Welcome to the Art of the Shot podcast! Join writer and filmmaker Derek Stettler for conversations with the artists behind the camera on strikingly-shot films, series, music videos and commercials. Discover how they made their careers happen, hear about their creative process, and learn how they make the shots that make us say: wait, how did they do that?
For the third episode, Derek speaks with none other than Jeff Cronenweth, ASC!
Jeff is the two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer behind many of David Fincher’s films, including The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and their first film together–and Jeff’s first feature film–Fight Club.
(And if you’re worried, no, they don’t talk about Fight Club… much.)
Jeff has also shot numerous commercials and music videos for some of the biggest artists, including Madonna, David Bowie, Shakira, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry.
And this month marked the release of Jeff’s first foray into television, with the pilot to the Amazon Prime original series, Tales from the Loop: a sci-fi anthology adapted from the paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag.
What you may not know is that Jeff Cronenweth is the son of legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, the eye behind the era-defining look of Blade Runner. Enjoy this in-depth conversation about everything from how Jeff forged his own path while following in his father’s footsteps, and his approach to lighting based on story, to working with David Fincher, his work on Tales from the Loop (including how he achieved a never-before-seen lighting effect), and his trick for making sure eye lights look more natural.
Note, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this conversation was recorded remotely, but all efforts were made to ensure quality audio.
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Jeff Cronenweth comes from three generations in the film business and followed his father, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) into a career as a director of photography. Growing up on film sets and working alongside his father enabled Jeff to take a hands-on role in the camera department. He started as a loader and camera assistant, getting into the union while attending USC. He met David Fincher while working on the Madonna music video “Oh Father” as a camera assistant. Fincher gave Jeff his first opportunity to DP for the filmFight Club. Jeff’s collaboration with Fincher later earned him two Oscar nominations- one for The Social Network and one for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He also began working with director Mark Romanek on music videos, such as Eels “Novocaine for the Soul” and Nine Inch Nails’ “The Perfect Drug.” Jeff and Romanek also worked together on the feature film, One Hour Photo starring Robin Williams. The film presented many lighting challenges since the bulk of it takes place inside a store with flat white lights before the darker undertones of the movie are revealed.
Jeff also shot the pilot for Tales from the Loop with director Mark Romanek, streaming now on Amazon Prime.
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…
David Fincher has reportedly signed on to direct his first feature film since Gone Girl in 2014, a biopic about the contentious development of the script for Citizen Kane, one of Fincher’s favorite films, by the brilliant and prolific but troubled screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewiczand legendary director Orson Welles. They both shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Master Actor Gary Oldman will play the titular role, Mankiewicz, or “Mank“, as he was nicknamed.
The film project inception dates back to 1993 and is based on a script by Fincher’s late father, Howard “Jack” Fincher. Jack Fincher was a journalist, writer and essayist specialized in science, a former San Francisco bureau chief for LIFE magazine, and a devoted cinephile. In 1997, he was commissioned to draft a screenplay for a Howard Hughes biopic, with Kevin Spacey attached to direct. But this project was later absorbed by The Aviator project scripted by John Logan, which ended up being directed by Martin Scorsese.
Mank will be shot in black and white, as Fincher always intended. This caused the project to stall in the past, but Alfonso Cuarón’s recent success with Roma, also for Netflix, has reinforced the limited commercial appeal of this aesthetic option.
The film will be produced by the traditional power couple David Fincher & producer Ceán Chaffin, this time alongside Oldman’s business partner and producer Douglas Urbanski. Urbanski is an occasional actor who played President of Harvard University Lawrence Summers in The Social Network.
Production is scheduled to begin in November in Los Angeles.
As far back as 1997, this biographical story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the writer of Orson Welles‘ epic motion picture Citizen Kane, was rumored as a pet project for David Fincher. From a script written by his father, Howard Fincher, the director’s black and white biopic targeted Seven star Kevin Spacey as the lead, with Panic Room‘s Jodie Foster in a co-starring role as movie actress Marion Davies. In production at the same time was HBO‘s telemovie RKO 281, which also covered the backstory of Citizen Kane (casting John Malkovich in the Mankiewicz role and Melanie Griffith as Davies). Still, the true story behind the creation of this mould-shattering movie and the writer behind it has enough scope for the production of a further feature by Fincher and his father.
