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Shooting Syriana-DP Robert Elswit, ASC


Cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC is the director of photography for two of this season’s most provocative films: Syriana, about the nexus of oil, CIA agents, petroleum potentates, and Middle East terrorists, and Good Night, and Good Luck, a look back at television journalism’s first major donnybrook, Edward R. Murrow’s taking on red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Both films were produced by Section Eight, actor-writer-director George Clooney’s production company in partnership with Steven Soderbergh.Elswit has worked repeatedly as DP on many notable films directed by John Paul Anderson, including Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love. Up next for Elswit is Michael Clayton, another Section Eight production, which will be the first film directed by Tony Gilroy, who scripted The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Identity. Below the Line asks Elswit about the challenges posed by working on projects that are so different from each other.Below The Line: How did you end up shooting both Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck?Robert Elswit: Stephen Gaghan, the director and writer of Syriana, asked me to work on the film. In the middle of shooting, George Clooney talked to me about doing Good Night, and Good Luck. Originally Tom Sigel [ASC], was going to do it, but he had a conflict. So while we were shooting in Morocco, Clooney asked me if I would be the cinematographer on the Edward R. Murrow picture.BTL: How long was the Syriana shoot.Elswit: It was 75 days.BTL: I heard there were 200 locations. Is that possible in 75 days?Elswit: There were way too many locations. That was one of the hardest parts of the film. We never spent any time anywhere very long. We were in and out in one or two days usually. It meant a very simple approach to lighting. And there were no sets. That meant we couldn’t do a whole lot. We went with the places we liked but did not dramatically change where we were shooting. Unlike Good Night, and Good Luck, where everything was built and the lighting was created for the movie, in Syriana we were going into locations where in every situation I was hoping to augment the available light already there and create more of a documentary feel.BTL: The film has a very realistic feel, without being too vérité. And the shots are well composed.Elswit: We had really good locations. And they were all complicated and unusual. But we weren’t quite done prepping the movie when we started shooting. So at first we didn’t even have locations for a lot of the places in Europe and the Middle East. So we ended up location-scouting every weekend while filming, even in the US.BTL: This was only Steve Gaghan’s second film as a director. What was it like working with him?Elswit: He’s an enormously bright guy. The film would have been a complicated undertaking for someone who had done 10 movies. The script was like a novel. It was so filled with ideas and had so many story lines. What Steve was great about was making the plot specific, and talking about a general approach of how to do things while not trying to control it quite as much as somebody with more experience might. We spent the time in prep to try and figure out how we were going to compose each of these stories without trying to impose a visual style. We felt the locations themselves and the nature of the scenes would give us a clue how to do it.There were so many speaking parts, and so many places to go. The theme of the movie is that all these places are connected. He hoped that everything in Syriana would look wonderfully similar. And sometimes you don’t know if you’re in Texas or Washington or Geneva. Sure, as places, they look different, but we wouldn’t do anything to exaggerate or emphasize them. There were no moving close-ups, and we didn’t try to punch up character moments with shots that seemed self-conscious. The aim was to always be able to tell each of the stories from the perspective of different characters, but not impose the false dramatic tensions in the set-ups or the lighting.BTL: How did you cope with so many locations?Elswit: We tried to anticipate ahead of time as much as possible, to coordinate a certain amount of pre-rigging and pre-lighting, so when we showed up some place we weren’t starting from scratch. The biggest challenge for all of us—especially for Steve—was shooting a film completely out of sequence with that many scenes, and the complex dramatic nature of each of the stories, and trying to keep it all straight. It was an incredible challenge.BTL: What were your camera set-ups?Elswit: We were using two cameras 90 percent of the time, which imposed a whole different pictorial style on the film. We used long lenses more than we might ordinarily. And we did the whole film hand-held without using any dollies or cranes. That was another way of imposing a kind of honesty and discipline in the way the story was told.BTL: You went from Syriana to a very different film, Good Night, and Good Luck. And it was in black and white.Elswit: George Clooney always wanted to shoot it in black and white. The difference is, it’s a period film all on sets. In Good Night, and Good Luck, George wanted a very different approach than he had on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which was a carefully designed movie in a visual sense. In Good Night, and Good Luck he didn’t want to do that.BTL: Going black and white was a throwback. Was there a learning curve?Elswit: We shot on color stock. I actually took the color out in post. It was all shot in color film. In the digital process, all you do is turn the saturation down to zero, and it takes all the color away. We made a wonderful decision early on to paint the whole set in unchromatic gray, so there were no colors, there were only shades of gray. And we worked that out in prep. One of the nice things in black and white [is that] lots of faces and close-ups look wonderful in a way they don’t in color, where you’re distracted by the difference between one side of the face or the other, or several different faces.BTL: How did you know what it would be like when it went to black and white? Did you just cross your fingers until you got into post?Elswit: Because we were shooting color stock, there was no way to print black and white. The digital dailies were never a really good record of the specific record we had later, the film out. It’s a telecine process that tends to compress the blacks. We didn’t have the same mid-range of values. It wasn’t a good indication of things, you’re absolutely right. During the shooting I filled out certain sequences of B-rolls throughout the whole movie, because I knew that would be a