Alar Kivilo has been dubbed in Estonia as “our main man in Hollywood”. Renowned cameraman Kivilo is active both in television as well as motion pictures, and he has been inducted into the prominent American Society of Cinematographers (ASC).
Interview by Martin Oja
Born in Canada, he currently resides in Los Angeles and enjoys arranging his schedules so that they allow him to spend a holiday in Estonia every summer. Last autumn, however, he was a member of the panel at the EurAsia programme at PÖFF (“Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival – Editor). Here we talk about cinematography, Hollywood’s failings and things he’s come across in Estonia.
What does the process of work for a Hollywood cameraman look like? What happens after you have read through the script and decided to take up the project?
First thing, you get together with the director and art director and go over all the shooting locations – usually they have already been decided upon by the director and art director. The important thing is that the places should all be suitable and that there are no photographic or cinematographic problems. My usual time of preparation before shooting is around four to five weeks. While I’m making preparations, the director is arranging castings or perfecting the screenplay. I put my team together, decide upon the equipment we use, check out the locations with my assistants. At the same time I also watch other movies, study the screenplay, history and background. What I do is I charge myself with all kinds of ideas and impressions. The preparation period is basically a time to charge yourself. This also includes test shots with actors, where you decide what type of lens would be best suited because lenses also have their own specifics.
You also decide what type of lighting would best suit the particular actor. During all this I also try to keep up meetings with the director to go through the script at least once, but preferably three times. I let the director speak about the meaning of every scene and his expectations and ideas as to how they should be filmed. And I propose my ideas. The main things are getting inspired and technical questions. However, during the actual process of filming you just sort of forget about it all and just do, relying on instinct because the days are long and hectic. Then there’s no room for thinking about things anymore.
What about the operator’s team in bigger productions where it takes a number of people to work the cameras and lights. What are the roles called and what kind of assignments they have? DoP is the most important, but he also supervises a number of other people…
Exactly. I am the DoP or director of photography, which means I am the director of cinematography and my job is to support the director and help him make the screenplay happen visually. I always like to say that without me it wouldn’t be a motion picture, but a radio drama. I provide the visuals. Hollywood productions often employ – differing from European ones – a separate operator that sits behind the camera and makes all the necessary movements. Such a person belongs to my team as well. This type of distribution of tasks has been brought to life because of trade unions. How this works, is this – if a scene should take place in a big pavilion or location, I fix the beginning and the end of the frame, but my camera operator makes it happen and fine-tunes it. Meanwhile, I do the lights with my gaffer (the head of lighting), but I also spend a lot of time behind the camera while doing that as well – especially if I’m shooting on actual film. For the digital option I mainly use the monitors. It’s really quite interesting being behind the camera – you are the first person to see what will be on the screen. It also makes you really close with the actors.
Continuing on the topic of cameramen – additionally to the camera operator there’s also the focus puller. This is a task that, at the beginning, seems really technical. The job of the focus puller is to keep the camera occupied, to make sure there are no problems, and that the visual is sharp, but there’s also a creative side to it. The focus puller would need to be in sync with the position of the actor as the camera needs to move with the actor – the focus is an important operator’s tool. Sometimes you would need to draw attention to something using only the options the focus allows. You would need to have a keen sense of the situation – you have to feel it, it can’t be mechanical. Focus puller supervises the second camera assistant and nowadays, working on digitally-made films, there’s also the digital technician who makes backups of the material filmed and supervises that nothing gets lost. My most important colleague is the gaffer – the head lighting technician. Cameramen are different, but I don’t usually tell my gaffer what to do, I just tell him what I want and he can choose on his own what kind of tools he will use to accomplish this. We have a creative relationship. Key grip’s field of responsibility includes adjusting the balance of light, but also camera stands and cranes.
When the shooting has been wrapped up, if and what kind of a role does the cameraman play in post-production?
Digital post-production is also among my duties, but it happens much later – after shooting and in the last stages of the montage. It sometimes happens that I might not be physically present at the process, but technology allows me to participate at ta distance. To illustrate, while doing the finishing touches on my last film The Lucky One, I sat in a café in Tallinn’s Old Town with my laptop. The person responsible for colour corrections was in Australia at the same time, and he too was sitting somewhere with his laptop and so we discussed it. He marked the frames that needed my attention and I looked through them. I like working together with the colour corrector. We pick out a handful of main scenes and most important moments and use them as a reference for corrections. The rest of the colouring adjustments are already done by the corrector on his own.
