Unlike, say, Emmanuel Lubezki, cinematographer Frankie DeMarco doesn't have a distinctive style. There's no visual throughline that defines the projects he's shot, which are as diverse as Mad Men, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Rabbit Hole, All is Lost, Margin Call, and, now, the 2017 Cannes Film Festival premiere How to Talk to Girls at Parties. DeMarco has a reason for that: instead of imposing his vision on a movie, he lets the movie talk to him.
"What's my style? I'm a slave to the movie," DeMarco told No Film School in a recent interview at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. "The movie tells me what it wants to be, and I have the joy of experimenting every time."
DeMarco likens his process to a relationship; each movie tells him what it needs according to the specifics of the story. For How to Talk to Girls, DeMarco revived the "punk rock" aesthetic he cultivated on Hedwig with his long-time collaborator, director John Cameron Mitchell, but he also tried something different. Because the movie, based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, features two worlds—gritty 1970's London and aliens who have just landed on earth—DeMarco created two visual dimensions. When he was told he couldn't shoot the punk scenes in Super 16, DeMarco ingeniously recreated the feel with Super 35 digital blown up to 300%. To depict the alien world, which stars Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman as culturally curious extraterrestrials, DeMarco stuck to the full-size Super 35, lending those scenes a pristine feel.
At Cannes, DeMarco further divulged his process, which includes minimal lighting, extensive prep that is thrown out the window on set, and an emphasis on "question mark shots." The cinematographer also revealed why he quit shooting Mad Men, when it's okay to ignore your focus puller, and how he tackled some major obstacles that came in the way of his work on How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
"Nobody, to date, had ever shot on digital as Super 35 blown up to 300%."
No Film School: How did you and John Cameron Mitchell start working together?
Frankie DeMarco: I met John Cameron Mitchell at Sundance Film Director's Lab in 1999. Michelle Satter, who runs the whole thing, thought John and I would get along at the lab. They need four cinematographers for two directors, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. And I don't know. I think, like everything in this world, I found the opportunity through the kindness of friends. John was a first-time filmmaker working on Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He was director, producer, writer, actor. And I helped him. He credits me with co-directing, and I wouldn't say I co-directed. But I definitely helped him out a lot. I know editing; I know how to stage a scene. Especially this, which was song and dance and music and funk and madness. And I can work with multiple cameras, so we made it work.
Some producers had hired John to do Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and they wanted a more established director of photography. They wanted an indie king or queen. They had wanted Ellen Kuras or Bobby Bukowski. There were a number of indie darlings with plenty of movies under their belts already, and I really only had a couple.
We knew it would all be difficult. And the producers really wanted to feel safe. At the Sundance Labs, John had said, "You're gonna do the movie with me." Then we worked together on it for a year. But then halfway through, the producers twisted his arm and said, "No, we gotta go with a more established, experienced DP who can deliver this film. If you, the director, start falling apart, we need someone who can pick it up and carry it."
So John gave me the bad news halfway through the year of prep. But he said, "I still want to meet with you. I like your ideas." And that was a real dilemma for me. It was like, why should I help you out, man? But I talked to wife at the time, and she said, "Do it. Is it costing you anything? Is it gonna hurt you? You've lost a movie, but you still have a friend who likes your creative ideas. I know it hurts a little, but do it." It was very sage advice.
'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'Credit: New Line Cinema
DeMarco: So I kept meeting with John for the next year. He engaged an approved director of photography. They worked together, but very quickly on, I think he realized it wasn't the right match. He was a great director of photography but wasn't what John needs. John wants ideas. He wants to surround himself with creative people. He's from theater. Every day, they do a play, and they've gotta do it [again] tomorrow night. But tonight, at the end of the play, they get together and say, "Why didn't anyone laugh at this? Why was everybody shuffling and coughing during this scene?" They do a post-mortem every night in theater, so that the next night, when they do the show, they punch that joke up. They get it moving a little faster during the slow part.
John likes that. He needs feedback, critique—both positivity and negativity. He wants to be checked and questioned so that he can defend his ideas. He wants to be surrounded with people who are willing to say "no," or "maybe," or "why not this instead of that?" instead of everybody just saying "yes, yes, yes." I think it makes him a better director, and he knows that. That's why he still thrives.
[Before shooting the actual film], we worked together for a year ahead of time, prepping and planning, so when we hit our 25-day shooting schedule we would know exactly what we wanted and how we wanted to do it. If the square plan didn't fit into the round situation we were in, we made massive changes. But we knew what we needed to get to, and I think Hedwig and the Angry Inch still lives today because it is alive. It changed. It wasn't rigid. We didn't force it to be our plans. We birthed it and then raised it into the movie that it is. So, it was a great experience.
NFS: Do you have some examples of times when you would step in and question John for the betterment of the film?
