Oscar-winning director of photography Robert Elswit was the cinematographer on two quite different films this year: Nightcrawler and Inherent Vice. The only common thread is that both happen to be set in Southern California, which Elswit knows well because he grew up there.
Nightcrawler is a noirish tale of a predatory freelance news cameraman, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who prowls the streets of nighttime Los Angeles looking for sensational crime scenes to photograph. He sells the footage to a local television station whose news director, Rene Russo, laps it up, the gorier the better.
Elswit worked with first-time director Dan Gilroy who also did the screenplay. The helmer, who is known as a prolific screenwriter and is the brother of director Tony Gilroy, wanted to portray “how L.A. looks at night, featureless and interchangeable with the streets as the only connective tissue,” said the DP. “When the sun goes down Los Angeles kind of disappears into a bunch of cars on a bunch of roads. That’s what he wanted to capture, not the city’s downtown with a lot of big buildings.”
The film, frugally budgeted at $11 million, was shot in only 25 days, much of it between midnight and 6 a.m. There were a staggering 100 locations. Elswit used a digital ARRI Alexa for the night scenes because of the camera’s ability to capture low-light settings. It also gave the film a sleek style. “The Alexa sees a little more than film and even when you push it a little, you get a wonderful contrasty look,” noted Elswit.
Locations were chosen that were already lit in some way – headlights, store fronts, flashing police cars, etc. “I could light the foreground, but I couldn’t light any of the background, so we went with available light which the Alexa allows you to do. That’s the only way we could shoot the wide avenues,” he said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to do something I had never done before. Everything had to be done very simply and very quickly.” However, for daylight scenes and interiors he used a film camera, because he is more familiar with it. “I knew I could do it a little more quickly,” he pointed out.
In many of Nightcrawler’s scenes, Gyllenhaal is in his car driving around, chasing after grizzly crime scenes. One effective technique Elswit used was to always show a glint of light in his eyes. “You can make the whole environment very dark, if you have a little light source popping out of a character’s eyeball,” he noted.
Inherent Vice is Elswit’s seventh teaming with auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson. (There Will Be Blood garnered Elswit an Academy Award.) Starring Joaquin Phoenix as a hippie, dope-smoking private detective, Doc Sportello, the film is based on an intricately-plotted comic novel by renowned author Thomas Pynchon (the first of his books to be made into a movie). And it’s set in the let-it-all-hang-out Southern California beach culture of the early 1970s.
In prep, Anderson and Elswit looked at photographic books from the early 1970s, many about the music scene. A few films that provided visual references include two Robert Altman movies from the ’70s, The Long Goodbye and California Split. The two also checked out Southern California beach towns like Hermosa, Manhattan Beach and Venice. They had become gentrified and built up but Anderson managed to find slices that harkened back to the earlier era.
Inherent Vice is a visual tapestry with many different settings, from Joaquin Phoenix’s bed, which also serves as office, to colorful multi-character scenes, which are an Anderson specialty. Elswit kept camera movement to a minimum and often let scenes play out in a static frame. “Paul wants to have everything in place and then let life break out. He likes to see behavior happen, accidents happen – he absolutely loves that. He wants to discover the movie while as he’s making it.”
In an Anderson film, the director subtly cues the camera with a gesture. “No slate comes down and no one says we’re rolling. Everybody has to pay attention and shooting starts,” said the DP. “You need a crew that is constantly on the balls of its feet, always focused and committed.”
Other films the DP has shot for Anderson include Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia and The Master and the aforementioned There Will Be Blood. Other directors Elswit has worked with include David Mamet, Ben Affleck, Phillip Noyce and Rob Reiner. He’s also done a number of films with George Clooney including Syriana, Michael Clayton, and Good Night and Good Luck. He received an Oscar nomination for the third of these. Other credits include Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Bourne Legacy. He is currently shooting Mission Impossible 5 in London with director Tony Gilroy.