Michael Seresin: Cinematographers Are Often More Important Than Directors, But There’s No Need for the Public to Know

Sir Alan Parker and Michael Seresin on the set of Angel Heart. Production still photographers: George Kontaxis & Terry O’Neill © Carolco International, Winkast Film Productions, Union, TriStar Pictures (courtesy of Alan Parker)

By Sven Mikulec

Films can turn out to be very well made even if directors have problems with their actors, producers or writers, Sir Alan Parker told us recently. It’s the cinematographer with whom you must have a good relationship if you want to make a good film. The constant source of support, consolation and inspiration Sir Parker had in mind when he discussed this was Michael Seresin, the New Zealand-born cinematographer who worked with Parker all throughout the filmmaker’s three decades long career. Starting out together in the world of commercials, the two had much in common and created one of the most impressive director-cinematographer relationships in the world of film. Seresin shot such classics as Angel Heart, Shoot the Moon and Midnight Express, and continued to work on great hits like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Step Up. At the Camerimage International Film Festival we sat down with Mr. Seresin to talk about his long-lasting partnership with Sir Parker, the great director of photography’s career, both past and future projects, as well as his relationship with Alfonso Cuarón, the other brilliant filmmaker who had a big influence on his career. Seresin, who has been juggling between the filmmaking and wine-making business since he founded the esteemed and successful Seresin Estate in New Zealand back in 1992, left the impression of an intelligent, talkative and humorous artist with whom we’ve shared more than pleasant twenty minutes of interesting brain-picking.

This is not your first time here at Camerimage.
Oh, no, it’s seventh or eighth. I’ve been here a lot.

What attracts you to the festival so much?
I think it’s brilliant. What I like about it is the fact it’s devoted to cinematography and light. Also, it’s in a country that’s not a very rich country, although it’s getting wealthier now. To have a festival two years after communism disappeared… it’s fucking brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. And all my friends who come here agree with me. There’s so many things Britain, or France, or America, or Canada could have done, and they didn’t. These guys did it here and that’s incredible. I love helping them.

The filmmaker whose career path is intertwined with yours is, of course, Sir Alan Parker. What brings you two together?
Well, we met in TV commercials and we had a great rapport, this was a long time ago… An aesthetic rapport, a sense of humor, work ethic… I shot most of the stuff he did in commercials. His short films… not all of them but most of them. Then his first films. We have a break sometimes if we feel we need a break from one another. It’s probably that, the combination of the aesthetic, the work ethic, enjoying one another’s company, sometimes, you know, fighting, which cleans the air and then we start over. He doesn’t do it anymore, he’s a painter now. I mean, I got along with most of my directors, it just makes your life easier to share as much as possible. When we were younger and our kids were growing up together, we hung out on weekends, had lunches and dinners and got drunk and fool around and stuff. That’s probably it.

Do you in any way feel your profession is underappreciated by the public? Most people associate movies with actors, directors…
But that’s the most obvious one, if you think about it. It says “directed by.” Cinematographer is there with the production designer, the costume designer, sound designer… You’re one of four or five technicians. Perhaps it’s the cinematographer who’s most important after the director. In fact, sometimes even more than the director. The public doesn’t know that and there’s no reason why they should.

You’re not bothered by this?
No. I mean, how are you going to change it? What are you going to do? When you have Steven Spielberg, Brad Pitt, you know, heavy-duty actors and actresses… They sell movies, that’s why people go to see movies. Not for the cinematographers.

But there must have been situations where people would tell you how marvelous a certain film was without knowing you were a part of it?
Sure, absolutely, yes. But that’s how it is. Up until twenty years ago, directors of photography ruled everything because, if you weren’t ready, nothing happened. The thing is, you like a look of a film, but you have no idea who’s responsible for this look. Most of the public probably don’t know what cinematography is. I’ve got friends who ask me what I do exactly. I tell them I take moving photographs, that I tell stories with cameras, lenses, lights, with the camera’s movement, wide lens or a long lens… and they sort of understand, but most of the time they’re not too interested.

Michael Chapman recently said cinematographers were some kind of a dying breed of professionals, that the rise of technology is changing their position radically. Do you think the status of cinematographers is changing?
Their position won’t become obsolete. It might change, but… You’ll still have to take photographs. For sure, there’s always pursuits of new stuff, that’s why digital sort of replaced film, not totally but… Film, by and large, is still a departure point for a lot of cinematographers, a lot younger than me, too. I know a lot of young guys who still shoot on film and they like it, there’s something tangible about it, it’s not just ones and zeros, not just electronics.

