There is a lot of snow floating around these days, isn’t there? From the trailers of Joy and The Revenant to Macbeth, what is it about filming in the cold? We know that some productions choose the summer because of long days and relatively consistent weather. Would a script be the same if it was filmed at just any time of year, and what meaning does a season have? I remember my literature teacher telling me that a novel starting in autumn is a bad sign, a sign of death and endings. Let’s explore.
I recently met up with a former director of mine who directed me in a short silent film a bit over a year ago. She is currently training in filmmaking, and revealed that cinematography had recently become one of her big loves on her course. We talked about favourite films, favourite actors and what makes them so good, and what the director can do to inspire the best possible performance from the actor. Among interestingly diverging opinions, the heavy word “trust” came up. Of course, to give the most of yourself, you need to trust the person who will capture your image and lock it up in the camera forever.
I realised during our conversation that when describing films, I often point out cinematography. The cinematographer tells the story with the image. What I see is costume, make-up, set design, colours… why did A most violent year contain so much yellow? Why was Maryland so blue? Did the location choices with yellow walls or blue waters influence the choices in costume or the other way around? Or was that already contained in the director’s vision?
The collaboration which is filmmaking is a truly magical one, especially so when we end a film saying “now that was well directed”. I personally can rarely pin down what it was that made a film work, but I think a truly great film is one which doesn’t give us the space to say “but…”. Recently, those two films were Carol and Bridge of Spies.
Despite the director’s fame, this was the first Todd Haynes film I experienced. Carol takes us to New York City and its suburbs in the 1950s and tells us a love story between 20-something Therese (Rooney Mara, mysterious and raw) and married older woman Carol (Cate Blanchett, hypnotising and vulnerable). Not only does the age gap between the two women make their love story difficult, but they are part of a society where being gay is still seen as an illness. While Therese is young and free to search for what makes her happy, including photography, Carol is limited by the hold her husband has on her and the fear of not being able to see her daughter if her divorce ends badly.
Apart from a script that tells a love story in minute detail and slow natural progression, this film is also a feast for the eyes. It is Christmastime, the city and candles are lit, the tree is green, the lips and shirts are red, the hair is blonde and carefully curled. There is a whole story told through costume, with uncomfortable heels, buttoned up shirts and heavy coats, as well as through the weather, which condenses car windows, blows hair into one’s face and probably makes it electric.
The contrast between hot and cold is often seen, between the cosy comfort of interior shots in restaurants and department stores and the exterior’s bare trees. There are interesting instances with hot and cold overlapping, for example when Carol takes off her warm coat as she’s driving in her cold car, or when Therese goes out to get ice cubes for the women’s whiskies, while it is so cold outside already.
Finally, I believe the crucial visual element in this film is glass: we and the characters see through so much of it. It blinds, protects, shelters or reveals, for example through Therese’s camera lens. When a film’s image completes a story so well, there is no “but”.
Bridge of Spies
A completely other lighting style is used in Steven Spielberg’s latest film Bridge of Spies. The white or grey light is harsh, attacking characters and the audience through large glass windows, camera flashes or the surveillance lights of the border between East and West Berlin. What is more, it is cold (completing of course the Cold War context). I’ve rarely seen characters blow their noses as much as Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks do in this film, subject to a cold they just can’t shake.
Light is more dangerous than darkness here, as it can reveal the cracks, the wrinkles, the truth. During the day, you are harassed by a local gang – at night, you are followed by a spy who actually just wants to talk to you.
This film offers masterful, grandiose shots of a time and location where badly played spy games could make you disappear. The mix of night and strong lighting emphasises this danger and fear, but also the courage when there’s no way out but forward.