Patrick A. Stewart is an award-winning DP known for shooting legendary comedy series Flight of the Conchords, Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm as well as Mike Figgis's movie masterpiece Timecode. And Mandy News were lucky enough to sit down with the seasoned cinematographer to find out how he became the go-to guy for hand-held comedy, how he shoots Curb and what aspiring DPs can do to succeed in the industry.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in working with cameras and how that led you into the movie industry?
I was born and raised in Hollywood California, specifically Los Feliz.
Growing up, my father was a doctor and my mother was an artist. My mom grew up in Los Angeles, born in 1913, she remembered when the boulevards were dirt roads heading to the hills and beaches. I think it’s interesting to understand my family’s connection to this place.
My mom being an artist in Hollywood’s early years, met all of these really amazing people in Hollywood. She knew Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Edward G. Robinson and went to parties and to their houses: one of her best friends was Cecil B. DeMille's daughter.
So I was raised with my dad being a surgeon and my mom being a painter, in this place called Hollywood. The idea of Hollywood to many people is that it must be an amazing place. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the glitziness, and I hated the superficiality. I saw this in some of my parents acquaintances. This turned me off at a young age and I had no intention of ever being a part of this business.
In college, I got a business degree because I figured “I don't know what I want to do, but understanding finance is probably going to help me with whatever type of business I do have.”
I graduated in 1981 when, in the United States, there was a huge recession which was basically almost a depression. It was really bad – you couldn't get a job. I ended up working in the Bay Area in San Francisco for a few years, just doing whatever kinds of jobs I could to survive.
Eventually, I basically fell into working in television. A friend of mine from college called me one day and said he had a job as a dolly grip for a corporate video shoot they were doing later the next week and asked me if I wanted to do it. I responded, “I don't really care for that, I don't want to do that…By the way how much does it pay?” He gave me the day rate, and I thought “Wow, that’s what I get paid for basically a whole week in my current job.” That made my decision and I decided I’d try it.
I made sure I knew how to do it properly beforehand then on the day I must have done well because they started to call me back for other jobs. I thought ”This is sort of a cool endeavour; it's creative and everybody's got their own responsibilities on the set and everyone has their own rules on how they fulfil them.” And I liked the atmosphere. I'd learned photography through my brother and my mother's cousin (who was a fashion photographer) so I understood the basics.
I was now working in this corporate television atmosphere (The Bank of America) where they had ample budgets for scripts, actors and crews. They hired the best people in all the top positions, and I worked my way up through the grip department and into the electrical department.
In this process, I became friends with one of the gaffers who became my mentor, James Childers. He really taught me how to look at light. I was totally perplexed when he would say “Look at the light.” I thought “What do you mean? I have no idea what you mean by 'look at the light’.” It was through him, working in that corporate-television-churning machine, that I learned about lighting. Eventually, in this working environment, I had the opportunity to learn all of the jobs on set. Grip, electric, sound, camera, which is what led me to become a DP.
In 1986, after almost three years of working up there I could tell that the pond of work in San Francisco was pretty small. There were already several big old fish scooping up all the best jobs. I figured I'd have to move, and my choices were either New York or Los Angeles. I didn't want to move to Los Angeles because I grew up there and hated it, but on the other hand, I didn't know New York at all. So I decided to move back down to LA, and I've been here for 36 years.
At the same time, while still up in the Bay area, I was shooting music videos for bands on 16mm film. I thought I was one of the coolest director/DPs shooting on Bolex and doing these pretty cool videos. I thought I was going to come to LA, show these production companies my videos and they'd be bowling over to hire me.
It took me a long time. I feel the films and music videos that I shot were too far beyond their realm of understanding or comfort zone of what a music video could be. In my opinion, it was ahead of its time. People were too scared to be ahead of the curve, they wanted to to look more like the Herb Ritts style. They wanted all this really straightforward, pretty stuff.
It took me four years of grinding out here in Los Angeles. In order to make ends meet I would travel back up to San Francisco to do some gigs to make it work.
It wasn't until about 1991 or '92 that I first started working with MTV. Viacom owned both MTV & VH1. This experience taught me how to arrive at a shoot, be it at an interview, B-roll, promo piece or whatever, and understand very quickly how to light it pretty much by myself (I might have had one assistant with me) and how to shoot it in the best way.
MTV also became known for this handheld video style and I was one of the main guys when they started doing that, where the camera was constantly moving, zooming in and panning and all this other stuff. Most of the time that was happening it was dizzying – it was overload; way too much camera movement – but at the same time doing all that stuff from '92 to '96 I became well adept at being able to light something pretty well with almost nothing, in no time.
