For “Don’t Worry Darling,” did you go back to a lot of mid-century photography? Like Slim Aarons or any particular name to help create this world?
Yes, Slim Aarons, of course, was a reference. He has a photograph of the firm at Kaufman’s house, which we shot as a location. We were so tempted to recreate it, but we resisted on all the other things we had to do those days. Certainly from the atmosphere, Slim Aarons, his photography had a lot to do with capturing the essence of groups of people at a given moment. One of the goals of the film that Olivia had in one of the first things that she really wanted to establish with me is how we tell it visually. The notion that these people are in this idyllic but libertine place where everyone is living their best life.
The light feels intense in these houses, almost like dollhouses.
Oh, I think Palm Springs has that quality, and we were very lucky. I feel lucky to shoot at a time where the sun could really be a character, because it was low enough in the sky to cast long shadows. It helped us bridge the gap between shooting those exterior locations in the cul-de-sac and our set, which we shot on a stage in Santa Corina. Using the sun as the glue between those two spaces, that was paramount, really. It just goes a long way in establishing the visual or atmospheric language in the film.
What is your relationship with natural light these days? Do you know exactly what you have to do or can it still be very unpredictable?
It is definitely unpredictable. I have a love-hate relationship with natural light. You are bending time. You’re bending time, you’re bending light, you’re using your skill set to be able to shoot things at a certain time. Something that takes three days to shoot feels like the five minutes it takes on film. With more experience, you learn that trying to create naturalism is much more difficult than trying to follow it. My first option is to try to be smart about how to shoot an exterior or shoot in one location and in natural light at the optimal times, rather than force-feed artificial light which seems naturalistic.
People who are my references, many photographers, don’t turn it on, they find it. I try to keep that mindset as much as I can. Obviously, if it’s an 11-shot scene, it’s going to be harder to do. But yeah, the actual light that’s happening in the space is what I’m trying to achieve. It’s really about trying to figure out what time it is.
Let’s say for Busby Berkeley-style dance sequences, do you also have a love-hate relationship with artificial lighting?
That’s another phase three of cinematography. Really know what the director’s references are. But then you are really giving birth to something out of nothing. Those are exciting opportunities, because the things that inspire you can rise and shine. This is one of those cases where the light was, it was also a vehicle, obviously a scene that was coming up, but it’s also a vehicle to sell the geometric shape of the dance choreography.
It was also used to exploit lens artifacts. Many times the lights were focused on the lens during the performance. And those are visual links to the film where we do the same thing and we let the sun hit the lens, the light hit the lens. And those aberrations in optics were kind of the theme for creating imperfections in this world.
Do you like to create imperfections?
Well, they were definitely moments that when they work narratively, they’re definitely some of my favorite moments. They are beautiful, but you could easily overdo it. It’s a very fine line, I think. Of course, it’s nice every time you’re surprised that you have a game plan, suddenly something happens and it’s magical, then it creates more inspiration to move forward. Getting in position with the right kind of strategy allows those mistakes to really reap the rewards.