In Conversation With... is our interview series where we talk to some of the most well-known and respected actors and filmmakers about their career, filmography, influences, what they make of the industry nowadays and everything in between.
For the past twenty years or so, Seamus McGarvey has worked consistently as one of the leading cinematographers of the day. Responsible for indie hits such as Joe Wright's Atonement, Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin and Stephen Frears' High Fidelity to studio tentpoles like Joss Whedon's The Avengers, Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, and Gavin O'Connor's The Accountant, his use of colour and command of camera has made him a sought-after collaborator for some of the most recognisable directors of the day.
We spoke to Seamus just as he was wrapping up the Irish leg of production on Neil Jordan's The Widow, which was shooting in Dublin for a number of weeks.
Without going into too much detail, how's the shoot been so far for The Widow?
It's been great, it's been great so far. We're in the final furlong, and it's an honour and a pleasure to work with someone like Neil Jordan. It's a great script, I think it's going to be a good one. It's lovely to work in Dublin as well.
You haven't filmed in Ireland, or Dublin rather, for quite a while.
The last thing I did was The Actors in 2003 with Michael Caine, which Neil Jordan actually wrote. That was 2003, I think, so that was the only time I shot in Dublin. I worked a little bit up North on smaller projects, but it's always great to return and do a film. The fact is, I rarely get asked! (laughs)
Yeah, it's a rarity. It was lovely to get the call from Neil about The Widow. There's great actors, Chloe Moretz, Isabelle Huppert, Stephen Rea, and so on. He's always had really notable cinematographers, so these are difficult shoes to step into, because he's worked with some of the best.
With someone like Neil Jordan or Tom Ford or Joe Wright or Gareth Edwards, any of the ones that have a distinctive visual sense, how do you work with that? Do you come at it from an adversarial standpoint or is it more collaborative?
It's always the beauty of it is that it's always a collaborative approach. A director will hire a cinematographer on previous examples of work and they want aspects of that in their own work. What I find is the most successful collaborations I've had are with directors who share their vision, some more technical than others, some leave you to your own devices - but I enjoy that communication on a cinematographic level with a director. I'm very much a different cinematographer with each director I work with. I like that, I like how working with a new director can shift your perspective and makes you look at things in a new light. Different directors imagine their films differently and that's a lovely thing. Hopefully I can bring a slant to it and bring my own ideas to the table. It is always a combination of 1+1=3 when you're working with another director, it blossoms into another creative entity.
At what point do you define that a scene is ready? I mean, a director can do multiple takes with an actor until they're happy. A cinematographer, on the other hand, has to cope with budget and time so at what point do you say, "OK, this scene is ready to shoot, I've got my lights and cameras placed where I want them, let's do it." Is that defined by you or the director?
Well, there's always the imperative of time and budget as you say that does make it finite. You can fine-tune your lighting until the cows come home and never see the film, so you do have to stop at some point. I'm the arbiter of my own time, I have to be responsible so that the director has time with his actors and that the film is shot in an elegant and beautiful way. It's always the balance of all these things, with performance, with budget, with time allocated, where we're shooting. All these things have an impact. With somebody like Tom Ford who's just an absolute creative genius and a visual genius, he's so inspiring to work with. We initially came to the project just talking about the pictures, not references in other movies or anything, and for such a visual man, that was a surprise to me.
It really allowed us to hone down the ideas and the cinematographic heart of the film very carefully. Because it was such a low budget film, we really had to be very precise ultimately with what we shot, where we shot and in what order, we shot at night in the middle of the summer and really know exactly what we were going to do. The big car chase in the desert, I mean that was fantastically complicated, probably the most technically challenging scene I've ever shot. A mile and a half of desert highway, make it look like it's bathed in moonlight and there's a high-speed chase in the middle of the Mojave desert, but I'm very happy how it ended up and how we made it look - given the constraints. It's always exciting of where and how to cut your cloth, in terms of how this is where we're going to spend money - we get bigger lights, et cetera, - because it's a central part of the film. The rest of it, we can do it on a more ad hoc basis, certainly pared down and spartan approach to it.
I know I keep harping on about Nocturnal Animals, and I'm sure people said it before, but it really reminded of Douglas Sirk and that really rich, beautiful, sharp colours.
It's great you said Sirk because he was certainly a reference in the film because his name was discussed a lot during the film, Hitchcock too. I definitely brought elements to the camera and the subject, the obfuscation and not seeing the whole picture, I love his work. Other references were Hitchcock. Inevitably, when you're a fan of these movies, they percolate into the film you're trying to make. At the same time, we wanted to make something that was a singular, that had a singular perspective. We wanted the film to have its own visual identity. That came out of long discussions with Tom, the designer, the costume designers, all the department heads and just chew over the ideas and ultimately, come through Tom's wonderful brain - the way he selects and deflects ideas. Despite being a creator, a one-man band, he's very much a collaborator in film.
