UTA BRIESEWITZ SHINES LIGHT ON "ARTHUR"

Uta Briesewitz grew up in Leverkusen, Germany, where she was always fascinated by images and drawn to them.  When she was a teenager, she started as an intern at a local TV production company, and fairly quickly started working with all the major TV networks in Germany. She then continued her studies at the Berlin Film Academy and after four years in Berlin, moved to Los Angeles to enroll in the American Film Institute’s graduate program. Uta’s first US feature was “Next Stop Wonderland” (1988), directed and written by Brad Anderson, which starred Hope Davis and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

From then on, her feature resume quickly grew, including “Session Nine,” “XX/XY” and “Walk Hard.” Uta then seamlessly transitioned into television, with the hit series “The Wire” (Uta shot the pilot and 2-1/2 seasons), “Thief,” “Homeless to Harvard” an Emmy nominated TV movie, the HBO television movie “Life Support,”  “John from Cincinnati” (pilot), “United States of Tara” (pilot) and is currently shooting the 3rd season of the series “Hung,” for which she earned an Emmy nomination for the pilot in 2010. She has teamed up with director Jake Kasdan twice, first on “The TV Set,” (2006) followed by “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” (2007), and recently finished her third project with director Brad Anderson “Vanishing on 7th Street.” She was also recognized by Women in Film in 2007 with the Kodak Vision Award for outstanding cinematography. Uta is again working with Jake Kasdan in New York, on the HBO pilot “Spring/Fall,” starring Hope Davis, Tea Leoni and Sigourney Weaver.  Panavision caught up with Uta about her work and the recently released film “Arthur,” directed by Jason Winer and starring Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner and Russell Brand.

Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?
UB: In 2000, I had just moved from Los Angeles to New York and was about to shoot a low budget indie, "XX/XY," starring Mark Ruffalo. There wasn't really enough money to shoot on film so the plan was to shoot on video, even though I really thought the script would profit from having a film look. Being an LA transplant and being young in my career, I had no connections to any camera house. I was just learning where the nearest grocery store was in my new Williamsburg neighborhood! It was a total long shot, but I had nothing to lose, so I called up Panavision and asked for a meeting with Scott Fleischer. He kindly took the meeting with me and let me pitch the movie to him. By the end of our conversation, I asked him if he would donate a camera package to our production. To my surprise, he said “yes.” I couldn’t believe it. That kind of support meant so much to me at that point in my (struggling) career. Some time later I shot the pilot for “The Wire,” followed by 2-1/2 seasons in Baltimore. Needless to say, Panavision NY was the camera house I went with and they have taken incredibly good care of me ever since.

Q: What was your first project you used Panavision on?
UB: “XX/XY” was the first film I shot on a Panavision camera. We used the Panavision G2. When I was growing up in Germany and only dreaming of working in the States, Panavision cameras were the quintessential tool on big Hollywood productions. I had only seen them in photographs. Suddenly, there I was with a Panavision camera in my hands. It really felt like I had “arrived." Combine the G2 with the Cooke lenses I used and we got a very atmospheric look for the movie that we could have never achieved on video at that time.

Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
UB: I was always fascinated by images: I was a visual learner. As a child, I would only read books with pictures in them because the pictures often would grab my attention more than the written word. For me, taking things in and truly understanding them meant to see them. As a teenager, I was fascinated by Italian Neorealism and the French Nouvelle Vague. My interest in images led me to painting: observing and studying light, color and composition. My parents always supported that interest by taking my siblings and me to museums and art shows. So, for me, the struggle in deciding what to do was between being an artist and trying my hand at filmmaking. I chose the latter because I feared the isolation -- something I was already experiencing -- that comes with being a painter. I enjoyed working with others, so cinematography and the film business was the perfect creative environment for me.

Q: Once you decided on cinematography, what was the next step?
After school, when I was in what would be 10th grade here in the States, I started as an intern at a local TV production company. Right out of the gate I was shooting for all the major TV networks in Germany. It was mostly sporting events: from motor sports to tennis, soccer, ice hockey, etc. Once you have to follow a puck on the ice, you learn how to make quick decisions as an operator. After three years, I left that company to study at the Berlin Film Academy. Luckily, the German networks continued to employ me so I was able to support myself while I was a student. After four years in Berlin I decided to go to Hollywood, so I chose the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Moving to America meant starting all over again and working my way up until people took notice of my work. 

Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, key grip, operator and assistant?
UB: I have my core crew in Los Angeles where I’ve been living since 2004. My gaffer for the past five years has been Paul McIlvaine and my key grip has been Paul Goodstein. They come with a wonderful crew and we make a great team; a smoothly running machine. I totally can rely on their speed and expertise. When I am complimented that I shoot fast, the compliment always belongs to my crew who make it possible. It truly helps me to work with keys who know my style and understand how I like to approach things. I am more than fortunate they try to make themselves available for me whenever I have a job to offer. My key grip, Paul Goodstein, besides loving a good challenge, always takes good care of my Magnum Dolly, the tool that I can’t work without. My gaffer, Paul McIlvaine, and I are just very in sync, which allows me to work quickly. When it comes to my camera assistants, they sometimes change more often than I’d like, simply because they seem to be working constantly. But in that department, it's also easier for me to move people up, which causes my crew to change as well. I like to ask my camera crew up front what their goal in this business is and I try as much as I can to get them there. On “Hung,” for instance, my two former 2nd ACs are now my B-camera 1st AC and B-camera operator. We all work hard in this business and I think it is crucial for everybody to be given the opportunity to move up. When I shot “Arthur” in New York, I couldn't bring any keys with me from LA. As much as I missed my usual "film family," it is always exciting to meet a new crew. In NY I was fortunate enough to work with Steve Ramsey as my gaffer and Brendan Quinlan as my key grip. Together with their crews, they gave me a fantastic New York experience. I can't wait to crew up with them again on my next project there. I feel like that I am very well supported on both coasts now.

Q: What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic?
UB: I think the setting of a story and the script will generally guide me to what the best format is. I always say that I am willing to shoot any format if I see that choice supported in the script, in the setting/location, or in the approach the director wants to take. When Brad Anderson first talked to me about shooting “Session 9,” he was thinking of shooting it on mini-DV cameras. I was totally fine with that idea, until he took me to the Danvers State Hospital, the location where our entire script took place. Wandering around in the abandoned rooms of the mental hospital, I realized that the place itself was a character in the script. I pointed out to Brad that we had to be able to shoot big wide shots to really capture the feeling this place had. We especially needed to show our characters wandering around in these big rooms; finding interesting staging within the anamorphic frame. Mini-DV would hold up in close-ups after a transfer to film but the wide-shots would fall apart. My thought was that if we had to shoot video, let’s try to find the best we can get and that ended up being the Sony HDW-F900. To see what we were getting, we shot a test and transferred it to anamorphic. Sitting in the movie theatre reviewing the test, we felt like we could count the leaves on the trees in front of the hospital. That’s all it took and Brad was sold. I think anamorphic in general allows you to find more dramatic framing; isolating characters more within the frame. It can also allow you to find more interesting staging possibilities which allow the characters to explore the frame. I would say in most cases comedies don't really lend themselves to an anamorphic aspect ratio unless you try to re-create or spoof a certain style, which was the case with the film I shot “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

Q: How much of that decision is related to your artistic take on the script vs. that of the director?
UB: I remember one afternoon during prep on “Session 9”, Brad Anderson and I  were standing on the roof of the Danvers State Hospital where one of the dramatic key scenes between Peter Mullan, David Caruso and Stephen Gevedon would take place. The roof was this wide-open place framed in by two towers on each side. We were looking at this sight with a director’s viewfinder. I set it once to the anamorphic aspect ratio and once to spherical and handed it to Brad both times so he could see the difference. It was stunning how much more dramatically the anamorphic aspect ratio was for this setting. Before shooting any film you have to be in sync with the director about what the vision of the film is. I work a lot with writer/directors and know that their vision of the material is far more detailed and complete than my vision is after simply absorbing it from the page. If I ever disagree with a director about what aspect ratio a film should be shot, I just assume that I am not asking the right questions. Going to the locations and sets and taking a director’s viewfinder with you, then discussing the blocking scenarios for specific scenes usually helps you get on the same page. In the end, I just follow my instincts about how I see the visuals. I can only hope that it also is the director’s vision.

Q: Do you have a different approach in how to shoot anamorphic versus spherical?
UB: The exciting thing about anamorphic is that you can let scenes play out in wide-shots much longer. You can find a dramatic blocking and show how characters move in relationship to each other within a scene; observing body language. As an audience, you are far more challenged to discover things within a frame as opposed to being guided by editing. Very often I think anamorphic profits from a slower pace in editing and asks for more dramatic staging and framing, which of course is very exciting. In terms of viewing, however, it can be more challenging to the audience.