DeMarco: We were going through the script of Hedwig and the Angry Inch with a production designer, Therese DePrez, who was brilliant and wonderful. We reached a scene in the middle of the movie where Hedwig is in her motor home, she's just been abandoned, and she starts singing this very sad, sort of torched song. But then this song takes a twist halfway through it. It becomes sort of this, "get it back together and start marching, let's pull ourselves together and go!" And all of a sudden a band appears, and everybody's in Arianne Phillips costumes and wigs by Michael Potter.
I said, "You know what would be really great here, John? Could we blow off the roof when the song changes, and things start going crazy? The sides of the trailer all fall down, and then whole thing become sort of this platform, 'cause it all becomes a rock and roll, punk scene. And can we shoot this at night instead of daytime?"
John's like, "Yeah. Yeah, I love it. And then we could put foot light bulbs around the edges." And John and I are just piling on all these great ideas. It's brilliant and genius. And then we sort of look at Therese—this giant, six-foot-tall woman. And she's all scrunched up on the floor, in a fetal position. She's like, "How do you expect us to do this with the money we have?"
But we figured it out! And that's when I knew John was the real deal.
'How to Talk to Girls at Parties'Credit: Cannes 2017
NFS: Did you do anything exciting like that on How to Talk to Girls at Parties?
DeMarco: When we were doing Rabbit Hole in 2009, John gave me Neil Gaiman's short stories. This thing had been gestating for a long time. I'm excited, I go home, I read the book, and it's over in seven pages. I'm like, it's a cute little story—a little alien and punk love story—but it's seven pages. How do you make a movie out of this? But I know John. He's got a vision. He's gonna figure that one out. I'm not gonna worry about it.
Time passes and we do Rabbit Hole. And it was six years until we did How to Talk to Girls in fall of 2015 in London. In between, John starts sending me drafts. It was a 120-page script. He figured it out. It's a big, long story.
From day one, he wanted to shoot the movie on Super 16 film. He likes film grain. He thought Super 16 was perfect for that, as opposed to 35. Plus, he's very budget-conscious. He thought Super 16 would not only give him the kind of texture he likes, but also be economical.
John, if he chose, could've gotten a lot of money—like $20 million—to do this movie, but he would've had to sign away his right to final cut and his right to make all the decisions, like casting and everything. In the end, the people that put the money in this movie were silent partners. All they were doing is investing in this movie; they had no say in anything. But John only raised seven million dollars because of that.
On Rabbit Hole, John had very invasive producers question his authority and his creative choices every step of the way, and it really hindered that movie. It was only with great struggle that we managed to make a really good movie because he was confronted with very negative input and he wasn't supported by his producers. He said, "Never again."
"One of my philosophies is where there's obstruction, there can often be an opportunity."
John brought on Howard Gertler for How to Talk to Girls. We were gonna do it on Super 16. Kodak is helping us from New York. Howard's feverishly doing the budgets, and they just keep coming up just a little too short to make the Super 16 work. Literally, on our final day of prep, they said, "We can't swing this film deal."
When John heard it, he went insane. He was really upset. After all the tears and hand wringing, I said, "You know, there is one little thing I want to show you. But we have to go to a digital post place and we have to project it on a big screen."
Let me back up a little. One of my philosophies is where there's obstruction, there can often be an opportunity. I know there is a big resistance to shooting on film nowadays. A lot of people claim it's more expensive. Maybe on a low budget it is, but I know people with no money that shoot film.
So, knowing that there might be a glitch in the 16mm idea, months earlier I had gone to AbelCine in New York and asked about an ARRI Alexa digital camera. I just did some tests where I shot full-screen Super 35 on the Alexa chip. Then, I traced out a little rectangle that was the size of Super 16 film. Then, I took the digital drive out, took it over to the post house, and I had them run me the Super 35 stuff. I said, "Now, blow that up to fill the whole frame." We extracted Super 16 from the center of the 35mm rectangle and blew that up 300%. I put that on a junk drive, put it in my pocket.
We're back in England. The decision is made that we can't shoot on Super 16 film. John is devastated. I take everyone to Molière, which is a wonderful post-production facility in London with a 40-foot screen. They plugged in my little digital drive. I showed them this test that I shot of regular ARRI Super 35, and it was ARRI Super 16, blow-up extraction, all from the digital chip. I explained why this would make so much sense for our movie.
This is what I'm getting to: the movie has two worlds. It has the alien world, which is in an abandoned hotel that they take over. Then, there's the punk world. It's 1997 South London, the neighborhood of Croydon, which is this famous, pretty grungy place.
I said, "Look, all of our reference films were shot on film." 16mm film has more depth of field than 35 does. Things are more real. You can see the details in the background, although everything is grainy and gritty. What I'm proposing is for the punk world—their neighborhood, their houses, their streets, their punk clubs—we shoot on this Super 16 extraction.
'How to Talk to Girls at Parties'Credit: Cannes 2017
DeMarco: Then, when we enter the alien world, we'll shoot that on Super 35. The 35 is more polished. You isolate your subject. You soften the background. Everything is beautiful. Not only is the alien world full of these amazingly dressed Sandy Powell outfits, but the lighting has a different look. There's no grain. It has a polished, slick texture.
