Best known for his work on Boy's Don't Cry and Liberal Arts, award winning cinematographer Seamus Tierney talks to Mandy News about his latest Netflix film Like Father.
Tell us how you got involved with the camera and how that took you into the film and television industry?
I’m a cinematographer who’s been working in the film business for about 20 years. I always knew that I wanted to be a storyteller but didn’t know much about the positions so when I finally got on a set and saw the cinematographer and what they were doing, I thought “that’s what I want to do”. All the stories I wanted to tell were in my mind as pictures so I knew I was geared towards visual storytelling.
I started in the business in New York at the bottom, doing Craft service for the PA and by the end of that film I was the best boy grip. I came up through the lighting department. I worked as a gaffer and an electrician for about seven years. All the while I was shooting short films for kids in grad school. Then I finally went to grad school myself at AFI in California, graduated from there and I’ve been shooting movies ever since.
Do you feel that coming up in the lighting department has influenced or helped the way that you shoot as a cinematographer?
Most definitely. Light, to me, is infinite in its possibilities in terms of shaping, bending or photographing it. I knew that I wanted to learn as much as possible about that. The light department was an obvious choice. I know a lot of folks come up through the camera department but it just wasn’t a fit for me.
Lighting was the logistics of it and, like I said, the infinite possibilities of what it does and what it does to cinematography. It was definitely helpful and I think it makes me faster.
You recently worked on Like Father. How did that project come about?
Like Father was probably one of the craziest movies I’ve ever done. 90% of the film takes place on a cruise ship. I got the call from Lauren Miller Rogen, the director, and we had a few conversations, got along and decided we wanted to work together. Within a couple of days, production called me and said that I had to go on a cruise to scout. So we went on the exact cruise that we were going to do for the movie, for seven days, and that was the first time I was met everyone in person, on this cruise ship.
At the time, it was the biggest ship in the world: bigger than any aircraft carrier. It’s massive! So we went on that trip, went back to New York and did our pre-production for about a month and then started shooting in New York for a couple of days. It was a big undertaking. We had to get it all done in a certain amount of time to get on the ship for the allotted cruises that Royal Caribbean gave us. It was an actual revenue ship and there were actual passengers while we were shooting so we weren’t allowed to just have the ship to ourselves which was super crazy but fun.
We got on the ship in Florida and then Hurricane Irma came, so the whole company had to evacuate Fort Lauderdale and go up to Orlando. Luckily one of our stars in the movie is Kristen Bell and she has a great relationship with Disney from Frozen and a couple of other things and she basically called up Disney and said she had this film crew of 100 people, and asked if they could house us for the duration of the hurricane. We all caravanned up in the middle of the night and ended up spending a week in Disney World. It wasn’t very crowded because the hurricane was coming and we got VIP passes to the park because of Kristen and Kelsey, who’s involved with Universal and stuff from Toy Story. So we basically got the royal treatment at Disney World and Universal Studios.
The hurricane finally came and there’s a couple of other crazy things that happened like all these old peoples’ homes got evacuated to the hotel in Disney because Disney World are prepared for it. All their electricity is underground and they have water and food for a month. So all these evacuated old people were staying at our hotel and we all had to help volunteer to wheel them back and forth from breakfast and lunch – it was crazy.
We missed a couple of days on the first cruise and it wasn’t able to come back to the port because there was another hurricane coming. Eventually – after also leaving my passport in my hotel room in Orlando and thinking they weren’t going to let me on the ship – we get on the ship and do the cruise. The bulk of the movie is shot on the cruise and so the way it worked was that when we pulled into a port, all the passengers got off and did a day trip and we would shoot most of the stuff in the bigger areas on the ship. Or if we had to shoot in a fancy restaurant on the ship, we’d do it while everybody was on shore. We had 20 or 30 of our own extras that we brought and we would just sprinkle them around. We also offered people on the cruise if they wanted to be extras for raffle prizes and stuff.
It was pretty fun!
The hurricane must have been a fantastic chance to bring the whole crew together?
