Camerimage Interview: All is Lost Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco


A survivalist drama that is already garnering some serious Oscar buzz, writer/director J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost stars Robert Redford and Robert Redford alone in the nearly dialogue-free story of a nameless sailor (referred to as “Our Man” in the script) who, after a catastrophic collision with a shipping container, is forced to do what he can to survive in the face of an ongoing storm and the unforgiving elements of the Indian Ocean.

Behind the lens is cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco who, in addition to working with Chandor on his 2011 Margin Call, has a diverse list of credits that includes Roger Mitchell’s Morning Glory and both John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. caught up with the DP last week at the Cameraimage Festival of the Art of Cinematographer in Bydgoszcz, Poland to talk about capturing the look and feel of the intense high seas thriller.

Check out the interview below and be on the lookout for many more conversations with Camerimage guests in the days to come.

CS: How did “All is Lost” start for you?
Frank G. DeMarco:
I remember J.C. [Chandor] and I were working on “Margin Call” and I had commented to him, “Gosh, there’s a lot dialogue in this movie.” J.C. said, “Oh, my next movie you’re going to love. It’s almost devoid of dialogue.” That intrigued me and then two years went by. I never heard from J.C. anything about this movie until he was ready to hire me and put me on the crew. He sent me a script with 31 pages and no dialogue. I thought, “Wow! How are we going to do this? This is pretty challenging.”

CS: Is that a cinematographer’s dream to receive such a visually-driven project?
I didn’t think about it that way. I thought, “Wow, with no dialogue, you’re really not going to be hiding behind any artifice. You have to tell this story the way a silent movie is told.” We ran sound but, in a way, we’re a silent movie. I love that. I love silent movies. I love Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and some of the other silent guys. Harold Lloyd. It was fun to work on something where we’re not going to have dialogue inform us of anything. What’s in his head, what’s in his heart, what’s going on. It’s all going to have to be done graphically through picture. There was a lot of responsibility on the part of the director and his choices and a lot on the part of the cinematographer and the choices made sort of thinking what J.C. would want cinematographically. It was challenging in that way. We looked at a lot of movies. When we first went to Mexico, J.C. charged me with the sort of research of finding movies and examples to show him things that he would pick and choose to guide us. One of the things early on — one of the rigors of making the movie — was J.C. said he wanted the camera to be within an arm’s length of “our man,” Redford. He wanted the camera to be the first mate, was the term he used. He wanted the camera to be right there next to the captain all the time. He’s experiencing whatever the captain is experiencing. Whatever Redford’s character experiences. As I like to put it, you’re feeling his sweat and his breath. We had to choose certain lenses to get that. There’s a production designer who is being celebrated at the festival this year, Rick Carter. He said something very interesting about the lens. He said, “The eyes are the window to the soul and cinematography is the conduit to the soul of the movie. It’s the conduit into the soul of the movie.” I thought that was a really good way of putting it. We had to choose the lenses that would create a window into Our Man’s mind. There was no dialogue for him to say it wasn’t working or wondering what he could do now. It was all him emoting, mostly through his eyes. I never thought we couldn’t do it, but I thought it was a fascinating experiment. How do we do this? I came from a musical background, playing piano. You have scales. E Flat Major and Minor. Why did Beethoven compose this in A Flat Minor and why did Mozart do this in C Major? Why not put it all on the white keys so it would be easy? The same thing goes for the lens. Why not shoot everything with a 50 or a 24 or a 75? The lenses are like musical scales. They have a certain feel to them. A viscosity, is the word I use. You choose a lens that is appropriate to the emotion of the story. That was part of the challenge and the thrill, choosing lenses that really worked. I would put a lens on and immediate say, “No, this isn’t right. Give me the 32. It’s going to have the right viscosity. The right tension. The right feel.” That was the most fun for me.

