add tag

Tags you are adding:

Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth Brings Light to "Gone Girl"

By Laura Blum

Marital dysfunction has a honeymoon in Gillian Flynn's romantic mystery Gone Girl and its chilling screen adaptation by David Fincher. Presented from the clashing viewpoints of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), the saga traces her vanishing act on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, after exiting New York for Missouri. Shadow and light paint a mood of mystery as the questions pile up: what became of the icy blonde, and what did her two-timing husband (as seen in photo 1 and 2) have to do with it?

The film's stylized look owes a debt to cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who earned Oscar nods on Fincher's previous two works, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The University of Southern California alum launched his feature career with Fight Club. As the story goes, having shot second unit on The Game and Se7en, he was interviewing for this very position on Fight Club when Fincher tapped him as its DP.

That the two filmmakers tend to see eye to eye on aesthetics has made their collaboration an especially smooth one. Fincher's alleged openness to ideas "as long as they're better or more supportive of the story than his original ones are," yield rewards both on-screen and off, Cronenweth told "That's where you get to really contribute," he enthused. The lauded DP's knack for devising solutions came from helping his dad, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, on such sets as Blade Runner and Peggy Sue Got Married.

With Oscar buzz mounting for the cinematography on Gone Girl -- which premiered at the New York Film Festival -- thalo spoke with Cronenweth junior about the film's 90-day shoot (as seen in photo 3).

thalo: In what way Gillian Flynn's novel guide your approach?

Jeff Cronenweth: The book has 720 pages, and you can't have a seven-hour movie, but Gillian did a brilliant job of streamlining things in the screenplay. The book expanded on what Nick is hiding from and why he's running away from Amy. It also got into Amy's tortured childhood and what led her to need so much attention and to need to be in control and manipulate all that she possibly can. And it set up this downtrodden town that lost its glory and the people who live there. So we knew that the movie would be based in reality, and from there we had to find the nuances in what people believe is happening.

th: The title itself suggests a story of loss. How did you highlight the themes of absence and abandonment?

JC: When Nick and Amy were upstairs in parts of the house that would typically have more comfort and there'd be more personality, hallways and bedrooms were a little too big. Art direction of those places was really impersonal. And we always kept them in awkward positions to show this distance between them, this impersonal wall that they built up.

th: The "gone missing" theme extends to Nick and Amy's individual personas, given how disillusioned they each are with their lives and accomplishments. How did you capture this self-distancing act?

JC: It was particularly interesting to portray two people going down two non-linear, separate paths of their own narcissism, who at the end come back together full circle, not necessarily by choice, but by virtue of their own flaws. There are a lot of elements to putting this together visually.

th: How did you help Nick come off as both a bad guy and as someone worthy of our trust?

JC: It's that fine line that David does so well that leaves the audience in this precarious position of not necessarily knowing, or jumping the gun and convicting him too soon. Casting alone was a fantastic choice. You couldn't pick someone that has lived those kinds of trials more than Ben Affleck has. To be that chiseled, affable guy but then be vulnerable and not tip his hat to us was so ingeniously subtle.

th: How did you as the cinematographer editorialize that?

JC: When he's vulnerable we try to make him smart and lens him from different heights to diminish his size so that people have more empathy for him. And then when he's not, we change the quality of the lights. We put him in more half light or bad light so that you can't necessarily know what's going through his head. You don't see his eyes all the time and that suggests some kind of suspicious perspective on him.

th: How did you accent Nick's loneliness and retreat after he has been fingered in his wife's murder? 

JC: Once Nick becomes accused or suspected of being responsible for Amy's disappearance, he closes himself off inside the house by drawing all the curtains to stay away from the paparazzi and onlookers. Ben Affleck is a towering guy -- he's 6'4" and has these swimmer's shoulders -- so we chose camera angles and heights and lenses to make him appear small in this house and alone and isolated and frustrated as he's trying to put the pieces together that she's still around somewhere. That was his spiralling act in that big house (as seen in photo 4).

th: The town of North Carthage itself plays a role in the couple's relationship. How did you play it up as a character?