So, the Super 16 digital extraction for the punk world and the 35 shot on 3.2K—not 4K—which looks better than any Sony or RED 4K. Those would be our two looks. With a little salesmanship and John's overt positivity, we sold everyone on what a great idea this is.
That was the fall of 2015, and nobody, to date, had ever shot an ARRI Alexa or ARRI Amira—or anything digital—as Super 35 blown up to 300%. Super 35 is four times bigger than a Super 16 frame. It's massive. The studios or networks won't let you blow up past 10 or 15%. Luckily, we were not associated with any studio at the time.
John and I actually did it on a music video in 2004, where we shot 35 film, but we extracted out the Super 16-sized image. I think it was a Scissor Sisters video. We were mixing 35 and 16, but the producers didn't want to pay for two whole camera packages. So, I said, "Let's just get a deal on film. We'll get some close-to-out-of-date film or something, and we'll rent a 35 camera, and shoot 16 and 35 on the 35 film." It's essentially what we did on the ARRI Amira. Fast forward 10 years later, for How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and it's the same thing, except we did it on the digital chip instead of 35.
"Oftentimes, directors will have three or four shots they want to do for a scene, and I'll say, 'I see what you're doing, but I think I can do this in one or two shots.'"
Of course, I thought, "What if it's all gonna fall apart in post?" What if we shoot this whole movie, and we get it all in the can, and we go through editing, and then we finally go to the digital and we blow it up, and it's all just great, big, square, chunky pixels? I was just questioning myself. You have these personal crises of confidence. I shot a thorough test. It looked good. In the end, I knew I did the due diligence. I said, "Well, fuck it. I'll never work with these guys again if I blow this, but I feel like this is the right way to go, and the test said yes, so here we go."
NFS: And everyone's incredibly happy with it, I'm sure.
DeMarco: They're thrilled. They'll see it tonight on the big screen.
It was great because we had a massive obstacle that slammed us head on. We had to think, "How do we roll with this? How do we turn this to our advantage?" We turned a disadvantage into an advantage. It actually worked in our favor.
Michael Pitt on the set of 'Delirious'Credit: Frankie DeMarco
DeMarco: When John and I did Hedwig, we actually had four different looks for the four different timelines. It's something we both very much understood—that you could use film technique to underline an era or a timeframe. You could use it to support a feeling, too. The one thing I am absolutely rigid about is that whatever we do has to support the emotion of the story. I always come back to that, because when in doubt, that's all you have. When you don't know what to do, or you don't know how to light, or you're confused about where things are going, just read the script. Talk to the director. Ask yourself: what is the meaning of this scene, this shot, this idea? It'll all boil down to story and emotion.
Once you get your feet solidly on those two ideas—story and emotion—it's much easier to see how you need to light it, what the type of shot you need to do is, what the texture, the grain, the format, is. The clarity suddenly is there.
NFS: Was there a time, when you were looking at a scene for How to Talk to Girls, where there was a very explicit emotion that you wanted to convey that informed the technical decisions you made?
DeMarco: There's a wonderful scene in the movie, towards the end, where [the main character] Henry, whose nickname is En, and Elle Fanning's character, the alien, are on this bridge in Croyden. They're five stories up in the air on this bridge that connects these two abandoned housing projects. It's very bleak, very post-World War II. It's a nighttime scene. They realize they love each other, and they're trying to figure out some really important things. They're teenagers. She's a 17-year-old alien, he's a 17-year-old punk boy. They're confused.
We lit the scene entirely with candles outside. It's November, it's getting cold, it's Sheffield, England. It was a very uncomfortable filming situation. We tried to really respect the crew by shooting 12 hours and being done with it. We really needed the time to get this scene done, because it's very intimate, and John was gonna do as many takes as we needed to get this done. I was trying to figure out, "How am I gonna light this thing so that John doesn't have to wait 15 minutes between setups so I can relight?" On the other hand, I really didn't want it to look terrible, because this is an incredibly emotional, beautiful, pivotal scene in the movie.
"Fewer lights tend to be more beautiful."
We ended up shooting it with the candles, for the most part. I did have a little board with some lightbulbs on it—I call it a covered wagon—with some diffusion on it that we could move around. I had Dave Tyler, my gaffer, stick these candelabra bulbs on the board with no fuzz on them. Whenever we needed to do a new setup and move the camera, I could just say, "Dave, move the candelabra light there. Good, we're lit. Let's go." I like to use minimal light; instead of moving 15 lights, I move one.
This is something that John, I know, appreciates in terms of working with me. I know how to make it look good and I know how to spend minimal time between setups. I like to work with as few lights as possible because I find fewer lights tend to be more beautiful. Or they can be ugly if that's what you're looking for. I call that beautiful-ugly: Roger Deakins' Sid and Nancy was beautiful, gorgeous, ugly movie. Gorgeously ugly. I was inspired when I saw that movie. They say steal from the best, and I've stolen from many of the best.