There are some visual indicators that movie watchers tend to notice to signify what genre they are watching. From the bloody reds of horror to the moody dark interiors of dramas, each genre has a distinct visual look that says, "This is what you're watching."
However, Garth Davis's Foe balances delicately rural drama and sci-fi worlds, creating a stellar cinematic vision that explores a relationship in turmoil by the request of a stranger. Based on the novel of the same name written by Iain Ried, the story is set in 2065 in a desolate world starving for rain. People are relocating off the Earth to find new life while life on Earth suffocates those who remain.
Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, known for his work onSon of Saul and Sunset, was tasked with creating a stunning yet desolate world that isolated the cast once he joined the crew late in post-production. The results are quietly beautiful as elements of the sci-fi genre slowly start to tear away the naturalism of farm life in Foe.
Mátyás Erdély sat down with No Film School on Zoom to discuss working in the dead forest in a practical location, his camera and lens package used to create the stunning naturalism in camera, and the one that he believes all cinematographers should know how to do.
FOE | Official Traileryoutu.be
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Congratulations on Foe getting a theatrical release from Amazon. How did you get started with this project and what made you excited to join it?
Mátyás Erdély: Greig Fraser introduced me to Garth [Davis]. Funny enough, we were in touch on Instagram, and one day I received a text message from Greig asking me if I wanted to meet a friend of his. I was like, "OK, sure." Then two days later, I was on a Zoom call with Garth.
I'm super grateful for Greig for introducing us and basically helping this relationship to happen. I've been an admirer of their work, both on Lion and Mary Magdalene, and following both of their work it was an amazing opportunity for me to make this film with Garth. I had no doubt about... It was like a present given to me, like, "Oh yeah, absolutely, I would love to do this." Then, we had this amazingly rich script with this fantastic cast, so everything fell into place.
NFS: When you were first reading this script, how did you see this world? What were some of the notes you made while you were reading it, of lighting visuals or challenges that you knew were going to come up?
Erdély: When I read the script for the first couple of times before I talk with the director, I try to really focus on the story and the story only, and the emotionality of the story mainly. I try not to come up with ideas at that point because I feel that a script is a very tricky thing. A script is, you can read it, you can imagine a film based on that script, but the script does not tell you a lot about what that film is really. So before talking with a director, I'm very cautious about coming up with ideas. I really want to listen to what the director has to say about his ideas and his approach. Then, listening and understanding those ideas will then trigger my ideas, trigger me coming up with references and questions, and all the conversation starts then.
But I used to make that mistake when I was starting out when I read something, and then I immediately came up with these very elaborate ideas. Then, talking with the director, I realized that my ideas were the opposite of what the director wanted. So I think our job as cinematographers, we need to listen, and I think we really have to be good at listening. We really need to give the directors the time and the space to formulate their ideas because sometimes these ideas are not even fully cooked. Some of these ideas are still in motion, and that's totally fine.
You don't want to rush anybody to make decisions, I think, especially during the prep of a movie. I think it's such a fragile world where you get all this information and feedback from all these people about the script, and you are overwhelmed. You don't want to be rushed into making decisions that then you have to live with for eternity because you make a decision suddenly, that's what gets billed, and that's the way it's going to be shot, and then that's your movie. And then suddenly, you realize that, "Actually, you know what? That's not what I wanted."
So I'm very cautious, very, I try to really take my time and just do baby steps, then wait. And then once I feel that something crystallizes, then I'm embracing that and I can build onto that. So it's baby steps.
'Foe' Credit: Amazon Studio
NFS: I think sometimes a lot of beginner DPs forget that you're in service of the director's vision rather than putting your own skills on display constantly. But I'm curious what the pre-production process looked like when you were talking with Garth and starting to make those really hard decisions that would kind of lock the visual aspect of the story into place.
Erdély: When I signed on, we already had Patrice Vermette, an amazing production designer working with Garth for several weeks or even months. So they already started, not just started, but they were in the middle of these very, very big decisions and conversations about what the world of Foe is going to be and what is the reality of this world.
By the time I got to join them, there were a lot of things that were not just decided, but already designed and really materialized. So that was a massive, massive help for me because I could anchor all my ideas into that reality. So that was super helpful. Basically, looking at all the materials from Patrice really helped me understand what they had in mind, what was the setting, what was this house, what the feel was, and what was the mood? That really guided my ideas, and it really helped me come up with the right thoughts and ideas that I could offer to Garth. And then the conversations were mainly about the emotional journey of these two characters, and then how to shoot the subtext, basically, how to shoot their journeys, and show these emotions in the most truthful way.
NFS: As a DP working with the production designer, did you have any say in where the light placement was and the lights that went into the house?
Erdély: Yeah, the house was actually built almost twice because it was built on location in Australia, in the wind and wetlands, in this crazy, beautiful... Basically, it's a dead forest. It was flooded, and then they let the water go, so it became just this massive area with these dead trees. We were allowed to build the house there, and we showed the exteriors and the ground floor scenes on the location, and then we had the first floor of the house built inside the studio.
One of the biggest concerns was how to make sure that these scenes, for example, it starts on the ground floor and goes up to the first floor, are going to be organic in terms of the light, in terms of the mood. So that was a huge challenge. But again, with Patrice's amazing design and his team, we were able to do these beautiful backdrops that we used inside the studio. These were photographs taken on location, and these were backlights that I could light from behind. So they looked really, really perfect on camera.
