Cinematography is a true art form. To compose a memorable shot is something that one really does need a skill for. That doesn’t even take into account how a cinematographer must work well with a director, have an understanding of their camera, and an infinite number of other assets necessary to help make a movie succeed. Earlier this week, we got a chance to talk with two time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who was able to detail just some of what goes into being a quality DP.
Cronenweth has been cited by the Academy twice. Both times, collaborations with director David Fincher (The Social Network, followed by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) received Oscar nominations in Best Cinematography. Tomorrow, he ventures into television for the first time, collaborating with filmmaker Mark Romanek on an episode of the new Amazon Prime science fiction series Tales from the Loop. Generously chatting on the phone for nearly a half hour, Cronenweth details not just working on the show, but with Fincher as well. He even tells us a few interesting stories about his father Jordan Cronenweth, a famous cinematographer in his own right. It’s an informative and loose interview, so we hope you enjoy it…
Fight Club cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth talks us through this iconic shot and many others in David Fincher‘s masterpiece. We also discuss how the relative naturalism of The Social Network was just as difficult to achieve, and whether something is lost with VFX even when it looks perfect.
Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC lensed his first feature, “Fight Club,” in 1998. He earned Best Cinematography nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the American Society of Cinematographers for two more collaborations with director David Fincher, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2011) and “The Social Network” (2010). Cronenweth also shot Fincher’s “Gone Girl” (2014), Kathryn Bigelow’s “K-19: The Widowmaker” (2002) and Sasha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” (2012). He recently completed director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “A Million Little Pieces,” based on the literary hit.
In addition to his feature career, Cronenweth is known for his stylish and CLIO Award-winning music videos and commercials. In the last two years he shot music videos for Katie Perry, Jennifer Lopez, Pink, Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift. A native Angelino, Cronenweth studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California (USC) and began his professional career apprenticing to some of the industry’s greatest cinematographers, including Sven Nykvist, ASC, John Toll, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC and his father, the late Jordan Cronenweth, ASC.
Cronenweth, behind the camera A on left, and his crew set up double coverage for a scene between Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and the film’s nameless narrator (Edward Norton). On the right, B camera operator (and future Panic Room cinematographer) Conrad W. Hall. (1999, Merrick Morton)
What was your pathway into this field?
“My great-grandfather owned a photo store in Pennsylvania. My dad’s dad won the last Oscar given for portrait photography: He was a staff photographer for Columbia [Pictures]. My grandmother was a Ziegfeld Follies dancer. My dad [Jordan Cronenweth, ASC] won a BAFTA for ‘Blade Runner’ (1983) and got an Oscar nomination for ‘Peggy Sue Go Married’ (1987). So as a child I often visited sets and went on location for extended stays. I felt like I wanted to be part of that great experience, that camaraderie. Each day was like a military unit battling to bring back great images.
“I knew I wanted to do something in the industry: I had been around it all and found it all so exciting. I made many Super 8 films in high school and decided USC (the University of Southern California) was where I wanted to attend film school. But two years into school Film Fair, a commercial production company my father had collaborated with, had a position open for a staff loader and that job offered the opportunity to get into the union. I visited my dad as often as I could when he was shooting ‘Blade Runner’ and assisted him on other movies as a camera operator and on second unit. A lot of relationships I formed then carried over when my dad retired.
“I met [director] David Fincher on a Madonna video my father photographed and I shot second unit for in the heyday of music videos – it was a very creative and innovative time, and I was grateful to be there. I was his camera assistant on the documentary ‘U2: Rattle & Hum’ (1988) and the film ‘State of Grace’ (1990), both directed by Phil Joanou, a former USC film school classmate. Then I got my first feature as a cinematographer, ‘Fight Club,’ with Fincher. Not a bad credit for the first time out of the gate!”
Season 2 Episode 16 | Jeff Beal got fired from Monk, then won an Emmy for it
Robert and Kenny begin the show joined by Matt Schrader and Carol Kuswanto for the show’s annual Emmy predictions. The group makes predictions for seven categories: Drama Series, Comedy Series, Limited Series, Original Main Title Theme Music, Music – Limited Series, Music – Documentary Series, Music – Series.
Then 5x Emmy-winning composer and current Emmy nominee Jeff Beal joins the show telling the story of getting fired on his first TV show Monk, winning the Emmy for main title theme, then getting rehired. Jeff also discusses his working relationship with David Fincher on the Netflix hit series House of Cards and exclusively reveals his first sketch of the main title theme.
Lastly, Jeff join the guys for a special round of #NameThatScore with a “westerns” theme.