Mankiewicz was a cynical but extremely talented scriptwriter, a former theatre critic for the New Yorker and the New York Times who left his job for the glitter of early Hollywood. Dropping out of the elite circle of New York’s high society, specifically the so-called “Algonquin Round Table“, Mankiewicz began with scripts for silent films, starting with The Road to Mandalay in 1926, working on more than 70 features during his lifetime. He once famously described Hollywood to a fellow writer in NYC by saying: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around”. As film technology evolved in the late twenties, Mankiewicz changed gears and moved seamlessly into talkies, continuing to write stories or dialogue for films like Man of the World (1942), The Lost Squadron (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933) and It’s a Wonderful World (1939), as well as an uncredited rewrite on The Wizard of Oz; he also worked with the Marx Brothers as an executive producer on movies like Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).
With his career flagging as the thirties ended and with his comedic hits behind him, Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning success with Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1942 gave him a brief respite. However, his alcoholism and large gambling debts eventually got the better of him and he died, penniless, of uremic poisoning in 1953. Remembered for Welles’ powerfully directed feature about a ruthless newspaper mogul, Mankiewicz no doubt drew on his personal experiences as a former associate of real-life magnate William Randolph Hearst and as a partygoer at Hearst’s huge Hollywood mansion. Although Mankiewicz was forced to share Citizen Kane‘s Academy Award for Best Writing with Welles, the great majority of the script was the writer’s own work, and it was not only a source of friction between the two men but of debate among film critics to this day.
Last mooted as a Propaganda Films movie, Howard and David Fincher’s Mank may yet be produced as a project at Indelible Pictures. Fincher has previously spoken of his intent to use a special film stock to shoot Mank, a black and white negative type no longer used in the contemporary industry that would have to be recreated from the original “recipe”. For the director, this feature represents an opportunity to produce a fundamentally different film from his earlier works in a genre he has yet to explore; at the same time, the life of Herman J Mankiewicz retains the streak of darkness that has always appealed to Fincher’s sensibilities. “Mank is a script that I’ve been working to get exactly right for ten years”, said Fincher, “and I hope, some day, to make it as one of the definitive ‘writer in Hollywood’ stories”.
Pierce: Your dad was a journalist and a writer. He wrote a script called Mank, about the Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Did you consider making that?
Fincher: We tried. It was too expensive. Because if you’re going to make a Hollywood insider movie—it’s nothing to do with Hollywood really, it’s Hollywood in the late thirties, early forties—you’ve got to make it really cheaply. We had a chance to make the movie for, like, $13 million, back in 1998 and, um, [guiltily] I wanted to make it in black and white. [Laughs] And that fucked up all those home video and video sellthrough and cable deals. I haven’t read it in a while. I probably should.
Pierce: Did your dad write a few screenplays?
Fincher: Yeah, he wrote a couple. That was the best of them, I think. He wrote a screenplay once about a divorce case. It was kind of based on the Keanes. Remember in the sixties, the guy who painted those pictures of the children with the giant eyes? They were in this bitter divorce. It was a very, very sardonic screenplay about two parents trying to prove what bad parents they are, so the other will get stuck with the kids! It was pretty funny! [Laughs] But it had an awful sentiment! But it was funny. It was a good script.
Pierce: There’s an element of your work—in Se7en, The Game, Zodiac— that is about professionalism and obsession. Is that something you think you got from your dad?
Fincher: My dad wasn’t very obsessive. Slightly compulsive, but not obsessive. You know, my dad did used to say, “Learn your craft; it will never stop you from being a genius.” It’s like, “Do the hard work, figure out how it works…” My dad worked a lot, but he paced himself. He paced himself a lot more than I think I probably do. […] My dad… he was an intellect and sort of a Monday-morning quarterback.
An iconic music video has gotten a rare 4K remaster. As part of a documentary project for U.K. broadcaster Channel 4, director David Fincher’s promo clip for the late George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” featuring supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford has been rescanned from the original camera negatives at 4K on a Blackmagic Design Cintel Scanner and graded in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve Studio to match the look of the original, NTSC-resolution music video.
David Fincher has developed a very distinct style over the years as he has cemented himself as one of our most impressive technical filmmakers. Fincher has a great hold on characters and story, but he stands out because his mechanical, almost robotic, style of filmmaking is so recognisable and effective. His movies are distinguishable by a number of trademarks and signature moves. Fincher likes washed-out colours with lots of metallic blues and greys along with crushed blacks, which makes his movies seem as though they’re being projected to us on a piece of frozen metal. He also avoids handheld camera work, opting instead for a locked down camera that pans and pivots around a scene with balanced, unnatural movement, which enhances the feeling of an omniscient camera that is operating independently of a human being and not subject to control. He also enjoys locking the camera in place and filming wide, stationary shots as though we are watching the action play out on a stage at a theatre.