20 films into a creative partnership with Steven Spielberg that began with Schindler‘s List, Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski found it particularly important to throw out his stylistic playbook on the director’s latest, The Post.
A timely prequel to All the President’s Men, Spielberg’s drama follows The Washington Post‘s Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the United States’ first female newspaper publisher, as she is met with evidence of a massive government cover-up spanning several presidents and is forced to decide whether to go ahead in publishing the Pentagon Papers, facing the wrath and full force of the U.S. government while keeping it in check.
Given the visual nature of the newsroom—with its overhead lighting scheme—and the talking-head nature of the drama, involving a sweeping ensemble of over a dozen high-profile actors, all of whom were integral to the drama at hand, Kaminski was forced to adapt, finding his own way of achieving cinematic lighting and compositions in unusual conditions.
What were your first impressions when you got the script for The Post?
First of all, this movie came out of nowhere. It happened really fast. When I read the script, I was extremely interested in the story, but I also felt that the story would be re-written once Steven really got involved, and naturally, that’s what happened. I think the story became even better, working with Josh Singer, who did the rewrite. He was very productive.
Originally the movie emphasized Kay Graham’s life a little more, and her sense of fear to step into a role of newspaper owner. The Pentagon Papers were not necessarily the main objective of the script, although they were part of the script, but it was more about a woman’s life in a world surrounded by men and how she overcomes her fears.
With Josh Singer, this movie became much more about the actual paper, how the paper operates. It’s got that informational element, which is always very fascinating. But it’s also about the Pentagon Papers. We learn that the government, by lying to us, subjected thousands of young Americans to death due to the atrocity of the Vietnam War. We learn about the moral dilemma that Meryl’s character goes through. We learn about the business world that she’s surrounded by, and the business world’s idea about what to do in a situation where you have to make a choice between losing the paper and losing income, or making the moral decision, and publishing the papers so that citizens would know what happened.
It’s a very good movie in every aspect, simply because it’s dramatic, it’s got some suspense, and it’s also based on actual events. It was a wonderful experience, watching Steven completely immersing himself in this world of really good performers and just being in his own element.
What were your initial thoughts, as far as visualizing the film’s journalistic world?
The first thoughts were, “Man, we’re spending a lot of time inside. People are talking and talking. How do we make this more visual?” It was very clear that the Washington Post floor had to be more vibrant, not just because it makes a better movie, but because the reality of that the floor was that there was a constant exchange of information, constant phone calls.
As filmmakers, we had to reflect that energy in the way we photographed the movie, knowing that the camera was going to move a lot. I had to create an environment where the actors were not inhibited by the lighting equipment within the frame, so they could go wherever they wanted and the camera would follow them.
There was no compromise in my lighting; I just had to accommodate that particular need. So the choice was very clear: I’m going put our own fluorescents into the set, and light from the top. Anytime I had a chance, I hid a little bit of lights so I could introduce more direct light onto the face, because top light tends to create a deeper shadow, and that’s often not right for the story. When you’re not able to see the character’s eyes, it feels like they’re hiding something. All the characters in the movie are very transparent, particularly the journalists. You want to see their eyes.
Because the story of the newspaper floor was also taking place at night, I was able to turn some of the lights off and create a little bit more of the contrast and darker ambience, where the journalist are working in selective sections of the room, illuminated, but I was able to turn the rest of the lights off.
I wanted to make it feel like someone else shot it, and often I failed—it has a lot of my characteristics. Usually, I don’t light from the top. Usually, I like to light from the same level as human face.
In this movie, I lit a lot from the top, because I thought that would be more characteristics of this movie, and I wanted to change the lighting style, except for Meryl [Streep]’s character. I always wanted to light her bigger than life, because that’s what she represented. She was not the same as everyone else—she came from a position of affluence. Even her office was more decorative, plusher, more wooden, so she needed to be lit to reflect her grandiosity. She’s the one who’s making the decision of publishing. Often, she was lit stronger from one side, and the other side would go a little bit darker.
That’s the technique I used to emphasize the transparency of some characters and the ambiguity of other characters. It’s fun to do that.
Can you talk about the camera and lenses, as well as the film stocks you chose for The Post?
In America, we always shoot using Panavision equipment—it’s the best equipment there is. Because it was a slightly period movie and I didn’t want the images to be overly sharp and crispy, I used an older set of Zeiss lenses, with different color and light reproduction. I used 200 SA Kodak for all my Washington Post interiors and for the rest of the movie, I used 500 SA Kodak, which has a little more grain.
We used finer-grain film at the Washington Post office to make it feel more crispy and more immediate. The rest of the film, I didn’t mind a little grain. It was a very familiar environment—traditional equipment, traditional lights. It was an old-school movie set.
There are a remarkable number of actors involved in some of the dialogue scenes you mentioned. Those must have been a sight to behold.
You’ve touched on something that’s very unique for this particular movie because often, we’ve got two characters and that’s about it. Lincoln is basically one character. Bridge of Spies, primarily two characters. In this movie, every single man or woman would come in, and they were consequential. They were important, they had big lines, and they delivered those lines among other actors.
As you saw in the movie, there are big group shots, and I love how Michael Kahn edited the movie, because it goes from group shot to group shot and that’s clearly on purpose. The sense of importance—it’s not intimate, quiet conversations conspiring against the system. It’s a group effort; we’re going to beat the system.
It was such a unique group of people. They loved each other; they liked being with each other. They’re friends that have known each other from the past. That’s what made the move such a pleasure to make, and that’s why the performances are so great.
Your images in The Post have a palpable texture to them. Did you use smoke or other tools to enrich the image?
I didn’t use too much smoke at the Washington Post, but I used some. Usually I would have a guy with a machine in the background, creating a little bit of an ambient atmosphere to create more distance and make the image slightly bigger and richer. I like smoke, I like rain—I like all those things that I can use to enhance the visuals.
This film was shot during the recent American election cycle and feels incredibly timely. What kind of conversations were transpiring on set during production in this regard?
Well, you had a whole bunch of very smart actors who are very much aware of what’s going on around them, politically and socially. We all pretty much have the same point of view—Hollywood is real liberal.
I think it really helped the actors and everyone else to understand the story that we’re telling—the story of Kay Graham overcoming her obstacles to be an equal player to men. With what’s happening right now with gender equality, what’s happening right now with men behaving like the worst examples of sexism, that was part of the morality at that point. I’m sure to some degree, it altered our ability—in a good way—to make this movie.
You’ve been working with Steven Spielberg for many years now. What has that collaborative relationship meant for you, and has it changed at all over the years?
The relationship has really stayed the same—it’s a great relationship. It’s always a pleasure to see him altering his directorial style, according to the story. It always amazes me how he can go from Ready Player One, a completely fantasy-driven action movie that takes place in the near future, to this totally reality-based movie.
It’s almost like dealing with two different people. He was doing this movie and the visual effects on Ready Player One, and it reminded me very much of the experience of Schindler’s List, where he was finishing Jurassic Park at the same time.
To see this duality in his personality is pretty amazing. At the same time, he’s a father and a businessman, reading and taking meetings for four other projects. This man is doing what he was designed to do.