An interview with the Cinematographer Christopher Norr

Best known for his early work on the hit romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, the TV series Succession and most recently the award winning drama Puzzle, the cinematographer Christopher Norr talks to Mandy News about life as a director of photography and he shares his advice for aspiring cinematographers.

19th December 2018
/ By James Collins

Christopher Norr IMDB

Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the camera?
I started to love the camera at a very early age. My father was a cinematographer and didn’t want me to go into business but he thought I was really into still photography and brought me to work one day. I was probably 13 or something and I loved the whole craic of it..

I started in high school working at a camera rental house and then I got into the union and started working as a camera assistant. I worked on some awesome movies like Crimes and Misdemeanours and When Harry Met Sally, under great, great cinematographers and then just moved my way up the ladder. I love what I do and couldn’t be happier.

How did you first get involved being an assistant? How did you get in touch with these big directors that you love?
Basically, the way it works is you work at a camera rental place and that’s how you learn the equipment but also the camera assistants come in to check out the equipment so you get to know them.

They had a trainee programme back when I started and once I was qualified and got into the Union I just got hired from word of mouth. All the camera assistants over the two years that I worked there would come in periodically so I’d make friends with them, and they would say “once you’re in, let me know and I’ll help you out.” That’s how it kinda works.

I worked for two years at General Camera which is now Panavision in New York.

Do you have a favourite piece of kit that you like to use at the moment? What has been your evolution through different cameras?
I’ve always explored new technology and new cameras so I don’t have a favourite. Right now, I’m very fond of the Leica lenses. I shoot still photography as a hobby so I have a Leica lens and a camera for that.

Leica glass gives you something I’m very attracted to. They only started making lenses for cinema in the last maybe 10-12 years (I’m not sure when they started, but it’s relatively new compared to most other lens manufacturers).

You talked before about work coming through word of mouth, and the more projects you work on the more your name gets out there. Was that the case with regards to Puzzle and, if not, could you tell us how you got involved with that production?
It’s true that for almost all the jobs of an artist – whether a production designer or a DP or a director – that people really look at your work. But in terms of a worker, I think it’s word of mouth and it’s always great to make friends. That’s how you get your jobs, you just make friends and people will sometimes hire you, even if you are not experienced, if, at least, you’re a nice person.

For cinematographers, it’s based off your work. People are going to look at references in terms of you being nice to work with, but they are also going to look at your work and that’s very important.

For Puzzle I met director Marc Turtletaub and producer Peter Saraf who’s the producer at Big Beach and we really hit it off it. It was one of the best interviews I ever had. I sat down with them and they were like “we don’t know what we want either so there’s no right or wrong questions or answers here”. They were testing me on how I work with new people and I was very open and honest with them and had some of the same references that they had in mind.

We just hit it off but that same kind of interview can also go in the other direction. Interviews are tough especially when there’s a first time director as, sometimes, I don’t even know if they know what they are looking for. So if you have a reference that doesn’t jive with them then you probably won’t get that job.

Sometimes I go to interviews with two sets of references as I want to see where that director is going to go and what his ideas are and then I back it up with my ideas. If I’m on the wrong page, sometimes I’ll read a script and go “what if I do it this way or I could do it this way.” Sometimes I research two different avenues so I’m really ready for the interview if I really want the job.

How did you then go about approaching it stylistically? Can you tell us a little bit more about how it was shot?

We were bouncing ideas around about overall visual style. The movie’s about this one woman so I really wanted to be connected to her. I used certain lenses that would bring the camera closer to her so you felt like you were taking her journey with her. In layman’s terms, all of her close ups were on a 20mm lens which is pretty close in terms of where the camera is to her, physically, but it gives you that feeling of being close to her and that you’re taking this journey with her. Rather than if you shot her close ups with a long lens which would give you the same image size but would feel like the camera is further away and more removed.

A lot of the movie takes place in her house, so I wanted it to be softer and warmer and a little dark almost as if the sun was trying to fight its way into the house, metaphorically, to give her hope. I used atmosphere in her house only, just to have a softer palette.

She goes to New York City, meets a fella and there’s a lot of stuff in his house which breaks her out of her world. So it’s a little brighter and the windows have no treatment on them. You’re connected to the outside, there’s no atmosphere and it’s a little crisper. This is something I just did to celebrate the two worlds and give them different feels.

The colours in the film are absolutely beautiful. When you’re shooting stuff like that how much was in-camera? Were you using post there?
Everything was done in-camera. For Kelly’s house, we had a house that was basically empty and we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. The production designer, Roshelle Berliner, and I and the director came up with the wallpaper around the house that added a certain chaos. What I did for her world was stuck to earth tones in her house, and in New York City we got a little more vibrant.

What have you been working on recently that you are allowed to tell us about?
I just did a movie in Buffalo called Bashira. It’s a Japanese horror film - which was interesting. Now I’m getting ready to do two different TV projects. I’ll be going back to Succession on HBO in January and I’m about to start something called The Godfather of Harlem, an epic with Forest Whitaker based on Bumpy Johnson’s 1960s Harlem which I’m also very excited about.

What advice do you have for anybody in the camera department or for cinematographers wanting to get ahead?
When it comes to cinematography, a lot of people start in another capacity and somewhere down the line forget their goal of and they get caught up because they land a job of maybe an assistant – which is not a bad job. You can make a very good living out of it – but because they get wrapped up in that, and maybe they have families, they can’t take chances because they need the work.

When I was a camera assistant I used to save my money as I always wanted to be a DP. I always shot. I shot for free all the time just to keep shooting. If you can afford to do a free job and be able to be a cinematographer versus a well paid job and be a camera assistant, I would always take the free job just because I knew I was invested in my long term goal. Design your life in a way so that you can always afford to maybe take a lesser paid job in a better position.

The other advice is not to make any enemies. People will hire you and the crew. It’s all word of mouth.

I’ve known camera assistants who weren’t up to their game yet but are so nice. It’s all about making friends and friendships, especially when you want to move up. You grow and make friends with all these people in the industry and as they grow they give you opportunities to grow too.