CS: Is it a process of trial and error or do you sort of innately know at this point which lens is going to be right?
The one trap, I think, as you gain more experience doing your job as a cinematographer — any job, really — is falling into a pattern. Falling into the rut of style, in a certain way. I don’t want to shoot the same movie or the same style all over again. I want to shoot every movie in a completely different style. It’s one of the few jobs where I think you can do that short of being an invent. Inventors completely invent a new idea and cinematographers, like writers or storytellers, can be very inventive. You don’t keep telling the same story over and over again. You don’t keep writing the same way over and over again. For me, cinematography is something where you don’t keep on shooting things the same way. I think with some cinematographers, you can tell, even when it’s a different director. I much prefer to be a chameleon and embrace the director’s vision and film the movie not according to the way I want to film it. Not the style that I prefer, but rather the style that is appropriate to the movie. Inside a movie you can have a different style from scene to scene. Moment to moment, time frame to time frame, you can have a whole different feel. On “Hedwig [and the Angry Inch]” we had four different styles to the movie. That was very carefully thought out by John [Cameron Mitchell] to find different looks that embraced the timeline and the emotion of the story. That’s one thing I’m consistent with, if there’s anything I’m consistent about. Trying to find the emotion of the story. The trajectory of the whole narrative. I try to use the cinematography to underwrite that to try and help transport it.

CS: Are you involved at all in the editing process?
I avoid the editing room. I kill myself and bite my nails and wish I could see a first rough cut of whatever, but I never inquire. If I happen to see the director — if we’re exchanging e-mails or texts or run into each other on the street — I might ask, “How’s it going in the editing room?” But I’ll never try to insinuate myself into an edit. Usually, as in “All is Lost,” J.C. invited in the fall of 2012. We had finished shooting in July or August of 2012. He invited me in September or October to come look at a rough edit that was pretty far along to give him some notes. He also invited some strangers. People that didn’t know movies. Friends of friends. He asked everyone to express this concerns. Did they like it? Were they bored at all? It was a fantastic rough cut. [Pete] Beaudreau’s editing is amazing because he can take my footage and jump cut it all together. I bet you’re not aware of all the jump cuts. There are more jump cuts in “All is Lost” than in an old Goddard movie. It’s amazing. I admire Pete Beaudreau’s editing and how he can take my work in “Margin Call” and “All is Lost” and make it seamless. It’s something that I think about when I shoot. I think, “How is the editor going to cut this?” I don’t think about it in the traditional American style, cutting with wide, medium, close-ups, but rather, “How can we get this to convey the story in as few shots as possible?” We’ll do as many takes as the director wants, but as few setups as possible. The right lens and the right angle and the right attack. The editor will always have enough to work with, but he’ll seldom have too much to work with. I’d rather expedite things and give the director and the editor more takes than more setups.

CS: How worried do you have to be about elements like water on a project like this?
I didn’t worry about water. The key grip and the electrician all had certain safety factors to deal with. My biggest concern was that we might drop the camera in the water, but I wasn’t too concerned. We had insurance and we never deliberately put the cameras in harm’s way. I was somewhat concerned about electricity and working in water, but we had all the redundant ground fault interrupters and things like that going on. We never ran cable in the water, but there’s always that chance of something happening. We never got zapped, so it was very safe in that way. The only real factor in working in water is just getting cold. But we were in good shape. We would surf in the afternoons. We had six weeks of prep and, in the evenings, we would surf. We would knock off and go back to the hotel and pull our surfboards to go surfing for a couple of hours before it got dark. We were all in very good health and had great stamina. Once we started filming, we couldn’t surf every day anymore, but we were in pretty good shape and were able to endure any hardships. There were definitely some pretty demanding physical scenes. I got bashed around pretty good inside the boat, as did Redford. At least he had two hands to hold onto things. I had my hand on the camera, so I took some hard knocks trying to hold the camera as steady as possible. I had a few bruises on my shoulders and my elbows and my knees. I lost my balance a few times, but my key grip Pat O’Mara was there to pick me up and keep me going. There were moments in the movie where I know I stumbled, but you can’t see it in the movie. I had Pat pick me up and put me back down. We worked together very well. Someone asked me about my relationship with Redford. I said, “J.C. had the closest emotional relationship with Bob, but Bob and I had a very close physical relationship all the time.” Don’t read too much into that! We were always at arm’s length and always within touching distance. We were always communicating with each other. I would always be there, but would try not to be in the way. I didn’t want to impose on his acting. At that kind of close range, there had to be a certain understanding. Every once in a while we would talk about how I was going to get out of his way. We always worked it out. He was very, very cordial. He’s an amazing guy and it was an honor to work with such a legend. He’s the most wonderful, lovely and normal guy in the world.

