Fresh off the set of Garth Davis’ second feature, Mary Magdalene, cinematographer Greig Fraser finally has a moment to contemplate the work he’s put in over the past year, between Davis’ directorial debut, Lion, and the highly-anticipated Star Wars off-shoot Rogue One, which has drawn rave reviews. A lifelong friend of Davis, Fraser was of course thrilled to see the critics’ response to The Weinstein Company’s Lion. And while Rogue One seems, in all respects, an entirely different animal from that true-to-life drama, in Fraser’s mind, the two films are more alike than they are different.
You have a long-standing relationship with Garth Davis. Was your involvement with Lion as simple as that?
That’s what got me involved. Effectively, as a cinematographer, I am always on the lookout for a project that makes me want to go to the cinema. I wouldn’t say I’m old and jaded at all yet I’m definitely old, and maybe a little jaded, so there’s times when a story comes up and you go, “Yeah, I’ll go see that maybe, you know, on a Thursday, if I have nothing to do.”
Then, there’s other stories that you go, “I’m going to be lining up at midnight on the night that that comes out, and I will be watching that film with bated breath.” Of course, they’re always the stories that I want to shoot.
I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have been offered some of those movies. It’s either some sort of a kismet or something that I’ve been offered a film like Zero Dark Thirty, which I would have lined up to be the first one to watch that movie, had I not shot it. Lion, I would have been the first one to watch this movie, had I not shot it.
Garth has spoken about what he finds to be a special collaborative relationship between the two of you. What’s your perspective on what makes the relationship work?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really talented directors; with Garth though, I understand him so well, and I understand what makes him tick. Apart from my family, I’ve known Garth probably longer than anybody else on the planet, even longer than my wife. I know where he’s come from, I know where he’s going, I know what drives him and I know what influences him.
We’ve been influenced by the same world, we’ve come up together, but differently.. We’ve gone off to do separate things, we’ve come back and it’s just sort of easy, man. You come back and it’s a little bit like having a Siamese twin.
Now, of course, there are times when we’re not in sync, which happens to everybody, but those times are less.
Generally speaking, who are your photographic inspirations? And specifically, with this film, were there certain influences you can point to?
It’s funny. Visually, we definitely found influence and inspiration from photographers that work in India. Filmically though, it’s more about what influences Garth as a filmmaker, and it’s the type of decisions that he makes as a filmmaker. He’s very much kind of a filmmaker that works in this neorealist kind of way. People like Cassavetes, he’s kind of very much Cassavetian.
The way, basically, that he wanted to work was exactly like that. Of course we’re going to watch films together—not necessarily direct influences, by any stretch.
It’s more about the approach; it’s more about going, well, this is actually where we’re trying to go, this is what we’re trying to do, and how do we achieve that with a five year old, and how do we achieve that on a moving train?
You incorporated specific techniques and specific gear to capture the first half of the film from the child’s perspective. What went into that?
We used Alexas on a gimbal, and it was the flexibility of that digital format that allowed us to be more free with our decisions, and be able to shoot on a train with very little lighting.
We discussed film, and we discussed the idea of film, and as much as we of course would have loved to have shot film for some of the movie, if not a lot of the movie, it just wasn’t a viable option. I think that, realistically, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve half of what we achieved if we shot on film.
The film workflow certainly imposes certain restrictions.
It does, and some filmmakers love those restrictions—some filmmakers just get off on the fact that there’s only four minutes in a mag, or there’s only 10 minutes in the mag, and you have to reload. It gives some filmmakers their reason to be there.
I think in this case, where we were travelling across India, we didn’t know where we were going to land, we didn’t know if we had to shoot into the nighttime because the train didn’t arrive on time, so therefore the scene would have changed from a day to a night scene. There were all these elements that were out of our control, strictly working in that system, in that Indian system, which is pretty wild.
I guess in the end, even though our first choice may very well have been film, had we had no limitations, I think we ended up with the right format for the job.
Lion is a film that takes place in two worlds. What was your approach to color palette, and creating a distinct feel for each place?