So the advancement of technology hasn’t changed the way you approach work?
No. No difference whatsoever. The principles have remained unchanged for me. People embrace technology. I’m not too interested in all of that. I use it, but there a lot of smarter people than me, crew members who are hired to do all that. I know enough about it, but I’m not going to sit there and discuss these things with some techno-genius, about why such and such a thing works better than another one. I just look at stuff and my eyes tell me if this is right for me and the film or not.

You’ve been often called a naturalist or a realist, mainly concerning your approach to lighting. How would you describe your style?
When I started working in Paris, I did a lot of commercials and went on to do three movies there, they called it lumière anglais, because I was the first to work on only French movies, I was the only English person there. It was the analysis of light. I wasn’t the first to do it. It comes from painting. A single source light: the moon, the sun, a candle. Those are the three basic sources of light in our life. Now you can say, at night-time, it’s a shop window or a street light, or if you’re in the countryside it’s the moon. If there’s no moon, what do you do, you recreate something to suggest it’s the moon. Maybe through a lack of imagination or thinking, if there was no artificial light, what would it be. And that’s the departure point for what I do. Look at these horrible lights here, it’s fucking ugly! But for a certain scene it just might work. But I try to make it a bit more interesting. Not as a matter of principle, but also to give myself a bit more of a challenge.

You get a lot of satisfaction from rising up to challenges. In retrospect, what was the biggest professional challenge you ever had to face in your movies?
Well, I can talk in general, not specific terms. The latest film, which I’ve just finished shooting although it won’t come out until the middle of the next year, there was a set, a night exterior set, which was a three and a half acres prison… That’s like nearly two hectares in size. To light that for every scene… just the concept… I thought about how I can make it work for the story, to be dramatic, to have enough light for us to shoot in, to cover… It was huge, I mean, the physical amount of light was massive. Not that that’s important, but you have to move it around. You have to finish your day’s work to keep to the schedule. I suppose the challenge was hoping the decisions I made on paper were the right ones. This isn’t a set like this, or even on a big stage, this was massive… Most people even used golf carts, walking from one side to the other took about twenty minutes. But that’s just logistics. More than anything, you hope the decisions you’ve made, creatively, are the right ones. And that’s interpretation. If you were a cinematographer, at your thirty-something age, and I was your audience, more than double your age, you might look at it differently from me. I can only hope my taste goes hand in hand with that of the audience. The real challenge here is the challenge you give yourself. Have I creatively made the right decision.

You shot the third Harry Potter movie, which many people claim to be the best of the series, particularly thanks to its visuality. There must be immeasurable differences between working on such a huge film and, let’s say, Angela’s Ashes.
Well, the principles remain the same. The thing is, we filmed Angela’s Ashes on sets as big as where we’re sitting right now, three meters by four, if that. On Harry Potter, we were shooting in a hall, which was, I don’t know, 150 meters long by 80 meters wide. The principles of lighting remain the same: the small room has one source of light, a big window. If you want a big hall to have the same type of light, you add windows every ten meters to bring light through. The way it works generally is that I tell my gaffer what I want to do, and they lay down kilometers of cable, generators, and all that shit, they do all that, I just say what I want. The difference between huge projects and small films is simply more organization because you have more equipment, that’s all. The same questions remains: have you made the right call.

What can you tell us about your working relationship with Alfonso Cuarón?
Cuarón and I share an aesthetic, for sure. He’s an absolute genius at moving the camera, at choreographing the camera. From my experience, both as a cinematographer and a man who watches movies, he is unique. Alfonso and I get along really well, we’ve done three or four things together now. In a different way from Parker, but on the same principle, we share an aesthetic. He pushed me the most. He demands a lot of himself and he demands a lot of the cinematographer, and that’s good, I like that. That’s the challenge. Working with him was probably the most demanding experience I’ve had.

You helped him out with Gravity.
I shot, I guess, about sixty percent of Gravity. I didn’t set it up, it was Chivo (Emmanuel Lubezki’s nickname, meaning goat in Spanish), they went to film school together. The reason why I shot a part of the film was that Chivo didn’t want to come back to England for one and a half years. I had no idea what the film was about: I walked in one day, I’d never seen a digital camera, it looked like an Apple store with all the computers everywhere. I asked some of the crew, what the fuck is going on?

When Cuarón invited you to help him with additional photography on the film, you didn’t know how much work it was going to be?
Not a good credit, actually. I went in for two days, and I stayed for six weeks. Chivo went away for the weekend, he just never came back.

You shot sixty percent of the film and got an “additional photography” credit?
Yeah. That specific credit is usually given to someone who works on a film for a couple of days. We probably, in the biggest scheme of things, should have had a shared credit. But I was helping a friend out, that’s all that mattered. Every film that’s successful helps all of us in the film industry, which is me sounding very magnanimous.

In 1988 you directed a feature film called Homeboy.
I’ve done a huge amount of commercials, directed big, huge commercials. Not the “here, buy this toothpaste” type, but storytelling commercials. Alan came out of commercials, Ridley Scott came out of commercials, Adrian Lyne… A lot of French guys as well. Then Mickey Rourke offered me his film, he literally handed me the script and said he had the money. He was my friend while I shot Angel Heart, and he was a nightmare when I was the director, but the film’s okay. There was no studio, but he was like the studio: he was like a star then and he could get money. The film could have been ten percent, fifteen percent better if it had gone with my cut.

Why did you stop directing?
I got offered other movies, I just didn’t want to do them. Also, it coincided with me starting my own vineyard. Working eighty hours a week on film, and then having a small civilized part of my life, growing grapes and making wine… We lived in Italy off and on for thirty-five years, where we were surrounded by grapes and olives, and I tried to recreate that in New Zealand. We did it pretty successfully. I had one really good novel I wanted to turn into a film. I owned the rights for about ten years. I just couldn’t get the script done. I thought, you know what? Between shooting commercials, shooting movies and the vineyard, and a life, how much can you do? Life is important, too. Working in film can consume your life, you know. One day you wake up dead and what have you done? Fifteen movies. A few children. A few ladies.

Tell me about the novel you wanted to shoot. I didn’t find anything about this, is it a secret?
I didn’t talk about it, I guess, because I’ve never been asked the question. It’s called ‘The Redemption of Elsdon Bird.’ A really good story, a powerful story. My younger son read it, he said, dad, you should really try to make it. Maybe I will, I don’t know. But there’s so much going on right now that it’s even difficult to think about it. To be honest with you, directing didn’t mean that much to me. It meant a lot, but not that much, if that makes any sense. In any case, I didn’t have the burning desire to be a director. And frankly, if Mickey hadn’t offered it to me, I probably wouldn’t have done it. The other stuff I was offered seemed like boring films, I didn’t like their scripts, they didn’t stimulate me.

Your busy schedule prevented you from devoting yourself to the ‘Elsdon Bird’ project?
I was being offered films to shoot. When you’re working seventy or eighty hours a week, you don’t have much time to set aside for developing something. It takes time, working with a writer… it was just too much for me at the time. Physically not enough hours in a day or days in the week to do it. It would be a good film, though. I don’t know if I have the desire to do it now. If it was easy, I think I would do it. If someone got me around ten mil, which is easy to say but hard to get. It’s a period film, too, which makes it even more expensive.

Out of all the films you made, which one do you consider your favorite?
It’s a difficult question because one of the ones I enjoyed doing the most was Angel Heart, because I love New York City and I love New Orleans, they are very cinematic cities. I love the story, the drama of it, I love everything about it. It was easy to work on it, too. Sometimes I put one light, and between shadows and light and faces, it worked. That’s rare. I like Potter because of the relationship with Cuarón, so that’s a favorite in a different way. And then, in a way, even the Apes film, because, one, I met a new director with whom I have incredible rapport, and a nice man, a really nice man. And the pressure on directors on projects like that is huge. We had very little in common regarding our lives, but regarding filmmaking—everything. It’s difficult to name my favorite because each film is a unique experience. Let’s say if I’ve done all of Gravity and gotten the Oscar… There are also films I wish I’d shot, films I look at and say, fuck, I wish it was me, with Bertolucci or whoever, and there are my films which I don’t like that much, whether it was because it was a bit of a chore, or maybe I was having some shit in my personal life.

We talked to Mr. Reeves a couple of years ago, he really seemed like a nice man.
Lovely man. And a true person, in a world where there’s not too many of those. With all the pressure, he still remains a nice guy, while a lot of directors become monsters.

An interview conducted by Sven Mikulec. Production still photographers (Angel Heart): George Kontaxis & Terry O’Neill © Carolco International, Winkast Film Productions, TriStar Pictures (courtesy of Alan Parker). Still photographer (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes): David James © Chernin Entertainment. Still photographers (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban): Murray Close & Gareth Munden © Warner Bros.


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