Widows DP Sean Bobbitt on working with Steve McQueen for 10 years, cinematography and more
Sean Bobbitt is an Emmy and BAFTA-nominated DP known for his 10-year collaboration with British director Steve McQueen, working on projects such as Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave as well as Spike Lee's Oldboy and Mira Nair's award-winning drama Queen of Katwe. Here he shares with Mandy News his route to becoming a cinematographer, how he met Steve McQueen and details of their latest film Widows, starring Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Daniel Kaluuya and Colin Farrell, which is set to open this year's London Film Festival.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
I’m a director of cinematography and I work mainly in feature films but I also do commercials. I came initially from the world of television news. I worked freelance for the American networks through the ‘80s and then moved to documentaries through the ’90s. From the 2000s, I moved into feature films and television dramas.
What was it that first drew you to the camera?
I was first drawn to the camera by desperation. I never intended to be a cinematographer. My desire in youth was to be a writer. In life, doors open and close and I found myself offered a job as a news soundman at a point in my life where I was completely broke and desperate, so I took that job.
After a year of doing news sound, it was pretty much agreed that I was possibly the worst soundman in the whole of Europe and that I should probably be doing something else.
I convinced them that I could shoot and the world took a fairly nasty turn in the early ’80s. There was a big demand for news camera men, so I got the opportunity to shoot and sort of carried on from there.
How did you make the transition from working on news networks to film?
It is always difficult within the television and film industry to change the roll you have been given. There’s a lot of reluctance allowing people to move around. It took me another period of extreme unemployment and deprivation after I stopped doing news before people started giving me the chance to do documentary. I have to say that I was incredibly lucky.
I tried for many years to get into features and was given a break by Michael Winterbottom, who offered me a film called Wonderland which changed my life. I’m forever grateful to Michael for that.
More recently you worked on a film called On Chesil Beach, how did you join that production and what was it like?
On Chesil Beach, I was contacted by the director and the producers and was sent the script. Initially, I was on another project and didn’t really pay much attention, because I was too busy and it looked like I was going to have another project that was going to follow immediately on after that, so I wasn’t really looking for work at the time.
However, the subsequent project I was hoping to move onto fell through, so I went back and read the script and recognised the director Dominic Cook - who I hadn’t worked with - but interviewed with some years before.
I got in touch with Dominic and started chatting with him. Basically he sold me on the whole idea of the film. His visual concept was very strong and his grasp of the story was astounding. After an initial and quite brief conversation with Dominic, I was happy to get on-board.
How did you work on Dominic’s ideas with the camera?
We spent some time looking at films of the period and discussing what the period meant. We discussed what would visually help evoke that period in time – the early 1960s – which was an incredibly transitional time within British society and culture.
Looking at the films of the time, you’ve got a great sense of that change going on, because there’s still elements of the Victorian being lumped together with the swinging sixties. It is a fascinating period and one of the first things in our discussion was a desire to shoot on film. We felt the use of film and grain creates a period look, so that was the first choice. Shooting in a 2:39:1 aspect ratio to give the film a subliminal sense of scale, we thought was very important as well.
We looked at the simplicity of storytelling, which is what a lot of early films in that period had. As a result, we don’t do a lot of clever camera moves, or very sophisticated, quick-cut sequences. The action is contained within the frame, so there was an inherent simplicity to the ideas of the visual elements of the film.
Another idea Dominic had was that, for the first two-thirds of the film, the characters would be always moving left-to-right because their journey is heading somewhere.
After the cataclysmic moment when the character’s relationship falls apart, all the characters move right to left. It’s the sort of thing where you have to have the will and also not forget that that is what you wish to have happen. And it’s a very easy thing, when presented with difficult blocking to think “oh well, we’ll let it go at this point”, but Dominic never let it go and I think that’s to the benefit of the film.
And with the last shot, the long shot of the beach – what was the decision with going with something like that?
There was one cut of the film that didn’t have the crane shot in at all and just left with him standing in the foreground and her walking away. In some ways I thought that was even more powerful.
I was trying to find a shot that made a subtle statement and showed that distance between them and how that distance literally grew and became irrevocable and so the crane shot was sort of born from that idea.
