Danny Cohen is one of two cinematographers to have two major films in the Oscar conversation this year (the other being Black Mass and Spotlight D.P. Masanobu Takayanagi). For Cohen—a frequent collaborator of director Tom Hooper’s, who shot The Danish Girl as well as Lenny Abrahamson’s Room—having two prominent films out is “amazing,” he says. “It definitely isn’t something that comes along too often.”
Though The Danish Girl is a gorgeous period piece with beautiful, sweeping camerawork, and Room is a more confined film with unique logistical challenges, according to Cohen the two films have more in common than one might imagine. Both films were shot on the Red Dragon—the latest Red digital cinema camera—while Room was shot with Panavision Primo lenses and The Danish Girl with ARRI master primes. Though Room more obviously necessitated lighting based in practical concerns, given the fact that half the film was shot within a 10-by-10-foot box, the approach on The Danish Girl wasn’t too far off. “You always want to begin from a point of realistic motivational sources,” Cohen says.
Certainly, the claustrophobia of the main set was the biggest challenge of shooting Room. “The big thing was to always try and make the most of the lighting and to get some sort of atmosphere going in the room, because we kind of handcuffed ourselves, in a sense,” he says. Light and the choice to use compact digital cameras were informed by the cramped nature of the space. “The set was modular, so you could pull off some of the tiles in the ceiling,” Cohen says. “What that meant was that as much as possible there weren’t light stands on the floor. We used the ceiling for lighting, as much as possible, to give the actors, within the limited space, as much freedom to move as we could.”
Just as Room had the skylight, The Danish Girl utilized big lights outside building windows, “to create a sort of northern light, where the sun is quite low in the horizon,” Cohen says by way of explaining how the actors were side-lit. “Tom has got a great eye,” he says. “I know he’s always going to push me to find something interesting with the camera.”
For Room, Cohen referenced a large selection of photographs for color and framing, whereas on The Danish Girl the singular reference was Danish painter Vilhem Hammershoi, “who had a very particular way of framing.”
Cohen is next working on Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep as a 1940s New York socialite, who in her mind is a great singer but in reality, “is an awful, awful singer; it’s a total tragedy,” he says. “It’s a very moving film about self-delusion—something that we all suffer from.”
To see a scene from Focus Features‘ The Danish Girl, click play below:
And to see a featurette on A24’s Room, click play below: