Even for a spectacle like Exodus: Gods and Kings (Plagues! Ancient cities! Parting the Red Sea!), director Ridley Scott likes to avoid too much directing in front of a green screen. “I prefer to build a lot of (the set) because at the end of the day it works,” Scott says. “When you start off with a lot of green, nobody knows what they’re doing.”
Taking the guesswork out of filmmaking is also the main reason Scott relies on many of the same below-the-line crew members from film to film. At stake is another kind of green: Money. “A lot of guessing is expensive,” the director says.
Not surprisingly, many of the veteran directors at the helm of this year’s Oscar contender films also like to bring their principal crew along each time they venture out on a new project: Wild director Jean-Marc Vallee, Birdman’s Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Darren Aronofsky (Noah) and Rob Marshall (Into the Woods), to name a few.
Audiences are accustomed to directors tapping the same group of actors for multiple films. But directors say a veteran below-the-line crew is perhaps even more important when it comes to streamlining the filmmaking process.
“You are not getting any surprises, and there’s nothing worse than getting surprised,” says Scott. “If they’re not beating the drum the right way during prep—well, you’ve got one shot. You want to be able to see it all before you shoot.”
Currently at work on The Martian—the near-future story of an astronaut (Matt Damon) stranded on Mars, shooting in Budapest—Scott has brought along a number of Exodus veterans for the outer space-ride, including production designer Arthur Max and costume designer Janty Yates.
A collaborator since Scott’s best picture winner Gladiator in 2000, Yates—for whom the same film netted her a costume design Oscar—was able to remain unruffled when the director asked her to come up with a new style of armor for an entire army early in production on Exodus.
The problem: Historical research indicated that the Egyptians and the Hittites both wore lamellar armor—the familiar fish-scale pattern. But if both wear lamellar in an onscreen battle, how do you know who’s who? “(Scott said), ‘Just make up another armor for the Hittites,’ ” Yates recalls with a laugh. She did.
“We have the great fortune of having a shorthand which, funnily enough, I was only aware of lacking once I worked with other directors,” Yates says. “It seemed to be quite seamless with Ridley, and I realized how lucky I was. He was a production designer before he was a director.”
One hears a similar refrain from Birdman collaborators Stephen Mirrione, film editor, and Martin Hernandez, sound designer/supervising sound editor. Film editing, says Mirrione, is “really a partnership in a way that’s different from the other categories. You are alone with the director in a very intimate way…the thrill for me really is having the opportunity to be right there and be such a firsthand witness of his creative process and how it changes through the years.”
Hernandez and Iñárritu met as university students in Mexico City and later worked together on a music program on a Mexican radio station. They continued working together in advertising before segueing into feature films.
“We both speak Spanish of course, but Alejandro has his own language that he has developed through the working process,” Hernandez says. “He invents his own adjectives. He loves the flavor in things. You know how the delicious aroma of the animal source is not the meat; it’s the fat. He likes that in his films—some of the fat in the mixture, the imperfection… in New York, where this film happens, it’s the sounds that are 52nd Street and Broadway, the pretzel seller and the hot dog seller. Those little pieces are the very fabric of the sound.”
The relationship between director and cinematographer sometimes can be too intense, acknowledges Matthew Libatique, director of photography on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Like Iñárritu and Hernandez, Libatique and Aronofsky have been collaborators since film school days. But one troubled collaboration, 2006’s The Fountain, caused Libatique to take a break from Aronofsky for The Wrestler (2008) before rejoining him for Black Swan in 2010.
The Fountain shut down production midway due to casting changes and subsequent cost overruns, but was later completed at about half of its original $70 million budget. “Even though, ultimately, when you look at the film our ideas were the same, but we were bickering anyway,” Libatique admits. “It was a lot of money for us—I’m sure it was the biggest film that we’d both done.”
Add that to relationship problems in their private lives and it seemed like time to take a step back, Libatique says. But after The Wrestler, when the D.P. and Aronofsky found themselves on a subway tossing around ideas for Black Swan, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Libatique has collaborated on multiple films with other directors, including Spike Lee and Jon Favreau. “There’s a responsibility about being the cinematographer that is rewarding unto itself, but to actually be part of a person’s body of work, it gives me a sense of purpose,” he says.
Budapest cinematographer Robert Yeoman began working with Anderson on his first feature, Bottle Rocket, and has been cinematographer on all of Anderson’s features since with the exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Over the years, Yeoman says, he and Anderson, who prefers an extensive preparation period before shooting, have “developed a visual vocabulary of our own.
“He challenges us to do our best work and gets excited when we come up with nontraditional methods to visually portray his stories,” Yeoman adds. “Knowing this and his love for symmetry and ‘swish pans’ has given me a foundation to begin every movie and anticipate how he might shoot a scene.”
Jean-Marc Vallee, director of Wild, says his below-the-line crew understands without words his mission to focus on character and story, not overt cinematic style. “For the past four films now, we shoot with available light, with no electric crew, no grip crew,” he says. “We are not trying to be clever with style, we are trying to capture what’s going on, the beautiful emotions, imperfections of human beings. Even in post-production, we are telling the colorist to do nothing, just to respect what is there.”
Vallee’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Yves Belanger, gets it. He’s become used to Vallee’s understated style, as well as his quirky penchant for grabbing the camera at the end of the day—say, just before losing the daylight. “He knows exactly what he needs,” Belanger explains. “If he doesn’t need a particular part he would shake the camera, so later on the editing table he could remember: ‘OK, I want to use another shot.’ But the actor is wondering: ‘Oh, what is he doing?’ ”
Belanger cites the ease of working with people you know, but acknowledges that some of the attraction of maintaining the same below-the-line family is that it’s simply more fun to be with people you like—especially when everybody’s stuck in the type of remote locations required by Wild.
“I had a car, so I was very popular,” Belanger jokes.