STEPHEN GOLDBLATT, ASC, BSC, ILLUMINATES “THE HELP”

Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC on set of "The Help"

Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC spent his childhood in South Africa, moving to London with his parents when he was seven. He was an avid photographer, first attending photography school, and then landing jobs as a newspaper staff photographer, various jobs in London as a photographer, culminating in a special assignment for Lions Films, which was based at Shepperton Studios. He preferred the atmosphere of the crew on stage, and decided to enroll in film school. His photography portfolio was his ticket into the Royal College of Art Film School where he pursued cinematography.

He attended film school with Tony Scott and would later collaborate with him on “The Hunger.” His resume reads like a roll call of Hollywood luminaries he worked with: Francis Ford Coppola on “Cotton Club,” Barry Levinson, “Young Sherlock Holmes,” Richard Donner on “Lethal Weapon” and “Lethal Weapon 2” and Barbara Streisand, who directed “The Prince of Tides.” He teamed up more than once with directors such as Alan J. Pakula (“Consenting Adults” and “The Pelican Brief”), Joel Schumacher (“Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin”), Mike Nichols “Angels in America,” “Closer” and “Charlie Wilson’s War”), and Chris Columbus (“Rent” and “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”). Two years ago he shot the wildly successful “Julie & Julia” for Nora Ephron and most recently, “The Help” for Tate Taylor. Panavision spoke with Stephen about his career and “The Help.”

Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?
SG: It must have been early on when I went to the film studios outside London as a stills photographer; I remember seeing the big Panavision camera. I also had a relationship with Samuelson, who represented Panavision in London, while at film school. Sydney Samuelson wanted young films students to come in and he would give us the cameras for nothing, or for very little. That’s how I got to know the Panavision camera, using it on my film projects. I’ve been very happy with Panavision for over 30 years. It’s great to have relationships all around the world.

Q: What was your first project you used Panavision on?
SG: I did a music film for James Taylor, the track was “Fire and Rain,” and I’m certain it was a Panavision camera. I became friendly with James because I had been working at Apple Corps (The Beatles Company in Savile Row London) and he had been newly signed to them. When we were shooting shorts in film school, we had to use the equipment that was available at the school and they were almost certainly 16mm cameras. But I do remember working on Tony Scott’s film and that was 35mm: Chris Menges was the DP and I was his totally useless assistant…we’ve been friends ever since.

Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
SG: I had always loved films as a teenager, and I watched a lot of them. There was an art house cinema near where I lived that specialized in French films and Italian films -- the New Wave. I saw them at an impressionable age, 15 or 16 years old, and got to know who the cameraman was. Most of them were shot by Raoul Coutard.  When I was older and began shooting stills, I felt that the life was violently competitive, and also pretty lonely, and I didn’t enjoy working by myself all the time. I remember so clearly watching Harry Waxman and his crew on set, and it looked like hard work but it seemed like fun. With my interest in film, I thought, “I’d like to do this.” So when I got into film school I was determined that was what I wanted to do. Film school was a graduate course but I paid my way by working. I shared a studio with two other photographers, and because I was used to working long hard hours, and also did everything at the school, I often worked 20 hours a day. Good practice for later.

Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, AC, key grip and operator?
SG: My crew have been different when I have been in NY and London, and then again in LA. What’s been happening in recent years is that there has been so little work in LA that I have been able to have a core group. I worked a great deal with gaffer Colin Campbell, Charlie Saldana as my key grip and Ray De La Motte as my operator. Recently Will Arnot has been both A-Camera Operator and Steadicam for me. I like to stay with the same group of people if I possibly can because I can rely on them, and there are enough difficulties without dealing with temperament! It’s a much more pleasant experience and we don’t have to talk so much if we know everyone. Frankly, having become used to the great efficiencies of shooting in the U.S., I much prefer it; shooting “Closer” in London was a bit of a shock. Not that it didn’t work out well; it just requires a different way of thinking and planning. I prefer the system of working in the U.S.

Q: What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic?
SG: I think the script, really. I made a very conscious decision on “The Help” to give it an old-fashioned look, both in the camera movement and the color, and I felt 1:85 would work better since it’s a much smaller story, visually. I am attracted to the widescreen format but it doesn’t suit every subject by any means, or any budget. The place, of course, is very important, but the majority of “The Help” is visuals of faces and rooms. It works better for the relationships.

Q: How much of that decision is related to your artistic take on the script vs. that of the director?

SG: It depends on the director of course, but on this project it was entirely my decision. On other projects, such as “Charlie Wilson’s War,” we kicked around the idea of using anamorphic, but Mike Nichols thought the interiors wouldn’t benefit and anamorphic would throw the wrong slant on his movie -- I get it. But with a project like “Percy Jackson” directed by Chris Columbus, the story lent itself to anamorphic, and so we shot 4-perf Super 35 anamorphic. It can definitely be a civilized conversation between the Director and the DP.