Q: When shooting “Arthur,” what can you tell us about how you designed the lighting to photograph key actors?
UB: “Arthur” had to have the appealing look of a romantic comedy. Therefore, I chose to make people look their best, especially when Arthur (Russell Brand) meets his love interest Naomi (Greta Gerwig) for the first time at Grand Central Station. Greta needed to look stunning at that particular moment. I kept a very sunny, upbeat look for this scene, with both characters rimmed by a nice backlight. For Greta especially; I was intent on bringing out her blonde hair. We had HMIs coming through the glass doors that when opened in an angle would create a strong light kick towards the lens, which I think gives this scene an almost magical feel. For that scene, I went very upbeat and bright. It makes you forget that we shot this scene in January, when it was brutally cold in New York with several inches of snow outside. That said, I was aiming to give “Arthur” an appealing romantic comedy look but still make things believable, real and motivated. Besides being a man-child who has an over-the-top lifestyle and is surrounded by toys with no true connection to reality, Arthur has to conquer the real world and his dark problem of alcoholism. In the scenes dealing with the darker side of Arthur I chose to give Russell a more dramatic look. For instance, when he calls his mother and asks her not to make him marry Susan (Jennifer Garner), which results in a drunken binge, I allowed the light to be more dramatic on his face, casting one side of his face in darkness. In those moments, I didn’t shy away from playing things on the darker side, while still making sure that Russell looks appealing and that there was life in his eyes, with carefully placed eye lights. In another scene in the film, Naomi (the female character who is solidly grounded in the real world and its challenges) and Arthur end their first date in Naomi’s small kitchen. We had to cross-shoot since Russell Brand is a fantastic improviser and Jason Winer, the director, didn’t want to miss any moments between him and Naomi. They meet in the kitchen while Naomi’s father is sleeping. It only made sense to me to keep the scene dark, with only a streetlight hitting it and the occasional train going by outside. Not only was I aiming for a stronger sense of reality in this world he encounters that is so different to him, I also thought that the lower key lighting would support the romance and tenderness between the two. Despite Arthur living in a rather unusual and artificial world, I always wanted to ground him more when he stepped into reality.

Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
UB: I would say it’s the 11:1 Primo Zoom for me. I love the range it gives me and the image quality is just superb. I have never done a single Panavision show without it.

Q: Of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite? And why?
I think it’s a tie between two films, for completely different reasons. I loved shooting “Session 9” and trying a new technology that not too many films had tried yet. “Session 9” ended up being one of the first films shot on HD that enjoyed a theatrical release. It had a very small budget and I got to team up with Brad Anderson again, who I like working with very much. Production on this film gave us an unbelievable location with beautiful production design. The hospital that was the central location for the movie had character that had grown over years of neglect: layers of paint peeling off the walls, all of them in different colors. It was like the walls wanted to reveal their history to us. Plants had found their way into every place they could. It had an eerie stillness and incredible beauty all at the same time. Everywhere we turned we found something; rooms filled with old files that we would randomly pick up and suddenly there was a story in front of you of somebody who had lived and most likely suffered behind these walls. Brad and I spend hours and hours at Danvers, discovering old tools and bones of animals that had died there. All of that we tried to include in the movie. Everything became a little treasure to us that had a story to tell. If it was on screen, we most likely found it there. We also had to make use of a lot of natural light because many of the rooms and the structure itself were just too big for us to light. I loved watching natural light fall into a room and how it constantly changed the character of the environment. We were not completely controlling our environment, but rather discovering and working with what it had to offer based on how it revealed itself to us. It was a never ending exploration. When we were able to get that one scene of a moment the sun fell through a tiny window and produced a sweet light shaft that we could have never created; it gives you an incredible feeling of accomplishment. The other film I thoroughly enjoyed was “Walk Hard,” directed by Jake Kasdan, who is another one of my favorite directors to work with. “Walk Hard” was my very first bigger budget experience. I just loved shooting the huge concert scenes with John C. Reilly performing in front of an ecstatic audience and over 300 extras dressed down to the exact earrings in perfect costumes from the era. It felt like I was reliving this time period. Film is all about creating an illusion, and I have to admit, the bigger it gets the more fun it can be. I always absorb everybody’s work to the very last detail: production design, set dressing, art direction and the costumes. I thoroughly enjoy the process and the privilege of being able to put everybody’s hard work and vision up on the screen.

Q: If you had a chance to sit down with any cinematographer, past or present, who would that be?
Secretly I was always hoping I would get to meet Michael Ballhaus, ASC. Growing up in Germany, he was the one cinematographer I always looked up to. I remember being a young teenager and my parents would call me to the TV set when there was a report about him and his work in Hollywood. It all seemed incredibly far away for me and I honestly never dreamed of coming here. I was familiar with his earlier work with Fassbinder since it was broadcast on German TV quite frequently. When I started studying at the Berlin Film Academy, I found out he had been one of their graduates many years before me, and, of course, his name was mentioned a lot. One year, he came to the Berlin Film Academy to give a workshop, which I had been looking forward to all year. Finally, the day had come and I was in his class. Ten minutes into the class, the door opened and the head of the school asked me to switch to a class with an Eastern European director, since there were not enough students attending. So, I only got close enough to meet him once.