of the edit room, it suddenly becomes something more profound. That’s the exciting thing about working on films—that at every stage you’re recreating meaning and tuning into a director’s vision by effectively using the syntax and images the way a writer uses words, and creating another idea. That’s why the editing room is such a special place for filmmakers.
MM: A big-budget movie often allots less for lighting than an indie, many cinematographers have said. How is that a challenge?
SM: That’s true. Luckily I have a kind of naturalistic style. Usually I don’t get much bleating from the producers when it comes to my light list because I tend to light quite frugally and simply. I prefer it that way. My lighting budget really doesn’t change much from film to film.
MM: Why are there so few women cinematographers?
SM: I think that is really changing. Historically that was true, but I doubt that that’s the case now. Some of the most incredible [women] cinematographers coming up have done extraordinary work. I think that that’s changing. My crew loves working with women; especially under pressure, there’s no better team than a crew of women. Cinematographers like Reed Morano, Rachael Morrison, there’re so many who are already doing extraordinary work. It is changing, thankfully.
MM: You’ve worked with many amazing directors already, sometimes on more than two films. Who are some of the directors you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?
SM: I was so sad to see Mike Nichols passed away. He was one of the greatest directors that I’ve ever worked with, and I was hoping that one day I could have worked with him again. He was a joy to work for. I love David Lynch’s films. Although I’ve met him and I’ve worked with him on a documentary that he did with Harry Dean Stanton [2012’s Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction], I would love to shoot another movie for him. He’s one of my favorite directors… but I would hate to upset my regular collaborators. MM
Nocturnal Animals opens in theaters November 23, 2016, courtesy of Focus Features.