Every story, as movie trailers never tire of informing us, has a beginning. The story of the cover-song trend in movie trailers began nine years ago, when the veteran trailer editor Mark Woollen found himself grappling with a difficult assignment. This was not unusual for Woollen, who is known for producing iconic, inventive mood-piece trailers for tough-to-market, tougher-to-summarize films by such directors as Terrence Malick, Steven Soderbergh, Michel Gondry, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The brilliantly odd trailer for the Coen brothers‘ “A Serious Man,” punctuated by a rhythmically recurring shot of Fred Melamed bouncing Michael Stuhlbarg’s head off a chalkboard? That was Woollen. The trailer for Todd Field‘s “Little Children,” which used the sound of an oncoming train in lieu of music? That was Woollen, too. There are some films that can’t be marketed by traditional means; Woollen is the trailer auteur to whom auteurs turn for a nontraditional solution.
In early 2010, Woollen’s company, Mark Woollen & Associates, was tapped to produce a trailer for David Fincher’s “The Social Network.” As Woollen remembers it, it was March or April; Fincher was still busy in the editing room, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross had not yet written the movie’s score (which would win an Academy Award). With the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the election of 2016 still years away, the Facebook story seemed like curiously dry material for Fincher, the director of “Fight Club.” “It was kind of getting beat up in the press,” Woollen said. “Like, ‘How can you make a movie about Facebook? Are you gonna make a movie about eBay or Amazon next?'”
At first, Woollen wasn’t sure how to cut a trailer for a Facebook movie, either. But the answer turned out to be sitting on his hard drive. A few years earlier, while searching for something else, he’d downloaded an MP3 file from what he described as “some GeoCities-looking kind of Web site.” The file was a 2001 live recording of the song “Creep“—the first hit single by the British art-rock band Radiohead—as performed by Scala and Kolacny Brothers, a two-hundred-member girls’ choir from Belgium. The recording had a lot of the things that a trailer editor looks for in a piece of music. “It has this gentle introduction, it has moments that build and swell and rise, and then it can come down and land nicely,” Woollen said. “I felt, like, Here’s a track I can build a piece around.”
More important, the music seemed to work on a thematic level. Woollen, who was not a Facebook user, had been kicking around ideas about connectivity and loneliness. He played the choir recording on repeat while driving to work and thought about “lost, lonely voices that felt like they were speaking from the depths of the Internet.” In his business, Woollen said, “You’re always talking about trailers that invite you in, saying, ‘Come and see us, come and see us.'” He liked the counterintuitive notion of building a trailer around a song whose refrain is “What the hell am I doing here / I don’t belong here.” “The irresistible ingredient,” Woollen said, “was one hundred Belgian girls singing ‘You’re so fucking special’ in full voice.”
The finished trailer is an unsettling masterpiece. For fifty seconds, it plays like an ad for Facebook—a montage of photos, status updates, and unseen hands confirming friendships with the click of a blue-and-white button. Then, at the one-minute mark, a pixelated image of Jesse Eisenberg’s alarmingly dead-eyed Mark Zuckerberg fades into view. Woollen said that he was nervous about showing Fincher a cut that held back the director’s own footage in favor of stock photos and family pictures supplied by the staff of Mark Woollen & Associates. But Fincher liked it; the first time he screened “The Social Network” for the studio, he played Woollen’s trailer first.
There is a short list of films I consider to be perfect; that is, I’ve watched them over and over again and they not only work every single time, but they have no weak spots and just get better and better with each viewing. Casablanca is one of those. Psycho is one of those. Jaws is one of those. Fargo is one of those. Taxi Driver is one of those. The Social Network is one of those and, of course, Citizen Kane is one of those. You can’t imagine anything making the film better, and if you removed one tiny piece of it you would ruin the whole thing. From the writing to the directing to the acting to the producing, everything just works. Even time can’t break them down. You probably have your own ideas about which movies you consider perfect, but for me it’s a short list as even most of my favorite films of all time I would not call perfect. And indeed, perfection is never a goal any artist should seek to attain – it’s just that every so often a film arrives there.
The myth about Citizen Kane is legendary – the young Orson Welles with his Mercury Theater players, a keen eye, and a whole lot of ambition made what is not-arguably the greatest film ever made. Welles has always been credited with the whole thing because in America we are beholden to the hero’s journey. That he pulled off such a brilliant hat trick at 24 is part of the myth. When you have a more honest conversation about Citizen Kane, you start talking about Gregg Toland and you eventually get to (because you must) Herman Mankiewicz.
Variety reports that David Fincher will team up with Gary Oldman for Mank, a biopic about the Oscar winning co-screenwriter on Kane for Netflix. The script was written by Fincher’s late father and will be filmed in black and white!
Although no plot details have been released about Mank, one can only assume it will have something to do with Mank’s writing of Citizen Kane, or co-writing with Orson Welles. Mank had famously spent time at William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon with Hearst’s wife, Marion Davies, which gave him such close and personal access that, it is rumored, Mank knew that Hearst had a pet name for Davies’ golden clam, Rosebud, and trolled Hearst by putting it in Kane.
What is great about the story of Kane is what it says about William Randolph Hearst directly and indirectly and what a fit Hearst had about it. He thwarted the film’s release, hurting its box office significantly. He somehow turned the film industry against Orson Welles, who was booed at the Oscars, and easily handed the Best Picture/Best Director win over to John Ford and How Green Was my Valley.