'Inherent Vice,' 'Nightcrawler' cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots an 'unusual Los Angeles'
Between Dan Gilroy's "Nightcrawler" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice," you're going to be seeing a lot of Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit's work this year. Not only that, but you're going to be seeing a lot of Los Angeles location work in these films that showcases areas and eras of the city unique to the silver screen.
When Elswit rang me up from London, where he's currently shooting the fifth "Mission: Impossible" film with director Christopher McQuarrie and star Tom Cruise, I found it a little difficult to keep from going long on all of this. Few DPs have had the opportunity to play with the City of Angels in such specific ways.
Much of that is owed to Elswit's collaboration with Anderson, which has sketched the city, particularly the San Fernando Valley, almost as a character in films like "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "Punch Drunk Love." He finally won an Oscar when they hoofed it out to West Texas for "There Will Be Blood," and he wasn't available to shoot "The Master" for the auteur, but they're back at it with the '70s beach communities of "Vice." And in "Nightcrawler" — which has Elswit capturing his own Godson, Jake Gyllenhaal, in his frame for the first time ever — the work recalls Michael Mann's "Collateral," finding nooks and crannies of the nightscape and showcasing them in striking ways throughout.
So if all of that is interesting to you, you'll enjoy this deep dive. It goes on for a few pages but I'm a geek for this stuff. And with "Inherent Vice" sure to be one of the only 35mm films in the Best Cinematography Oscar discussion this year at a time when celluloid is fading away, well, let's just say there was plenty to discuss.
"Nightcrawler" opens on Oct. 31. "Inherent Vice" hits on Dec. 12.
HitFix: Most people might not know this but you're Jake Gyllenhaal's Godfather. And yet somehow this is the first time the two of you have ever worked together. What was that dynamic like?
Robert Elswit: You know, it was just kind of great seeing him, because I hadn't seen him in so long and, you know, never worked with him. It was kind of fun to watch him go through this. I've known him since he was born, so it is kind of a thrill to experience this with him. I tried to talk him into doing it and I was a little hesitant, in a way, because I didn't want him to feel like I'd gotten him into something that wasn't right for him. But I felt it really was. I felt it was perfect. He's never done a one-hander, really. He's never done a movie that's just him. I mean, other than "Prince of Persia," it's always been kind of a two-hander. He's always been with somebody else, and this, I thought, was kind of singularly possible for him to pull off, because it was such an unusual, very-very-far-away-from-him sort of human being. So I was really happy he took it.
He's making a lot of great, intriguing choices lately.
He is, yeah. And, you know, you don't get paid anything [on a movie like this], and it's a real huge commitment of time and energy. And he just embraced it and he did it a thousand percent. He just went at it, which is what you have to do. When a movie is that low budget and that complicated – because there was lots and lots of locations – and then time consuming and physically difficult, you really have to have an actor who just won't let up. And he really came through.
With this and the stuff you've done with Paul Thomas Anderson, including "Inherent Vice," it really feels like few have been able to capture as many specific looks at Los Angeles as you have. On "Nightcrawler," what was the thinking on how to use the city visually?
Well, Danny [Gilroy] really wanted to make a film that wasn't a "downtown LA" movie. He wanted to really see the Valley and West Hollywood, which was kind of impossible on our scheduling budget, to show that on Sunset there are hills in between, that you drove from the west side to the Valley and you went through the mountains and, you know, kind of that stuff that brings you through Griffith Park, which we tried to do a few times. That's kind of the feeling he wanted, that you come out of the canyons into the flats, and that really dictated the locations. I mean, it was really his feelings about he wanted his LA to be. He wanted it to feel like it was all the living spaces that he knows, you know, unusual LA. And that was his little world that Jake lived in. He went back and forth between that little Los Feliz apartment that he lived in and went to the west side and went to the east side. And you would see downtown in the distance, but you wouldn't go there.
I imagine the location shooting aspect really streamlined your department.
For practical reasons — because the schedule was so short — we really had to find locations that I didn't have to do much to, that already had enough ambient light, streetlights, storefront lights, things like that, because we couldn't really spend the time to light anything except the foregrounds where the actors were. It was a very pragmatic approach based on a creative decision about what part of LA Danny really wanted the movie to take place in.
What we did was we had a lot of prep. It wasn't paid prep but it was time that Danny and I had spent driving around Los Angeles in a version of that car that Jake ends up with — the Dodge Charger — and talking about what was possible. We had that luxury — which lots of movies don't, because we both live there — that we could actually go to all the places over and over and over again and talk about what it was Danny had in mind and what I felt. We only had 26 days to shoot, so that was kind of good.