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Houston Cinematic Arts Festival: Interview with Cinematographer Frederick Elmes

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Since Frederick Elmes’ feature photography debut on David Lynch’s Eraserhead, he’s been a consistent behind-the-scenes player with some of independent cinema’s most influential figures. And even in his fifth decade of filmmaking, he is far from set in his ways. Elmes recently shot two high-profile television projects for HBO, Olive Kittredge and The Night Of, and he always looks for workarounds to dilemmas caused by shooting digitally. I recently spoke with Elmes at the Houston Cinematic Arts Festival about his career and latest collaboration with Jim Jarmusch, Paterson.

I think it’s so fascinating that two of your first films were with David Lynch [Eraserhead] and John Cassavetes [The Killing of a Chinese Bookie] — such an interesting study in contrasts. Lynch is very controlled, and Cassavetes is so spontaneous. Were those good skills to learn right off the bat?

They were great. I had no idea what I was getting into, in either case. David hadn’t made films before, John had. As a film student [at AFI Conservatory], I always admired his movies. He was someone you sort of looked up to with films like Faces and Shadows which I had studied at film school. In fact, I went to see him talk at NYU when I was a student there. He came and talked about Husbands, which was great for us to see. So, I knew his style, what he was up to — I had never met him, of course. To have him ask me to do a film was kind of a wonderful thing.

And David was completely the opposite. He was a total controlling influence; he knew exactly what everything needed to be, where it needed to be and how it should look. In a very painterly fashion, like brushstrokes — every shot was designed to do something, to be this, it had to be in place.

John relied on spontaneity in his actors and creating that. But he really used improvisation as a way to find the core of the scene, and then the actors would learn the lines and we’d run the scene. They’d repeat it again and again to get it right — it wasn’t just a one-take thing. The style was completely different.

And yet, when you step back away, they are both very independent, very specific filmmakers with their own style. It was kind of a great little training ground for me to say, “Oh, here I am, I’m just going to take a break from this film Eraserhead — which seems to be going on forever — yet we’re on to something. We just don’t know what it is.” But I needed a paying job, so I worked for John Cassavetes for a few months. And then I’d go back to Eraserhead.

You looked up to Cassavetes — was it tough learning to speak up for yourself in front of someone you idolized?

It was completely tough! I had no idea what to do. First of all, the films I’d worked on were student films, little films. They were my films. Eraserhead was a very small film with very few people. John Cassavetes, all of a sudden, was making this professional film. We had a cinemobile full of equipment, several movie cameras, lots of lights, a bigger crew, real actors that the world knew — this was a whole different ballgame. So, yeah, finding a voice in that melee of production on that scale was a completely new thing.

But John was very accepting, and the reason he loved to make his own films — as opposed to studio films — was that, in his own world, he could invite anybody to be a part of the filmmaking process. And he loved to have young people part of it because he loved other opinions. He had a sense of where it was going with the acting, but he hated the idea that it looked like a studio film. It was so offensive to him that actors stood there and had backlight on them. He couldn’t understand why anyone would do that, and he certainly didn’t want it in his film.

So, all of a sudden, we’re following him making his film, but he’s letting us do it.

Was it helpful to have gone back to Eraserhead with that experience?

That was difficult. It was difficult because you learned all these new tricks, your eyes are open to all these new things … and then you go back to Eraserhead and forget it for a moment to do this other one. I did it a couple of times because there were other small projects I had to go out and do because it took four years.

You’ve been lucky enough to have relationships with directors that have stretched on for multiple films — Ang Lee, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch. Does it make it easier to establish a rapport with a director?

Yeah, it’s always easier because you already have a shorthand. With Ang Lee it was great because we’d already established a working relationship. I knew what Ang needed, I knew how to be supportive. Ang was one to really enjoy and luxuriate in the prep process. When we did The Ice Storm, the first one [collaboration], he needed to lay out exactly what was happening at that moment in that part of the country. At that moment, in the early 70s, in the affluent West Coast — well, how do I say it — it was the land of upper-middle class privileged people.

To place that in the political milieu of the moment — the politics of Richard Nixon, the student unrest on the streets, the war in Vietnam — all those things that were happening. All the music of the time. Johnny Carson was very popular, he had a line of clothing. All these things were happening. What the clothing looked like. All the young actors weren’t born then, and they had to know all about it because us older folks had all been there. It was great to be reminded and see it all again, to live in it so we could place the film correctly.