problem. I took B-roll shots, sent them into digital suites and had a new negative made, just like you would in the end of the process, and actual film out for all sorts of sequences, so I could accurately get some sort of feedback of what ultimately was the contrast range of the stock. The stock I knew really well from shooting color. I knew the range, but it would behave a little differently from printing monochrome.Also, originally there was a color sequence in the movie that George threw out in postproduction. He thought there was going to be this little color montage at the end of film that would encapsulate the history of television. It meant printing at least that and probably the whole movie on color stock. It’s the standard way of releasing even black and white. You essentially make a monochrome image but you print on color film; it’s never really monochrome. It always has a color shift in one or the other direction. You don’t really notice it if it’s done well.BTL: Did you shoot any black and white?Elswit: In doing tests at the beginning I shot real black and white film as test material. There are only two black and white stocks right now. One of them is very slow. It’s called Plus-X negative, and it’s absolutely beautiful stock. But it’s just too s
low. And to shoot two cameras, with zoom lenses, it was impractical. I found in the preproduction test period that if I shot a higher speed modern color stock, I could digitally create the same tonal range as this older color stock. Black and white stock is almost 60 years old now. The new color stocks, given the advances in photochemical processes, have a finer grain and it has almost a better contrast range than the old black and white stock. I had a 500 ASA stock as opposed to a 64 stock. But I had as good a contrast range and probably a better grain structure.BTL: The end product was very striking.Elswit: I liked it a lot. I ended up shooting the black and white as a reference and we projected the black and white stock when we were digitally correcting the film. I didn’t want to cheat too much. I wanted it to look as much as real black and white as possible.BTL: You didn’t overdo the contrast. However, the play of light and shadow was extremely effective on the faces.Elswit: I thought it was too. Have your ever seen John Cassavetes’Faces? In terms of content and style it doesn’t have a lot to do with Good Night, and Good Luck except in one way. When you see people’s faces in black and white, because you are dealing with shades of gray, you can get very, very close. Just because of the tonal structure you’re using, they become marvelous kinds of visual tapestries. There’s nothing realistic or naturalistic about them. But they seem psychologically interesting or expressive.BTL: The set also was quite effective the way you shot it.Elswit: To me the key all came from [production designer] Jim Bissell’s set. I was in New York briefly, and Clooney had me go to the CBS broadcast facility, which still exists, where Murrow did his show. It’s on the second floor of Grand Central Terminal where there are two giant tennis courts, sitting down below and being overlooked by what used to be the CBS production offices. It was the same space that all the New York news shows for CBS were done in those days. It was wonderful to walk down those corridors and spaces. I was trying to figure out what Jim was going to do. He explained he was going to take the three places that CBS owned—they owned a corporate facility where [CBS chairman William] Paley’s office was, a news department in another building, and the broadcast facility in Grand Central. In the movie he was going to take all three of these places and pretend that were all in one building with one elevator.George and he came up with a wonderful idea of getting off the elevator at the beginning of the movie, moving through that space and connecting it as the first shot of the film after Murrow’s speech. And then coming back later and having Clooney get in the elevator, and having Paley join him, and they go up to CBS television. You do that by rotating the elevator 90 degrees. The actual sets that Jim Bissell made for the See It Now and Person to Person programs in the movie were wonderful replicas of the real sets. We wanted to actually recreate the lighting, and saw hundreds of hours of original kinescopes.BTL: But you achieved a richer contrast than old television. You also intercut original footage from the era, using a lot of documentary footage. And that Kent cigarette ad where you shot the original commercial off a television and blew it up full screen was so retro.Elswit: Because they did those commercials live as part of the show, we originally planned to set it up with the person doing the ad with his back to us, supposedly looking into an old video camera, as if it were the live feed. And after the shot came to an end we were going to change focus and pan over to David Straithairn as Murrow. It just took too long on the screen. George thought it was too cute. One of the most interesting things was the stock footage from the period that the archivist came up with, which George decided to project in 35 millimeter.BTL: You had so many close-ups on the actors. How many takes were required?Elswit: I’d say we did three takes if something broke. I don’t think we did more than three takes of anything. I was shooting again with two cameras. Sometimes when Straithairn was doing the text of a lot of speeches, he didn’t do a lot of takes but we spaced them out… so they would have some meaning and not just be channeling Edward R. Murrow.For the most part, Clooney wanted the actors to improvise as much as possible. He gave them all copies of the New York Times from those days and made them come up with possible story ideas for the following week’s show. You really wanted to play with these guys, have them make stuff up, find a place where they liked being, run a little bit of rehearsal and immediately start shooting. All the scenes with Paley and Murrow, or Jeff Daniels, Strathairn and Clooney were more conventionally shot. But the stuff with all the news guys was all very much on the fly.BTL: What were some of the tricks you used?Elswit: I could create an incandescent fluorescent lighting look, which was more industrialized and didn’t require a lot of tweaking once we figured out what the set-ups would be. The real skill position was the focus positions. Without a lot marks and almost no rehearsals, finding focus on those guys was quite a challenge. Two cameras were never next to each other. We were usually 90 degrees from each other. So we were shooting very different things. We were able to hold patterns together and find ways of covering specific moments.

Written by Jack Egan

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