The good thing about India, and the good thing about Melbourne, is that it’s very, very hard on this planet of ours to find two places that are almost diametrically opposed. Unless you put him in Revenant country snow as a child, it’s almost impossible to actually have any two different a place on the planet.
In a big city in India, versus a big city in Australia, they are complete polar opposites, and so we didn’t actually force the color palettes to be any different, I don’t believe.
I know that when I was shooting, I wasn’t concerned about the color pallete as it stood, because the natural color pallete in India in just so rich and so beautiful, but it’s so desaturated, and so dusty. It’s very dimensional, but it’s just very dusty.
We didn’t push it any further than it needed to go, and also we didn’t want to make a deal out of it either. We didn’t want the audience to go, “Hey, audience, we’re in India, by the way, if you haven’t noticed.” It’s excessive, we didn’t need to. We had such beautiful locations and such beautiful places to be that we didn’t need to say that.
Do you find that the physical environment you’re shooting in always bleeds into the shoot in ways you can’t necessarily anticipate?
Oh, for sure. I’m a firm believer, and some people may disagree, and I’m happy to have a beer with them and talk about it, but I believe that locations are such an integral character to the movie. Listen, who am I to say what’s right and what’s wrong, because there are different people that approach things differently, and I’m some punk upstart that has no sort of standing, but the thing is that a great location could often say things in droves that the right words or the right performance can’t say.
As an Australian cinematographer, did you conceptualize your presentation of Australia in any particular way?
It’s a funny question. Yeah, a little bit and this is the thing, where I recall a Q&A that I did a couple of nights ago and somebody asked me that. And they said, “Hey, so, obviously India, okay fine, you can do India in your head, everybody loves India, right? What about Melbourne?”, and I was like, “Yeah, you’re right, it’s a little bit of location, it’s a little Melbourne.”
I used to pass everyday, I wouldn’t think twice about shooting on that street because it’s just a regular street, so when you actually get to the nitty gritty, it’s actually about shooting the right location for the story, and getting very intimate with the story and the locations.
In India, we shot at Howrah Bridge, which is amazing, but to the locals it would be like, “Why are you shooting at Howrah Bridge? It’s so boring.”
I don’t know. I’d be keen to know what sort of people’s perceptions of Melbourne are, who have not been there.
In lighting Lion, did you typically exploit natural light on location?
That is correct, yeah. We had to make a decision early about what the method is, and with Garth, it’s rare that we ever do big lighting set-ups. We try and choose locations that don’t require big lighting set-ups. We did have to work with natural light—we did do some slightly bigger set-ups, but for the most part, we were working with tiny little, beautiful LEDs. I had one Pelican case, and I carried them all the way through India, and all the way through Australia.
In approaching Rogue One, did you conceptualize your work in the same way you might on a non-fiction, war-oriented project, like Zero Dark Thirty?
Yeah. I got a call from Gareth [Edwards], and I met him and sat down, and we talked about the timeline, and where it sat, and what he wanted to achieve in it. It’s a film of grey, it’s not a film of black and white, which is what I love about films in general, what I love about dramas, in general. In Lion, it’s a film of grey—you go, well, he’s not trying to get away from a mother who hates him in Tasmania. In fact, his mother loves him more than life itself. With something like Rogue, it was a similar approach, in the sense that it wasn’t like, “Ooh, the bad guys are bad. Ooh, the good guys are good.” They’re all rogues, for lack of a better word. Any film that’s set in the Star Wars universe, that’s the challenge, and that’s a great challenge. It’s almost like trying to do a Tarantino film with ballerinas. Can you imagine Tarantino doing a ballerina movie? I’ve just come up with his next film…
What are the other stylistic signatures on Rogue One?
I would love people to go, “You know what? I just saw Lion last week, and now I’ve seen Rogue One, and here are the similarities,” because I think fundamentally at their core, they’re quite similar, I find. Obviously, Lion doesn’t have little Saroo shooting Death Stars and stuff like that, because that would be maybe Tarantino’s second film. What it does have, it has relationships. Underneath all those things, all the running and the shooting, that you see in the Rogue trailers, I think you’ll also see that emotion.