JC: The audience had to feel the compromise that led to the marriage falling apart in that Nick and Amy moved from the very vibrant New York City, where they both had healthy writing careers, back to this small Midwest town that's on its way out. It was important to show that the downtown is dilapidated; that it's strip malls now; and that it stands next to a freeway.

th: Just as the Swedish winter was a character in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, how did the Missouri summer color your shoot?

JC: With Dragon Tattoo, if you aren't blatently aware of how cold it is in Sweden in the middle of the winter, then you're not going to have a lot of empathy for or understanding of what the challenges were for those characters. In the same way, for Gone Girl it was imperative to capture the heat of what a midsummer would be like in the Midwest to get you visually into the characters' heads. You can feel the heat and the humidity. But we also wanted to show the small town, the isolation, this big McMansion that looked so nice on the outside, but which was so impersonal and devoid of humanity and distant and cold inside.

th: How did your choice of palette help convey these moods?

JC: To paint the Midwest summer as it might feel, there was a warmth and a green overtone in all of our day exteriors, and we used some filtration in-camera to accomplish that. Gone Girl probably has the most daytime exteriors in any of David's films, maybe with the exception of Se7en. Once Nick has pulled the drapes, the kitchen and that whole side of the house is always in shadow. There's a soft, cool light that pervades the cave-like cocoon of this monstrous house and allows him to be ambivalent in your judgement of him.

th: When he's holed up there, the lights from the paparazzi almost suggest Plato's "Allegory of the Cave."

JC: The intention was to show the invasion and the isolation. Together with the notion of Nick being holed up, it was a visual cue to show today's media culture and how you can be convicted in the public eye before you've ever had a chance. Whenever something happened or a character came or went, all the paparazzi lit up. It was a nod of where we've arrived where everybody has access to every kind of media source and anyone can shoot anything. We're all out there exposed.

th: As the film unfolds, Nick and Amy constantly swap roles as guilty vs injured parties. How did you build on this dynamic to play off the audience's suspicions?

JC: We had a couple of different great opportunities to stay within the same palette, but exercise some interesting choices. For example, when Amy goes into her monologue and starts explaining how she put it all together, and you see this montage of events that led up to all the evidence, there are rarely more than two or three shots in each of those sequences. We presented her in a much more flattering, somewhat fuller light using longer lenses, because she came into her own. Up until that point in the movie, she's just taking everything that's dished to her, but she's not in control. Being that Type A personality and being a sociopath at the same time, she's actually in her moment. She couldn't be happier pulling all this off. You see how disturbed she really is, yet she still has that veil of beauty and presence -- like a flower that's really evil -- that's more unsettling than had we gone out of the way to make her a bad person with light tonalities and back lights and shadows and music beats.

Opposite to that is when she's on the road and things start to go awry. She starts losing control and her plan's not working out. She has gained weight; she has less makeup, frumpy clothes, and her hair's a mess. The light was a little harsher and the lensing choices were a little less flattering because her world was spiralling out of control.

th: How did you ramp up the tension when Amy is captive in Desi Collins' (Neil Patrick Harris) gilded cage, culminating in bloody murder? 

JC: That was a risky experiment that David and I wanted to do. The quality of the light was almost like a fashion shoot in the sense that it was one source from the bed, extremely complimentary, and it fell off all around the room. The bed itself had almost a lightbox quality to it. It's so in contrast to what is about to happen. The cosmetic light seduces you into a false sense of security until Amy pulls a blade out and pulls off this violent, in-your-face attack. We didn't want to over-complicate it, because the action itself is such a monumental exposure to who she is and the length that she will go to to go down her sociopathic sense of reality. We didn't know if it would come off as too pretty and out of context.

th: How did noir conventions inform the look of the film?