CS: Do you have a personal favorite shot or sequence in the film?
Yeah, there’s some wonderful stuff we did. There’s the scene where Redford gets thrown off the boat. We shot that in a green screen interior tank. It’s not so much a particular shot as a particular sequence. It was very old style Hollywood. It was very John Huston “Moby Dick” kind of filmmaking. We had wind machines and water cannons. These old fashioned wave machines that Brendon [O’Dell] had. All this old-fashioned Hollywood water effects machines. Wind machines. Water cannons. Rain towers. Then we also had green screen, so there was a digital aspect, too. I just loved that whole insane thing and Redford getting blown by this water cannons. They’ll knock you right down. He’s getting hit. Not full body hit, but getting grazed by these water cannons and just dealing with getting smacked around by water. I had the camera on a technocrane. [Peter] Zuccarini, our underwater cameraman, had his camera in a box. He’d be in the water, off by the deck of the boat. We’d shoot two cameras. My favorite bit was when we had a Libra head on the end of the technocrane and, every once in awhile, our water cannon would hit the camera dead on. Phil Shanahan, our A.C., had it wrapped up water tight. The camera would take this hit and a Libra head is a stabilizing head. It would take a hit and it would just shiver the same way you would shiver if you got hit by a water cannon. Beaudreau, our editor, would leave those shots in there. He would use that shimmy and shake to cut away with a whole sort of jump cut angle. It was just great. To me, it was thrilling to watch how immediate those moments are. Then you add the “3D glasses” of Skywalker Sound that Richard [Hymns] and Steve [Boeddeker] did. Then you’re right on the boat with him. That’s something that I think not everybody recognizes. When I saw the movie completed, finally — I had seen it a hundred times in editing — but I saw at the New York Film Festival with the Skywalker Sound. That brilliant Dolby 3D sound. To me, it’s even better than 3D. It’s so real. It’s the closest to having those actual storm experiences. In the scenes where he’s just tending the sails, the sound is so rich and so true and amazing. If you want to know what it’s like to be on a boat, put your earphones on if you’re watching “All is Lost” on the small screen or just go to a great Dolby theater if you’re watching on the big screen. You will be on that boat. It’s just amazing.

CS: As a cinematographer, what are your thoughts on visual 3D?
For this, I don’t know if it was anything we ever talked about with the time and the budget that we had to shoot in 3D. 3D cameras add a whole new dimension to the difficulty. We were filming in pretty tight spaces with a tight schedule and a tight budget. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t work. There have been a lot of movies shot in 2D and then converted to 3D. If this movie does really well and gets a bunch of recognition, it’s highly possible that the money people will say, “Let’s slap a 3D on it.” I think that could be really interesting. I would be fascinated to see it in 3D. I have to say, I don’t think it will make the movie any better, but it would be a different experience. A different thing. I would be very open to it. It would have been impossible on the schedule that we had. Plus, Zuccarini built his own underwater cameras. There were not made for 3D but, in a way, the underwater shots are already 3D. They have so much dimensionality to them. The way I shot and the way I lit, which was always very simple, is also aiming for dimensionality. There’s always a foreground, a middle ground and a background. I always thought about it. And Redford is always right there. The focus is always on him. You have a three dimensional attack anyway and, I’m telling you, the sound is 3D. The sound creates, in your mind, something when the neurons get going and merge with the picture. The energy of that adds up to a 3D experience in a lot of ways. Anyway, I’d love it if they wanted to 3D-ify it.

CS: Do you know what’s next for you?
I’ve got maybe some TV stuff. Commercials and a pilot. I’m hoping to have a nice, light end of 2013. I want to spend some time at home in New York. I’ve got a 12-year old daughter and I just want to do that. Then, in the new year, I’ll hopefully be doing some movies. I’ve got a couple of things, but nothing definite yet.