With one of the most eclectic resumes of cinematographers working in the business today, Rachel Morrison can genuinely be called a master visual storyteller. Morrison’s work has included the bombastically surreal (and ingenious) “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,” the highly acclaimed “Fruitvale Station,” and the recent “Cake,” a film which has garnered Jennifer Aniston some of the best reviews of her career while also allowing her to stretch in a role that often shows her in a less than flattering light—cinematically speaking, of course.
Morrison was recently a part of the “The Female Perspective: Women in Cinematography” panel sponsored by Canon at the 2015 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. She, along with Laela Kilbourn and Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, discussed how they broke into the business, what inspires them, and the challenges that face them in the film industry.
Film Slate Magazine caught up with Morrison on the heels of the release of “Cake” and right before she went to Sundance—it’s an understatement to say that she has been quite busy as of late. Directed by Daniel Barnz and written by Patrick Tobin, “Cake” stars Aniston as a woman with chronic pain who becomes intrigued by the suicide of a woman in her support group while she comes to terms with her own personal trauma.
Film Slate Magazine: In the time since we last spoke, before ‘Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie’ was released, you’ve worked on several movies, most of which I would categorize as being a bit more intimate in feeling than ‘Tim and Eric.’ As a cinematographer, does it take you time to adjust to projects that are quite different from each other, or do you simply complete one film and figure out your approach and go on from there?
Rachel Morrison: I think DPs by nature have to be adaptable. We are visual storytellers and each narrative we photograph is inherently different. I approach each script as a blank canvas and then collaborate closely with the director for creative inspiration and character study to inform the cinematography.
FSM: 2013’s ‘Fruitvale Station’ is one of the most acclaimed movies that you’ve worked on. When you’re in the middle of a project, do you think about what it will be like when completed, or is it more that you’re focused on that day’s shooting? And what was the aftermath like when the movie hit the festival circuit and ended up on several critics’ best-of lists from that year?
RM: When you sign on to a project, you can’t help but have a hope and/or vision for what it would look like completed. This vision often morphs (for better or for worse) as you enter production and actors are cast and ideas from pre-production start to take hold. With ‘Fruitvale,’ we had an absolutely incredible director [Ryan Coogler] who was very strong at communicating his goals across all departments.
More than anything, the entire crew shared the hope that this film could shed some light on the tragedy which happened to Oscar Grant and so many other men of color who are killed at the hand of police and of a fearful racist society. Sadly all too relevant today. But no one was even remotely concerned with critical success or accolades at the time. We just wanted to do some small justice to a man whose life had been cut far too short. The recognition from Sundance, Cannes and around awards season was beyond our wildest dreams.
FSM: Let’s turn to ‘Cake.’ How did you become involved in this project, and what are your usual considerations before signing on to any movie? How much of your decision is influenced by the director, the cast, or the script? How much is influenced by what you think you can bring to a project?
RM: My interest in a project always begins with the script. I have to find something within the pages that I can sink my teeth into either on an emotional or creative level, ideally both. It is then important to meet with the director, watch their previous work, and make sure we want to tell the same story. I don’t think it’s imperative to have the same vision for the cinematography from the outset. In fact, I often try to come in to an interview with a blank slate because ultimately my job is to translate the director’s vision through the lens, not simply insert my own vision for the look of the film. Ideally, it is a true collaboration where we bounce ideas off each other and find cohesion within them.
But when I meet a director, I do want to make sure we both are on the same page regarding the story. What are the stakes? Whose story is it in any given moment? What are the characters’ goals and intentions, their flaws etc.? The cast is relevant too, but I rarely choose my projects based on this alone. If I trust the director, I must also trust their casting choices and they will channel the story through their actors.
In the case of ‘Cake,’ the film required a performance from Jennifer Aniston that I had never seen before. But Daniel [director Daniel Barnz—ed.] assured me she was up to the challenge and made a promise to me that I wouldn’t have to chase her around with soft frontal ‘beauty light’ which would have pained me in that it was completely wrong for this film in particular.
For me it was exciting – how often does one get the chance to light a very public figure in a whole new manner? I chose to shoot ‘Cake’ for all three reasons. The script was very well written and offered interesting creative challenges as it rides the line between dark drama and moments of levity. Daniel was smart and kind and seemed to have a clear vision for the film and the whole cast was fantastic. I was thrilled when I was chosen back!
FSM: There are some very stark images of Aniston in this movie, which may go counter to her usual image. What sort of conversations did you have with Barnz or Aniston about how you were going to approach these scenes?
RM: Daniel was clear that he wanted a dramatized naturalism to the narrative and to achieve this, we were asking Jen to travel down a very vulnerable path and to allow us to photograph her in a much more dark and dramatic way. I tend to operate my own camera whenever I can because I think it helps to create a bond of trust and intimacy with the actors. Daniel was very much on board with this even if it meant not always having me by his side at the monitor.
FSM: How did you achieve the look of this film? There are some interesting shots in how the actors relate to their environment, how they blend in, and even the spacing between people.
RM: Daniel has always preferred to shoot widescreen so I proposed using anamorphic lenses as a way to subtly suggest an altered state of reality. Anamorphic lenses have an even shallower depth-of-field in relation to the field-of-view, which seemed to echo the sense that Jennifer’s character, Claire, had shrouded herself in a bubble.
It was almost as if she had blinders on. We didn’t want the world to be bleak–quite the opposite. We set out to visualize that this woman existed in a sunny, colorful world, but was too consumed by her own pain to really be able to see the beauty around her. She is often isolated in the frame and photographed in opposition to all the other characters in the film. This slowly evolves as her character starts to get moments of hope and relief…
FSM: How much lighting did you use in ‘Cake?’ It looks like a lot of it is natural. One of the more interesting scenes is the ‘vodka scene’ between Aniston and Felicity Huffman. They’re standing several feet from each other in front of some large windows with the blinds closed, with some light coming in through the cracks. Do you like to use that sort of lighting to frame your characters in wide shots, or does it more or less depend on the mood of each scene?
RM: The lighting always depends on the mood of each scene. I try not to do anything as a rule or habit. I strive to make my lighting look natural, but the reality is there is hardly a single scene in ‘Cake’ that is not lit in some way, even if it’s just large grip tools like a 12 x 12 bounce. In the case of the ‘vodka scene,’ we had large HMIs coming through the blinds on the windows and bounce from the other side.
FSM: Any final thoughts about ‘Cake’ or the process that it took to shoot the film?
RM: I would just commend Jen for her bravery. Not many actresses in their mid-40s would take such a risk with the role of Claire and even fewer would let the DP light for drama, not for beauty.