I feel that it's fairly organic the way we can cut from something that was shot on location to something that was shot inside the studio. When I graded the movie, I kind of forgot which scene was shot where, and I was like, "Oh, wait a minute. Was this... Oh, actually, this was in the studio. This looks nice." So when I think in that sense, it's really successful that you don't question the reality of these scenes.
Yeah, I mean, by the time I was there, the designs were finalized, and the construction already was underway, so I was a little bit late. Not that I wanted to change anything or anything major, but it would definitely have been better for me to be involved a little bit sooner, so I would have been able to be like, "Oh, what if..." Then we could have had some of those conversations. Again, not that I had any issues or problems, but again, just having the option of hearing myself talk about what they already talked about, that sometimes helps.
But yeah, and then the practical lighting and the whole lighting of these scenes, there were a lot of conversations about the actual light sources, and what type of light sources are we going to use and we are not going to use, and all of those. So yeah, we did a lot of tests. Patrice, he totally understood what I was asking him to do and why. And so we spent a lot of time testing, which is, I think, crucial in every movie.
'Foe'Credit: Amazon Studio
NFS: There's something so beautiful about the natural lighting throughout this film, especially in that Salt Lake scene where they're just stepping on the pink gush. I guess that's the best word to use. Did you use any lights for that to create any atmosphere?
Erdély: Yeah. With exteriors, mainly, when you are shooting this, you have to understand the position of the sun and how that affects the image. And Garth is excellent with that. He was pushing for certain things that I wasn't even hoping, and he was like, "No, we're going to shoot this at a specific time." I was like, "OK, fantastic." I mean, yeah, he really knew what he wanted to see and what he wanted to get, and it was like we were very much in tandem. There was no friction whatsoever about any of this.
NFS: When you were looking at your camera packages for this production, what were you keeping in mind as you were doing your camera test?
Erdély: Originally, the idea was to shoot this on film, but shamefully, there are no film labs in Australia, which is something that needs to be fixed. Because of that, we looked into it, we were like, "OK, how much would it cost to send short film stock from Australia to Los Angeles, and then back?" And it just became a nightmare, and it became too expensive, and we were just worried about the turnaround time. So that was, unfortunately, not a possibility.
Then, with the help of ARRI Rental London, we were able to test an Alexa 65 against some other cameras, and a very thorough comparison test. And when we put the footage onto the big screen, we realized that, with the Alexa 65, we have something truly special. Mary Magdalene, Garth's previous movie, was shot on the Alexa 65, so he was very familiar with this camera. I was not, I only shot a commercial with the Alexa 65, but not a feature-length project.
But when we watched it on the big screen, it felt really, really right for this film. And compared to... We actually tested the Alexqa LF, which was like, "Oh, this is super nice. It's small and it's easy, and it felt really good." But when we put it on the big screen, that was the big eureka moment. It was just obvious how beautiful it was. I mean, you look at it and then you realize that it's perfect, and that's it. Our producers supported this idea, although it's obviously more expensive.
NFS: Were there any quirks about working with the ALEXA 65 on this feature film that you weren't aware of when you were on the commercial?
Erdély: No, I actually love the fact that it's a bigger and heavier camera. It's really, really good for handheld. I am not crazy about these tiny, the minis, and whatever, because they're almost like a camcorder. The balance is not right, and it's just too small.
Actually, the fact that it's a proper size camera with a proper weight to it is really good for me for handheld. And there were a couple of scenes that were shot handheld, so I actually really, really enjoyed that. And no, I had a great DIT, the workflow was flawless. My first AC was absolutely outstanding. So no, I couldn't say we had any issues.
'Foe'Credit: Amazon Studio
NFS: What was the lens package that you used on the shoot?
Erdély: We use the DNA lenses, which are the size ARRI... Basically, they were created for this camera and they are gorgeous. They are very, very good, and they have a very unique and beautiful softness to them that I really love. What I love about the Alexa 65 is it's, in my mind, at least, it's something between digital and film. It's not film, but it's also not digital. It has its own unique qualities that I really feel were right for this film.
NFS: Yeah, it looked gorgeous. I just loved all the closeups. It looked like butter almost.
Erdély: That's a good word. Thank you.
NFS: Is there any piece of technology that you used from this production that you would take with you on any of your projects in the future?
Erdély: We use a remote-controlled ND filter, which is called Vari-ND. I remember reading about it and I remember like, "Oh, this might be the perfect tool." It turned out to be the perfect tool. So when we were shooting all these exteriors as the sun's out, and then there's suddenly a layer of cloud come in. I gave the remote control to my DIT so he could maintain exposure constantly without changing the depth of field without stopping and changing filters. It worked super well, and yeah, it was a really, really good thing for us.
NFS: Do you have any advice for cinematographers?
Erdély: For me, I'm an old school guy and I think if I started now, I still would feel that it's very, very important to know how to shoot film because it teaches you so many things. So I think my advice would be, if you know how to shoot film, you will know how to shoot digital. And I think it's a really, really great way to learn so many things. Without getting into the technical details, I think that that would be my big advice.
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