It totally did. The whole crew, after going through all that stuff, were just like “this is the craziest but best movie we’ve ever worked on.” I got a tattoo on the back of my leg to say thank you to the movie.
Tell us about shooting the movie and how you dealt with the weather and other situations you had on the boat?
I shot the movie with a couple of red cameras with Cooke anamorphic lenses. A great package provided by TCS here in New York. When we got on the ship, I was worried that I was going to have to get all the vibration isolators to take out the seesaw of the ship or the rumbling but the fact is those ships are so huge that they have built-in gyros and stuff so you don’t really feel the sea move. It’s just too big so that wasn’t really an issue.
It was tough for me because we were in the Caribbean and it was bright – sunny days all day long – but I just leaned really hard into that and chose the right times of day to shoot the scenes as much as I could with our schedule. For the most part, it worked out. Sometimes it was a bit of a challenge because we could only be in certain spaces at a certain time of day and it wasn’t ideal for the sun but I just embraced it. It was weird because it was European power: the ships were all built in Europe, so it was 220 power so we had to temper all of our Yankee lights.
What was it like working with Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer? Do you like working with actors?
I love actors. I love what they do. Kristen and Kelsey were amazing. Kristen is the kind of actress that never leaves the set in between set-ups. She’ll just be there so she’s always ready. I think what that does to a crew is completely motivates them to get ready. You have to be so on-point because she’s so on-point. She’ll deliver her performance in two or three takes and be ready for the next. She’d be saying “What’s next? I’m over here.” It made me really want to up my game and we just moved so fast.
The movie I’m on now we’re doing 12-13 hour days. On A we were doing 8 or 9 hour days because Kristen just moves so fast. Kelsey’s such a pleasure. He’s such a sweet guy. Everybody else on the cast stepped up to Kristen’s level – there’s an ensemble cast of characters. Everybody was just so cool because we were all going through the same experience being on the ship and going through the hurricane. It was definitely like a family.
You said you ended up getting a tattoo?
It’s a blowing palm tree blowing in the wind like in the hurricane.
What have you got in the pipeline for 2018 and beyond?
I’m about to go to Norway. I did a recce in Norway a couple of weeks ago right before I started the film I’m doing now which is also, funnily enough, based in Norway so there’s a lot of Norway in my life right now for some reason.
The one I’m doing now is crazy. Two people wake up buried in the snow inside a car for 20 days. The whole thing is inside a car buried in the snow. It’s really neat. When I took the job I was thinking “how the hell am I going to make this thing interesting?” It’s coming out great, we’re about two thirds of the way through.
The geeky tech side of me was thinking I have to use all LED lights because it’s going to be super cold in there. On all the windows, I wanted them to build me little boxes to fill with real ice and snow. Everybody was saying it’s stupid and that it wasn’t going to work. So we tested a bunch of other stuff and I had them build one box and it’s the perfect thing because it’s real. The ice starts to harden and crystallise as we have been shooting for days and days and days and you get this blue tint from it because of the way the light passes through the water. It’s really cool.
It’s been a lot of fun. It’s freezing cold but it’s lots of fun. Then I’m off to Norway to shoot this movie in Spitsbergen. It’s an island about four hours on a plane north of Norway. Officially, it’s Norway but it’s in the middle of nowhere: the Arctic Circle. There’s like 2,500 people and 3,000 polar bears or something. You can’t go outside without a rifle - it’s the law! I went three weeks ago and they have a midnight sun – 12.30 at night and the sun’s just blazing.
During shooting, we basically get 14 hours of daylight and about a six-hour window on either side of that where it’s just the perfect magic hour. The one I’m doing now is called Centigrade and the one I’m about to go do in Norway is called Civil Twilight.
What advice would you have for young cinematographers wanting to get ahead?
Just shoot anything and everything. When I first started, I would take any job. I would do it for free. I would work as an electrician, get a bunch of money together, shoot a short film for a student that wanted to shoot on 16mm.
I would say let’s shoot on 35mm and I’ll pay the difference, just so I could up the look of my reel. I would say in general, just shoot, shoot, shoot - shoot everything.
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