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Cinematographer Dick Pope Throws Light on "Mr. Turner"

By Laura Blum

NEW YORK, NY - When cinematographer Richard "Dick" Pope was tapped to shoot a movie about the Romantic landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, he was entranced. Having come off of lensing Topsy-Turvy in the late 90s, and prior to that, other prizewinning Mike Leigh titles including Life Is Sweet, Naked and Secrets & Lies, he and the British director had long since harmonized around an artistic partnership of beauty, imagination and light. So when the project came together after roughly a decade, they were well primed to "paint the life of Turner," as Pope told at the 52nd New York Film Festival, where Mr. Turner had its U.S. premiere.

In the interim there would be added occasions to collaborate and win awards: Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year, to name three. And that's not mentioning the dozen or so features the native UK southerner shot for other directors, most notably for Neil Burger's The Illusionist, for which his cinematography earned an Oscar nomination.

Yet on each new Mike Leigh set, the pair would dust off their Turner dreams. "The nearer we got and the more serious the production got, the more we talked about the world of Turner and what we would be showing in that world," Pope said. Here he looks back with thalo on what came of those spirited exchanges.

thalo: The film opens with this gorgeous sunset and soon cuts to a pig head in a market. Were you commenting on the inner beauty and the outer beast that was J.M.W. Turner?

Dick Pope: We were, but we didn't really realize that at the time. That's Mike. We don't really know Turner (Timothy Spall, as seen in photos 1 and  2) at the beginning of the film. And we don't know that pig. Then that same pig is being shaved. And then Turner is being shaved by his father (Paul Jesson). And the father is shaving the pig, and the father was a barber in his previous life. We didn't get that when we were filming it, but Mike did.

th: How did Turner's use of light influence your design?

DP: About six months before we started filming (May - August, 2013), I was shooting a film called Angelica, for Mitchell Lichtenstein's son, Roy Lichtenstein's son. It was a film that was also very artistic. I shot it here in the City and in the Yonkers in a big old house on the Hudson River. I was very much thinking of Turner, and in a way I used it as a rehearsal room for what what I went for on Turner, beause it was a period film set in early Victorian London. So there wasn't such a difference in time span with Turner, perhaps 40 years or so. I tried lots of different things. It was naughty of me, really, but it benefitted the film. I took what I learned in terms of candlelight, lantern light, light in general, and with that camera -- I used the ALEXA -- I went through the paces on the film.

th: What did you discover about shooting in low light that informed the many evening scenes in Mr. Turner?

DP: I learned how much I could get away with and how bold and daring I could be with a minimum amount of light with the ALEXA, digitally. The camera is very fast and captures very low light levels without the problems of film, without any grain or deterioration. So it led me to do whole scenes on Turner that were just candlelit. For example, the big soirée at Petworth House when the piano is being played and Turner is sketching in his book with Lord Egremont (Patrick Godfrey) -- that's the big country house where Turner goes for the weekend, with Lord Egremont and all the lords -- that scene only has candlelight. Where we photographed Turner with Lord Egremont at sunset, when they're looking at all Turner's paintings, that is a real, huge banqueting hall, and all of those paintings along it were all Turners, the real thing. They've got all Turner's paintings just at eye height where you'd be sitting down at the dinner table and you're able to look across at the paintings on the wall.

th: Apparently Turner stipulated that Snow Storm Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812 be hung low on the wall at the Royal Academy's summer exhibition at Somerset House to make sure it'd be seen from the correct angle. Did you frame your shots in a correspondingly low-slung way?

DP: Yeah, to a certain extent we did. The Hannibal-crossing-the-Alps canvas was actually resting on the floor. It couldn't have been lower. It's a huge canvas. So that helped the feel of it. It wasn't in the studio in his gallery up in the air. We had it really low so that the gag about the elephant was just bent over nearly at eye height. As you saw, we had the camera travel right into the elephant and pull right out again.

th: At the New York Film Festival press conference, Mike Leigh noted that most painters would foreground Hannibal and the elephant, but that Turner sidestepped such hubris by miniaturizing them in the distance amidst the elements. How was Turner's approach to historical landscapes -- and aesthetic of the beauty and horror in nature and life, or "the sublime" -- reflected in your work?

DP: As Mike said, we tried to implictly capture Turner's concerns and sense of life through his art and through interpreting the visual periods moving from the Georgian to the Victorian periods, the two periods of the film.

th: Just as Turner influenced the Impressionists, watching the film's changing light and color brings to mind such series as Claude Monet's 25 Haystack paintings. How did you use Turner's palette to tell the story?

DP: When I was exploring the look of the film, I went to the Tate Britain and other galleries. There was a great show at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, with of all his maritime work. At the Tate they have his actual palette of the colors that he used. I took these colors and I couldn't help but notice that he added a teal to a lot of the shadow areas in his paintings. There would never be plain black; it would always have a bluey-green teal feel. And in his highlights he added yellow. That seemed to be an overriding motif on many of the paintings. So anything that was burned white would have a little yellow in it too, chrome yellow. This is mentioned in the film, as is teal, when the father goes to buy the pigments.

