NFS: What are some time-saving techniques that you have perfected over the years to help you use minimal light?
DeMarco: I like to work on a small crane with a remote head. I find that I can quickly put a camera in just about anywhere. That was inspired by watching really good animated movies like The Incredibles. They could put a camera anywhere they want because it's Pixar. It's animated. I find working on a crane—even interiors—I can move the camera wherever I need to.
There was a wonderful, intimate scene between Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman's character, where Nicole's character's putting makeup on Elle's character. It's in a boudoir in her punk world. It's tight quarters, and we had to have a focus puller, a dolly, a dolly grip, a camera operator, and me standing near the camera. It seemed very invasive to me. So I just shoved the little crane arm with the remote head in there between the ladies. To them, there wasn't even a camera, even though it was this machine on a crane arm filming them. We were all a few feet away behind a curtain. I'm on the gear head with remote wheels.
"I was constantly reminded by operators and focus pullers, 'Oh, that was out of focus for a second.' I was like, 'Yeah, that's punk.'"
I even grabbed the focus from my focus puller, Fran Weston, who was incredible. I'm fucking around, deliberately making it go in and out of focus for certain shots, and she was cringing, because everything has to be perfect and focused. I said, "No, no, this is a punk-friendly moment." She's saying, "Okay, whatever." But they're in the movie—these wonderful, out of focus, super close ups. It's just rich and beautiful. It's very intimate. It's alien. Nicole Kidman is an alien in her own way too, as is Elle [Fanning]. They're both these incredible people from some other planet.
NFS: This does seem to harken back to your philosophy of having technique backed by story. You wanted to distill everything down to the least invasive method possible so that the actors can do their job.
DeMarco: In my experience over the years, as I move through my career, regardless of if things change from film to digital, I find that distilling things is the way to go. That's the perfect word: distill the lighting, to distill the shot. Every step is to distill. 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 on one or two shots."
I like to do what I call question mark shots. It was funny. I work with a wonderful TV writer and while we were working on a pilot he said, "Yeah, this is what I call a question mark scene. Because when you watch it, you know you want to know what happens." I said, "It's so funny you say that because I try and shoot everything like a question mark. People see the shot, or the scene, or the idea, and they say, "Oh, I want to know more." They're on the edge of their seat. They need more information. I don't withhold to the point where, you go, 'Oh, God. I don't know what's going on. Fuck this, I'm out of here.' It's more like, 'Ooh, I'm intrigued. Tell me more."
NFS: How does that translate visually into specific shots?
DeMarco: I'll give you an example from a Quentin Tarantino movie, Inglorious Basterds. You know the scene where the Jewish people are under the floorboards, and the Nazi guys come, and they're drinking milk with the French farmer? You don't know until halfway through the scene that he's hiding Jews under the floorboards. It's the whole Hitchcock/MacGuffin thing of where are we going? Why is this Nazi colonel interrogating our French farmer? Why does our French farmer seem very odd? You're just like, "I'm going along. I don't know what's going on, but I know there's something going on. I want to know more, and I know Tarantino's gonna smash me between the eyes soon enough. I'm confident I'm gonna get an answer."
Frankie DeMarco on the set of 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties'Credit: Frankie DeMarco
DeMarco: That 13-minute scene is question mark after question mark. Finally, halfway through the scene, the camera booms down, and magically we go through the floorboards and see all these Jews hiding out. Now you have the bomb under the table while the guys are talking about baseball. Now you think that you—the viewer—know more than the other two, but actually, both of them know that the farmer's hiding people under there, too. You create that much more tension. Then it ends up in a horrific bloodbath.
NFS: I want to go back to something you mentioned just earlier about shifting in and out of focus. You definitely shot this film with a "punk" vibe. The camera had a lot of kinetic energy. Not everything was always in focus.
DeMarco: We talked about that a lot, especially with camera operators, because they always want everything to be smooth and perfect. I'm always wrestling with the camera operator: "You can't have this mantle of propriety that's gonna fit on every film. It doesn't. You have to embrace this film. It's a punk movie. Go punk." I was constantly reminded by operators and focus pullers, "Oh, that was out of focus for a second." I was like, "Yeah, that's punk. It's not perfect. We have to be raging against the white man, here." Maybe other DPs might have brought assumed rigor and propriety to this movie. But every movie is different.
Jamie Hartcourt, one of my camera operators, has been around a long time. He totally got it. For the alien dance scene, he wanted to do a drone shot, and the town of Richmond in London wouldn't let us fly a drone. He came up with this idea of a GoPro on a stick—we could kind of create a drone using this little gimbal. It worked brilliantly. So when En has a dream, and he goes into the alien house, we use this fake drone. It's better than a drone because we could go inside with it, too. You don't want to fly a drone inside. It could bounce off walls and hit people.
"I always say, 'Let the movie talk to you.' I want to do dollies and cranes and outrageous shots, but you know what? Your movie will be better if you let it tell you what it needs."