So in this phase weather-related technical problems can be smoothed over?
Definitely yes, nowadays it’s much simpler. Back in the day, it was quite difficult to make any changes on actual film. Now there’s room for experimenting, you can even add a new sky if necessary.
What type of director do you like working with the most?
I’ve been lucky with my last couple of projects – I’ve worked with directors that have also written the screenplay. I love it when the director is deeply involved in the material. Makes it feel safe. If a director is working with a screenplay written by someone else, then it’s not so straighforward. I definitely like directors that are also screenwriters. Of course, there are those that only work with the actors and have no idea whatsoever about the visual side. In these cases I can be of a great help. However, I prefer those with strong and imaginative ideas and who perceive films as a film, not as theatre or belletristics.
Being a cameraman can be physically demanding. How are you handling that? What are your tricks for coping?
Often the shoots take place in foreign towns, the days are long and you might get homesick and miss your family. Physically it is quite demanding, but my passion for what I do crosses out the negative so I barely notice it. Because of the release of stress on the last day of shooting, I often fall ill. If I experience ill health during the shoots, then usually the adrenaline just kills it all. And I’m mostly a very calm person. My attitude towards film making and life in general is quite zen – I’m not trying to force a round peg into a square-shaped hole. I recognise reality and try to operate within its borders. Flexibility is a good antidote for stress and it can also act as a basis for interesting creative solutions.
Coming back to your personal life and childhood, you speak Estonian perfectly. What kind of role did Estonian culture play in your family?
Most Estonians who fled the country during the war didn’t think they were starting a new life. It was widely thought to be a temporary solution. People thought that the occupation would be over soon and many did live for the hope of returning, but also the hope that the rest of the world would notice what exactly was happening in Estonia. The most surefire way to preserve a culture is through its language. Nearly all Estonian communities abroad had folk dancing groups and boy scouts. I moved to Toronto when I was seventeen, before that I had lived in Montréal where I spent my childhood. The Estonian community there was not very large, but it was quite active. My father was also very socially active and took part in Estonian cultural activities in the community. Estonian was my first language, I didn’t learn English until I was six years old. I also started learning French quite late. At that time Montréal was divided into Eastern and Western parts with the French living in the East and the English in the West. We also lived in the Western part. I started learning French in third grade and I can’t really say that it’s my strong point.
When you started reading books as a boy, did the selection include a lot of books in Estonian as well?
Yes, you could say that it was also a factor. I’m quite good at languages. And reading is a good way to to develop language skills. And I did read a lot of books. My social life also revolved mainly around Estonians – aside from school there were also intense social activities related to Estonian culture. The language at home was Estonian and it still is, for the past twenty-three years. My wife is from Tallinn.
You come to Estonia quite often?
I try and spend some time in Estonia every summer, but it’s quite complicated to make it happen. I would need to wrap up all my projects by spring and feel that I have earned some time off. Estonian summer is so short, timing is everything.
You are in a rather unique position to observe our Estonian society. You return here every once in a while and perhaps notice the changes in society better. How would you comment on that?
I’ve seen different stages. I first came here in 1972 when Leonid Brezhnev was head of the communist party. I saw what the country and the people were like then. Around the same time I also went to Cuba. What’s interesting is that people in Cuba seemed to be more hopeful, happy even. It might have something to do with the basic differences in people, of course. Estonians are more serious and reserved. My first time here, everything was gray, people were so angry, all kinds of unpleasant situations arose. My next trip here was during the Singing Revolution and it was a moment in history when everybody felt connected – everybody, the young, the old, the whole country had come together. It was an exciting time, nobody knew exactly what would happen next.
“I’ve always associated awkwardness and silence with Estonians, but it seems that the younger generations do not have that problem. People are more cheerful, things have got better.”
However, upon achieving independence it was clear that the ideals were gone – understandable, too, as the society had been repressed for so long – and everybody started buying cars etc. Being a pedestrian in Tallinn was actually dangerous, everybody wanted to run you over with their new Mercedes-Benz. Now, however, the younger generations have taken control, and it’s great to see how worldly they’ve become. They are educated and open. I’ve always associated awkwardness and silence with Estonians, but it seems that the younger generations do not have that problem. People are more cheerful, things have got better.
Back to the topic of filmmaking. There are constant new technical developments. Do you keep yourself up to date?