Just looking over your work, you've done things like Atonement, The Soloist and The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, and then you've done stuff like The Accountant, Godzilla and The Avengers. Is there a through line that connects these together? What joins Godzilla to, say, Atonement?
My job, I believe in it as an artform, is also my living. So, there are times when I realise I've done three movies in a row that were artistically rewarding for me, but made me very little money, y'know? I've got three kids, I'm skint, and I think, "Fuck, I need to get something that pays as well!" And I end up doing those bigger movies, which I get offered quite a bit. I mean, I could probably end up doing nothing but them, but I like to chop and change between low budget and high budget. You exercise different parts of your brain. There are vast technical challenges and changes in how you approach cinematography and that keeps you on your toes, so in an effects-driven movie, there's a load you can learn. I really get a kick out of collaborating with the visual effects supervisors and learning about that style. It's an incredibly creative area of cinematography, visual effects, and it's something I get a lot of excitement from. It's just a mixture of this. I don't try to apply my look in a formulaic way to every film I do, I just enjoy the journey of discovery in each film, each script that comes in. It makes me think about film and photography in a different way.
I know this can be defined by budget and the director, but do you yourself have a preference between film or digital?
If I'm pushed, I would prefer film - I like the look of it, the feel of it, the mystery of it. I like the surprises that happen when you don't know how they're going to turn out quite as you'd expect. There's kind of a strange magic to film and the whole chemistry of it. But, by the same token, I'm a huge fan of digital and it just gets better and better. I love what it allows me to do in low light, I love knowing that I've got in the can.
Yeah, that you don't have to worry about the print.
I got all my grey hair working on film! (laughs) It's really... there's a great pleasure in seeing the image in all its clarity and it being very close to how it's going to turn out, more or less. Digital just allows you to do a lot more, certainly since I've started shooting digital. The next film I'm doing is being shot on film, on anamorphic. We're very lucky as photographers, as filmmakers, to be able to choose at the moment.
Is there a scene or shot you've done that you feel particularly proud of or is especially memorable for you?
I mean, there are many shots I've done that I feel proud of having looked through. Some of them that I love, but you wouldn't look at them and think, "Wow, that's a great shot." I've got a personal memory of the difficulty in achieving it, it could be a performance. There's a shot of Saorise Ronan reflected in a window in Atonement and she's looking out at her sister and there's a bee buzzing in the window and she slams it shut. It was something really difficult to achieve, a reflection of a woman indoors looking out into sun, and I used this kind of half-silvered mirror, beam-splitter piece of glass. It was kind of technical shot to get, and it's a very arresting moment in the film.
I really love that image - not because it was technically tricky to achieve - but because when she shuts the window, there's this gaze from a young wonderful actor, in one of her first roles, giving the performance of a lifetime and she's gone from strength to strength from that. For me, it was a historic shot in my work because it not only marked just a little moment of technical achievement, but it was the start of this great actress' career.
Do you see yourself moving into directing films full time? I know you've done music videos in the past.
I'm not really interested in directing. I've been offered, on a number of occasions, the opportunity to direct films and I... really, I'm really into photography and light. I want to be as good as I can be as a cinematographer and I've a long way to go in terms of trying to... it's such a young art; cinematography. I want to explore it. I think that cinematography is the area I'm good at, and I don't think that directing is my calling.
I admire directors. It's partly because I've been so lucky to have worked with the greats like Anthony Minghella and Mike Nichols and Oliver Stone and Stephen Frears; these really great directors whose work I admire and seeing them in the field, seeing their genius at work and I know I could never, ever come close to the excellence required to be really good as a director. It appeals to me, in a strange way, in that I want to tell stories, but I want to focus on cinematography.
Was there a moment of inspiration for you that got you started? I mean, was it a photograph, was it a scene - was there any one shot or scene and point in a film that you can point to?
I was never really into cinema or films when I was growing up. In fact, the Ritz Cinema in Armagh was burnt out long ago, it became a roller disco - there wasn't even a cinema in Armagh. There's no history of cinema in my family, except for my great-grandfather. He owned cinemas in Belfast, there was a whole book written about him called Fading Lights Silver Screen.