If we shot Rabbit Hole like that, people would've been outraged. Rabbit Hole was shot in a very austere way. John and I had crane shots, we had dolly shots, we had a bunch of shots that we prepped. But when we hit the set, I saw them rehearsing the scene, and I said, "John, you know that crane shot?" He said, "No, we're not doing it." The camera was very static, very minimal. If we did a move, it was very imperceptible.
I always say, "Let the movie talk to you." I want to do dollies and cranes and outrageous shots, but you know what? Your movie will be better if you let it tell you what it needs. It's like a relationship. If you don't listen to your partner, you're gonna have a divorce sooner or later. It's a back and forth communication.
Elle Fanning on the set of 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties'Credit: Frankie DeMarco
NFS: I can imagine you have to let go of your preconceived notions, while still anticipating the movie's needs.
DeMarco: John and I plan everything out to the detail. Then, when we get to set, everything falls apart. We have talked about what he needs to get at. We've talked about that story and the emotion, the distilled drop. Having worked up my way through working as assistant and camera operator, I've seen people who stick to the plan because that's the plan, and they don't want to think anymore when they're filming, because it's like, "We've made the plan, we've done all the thinking, now we're executing."
But in my world, we think and think and plan and plan, and then we get to executing. Sometimes yeah, we just execute. But, hopefully, if we execute, we can go, "Oops, that doesn't really match. We're gonna have to change it now at the last minute." And we make a better thing.
With Hedwig, the proof is in the pudding. People still watch the movie. People still laugh and cry. I think I always wanted to make movies like that, and I've managed to make a couple.
I don't watch movies as a cinematographer looking at the lighting. I get my box of popcorn, put away my meter, and watch a movie to be thrilled by a movie. I don't look at it and look for boom shadows, or dolly moves, or cool lighting. I'm just watching the movie. Then, if I really like the movie, I'll go back and watch it for all my greedy necessities.
"I don't watch movies as a cinematographer looking at the lighting. I get my box of popcorn, put away my meter, and watch a movie to be thrilled by a movie."
The same thing goes for being on set. When you go in, you want to stay open minded. We have to be our own audience. We have to be looking at what we're doing as if we're seeing it for the first time, and be able to say, "We don't know if this is working so well. Can we think about doing this or that?" We'll put our heads together and figure it out.
I try and stay fresh like it's the first time I've been on a movie set every time. Otherwise, you fall into a pattern. You fall into your old tricks. You see people doing the same shots, the same lighting, over and over, regardless of the movie. Every time I do a movie, I'm gonna make that movie look like that movie, not like my last movie, and not like some other movie I've done before. If you look at all the movies I've done, they all have very different looks and very different styles. What's my style? I'm a slave to the movie. The movie tells me what it wants to be, and I have the joy of experimenting every time.
I don't want to keep doing the same thing over and over. I get bored. That's why I'm not a director. People have said to me, "Why don't you direct? You seem to know what you're doing." It's like, "No. I don't want to direct because then I gotta live with one project for however many years." John started How to Talk to Girls in 2009. It's the year of our Lord 2017. We're in Cannes. He's still on the same project. I know he's been writing, dabbling, directing TV stuff, or whatever, but he's gotta live with this one. Meanwhile, I did How to Talk to Girls in 2015, and said, "Bye, bye." I've done 10 projects since then. I'm happy.
'How to Talk to Girls at Parties'Credit: Cannes 2017
NFS: How does your process change when you go into a project like Mad Men, where there's a predetermined visual language?
DeMarco: Matt Weiner [the creator of Mad Men] and company had references. They liked certain magazine photos and styles. They wanted to shoot very noir style, a very dolly-driven style. But, then they ended up—it's part of why I left—everything was cut to the dial. The oners never lasted but a second or two. I'd spend half a day shooting a oner, and then I'd watch the cut and it's all cut to pieces. It's a little disappointing.
NFS: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming cinematographers?
DeMarco: I'll give you advice that I thought was very sage advice. I'm stealing it from the departed Harris Savides (The Game, American Gangster) when he was asked the same question. He said, "Don't get married. Don't have kids. Don't get a mortgage." If you don't have a spouse, a child, or a mortgage, you're not very financially tied down. That means that one day you run into some director who's got this brilliant idea to do some crazy, insane, never-before thing, and instead of saying, "Oh, but there's no money...if there was some money, I could do this for you. I have responsibilities." You can say, "Yes. That sounds insane. That sounds like that could help me. That might put me on the map. I'll do it for you."
The other thing I would say is: make more friends than you do enemies. I've lost many opportunities that way myself. I fucked up and made enemies where I should've made friends. But, opportunity comes again and again, and you should learn from your lessons. Befriend everybody. Still have an opinion—still do the right thing—but do it in an amicable, productive way. I've learned that the hard way in my career. You have to effectively manage a difference of opinion so that it's resolved in a collegial way as opposed to a big blowup.
NFS: That's a skill.
DeMarco: Yeah, it is a skill. I was not born with it; I never learned it. Some people have it, some people don't. I certainly didn't have it, but I am learning it, this day.
And there's the other thing: never stop learning.