JC: There wasn't a particular movie that we chose to elicit any tones from. But I always thought it had a contemporary noir style to it visually, and I'm sure every noir film that I've ever seen had some impact on the choices that I made. Think of a movie like Rear Window, which of course is all about shadows and mystery and misleading people and close calls and did-you-or-did-you-not-see-what-you-think-you-saw? Gone Girl doesn't necessarily have all of those subtle clues, because it's mostly dialogue and narrative and watching characters and things happen, but those probably all have a certain influence. My father shot Final Analysis, which was a bit of a murder mystery, but it had a contemporary noir feel to it. It's not that I referenced it, but it's always in the back of my mind.

th: What are some of the tropes of the thriller you embraced, riffed on or snubbed for this missing-person mystery? 

JC: It's not a murder mystery, because Amy's murder never occurs. And it's not a thriller per se. It's a psychological drama that's ultimately this mental chess game between these two people, but also tracing how they got there in the first place. The visuals have to be a little bit more hyper-real to let these characters spiral out of control. You can't take the creative license of, say, 9 1/2 Weeks, which is a mental game of two people whereby the romance, sexuality and tension of the 80s allowed this magical, theatrical lighting. Anything that would have gone in that direction on Gone Girl would have taken you right out of the story.

th: How did shooting with the Red Epic Dragon 6K differ from the previous iteration of the digital Red camera?

JC: Gone Girl is the first feature to go front-to-back on the Dragon 6K, so we were both testing as well as reaping the benefits of it. It performed amazingly. The camera films at a resolution of 6K, so it's 1,000 more than the other Epics have, and because there's no way of publicly presenting something in 6K, we did a 5K shoot in 4-0 frame within the 6K, and then we down-rezzed it to 4K for presentation. You get more quality from pumping a larger file than trying to do the opposite. This also gives us a lot of room to reposition shots should we feel the need to, whether we decide after a cut that we want more screen direction or less headway. In this movie in particular, the camera moves all wanted to be fluid and deliberate, so the stabilization is a great tool to add to it. Plus the cameras are 800 ASA, at least that's what we rated them at, so there's a little more room to dive into shadows at the toe end of the curve when you have that extra resolution without things falling apart. You also have a lot more latitude in the highlights -- you get anywhere from 17 to 20 stocks without overstating of latitude, depending what it is that you're shooting.

And then the biggest thing for me is the color science. This movie in particular benefitted from it, because some of the practical locations have a whole litany of different colors mixed together by lights and different situations. The color science in this camera so beautifully handles those variations and makes them not pop into something that becomes too saturated. That was particularly favorable for this movie and for my aesthetics in general. We have a great relationship with Red going back to The Social Network, and they're extremely supportive of the film community and of us in particular, and they go out of their way to solve problems.

We used the Leica Summilux-C lenses. The last two pictures David and I had photographed on ARRI Master Prime lenses, but here we wanted to have the smallest lenses we could. The Leica glass is essentially the Primo series, which is super resolute but somehow there's a little bit of warmth to the glass itself. All these things played into this movie.

th: What were the challenges of achieving depth of field?

JC: For us, depth of field has always been a key storytelling tool. It's my or David's deciding what we want the audience to pay attention to and where we want their eye to look. In a digital world, because of the latitudes, you have to fight really hard to maintain that. By that I mean, you shoot at low level or you neutral the camera down, so you're always working at as wide an aperture as you can. It certainly complicates the camera systems and makes focus all the more challenging, but it's imperative as a filmmaker.

Photo Credits:

Photo 1: As her marriage falters, Amy (Rosamund Pike) confides in her diary. Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy of courtesy of TM and Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises.

Photo 2: Nick (Ben Affleck, left) is questioned about the disappearance of his wife Amy, by Detectives Boney (Kim Dickens, far right) and Gilpin (Patrick Fugit, in dark shirt), as Nick¹s in-laws Marybeth and Rand Elliott (Lisa Barnes, David Clennon) look on.

Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy of TM and Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises.

Photo 3: Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth on the set of "Gone Girl." Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy of courtesy of TM and Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises.

Photo 4: Nick (Ben Affleck) is the primary suspect in his wife's (Rosamund Pike) disappearance. Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy of courtesy of TM and Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises.