Although his credits stretch back to modern classics like L.A. Story and The Bodguard, it was about his latest, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, that cinematographer Andrew Dunn speaks about with ComingSoon.net in the below interview this year’s Camerimage Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
If you missed them, be sure to check out our previous Camerimage interviews here.
CS: “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” wasn’t your first time working with Daniels. How did the two of you come to collaborate?
Andrew Dunn: It came about over a long period of time. I had worked with Lee Daniels on “Precious.” That had been my previous experience working with him, shooting “Precious” in New York. That was just a great experience. I found my way through into him and he trusted me implicitly. We had a lot of great creative collaboration. Then, after that, it went to Sundance and, eventually, to theaters. It had a life. I think that the best thing that anyone involved in a film can hope for who was there for its birth — its gestation and its ultimate conception — is that it has a life. So, through “Precious” we formed that relation, which was very fruitful and collaborative. Full of trust. I think that the great director-cinematographer relationships are built on trust. For me, cinematography is understanding the director. Understanding where they’re coming from, where they’re going to, what they want and what they think they want. You’re there to help if they need it — Some do, some don’t — to further the story in a visual sense with lighting, a camera and camera movements. Lee and I had immediately talked about other projects after “Precious.” He was going to do a film, “Selma,” about the Selma riots. You see some of that in “The Butler.” That didn’t happen for one reason or another and then Lee had “The Paperboy.” I couldn’t do “The Paperboy” because I was shooting “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” That overlapped slightly. I was lucky enough, though, for him to call me again to do “The Butler.” That was exciting because “The Butler” is quite a small-budget film with very large aspirations. It’s an epic story with so many characters and so many years. It’s very, very complex and there wasn’t a lot of money. We didn’t have very many means at our disposal. Everybody really climbed on board to make it happen with great commitment from themselves. That’s how my relationship with Lee went from not knowing one another at all, jumping in the deep end with him in New York on “Precious” and then going on to tell this extraordinary story.
CS: As a cinematographer, does the thought of working throughout the film’s time period get you excited artistically?
Dunn: Oh, yes! For me to be able to tell a story visually over a long period of time is wonderfully challenging. The best thing we can hope for as cinematographers is to be challenged and to find a way through. So “Precious,” which has these explosions in the story emotionally and visually, is one thing and then, on “The Butler,” we tried to be more formal about the approach. Within that formality, of course, Lee Daniels has evolved, so we’d go off sideways sometimes. So we did adopt a formality of approach. One of the references was a British film about a butler in a different time period. A shorter time period. “Remains of the Day.” That was an old, aristocratic English house against a backdrop of important historical events. Whenever I talk to a director about references — we steal ideas from other stories and other films because everything has been done before — I went into “The Crucible” and one of our references was “Stage Coach.” Where is that in that movie? The answer is, if you look really, really hard, you can find there’s something there in the angles or the light of whatever. With “The Butler,” Lee was very keen to not be sensational. So we had adopted this formality of approach but, within that, we were determined to have some bits of magic. Lights. Movement. I think part of what “The Butler” does is to tell us about a history that is actually a very short time ago. There are these events — You know, it’s not all that long at all that people were abused and not allowed on busses. People were lynched. The freedom of expression and life that people enjoy now — there are still predators — is much more open. Then it was open season that you could do it and the police and other authorities would turn a blind eye. How times have changed in such a small period of time. Telling a movie that moves from that in just two and a quarter hours, you run the risk of it just feeling like a series of events. The core of the story is Cecil’s family life and seeing a black family in their home. They may have some members who work in the White House and that’s pretty extraordinary but, within that, you see an ordinary black family at home doing ordinary things. That’s the core of the story and it allows these tentacles and strands to go out elsewhere.
CS: When you’re shooting famous historical figures, as in “The Butler,” are you treating them like any other character in a script or are you taking into account the way they’re viewed in a greater cultural sense?
Dunn: I think that, to have eight Presidents, for the ones for whom you have actors taking the parts, it’s a combination. You want them to be who they are in the story rather than an impersonator. It’s important to get across character and depth of feeling. Only a great actor can do that whereas an impersonator might look just like them and still wind up a bit disquieting.
CS: Are there subtleties that you shoot for that are designed to remind people of classic photos or newsreels?
Dunn: Yes, there are. We looked at footage, obviously, and adopted certain looks or angles on them that might look better for us with an actor taking a part. But you do have to sort of believe these people as the Presidents or else the game is up. The whole cinematography thing is to drawn an audience into the story. Suddenly, if you have an actor that isn’t believable to someone, that pulls the audience out. With Robin Williams as Eisenhower, you can see when he paints that he’s a troubled man. Robin Williams you’re used to seeing as a comic. He can do a whole range of things. Even with his comic acting, there’s a sense of depth. That’s one of the ways audiences relate to him within the comedy. He draws you into that depth. It’s a tricky line. Up on the billboard, it’s these famous people doing these famous roles but the weight of having a heavyweight actor does, in itself, give the character weight and depth also.
CS: Does your job change very much depending on an actor’s performance?
Dunn: Oh definitely, yeah. One thing a cinematographer has to do is to be adaptable and to be able to change on a dime and to allow an actor the freedom to do what they want to do, really. If the director doesn’t agree or wants a different take, that’s a whole different thing. I’m there to translate what they’re doing to the audience through a camera. It’s not about me. It’s about them and the therefore the camera is there to serve and try to see through into the soul, essentially.
CS: Do you see a personal common thread in the films you’ve worked on?
Dunn: I think cinematographers can get typecast into a certain or look or approach to a movie. I try — perhaps without succeeding sometimes — to have a lot of different styles. With some experience, you can arrive on a film set and be open to anything. I always try to start a film forgetting everything I ever knew. You can forget, but you can’t un-know. I think that, within my film, there is a huge diversity of looks and difference of styles and things. If you’re going to pick on any common thread, it’s probably about looking at actors faces. I think that has to do with energy, but then you might look a film like “Gosford Park” and think, “Well, that’s very formal and straight.” It’s true. It’s a very different thing. It’s subverting one’s ego and serving.