Yes. The tools keep developing, however, the essence of my job will still remain the same, regardless of the era. My job is to take a narrative, interpret it, and forward it to the audiences via visuals. It’s an emotional moment. In a lot of the technical aspects, I also receive help from assistants. My main concerns are if a certain place should be lighter or darker or the colours more saturated or less. These decisions will always play a part and these are also the most important decisions.
One big problem both in Hollywood and in Europe is the budget for films – for example Polanski’s Carnage was 25 million dollars and the budget for The Pianist was 35 million dollars. The difference is not that notable, however, the films are quite different. Carnage was filmed inside an apartment, much like theatre for television, but The Pianist was already on a bigger scale. It seems strange, as you could make a small-dimensional film on a small budget also, but no. How would you comment on that?
I have complained about that before, too, that Hollywood film makers can’t circulate a movie unless it has a big name on board. It used to be that a director had an interesting screenplay, he found the actors most suitable for the roles. Nowadays, the suitability of actors depends on how much money they can bring in for the project. This way people that are totally unsuitable for a role might end up in the movie. But the money people will think this is what guarantees a box office success. This is also where the agents of stars come into play. There are a lot of artificial aspects here, which are influenced by money. It often happens that you have an unsuitable actor and an unsuitable location purely for financial reasons and this not good.
You have once said that big Hollywood studios have departments that produce independent and artsier films. How does the process differ there?
I don’t know exactly how many of such departments there are, but the aim is to make an interesting film without a big star. I’ve heard that studios used to make about 40-50 films a year, but now that figure has shrunk to 5-6. This has set certain restrictions to the film industry – if you make less films in a year you also take less risks. The money-men want a safe bet, but this kills creativity. It stills stuns me that people haven’t realised that there is no magic solution here. For example, The Blind Side, which I made, was a simple story based on actual events, but nobody probably thought while reading the script that it would turn into a blockbuster. It raked in 350 million. The budget was 25 million.
I have noticed a tendency for the studios not wanting to invest more that 25 million a pop. It’s difficult to make predictions, but the chances are that you make something bold, it will be successful – try to appeal to the heartstrings of the audiences instead of through copious amounts of advertising. Marketing films in Hollywood is also interesting – it’s quite old-fashioned actually. Especially considering that we have the Internet and all kinds of young advertising executives. It’s still about the trailers and every trailer looks roughly the same. Sometimes you won’t even need to go and see the actual movie as it’s all there in the trailer.
Trailers recently have been quite deceptive about the genre of a movie – for example, Killing Them Softly with Brad Pitt is advertised as an action movie, but in reality it’s more of a dialogue film, slightly Tarantino-esque with a hint of artistic ambition.
I was also in a similar situation when I made Hart’s War with Colin Farrell. There was this intense turning point in the screenplay that made for a great suspense film, but it was marketed as an action film. But it wasn’t really, it was more of a court drama with a big plot twist.
Finally, I’d like to ask what films or periods in cinematography inspire you the most in the photographic sense?
I have always been impressed by the 1970’s and 1980’s American films. Maybe it has something to do with my age. There were so many movies back then that were huge box office smashes, but also struck a chord with the audiences, they were deep and intelligent.
Early Scorsese and Cassavetes…?
Cassavetes yes, but he’s more of a radical example, veering towards art-house cinema. I’m thinking more along the lines of Godfather, Klute, All the President’s Men. The Verdict is one of my all time favourites. It was an era of human narrative and films were in general well made. But I should note that the quality of photography and special effects is currently the best of all time. Almost every movie is beautiful to watch. What’s missing now is strong dialogue and the connection between the beauty of the form to the substance.
Would you say that the 1970’s are similar to the 1920’s when the visual language reached its pinnacle before the arrival of films with sound? The 1970’s were a pinnacle for sound- and colour solutions?
I guess yes. The 1920’s was a period of discoveries, all kinds of films were made. The lack of sound meant all kinds of resourceful montage and filming tricks, which all disappeared and suddenly film became very centered on the dialogue. Maybe in the 1970’s the narrative made a come-back and cameras became smaller. Instead of filming in a pavilion, they shot on location.
And Kubrick employing lenses with a high sensitivity to light…
Indeed, to enable filming in candlelight. This type of filming is an interesting phenomenon that keeps astounding me. I think we have yet to reach the point where we can associate certain technical aspects with certain emotions. And that a speedy ride is one emotion and a slow one another. It’s all different depending on the movie. But there’s still so much to discover and to experiment with. Exciting times await!
This interview was brought to you in collaboration with Wader Media: http://www.wadermedia.com/
Photos: Wikimedia Commons/Alar Kivilo