In Foxcatcher, director of photography Greig Fraser combines keen observation and cool detachment to capture the bizarre but true tale of John du Pont, masterfully portrayed by Steve Carrell in a non-comic role as the menacing and increasingly unbalanced multimillionaire scion of the wealthy chemical dynasty. An avid supporter of amateur wrestling, du Pont built a world-class training camp on his country estate and attracted the two Schultz brothers (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), both Olympic wrestling gold medalists, to train there. The story culminates in the sensational murder of one of them.
Director Bennett Miller, who won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for helming Foxcatcher, “has a great way of seeing things—he wants the camera to maintain a certain level of anonymity,” said the Australian DP. “He wanted the cinematography to be an unseen hand that was not guiding the story but observing it. Bennett wanted the camera, the lighting, everything involved in the cinematography to focus on the characters.” That was especially the case in depicting Carrell, who was the center of the movie, with his shifty demeanor, pasty face and awkward body language.
“It was a distinct challenge to put yourself in a position where you’re not imposing anything,” Fraser observed. “The film’s story is quite sinister, but I didn’t want to shoot it in an ugly way. You can’t shoot it like a noir and make them seem all dark or nasty. You need to shoot them in a normal way.”
The film is not without visual interest. “We had some amazing locations, like the beautiful estate in Virginia where we filmed [substituting for the real Foxcatcher farm], and I wanted to make the most of the colors without getting too bright,” Fraser noted. Warmer tones are found in scenes that depict the affectionate interaction of the two brothers, including one where they match skills grappling and try to take each other down.
A real challenge for Fraser was filming the wrestling sequences during practice at the camp and in competition, centering on Tatum’s character. Miller wanted the Greco-Roman wrestling scenes to be as realistic as any yet shown in a movie. Video footage of many matches was culled and pored over. Fraser, who originally lacked familiarity with the sport, attended live events to understand the moves and dynamics.
“I tried to approach each wrestling match with a slightly different idea,” the DP said. He used long lenses to establish the match from a distance and then would get much closer. “In the last competition, we were very much in Channing’s face,” he noted. Fraser operated, and was shooting handheld, but two other camera operators were also filming during the scene. “You not only get the feel of every muscle straining, but along with the fantastic edit, you can almost smell the flesh.”
Fraser shot on film, using a series of Panasonic XL cameras. He used lenses from different eras to change the look, conveying constriction and widening scope during crucial moments of the plot.
“The film goes through different moods and is a kind of a roller coaster going from stark reality into a bit of a dream world,” said Fraser. “By the use of different lenses, it gives a subtle hint to the audience to participate at times in du Pont’s fantasy life.”
The DP also shot another film this year, The Gambler, opening on Christmas Day. The movie, directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring Mark Wahlberg, is a remake of the 1974 drama of the same name that Karl Reisz helmed. Fraser imbued the movie, about a professor whose gambling habit gets him in over his head and puts him in deep trouble with his family, with a sleek dark look.
Fraser’s past film credits include Bright Star, about English poet John Keats, and Zero Dark Thirty, a fictionalized depiction of the death of Osama bin Laden. He also was the cinematographer on Killing Me Softly and Snow White and the Huntsman. For his voluptuous photography on Bright Star, he received the best cinematography honor from the Australian Cinematographers Society and a British Independent Film award. He is currently prepping for The Lion, set in India, about a lost child who 25 years later tries to find family. He recently landed a plum assignment as the DP on the first Star Wars spinoff, yet unnamed, which will be directed by Gareth Edwards, who did Godzilla. It’s set for release in 2016.