Also, I had to light people's faces in the best way and at that point some of these performers were ageing, so I understood how to light people who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, male and female. I became the DP who could light Shirley MacLaine, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney or Bette Midler or Cher or whoever.
That period was so cool, because that's when I hooked up with Paul McCartney for two years. Once I worked with his group the first time, they kept me around and whenever Paul was in the US they would fly me to wherever he was going to be on camera and either I would light it or make sure that, whatever they were doing, they would light him the best. One of my biggest dreams growing up, was to meet a Beatle. It was a thrill working with Paul McCartney and hearing him say “Hey Patrick, how you doing?” and asking about my family.
With my experience to this point, I was developing my little tool boxes of skills. This handheld camera thing was really being honed and my ability at lighting, especially for famous entertainers who were getting older, was well known.
Moving forward to 1999, it had only been television for me until that point. In 1999, I got a call from Sony Pictures saying that Mike Figgis, the British director, wanted to interview me for this film that he was doing a movie called Timecode and I thought “Wow, Mike Figgis! Yes! Leaving Las Vegas and all that... Why the hell would he want to talk to me?”.
I went to this interview totally expecting it to be a complete failure. I sat down with Mike and met him for the first time. I don't know if you've seen Timecode, but it's an extraordinary film: it's taught in film schools as a way to show the possibilities of storytelling in film. He described this impossible idea for his film; he wanted to shoot in a real location, with four cameras rolling from beginning to end, without stopping, shown in a quad split. No editing, nothing. So every take would be a 93 minute film. Your eyes would be attracted to whichever quadrant by the way the sound was mixed.
I was completely intrigued. My first reaction was that there was no possible way this would ever work. Still, I was passionate about being involved with it. So during the meeting, I tried to come up with some good ideas for him and he ended up taking me on to do the film.
For me, at this point, clouds opened up – I ended up shooting this amazing film. It was the hardest idea for a story that anyone could ever endeavour to shoot. Working with Mike Figgis at that point opened the film side of Los Angeles and Hollywood up for me.
I asked Mike “Why are you interviewing me?” He said “From what I understand, you're one of the best handheld camera men DPs in Los Angeles. The very next year, he invited me to shoot another film with him in Venice, Italy, called Hotel, which has moments of absolute brilliance. You can't help but feel the extraordinary mood that he's trying to convey.
So, after developing this really nice relationship with Mike Figgis, I then started to attract all these pilots to shoot in addition to the stuff that I was already grinding out, working at MTV etc.
Over the next few years, I did a bunch of pilots and then Dakota Pictures approached me and said “we've got these two pilots for HBO we want to shoot in New York, one with Wyclef Jean and this other one called Flight of the Conchords with these guys from New Zealand.”
I remember reading the scripts. I read the Wyclef one and thought “OK. Wyclef, recording studio, people he meets... OK, I can see that, maybe that could work”.
Then I read Flight of the Conchords – I'd never heard of them before and I'd not yet met Brett or Jemaine – and I was reading it one page at a time thinking “Who the hell is ever going to want to watch a show with two people going 'What do you want to do?', 'I don't know, what do you want to do?' There's no way this will ever work but I'll shoot it”. What I liked about it was that there were music videos in it too, so I thought “OK, I get to shoot some music videos”.
I got to meet Brett and Jemaine before shooting to do some pre-production and literally the first day we were shooting that pilot – it was a street scene, where they were walking along talking – I'm shooting and thinking “Oh... I see now. Oh my God, this is great! These guys are fantastic! Their repartee is beautiful, the fact that they speak English but they're from a different culture is perfect. This is fabulous”.
Flight of the Conchords got picked up and we shot two seasons. That opened up some more doors for me in television. Then I started to shoot television comedies and some pilots in-between, that didn't get picked up, and I moved on from Flight of the Conchords to shooting The League – which is a show about guys that play fantasy football together – for FX for seven years. The executive producer and director of that show, Jeff Schaffer, is a producer/director that goes back to Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Borat; all of these great, well-known comedy pieces. I became really closely associated with Jeff, shooting seven seasons (about 84 episodes) of that show. And that’s what led me to Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Jeff was one of the producer/writers on Curb. We did season 9, for which Jeff was basically the main producer/writer/director, so I got to work on an amazing iconic show and, once again, it was handheld. Most of these shows are all on real locations and a lot of them are in a handheld style, so it all falls into my shooting wheelhouse.
I went from that to Arrested Development last year for Netflix; another hand-held show that was revived and another show like Curb which I could not stand to watch before. No doubt they were both very, very funny and smart, but I disliked how they were actually shot. So here I got the opportunity to work on two really iconic television shows, right in the realm of what I'm good at and I got the opportunity, I think, to step up their look. Keeping that documentary style, but hopefully making them a bit more cinematic.