You mentioned earlier that you worked with Michael Winterbottom. You’ve also worked with Spike Lee and Steve McQueen, what is it like working with these fantastic directors and in different genres as well?
The pure joy of being a cinematographer are the people you work with as well as the potential of endless variety of stories and scripts. I think I’ve been incredibly lucky and privileged to work with the directors that I’ve worked with. They have all been great directors in their own right and have given me a fantastic education in storytelling and filmmaking.
How did you first start working with Steve McQueen?
Well Steve and I have been working together for almost 18 years. I was very fortunate again that he approached me, after having seen Wonderland. It was actually his wife who said “you should be working with that cinematographer”. At the time, he was a very successful visual artist who was making art installations.
I was very fortunate that he asked me to participate in a series of his art installations – which were fantastic things to be a part of. As a news cameraman, you never expect to be creating works of art. Doing so was an incredible privilege and eye-opener.
It changed me forever as a cinematographer to have been presented with that world of art. You have to open your mind to survive in that world and, once your mind is open, hopefully it never closes again.
Were you involved in Steve McQueen’s Turner Prize piece in 1999?
No, I came in 2001 or 2002. The first one I did was called Western Deep, which was down the deepest goldmine in the world, in South Africa, which was a fascinating and fantastic experience.
When you worked on 12 Years A Slave, did you know it would grip the world as it did?
Well you always have ambition for each script you film and a story is always magnified by the truth. If you get a director like Steve and actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I’ve watched many times and love dearly, the truth can happen.
As we made the film, you could tell that the truth was coming out and that the story meant so much to everyone that was associated with it. And it was happening at a time when it needed to be shown.
It must have been incredible to have been involved with.
It was. Actually filming in Louisiana and in some of the old plantations, there’s a scene where Chiwetel run away and goes through a section of woods where they actually hung the runaway slaves and buried them in unmarked graves. It was a chilling day. There were certainly ghosts watching us as we filmed there.
Not many people get to work on something like that, so I consider myself very lucky.
You’re working with Steve again on a new film called Widows, what can you tell us about that and other things you’re working on in the future?
We’ve finished Widows and it comes out in November. It’s based on a 1980s Lynda La Plante TV series that had some great critical acclaim in England. It was something Steve remembered from his childhood. For more than a decade, he’s been talking about Widows as a feature film, so it finally came into fruition.
It’s about a group of wives, whose husbands are thieves, who all die in what appears to be a rather tragic police shooting event and they’re left destitute. Basically they decide to carry on their husband’s work to try and get some money and survive.
It’s set in contemporary America, Chicago, and interwoven with that story are elements of racism, corruption, about Chicago, about America and how it exists today. It’s more than just a heist thriller.
The area has been in the news many times throughout the years...
Chicago is a fascinating and wonderful city that I would encourage anyone to go to, but it’s ridden with contradictions and conflicts. Some of which have, for too long, been unattended and have resulted in many, many deaths. It is a fascinating American city to spend time in and to see both the underside and the glitter of it.
Right now I’m working with Reed Morano, who did The Handmaid’s Tale on her third feature film called The Rhythm Section. It is based on a novel about a young woman whose family died in a plane crash. She discovers that it wasn’t a crash, it was a bomb, so she sets out to find out who set it and why.
We filmed in Spain and Ireland.
What advice do you have for people who want to get into camera department and DOP like yourself?
The amazing thing about the film industry is that nobody asks what your academic achievements are. You are accepted because of what you do and how you do it. So if you want to get into the camera department, especially a DOP, you need to learn photography. You need to learn about lighting and you need to know about storytelling. Those are the absolute basics.
The traditional way of working up, working in a camera support house, to becoming a trainee, to becoming a loader, to becoming a focus puller, to becoming an operator, to becoming a DOP – that route still exists, but it is not as common these days.
Start shooting stuff, keep shooting stuff, be very critical about what you do and try to do as many short films as you can. Short films are now a fantastic and accepted way for people to step-up in the world of drama and they are a great training ground.
The real key is to never become complacent. My first paying job was while at university. I did some freelance work as a studio OB camera operator, for which I got paid very little money. A lot of it was voluntary work at the locals PBS station. That was when I was 19. I didn’t make my first feature film until I was 39.
It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of luck, but if you don’t stick to it, you’re never going to get it.
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