Judging from what I’ve read about the scale and magnitude of the production on Ride with the Devil [a 1999 collaboration between Elmes and Ang Lee], it was probably helpful to have done The Ice Storm before.

Yeah, Ride with the Devil was bigger, and in a way, none of us had experienced that. It was a big step backwards to Civil War time, and it was a real education for us. Ang took us all back — here’s the architecture, here’s where you lived, here’s what you wore, this is what the guns were like, this is the food. All those things had to be right for Ang, and if he got those things right, then the story would fall into place.

And in terms of working with Jim Jarmusch, was it helpful to have worked with him before Paterson, where so much of the visual style is making bus rides and walks with Adam Driver’s Paterson look interesting?

Yes, there’s that, certainly. Each director, regardless of how well you know them, comes to a project with a point of view. They come to it having thoroughly thought it through, at least in my experience. They really have done an enormous amount of work, the director has in some cases written and outlined a character for the actor. When they start those casting discussions, they’ve got something to say to the actor, and then they draw on what the actor has. They come to a middle ground.

The same goes for Ang and Jim. They’ve done all this thinking about it before they hired me. They have thought, for instance, Fred is the right guy, now what do I give him and what do I want from him? Jim came to Paterson with something a little different than the other films. He said, “Look, this is a story about a guy who’s run by routine. His life is about routine. He doesn’t think about what he puts on in the morning because it’s the same uniform every day. He walks the dog to the bar the same way every night. And that’s fine with him because he doesn’t have to make any choices. It allows him to free his mind up to be creative in other ways, so that’s where his poetry comes from.”

The film, in that sense, is very simple. It is kind of a big poem, in addition to being a film about a poet. It’s a poetic statement. It’s very, very simple. It’s about the routine and the slight deviations from the routine that allow this guy to create.

Jim has said this before — it’s not about dramatic moments in the traditional movie sense. It’s about all the things that happen between the dramatic moments that you don’t think about, things that are very subtle in everybody’s life.

Those have been the best parts of his movies for 30 years.

I thought so. And, in that regard, don’t look for action sequences here.

You mentioned that directors come in with their own point of view, but when you’re in the moment and have the opportunity for happy accidents, how do you allow for that?

You … [pauses] it’s hard. In the crush of production, it’s hard. You do your best to get a good night’s sleep and wake up with an open mind to say, “Yes, today’s work is this, and we know we’ve talked about this, so we’re working all within these parameters, the rules are maybe a little tighter than with other people, but let’s try to make those accidents happen.” Because you want them to happen.

For me, at least, I make a plan and know what I want to do with a scene. Depending on what actors do, I make adjustments. Hopefully, there’s some wonderful little thing that happens that none of us ever expected. And it only happens because the actor stood here instead of there, the sunlight came in this way instead of the other way, and I saw it, got an idea and said, “That’s kind of cool, I had never thought of this before, but we can use that.” Now let’s replicate it and make it work for the scene.

Was it helpful shooting Paterson in New Jersey since you are from there yourself?

I knew Paterson — yes, it was helpful. When Jim Jarmusch said it was about a bus driver who lived in Paterson, I could picture it. I’ve driven through Paterson, what it’s like, what the topography is, what the buildings look like. Then I did the research — I took a drive and visited again for a couple of days, just hung out there.

Last question: I’m not sure if you’ve seen this film called Cameraperson that came out earlier this year, but it’s a memento of a cinematographer who took footage she shot for other directors and reassembled it into a cinematic memoir. It reimagines the idea of a cameraperson as an artist apart from the director they work for.

 No — cool!

So, when I go back and look at your work, are you a hired hand to execute a director’s vision or is there a unifying story.

[laughs] Oh my gosh — I am not good to answer this. You are in a much better position.

Here’s what I think: I would hate to be the cinematographer that comes on and has a style that’s so prominent or present that someone could say, “Oh, there’s a Fred Elmes film,” regardless of the director. I would be offended by that.

I think, certainly within the limits of what I can do, I’m there for the director. The idea is to tailor something that is my interpretation of the director’s needs. It’s through my lens, as it were, but it’s certainly not identifiable, I hope!

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).

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