I took that idea of the yellow in the highlights and the teal in the shadows and I then went and photographed tests that Mike could see with me to see where we were going -- so that everybody who was working on the film -- the production designer and wardrobe and makeup -- could be on the same wavelength. I went into a digital intermediate suite with a colorist, and that colorist remained on the production right to the end. We added this yellow into the highlights and we added this teal into the shadows and found that it didn't really didn't affect skin tones very much. What it affected was everything around the skin tones, but it left the skin tones pure. I took that and went further and further with it, added more and more until I felt it was the right mixture of paint, so to speak. We colored our tests like that. And then we showed them on a big cinema screen in the West End of London. We all felt that was the look of the film, so we decided early on and that's what we did.

th: Aside from the continuous riffs on blue, green, yellow and white, red also plays a conspicuous role onscreen. There's that blood-red sky of Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying: Typhoon Coming On, and at the Royal Academy Turner dabs a blaze of crimson on John Constable's The Opening of Waterloo Bridge canvas -- plus that rare CGI-ed scene inspired by The Fighting Téméraire. How did you use red to warm up the blues and greens?

DP: That is something that just happened. The red took care of itself. You're not really changing the coloration by what I did. You're allowing colors like red to really smash through. Yeah, that's a blood-red sky. I was quite careful. When I did the post, I had copies of the paintings in the DI suite. We lit them with normal lighting. I was able to reference them against the paintings on the screen and make sure I wasn't going off on a tangent when in fact it was important that the paintings be true to the way they had been painted. I didn't want them to be really warm or really cold. I wanted them to be true to what they were.

th: Was there a moment when you thought: I want them to be painterly enough, but not so painterly that it's obvious?

DP: Yeah, that was very much in our minds when we kicked off. When we first talked about the film, we talked about creating a painting or a canvas that Turner would be walking through, like a walking through of the painting of his life. We talked endlessly about other films where they devote this feeling of painting, sometimes too literally, like Kurosawa's depiction of Van Gogh. There's an episode in that film (Dreams), where the characters were walking actually through a Van Gogh painting. We didn't want to do anything literal like that. You couldn't do that with a Mike Leigh film. That's not what he does. But we found a way to evoke the spirit of what Turner was looking at, what he was seeing.

th: Is that why we often see shots of his back or shoulder and the view beyond (as seen in photo 3)?

DP: A lot of the time we're observing the world through his eyes. The camera angles, the lighting, everything was contrived to give the feel of what inspired him in the first place to paint.

th: What's an example of how you reflected his composition and point of view?

DP: There were scenes, such as that candlelit soirée, that exist as a Turner watercolor. When the girls run through the hall and go up the stairs to the library, where they go in and there's Turner's painting -- he painted it at the foot of those stairs where we photographed that scene. So these are all existing watercolors. There's one where the girls go into the room and he's painting and the sun's coming through the window and he's spitting on the painting -- that's almost a reproduction of a Turner watercolor.

th: Romantic portraiture was all about the individual and the subjective, as a departure from 18th-century rationalism. In capturing Turner, how did you reflect the idea that the artist is central?

DP: I would say that that is probably something that I carry and Mike carries as well. It's an intuition, perhaps, of the way the overall film is going to be. We bounce off of the locations, and I hopefully have an inherent sense of composition that matches the style of whatever it is we're filming. So it's not a self-conscious thing. Composition is the all-important thing for me. I come out of still photographs. Portraiture is my roots and I have very, very strong opinions about how the framing has to be.

th: We've touched on light, but can you talk a little about the sensibiltiy of the seaside scenes where Turner finds love with his boarding house landlady, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey)?

DP: That's the important thing: What attracted him to painting? Why did he go here, there or wherever? Margate is a prime example of that. He was drawn to that spot on the South coast of England because it's blessed with the most marvelous light.

th: Did you shoot in Margate?

DP: No, it's all blown away, all gone. What's there now is a modern town. It's a nightmare. So we found a town on the coast in southern England, in Cornwall, that evoked that spirit, that light. We shot a lot of the film there. It has attracted painters for centuries. In fact there's a Tate St Ives in Cornwall. It's got the most magical light. It's like the French Impressionists that were attracted to Province in the South of France. It's the same sort of feel. We're talking the same language here.

th: The last words Turner speaks are, "The sun is God!" How did the sun drive you on this film?

DP: I would be very happy to have those as my last words as well. I don't think there's a cinematographer you would talk to who wouldn't agree that the sun is God. I mean it drives us mad! It drives us to distraction sometimes when it doesn't do what it's supposed to do and it keeps moving across the sky in a really awkward fashion. For us cinematographers it would be better if it just hung above the horizon all day like something out of the northern skies up in Iceland. We hate it at mid-day. We only like it first thing and last thing.

th: And last thing here: how was it to once again work with Mike Leigh (as seen in photos 4 and 5)?

DP: This is a guy I've worked with for 24 years, so there's a lot of mutual trust in the way we work together. 

Photos Credits:

Photo 1: Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in "Mr. Turner." Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Photo 2: Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in "Mr. Turner." Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Photo 3: Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in "Mr. Turner." Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Photo 4: Left to right: Director Mike Leigh and Director of Photography Dick Pope. Photo by  Simon Mein, courtesy of Sony Pictures ClassicsPhoto 5: Mike Leigh on the set of "Mr. Turner." Photo by Simon Mein, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics