"Do more with your ears than you do with your back and hands” an interview with Richard Rutkowski

Renowned for his cinematography on the hit films Limitless, The Ghost and Fallen, Richard Rutkowski talks to Mandy News about his work on the recent Tom Clancy's TV series Jack Ryan and the horror series Castle Rock.

19th December 2018
/ By James Collins

Richard Rutkowski on Jack Ryan JANTHIJS

Richard, tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the camera and how that got you into a career in TV and film?
My father was a fine art painter – oil on canvas. His single-minded pursuit of that was not entirely attractive to me as a youngster, so I was actually bent towards things that were more technical. I thought I would be an architect or an engineer; maybe I’d be involved in the design of objects or homes.

I wound up at Harvard University and started to branch out while I was there. It was there that someone introduced me to the open reel, tape recorder, the Nagra. That just really opened the door right away for me - to see that the sound had been transmitted on to tape. Tape that could then be cut up, re-spliced, played backwards, speeds could be altered. All of that was really fundamental in my appreciating filmmaking.

Now you’ll all be thinking, “well, Richard, that’s not the camera, that’s the sound recording device”. I have to say that the plastic nature of being able to record and play something back came from that moment.

I wound up taking some film courses. I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to film before that. I liked movies but I wasn’t under their spell or anything. Some people are drawn to movies right at the beginning, but it was gradual for me.

I studied a bit, watched some movies and got involved with a Bolex camera. I bought a Bolex, started shooting film with it and really liked it. Like a lot of things you like, if you’re good at it then you become even more beholden to it.

I jumped off at the deep end and started making some quite ambitious movies – well beyond what the coursework was demanding. They were just little short films and I really got into the whole creation process; you know, everything about it – finding a location, deciding what looked best in terms of a style of lighting, writing them, storyboarding them. I was very ambitious in that regard.

Then, eventually, I got out of college and realised that the world didn’t suddenly say “hey, here’s this guy who makes all these little films; let’s make him Steven Spielberg”. It doesn’t go like that. I wound up joining the union in Boston, Massachusetts, and joined NABET, which was a camera local.

I started working; loading film and doing the basic crew positions in the camera department. I started very much from the ground up.

The entire time I was working in various positions - crewing on small and big things. Sometimes just to make a living and sometimes far beyond that. I was always shooting other people’s work, or my own. I would make films still and got involved in making a documentary. I was doing the work of building up my skillset and resume.

So, I would say - for the folks looking at this as a career and thinking it looks very exciting – that it is exciting, but you have to be your own motivator in it. Very rarely are you going to find someone who sees something so extraordinary in you that they forward you, without the benefit of you doing a heck of a lot of work. The luck seems to fall to the people who are most prepared for it.

You’ve recently been working on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and also Castle Rock. I wondered if you could talk to me about Jack Ryan – how did you get involved in that?
Well, Jack Ryan came about in the first season because a director, who I’ve done some very good seasons of television with on The Americans, got the call to do Jack Ryan and he called me and said “do you want do this?” And it was very good timing – I was looking for a project and there it was.

I was very interested in doing something international. I like travelling; I’ve always been very fond of going to new places and meeting new people. I’ve worked in many different places and I’ve always enjoyed it.

When this came up, I realised that one little hole in my cameraman’s resume is that I didn’t have a lot of big international shots on my reel. This was that opportunity - with military hardware, with big open vistas, with very foreign nations and foreign people, with that sort of scope that you can apply in this sort of work. So, I jumped at the chance.

Little did I know that it would turn into something quite enjoyable, because I really like John Krasinski and Wendell Pierce, our actors, an actor called John Hoogenakker, who plays Matice, Abbie Cornish, who was our lead female on the show. I really enjoyed working with these people very, very much.

So, it was a good combination to be able to do something that broadened my work and at the same time was very enjoyable to do.

Then, from Season 1 of Jack Ryan I went, with two or three days off, immediately into Castle Rock – which is a very different type of show and is based on Stephen King and horror and has a different palette and different visual structure entirely.

I filmed that and then, lo and behold, comes Season 2 of Jack Ryan. Last year, we were in Montreal, Morocco, DC and Paris. This year, we’re in Colombia, London, DC and there will be a bit in New York as well.

With Jack Ryan moving around the entire globe so much, how does that impact the way you work and the way you shoot the show?Well, it’s really more about planning. Any given shooting day, I almost don’t care whether I’m in New York, in Morocco, in Colombia or on the moon. Everything’s going to be the same kind of pattern to how you shoot the day. You’re going to have a set of work that you’re meant to accomplish; you’re going to have to talk to your director about it and hopefully the two of you see things in a similar way and feel the rhythm of each other’s working style and onwards you go.

I could be in a basement, fictionalised jail cell in Colombia, but I could be in a similar spot in the United States – it’s not going to affect my way of getting through the material.

What becomes difficult on a show like this is the advanced planning. You’re shooting on one continent, while you’re actively prepping the next continent for work and looking ahead to yet a third continent for things that are going to have to fall in there.