He owned cinemas in and around the North, and, you know, what really inspired was the real world. Going out for walks. I started photography when I was 12 or 13, I had a little camera and dark-room in the house, going for long walks with the dog and taking a camera with me out around Armagh and translating the world - and this was at the height of the Troubles as well.
So I found myself kind of day-dreaming through the lens, getting great inspiration from the epic in the everyday and avoiding the hysteria of the Troubles and how that was reflected in the news and the town that I knew, Armagh, being broadcast all over the world in a completely different way than I understood it. For me, it was my inspiration, my photographic epiphany if you like, came from wandering around the town with a lens and taking photos of inane or innocuous scenes or places and seeing a strange beauty in them.
You think back to that time and the news footage was so sharp and violent...
Yeah, I mean, my photographs at the time were more landscape, more country-based. I wasn't taking photos of the town itself, so I was a bit of a loner, out wandering around with a camera around my neck and my dog and infrared film, and showing Armagh in a different light. That was actually the name of the exhibition I did at the time. There was a museum in Armagh, and the photo exhibition I did was called Armagh In A New Light.
If you had to pick your favourite shot from a film, that isn't your own, what would it be? That you feel has the best cinematography?
There are some cinematographers whose work, time after time, never fails to amaze me. Roger Deakins is one of my favourites; I haven't seen Blade Runner yet but I'm dying to. Every single film Roger shoots I look forward to catching up on because he's such an inspiring man. Not only about spectacular photography, because it's very easy to make cinematography spectacular or bombastic, but Roger is somebody is really eloquent with the camera, who uses the camera in a very specific way and you feel like there is somebody in control of his medium.
So I really enjoy films that he's created or worked on, because you feel there's intelligence by the selection of the shot and the way the lighting works and the way the camera moves. In the past, there's a few... my favourite DP is Jack Cardiff, who shot a lot of Powell and Pressburger's films. My favourite film is A Matter Of Life And Death, and that's a film that inspires me every day I step onto a film set. I was lucky enough to know Jack Cardiff and he mentored me for a little bit, and he was the most inspiring person to talk to about cinematography, because he was an artist in his own right. He was a painter.
His use of colour, particular when Technicolour first came out, he was a master of Technicolor and he shot The Red Shoes and The African Queen, and he was just an absolute genius with colour. He's someone who I look up to and draw upon for inspiration regularly.
It's funny, we were talking earlier about Avengers and Atonement and a throughline between them - Jack Cardiff was the cinematographer on Rambo: First Blood II!
(laughs) Unbelievable, isn't it? (laughs) That's fantastic. He came on the set, when we were shooting World Trade Center with Oliver Stone, he came on set. I've photographs of him on set in the World Trade Center set, it was just incredible knowing that the great Jack Cardiff was sitting there, watching me trying to light this thing!
I always think of that shot in Black Narcissus, with the eyes.
He really was the greatest. The word 'art' is so often, y'know, shunned or seen as a bad word, particularly in Hollywood. Jack was somebody who was never afraid of imbuing his films with art, because he saw himself as an artist, because he was an artist - and that's something I think that filmmakers and cinematographers need to be proud of, that they're artists.
If you had to recommend three films to someone to study good cinematography, what would they be?
Well, for different reasons. Cinematography is an evolving artform that my list of films to recommend would be very... changing, you know? Every day, almost. You ask me right now - Come And See, which is a war movie made by Elem Klimov.
I would say watch Kes, by Ken Loach. In terms of how a camera can come close and explore the undertow of a child's imagination but just by the gentle use of the camera. It was shot by Chris Menges, so that's definitely one. Jack Cardiff, maybe, it's hard to say... I'm torn between A Matter Of Life And Death, so maybe I should mention Tarkovsky's films? Nostalghia. That's a film where story intersects with visual poetry in a way that has been rarely bettered in film. The transcendental nature of the camera is something incredible to witness. It's haunted me from the first time I ever saw in the Scala Cinema in King's Cross. I'd never heard of Tarkovsky, and it felt like an artifact that had been exhumed from a cave, it didn't feel like it was made as recently as it was. It was profound.
I'm surprised you didn't say Solaris or Stalker. Most people, when they mention Tarkovsky, it's one of those two.
Yeah, those two are great as well, but in Nostalghia and in Mirror, there's a visual poetry that's so evocative, that's so personal in terms of time and place and childhood, in Mirror particularly, that I really identify with. I love the way he consciously, or possibly unconsciously, weaves dreamscapes into the real and delves deep into the imagination.
Man, you're really gonna love Blade Runner 2049 so. A lot of people are comparing it to Tarkovsky.
Oh, I can't wait to see it. I might actually get out to see it tonight!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For more from our In Conversation interview series...