Q: Do you have a different approach in how you shoot anamorphic vs. spherical?
SG: I suppose I do, because the format choice is being driven by the script. I love that with anamorphic you need less coverage; you have more horizontal space. I do like the look of it. I work instinctively: I don’t like storyboards, I like rehearsals with actors, and I like to work it out then and there. I don’t like to bring major preconceptions to the party. But with films like “Lethal Weapon,” no one knew it would be a big hit. We knew it would be grab and runs at first; so we just shot 1:85 for “Lethal Weapon.” But we wanted to expand that on “Lethal Weapon 2,” so we opted to shoot anamorphic, and I almost bit off more than I could chew. This was a film with a lot of nights, ‘film’ nights, and anamorphic needed a deeper stop. It expanded the subject, it expanded the look. “Lethal Weapon 2” was commercially more successful, but we had made a decision to go with a bigger look. I shot “The Hunger” for Tony Scott which was very stylized, very old-fashioned anamorphic, but the style was more gothic and sexy. It worked for the film. The films I tend to like to watch for myself are often 1:33 Academy, black and white, and in French or Italian. I haven’t wandered that far from where I came from! I want shooting to be about the story, visually; I care really deeply about that. There is always the opportunity when you shoot anamorphic, when it is not about the story, to concentrate on great landscape. There is a project that I am hoping to do soon that has great amounts of landscape, but the landscape is a part of the story.

Q: Have you shot any digital projects? What did you think about the digital format?
SG: Just commercials, which I’ve been using Alexa and happy to learn. It is pretty clear that there is only one camera at the moment that works. I’ve switched my still photography to digital, totally, about five years ago, and I am very aware of shooting raw and the workflow involved in digital. It’s no mystery to me. I am enjoying the Alexa and what it can do. What I don’t like is the way it drives me away from the camera -- the fact that you can’t see through the camera (at the moment) -- is a killer for me.

Q: “The Help” was shot in 3-perf, Super 35mm. Was there any other format under consideration?

SG: Only 4-perf, and just to be able to control head room, perhaps. But because it was such a low-budget film, we saved about $30,000 by going 3-perf, and that was really important. The budget was only a $25-26 million, which makes the success of the movie all the more pleasurable.

Q: When shooting “The Help,” what can you tell us about how you designed your lighting to photograph key actors?
SG: The main Caucasian actors were pretty, pale, Southern women and they historically lived in this artificial bubble, which I suppose is their idea of glamour. I wanted to convey that because it also contrasts with the smallness of their lives -- you can see the houses aren’t grand and their aspirations are small. I wanted them to look pretty and almost fake. Then it was easy to settle on a more realistic approach to shooting the African American characters. There was a heavy contrast between Viola Davis, who is quite dark, and the little baby she takes care of, who in her arms is as pale as can be. I don’t think I could have shot this on the present digital systems, because the contrast range was as extreme as can be. And we were very aware of it. When I was photographing Viola or any of the other African America actors, they had to be lit. It’s not like the Caucasian actors, you can let ambience take over. But you couldn’t do that with such dark skin. The last shot of the movie is a crane shot and we were using an old-fashioned Titan crane with a big 18K to give Viola a little sheen -- a little contrast on a day exterior -- and if I had not had the experience of shooting Danny Glover and Mel Gibson ages ago I would have been more nervous, but I had that experience in my back pocket. Then the trick, of course, is to hopefully make the lighting look realistic. We used existing homes, which was extremely difficult. The large homes weren’t so bad, but the small ranch houses were. We had 15 white girls and two black maids inside, and it was tough. But once you realize that you have a problem, you just apply yourself and light it. If you think you don’t have a problem, then there will be one. Using well exposed film and having a DI after the fact, did help, I could bring up the shadows a little bit. We also had great dailies. Despite the lack of budget we had a really excellent dailies set up, no awful little DVDs, so I could control the colors and the density by sending calibrated photos back to Benny Estrada at EFILM. That helped me control the look and contrast. I have worked with EFILM on a lot of projects, mainly with Steve Scott, who has been my colorist and friend ever since “Angels in Americas.”

Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
SG: The little zoom (4:1) is my favorite. I use it all the time. It’s great as a prime lens and it’s great on the dolly because you can do a slight zoom to carry the dolly forward, and it’s endlessly helpful. And the 11:1 is fantastic. I do use the 4:1 more, but the 11:1 is superb. And, of course, the Primos. I know that people will talk about the difference between this lens and that lens, but now that we’ve got the digital intermediate as a tool, it is possible to change and compensate the “look” of lenses.  At the end of the day, I am really looking to get as great an image as I can get to work with. On “Closer,” which is the last film I did without a DI, I had to shoot traditionally, knowing I would not be able to fix anything later. Now, if I do segue over to digital, which may happen, it will be interesting to see the different components, and I am curious to test older lenses. I’m not convinced I will want to do shoot digital until I’ve done some real landscape tests, as I’m interested in seeing how well snow and ice and mountains look. I don’t want to change just for the sake of it, although the prospect of having dailies on site is attractive.

Q: Out of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite? And why?
SG: I think the content in “Angels in America,” with director Mike Nichols, and equally, “The Help,” with Tate Taylor. I tend to go for films that really engage my mind as well as my eye. I also loved “Conspiracy,” directed by Frank Pierson, which was shot on Super 16. Just for the look of the film? I’ve never been able to beat “The Hunger,” although it was pure look, no content at all. And for shooting adventures, “Cotton Club” will live on forever. Generally speaking, I’ve had good relationships with directors and some have become firm friends, and some have not. That’s the way it goes.

Q: Any advice for younger cinematographers?
SG: Read books! What you can learn about in photography and what you can do with digital, which is increasingly important, will make it easier to shoot technically; but it’s not going to train you to tell a story. Good narrative comes from that instinctive sense of storytelling, of content, and I think I had a great advantage in my childhood that I had no TV whatsoever -- I read, good books and bad. It helps you as a filmmaker, I believe. To be literate and to know about so many things outside your own world, is going to make you a better artist and a better communicator and a better companion in those many months you will spend with directors in far-flung locations. One way or the other, be aware and educate yourself.