That staging of your needs is unique and that’s what sometimes winds up taking an inordinate amount of time. We’ve gone on two scouts already to London from Colombia because by the time we get to London there’ll be very little time and we want to be able to enact the strategy successfully - without having to do too much last-minute thinking.

Also, you’re shooting in downtown London; you’re shooting on the River Thames. You can’t actually shoot that way. You’re trying to plan for the best outcome in all the places that you wind up shooting.

When you’re working on something like Castle Rock, what are some of the different challenges that arise there?
The visual structure is just completely different – I keep referring to architecture because it’s something I trained in, but it’s also something I believe.

Visually, you’re shaping a world for an audience, and you’re formulating a point of view, in the same way an architect guides the inhabiting of his building; he shows different perspectives from how he designs the layout of the floor plan and how he situates the building in its site. It sort of becomes its own composition machine.

In Castle Rock, it’s a compendium – taking bits of pieces from all Stephen King’s stories that take place in this fictional Maine town and bring those things into action with each other.

It’s supposed to be this incredibly forgotten and sad and somewhat haunted town in the middle of nowhere in Maine. It’s not on the water, so it doesn’t have that scenic aspect. It’s inland Maine; very down and dire for the people that live there. There’s a feeling like there’s just something screwed up with this town.

We did a lot with colour saturation, colour palette and also some older texture – using older lenses, using classical framing techniques to suggest older films. We kind of went at that in a completely different way.

That’s what I love about my job – I can go from a big international adventure story to a kind of quasi-intellectual horror thing all within one year of my work life.

Was it just lucky timing that Jack Ryan and Castle Rock all happened in that sequence or is there a skill to planning your availability?
It was a bit of luck to be honest. That one flowed one to another without too much trouble – though I essentially had no break last year; I wound up without a week off.

This year, I had about a two-month hiatus between finishing Castle Rock and getting to work on Jack Ryan season 2. My family and I needed to move apartments – our daughter’s growing up, so we got a bigger apartment – and that certainly filled that time.

It’s a little luck and you adapt. Part of this particular profession and this business – and not just for me, the cameraman, but for gaffers, props persons, sound people and anyone that works freelance – is dealing with being freelance and dealing with your schedule.

I try not to let it overwhelm me, but sometimes it does. You want to be at home with your family, but lo and behold you’ve got six straight days to shoot in a foreign nation. That’s just the way it goes; it’s something we chose.

Sometimes, it’s fun because the family gets to visit. They get to come to a place like Morocco, or this year they went up to Massachusetts where I was filming Castle Rock and then in June they were down in Cartagena, Colombia, where we were doing Jack Ryan.

You try to holistically work your life out to be its best despite the vagaries of schedule.

What advice do you have for people in the camera department looking to progress and be involved in great projects like you have been?
I think the most important thing each person can bring to a workday on a filmset is their complete attention.

I’m talking to you on a cellular phone. For some reason, these devices - now ubiquitous and in our hands – seem to draw our attention a lot more than they ought to. I don’t like watching everyone drift off into their own version of what the shooting day is like. I miss the days before the cell phone, when everyone was working on the same script all day long.

I think that if you’re going to commit to a life with make believe and storytelling and the fictional creation of another space for an audience to take seriously, the biggest and most important thing you can do is leave your attention to social media, texting, friends and family behind for the work day and really bring yourself to the set and pay attention.

I learned the most being an assistant to other cinematographers – I assisted people like Freddie Francis, Eric Edwards, David Stockton, Edward Lachman. I assisted some people who did really extraordinary work. I don’t remember any of them ever being anything other than fully attentive to the day that they were shooting and to what they were doing that day. That stuck with me.

It’s part of what’s great about this profession – you can bury yourself in it and just get totally into it and come away with something that you didn’t even think you had in you – if you fully apply yourself.

The other thing I’d say is not to push yourself to move up too fast. If you want to be a cameraman, spend a few years as an assistant; or spend a few years working on smaller projects, with very little crew, with very little money involved, so you hone an attitude at work that is good to have.

Also hone your ears. I keep telling camera assistants – “do more with your ears than you do with your back and your hands.” If you listen to me and the director and you hear an actor make a mention of something, you will find your way to getting the work done with the least amount of effort on your part because you will have heard what needs to happen and you won’t just be jumping around just waiting for the next order. You’ll think about it more. That’s very important.

The last thing I’ll say is be sure to be very appreciative of the people below you. There are a lot of opportunities in this business to “kiss up and yell down’” – kiss your way up the ladder by being nice to the people who are your supervisors and your bosses, and then yelling at people who are somehow seen as below you. It’s entirely a group effort.

That can take a few years to learn; I would caution a certain patience. Keep your mind on what you want to achieve, what position you want to be in, but keep your eye on how you do it and how you treat the people around you. I can tell you 100% it plays out better. If your ultimate goal is to do better work, to do larger work, to be asked on to projects that are more interesting, be the person you’d want to work for and you’ll be much better received.

Ultimately, as much advice that I can give, all I’m really hoping is that people feel entertained or feel inspired when they see what we do.