So last year was Arrested, the first episodes have been on the air and they are going to release the next eight episodes in about two months. I begin shooting Season 10 of Curb later this month.
For working on shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm is there a longer schedule for turn around?
Curb works on Larry David’s calendar and Larry usually takes time before the episodes are ready to be shot and edited for release. Curb usually takes about four months to shoot, and this season should start airing in early Spring.
From what I remember with Flight of the Conchords, it was pretty immediate and both these shows are for the same producers – HBO. Flight was not only a shorter shooting schedule but it was pretty much on the air as we were shooting the season. For instance, with Flight, I'd get handed a 30+ page script, with two or three music videos. In the script it would just note “music video for this song” and we had to shoot all of that in just five days. That's a tremendous amount of work and we had to keep the train on schedule. It was a really good challenge and, once again, it really honed my skills, being able to choose the right location, being able to choose the right camera angle, the right style of lighting to get something shot so that there's no wasted time.
Curb is an 11 page script because it's mostly improvised. With Curb we probably get about seven or eight days per episode to shoot, so it's a lot looser.
With Arrested, it’s completely different. Mitch Hurwitz is his own planet complete with his own satellites orbiting around him. An amazing, intelligent, intricate, talented writer and producer.
You talk about working predominantly with a handheld camera. What is your tool box? Your go-to kit?
It's constantly changed as cameras have changed. That goes all the way back to Timecode. Remember with Timecode we needed a 90+ minute load, so obviously film was out of the question and most of video tape was out of the question because at that time there were only 40 minute loads.
With Timecode, we shot on mini DV, where we could use a 93 minute load. As we progressed up into Flight of the Conchords, we used a Sony or a Panasonic ENG-style camera, whether it's an F900 or an F800; things like that, with an ENG friendly lens. Something where a camera operator can do all of his zooming, focus, framing and exposure with his own fingers quickly.
As time and technology has progressed, we've gotten more and more specialised, so now I think the last Curb we shot was with the Sony FS7s, because they were light enough and they had a nice 4K picture. We used a bunch of different lenses on that season.
In Arrested Development and in the upcoming Curb Your Enthusiasm, we're pretty much set in stone. We're shooting with the Varicam LT bodies and with the Fujinon Cabrio lenses. The Fujinon Cabrio lenses are 15-35mm, 19-90mm and 85-300mm, and they are designed in that ENG Style – ergonomic, although they're a quite a bit heavier.
We are now changing the responsibility of focus from the camera operator to the assisting camera people, so for these shows all the camera operator has to do is frame and zoom. Exposure and focus are taken care of by the camera assistants.
Do you have anything you do differently for the shows that you work on?
I’ve approached almost all shows in the last 10 or 12 years with three cameras and sometimes I really have to tussle with the producers. A lot of time they say “No, we can just shoot this with two cameras” but actually if you want to get out on time, if you want your needy actors to be happy at the end of the scene, and all these other actors to not be grumbling at 6 o'clock, then three cameras helps for that and many other reasons.
In the case of The League, where we had an ensemble of about seven main characters. They were often all in the scene at the same time. Three cameras helped to clean out the scenes quicker than two. Basically, my three-camera approach is pretty much the same shooting in real locations. I always try to shoot locations that lend themselves to being lit well and where the backgrounds can look pleasant.
In the case of Arrested Development, though, it’s a show that's mostly shot on a stage. In that case, we still use three cameras but it can be a challenge to try to consistently make the sets look real. I try to make it seem like it's a real apartment, house, or office with windows that show life going on outside: a kitchen that's got wind blowing on the plants on the patio, or a veranda that's got sunlight hitting it really hard (using stage lights for sunlight).
Once again, the challenge of shooting on a stage is it’s perceived realness. The challenge on location is making it look good.
What advice do you have for cinematographers and camera people wanting to move on to the next phase in their careers?
The thing that I am still learning is to always stay open to changes, advances, and new ideas. Nothing is set in stone as far as rules and new technology go. I'm not just talking capturing technologies, like cameras and lenses, and ways to light those things. You should stay open to those changes, but also stay open to where people are viewing whatever you're capturing. Look at what's happened with Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, and even Apple, AT&T and all these other even newer distributors.
In the '90s and 2000s, when digital was really starting to show that it had a future, there were so many DP friends of mine that would say “No man, film. Film is it. I don’t want to shoot that digital crap, no way. Who wants to shoot video? I hate the electronic process! The chemical process is the only way.” I’d respond, “Well I see what you mean, but I think it's changing and I think it's a good idea that you understand where the wind is blowing and move with it so you don't get left behind”.
So basically stay open and keep moving forward. Don't limit yourself with “I don't do that” or “I've never done that before”... if you've never done that before then maybe you should do it.
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